Posts Tagged ‘sanctification’

Imputation is not “as if” we’re righteous—we really are!

March 21, 2018

The doctrine of imputation, a preoccupation of Lutheran and Reformed Protestants, receives little attention among Wesley scholars. My Wesleyan theology prof in seminary never used the word or discussed the concept, if memory serves. As best I can tell, Wesley didn’t like the word, in part because it wasn’t found in the Bible. (Of course, this objection reminds me of a Jehovah’s Witness I met last week who, with rhetorical flourish, asked me to find the word Trinity in “my” Bible.)

The question is not whether the word is in scripture: Is the concept there?

Indeed, it is—in Romans 4:3-8, perhaps most prominently. The Greek word logizomai, rendered “reckoned,” “counted as,” or “credited” in English (as in, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”) may as easily be rendered “imputed.” Just as our sins were imputed to Christ on the cross—such that he really did pay the penalty for our sins even though he, in himself, was without sin—so Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us when we believe in Christ, even though we, in ourselves, are not righteous.

From the book’s inside dust jacket

In her magisterial recent book on the Atonement, Fleming Rutledge, a retired Episcopal minister, agrees. In a footnote, she writes the following:

For Protestants of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, the translation “it was imputed to him” has tremendous resonance, with its implication that the righteousness “worded” [the literal translation of logizomai] to us is always an “alien righteousness” (Martin Luther’s term) that never becomes our own possession but is always received gratefully from God as a gift. “Imputed righteousness” and “alien righteousness” are still concepts of tremendous importance because they protect the central theme of Paul in the Corinthian letters, panta ek tou theou (“all things [are] from God” – II Cor. 5:18), and they guard against works-righteousness—provided that the phrases are understood to refer to something that is truly happening, not just theoretically “counted as.” The righteousness of God is a gift that is received anew daily from the Giver, but it really is a gift, whereby the receiver participates in righteousness through Christ.[1]

Imputation is not, therefore, as some detractors say, a “legal fiction”—something only technically true because God has erased a few marks in his heavenly ledger. No: this righteousness is really ours through faith.

In other words, imputation is not “as if” we’re righteous: through our faith in Christ’s atoning work on the cross, we really are righteous. Do you see the difference? If anything, when we Christians sin, we do so as if we are still sinners.

Years ago I had a parishioner whose knowledge of the Bible—chapter and verse—put mine to shame. Once, in conversation, I referred to myself in passing as “a sinner.” She corrected me: “You sin, but you’re not a sinner. The old man was crucified with Christ,” she said, referring to Romans 6:6. And I remember thinking, “She’s nuts!”

But not so fast!

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. – Romans 6:11

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. – Galatians 2:20

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. – Galatians 5:24

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. – Galatians 6:14

[P]ut off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires… – Ephesians 4:22

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices… – Colossians 3:9

(Notice Paul’s insistence that the “crucifixion” of our old self happened in the past.)

But even as I reflect on these verses, the inner legalist is protesting: “But you are a sinner, Brent! Isn’t that the most obvious fact in the world?”

But think of the prodigal son: He could hardly get out the first words of his faltering apology before the father was ordering his servants to bring the “best robe” and put it on him, along with his signet ring and shoes (Luke 15:21-22).

That’s imputation—or call it whatever you want. We have a new identity! “Sinner” is no longer part of it!

“But you sin!”

Yes, I do. But consider the prodigal: he wasn’t an appreciably different person after his father put the best robe on him than he was before. The difference (aside from the son’s gratitude, I imagine) was his father’s gift. To say the least, he is no longer “prodigal,” even though he’s the same person (for now) on the inside.

I say “for now” because of course I’m not denying the power of sanctification: God can and will change us from within. But this change is not the basis on which we’re made acceptable by God. That change has already happened: we are already righteous because of Christ’s imputed righteousness.

Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians. The Corinthians sinned in spectacular ways, as Paul points out over the course of the letter. Yet at the beginning of the letter, in verse 2, he writes the following: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus…” We are being sanctified, yet in a sense we are already sanctified.

I apologize for writing about something that I should have learned years ago. In my small defense, however, we Methodists tend to speak as if the imperative in sanctification is, “Work harder” and “Do better.”

But that’s exactly wrong. The imperative in sanctification, as Rutledge says, is, “Become the person you already are.”

