Tag Archives: Righteousness

The Blood of His Cross (10) – NT Wright

agnusdei

In previous posts I have examined Romans 3:21-26, discussing views of the passage by Cranfield, Moo, and Carson. In general, they see Paul describing a new situation in which God grants to those human beings who believe in Jesus Christ, the gift of righteousness—right relationship with God—on the basis of Jesus’ sacrificial death. In this death, God himself is vindicated as righteous, and revealed as the one who justifies sinful humanity through the death of Christ.

N. T. Wright’s comment on these verses retains a number of these features but does so with a different framework of understanding. For Wright, God’s answer to the problem of Adamic humanity so graphically portrayed by Paul in 1:18 – 3:20 is the covenant with Abraham, the promise of a new, worldwide, forgiven family (Wright, “Romans” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 10, 465). Through Abraham and his descendants God intended a human faithfulness that responded to his own faithfulness, and which issued in a renewed and genuine humanity, freed from the cruel distortions of idolatry and sin (466). This new family would be heir to the world, according to Romans 4:13. Israel, however, failed in their role to offer this faithfulness to God.

Jesus’ achievement is thus to have done what Israel should have done but failed to do. He has been the light of the world, the one through whom God’s saving purpose has been revealed. Through him God has at last dealt with the sin of the world, the purpose for which the covenant was made. … The Messiah’s “obedience unto death” is the critical act—an act of Jesus, and also in Paul’s eyes an act of God—through which sins are dealt with, justification is assured, and the worldwide covenant family is brought into being (467).

In this passage, Wright argues, Paul shows that God has fulfilled his covenant promises to Abraham through the faithful obedience of Jesus Christ, thus accomplishing his covenant purpose of putting “the world to rights” (465). Wright reads the pistis Iēsou Christou (“faith in Jesus Christ”) of verse 22, and other references to faith in this passage, as a subjective rather than objective genitive—the “faith (faithfulness) of Jesus Christ” rather than “faith in Jesus Christ.” Thus, God’s righteousness is revealed in the obedient faithfulness of Jesus in which Jesus offers to God that which Israel denied (470).

Wright approaches this passage by means of this over-arching framework. As such, God’s righteousness in verse 21 is not the righteousness of God given to believers who have faith in Jesus Christ, nor the divine attribute by which God is just and justly judges sin, but the demonstration that God is righteous—that is, faithful to the promises made to Abraham. God has acted righteously by keeping his promise to Abraham.

Nevertheless, God is also the righteous Judge who must punish sins as they deserve, which he accomplishes through the death of Jesus (467, 473). Jesus’ death is presented by Paul in sacrificial terms, recalling Leviticus 16 and the Day of Atonement. He is the hilastērion—the mercy seat, or place “where the holy God and sinful Israel meet in such a way that Israel, rather than being judged, receives atonement” (474). When Wright unpacks this further, however, he appeals not to Leviticus 16, but to the Maccabean martyrs in Second Maccabees, and ultimately to the fourth Servant Song of Isaiah (Isaiah 52:13-53:12):

The sacrificial language of 3:25, used in connection with the violent death of a righteous Jew at the hands of pagans, makes sense within the context of the current martyr stories; but those martyr stories themselves send us back, by various routes, to Isaiah 40-55; and when we get there we find just those themes that we find in Romans 3 (475).

Still, he insists that “the lexical history of the word hilastērion is sufficiently flexible to admit of particular nuances in different contexts” (476), so that it refers not only to Jesus’ death as the place of atonement, but includes ideas of propitiation and expiation as well. That is, Jesus’ death deals effectively with sin both by averting God’s wrath and by cleansing human sin.

Just as the mercy-seat fulfilled its function when sprinkled with sacrificial blood, so Paul sees the blood of Jesus as actually instrumental in bringing about that meeting of grace and helplessness, of forgiveness and sin, that occurred on the cross. Once again, the sacrificial imagery points beyond the cult to the reality of God’s self-giving act in Jesus (476-477).

I continue to have questions about the way in which Wright sets up his covenantal framework, and consequently, with his approach to justification. Nevertheless, Wright’s account of how the death of Jesus works to secure the salvation of sinners agrees in its central claims with those treatments of the topic by Cranfield, Moo, and Carson, despite his evident attempt to distance himself from too juridical a treatment of the cross.

The Blood of His Cross (9) – D. A. Carson

agnusdeiRomans 3:24-25 (NASB)      
Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed…

In an essay on the atonement in Romans 3:21-26 (in Hill & James (eds.), The Glory of the Atonement, 119-139), D. A. Carson argues on exegetical grounds for a penal substitutionary view of the atonement grounded in the justice of God. His arguments are carefully articulated and appropriately nuanced, as for example, in his acknowledgement that while ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion) is rightly understood to include the notion of propitiation, it is “simultaneously true that sin is expiated, indeed must be expiated” (130).

