Sin, Lies and Believing the Truth

Tim Chester, You Can Change
Sinful acts always have their origin in some form of unbelief. Behind every sin is a lie. The root of all our behavior and emotions is the heart—what it trusts and what it treasures. . . . [Our] problem is futile thinking, darkened understanding, and ignorant hearts. This is the cause of indulgence, impurity, and lust. We sin because we believe the lie that we are better off without God, that his rule is oppressive, that we will be free without him, that sin offers more than God (73-74).

This is a radical view of sin. It means many of our negative emotions are sinful because they’re symptoms of unbelief—the greatest sin and the root sin (75).
Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer for Christians
There is simply no other way to compete with the forebodings of my conscience, the condemnings of my heart, and the lies of the world and the Devil than to overwhelm such things with daily rehearsings of the gospel (14; emphasis added).
Psalm 62:11-12
One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you, O God, are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving. Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done.
Aaron Orendorff
In the wake of the powerfully redemptive tone of Psalm 62:11-12a, the close of v. 12 appears at first somewhat disconcerting. To begin with, David opens v. 11 by stating, quite straightforwardly, that when it comes to God there are two basic truths that outshine everything else; two fundamental, divine realities that are absolutely foundational to who God is and what He does: (1) God is strong and (2) God is love. Nothing could be more reassuring and worship inducing (particularly to sinful, hurting people) than those two facts. However (even with these two truths firmly in mind), given my own personal history, the last thing I’d want is for God to then move on to “rewarding” me “according to what [I have] done.” These two thoughts—God’s strong love and just recompense—appear (especially when measured against the brokenness and evil of my own life) at definite odds.

In addition to this particular tension, we read throughout the Psalter statements that likewise seem far to the contrary of the seemingly natural interpretation of v. 12’s close. Statements like, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Ps. 143:2), and even more plainly, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (103:10). Neither of these texts (nor the numerous others like them) sit well with a God who simply “gives us what we deserve.” The close of v. 12, then, cannot simply mean that God is (though at times strong and loving) at the end of the day a God of pure and strict justice, devoid of grace and mercy.

Instead, when placed in context, David is pleading with God to deliver him from his enemies. He is asking for God to vindicate him because (in this instance) he is truly in the right. Part of that vindication is rooted in the belief that God is a God of justice, just as he is a God of strength and love. David is not asserting his inherent status as a more righteous human being than those standing against him; even less is he pitting his life record against God’s perfect standard. He is simply pleading with God to save him from the false and wicked men “attacking” him and speaking lies (62:3). In the face of dire circumstance, David looks to God. He entrusts himself to “him who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:23).

Far from undercutting God’s strength and love, his justice supports them. The truths to which vv. 11-12 point (and likewise the “lies” which they confront) are profound.

If we believe God is weak (and, by implication, not strong), then we will be full of fear and doubtful as to whether or not He can help us. If God is weak, then we will be compelled to “take control” of our situation, to fend for ourselves, and to protect what’s ours (whether that be relationships, property, reputations, or even our emotions).

Similarly, if we believe that God is not loving, then we simply will not trust him to take care of us. Not only will we doubt whether or not He can help us; we’ll even doubt whether or not He’s willing to help us. If God is not fundamentally loving, then we will be compelled to either find other sources of love (dark, shallow, ultimately unsatisfying sources) or to prove ourselves to Him and earn his love.

On the other hand, because God is strong, I can trust that nothing that happens to me is outside of His control; nothing is bigger than Him. Because God is strong, I can admit that I am weak and rest in His care, protection, and sovereignty. I don’t need to be in control because God already is.

Similarly, because God is loving, I don’t have to prove myself or earn His affection. He loves me in spite of who I am and has demonstrated His love most powerfully through His Son. Because God is loving, I can trust that He wants to take care of me, will never abandon me, or leave me to fed for myself. I don’t have to search for love or earn it, but can rest in the love that already is.

“Moments of Ministry” Versus “Moments of Anger” or Why you can’t make marriage “personal”!

Paul David Tripp, What Did You Expect??
God is using the difficulties of the here and now to transform you, that is, to rescue you from you. And because he loves you, he will willingly interrupt or compromise your momentary happiness in order to accomplish one more step in the process of rescue and transformation, which he is unshakably committed to (22).

