Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Pharisee, the Tax Collector and the New Perspective on Paul

This morning's sermon to a local congregation on Luke 18:9-14
Like a lot of the Bible, our parable from Luke’s gospel this morning is both simple and complicated.
The simple lesson is quite obvious — don’t be like the Pharisee, arrogant and proud and looking down on other people. Instead, be like the tax collector, humble before God because, as v 14 puts it,
... everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
And even this simple lesson is of profound significance. A society where the humility shown by the tax-collector prevails will be very different from a society where the attitude of the Pharisee prevails.
But the passage is also complicated because of its significance for modern theological debate, and this is something of which we also ought to be aware.
Theologians are rather like politicians. You might think you want nothing to do with them. But what they say and what they decide has a major impact on the rest of us. So long as there are politicians in the political field and theologians in the theological field, we have to endure a certain amount of disruption.
The ‘new perspective’
And this particular passage is significant for what it has to say about something theologians call the ‘new perspective on Paul’.
Now we have to say straight away that the term ‘new perspective’, singular, is misleading. There are actually several ‘new perspectives’ on Paul.
But the movement, as such, got under way in the 1970s and it has been gaining ground and adherents, not least in the Church of England, ever since. You may meet very few laity who have heard of it, but you will meet very few clergy who haven’t, and it affects how they treat you.
What these ‘new perspectives’ have in common is a conviction that the Reformation understanding of Paul — especially that which goes back to Martin Luther — was wrong.
Luther, they say, read into the New Testament his own personal concerns with Roman Catholicism, which he thought taught salvation by works.
Luther projected this onto New Testament Judaism, which he also saw as a religion based on salvation by works, and contrasted it with what he read — but misunderstood — in the Apostle Paul.
The problem is, according to the New Perspective, Judaism never was never a religion of works. Moreover Paul understood that.
The only difference between Paul and Judaism was over the importance of Christ and the need for Jewish rituals like circumcision and food laws. Paul’s argument with Judaism was that the boundary of God’s people was no longer marked by whether you were circumcised but whether you believed in Jesus.
Beyond that, however, there was complete agreement — both Paul and Judaism, according to the New Perspective, taught that faith is a response to God’s grace, issuing in a life of faithfulness, on the basis of which we will be judged as worthy or not of God’s kingdom.
Now what are the consequences of this ‘new perspective’?
Well, the first, and most obvious, is that the Reformation got it wrong. It was wrong about Judaism. And therefore it was also wrong about Roman Catholicism.
Most importantly, though, it means the heirs of the Reformation are also wrong — and according to people like Bishop Tom Wright, the current Bishop of Durham who has written some outstanding books on Christianity, but is a strong advocate of his own version of the New Perspective evangelical Christians are the most wrong of all, especially in their understanding of salvation.
God and ‘Righteousness’
Now with all that in mind — but ‘on hold’, as it were — let’s have a look at the Bible passage for this morning. In Luke 18:9 we read this:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable ...
What is the problem here?
First and foremost, we’re told, Jesus spoke to people who were , ‘confident ... that they were righteous’. But this little word ‘righteous’ doesn’t quite mean ‘good’ or ‘blameless’, as we might assume.
Rather, it means ‘standing in a right relationship with God’.
The righteous person, then, didn’t necessarily have to be perfect. King David, for example, was an adulterer and a murderer. Yet in Psalm 51 he expresses absolute confidence in God’s righteousness and his own restoration.
There’s nothing wrong with thinking you’re forgiven and put right with God. We think we’re forgiven.
The problem is revealed as we read on: they were ‘confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else’. And what this means is brought out further in the parable.
Two Jews went up to the Temple
Two Jews went up to the temple to pray. What is the difference between them?
They are both Jews, they are both circumcised, they both know the law and respect it. But one is a godfearing and upright man, and the other is a traitor, and probably a cheat, who makes a living acting as an agent for the occupying Roman authorities.
Think ‘tax inspector for Hitler’ and you’re in the right sort of territory.
The Pharisee’s prayer
But there is another difference, and that is in the way they pray. The Pharisee prays like this (v 11-12):
God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.
And everything he says is true. So what is he doing wrong? First, he is confident he has done nothing that would really be a barrier between him and God. He is not a robber, an evildoer or an adulterer. He cannot think of a reason why God would condemn him.
Secondly, he knows he is not like those who obviously do deserve God’s condemnation — like the tax-collector, for example.
And thirdly, he is diligent in observing the requirements of his religion, he fasts and observes the Sabbath (literally, he fasts ‘twice a Sabbath’), and he tithes. He can think of several reasons why God should accept him.
Undeserved forgiveness
Now look at the tax-collector and his prayer. We are told, v 13, he:
stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
And Jesus said,
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.
And that word ‘justified’ means ‘counted as righteous’. At the end of the parable, he is what the Pharisee thought he was: in a right relationship with God.
So what has he done right? Has he said, “I will try to do better?” Has he said, “I will go home and live a life of faith in response to God’s grace, on the basis of which I will be adjudged worthy of God’s kingdom?”
No, it’s not that either. What has he done that puts him in a right relationship with God?
The answer is, nothing. Or rather, everything he has done put him in a right relationship with God. He was ‘justified’ when he stood afar off, not lifting his eyes up to heaven, but beating on his breast and saying “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Justification and the new perspective
You see everything the Pharisee said about himself was true: he wasn’t a robber, or an evildoer or an adulterer. He wasn’t like the tax-collector and he was diligent in his religious observances.
But when he came to the Temple, what he should have done was stood afar off, beating on his breast and saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
And the fact that he didn’t shows that although Judaism was a religion teaching grace and faith, what actually happened was that people looked to themselves for a positive assurance of their relationship with God, instead of looking to God.
And that is what human beings have always done — that is why we had to have the Reformation, and why it wasn’t a mistake. Because even Christians can forget they have nothing to bring to God, and can start relying on what they are like and what they are doing.
And from there it is a very short step to contempt for others and pride in ourselves.
The outcome
You see, I said at the beginning that if we live according to this parable it will have a profound affect on us and on society.
How will it affect us? For ourselves, it will keep us humble and thankful.
Do we come to Holy Communion, for example, aware of our unworthiness, as the Prayer of Humble Access encourages us to be, or trusting in our own righteousness — glad that we haven’t committed any obvious sins this week, and that we’ve generally done right and been good?
If we understand this parable correctly, we will always come to communion knowing that here God welcomes the tax-collector and the sinner — in fact he really welcomes to Communion the person who thinks they are not worthy to take Communion.
And it will affect society. What will a society be like that is run by people who are more confident about their relationship with God when they can see the fruits of that relationship in their own lives?
It will either produce people who are burdened with anxiety, like Luther was before his own flash of insight, or they will be moralistic, self-righteous and in the end merciless.
By contrast, a society where we all know that we all stand before God as undeserving sinners in need of undeserved forgiveness will be a society where we forgive others their sins as we have been forgiven ours. And I know where I would rather live.
So let us close by praying that God will help us understand this parable, and even more that he will help us apply it to our lives.
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  1. But isn't the NPP primarily an Evangelical thing? And I thought Bishop N.T. Wright is normally considered to be one of the more prominent Evangelicals in the Church of England?

