Monday, 21 April 2008

That grace may abound?

(See here for an update on these thoughts.)

This morning we were having a discussion in our staff meeting about Galatians 2:11-21, the passage we are preaching on this Sunday.

During this conversation, the question arose as to whether we really preach an alternative to either ‘legalism’ or ‘Covenantal Nomism’. As I understand it, ‘Covenantal Nomism’ means that salvation is by grace alone — God’s creation of a Covenant people — but that adherence to the Law (Gk: nomos, hence ‘Nomism’) shows that you are a member of the Covenant community of saved people.

It is sometimes suggested that this is quite different from ‘legalism’, whereby adherence to the law gains merit with God, and finally earns salvation. Despite Tom Wright and the ‘New Perspective’ school, however, I am pretty convinced that most Jews in Paul’s day were like most Muslims today — combining both legalism and Covenantal Nomism in their view of their standing before God: on the one hand, believing that to be a Jew/Muslim already guaranteed a right relationship with God/Allah, irregardless of sinfulness, and on the other hand, aware that Torah/Shariah demands a certain conformity of life and that one’s ability or failure in this regard is a source of praise or condemnation.

The suggestion then arose that this is actually how most Westerners today view their relationship with God, if they think about it at all. On the one hand, they believe God accepts everyone (except paedophiles) — so the prevailing view of themselves is as if they were ‘Covenantal Nomists’, but without the Covenant. On the other hand, they believe that God rewards the good they do, and so they will appeal to their lack of wrongdoing, and the good they have done, as a further justification for their confidence about their acceptability. In other words, they are also legalists.

The question then came up, however, whether we really teach any differently — particularly, whether we are really Covenantal Nomists without realizing it. And the specific example given was that of Michael Reid, the erstwhile bishop of Peniel church, Brentwood, who has resigned after an adulterous affair.

Paul writes in Galatians 2:19-20, “through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” I take it that v 19 is looking forward to 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’” Here, the Law becomes the source of our righteousness — ‘through the Law I died to the Law’ — because Christ dies, and bears the curse of sin, under the Law. And the outcome for us is clearly salvation from sin.

But here’s the question: if, despite this understanding, we cast doubt over the salvation of someone like Michael Reid, aren’t we Covenantal Nomists ourselves? Aren’t we saying that salvation is by grace, but that the sign of being saved by grace is the absence of sin? And aren’t we then also saying that sins can be categorized into ‘little sins’, which you can bring before God in the General Confession, confident that the Absolution applies to you, and ‘big sins’, which throw your salvation into question?

To put it another way, if we were approached by an adulterer, troubled in conscience and looking for an answer, wouldn’t we say to them, “Cast your burdens on him who died for your sins, and receive God’s free forgiveness?” But is it any different if a Christian approaches us with the same problem (of adultery)? I love that line from ‘To God be the Glory’: “The vilest offender, who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” But if the “pardon” is like the Joker in Jeux sans Frontières — something you can only play once for the “vilest” offences — isn’t it better to save the “moment” until the last minute, as people apparently used to put off baptism until their death-bed in Roman times?

I think the consensus of our meeting was that we must preach the same forgiveness to the adulterous Christian as we do to the adulterous non-Christian — just as unconditional and just as absolute. However, I am very conscious of Hebrews 6 breathing down my neck.

Fortunately, I have until Sunday morning to think it over.

Revd John P Richardson
21 April 2008

No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy.

To display this post with the comments, just click on the title.


  1. I would say that forgiveness is unconditionally offered, but it requires repentance to become active. It's possible to turn your back on God etc. (I gave a long talk about this to a church group on Sunday night - I might write it up as a blog post)

    None of which undermines the priority of grace, as I understand it. Our good works are a matter of obedience, not a matter of earning anything. Once we're convicted of sin we need to change how we live, otherwise it's just words.

  2. Hi Sam. Thanks for your comments as always. You wrote, "Once we're convicted of sin we need to change how we live ..." I'm going to chance my arm here - and I may be wrong - with a suggestion that this statement itself is an unconscious Christian form of 'Covenantal Nomism', and therefore not actually represent the gospel.