If you minimize the heart struggle that both of you have carried into your marriage, here’s what will happen: you will tend to turn moments of ministry into moments of anger. . . . Often, in these God-given moments of ministry, rather than serving God’s purpose we get angry because somehow our spouse is in the way of what we want. . . . [T]he reason we turn moments of ministry into moments of anger is that we tend to personalize what is not personal.

[W]hen you personalize what is not personal you tend to be adversarial in your response. When that happens, what motivates you is not the spiritual need in your spouse that God has revealed but your spouse’s offense against you, your schedule, your peace, etc. So your response is not a “for him [or her]” response but an “against him [or her]” response.

[W]e settle for quick situational solutions that do not get to the heart of the matter. Rather than searching for ways to help, we tell the other to get a grip, we attempt to threaten them into silence, or we get angry and turn a moment of weakness into a major confrontation (23-24).

The Gospel According to N. T. Wright

By way of introduction, John Piper opens The Future of Justification by chronicling a litany of Wright’s statements from a variety of works aimed at defining both what the gospel is as well as what it is not. The first of these statements, as it regards the gospel positively, captures well the basic thrust of Wright’s thought:
The “gospel” itself refers to the proclamation that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is the one, true and only Lord of the world.[5]
Key to Wright’s understanding (as Piper’s larger catalog makes clear) is the word “proclamation.” The gospel is, after all, news: the public declaration of something that has (first and foremost) happened in space and time. What precisely Wright means by the word “proclamation”—i.e., his formulation of the events themselves (both historically and theologically speaking)—is outlined at length by Wright in his earlier and frequently cited work, What Saint Paul Really Said. There the “gospel” is unfolded as an essentially “fourfold announcement about Jesus”:
  1. In Jesus of Nazareth, specifically in his cross, the decisive victory has been won over all the powers of evil, including sin and death themselves.

  2. In Jesus' resurrection the New Age has dawned, inaugurating the long-awaited time when the prophecies would be fulfilled, when Israel's exile would be over, and the whole world would be addressed by the one creator God.

  3. The crucified and risen Jesus was, all along, Israel’s Messiah, her representative king.

  4. Jesus was therefore also the Lord, the true King of the world, the one at whose name every knee would bow. . . .
The royal proclamation is not simply the conveying of true information about the kingship of Jesus. It is the putting into effect of that kingship, the decision and authoritative summoning to allegiance. Paul discovered . . . that when he announced the lordship of Jesus Christ, the sovereignty of King Jesus, this very announcement was the means by which the living God reached out with his love and changed the hearts and lives of men and women, forming them from the paganism which had held them captive, enabling them to become, for the first time, the truly human beings they were meant to be. The gospel, Paul would have said, is not just about God’s power saving people. It is God’s power at work to save people.[6]
As Piper’s own comments readily display,[7] Wright’s focus upon the kerygmatic (or, proclamatory) nature of the gospel as the express declaration of Jesus Christ’s lordship is far from controversial.

It is, however, upon what Wright says the gospel is not where disagreement begins:
My proposal has been that “the gospel” is not, for Paul, a message about “how one gets saved,” in an individual and ahistorical sense.[8]

“[T]he gospel” is not an account of how people get saved.[9]

The gospel is not . . . a set of techniques for making people Christians.[10]

Paul’s gospel to the pagans was not a philosophy of life. Nor was it, even, a doctrine about how to get saved.[11]
To these statements more could of course be added (not least because of Wright’s prolific body of work). However, rather than simply add “precept upon precept” (quote upon quote), the most useful (and, it ought to be pointed out, the most recent) summary of both Wright and Piper’s position on the gospel appeared last year in a June 2009 Q&A with Christianity Today. There, in the wake their successive books, both writers provided summary statements regarding their understanding of the gospel proper:
Piper: The heart of the gospel is the good news that Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead. What makes this good news is that Christ’s death accomplished a perfect righteousness before God and suffered a perfect condemnation from God, both of which are counted as ours through faith alone, so that we have eternal life with God in the new heavens and the new earth.

