The Christian Story – introductory

As part of the Apprentice program at my church, I was given the assignment of writing a gospel tract for us to use in our church. The intention is to have something on-hand, produced in-house, that can be useful both for non-believers who are totally unfamiliar with the gospel, and edifying for Christians who could benefit from a more thorough understanding of it.

In planning for it, we wanted to show that the facts of the Christian gospel are not simply a theological system – they’re instead history that has been given an interpretation; real events that happened in real time in a real place that have significance for us. This was the perspective we started from, and I’ve decided to post the different sections periodically.

Facing Judgment Resurrected

For about the last month I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the nature of justification by faith alone (JFA) for a paper that I’ll (God-willing) be finishing by the end of this semester. Most of it will be devoted to explaining what the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is and comparing it with historical definitions of JFA and how those definitions have been derived from the Bible.

Toward that end, the first book I read was John Piper’s The Future of Justification, which is a response to the NPP as expounded by N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham in the Church of England. Wright is a popular New Testament scholar and has made some significant contributions to the defense of historic orthodox Christian doctrine over the years, especially in response to the liberal Jesus Seminar. However, his work over the past several years has been to attempt in redefining JFA in a way incompatible with that which the church has long held. Hopefully (for my own sake as much as anyone else’s) I’ll be trying to offer some concise statements of what I’ve learned that Wright says and some responses to it.

But, in the mean time, I wanted to share something I’ve learned from some of the other reading I’ve been doing, namely from Justified in Christ, edited by Scott Oliphint of WTS. It’s a collection of essays partly in response to the NPP, and partially just to provide a biblical and historical defense of JFA. Of the near half of the book that I’ve read so far, two essays have been the most striking: Union With Christ and Justication (Lane Tipton) and Justification and Eschatology (Richard Gaffin). Originally I avoided Gaffin’s article because the concept of eschatology intimidates me, but eventually I realized the subject wasn’t a particular eschatological viewpoint, but instead how we will be justified in the last judgment. Part of the reason this is so important is because of the new definition given to JFA by the NPPers, which, among other things, has justification occurring finally at the great final judgment on the basis of the whole life lived. If I read that correctly, it sounds as if the outcome of that final judgment cannot be known until the end of one’s earthly life, which to me seems to empty the gospel of good news.

Much of this idea of the NPP is based on Romans 2:13, which states that it is not the hearers of the law, but the doer of it that will be justified. Both Piper and Gaffin give great explanations of what this means in the context of the historico-orthodox teaching, but Gaffin, after doing so, goes on to give several reasons why believers can face judgment with confidence. And one of these is the doctrine of the resurrection.

I’ve typically thought of facing the judgment as I myself currently am – a frail, sinful human who, though he has much to answer for, will be acquitted because of Jesus. This picture, though is only partially accurate. Jesus tells us in John 5:28-29 that “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” So the resurrection will have drastically different significance for these two groups. Part of the promise to those resurrected to life is that “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body,” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). So for all those who “belong to Christ” (15:23), the resurrection will find us already with new, spiritual, glorified bodies.

This means that already as resurrected children of God, we are considered in Christ. For us, Romans 8:29-30 will be in the past tense. I will be conformed to the image of the Son. We will be like him, because we will see him as he is (1 John 3:2). So when we are judged, we are judged as those in the image of Jesus, with his spotless record and as those loved of God like he is. As Gaffin puts it,

In other words, believers, in union with Christ, will appear at the final judgment as already resurrected bodily. That is, they will appear there in their “spiritual bodies”, that is, bodies that are enlivened and transformed by the Holy Spirit and so are as imperishable as they are glorified and powerful (1 Cor. 15:42-44). Christians will appear for final judgment as fully conformed, by bodily resurrection, to the image of their brother, the exalted Christ…

If believers appear at the judgment as already resurrected bodily, they will appear there as already openly justified…This means, further, we may say, that, for believers, the final judgment, as it is to be according to works, will have for them a reality that is reflective of and further attests their justification already openly manifested in their bodily resurrection…It would be perverse to an extreme, then, to read Paul’s teaching on the final judgment…as leaving Christians in this life, in the face of death, uncertain of the future. […] To the contrary, everything at stake here, including their assurance, depends [not on their good works, but] on Christ, specifically his finished righteousness imputed [or reckoned, credited] to them, in union with him, and received by faith alone. (“Justification and Eschatology”, in Justified in Christ, ed. Oliphint, 21. bold emphasis added)

So at my resurrection, I will not appear before God as I am now. In fact, through my then-present status as “belonging to Christ” by my resurrection in glorified body, and what that consequently implies through imputation, it will be, for all intents and purposes, Jesus whom God is judging, and not me.

Hypostasis made easy

One of the most perplexing doctrines that Christianity teaches is the way that Jesus can be both man and God. This often can result in imbalance (and consequently, heresy) in how we view the union between Jesus’ divinity and humanity. At the Desiring God Blog today, David Mathis explains this teaching, referred to by theologians as the hypostatic union, in a way much simpler than I’ve ever seen it. Here’s what he says:

“Hypostatic union” may sound fancy in English, but it’s a pretty simple term. Hypostatic means personal. The hypostatic union is the personal union of Jesus’ two natures. Jesus has two complete natures—one fully human and one fully divine. What the doctrine of the hypostatic union teaches is that these two natures are united in one person in the God-man. Jesus is not two persons. He is one person.

This may sound remote and abstract, but without it, Christianity does not exist. If Jesus is not fully God, then he cannot atone for our sins. If he is anything less than God, he would suffer for sin as anything less than God does: eternally. And because he would suffer eternally, he would never finish suffering for me, and I am not saved.

And if he is not fully man, he can never be the new head of the human race. If he isn’t sent in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he can never suffer the condemnation of sin in the flesh for me; he cannot be a faithful and merciful high priest who sympathizes with my weaknesses; he cannot destroy the one who has the power of death. I cannot receive the perfect record of Jesus as a law-keeper if he is not fully man. Unless he dies for me a fully human man, I am not saved.

That’s why the teaching of hypostasis is so important. And that’s why this simple definition is so helpful.