    Instead, I'm going to suggest the following: "Once we're convicted of sin we need to trust in Jesus ..."

  3. Ah - but I would want to argue that those two descriptions are the two sides of the same coin. In other words if we really do trust in Jesus we necessarily behave differently; conversely if we are behaving differently then we are trusting in Jesus. I wouldn't want to separate them out.

    When Paul says 'believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead' I think that it's significant that it is the heart referred to, ie it's not just mental assent, it's the ground of action (which is what 'heart' means biblically, as I understand it, it's not a romantic image).

    BTW I don't think it's possible to assess whether any of us are free from sin - I think we are all sinners and that won't change, and I am sure there are still whitened sepulchres amongst us. We might be able to act "sinlessly" but only by grace. We continue to be more or less a mixture of redeemed and unredeemed as God's grace continues to work it's way through us.

    I wonder if it isn't a little bit dangerous to talk about casting doubt on someone's salvation (ie if we do I think we ARE being covenantal nomists). I think those are matters which are not open to our discernment, indeed are actively forbidden (Mt 7).

  4. I'm also preaching through Galatians at the moment but 1 week ahead of you. Shame really this would have been useful last week.

    We certainly have to maintain the scandal - it is all by grace not by works. So I think your answer to the adulterer is right.

    Good works seem to be the fruit of grace. Grace enables them and according the article 13 good works without it don't please God.

    In 1 John 1:5-10 we are forgiven ALL our sins IF we walk with him. But not if we don't. So the question is what does it mean to walk with him?

    Could we say that lack of works would rob us of assurance as there would be no proof that God is at work in us?

    Also is there a difference between sinning and repeatedly unrepentantly doing the same sin. Sin is lack of faith/trust. If we trust what God says you would expect action to follow. Not every time perhaps. But if it was none of the time, worry.

    Sorry for the long ramblings. I didn't have time to write a short one.

    Darren Moore (Tranmere)
    PS is Piper's Future Grace of any use at this point.

  5. My worry is that “changing how we live” and “trusting Jesus” are not two sides of the same (“repentance and faith”) coin, but are actually two quite different things that we must not confuse or conflate.

    Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us,” is, I take it, an elaboration of 1:4: “[Christ] gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us out of this present evil world.” Christ has delivered and redeemed us by giving himself up to the curse of the cross.

    Thus, whilst repentance, in the sense of acknowledging sin, is necessary as a preparation for the gospel, the response to sin that the gospel calls for is trust that Christ’s death is sufficient to deliver and redeem us. And it is this trust (not repentance) that brings about our justification — a right relationship between ourselves and God.

  6. This may or may not work. But an illustration I use is this, we all have faith, you are using it now, by sitting on a chair. To say "I believe the chair can hold me, but I flattly refuse to sit in it" suggests you don't really.

    I think that's what Romans 4, Hebrews 11 and James 2 are about. People who do things that look daft on the face of it, but were actually doing what they did because they beleived God's promises.

    A great e.g. from the OT is the Levites carrying the Ark into Cannan, 1 mile ahead of the fighting men. On the face of it irasponsible, but they did it because they believed God and did it his way.

    When we don't do things God's way it doesn't mean we aren't saved, but there are some tough lessons. However if we NEVER did things God's way it begs the question, do we have the faith to sit in the chair, to mix my metaphors.

    What I think I'm saying is that it is by Grace alone, not by works. And the works we may look for as evidence isn't just "be good", but foolish obediance. Doing what everyone else thinks is daft, but God says is good.

  7. sorry
    Darren Moore (Tranmere)

  8. Hi Darren. I have also used the ‘sitting on the chair’ illustration in speaking about faith, and I think it is a helpful example. The important thing, though, is to spell out that faith and action are separate, even though they are dependent.

    What it comes down to, I think, is this: what grounds do I have for confidence that my sin is forgiven and my relationship with God restored? If I say to myself, “My life is changed: righteousness is increasing, I am sorry when I sin and repent of everything I should,” then I will be confident so long as that continues to be the case. It seems to me that what we have here is a Christian ‘Covenantal Nomism’, evidenced by the fact that my conscience is clear before the world. Yes, I have done wrong, but I am not troubled by that because I can see I am a Christian.