    If I'm not wrong, the NPP is quite popular amongst Presbyterians and the Evangelical group, how can it be that the NPP thinks that the "evangelical Christians are the most wrong of all, especially in their understanding of salvation" when it is the Evangelicals who are the primary advocates of NPP?

  2. I think Wright stood down as Bishop at the end of August.
    The New Perspectives on Paul are popular among liberal evangelicals and 'post-evangelicals' influenced first by James Dunn (in his Word Commentary on Romans), and then by Wright. Wright's views are really quite abstruse and idiosyncratic (like his views on 'exile and return' in the gospels) and have been strongly challenged by John Piper and Paul Helm (see 'Helm's Deep' website) as semi-Pelagian. Most opposition ot wright here coems from conservative evangelicals.
    Dunn's views are challenged by Simon Gathercole ('Where is Boasting?').

  3. To some extent, it saddens me that some of the ancient Reformation hymns - which made explicit the believer's reliance on Christ's righteousness rather than his own - are no longer commonly sung. I think particularly of "Not all the blood of beasts on Jewish altars slain" and "Arise, my soul, arise, cast off thy guilty fears". Googling on these words will bring up the full lyrics rather than take up space here. However, our confidence in coming before God is based, not on our righteousness, but the righteousness of Jesus and His effective sacrifice.

    The only "popular" hymn(in the sense of being sung by a majority of denominations currently) that I can think of that comes close to the expressions of the two hymns previously mentioned is "Before the throne of God above, I have a strong and perfect plea". I am all in favour of hymns that express profound truths in a way that is understandable by all the congregation.

    I don't doubt God's ability to reveal truth - but I do doubt my ability to see all God's truth as perspicuous.

    Beryl Polden,

  4. I've been in the reformed camp since God converted me a year ago, but these past few weeks I started to notice that my attitude has become horribly self-righteous and (yes) merciless: "Thank God I am not trusting to my own works like those poor deluded *insert favourite works-righteousness denomination here*!"

    While there are certainly those who still claim to have received God's blessings on account of their own works (thereby putting God in their debt) - both among Catholics and Protestants - it seems to me that the Reformed camp can also exhibit just as much pride and self-righeousness albeit ironically in their ability to accept their total depravity and need for grace. I include myself here.

    For what it's worth I'm now coming around to the NPP position. I no longer worry about whether someone's theology says they are saved by grace-through-faith-alone-proved-by-works or faith-and-works-by-grace; what we (I) need to avoid I think is the smug attitude that says: "I've got it right (and you've got it wrong) and God will bless me (and not you) on account of it." These days I meet as many people who glory in their own sinful nature as people who glory in their own works!