To my mind, Carson’s treatment of the text in its larger context is convincing. Carson rightly insists that interpretation of this key passage must be seen in the larger narrative of what has preceded it from 1:18 – 3:20, that is, the story of divine wrath on account of human sin and guilt. Nor is divine wrath antithetical to divine love, but both divine perfections are unified, for God “always acts according to the perfection of his own character” (133). God’s love is holy love, and his holiness is loving holiness. In this sense, the divine wrath is God’s personal response—the response of the holy and loving God—to human sinfulness.

The part of the essay I enjoyed most concerned his comment on verses 24-25, in which he notes that Paul uses three specific images to explain the work of Christ, and that these three images correspond to the three images of sin detailed in 1:18 – 3:20. Further, Carson insists that in Paul’s mind, these three images are interlocked rather than parallel. That is, these are not three options amongst which we can choose when discussing Christ’s saving work. We cannot simply pick the particular metaphor that appeals to us: the three belong together (129).

The first metaphor is that of justification, deriving from the imagery of the law court and addresses human guilt as a consequence of sin. The second metaphor is redemption, deriving from the slave market and addressing the reality that sin not only renders humanity judicially guilty before God, but also enslaves it. The third metaphor, drawn from the religious or cultic world, is propitiation. This metaphor addresses the divine wrath which has been aroused on account of human sinfulness.

These three metaphors also indicate something of the internal dynamic at work in the atonement. That we are justified “as a gift by his grace” shows the origin of our salvation in the saving, gracious will of God. The historical basis of this salvation is the redemption accomplished in the life of Jesus Christ. The means by which this redemption is effective is the propitiation:

The redemption (ἀπολύτρωσις) that is effected is accomplished by the payment of a price or a ransom (λύτρον). … In the passage at hand, the price in view is Jesus’ death, which frees us from death that is nothing other than sin’s penalty (128-129).

God is both the subject and the object of this propitiation: in his love toward humanity, God sets forth Christ as the propitiation, and likewise receives the self-offering of Christ which turns aside his wrath. That God is the subject of the propitiation distinguishes this event from all human-originated propitiations. That is, the offering of Christ is not an offering made by humanity to appease a capricious or angry deity. Rather, God propitiates himself in Christ. Although Carson does not acknowledge explicitly the trinitarian dimensions of this sacrifice, his thought nonetheless runs in this direction (131).

This redemptive propitiation is “in his blood,” which for Carson is simply Paul’s way of speaking of Christ’s sacrificial death as the “means by which God’s wrath is propitiated” (136). The mention of Christ’s blood is to indicate the nature of his death as a sacrifice.

Carson’s final comment on these verses explores the purpose of the propitiation as expressed in verses 25-26. Here Carson finds the deepest mystery and ground of the atonement: God set forth and publicly displayed Christ as a propitiation not simply for the justification of humanity in the face of their sin and guilt, but also as the justification of God himself (138). Carson acknowledges that this interpretation requires a different nuance of the term “God’s righteousness” in this verse than that found in verse 21. In the earlier verse it refers to God’s activity of justifying his sinful people; “here it refers to something intrinsic to God’s character” (138). Paul’s words in verse 26 emphasise this contention: “for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

“That he would be just.” The cross is the ultimate expression not only of God’s grace and love, but also of his righteousness and justice (the same Greek word is used for both these terms). In and through the blood of Christ—his sacrificial death—God has both satisfied his own righteousness and saved, forgiven and cleansed his sinful people.

The Blood of His Cross (3) – C.E.B. Cranfield

agnusdeiRomans 3:25
Whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed (NRSV).

Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed (NASB).

In his widely-acclaimed commentary on Romans, C. E. B. Cranfield supports the traditional interpretation of this verse which understands Christ’s sacrifice on the cross in terms of a propitiation that averts the divine wrath which would otherwise have been directed against humanity on account of their sin.

Cranfield begins his exposition of this verse by arguing against the interpretation of the opening phrase of the verse in the two translations cited above. The key phrase is ὃν προέθετο ὁ θεός (hov proetheto ho theos, “Whom God displayed publicly”). Cranfield argues that the verb προέθετο (proetheto) as used in the New Testament can mean either (a) propose to oneself and so to purpose, or (b) to set forth publicly or display. It is clear that the two translations opt for the second of these options whereas Cranfield argues, “There is, in our view, little doubt that ‘purposed’ should be preferred to ‘set forth publicly’” (Cranfield, Romans Vol. 1, I-VIII, International Critical Commentary, 209). It makes better theological sense, suggests Cranfield, to understand Paul’s concern in terms of God’s eternal purpose than as a reference to the Cross as something accomplished in the sight of humanity.

