Jesus Versus Paul?: New Perspectives on the Gospel

29 April 2010

Christopher J Wiles

pastor | writer | speaker

It’s Jesus versus Paul.

Two recent books have promoted a “new” way of thinking about the gospel relative to the traditional doctrines of the evangelical church.

The authors of both books have reached their conclusions through personal study and what I can only assume to be sincere devotion. Both authors have also reached their conclusions by noticing the difference between the teachings of Jesus and the writings of Paul. Yet both authors have reached strikingly different conclusions about the nature of the gospel itself.

THE NAKED GOSPEL

Farley’s book, The Naked Gospel, is written in reaction to the legalistic hyperspirituality that dominates some segments of the evangelical church, and as I read his opening chapters I could not help by sympathize with someone who had been so burned by those who had allowed duty to supplant devotion. It was such an experience that led Farley to reexamine the content of his faith, a process that led him to “the naked gospel.”

The emphasis in Farley’s gospel is the New Covenant. The cross becomes the dividing line between the New and the Old. Which means that everything – yes, everything before the cross has no value for the believer. The law, says Farley, has “no place in the life of a believer” (p.233).

This also means that Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom (e.g,, the Sermon on the Mount) are intended only to expose sin and convict non-believers by showing an unattainable standard of righteousness. Jesus’ teachings therefore have no real value for believers, as a result of the “dividing line in human history” (i.e., the cross):

“Couldn’t we resolve all this by realizing the dividing line in human history? Peter, James, John, and Paul wrote epistles about life under the New Covenant. Years earlier, Jesus was teaching hopelessness under the Old. The audience wasn’t the same. The covenant wasn’t the same. And the teachings aren’t the same… Jesus harsh teachings aimed at the religious kill you every time.” (p. 86, 87)

It really is Jesus versus Paul (and James, Peter, John, Jude and whoever wrote the letter to the Hebrews).

Despite his protests to the contrary, Farley falls into the error of antinomianism (anti = “against” and nomos = “Law”). He affirms the use of the law in conviction of sin, but denies its use in the lives of believers.

This stems from a confusion of justification (the act of being declared righteous by God through Christ) and sanctification (the act of being made righteous through the Holy Spirit). Farley suggests that “The moment we enter into Christ at salvation, our old self is obliterated” (p. 104).

In Farley’s terms, this means a rejection of Luther’s view of “legal fiction:” that we are “simultaneously justified and yet sinners.” Farley says:

“God certainly doesn’t condone our wallowing in a poor self-image. The risen Christ doesn’t join himself to filthy worms. The Holy Spirit doesn’t dwell in dirty sinners. Christ only unites himself with those who are like him in spirit. The Holy Spirit doesn’t reside in someone who remains even 1 percent flawed by sin. But we’ve been perfectly cleansed. And we’ve been made perfectly righteous at our core through spiritual surgery” (p. 106).

But at the same time, Farley elsewhere acknowledges the presence of sin:

“There’s a godly sorrow or regret over sins that leads a person to desire change (2 Corinthians 7:10). This regret occurs because believers are designed for good works, not sins. When we sin, we’re not living out our destiny. When we sin, we won’t be content with our choice. We’re meant for something greater. We’re meant to display the life of Jesus Christ. Nothing less.”

Farley fails to reconcile these statements, though he does make the claim that the Holy Spirit does not convict believers of sin (p. 163). Good works? Unnecessary for the Christian life. The “good works” of James’ epistle are nothing more than “opening the door in your life” (p. 197-199).

My concern with all this is simple: in avoiding the dry moralism of religion, Farley has forced the pendulum to swing too far the other way into antinomianism. In writing to the Philippians, Paul takes a strong stance against religious moralism (Philippians 3:1-8), as well as against antinomianism, those who make themselves “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18-19).

The danger of Farley’s errors is that he substitutes for legalism a similarly unfulfilling message. He presents us grace without cost, and in so doing minimizes the fulfillment that may be found in the formation of Christian character.

Farley opens the book with a quote from another book called The Naked Gospel, a text that he reports was “burned by the church.” In so doing is he preemptively vilifies potential critics as legalists? I pray that such is not the case, and that he remains open to a fuller understanding of the gospel in the future.

WHO REALLY GOES TO HELL: THE GOSPEL YOU’VE NEVER HEARD

Like Farley, David I. Rudel begins his book, Who Really Goes to Hell? on an autobiographical note, explaining the circumstances that challenged him to more fully develop his commitment to his Christian faith. And, once again, I applaud this spirit.

Also like Farley, Rudel finds a contradiction in the writings of Paul and the words of Jesus. So, once again, it is Jesus versus Paul.

But unlike Farley, Rudel places the emphasis not on the writings of the New Testament, but on the words of Jesus (particularly the ethical teachings of the synoptic gospels). Rudel emphasizes the Jewish character of Jesus’ teachings and context. In so doing, you hear Wright’s “New Perspective on Paul” coming through at full volume.

In examining Christ’s teachings (and reading Paul in light of them), Rudel concludes that (1) “works of the law” refer to religious ceremony, therefore the gospel is not about righteousness but about community inclusion (which leads to a form of universalism). (2) Heaven and Hell do not exist. (3) The final resurrection is the future hope. Life is led in expectation of this.