    I am a typical Anglican I suppose - trying to hold the Reformed and Catholic views 'in tension' :)

  5. My comment begins by noting this is a fine sermon: thank you, John!

    You offer a nuanced view of the whole NPP debate by noting "And the fact that he didn’t shows that although Judaism was a religion teaching grace and faith, what actually happened was that people looked to themselves for a positive assurance of their relationship with God, instead of looking to God." I think that is a very helpful observation: Luther and some of us modern evangelicals may have over cooked the egg on 'works' (re accurate understanding of Judaism and Roman Catholicism: neither is devoid of grace), but, with Jesus himself as our guide, we have not over cooked the egg on each human being's need for mercy.

    I would only add one observation to your closing remarks: in a society where we all understand our need for mercy we will treat each other as equal ... the gospel undergirds a truly democratic society.

  6. Rubati, a very interesting comment: "isn't the NPP primarily an Evangelical thing?"

    I didn't think it was, but maybe it is in Singapore. Certainly Tom Wright is considered an Evangelical (not least by himself), but he has what might be described as an 'uneasy' relationship with more traditionalist Evangelicals in the Church of England.

    By coincidence, at the service where I preached (not my own church) we sang "Rock of Ages" just before the sermon: "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling, naked come to thee for grace ..."

    This, I think, is a classic expression of old-fashioned 'Reformation Evangelicalism'. Compare this with Wright: "the whole point of justification by faith in Romans 3 is that that is something that happens in the present time", yet "the present verdict issued over faith alone can be sure to correspond to the future verdict that will issue over the whole of life."

    Is that 'nothing' in my hand that I bring, or life lived which can stand up to the judgement of God based on a successful putting to death of the deeds of the body, as Wright goes on to argue?

    Interestingly, he concludes at this point, "things are much more complicated ... than the rather logic-chopping post-Reformational over-formulated systems would allow" - a reference, I take it, to later developments in Evangelicalism.

  7. Anonymous, I do wish people would tell us who they are, especially when they have something useful to say!

  8. Beryl, thanks for your remarks about older hymns. See my reply to Rubati for the helpful coincidence of us singing "Rock of Ages" just before the sermon.

    One of the things I think modern hymns and songs lack is a fuller 'narrative' of the Christian life, beyond "I love God and God loves me, even though I'm a sinner and he is holy."

  9. Hi Tess. Pride is something we just have to learn to live with - like our other sins. It's a bit like 'splat the rat'. They pop up, we have to splat them, but they will keep popping up the whole of our lives.

    On the other hand, one of the things we can splat sins with is a right understanding of the gospel. Indeed, it is helpful even to knowing what is a 'rat' and what isn't.

    Remember Romans 12:2, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will."

  10. Peter, thanks for your remarks. The only thing I would say in response is to ask what "equality" the Reformed doctrine of grace identifies. On the face of it, it would be the doctrine that we are all equally in need of grace. It doesn't mean we are all equally fit, intelligent, good, or a whole lot of other things.

    Democracy itself is arguably a doctrine which has to be based on recognizing human sinfulness, rather than human 'equality'.

  11. "Anonymous, I do wish people would tell us who they are, especially when they have something useful to say!"

    Moi? Well, I do find it hard to get my head around what Wright is saying here; is he asserting that the one who says 'I am justified now' will also end up saying 'When I look back on my life, I will be shown to have lived righteously'? Is Wright any different from the RC understanding of righteousness as a first instalment of infused righteous character rather than a new relational (forensic) standing with God? Reformed theology distinguishes justification from sanctification. I don't think the forgiven thief lived a good life. Why then did he enter paradise? On such questions Wright hardly seems an evangelical - but maybe I have just not understood what Wright is saying.
    Eberhard Jungel somewhere uses the example from your sermon to demonsrate that justification by faith (in the classic Lutheran sense) was part of Jesus' own teaching, and not just one of those things invented by Paul.

    Mark B.

  12. I fear that a lot of churches today preach 'law' rather than 'gospel

  13. Looks like a very good sermon. I would have liked to have heard it, but plane tickets aren't cheap these days.
    In American seminaries the New Perspective is a big topic. Wright is very popular and 3 of my Profs got thier PhDs from Durham under Dunn. At my institution it is tough to get a differing viewpoint.

    Phil Vander Ploeg
    Wooster, OH. USA

  14. Wright's point seems to be, what do you make of Romans 2? Does v. 6 contradict justification by faith? or is justification in view here at all?
    Wright considers justification from the perspective of ecclesiology ('Who is in the people of God?'), while Piper looks at it from soteriology. I haven't checked Schreiner on this yet.
    Mark B.

  15. I think Wright tries to hold on to his evangelical position through really viewing it as a predestined idea, I will be proved righteous in the end because I was called to be that before time [MarkB.].

    Not sure he proves it but I remember hearing him give that roughly as his reason, though that was before the mitre touched his head and his brain fell out!!

    Paul Plymouth

  16. Mark B. thanks for the Jungel reference. The question you raise about Wright and Roman Catholicism has occurred to myself and others. Of course, it could also be asked about Wright and Pharisaism. If salvation is a matter of faith and a life of conformity to that faith, then what had the ordinary Pharisee to fear?