Paul means to emphasize that it is God who is the origin of the redemption which was accomplished in Christ Jesus and also that this redemption has its origin not in some sudden new idea or impulse on God’s part but in His eternal purpose of grace (210).

The second important term in this verse is the word ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion), translated in the NRSV as “sacrifice of atonement” (in a footnote a further option is given: “place of atonement”), and in the NASB as “propitiation.” In the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament), this word refers twenty-one times to the mercy-seat, that is, the place where the high priest sprinkled the blood of the sin offering on the day of atonement (see Leviticus 16). As such, it is quite possible that Paul is referring to Jesus Christ here, as the place where God effected his saving work. Cranfield, however, demurs. Following Leon Morris, he notes that in the Septuagint references, the noun in all but one case appears with the article when referring to the mercy-seat, whereas in this text it is anarthrous. Further, given Paul’s understanding of the intensely personal and costly nature of Jesus’ sacrifice, Cranfield considers it unlikely that Paul would liken Jesus to a piece of furniture in the temple. Rather, the mercy-seat would more appropriately be a type of the Cross itself, than of Jesus Christ (215). Cranfield, therefore, opts for the term ‘propitiation,’ or more precisely, “a propitiatory sacrifice” (216-217).

Many theologians find this interpretation of hilastērion deeply unsatisfying since it appears to portray God as full of wrath toward humanity, and requiring the blood sacrifice of an innocent victim before he will consider forgiving humanity. The idea that God must be appeased—and that by blood—before he will forgive seems contrary to the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless Cranfield insists that this is the correct interpretation of this term:

Indeed, the evidence suggests that the idea of the averting of wrath is basic to this word-group in the OT no less than in extra-biblical Greek, the distinctiveness of the OT usage being its recognition that God’s wrath, unlike all human wrath, is perfectly righteous, and therefore free from every trace of irrationality, caprice and vindictiveness, and secondly that in the process of averting this righteous wrath from man it is God Himself who takes the initiative (216).

Further, the decisive factor for Cranfield is that this hilastērion occurs “in his blood” (en tō autou haimati), which indicates that a propitiatory sacrifice is intended.

The purpose of Christ’s being ἱλαστήριον was to achieve a divine forgiveness, which is worthy of God, consonant with his righteousness, in that it does not insult God’s creature man by any suggestion that that is after all of small consequence, which he himself at his most human knows full well (witness, for example, the Greek tragedians) is desperately serious, but, so far from condoning man’s evil, is, since it involves nothing less than God’s bearing the intolerable burden of that evil Himself in the person of His own dear Son, the disclosure of the fullness of God’s hatred of man’s evil at the same time as it is its real and complete forgiveness (214).

We take it that what Paul’s statement that God purposed Christ as a propitiatory victim means is that God, because in His mercy He willed to forgive sinful men and, being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, purposed to direct against His own very Self in the person of His Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved (217).

In his treatment of this text Cranfield hits exactly the right notes. He acknowledges the reality of divine wrath as the overarching backdrop against which the saving work of Christ occurs. He insists that God’s wrath is righteous, and as such is entirely different to human wrath. That this wrath is occasioned by human wickedness indicates the seriousness with which God views this wickedness, displays the righteousness of God’s character in his response to sin, and affirms the genuine significance of human value, decision and act. Most importantly, he shows that God’s eternal purpose toward humanity was and is mercy, not wrath, and that God has determined to direct against himself—in the person of his Son—the wrath occasioned by human sin, in order to be merciful toward humanity and righteous in his mercy. This opens up a crucial window of understanding with respect to this verse and the atonement in general: it must be understood in trinitarian terms.

Finally, and with an eye on the topic I am exploring in this short series of posts, Cranfield is correct to insist that this hilastērion is “in his blood.” “It was by means of the shedding of His blood that, according to the divine purpose, Christ was to be ἱλαστήριον. … A sacrificial significance attaches to the use of the word αἷμα [‘blood’]. … There is little doubt that this is so in the verse under consideration” (210-211). The “blood of his cross” was the sacrificial means by which God has shown mercy to us while maintaining his unimpeachable righteousness.