Wright: The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord.[12]
Thankfully, there is much that could be said about the agreement between these statements; nonetheless, for our purposes, it is not so much their agreement that concerns us, but rather their disagreement. As such, the primary difference lies squarely in Piper’s inclusion of the traditionally reformed doctrine termed imputed righteousness (what Piper refers to as being “counted”; see especially note 12) within the gospel message proper—i.e., within what the gospel in and of itself actually declares. Wright, as we will see, not only rejects the concept of “imputed righteousness” (though he is quick to replace it with a robust doctrine of union with Christ), he also draws a sharp distinction between what the gospel is as an historical proclamation of good “news” and what the gospel does as a result of its proclamation. For Wright, the gospel does not save because it is a message about how to be saved—not, in other words, because it is a set of ahistorical instructions (repent and believe) about what a person must do to inherit life in the “age to come.” Rather, the gospel saves but because when it is announced God is active (through his Spirit) to bring its hearers under the saving lordship of Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith come about as a result of God’s grace exercised through such preaching.[13] They are the covenantal badges by which God’s people are marked out.

The real crux of the matter, therefore, is not whether the gospel saves from sin via Jesus’ penal substitution (both authors affirm that is does). Nor is it Wright’s preference for Christus Victor as the controlling concept for understanding the atonement. Instead, the dispute lies in whether or not the gospel (to be the gospel) must include justification by faith through the imputed righteousness of Christ.

With this question in mind, our next task will be to begin examining the doctrine of justification itself.


[5] N. T. Wright, “Paul in Different Perspectives: Lecture 1: Starting Points and Opening Reflections.” Pastors Conference at the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church, Monroe, Louisiana (3 January 2005). 28 December 2009.

[6] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 60-61.

[7] “Yes. That is an essential announcement of the gospel.” Piper, Justification, 18.

[8] Wright, Saint Paul, 60.

[9] Ibid., 133.

[10] Ibid., 153.

[11] Ibid., 90.

[12] Trevin Wax (compiler), “The Justification Debate: A Primer.” Christianity Today. June 2009. 12 April 2010. Equally interesting is the follow-up question: “How This Happens.”

“Piper: By faith we are united with Christ Jesus so that in union with him, his perfect righteousness and punishment are counted as ours (imputed to us). In this way, perfection is provided, sin is forgiven, wrath is removed, and God is totally for us. Thus, Christ alone is the basis of our justification, and the faith that unites us to him is the means or instrument of our justification. Trusting in Christ as Savior, Lord, and Supreme Treasure of our lives produces the fruit of love, or it is dead.

“Wright: God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ (the faithful Israelite), has come, allowing the continuation of his plan to rescue human beings, and, through them, the world. The Messiah represents his people, standing in for them, taking upon himself the death that they deserved. God justifies (declares righteous) all those who are ‘in Christ,’ so that the vindication of Jesus upon his resurrection becomes the vindication of all those who trust in him. Justification refers to God's declaration of who is in the covenant (this worldwide family of Abraham through whom God's purposes can now be extended into the wider world) and is made on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ alone, not the ‘works of the Law’ (i.e., badges of ethnic identity that once kept Jews and Gentiles apart).”

[13] Piper’s otherwise incisive comments in The Future of Justification about the questionable goodness of such a bare declaration—namely that Jesus is the world’s true Lord—are easily assuaged by Wright’s inclusion of the line “who died for our sins” in his definition of the gospel offered in Christianity Today. Cf. Piper, Justification, 18: “But one wonders how the death and resurrection of Jesus could be heard as good news if one had spent his life committing treason against the risen King. It seems as though one would have to be told how the death and resurrection of Christ actually saves sinners, if sinners are to hear them as good news and not as a death sentence.”

The Atonement - Propitiation

By Michael Blankenship and Aaron Orendorff

As we begin to explore the subject of Jesus’ atonement, it may be helpful to recap what was said by way of introduction a couple of weeks ago. Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, in the book Doctrine: What Every Christian Should Believe, open by offering the following definition:
Jesus’ work for us on the cross is called atonement (at-one-ment); Jesus our God became a man to restore [the] relationship between God and humanity. . . . Scripture repeatedly and clearly declares that Jesus died as our substitute paying our penalty “for” our sins (253).
Building off this excellent summary, our aim will be to unpack the reality that Jesus Christ—God’s incarnate Son—suffered on the cross in our place and on our behalf as the historical realization of three, interlocking theological truths: (1) the propitiation of God’s wrath, (2) the expiation of humanity’s sin, and (3) the reconciliation of both.