    In the parable, however, the point is not just that the Pharisee looks down on the tax-collector, but that the tax-collector has nothing to bring and brings nothing.

    My problem with Wright focusing on Romans 2 is that it is followed by Romans 3. My understanding, when I got converted, was that however well I might live, it remained true that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God". Therefore my standing before God would always have to depend on something other than how I had lived my life, since my life both before and after conversion would still, on its own, bring the same verdict: "You have sinned, and fallen short."

    There is a difficulty with talking about Wright's view on 'justification by faith', since he emphatically rejects the notion that this is the same as salvation.

    However, again I have a problem. In the parable, Jesus says that the tax-collector went home 'justified' in the passive - on the receiving end of justification. In other words, being justified is not just a condition but the outcome of a process, and (moreover) that process is not just a matter of being part of the covenant people according to outward signs.

    It would be patently ridiculous to argue that the tax-collector is justified - stands in a right relationship with God - because of 'faith + a life lived in conformity with that faith'. So where is the New Perspective at this point?

  17. If I might add a thought:

    I think one of the biggest problems when approaching this parable is projecting Sola Fide onto it. It has nothing to do with "faith," much less "faith alone." The text is teaching man is 'justified by humility' (both men were already believers and simply going to daily prayer). Another problem is projecting a foreign meaning of "justified" onto this text. All Jesus means by "justified" here is "forgiven" of his past sins. The tax collector was not converting (in the sense typically understood), he was repenting of his past sins (akin to when the Lord's Prayer we pray "forgive us our tresspasses"). And the use of the term "justified" here has nothing to do with securing 'eternal life' at this moment, so both the classical Protestant and New Perspective views don't fit.

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  19. John

    You may be interested to read John Piper's sermon on the same passage at T4G. Also M Bird's comments on it at Euangelion.

    Mark B's comments about Wright's definition of justification being more about ecclesiology than soteriology is I think right. Thus when he speaks of justification by works he is really saying something very similar to James; our works demonstrate that we are the covenant people of God.

    Personally, on Luke 18, I tend to think Jesus is putting emphasis on 'own' and the Pharisee's repeated 'I'. Lip service is given to God (I thank you) but the emphasis is all on self and moral accomplishment demonstrated by comparing himself favourably with the publican. As you point out, the sense of personally needed mercy is absent.

    I am wholeheartedly with you in what you say about the gospel. I am also glad to see you grappling with the new perspective and hope to gain future insights from you on the issues involved.

    I suspect that the NPP view that Judaism was faith/grace plus works is right (at least in part). In that sense surely it is similar to R Catholicism. Luther wasn't so far wrong. Moreover, Judaism, at least as it presented itself in the early church seemed concerned to emphasize OC ritual (circumcision etc) as necessary for justification. Again paralleling R Catholic emphasis (NC ritual).

    For Paul faith plus works as a BASIS for justification is anathema. Anything that is of man (works) gives him a cause for boasting before God and this God will never allow (Roms 4:1-6). In this sense works are ever the product of justification (and faith) never the basis.

    I can see no other way to reconcile justification by faith (in Paul) and justification by works (in James) that does justice to the balance of the gospel thanthe basic Protestant understanding: grace, source of justification, blood its basis, faith its instrument, resurrection its realizing, works its evidence.

    I have no doubt Nick will demur.

  20. simple question is this NPP the same stuff Rob Bell is preaching? If your not aware of him don't worry.

  21. Sorry Rosanna, I know next to nothing about Rob Bell!

  22. John,

    You say that the only problem with focusing on Romans 2 is that it is followed by Romans 3. Do I take from that, that you think Romans 2:6 is describing something hypothetical? And what then of passages like Matthew 25:31-46; 1 Corinthians 3:8; Revelation 20:12-13, 22:12?

    Kip' Chelashaw

  23. Kip, not at all. But Romans 1-3 develops an argument whose preliminary conclusion is 3:23, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God".

    The point is that all, Jew and Gentile, when standing before God would be judged sinners.

    What, then, does God do about sin? This has always been the pressing question.

    The 'natural' answer is, he provides the opportunity for redemption, which we must take for ourselves: "Facientibus quod in se est Deus non denegat Gratiam" is the old Latin term ("To whomever does 'what lies in him', God will not deny grace.")

    From there, however, it is a straight line to "I thank thee that I am not as other men", if we imagine that it is on this basis that we are put in a right relationship with God.

    The right relationship with God is always, "God be merciful to me, a sinner."

    His judgement on me, otherwise, will always be, "John, you have sinned, and fallen short of my glory." My only relief is, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1).

    I well remember one of my lecturers at theological college saying you had not understood the Gospel until you could ask the question in Rom 6:1, "Shall we continue to sin, that grace may abound?" No Pharisee would ever ask that. Nor would a Muslim, nor (I suspect) a Roman Catholic.

    I wonder if it would ever occur to a follower of the New Perspective?

  24. I agree that Romans 1-3 is all of a piece but I'd still like to know then how Romans 2:6-8 (and other passages like it) are to be understood and lived out by the Christian. Can we say both that salvation is all of God and also that our obedience to Him also matters and counts given that Scripture teaches both these things?

