This post deals with the content of the sermon I heard at Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church; the sermon itself can be heard and downloaded via SermonAudio [link]; it runs about 37 minutes, including opening and closing prayer. This post is a straightforward summary; I may follow up with comments, analysis, etc. in a later post.
The sermon text is Romans 1:17 “for in it is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith, as it is written ‘the just shall live by faith’” [ESV].
Fry opens with prayer, a prayer that is partly to the Holy Spirit but mostly reminds us that the Scriptures are inspired and preserved, asks for protection against the Evil One, and a request for understanding and strength.
He follows with an appeal to our understanding of the ongoing struggle between terrorists and the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) and then-current resistance to TSA security measures and says the best of systems have their flaws, including the best security and judicial systems have their flaws. By contrast Jesus (in God’s courtroom) will give out “pure, absolute justice.” And punishment, both for the guilty and the innocent according to God’s law. The only innocent will be people who have kept God’s law perfectly. The multitudes of innocent people will have been declared righteous by God according to Jesus’s perfect obedience.
He then reads the text, starting at verse 8, apparently reading from the KJV or the NKJV.
The sermon outline has three points:
- Where can I find that which is needed that I might go through the day of judgment? Where can I find what is needed?
- What do I find? The righteousness of God.
- How does this become mine?
It has been revealed through the Scriptures; through the Gospel. The righteousness of God was revealed in the Old Testament. After all, Paul is steering toward a quote from Habakkuk, and has already spoken about how Abraham and David were justified by faith, prophetic faith in something symbolic of Jesus’s death. Fry references Hebrews 11 as being people who were saved by faith in the same way, not saved by sacrifices or other religious observances, but by faith; also 1 Peter 1:18ff. Concludes that men have always been saved by the righteousness of God. Also references Romans 3:25.
What do I find? The righteousness of God. Fry I think here makes a passing reference to the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) and what it means for this righteousness to be “of God,” but doesn’t delve, just saying that this is sometimes a reference to God’s character, His attributes of righteousness and justice. Fry wanders a bit here, making several references to Romans 3 before saying that there’s a righteousness God has and one He provides to sinners, and it is this provision that is good news and saying that this righteousness is shown in Jesus, who kept the Law perfectly.
Fry injects a subtle bit of humor into the sermon by asking us to consider how Jesus could be sinless while living in a real home with sisters and worked a job and dealt with customers. Also, any of us would have been stretched beyond what we could bear by dealing with the scribes and Pharisees.
God has provided righteousness for his people; Fry asks who would rejoice in the provision of the righteousness of God, and mentions that lots of people are out having fun on Sunday and aren’t concerned. Fry says those who seek righteousness are the ones who come under the sound of the Gospel and the convicting work of the Holy Spirit. People who have made a real impact are the ones who have been the most convicted: Abraham, David, Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Bunyan, Edwards, and Spurgeon. Fry says anyone who aspires to be a pastor should have a sense of how sinful he personally is; “the same should be true of us.”
How does this become mine? How does the sinner receive it? Fry mentions but doesn’t delve into the question of what “from faith to faith” means, then passes over it to “justified by faith,” and then goes on to the quote from Habakkuk, a contemporary of Jeremiah (PRBC is studying Jeremiah on Sunday evenings). He says saving faith isn’t natural; he contrasts this with ordinary trust, like a person exercises when riding in a car or plane, says it is a gift of God. After claiming that people want credit in salvation Fry says we seldom mention the righteousness of God as part of evangelism.
The closing illustration is about putting on a coat in cold weather; Fry says we should thank God for protection against cooler weather and says we should remember that God has covered us with His righteousness (against the day of His wrath).
The closing prayer asked God to convict people and draw them to Himself.
Todd Wilken has had a series on the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) at Issues Etc. and kicked it off with a “Web extra” consisting of a fifty-minute discussion of justification with none other than N. T. Wright. Unfortunately it is not available via the Issues Etc. archive page, so I can’t give a direct link to the mp3, but I can offer a couple of links, one of which will eventually go stale.
- CastRoller [link], a podcast link repeater
- iTunes [link]; this is the one that will go stale shortly.
I really have no idea what to make of this. Wright and Wilken are totally collegial. I don’t know if this is a matter of professional courtesy or what, exactly.
Every so often I hear something and have an “ah ha!” moment, where something suddenly becomes as clear as I’ve ever hoped it would be. Other times I have an “oh no!” moment, where the clarity portends more trouble than I can handle. Wright’s opening remarks, where he says Calvin and Luther were reading Paul the Apostle in a distinctly medieval manner, is more an “oh no” than an “ah ha.” I tend to agree with him that the reformers read Scripture a particular way because they were men of their time, on the trailing edge of the Middle Ages and on the leading edge of the Early Modern Era.