One quick side-note: We use the phrase “historical realization” intentionally in order to stress that the atonement is not an ahistorical abstraction—some sort of disembodied religious or philosophical truth, floating disconnected and unattached to real-life particularities, the dirt, nails, wood, sweat, taunts, blood, and pain, of a first-century Jew condemned to die on hill outside Jerusalem. The gospel is good news of something that has actually happened, a “historical reality” upon which all the beauty, wonder, hope, and theological truth of Christianity rests.[1] Keeping that thought firmly in mind, let us turn to the first element in the above definition and our subject for this post: propitiation.

Propitiation is a word seldom used today, which means that to understand what “the propitiation of God’s wrath” means we must first understand the concept of propitiation itself. The simplest, English equivalent of propitiation is the word satisfaction. An everyday sort of example might go like this: say I’m thirsty and so, in an effort to quench (that is, satisfy) my thirst, I drink a nice, big bottle of ice-cold water. Now we all know that a person can’t live without water; it’s not something that we choose to thirst for. So, in this case, to talk about satisfaction isn’t so much about a superficial feeling of desire. Rather it’s about something that the biology of being human demands, without compromise and indiscriminately.

In a similar way, God, though not having physical needs, authentically “thirsts” for justice because the need for justice is one of his essential, nonnegotiable attributes. Simply put: God, by his very nature, is just. Justice is part of who he is. Therefore, whenever something violates his sense of justice, satisfaction (that is, propitiation) is demanded.

Exodus 34:6-7 illustrates this point well because it bring together both God’s love and grace with his (equally as real) need for justice:
The LORD passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
As difficult as it may be for us to swallow, justice (particularly, God’s justice), cannot exist without punishment. In God’s economy, justice is both restorative (when understood from the viewpoint of the victim) as well as retributive (when understood from the viewpoint of the perpetrator). This means that “righting the wrongs in the world” is good news to those who have been victimized while at the same time bad news to those who have been the victimizers. To this end, the Psalms are literally full of prayers asking God to act “in his righteousness” both to defend and vindicate the oppressed (restorative justice), as well as, to destroy and condemn the oppressors (retributive justice).

Imagine, for example, a person who has committed murder is found guilty but that the judge presiding over the case simply lets him go. Is this just? Of course not. Moreover, it would be impossible for us to respect (much less love and worship) a judge who so terribly violated the rules of justice. This is especially true if we ourselves have been affected by the crime in question. In the same way, when human beings “sin” against God—when they violate His law—the punishment must meet the crime. To avoid punishment is to avoid justice.

Romans 2:1-3 helps us understand this principle by relating our own, everyday acts of judgment with God’s perfect, once-for-all, ultimate act of judgment:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?
Much like Exodus 34:6-7, Romans 2:1-3 stresses not only that God is just but that his justice demands satisfaction; it needs propitiation.

Throughout the Bible, the demand God’s need for justice creates is called his “wrath.” Unlike our wrath, which is often self-serving, ignorant, and hardly ever aligned with what is truly “good,” God’s anger is never out-of-proportion, never out-of-control, and always upholds what is right. In fact, as strange as it may sound, God’s wrath is actually an expression of his love. Becky Pippert, in her book Hope Has Its Reasons, explains it like this:
Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. De we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it . . . . Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference. . . . God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer . . . which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with whole being.
This “cancer” is called sin and Scripture tells us that God’s wrath stands against any and all forms of it in the world (Rom. 1:18).

Sometimes people ask, “Why did Jesus have to die? Couldn’t God just forgive us?” This question not only misunderstands what we’ve said so far about justice, it also misunderstands how forgiveness itself works. For example, imagine that your neighbor accidentally breaks your window in the middle of winter. Basically, you have one of two choices. On one hand, you can go the way of strict justice and demand that your neighbor pay for the broken window to be fixed (after all it’s winter and you can’t just live with a smashed-in window). Or, two, you can go the way of forgiveness and instead of making your neighbor pay for the window you can pay for it yourself. In this scenario, strict justice means that the perpetrator must pay while forgiveness means that you must pay. Either way the window must be fixed and this means that regardless of which way you choose someone has to pay. Through this simple example, it’s easy to see that nobody “just forgives.”