    Kip' Chelashaw

  25. John,

    More comment... You say above that your 'standing before God would always have to depend on something other than how I had lived my life, since my life both before and after conversion would still, on its own, bring the same verdict: "You have sinned, and fallen short." '

    My issue with this paragraph is with th statement "on its own" Is the person who is in Christ ever on their own? In various places we are told we are In Christ, seated with Christ, that the old is gone and the new has come etc so in what way can our life now that we have come into the kingdom of light ever be viewed as being "on its own"


  26. Kip,

    "Can we say both that salvation is all of God and also that our obedience to Him also matters and counts given that Scripture teaches both these things?"


    "Is the person who is in Christ ever on their own?"

    No, but that's precisely the point. Outside him, we are lost. With him we are "found in him".

  27. I have only just stumbled upon your blog and found the sermon really interesting.

    I followed your discussion of Luke 18:9-14 right up until this paragraph:

    “And the fact that he didn’t shows that although Judaism was a religion teaching grace and faith, what actually happened was that people looked to themselves for a positive assurance of their relationship with God, instead of looking to God.”

    What confused me here is that you moved from a comment about a Pharisee to a comment about Judaism as a religion. At this point, I was expecting you to move from a comment about a Pharisee to a comment about Christian leaders who lack humility.

    This might be a difference between a Reformed reading and a New Perspective reading of the passage (I don’t know). However, it does seem that your reading insulates you from self-critique. If Jesus was teaching grace then the solution is to believe in Reformed theology (relief!). If Jesus was teaching about the importance of humility in approaching God then it makes me ask whether day-by-day I am continuing to sin against people confident in my ultimate righteousness. (And, in fact, this is exactly the question that I was asking of myself until I came to the paragraph quoted above).

    If my preferred personal reading is right then it shifts the focus of the passage from “arguments about the Reformation account of salvation” to “how am I living today and tomorrow”. On the face of it, both concerns would seem to be equally important. I need to know that my sins are forgiven and I need to try not to sin. But I would say that Luke 18 is focused on the latter and not the former.

    By the way, I think that this is very much in line with Tess’s comment earlier.

    East London

  28. 'Rom 6:1, "Shall we continue to sin, that grace may abound?" No Pharisee would ever ask that. Nor would a Muslim, nor (I suspect) a Roman Catholic.'

    Just to be mischievous, neither could a reformed believer who believes in the third use of the law, a rule of life for the believer.

    Re Roms 2:6-8

    Rom 2:6-11 (ESV)
    He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

    It is quite possible to believe that those who 'by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life' refers to believers. They are those who obey truth and follow righteousness (cf Gals 5:7; 6:9).

    Paul is simply laying out God's principle of judgement. He is not at this point defining who such people are or how they become such a people, that is the stuff of ch 3:21-8:32. There Paul develops his gospel of 'justification unto life'.

  29. I always hear this Gospel as the Pharisee representing the Conservative Evangelical (I thank God I am not like that man over there) and the Tax Collector as representing a gay person rejected by organised religion (God have mercy on me, a sinner). Isn't it the obvious interpretation for our times?

    And the gay person went home justified...

  30. Anon - I doubt whether the LGCM would accept your interpretation, based as it is on the assumption that the gay person is thereby a sinner on a par with a tax-collector!

  31. Rev Richardson,

    You said: "I well remember one of my lecturers at theological college saying you had not understood the Gospel until you could ask the question in Rom 6:1, "Shall we continue to sin, that grace may abound?" No Pharisee would ever ask that. Nor would a Muslim, nor (I suspect) a Roman Catholic."

    How are you interpreting Rom 6:1? Are you reading it in the sense that Paul is saying something to the effect, "since we're beyond condemnation, we're technically free to sin without punishment, but we don't."
    If so, I think that's a wrong understanding of the passage. Nowhere does Paul say the believer wont get punished for sin.
    Rather, Paul is restating the objection the Judaizers were making in Romans 3:1-8.

    "7But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just."

    The principle Paul was working with was that God's plans are never foiled, and that He even uses the disobedience of the Jews to accomplish His plans. So some folks were blasphemously saying "if God brings a greater good from sin, then we should sin so that greater goods will come, and thus glorify God more". The error in that thinking is that God doesn't leave the evil doer unpunished during all this (he does get punished), even if God uses their sin for a greater good.

  32. Chris, I’m not sure I’m following what you’re saying! However, it may help if I try to explain myself more clearly.

    I am using the term ‘Judaism’ to mean the genuine, saving, faith of the Old Covenant, following the Anglican Tradition expressed in Article VII, which reads, “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises.”

    Thus Paul in Galatians speaks about the gospel being preached to Abraham in the promise that the nations would be blessed through him. And Hebrews says that the failure of the Israelites in the wilderness was that the message preached to them did not meet with faith in the hearers.

