Ruminations on Two Posts from Peter Leithart

Over the last few days Peter Leithart has posted two posts that have really resonated with issues that I have been thinking about of late. The following are some extensive thoughts sparked off by Leithart’s own comments.

The first of the posts is on the subject of justice and mercy. Leithart asks why many people think that the Father’s approval of Jesus’ work must be according to strict justice, rather than according to grace.

This question is close to something that I have thinking about recently, relating to the work of N.T. Wright. Whilst Wright is clear that God is and must be just in justifying us, strict justice does not seem to have as prominent a role in his scheme as it does in that of many of his Reformed critics. The question of imputation is one area in which this becomes clear. Within much Reformed thought the logic seems to run in such a manner: 1) Faith, given as a gift of God, unites me to Christ; 2) In Christ, Christ’s perfect righteousness (understood as His perfect keeping of the moral law) is mine; 3) Since this perfect righteousness is reckoned mine, God can declare me to be righteous in justification.

Wright’s approach works slightly differently: 1) Christ has died as the representative of Israel for the sins of the world; 2) The Spirit, in the act of effectual calling, sovereignly brings faith to birth in the one who hears the gospel message; 3) God is just in justifying the person who has faith because (a) faith is personal trust in, commitment to and acceptance of Jesus and what God has accomplished through Him, the appropriate response to God’s faithfulness, (b) faith is the true fulfilment that the Torah always envisaged but could never produce and the first sign of the work of the covenant-renewing Holy Spirit, (c) faith will be accompanied by a new way of life, which God is committed to perfecting, so that the verdict of the last day on the basis of works will correspond to the present one on the basis of faith; 4) In the act of justification (in Baptism, for Wright) Christ’s righteousness (His vindication/resurrection) is reckoned ours.

The difference between these two schemes is worth noticing. For the common Reformed scheme we are justified because Christ’s perfect righteousness is reckoned ours by virtue of union with Him through faith. For Wright’s scheme justification is made possible by the cross and takes place on the basis of faith. God justifies the one who responds in faith to the message of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah. God does not justify us because we possess the righteousness of Christ by virtue of union with Him. For Wright we are not united to Christ prior to justification. Wright sees union with Christ as taking place in Baptism, and justification as part of this. Whilst God would not be able to justify anyone were it not for the death of Christ (His bearing of the sin of the world as Israel’s representative) and His resurrection (His justification), God does not justify me because Christ’s death and resurrection are already reckoned mine (they are not), but because I have faith. In the act of justifying me the death and resurrection are reckoned mine as I am baptized into Christ.

It seems to me that strict justice plays far more of a role in a Reformed system such as the one that I have outlined above than it does in the system presented to us by N.T. Wright. My suspicion is that different understandings of the nature of divine righteousness lie at the root of this. For Wright divine righteousness is cosmic restorative justice and covenant faithfulness. Traditional Reformed theology found it hard to escape the idea of distributive justice. God’s justification must be just, that is, it must give me my due. For Wright God’s justification must also be just. However, Wright’s definition of God’s justice, since he does not think chiefly in terms of distributive justice, does not create tensions between justice, mercy and grace. For God’s justification to be just He must uphold His Law, but there is no reason why justification need be considered my due on the basis of an imputation of Christ’s righteousness as its basis.

Traditional Reformed approaches are clear that justification is brought about by divine grace and mercy. However, many forms of Reformed thought see the role of grace and mercy as that of providing that required by strict justice. It is on the basis of strict justice that justification proper takes place. For Wright justification is an act of divine grace from start to finish. Consequently, Wright is better able to do justice to the biblical truth that God justifies the ‘ungodly’ than many Reformed systems that teach that God is only able to declare us righteous when we are viewed as those who are perfectly righteous in Christ.