Applying this illustration to the cross, Tim Keller writes:
Forgiveness means bearing the cost instead of making the wrongdoer do it, so you can reach out in love to seek your enemy’s renewal and change. Forgiveness means absorbing the debt of sin yourself. . . . On the Cross we see God doing visibly and cosmically what every human being must do to forgive someone, though on an infinitely greater scale. . . . It is crucial at this point to remember that the Christian faith has always understood that Jesus Christ is God. God did not, then, inflict pain on someone else, but rather on the Cross absorbed the pain, violence, and evil of the world into himself. . . . [T]his is a God who becomes human and offers his own lifeblood in order to honor moral justice and merciful love so that someday he can destroy all evil without destroying us (192).
Think of it like this, when it comes to human sin and divine justice, God has a choice: he can either propitiate his wrath by punishing human beings themselves or he can make propitiation for human beings by absorbing the debt of sin himself. The wonder of the gospel is that God chose the latter and, in the person of Jesus Christ, suffered for the sins of humanity.

People often call attention to the physical suffering involved in Jesus’ crucifixion, but Scripture makes clear that this was not the worst of it. Jesus experienced a pain, which those who choose to believe in him, no longer have to experience. It was the pain of separation from God. Hence Jesus’ words upon the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” This is a powerful statement that allows us to see into the true suffering of our savior. This was God’s wrath, being taken up by Jesus himself, for our iniquities. As Jesus uttered these words, he was experiencing, quite literally, hell.

You see, the tragedy of hell (where God’s wrath is ultimately assuaged) arises not because of physical flames but because it means being disconnected from God for all eternity. When a person goes to hell, they experience all the infinite horrors and spiritual disintegration of not having loved, served, and worshiped God. But now imagine one man experiencing hell, not on account of his own sins (for he himself was sinless), but for the sins of all those who would choose (past, present, and future) to put their faith and trust in him. Jesus Christ truly suffered beyond our imagination or comprehension. The atonement means that God’s just wrath has been satisfied, absorbed by God himself, and that most amazingly, as 1 John 4:10 says: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”


[1] Nor should we say that the Jesus-event—i.e., his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension—is simply an “illustration” of who God is and what he does—that He is loving, gracious, sacrificial, and forgiving. Jesus, and in particular the cross, is more than a mere illustration; it is more than God’s ultimate word-become-flesh-picture. Rather, Jesus is an actual event, both in the life of God and in the life of the world, on the basis of which God is loving, gracious, sacrificial, and forgiving. The argument here is in some sense circular: God loves and so He sent Christ; God sent Christ and so He loves.

Introduction - N. T. Wright and the Doctrine of Justification

[T]he arguments I have been mounting . . . [are genuinely] fresh readings of Scripture. They are not the superimposition upon Scripture of theories culled from elsewhere.
—N. T. Wright, Justification (22)

My conviction concerning N. T. Wright is not that he is under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9, but that his portrayal of the gospel—and of the doctrine of justification in particular—is so disfigured that it becomes difficult to recognize as biblically faithful.
—John Piper, The Future of Justification (15)

Since the time of the reformation, the doctrine of justification has enjoyed a sort of controversial pride of place within widest circles of confessional Christianity. From Martin Luther’s quintessentially polemic statement on the foundational nature of sola fide—“if this article stands, the Church stands; if it falls, the Church falls”—to the Council of Trent’s “anathema” reply,[1] few doctrines have garnered such extended scrutiny and fierce debate. In recent years, however, a new voice has entered the fray. Led initially by the scholarly work of Krister Stendahl (Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, 1976) and E. P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism, 1977) and now carried on by the writings (both popular and scholarly) of N. T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn, the so-called “new perspective on Paul” has launched a fresh round of debate and (perhaps most interestingly) drawn fresh lines in this once firmly established dispute.

As the already immense bibliographies attest, this new exchange has not lacked for ink (whether digital or print).[2] In light, therefore, of such a sizeable pool of resources, rather than engaging the new perspective head-on in an attempt (at the very least) to summarize the various positions and counter-positions, the purpose of this series will be to examine the doctrine of justification as it appears in the work of N. T. Wright. As such, this analysis will draw primarily upon John Piper’s initial “response” to Wright’s earlier formulations in The Future of Justification[3] as well as Wright’s own most recent reaffirmation of his position in Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.[4]

However, before delving into the specific (and far more contentious) issue of justification, it would be best to begin by briefly sketching Wright’s understanding of the gospel itself. We will explore this foundational topic in the next post.


[1] “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.” The Council of Trent: Canons on Justification (Canon 9).

[2] See especially Michael F. Bird’s nearly eighteen page un-annotated “Biography on the New Perspective on Paul” from The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification, and the New Perspective (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 194-211.

[3] John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007).

[4] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009).