    Again, at the start of Luke’s gospel we find a host of ‘Old Covenant’ saints. That was why I moved on to speaking about Judaism, not contemporary Christianity! The Pharisee in the parable, I was saying, stood outside this tradition. Instead of responding with faith, as a sinner, to grace, he did what we so often do, and looked to his performance for his assurance. It is this which I think the New Perspective fails to take fully into account — namely that people don’t always do in practice what they should in theory. (Compare Jesus talking about the Scriptures bearing witness to him with what people actually read from them.)

    I am emphatically not saying that therefore we should “believe in Reformed theology”. I am saying that Reformed theology has often recognized this point, and, at its best, protects us not only from trusting in ourselves but also from the introversion about our sins, our motivations, etc, which results when we neglect grace.

    Martin Luther knew this from experience. I am sure this is why he wrote to Philip Melanchthon thus: “If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”

  33. Nick, the way I'm interpreting Romans 6:1 is that the person who has followed Paul's argument to the end of Romans 5 will ask themselves whether, if grace always trumps sin, it matters whether we sin or not.

    This does not require denying that sin is punished, but stems precisely from the fact that Christ bore the penalty for our sins "While we were still sinners" (Rom 5:8).

    The objection in Romans 3 is based on a misrepresentation of the gospel, but as Romans 6:1 shows it is a twisting of the truth of the gospel - Christ died for helpless sinners under judgement, who are saved therefore by grace alone.

    Moreover, as 5:9 goes on to stress, "if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!"

    We are not saved by grace shown towards undeserving sinners, only to face a final judgement on the basis of our performance following this initial 'fresh start'.

    Whilst we are in this body, Romans 7:24 remains true: "What a wretched man I am!"

    Hence the glorious assurance of 8:1, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." I need to hear that regularly!

  34. Nick and Chris

    I think you are right that humility is the issue in Lk 18. But it is a particular aspect or kind of humility; it is humility that refuses self-righteousness and bases all hope on the mercy of God. The kind of humility that Jesus seems to call 'poor in spirit'(Matt 5:1).

    The Pharisee seems in the first instance to represent a C1 Judaism gone bad. It had become legalistic, or perhaps more accurately it was a form of covenant nomism, with the emphasis placed on the nomism and performance.

    It boasted in Covenant status and the Law as a moral guide

    Rom 2:17-20 (ESV)
    But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth-

    Judaism seemed self-satisfied in its righteousness. Jesus in the gospels holds the spiritual leaders in Judaism responsible for this fatal self-righteousness in Judaism that obviated a sense of personal need. In Matt 23 he excoriates the Pharisees. He calls them hypocrites and blames them for preventing others from entering the Kingdom (I take it by encouraging in others a similar smug and self-satisfied righteousness). Their complacent sense of personal righteousness was misplaced. They were really hypocrites and unless the disciples of Christ revealed righteous lives far in excess of the Pharisees they would never enter the Kingdom. The Pharisees' final condemnation and heart expose lay in how they treated Christ. They were so confident of their own righteousness that they claimed they would not kill the prophets as their forefathers did, in fact they murder Messiah himself. They, for all their vaunted righteousness, would be worse than any previous idolatrous generation.

    Paul following the above text in Roms 2 goes on to expose the same hypocrisy in Judaism. The Jews may have the Law but they did not keep it.

    Rom 2:23 (ESV)
    You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. (Echoing Jesus in Jn 7:19)

    Thus the Jews with all their apparent privilege failed to achieve a righteousness acceptable to God and proved their moral bankrupcy by murdering Messiah. Why this failure in righteousness?

    Jesus' words about the Pharisee is the key, 'he trusted in himself that he was righteous'

    or in the words of Paul,

    Rom 10:3 (ESV)
    For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness.

    In Roms 3:21-8:39 Paul explains this 'righteousness of God'; it is a righteousness by faith as opposed to works; God's righteousness and not man's righteousness.

    It is a righteousness by faith available to all whose life cry is 'God be merciful to me a sinner.'

    Or in the words of Paul

    Rom 3:21-24 (ESV)
    But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

    Of course, this self-righteousness that lay in Judaism and was epitomised in Pharisaism did not stop there. It is frequently the 'righteousness' of religious people of every religion, including the Christian religion (Protestant or Catholic).

    Jesus blames the Pharisees for leading the people into darkness with their emphasis on self-righteousness. Paul opposes the Judaizers in Galatia for the same tendencies. We need to check our gospels and our hearts.


    Apologies for length - got carried away.

  35. Got another hymn for you:

    "Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness"
    by Ludwig von Zinzendorf, 1700-1760
    Translated by John Wesley, 1703-1791

    1. Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
    My beauty are, my glorious dress;
    Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
    With joy shall I lift up my head.

    2. Bold shall I stand in that great Day,
    For who aught to my charge shall lay?
    Fully through these absolved I am
    From sin and fear, from guilt and shame.

    3. The holy, meek, unspotted Lamb,
    Who from the Father's bosom came,
    Who died for me, e'en me t'atone,
    Now for my Lord and God I own.

    4. Lord, I believe Thy precious blood,
    Which at the mercy-seat of God
    Forever doth for sinners plead,
    For me--e'en for my soul--was shed.