Because of this, the Christian life is about defeating “injustice, oppression, poverty, and immorality” (91). Traditional views of righteousness through Christ is – according to Rudel – the equivalent of “God doing accounting tricks to let us into heaven” (45).

Other Biblical writers are dismissed entirely. John’s commentary in John 3:16-21 is dismissed (p. 27), showing Rudel’s considerable bias towards skeptical scholarship over the Biblical witness. Rather than seeking solutions to harmonize these seeming issues, Rudel seeks to read scripture through the lens of the New Perspective – a method I caution to be extremely unbalanced.

The New Perspective views “works of the law” as referring merely to ceremony, therefore meaning that “justification” is about being included in a covenant community. On the one hand, we may appreciate the social dimension of this approach, at least in contrast to the individualized gospel that many have grown up with. But in confronting the claims of the New Perspective, we must acknowledge several things:

  1. It is wrong to suggest that the early Jews were unconcerned with righteousness, as the Jewish texts even suggest: “The one who does righteousness stores up life for himself with the Lord” (Psalms of Solomon, c. 50 B.C.). “Miracles, however, will appear at their own time to those who are saved by their works” (2 Baruch, c. A.D. 100).
  2. Similarly, Jewish leaders were routinely criticized (by Jesus) for their commitment to righteousness and the Law. Paul addressed the Galatian problem by actively anathematizing the Judaizers. These approaches suggest an implicit condemnation of those who emphasize ceremony for distinctively moral purposes.
  3. How can ceremonial law condemn? Only moral law can bring actual moral condemnation. The New Perspective fails to address how ceremonial law is to be reconciled with the language of condemnation in Romans 1-3.

The issue of the afterlife is a complicated one, but again reflects Rudel’s deference to contemporary scholarship over Biblical literalism.

Like Farley, I pray that the content and tone of his work do not reflect a spirit unwilling to continue to engage and study the issues.

CONCLUSION

Jesus versus Paul. For Farley: Jesus’ teachings are dismissed. For Rudel, Jesus’ teachings are ultimate. These men can both be wrong, but they cannot both be right.

The problems generated by this approach to scripture is good evidence of the dangers of pitting one author against another, rather than finding solutions toward harmonizing the Biblical message.

I make no secret of my reformed leanings, a commitment I make based on the internal consistency of this worldview and its faithfulness to the entirety of the Biblical message.

There is simply no reason to pit Jesus and Paul against one another. The story of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14) defies the notion of covenant inclusion, but instead situates the gospel in the context of righteousness and mercy. Jesus and Paul must be therefore be said to complement, not conflict with one another, in presenting a God who in His great mercy, could love the unlovable.

I affirm Doug Moo, who suggested that if he could “tweet” the definition of justification, it would be this:

The Bible pictures all human beings as defendants in a courtroom: a courtroom in which God is the judge and our sins constitute the evidence against us. The judge weighs the evidence and finds every single one of us guilty of sin and announces that we, therefore, must be condemned. The marvelous news of justification is that God has himself provided for us the means of escaping that condemnation: by responding to his gracious initiative in faith, we become joined with Christ, who died for us and was raised for us. We become joined to Christ, who takes on himself the penalty for our sin and covers us with the ‘righteousness’ that we need to reverse the verdict of condemnation and receive the verdict of ‘justified’, ‘right’ with God. And because we have been joined to Christ, the holy one, and have in that union received the gift of God’s powerful holy Spirit, we, who have been justified, also find our lives transformed so that we love God and neighbor.

Farley and Rudel are both very intelligent and I cannot say more to affirm their search for truth in the midst of populist religion. But I am sorry to see that, in the absence of proper guidance, these writers have presented a gospel that is far less fulfilling than the gospel of Christ, and therefore have offered “no gospel at all” (Gal 1:7).

Both writers have provided online platforms for online discussion, which I again appreciate, though with the cautionary note that technological connectivity is not the same as academic accountability.

To that end I urge pastors and lay leaders to teach the hard issues – this will mean teaching some big words to your people. The benefits of a good, gospel-centered education far outweigh the difficulties, promoting spiritual health and discernment.

It is also worth mentioning that the New Perspective has now moved from the writings of Wright to a popular audience. This means that there will be an increased need for familiarity with this issue, given that the definition of justification is now on the debate table (incidentally, this is the focus of the next ETS conference).

FURTHER READING

The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. (John Piper) Piper’s book is free (just click the title for a .pdf), and currently is one of the best dialogue partners out there on the New Perspective. A lengthy read, but one that demands familiarity given the increasing interest in the New Perspective.

 

 

Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God. (Francis Chan) Chan’s book is simple, easy to read, and liberates the contemporary church from the clutches of both moralism and shallowness of faith. Chan’s writing is superb, and his style is such that it can be read by those at a variety of levels of maturity.

The Ragamuffin Gospel (Brennan Manning) One of my favorites. Manning seeks to help readers more fully appreciate the message of the gospel and the way it liberates us from lives of disappointment and disillusionment.

 

29 April 2010

Christopher J Wiles

pastor | writer | speaker

Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.

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