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 15

Light through CloudsRead Psalm 15

I am writing these words in the guest room of our Melbourne friends who, over the years, have time and again shown us great kindness and hospitality, welcoming us into their home, and taking an interest in our lives, work, and family. What a privilege to be a guest in someone’s home, to find a place of welcome and acceptance, kindness, warmth and blessing. Thank you Gordon and Maggie!

And so it is with Psalm 15: “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” I might re-phrase it differently: “God, who can be a guest in your home? Who will you invite to live with you in your tent?”

It is important to begin, perhaps, with an acknowledgement that this psalm does not sit easily with Protestant convictions concerning grace, justification and acceptance with God. Must one work in order to find acceptance with God and entry into God’s house? Or is one freely welcomed on account of grace with no entry requirements whatsoever? It is equally important to recognise that this way of setting up the question, this either-or dichotomy, misrepresents not only Scripture, but Protestantism as well. As this psalm so clearly testifies, it has ever been the case that the call to be welcomed as God’s people includes within that call a responsibility, a concurrent call to holiness in the presence of the holy God. “Be holy, as I am holy!” (Leviticus 19:2; cf. 1 Peter 1:15-16).

Some modern commentators view Psalm 15 as an ‘entry liturgy’ in the worship of ancient Israel. As the pilgrims and worshippers assembled at the Jerusalem temple for one of the great annual festivals, the priests instruct them concerning the requirements which dictate entry into God’s presence (see also Psalm 24:3-6 and Isaiah 33:14-17). While it may well be that such liturgies occurred in ancient Israel, it is likely that the psalm should be understood in a more general sense than ‘entry’ requirements. It speaks of those who would not simply seek entry to God’s house, but who would abide and dwell in his presence. Thus it is concerned with the kind of life appropriate for those who would identify as God’s people, of those who would be guests in his house—and more than guests—children!

If verse one poses the essential question, the rest of the psalm supplies the answer. Craigie, notes that the psalm provides ten exhortations as the answer to the opening question, and that this structure indicates the function of the psalm:

This tenfold structure of conditions is analogous to the Decalogue in principle and with respect to the sense of wholeness, though there are no precise inner correspondences between the conditions and the Commandments. Rather, the tenfold structure suggests once again the didactic context of the wisdom school; young persons were being instructed to tick off, as it were, on their ten fingers the moral conditions prerequisite to participation in worship. Thus the conditions for admission to worship are apparently presented here in the curriculum of moral instruction and symbolically represent morality in its entirety, rather than covering every facet of the moral life in detail (Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 150-151).

Despite the evident attractions of Craigie’s view (and its equally evident applicability to pastoral work and parenting), I prefer to think of the second verse as the answer to the question, with vv. 3-5b providing illustrations and amplifications of the answer given in verse two. The second verse lists three overarching criteria for those who would ‘dwell’ in God’s presence: they are those who walk with integrity, who work righteousness, and who speak truth in their own hearts. I find in this characterisation a certain correspondence with Micah 6:8:

With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? …
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

To ‘walk with integrity’ suggests congruence between one’s private and public self: ‘what you see is what you get.’ The word itself (tāmîm) refers to wholeness or completeness, to be ‘perfect’ in the sense of blameless; thus it speaks of wholehearted devotion and consecration to the Lord (Vangemeren (ed.), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol. 4, 307). To ‘work righteousness’ speaks of active goodness, especially in relationship toward others, and so corresponds to Micah’s “to do justice and to love kindness.” To ‘speak truth in [one’s] heart’ rules out the kind of self-deception whereby we are wont to rationalise bad behaviour and impure motives (Charry, Psalms 1-50, 71). It refers to an inner honesty with oneself and before God, an acknowledgement of the truth about ourselves, including our own brokenness and sin. Such confession orients us humbly toward God, and prepares us for genuine worship.

Verses 3-5b then unpack these positive characteristics with reference especially to the way in which we speak, relate with others, and use our money. This in itself is significant: true righteousness has more to do with character and relationships than it does with ‘religious’ acts and activities. God is concerned with relational and social holiness and not simply with personal morality, although that, too, is important. The righteousness which is to characterise the people of God consists in truthful speech, generous use of our resources, and care of our neighbour.

It is of interest that the psalm uses both positive and negative descriptions to describe the character of the righteous, since righteousness consists not only in active goodness but also in the absence of evil (Craigie, 151). The righteousness person does not slander, does not take bribes, etc. What is proscribed protects the neighbour and acts as a brake or restraint on our own tendencies. It may be that the positive descriptors set forth the path of righteousness that we are to walk, while the proscriptions act as fences to keep us from wandering from the path.