    5. Lord, I believe were sinners more
    Than sands upon the ocean shore,
    Thou hast for all a ransom paid,
    For all a full atonement made.

    6. When from the dust of death I rise
    To claim my mansion in the skies,
    E'en then, this shall be all my plea:
    Jesus hath lived and died for me.

    7. Jesus, be endless praise to Thee,
    Whose boundless mercy hath for me,
    For me, and all Thy hands have made,
    An everlasting ransom paid.

    In our modern/post-modern age of belief in self-esteem, it is anathema to take account of such commodities as "guilt" and "shame" but they were real sensibilities to Apostle Paul and our ancestors. While we might try and defend our supposed sinlessness after salvation to believers and unbelievers alike in order to boost our self-esteem, we are unable to do this before God who knows us better than we know ourselves.

    What, then, enables us to come before God with confidence, bearing guilt and shame which, in our heart of hearts we cannot avoid? It is with the knowledge that God sees us "dressed in the righteousness of Christ" (if, indeed, we have put it on).

    Such confidence should not result in triumphalism nor does it absolve us of the human consequences of our deeds during this life, but it should result in a deep deep joy (not to be confused with arrogance).

    Beryl Polden

  36. I appreciate you taking the time to think about how NPP #may# trickle down to the pews. Wright is popular here, but he seems to be being read by the wrong group (i.e. conservative reformed rather than more liberal expressions). In the PCA, he is very controversial. I've heard some people say Wright is a heretic, but they are typically the same people who think Arminians are heretics too.
    The thing is, I understood Wright as saying we are saved by grace, and we maintain our place or proove maintenance of our place in the covenant community of God through obedience (i.e. works of some kind). So we can have assurance that we are in Christ because of our obedience. When I struggled with assurance, our super-Calvinist pastor went through a bunch of Puritan stuff and it amounted to the same thing. Do you attend Church, do you profess, do desire not to sin? So it seems to me that both are dealing with assurance in some way. Am I off the mark?

  37. David, I read your comment with interest, but when I got to the point about assurance, I almost let out a verbal "Aaargh!" (Fortunately, I just did it internally.)

    But you are right. If we look to Church attendance, profession of faith, desire not to sin, etc, for assurance we are in just the same place as those who tell us to look to obedience in other respects.

    These things are all potential indicators of our desire to please God, but they are always offset by actual sin, doubt, etc.

    And any model of the spiritual life which actually assesses things 'on balance' will lead either to self-satisfaction (and hence to pride) or to despair.

    The only sure ground of our faith, therefore, is this: "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8, NIV).

    That is what we are to believe when we look at our failures, and the parable of the Tax Collector and Pharisee is surely an encouragement to do that!

  38. John

    I agree with your emphasis on assurance based on gospel indicatives. Could you comment on how you understand the many tests of life and warnings in Scripture to relate to this topic (1 John, Hebrews, Jesus... if you obey my commands then are you my disciples indeed etc)?

  39. John, I take it from, eg Gal 3:2, that the life we are called to is the life of faith. So Paul asks, "Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?" (ESV) and then goes on to give the example of Abraham, who "believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness," to the interim conclusion that it is "those of faith who are the sons of Abraham" (v 7).

    Similarly, Hebrews 4:2 challenges the Christian community by a comparison with the Israelites under the Old Covenant: "For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith" (4:2, ESV).

    So the principle is always the same: God speaks his 'gospel' to us and this word calls for the response of faith.

    However, this response must not be confused with works, albeit that the two are connected. The 'hour I first believed' I had, like the thief on the cross, done nothing but have faith.

    The separation of faith and good works is exemplified in Abraham again: "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son ..." (Heb 11:17, ESV).

    This is fraught with possible confusion. I am not suggesting that, had God called him to go through with it, human sacrifice would therefore have become 'right'. Hebrews is clear that this was an act of faith in God's power to raise the dead, not His power to command anything he chooses and call that 'good'. (We are not Muslims!)

    Nevertheless, it illustrates that the works that follow faith are not something we should, or sometimes even can, analyze for their intrinsic 'goodness'. Abraham was righteous because he responded with faith (and we know he had faith because he responded).

    Indeed, the Anglican 39 Articles are very strong on this: "Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School-authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin." (Article XIII)

    The converse problem (actually since Genesis 3) is always lack of faith in God's word, and the result is sin. When I sin, I am conscious that it is a denial of the sinfulness of sin and of the death of Jesus to take the penalty of my sin. I am either disregarding what God has said or what Jesus has done. Either way, I am not living 'by faith' at that point.

    I hope this helps.

  40. John, thanks for your response. What I am trying to say is that the passage is about humility and not primarily about the contrast between Old Testament faith (Judaism) and New Testament faith (Christianity). That is why I expected you to move from the Pharisee to Christians who are not humble.

    I do recognise that Jesus is making a contrast between “Christianity” and OT Judaism in Luke 18: 9-14. After all, he is teaching authoritatively as God. He is also deliberately criticising the Jewish religious leaders by using the example of an un-humble Pharisee and contrasting him with a humble tax collector. Any hearers are faced with an implicit choice, do they hear and believe this Jesus and his new teaching, or do they remain within the Jewish consensus?