The problem with those who see justification as having our possession of the perfect righteousness of Christ through union with Him by faith as its proximate cause is that one can wonder to what extent we can identify with ourselves as we are the objects of justification. As the objects of justification, according to this Reformed model, all of our sins and imperfections are out of the picture. When God looks at me, He sees Christ. The problem is that the ‘me’ that God justifies seems quite alienated from the ‘me’ of day to day life. How do I know that God looks at the ‘me’ that I know and accepts that ‘me’?

According to Wright’s position justification has the imperfect and sinful ‘me’ in view, not just a ‘me’ that is viewed as perfect like Christ (as God looks at Christ’s perfect righteousness, rather than my sinful self). However, for Wright, God does not just view me as I am now. He also views me as I will be. My faith is the first sign of the life of the Spirit that is within me. This life of the Spirit may only receive partial expression in the present, but one day it will be perfected and I will be like Christ. When God declares me to be righteous, the imperfect and sinful ‘me’ is not entirely effaced. Rather, God views the sinful and imperfect ‘me’ in terms of what it will one day be, through the work of His Spirit conforming me to the image of His Son.

The second of Leithart’s posts is on the subject of assurance. I quote the post in full:

John’s statements about “knowing that we know” (1 John 2:3) have been the historical basis for the practical syllogism:

1. All who keep the commandments may be assured God’s favor.
2. I am keeping the commandments.
3. Therefore, I am assured of God’s favor.

But the practical syllogism pushes John’s point back further than John does. It subtly inserts a new layer, a layer of self-reflection and self-evaluation that is not in John’s statement.

John says we know we know Him because we keep the commandments; the practical syllogism suggests that we know we know Him because we know we keep His commandments. For John, obedience is the pathway of assurance and the full experience of friendship with God; for the practical syllogism, reflection and self-evaluation is the pathway of assurance that we are friends of God.

This is not the first helpful post that Leithart has written on the subject of assurance. This one entitled ‘Luther the Non-Protestant’ is also superb. In both posts Leithart makes clear that assurance does not demand the self-reflection that Reformed theologians generally suppose that it does.

This is an issue that I have discussed with a number of people recently. Many find it hard to understand how Baptism can really play a role in giving us assurance, let alone the sort of role that Luther, for example, claims for it. Their use of the practical syllogism reinforces this. They argue that true assurance demands that we know that we keep God’s commandments. Consequently, Baptism is not a sufficient source of assurance. At best it can give us a weak measure of assurance and we must be careful as any strong reliance upon Baptism is going to fall into the sin of presumption.

It seems to me, that no matter how much it may protest, in this model the assurance given by faith looking to Christ is not enough and needs to be supplemented by the assurance given by faith looking to itself. Directing the attention of faith away from its true object, I believe, far from giving assurance, rapidly erodes it. The early development of my theology took place against the background of deep problems with personal assurance and the problem was only genuinely relieved when I came to appreciate that God had openly accepted me in Baptism.

However, Baptism can never be a ground for presumption. What God has given us in Baptism can be resisted and rejected by us in unbelief. The mere fact of Baptism is no guarantee of future salvation taken by itself. On the other hand, I also recognized that assurance grew weak when I was distant from God, when I was not being obedient to Him, when I was not relating properly to my brethren and was not looking to Christ by faith. Looking to my own obedience can never be a source of assurance, but the obedience of faith is certainly the way of assurance.

Getting our doctrine of the covenant right is crucial at this point. Too many people believe that God’s commitment to the covenant is conditioned upon our commitment to the covenant. Others err by believing that our commitment to the covenant relationship is unnecessary for the continuation of the covenant relationship and that apostasy is impossible for those who are truly related to God in covenant.

A covenantal relationship is quite different from a contractual relationship. James Jordan has some helpful thoughts here, most of them within a lengthy Rosenstock-Huessy quote; Joel Garver has some important observations here. Our relationship with God has two sides to it. God’s commitment to the relationship is not conditioned on our commitment to the relationship. God will remain faithful to the relationship whatever we do. However, such a covenant relationship cannot be one-sided. If there is no faithfulness to the relationship from our side the relationship will die, even though God never ceases to be faithful to the relationship.