Become the person you already are.

These are words I can live off of—without guilt or shame.

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 333.

Devotional Podcast #11: “If Grace Is Cheap, It’s Too Expensive”

February 3, 2018

How can we be confident that all of our sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven? For starters, by not being confused about justification and sanctification. That’s what this special “flu-length” episode is all about. Enjoy!

Devotional Text: Genesis 18:22-33

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Saturday, February 3, and this is Devotional Podcast number 11. It’s a very special flu edition of the podcast, which means it’s an extra long version. In fact, you might even say it’s a sermon-sized podcast. Lucky you! Yes, I intended to record this for Friday, per my usual schedule—but I have been wiped out with the flu since Thursday. Anyway, while my temperature is down and the headache has subsided and ibuprofen works its wonders, here we go…

You’re listening to Keith Green and a song called “Make My Life a Prayer to You,” written by his wife and frequent collaborator, Melody. This comes from Green’s 1978 album, No Compromise, which could easily be a motto for his entire ministry. He is famous for not compromising—even going so far as to give his records away for free to anyone who couldn’t afford them.

I like the line in the song, “I guess I’ll have to trust and just believe what you say.” So honest! Isn’t that the hard part of being a Christian—that it actually takes faith to believe what Jesus said. If you’re a Christian, you sometimes say, “I guess I’ll have to!”

After today’s podcast, I hope you’ll trust and believe what Jesus says about forgiveness and grace.

Years ago, I was reading theologian Phillip Cary’s excellent commentary on Jonah. In the book’s introduction, he wrote something that literally changed the way I read the Old Testament—which is to say, it changed my life. He wrote:

First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.[1]

Did you hear that? Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.

This was exactly opposite what I’d learned in the liberal mainline Protestant seminary I attended. I’ve blogged about this before. It’s not that I didn’t learn a lot of useful things in seminary—I did! But I was spiritually unprepared for it. I was unprepared for the spiritual warfare—by which I mean attacks by a literal Satan—that inevitably accompany one’s decision to uproot one’s life and family, to leave a relatively prosperous career, to go to an expensive school, and to devote oneself to serving the Lord as a pastor. I was a sitting duck for the devil! And it didn’t help that few if any of my professors in seminary even believed in the devil!

Regardless, it was all for the good. I was tested. I failed miserably. But emerged on the other side a much better person for it. Thank God!

Anyway, we were taught in seminary that the Old Testament—which of course shouldn’t even be called the Old Testament, because that sounds pejorative, but rather, it should be called the “Hebrew Bible”… We should call it the “Hebrew Bible” because, by doing so, we recognize that this is a book that doesn’t even belong to us Christians. At best, when we read the Hebrew Bible, we are eavesdropping on someone else’s scripture. We certainly shouldn’t read Jesus into the Old Testament. He doesn’t belong there! It’s disrespectful to our Jewish friends. Or so the propaganda said…

I hope that sounds as ridiculous to you as it does to me now.

Of course Cary is right: the whole Bible, including every book of the Old Testament, is about Jesus… Jesus and the New Testament authors certainly thought so. I shouldn’t have needed someone like Cary to tell me this, but there you are…

My point is, I can now find Jesus on nearly every page of the Old Testament! Read the rest of this entry »

What are the “gate” and the “road” in Matthew 7:13-14?

March 8, 2017


I like Frederick Dale Bruner’s words about the meaning of the narrow gate and hard road in Matthew 7:13-14. The “gate” is, first and foremost, conversion. The “road” is sanctification. But he points out that Jesus uses the present-tense verb in verse 14: “and how few are finding this way.” This emphasizes what he calls the “daily decisions to find this gate and walk this way.”[1]

He continues:

In summary, the two great facts about Jesus are what we may call his “Gate” and his “Road”: (1) the theological Gate of his gracious substitutionary death and resurrection and (2) the ethical Road of his just as gracious commands to follow him in rugged daily discipleship. Paul majors in the former without neglecting the latter; Matthew majors in the latter without neglecting the former. These two great facts about Jesus have been faithfully preserved in the great liturgies of the church, for example, in the Book of Common Prayer (where I will highlight the saving “two facts”): “Almighty God, who has given your only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin and all an example of his godly life: Give me grace that I may always [!] most thankfully receive his inestimable benefit [at the Gate] and also daily [!] endeavor myself to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life [on the Road]; through [which in the liturgy means, correctly, “by the power of”] the same your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.[2]

My own preaching over the past several years emphasizes “the Gate” because, first, I always want unsaved people to become saved people. The stakes are heaven or hell, eternal life or eternal damnation; they literally couldn’t be higher. Every time I preach, there are people who hear me who haven’t been converted and need to be.