    However, this contrast between the Jewish consensus and Jesus is a background point in this passage. (It is a very important point for Luke as a whole but not what this parable is primarily about.) This means that when you moved in your sermon from the un-humble Pharisee to OT Judaism you were picking up on an important subordinate theme but failing to address the dominant theme: humility. [I see that John Thompson agrees that humility is the main theme of the passage in his last comment].

    I guess that I was provoked to comment because I was surprised that such an interesting sermon departed from careful exposition at this point. I certainly don’t disagree with what you are saying about OT Judaism – you just seemed to leave behind the main point of the passage.

    I am also a bit nervous that you don’t think that humility is very important (not least by your comment about avoiding “introversion about our sins, our motivations, etc, which results when we neglect grace”). I agree that humility fits very well with grace. But in the parable the tax collector is humble because he recognises his actual personal sins and not just because he understands his sinfulness (in theory) or grace (in theory). Perhaps the point of the parable is that humility is extremely important because it is the attitude of someone who is accepting God’s grace personally and not just theoretically?

    (I should caveat all this by admitting I know very little about the NPP. But I don’t see why the NPP or a 39 Articles Anglican will be more or less likely to combine actual knowledge of sin and grace with theoretical knowledge.)

    East London

  41. John

    Thanks for responding. I think you make an important point when you write,

    Nevertheless, it illustrates that the works that follow faith are not something we should, or sometimes even can, analyze for their intrinsic 'goodness'. Abraham was righteous because he responded with faith (and we know he had faith because he responded).

    I think it is this point that James appears to be making in Ch2 of his letter.

    Jas 2:18-26 (ESV)
    But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe-and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”-and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

    The 'works of faith' that James cites as examples of faith are hardly intrinsically good - infanticide and treason. A deliberate choice that highlights the distinction between works of faith and acts that may be simply humanitarian.

  42. Chris,

    I think JR does see humility in the parable. He sees the parable as guarding against pride and promoting a true gospel humility.

    But the parables of Jesus were intended not simply to speak to the immediate individuals but to address a wider malaise in the nation, the malaise that would lead them eventually to reject their Messiah (religious self-righteousness). This grew out of a distorted Judaism that seemed to lead to the nation 'trusting in themselves that they were righteous. In this sense the parable is a criticism of a theology.

    The NPP has theological similarities with C1 Judaism. C1 Judaism stressed grace (possibly as something deserved) and works (the works of the Law) as making someone right with God. The NPP tends to emphasize final justification based on works, or may be easily read that way. John points out that when we veer to basing our justification on our works (instead of pure mercy) we either are satisfied with our 'works' and become moralistic and smug or we feel our works are inadequate and can fall into despair. In either case we 'fall away from grace'.

    I struggle on and off with depression. When I am unwell I find that I have a heightened sense of sin. It can become crippling. I become introspective and see damning sin everywhere in my life. Sometimes I doubt that I am really saved - this is a terrible feeling. A sense of utter forsakenness overwhelms. I lose my assurance of salvation. I find little or no consolation in the assurances of others that my life is clearly Christian for I know my heart better than they. My only relief lies in telling my soul again and again that 'the blood of Jesus Christ God's Son cleanses me from all sin'. Like the publican my only peace lies in 'God be merciful to me a sinner'.

    Pastorally, when crushed like this by a sense of sin, I need a clear gospel that finds justification purely in the grace of God and the blood of Christ. If this gospel gets fudged by 'grace plus works' then I, and any with a tender conscience, are lost, for my works are the weak link. NPP has little to offer the morbid conscience.

    As a final comment there are strands in reformed and puritan teaching which place a great emphasis on self-analysis and signs of life. Have I enough faith? Have I repented enough? Am I humble enough? This emphasis tends to occlude the gospel. People look for assurance in their performance rather than in Christ and again will be either smugly self-confident or crushed depending on their depth of self-knowledge. It can be another form of 'justification by works'.

    Ultimately, only a clear gospel of grace deals with either presumption or a lack of assurance. I think soe of this is what JR is grappling with in his sermon.

    best regards

  43. Rev S C Bazlinton6 November 2010 at 21:57

    In view of this excellent discussion on John's sermon could I recommend a very easy read on the importance of past history and its relevance today: The Unquenchable Flame. Introducing the Reformation. Dr Michael Reeves IVP. (2009 reprint 2010)

    Stephen Bazlinton

  44. Great post, John, and I also appreciate your book, "What God has made clean."

    It seems that this Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector as well as that of the Prodigal Son turn on one's selected referants. The Pharisee, like the older brother, define themselves (favorably) in reference to other people. In contrast, the Tax Collector and the younger brother define themselves relative to the Father (unfavorably, as shamed objects of mercy).

    This reading makes sense in NPP perspective, and in understanding "righteousness" as a relationship word rather than as forensic personal moral purity. The righteous in this sense are tainted by sin and shame, but through mercy qualify for a relationship with God.