    The problem (or proof) comes when my conscience is not clear. What happens when my good intentions have failed and sin has overpowered me? I discover I am not what I thought I had become. And even if the world does not know it yet, I know that my repentance is not enough. What grounds for confidence do I have then that my sin is forgiven?

    It strikes me as significant that when I present the gospel to people, no one ever says to me what the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip: “Here is water! What is to prevent me being baptized?” Clearly, I have never presented the gospel as Philip did.

    The difference it makes is this (and here I quote Martin Luther): “We must humbly admit, ‘I know full well that I cannot do a single thing that is pure. But I am baptized, and through my baptism God, who cannot lie, has bound himself in a covenant with me. He will not count my sin against me, but will slay it and blot it out.’” (LW, The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism, 1519).

    Here, I think, is Covenantal Christianity that is not ‘nomistic’. And as a response to the question, “How can I be sure my sins are forgiven?”, “I am baptized,” seems to me more evangelical (ie more ‘good newsy’) than some of the answers currently on offer under that heading.

    Controversial and fraught with problems, I admit — but I am thinking out loud. This is not my ‘final answer’, lest anyone rush to that conclusion.

  9. Perhaps then a better illustration would be a plane (I've used before and nicked from someone else).

    If I am travelling a long way, say USA and suddenly find I need assurance that I'm not going to China, maybe I'm on the wrong plane after all, what would assauge my doubt and give me assurance? Not by looking at myself, but it would help if there was a satalite picture of the plane onto which I boarded. Being assured of going in the right direction I may then act in accordance with this confidence and fill in that strange questionaire you get when going to the US of A and read my guide book (which I saw no point in doing when I doubted which direction I was heading).

    So how do I gain confidence of my salvation? Not by looking at my works (which are at best patchy) but by looking to the cross. (or for Luther Baptism, I suppose in the illustration a boarding pass stub?) Which gives me the confidence to draw on the grace to live out that faith.

    Does that work? Clearly also thinking out loud as I go. I'm reading Piper on Wright at the moment. Interesting how similar their positions are in places (a point Piper makes) but how critical the differences can be with the place of works. And Piper does lay it on the line re: works in future grace.

    Darren Moore (Tranmere)

  10. I think I would want to separate out two things.

    A) Salvation is not something metaphysical, abstracted from our concrete ongoing existence (think of what Jesus says to Zacchaeus).

    B) We cannot get to a position of sinlessness or complete righteousness through our own efforts.

    So: we can never do without trusting in Jesus, yet trusting in Jesus necessarily has real-world consequences. We become more righteous, show the fruit of good works (until we attain the maturity of Christ etc), yet still fall short of the glory of God and are dependent for our salvation on Christ alone.

    How does that sound?

    BTW I loved this: "as a response to the question, “How can I be sure my sins are forgiven?”, “I am baptized,” seems to me more evangelical (ie more ‘good newsy’) than some of the answers currently on offer under that heading". It's also more catholic ;-)

  11. Evangelicals are catholic. ;-) I'll come back to the other comments later.

  12. Hi Darren. I wasn’t knocking the ‘chair’ illustration — just observing how careful we have to be in any illustrations. On the question of the aeroplane, though, wouldn’t the best way to be reassured that you’re going the right way be to ask the pilot? (The satellite view might show only a detour round bad weather, for instance.) OK, the steward would do, but the greatest reassurance would be someone telling you, “Yes, this plane is going to X.”

    In gospel terms, then, what is our assurance of forgiveness? It is God’s word, which says to us, “Christ died for our sins.” But how do I know that “our” includes “my”? Answer: I have been baptized into Christ for the forgiveness of sins and I believe that, in Christ, my sins are forgiven.

  13. Yes that would be better.

    I'll try that next time (I didn't think you were knocking the chair, so to speak)

    Darren Moore (Tranmere