Second, nothing inspires us on our journey of sanctification like being reminded, often, of what God has done for us, once and for all, through the cross of his Son Jesus. For this reason, I like the way the late Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde put it: “Sanctification is learning to live with our justification.”

A future post will talk about how the doctrine of assurance fits in with all of this.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 351.

2. Ibid.

John Piper: What are the commands of Jesus?

October 15, 2016

johnpiperIn his sermon “This Man Went Down to His House Justified,” from August 6, 2006, John Piper spurns the emphasis that secular people often place on Jesus as a great moral teacher. Not because he isn’t that; rather, it’s because apart from the salvation that Christ came into the world to offer us, his moral genius is beside the point. The moral commands of Jesus, Piper implies, are not useful guidelines for people in general; they are instead

descriptions of the way new human beings behave who have been born again; who have therefore been enabled supernaturally to see the glory of Jesus; who have recognized the incredible outrage of their sin; who have ceased to trust in anything about themselves; and who have cast themselves entirely on Jesus for mercy, for righteousness, and for forgiveness.

I like that! While Piper doesn’t let us disciples off the hook for living up to Jesus’ many commands, he rightly recognizes that apart from God’s saving grace, made possible by Christ’s atoning death, we are helpless to carry them out. God must first perform a supernatural action, which he does through justification and new birth.

Moreover, he emphasizes that our obedience isn’t something we perform in order to be saved; rather, we obey in response to the salvation that he has already given us.

I would only add one thing: even after we have been born again, we will still fail (unless or until we are perfected in love, this Methodist pastor hastens to add) to cast ourselves “entirely” (superlatives make me nervous) on Jesus for mercy, righteousness, and forgiveness. As Paul writes in Romans 7, “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.”

But Piper’s right: Inasmuch as we do cast ourselves on Jesus, our obedience, along with many good works, will result.

“When will I ever learn?” On over-spiritualizing our spiritual lives

September 9, 2015

Dwight rescues Jim from temptation.

Dwight ends up rescuing Jim from temptation.

One of my favorite episodes of my favorite television show, The Office, is called “After Hours,” from Season 8. In the episode, Jim and several employees from the Dunder-Mifflin Scranton office are in Tallahassee for a two-week business trip. One of these employees, Cathy, invites herself into Jim’s hotel room, telling him that her room’s thermostat is broken and can she hang out in his room while maintenance repairs it?

Reluctantly, Jim—made visibly uncomfortable at the prospect of being alone in a hotel room with a beautiful young woman—agrees. At first, he sits on the floor while Cathy lounges on the bed.

Throughout the episode, Jim tries to discern whether or not Cathy is coming on to him. When he decides that she is, he contrives a reason for Dwight to intrude on them, thereby rescuing him from temptation.

At one point, the lecherous Stanley, who is known to be cheating on his wife, enters Jim’s room, eyes Cathy on the bed, smiles knowingly, and says, “Careful, Jim. It gets easier and easier.”

Frightening words, and true: Any behavior, good or bad, becomes easier as it’s repeated, in part because of physical changes in our brain chemistry. New neural  pathways are carved out that facilitate the behavior, the way a riverbed facilitates the flow of water. Once these pathways are created, through habit, changing the flow becomes far more difficult. (I blogged about this a while back in relation to internet pornography.)

In After You Believe, N.T. Wright’s book on Christian sanctification—which is the formation of our character through our collaborative work with the Holy Spirit—Wright makes the same point:

Most people in today’s Western world, I suspect, think of their minds as more or less neutral machines that can be turned this way and that. When I drive down the road to London, and then when I drive up the road to Edinburgh, nothing changes in the structure  of the car. But supposing the car had a kind of internal memory, recording the journeys I’d made, so that when I set off in the general direction of London—a trip I make often—the car might click into “we’re going to London” mode and nudge me to take the London-bound road, even if in fact I had been intending this time to go to Birmingham? I would then have to make a more conscious choice to refuse the pathway the car had chosen and to compel it to do the things it hadn’t expected.