Inner dispositions, self-regulation, and habitual practices come together for the formation of virtue. This is a life that pleases God and is fitted for worship. But who could possibly meet these exacting standards? Here, once more, Craigie’s pastoral wisdom is evident:

In the history of Christian and Jewish worship, there have emerged two extremes toward which the worshipper may be tempted to move. On the one hand, there have been times when the holiness of God has been stressed so powerfully, that the ordinary mortal has felt it impossible to approach God in worship or prayer. On the other hand, the open access to God in prayer has sometimes been so stressed that admission to God’s presence becomes a thoughtless and casual matter. Between these two poles, there is a proper median: there is indeed access to the Holy God in worship and prayer, but it must be employed carefully, not casually, with appropriate preparation and reverence. … One the one hand, we must live in such a way that we may prepare for worship with integrity, without hypocrisy; on the other hand, the introspection involved, prior to worship, clarifies beyond any doubt the need for forgiveness (152-153).

The psalm climaxes with a wonderful promise: “Those who do these things will never be moved.” Surely this refers back to the opening question: never moved from God’s presence and grace, regardless of circumstances that arise on earth.

Centenary – “The Righteousness of God”

young barth100 years ago this week—Sunday evening January 16, 1916—Karl Barth delivered a lecture at City Church of Aarau, Switzerland. The lecture, entitled “The Righteousness of God” is his first major piece of work after his break with the liberal theology of his student years. It is also the lecture that Barth chose to stand at the head of his first collection of occasional essays published in 1924. Two English translations exist, the first in The Word of God and the Word of Man (1928, 1956), and more recently a new translation in a critical edition by Amy Marga in The Word of God and Theology (2011).

The lecture is much like a sermon in its structure, rhetoric and passion, and includes potent imagery and thought. Barth in early 1916 is still operating with a Kantian understanding of conscience, and already evident is the kind of “process eschatology” (McCormack) that will emerge full-blown in his first commentary on Romans (1918/1919) and be decisively rejected in his second commentary on Romans in 1921. Thus in this lecture Barth is still emerging from the theology of his student years.

In my commentary on this lecture (see my Church as Moral Community, 58-64) I note that the lecture is a meditation on two wills, the will of God and human will. It is not an abstract reflection, however, on the age-old theological conundrum about the relation of divine and human willing, but is oriented rather to the form of life that emerges from each of these wills:

Whereas the absurd and senseless will of the world results in oppression and suffering, God’s will heard and recognised will result in ‘another life,’ and the arising of ‘a new world’. For this to occur, declares Barth, ‘we must let conscience speak for…it remains forever the place, the only place between heaven and earth, in which God’s righteousness is manifest’ (59).

Here are some citations from the lecture, taken from the earlier translation.

When we let conscience speak to the end, it tells us not only that there is something else, a righteousness above unrighteousness, but also—and more important—that this something else for which we long and which we need is God.…We make a veritable uproar with our morality and culture and religion. But we may presently be brought to silence, and with that will begin our true redemption (Barth, Word of God and Word of Man, 23-24).

Barth assails our fervent religious activity by which we endeavour to protect ourselves against God, and against the claim his righteousness makes on us:

What is the use of all the preaching, baptizing, confirming, bell-ringing, and organ-playing, of all the religious moods and modes, the counsels of ‘applied religion’…the efforts to enliven church singing, the unspeakably tame and stupid monthly church papers, and whatever else may belong to the equipment of modern ecclesiasticism? Will something different eventuate from all this in our relation to the righteousness of God?…Are we not rather hoping by our very activity to conceal in the most subtle way the fact that the critical event that ought to happen has not yet done so and probably never will? (Barth, 20, emphasis added).

Barth rejects in the most vigorous terms any form of Christianity which would isolate itself from the wider social context in which it is found. Privatised religion is escapist and self-indulgent in its orientation, and actually suppresses the righteousness of God which confronts humanity in conscience. The true church, and therefore, true Christianity, is that which arises when the voice of conscience is allowed to speak:

In the midst of the old world of war and money and death.…Lights of God rise in the darkness, and powers of God become real in weakness. Real love, real sincerity, real progress become possible; morality and culture, state and nation, even religion and the church now become possible—now for the first time! One is taken with the vision of an immortality or even of a future life here on earth in which the righteous will of God breaks forth, prevails, and is done as it is in heaven (Barth, 25-26).

The lecture itself is quite short and easily read. Although written 100 years ago in the midst of World War I, its message is still very relevant indeed. I found a copy of the new translation on Google books. I don’t know how those websites work, if they always show the same sections of the books, or not, but the whole lecture was there when I checked it. I highly recommend it!