July 30, 2008

Election in 1 Thessalonians

In the opening verses of 1 Thessalonians, Paul declares his knowledge of God's divine choosing of the Christians in Thessalonica, "For we know, brothers and sisters beloved of God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction" (4-5). Paul's statement of God's election of the Thessalonian Christians is clear. He does not say that he merely thinks or suspects that God has chosen the Thessalonians. No, Paul and co-authors declare their knowledge of God's choosing of the Thessalonians. They point to the power of God displayed in the preaching of the gospel which resulted in conviction of sin.

This bold statement of God's electing purposes is particularly interesting in light of what Paul says in chapter 3. Having heard that his Thessalonian converts were experiencing some sort of tribulation or persecution, Paul says that, "For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith; I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain" (5). Paul here expresses his fear that the Thessalonians had succumbed to temptation and forsaken the faith which would have made his evangelistic work among them empty. If they did not stay the course, his would would have been in vain. Paul conveys a deep sense of worry and concern over the state of Thessalonians' faith.

This is so striking because it doesn't seem to fit with what Paul says about the Thessalonians in 1:5. If Paul is so confident that God has chosen the Thessalonians, why is he so fearful that they may forsake the faith? These texts demonstrate that we cannot simply conclude that God's electing of the Thessalonians ensures their final perseverance. Whatever Paul means when he speaks of God's choosing (ekloge), he cannot possibly think of it as unconditional. If Paul really thought that the Thessalonians had been chosen unconditionally, then he would have no reason to be concerned about their faithlessness. Rather, we must conclude that Paul understood God's choosing of the Thessalonians to be conditional upon their continued perseverance in faith. In Paul's mind, one can be chosen by God and still potentially fall away.

July 18, 2008

Why is the Gospel Good News?

In a series of recent posts I have been defending the position that Paul's gospel is most basically understood as the good news that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified by the Romans, has been raised from the dead by Israel's God and exalted to a place of supremacy as Lord of heaven and earth. This argument is based primarily on two Pauline texts, Romans 1:3-4 and 2 Timothy 2:8-9, where Paul provides some of the specific content of his gospel. The argument is strengthened by the historical use of the Greek word euangellion (gospel) which was an announcement about the reign of a new Caesar, Caesar's birthday, or an important military victory.

The position that Paul's gospel is the news that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead has come under criticism as of late. John Piper has recently charged that, "The announcement that Jesus is the Messiah, the imperial Lord of the universe, is not good news, but is an absolutely terrifying message to a sinner who has spent all his life ignoring or blaspheming the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ and is therefore guilty of treason and liable to execution" (The Future of Justification, Crossway, 2007, p. 86). The aim of this post then is to answer this criticism by answering the question, "Why is the gospel of Jesus' Lordship and resurrection good news?"

1. The announcement of Jesus' Lordship is good news because it is the means of grace prior to conversion which brings conviction of sin and draws the guilty one to repentance and the obedience of faith. As in previous posts, Acts 2:36-37 is instructive. After vigorously proclaiming Jesus' resurrection, Peter brings his Pentecost sermon to a climax with the announcement that God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah. Luke then says of the hearers that they " were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other disciples, 'Brothers, what should we do?'" These men were guilty of handing Jesus over to be crucified by the Romans. Surely these guilty ones have blasphemed and rejected both the God of Israel and his Son. However, the announcement of Jesus' resurrection and Lordship is used by the Holy Spirit to bring conviction and enable repentance and faith. In this case, the announcement of Jesus as imperial Lord of the universe was the power of God for salvation.