Our response of grateful loyalty to God is necessary to the continuation of the relationship, without ever ‘earning’ the continuation of the relationship. If we do not respond in faith to God’s unswerving faithfulness the covenant relationship will die. Covenant relationships depend on reciprocity for their continued existence. If I have a friend who refuses to answer my phone calls, ignores me when I try to speak to him and deletes the e-mails that I send to him without reading them, there is no friendship anymore, no matter how persistent I am in seeking to win his friendship back. In the same manner, the continued faithfulness of the wife in a marriage cannot save the marriage if the husband has set his mind on being unfaithful to her. Covenant relationships only work when all parties are giving themselves to each other to some degree or other.

Our relationship with God is grounded on God’s free gift of Himself to humanity in Christ and in Christ’s gift of humanity to the Father in Himself. It is only within the reciprocity established in Christ that we are brought into full covenant relationship with God. The continuation of our covenant relationship with God depends on our entering into this economy of continual gift.

Our response of self-giving and grateful loyalty to God’s free grace never sees itself as the fulfilment of a condition. Everything that we give to God is something that we have already received from His hand. Grateful loyalty is not essential to our relationship with God because it is some term of a contract. Grateful loyalty, expressed in good works, is essential because covenant relationships, as opposed to contractual ones, consist of such things. Grace is a gift and can only be properly received with gratitude and faith.

So what light does all of this shed upon assurance and the relationship that it bears to Baptism and obedience? Let us return to the analogy of marriage. Baptism is like the wedding, in which God pledges His unfailing commitment to us. To the person who knows their spouse to be faithful, reflecting on the marriage vows that their spouse made can be a source of considerable comfort. However, the faithful spouse’s commitment to their marriage vows cannot secure the strength of the relationship single-handedly. If you are persistently unfaithful and resist and reject the love of your spouse, your spouse’s faithfulness won’t be able to save your marriage.

Baptism is much the same. To the Christian who walks by faith, Baptism is a powerful source of assurance. However, to the faithless Christian it cannot operate in such a manner. The certainty of God’s Word in Baptism is not made contingent upon our faithfulness. God’s adoption of me in Baptism is an objective fact, but this objective fact will not save me if I persist in rejecting and resisting God.

How do we know that we are in right relationship with God? Not by reflecting on our own works, but by walking by a living and working faith that does not take its eyes off Christ. As we walk in such a manner the commitment that God made to us in Baptism becomes a source of increasing assurance and comfort. This is the point that John is making in his first epistle. The assurance of God’s favour given to us in Baptism does not need to be supplemented by any assurance to be found in our own works.

N.T. Wright puts it well when he compares faith to a window. The purpose of a window is to let light in and to let the inhabitants of a house see out. Faithfulness keeps the windows of the heart clean, so that we can see Christ clearly. Unfaithfulness leads to the windows becoming dirty and our vision of Christ being obscured. When our faith is weakened there is always the temptation to look at the window, rather than through it. We know that we know Christ when the windows of our hearts are clean. However, we do not need to know that the windows of our hearts are clean to know that we know Christ. The point is to look through and beyond the window, rather than at it. As soon as we focus on the window we start to see our own horrifying reflection on the glass and far from being transformed into the image of that which we once saw through the window, our countenance becomes further deformed and the window becomes opaque and our vision of Christ fragmentary and blurred.

Terrible use of the analogy, but I hope that it serves to make my point.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Christian Experience, Controversies, NT Theology, The Blogosphere, The Sacraments, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ruminations on Two Posts from Peter Leithart

  1. I enjoyed that post, thanks very much. I have often thought that one of the reasons that Reformed theology can have such a weakened view of the Spirit is because it sees union with Christ being accomplished through the decision of faith rather than pneumatologically, which I believe is closer to Paul.

  2. Pingback: wyclif.net // How Darkness Yields to Dawn

  3. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2006-2007 | Alastair's Adversaria

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