I’m still not sure how Wright can be sure he’s sorted out the Reformers’ problems, though. I don’t know how he can claim to understand the Reformers correctly, much less understand Second Temple Judaism correctly, let alone correct one’s perceptions of the other. But that’s mostly my postmodern doubt talking, I suspect.
After listening to Wright, though, I think he’s saying that the reformers made a mistake by taking what Paul said to be speaking to their time in a way it didn’t, rather than speaking to contemporaneous issues they didn’t have the machinery to understand. However, my fundamentalist leaning makes me want the Gospel to be something that can be understood from a plain reading of Scripture in translation, and I suspect Wright’s line demands that believers be smart first and believers later.
Finally, I would encourage anyone interested in James White’s response to NPP at Calvary Santa Fe a few weeks ago to listen to this interview and ask themselves whether White gave Wright a fair reading, much less gave a well-rounded, well-founded response. On balance I think this interview is a gold mine, and well worth the fifty minutes it requires.
James White gave a review and response to E. P. Sanders and N. T. Wright’s New Perspective on Paul (NPP) at Calvary Santa Fe’s Discern 2010 conference [mp3|stream]. There are other NPP writers; White focused on these two.
This was an unexpected delight; not White’s response, necessarily, but the fact that NPP merited inclusion in the conference. Paul Scozzafava, the executive pastor at Calvary, handed out the topics, and White mentions that he was surprised that Scozzafava asked him to handle this topic. I was surprised, too: I have my doubts that there are many people at Calvary Santa Fe who know anyone who has even heard of NPP, much less understand it. I had personally heard very little about it, and unlike e.g. Open Theism or some of the Alternate Gospels stuff had never heard someone who isn’t a believer mention it.
The basic idea is this: the Reformers misunderstood Paul (that’s the Old Perspective) and based their theology on their misunderstanding to all of Protestantism; this misunderstanding can now be corrected because modern scholars understand Second Temple Judaism (Judaism in the time of Jesus, Paul, the Pharisees, etc.) better and differently. These corrections include the following points:
- The gracious nature of the Covenant; Judaism did not include a “works-righteousness”
- Paul believes that Judaism remains a fully valid religion
- Righteousness is not imputed to the believer by faith or by anything else; imputed righteousness is a “legal fiction”
- Paul was really a political writer and his political writings were misunderstood as being religious; the (Jewish) Exile is the key to understanding Paul
- Justification is eschatological
There is of course more to it than that, and I’m sure I’m not doing it justice.
Before I delve into White’s response, I’d like to note that much of his discussion dealt with the continuity between Sanders and Wright, and included excerpts from their books. I got the feeling that White had, due to the difficulty of the topic, and the fact that it lies outside the bulls-eye of his expertise, did the best he could but ran out of time. I’d recommend listening to the audio above; unfortunately he didn’t read all the excerpts he showed the audience, so some of his presentation gets lost in transcription.
White’s major points were these:
- Wright doesn’t understand what the Reformers said
- Wright’s ecumenical tendencies pollute his analysis
- Wright’s a liberal
- Wright sells out systematic theology and the theological harmony of Scripture
This first point seems to be an obligatory figure for anyone coming from a Reformed perspective responding to anyone who believes differently. It’s a claim that’s cheap to make if the speaker isn’t willing to then summarize what he thinks the Reformers really said. White doesn’t do the heavy lifting here, so there’s no point in dealing with this.
White responded to Wright’s ecumenicism with scorn, suggesting that because it’s impossible to reconcile Catholic and Protestant theology anyone who suggests something that might do just that is delusional or worse. This was not White’s finest moment; scorn is a poor stance for a gentleman and a scholar, especially given biblical suggestions that studying Scripture will keep one from “the seat of the scornful.”
The last two points are linked; he says Sanders and Wright don’t believe Paul wrote all the books attributed to him, that there’s no need to harmonize Paul’s writings amongst themselves, let alone with the whole of Scripture, and if they felt the need to do this they wouldn’t draw such silly conclusions about Paul. This struck me as a weak argument. The problem with White’s response generally was that it didn’t respond to the heart of the NPP argument, but rather at some of its implications. I’m accustomed to this sort of argumentation from fundamentalists, but I’m still surprised when I hear it from Reformed types.
Still, White’s last point is worth examining. There is a tendency in modern Christianity to behave as if the Bible itself were a systematic theology text, so that an attack on systematic theology is an attack on the very Word of God itself. It isn’t. Systematic theology is a tool people developed long after the time of the Apostles to help them understand Scripture, and it’s dangerous to think we know what Paul or any of the other authors thought apart from what they actually said.
I still have no idea whether Sanders and Wright and their ilk are right or wrong; I suspect they’re wrong, but White didn’t really give me good reasons to suspect that.