2. To say that Paul's gospel is not the announcement of Jesus' Lordship is simply to ignore the first century meaning of the word euangellion. Sure, Paul can take a word and fill it with new content, and that may be what is happening when Paul adds the idea of resurrection. No one was saying that Caesar had been resurrected. Paul doesn't really seem to change the fundamental concept of euangellion though. Euangellion appears twice in the first three verses of Romans. If anyone would have understood the historical meaning of this word it would be the members of the church in ROME! Paul does not then go and change the meaning of euangellion to something other than a royal announcement. No. He says exactly what a first century Roman might expect him to say. He announces the new king saying that the gospel is about God's Son who is descended from Israel's very own King David. This claim gives Jesus a royal lineage far older than that to which any emperor could appeal. At this point Paul is right in line with the historical meaning of gospel. He then adds the news about Jesus' resurrection. This is not a departure from the basic idea of gospel as royal announcement because it means that Jesus is the Son of God (Rom 1:4). The addition of resurrection may be new content to gospel, but it does not change the basic usage of the word as the proclamation of a king.

3. The message of Jesus' Lordship and resurrection is good news because it means, at long last, that a fully righteous and just human being is Lord of the world and that death has been defeated.

4. The news about Jesus' resurrection and Lordship is good news simply because Paul says so. It is, after all, the good news about God's Son, descend from David (Lord/Messiah) and raised from the dead (Rom 1:3-4, cf. 10:9).

I am not denying that Paul can flesh this out differently on any given occasion. I am arguing that this basic message about Lordship and resurrection is the gospel. Paul certainly brought the doctrine of justification into his preaching on occasion as is the case in Acts 13:38-39. However, Paul has already announced that Jesus was raised from the dead (30) and was made Israel's Messiah (32-33). However, Paul did not mention justification at the Aeropaegus (Acts 17:22-31). And, as we have seen, Peter did not address justification in Acts 2. So, the basic gospel is the good news that Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead. This is good news because it is the means of grace. It is good news because gospel means royal announcement. It is good news because death has been defeated and the only righteous fully human being is Lord of the universe. And, last but certainly not least, it is good news because Paul said so.

July 10, 2008

Prevenient Grace in the Early Church?

Prevenient grace is that grace which God gives a person prior to their conversion. Prevenient simply means "preceding." Prevenient grace is a key distinctive of classical Wesleyan-Arminian theology. Opponents of this doctrine charge that it is unbiblical because the term or idea of prevenient grace does not appear in scripture. I grant that the term does not appear in scripture, but this doesn't mean that it is unbiblical. "Trinity" doesn't appear in scripture either, but it is a distinct and unique test of historic Christian orthodoxy. I do not grant that the concept or idea of prevenient grace is absent from scripture. It appears in John 6:44 where Jesus says, "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me." The concept of preceding grace appears also in Acts 2. Peter had just preached his Pentecost sermon when Luke tells us that, "when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, 'Brothers, what should we do?'" (37). To say that they "were cut to the heart" is to say they came under divine conviction for their sins against Jesus in handing him over to the Romans. This is clearly prior to their conversion because Peter answers their question saying, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the Holy Spirit" (2:38). They had not yet received the Holy Spirit so they had not yet been born again, but they had come under conviction and were being drawn to seek reconciliation with God. This is clearly grace which precedes conversion. Thus, Roger Olson can say that prevenient grace, "is the powerful but resistible drawing of God," which may not be a biblical term, "but it is a biblical concept assumed everywhere in scripture" (Arminian Theology, IVP, 2006, p. 159).

The concept of prevenient or preceding grace may also appear in some early non-canonical Christian literature. The Didache (or "Teaching") is a document from the first or second century which provides insight into a variety of early Christian ideas and practices. It isn't scripture, of course; however, it is quite telling as to the belief and praxis of the early church. In giving instruction regarding fairness towards household slaves, the author says, "for he comes not to call men with respect of persons, but those whom the Spirit has prepared" (5:10). We must be careful not to read too much into this brief statement. But it does seem to affirm a belief that God's Spirit goes to work to prepare people for conversion prior to their hearing the call of God. The objection might be raised that this "call" is something subsequent to conversion because the slaves are said to, "hope in the same God" (5:10). This objection is not necessarily the proper reading though. The statement regarding God's call is substantiating the earlier statement that God is over both master and slave (5:10). Thus, the exhortation to fairness may be grounded in the principle that God calls and saves both free and slave with no thought of their social status. If so, then the calling is subsequent to the preparing work of the Spirit. We may have here an early non-canonical witness to the concept of prevenient or preceding grace.