In the same way, supposing a decision to cheat on my tax return leaves an electronic pathway in the brain which makes it easier to cheat on other things—or people—as well? Or supposing the decision to restrain my irritation with a boring neighbor on the train, and to cultivate instead a calm patience, leaves a pathway which makes it easier to be patient when someone subsequently behaves in a  truly offensive manner?… [I]t seems as though the idea of developing “moral muscles” by analogy with people going to the gym to develop physical ones, may be closer than we imagined.[1]

In Wright’s book on the Psalms, which I read in preparation for my new sermon series, he refers back to this idea in After You Believe. In Psalm 23, for instance, when David speaks of God’s “restoring” his soul, we shouldn’t think of this restoration as merely a spiritual process; it’s also physical. Our soul, which exists independently of the body, is still shaped by the hard work of physical discipline.

Therefore, the more we read and meditate on the Psalms and the rest of scripture—the more we pray, the more we worship, the more we make time for devotional reading, etc., the easier it becomes to trust in the Lord and lean not on our own understanding; the easier it is to see that our cup overflows; the easier it is to find that, in God, we have everything we need.

Not surprisingly, the times in my life as a Christian when I’ve felt furthest from God are those times when I’ve most neglected the practices of the Christian life. I now see that I blamed God for this: I was waiting for him to make the first move—to strengthen my faith, to give me some new epiphany, to give me some new spiritual experience—after which I’d start “living it out” more faithfully. What a fool I was! I had it exactly backwards.

Wright continues:

If learning virtue is like learning a language it is also like acquiring a taste, or practicing a musical instrument. None of these “comes naturally” to begin with. When you work at them, though they begin to feel more and more “natural,” until that aspect of your “character” is formed so that, at last, you attain the hard-won freedom of fluency in the language, happy familiarity with the taste, competence on the on the instrument.[2]

The bottom line is this: God sanctifies us in part through physical changes in our body, which occur slowly and with practice, as we commit ourselves to the hard work of disciplined Christian living. The secret to “learning to live in God” is really no big secret: we learn it, in large part, on our knees.

1. N.T. Wright, After You Believe (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 39.

2. Ibid., 42.

More on today’s sermon

November 6, 2011

Here's a cool picture from last Sunday's Vinebranch service.

I posted this on Facebook this morning: “John Wesley, eat your heart out! I am preaching about as historically a Methodist sermon as I’ve ever preached this morning. Curious about what that means?”

What it meant was that my sermon on the Parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22:1-14 shared Wesley’s interpretation of the “wedding garment” in verses 11-12. The wedding garment represented not justifying faith, as many of Wesley’s critics maintained, but personal holiness—the only qualification for entry into God’s heavenly banquet. As Wesley wrote in ¶ 18 of Sermon 120, from 1790, one of the last sermons he wrote:

Such has been my judgment for these threescore years, without any material alteration. Only, about fifty years ago I had a clearer view than before of justification by faith: and in this, from that very hour, I never varied, no, not an hair’s breadth. Nevertheless, an ingenious man has publicly accused me of a thousand variations. I pray God, not to lay this to his charge! I am now on the borders of the grave; but, by the grace of God, I still witness the same confession. Indeed, some have supposed, that when I began to declare, “By grace ye are saved through faith,” I retracted what I had before maintained: “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” But it is an entire mistake: These scriptures well consist with each other; the meaning of the former being plainly this, — By faith we are saved from sin, and made holy. The imagination that faith supersedes holiness, is the marrow of Antinomianism.

Faith and holiness go hand in hand. Sanctification, the process by which we become holy (which means our ability and willingness to love with Christlike love), is the necessary part of salvation that follows justification and new birth. We are saved in the first place in order to become holy. As you can tell from the above paragraph, Wesley constantly debated people who overemphasized justifying faith at the expense of sanctification. Wesley would have none of it.

These ideas, while not explicitly stated in my sermon, were very close to the surface. Again, I do kind of think that Pope John would be proud. I don’t like Wesley’s emphasis on personal holiness, but I suspect he’s right!