Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Present Recipients of Justification through the Faith of Christ: Part 4 (the rest of the “circumcision letters”; 1 & 2 Peter, Jude; Hebrews; 1 John)

The rest of the “circumcision letters” considered

In the last section we saw that Christ’s teaching concerning the nature of the righteousness required for salvation – which is a righteousness that is relative rather than absolute (depending on both faith and righteous conduct) - was the view affirmed in the Hebrew Scriptures. We’ve also seen that the same doctrine is implicit in what Christ declared to the seven ecclesias referred to in the book of Revelation, and that the salvation of these Israelites is based on both faith and works, rather than “faith only.” This tells us that the Pauline teaching concerning justification (as explicitly affirmed by Paul in his letters to the Romans and Galatians) cannot be understood as being applicable to them. Instead, the conditions according to which those living during Christ’s earthly ministry could be saved are the same conditions according to which the Israelites living at the time of these seven ecclesias can be saved. The righteousness by which they will be worthy of life in the eons to come will be based on both their faith and their works.

But what about those believing Israelites addressed in the other “circumcision letters?” What were the stated or implied conditions by which the Jewish recipients of these letters could be righteous and thus worthy of eonian life? Was the righteousness necessary for their being saved a relative righteousness, and their salvation thus based on faith in conjunction with righteous conduct? Or is there evidence that their eonian salvation was based on the absolute “righteousness of God” that is through Christ’s faith, when he died for our sins?

It must be emphasized that the only epistles in the Greek scriptures in which the righteousness of God that is through Christ’s faith (and which is received by us by faith, apart from works) is even explicitly referred to and affirmed are letters that were written by Paul to those in the body of Christ. The rest of the letters making up the Greek scriptures make absolutely no mention of this. It is necessary to emphasize this point in response to an objection raised by Frank in our discussion. According to Frank, since Paul stressed the importance of good works and righteous conduct in his letters, an emphasis on this in other letters (such as 1 John or Hebrews, for example) cannot be seen as implying that those addressed in these other letters weren’t justified by faith apart from works.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that, despite Paul’s emphasis on good works and appropriate conduct for the saints, he was equally clear with regards to the fact that such righteous works were not the basis on which those to whom he wrote had been saved, or by which they were qualified for eonian life (Titus 3:4-7). When we take into account everything Paul wrote to those in the body of Christ, we find that the righteousness that was connected with righteous, God-honoring conduct by the saints was not the same righteousness of God that is through Christ’s faith, and which the believer receives by his or her faith in Paul’s evangel. But we find no such distinction made anywhere else in any of the other writings comprising the Greek scriptures. Instead, the only sort of justification or righteousness referred to in these other letters is one that is based on the faith and righteous conduct of those to whom the letters were addressed.

The letters of Peter and Jude

Frank does not actually appeal to anything written by Peter or Jude in support of his view, so we won’t be spending much time examining the content of their letters. What really needs to be emphasized concerning these letters is the reason that they can’t be appealed to in support of Frank’s view: like all of the “circumcision letters,” there is nothing said in them about justification by faith apart from works, or about a “righteousness of God through Jesus Christ’s faith.”

While it’s clear from these letters (especially Peter’s) that faith was understood as essential to the salvation of those addressed, this is (as we’ve seen) perfectly consistent with what James affirmed in his letter, as well as with what Christ taught during his earthly ministry. Faith has always been necessary for the salvation of those under the law and in covenant with God; apart from it, there was no pleasing God. Peter and Jude are conspicuously silent, however, concerning any sort of righteousness or “just” status that a person could have other than the sort of righteousness referred to throughout the Hebrew scriptures (1 Peter 3:12; 4:18; 2 Pet. 2:5, 7-8).

Some other striking differences between what Paul wrote to those in the body of Christ and what Peter and Jude wrote are as follows:

1. According to Peter, water baptism was a matter of salvation (1 Pet. 3:20-21; cf. Mark 16:16). What Peter wrote concerning the saving nature of baptism in his letter is perfectly consistent with what he declared to Israelites in Acts 2:38-40, when he made known to them the evangel of the circumcision. In these verses, it is clear that Peter understood water baptism to be essential to (although certainly not sufficient for) being pardoned of one’s sins. In contrast with what Peter declared and wrote, Paul learned early in his ministry as the apostle of the nations that water baptism was not necessary for salvation, and that Christ had not commissioned him “to be baptizing but to be bringing the evangel” (1 Cor. 1:17). With regards to Paul’s ministry and administration, the only baptism that mattered for those to whom he wrote was the baptism “in one spirit,” by which they had become members of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-13; cf. Gal. 3:27-28; Rom. 6:3-6ff.; Eph. 4:1-5; Col. 2:12).

2. Even when Christ’s suffering and death is in view in Peter’s first letter, the emphasis - without exception - is on the example that Christ set for those to whom Peter wrote, and the positive change it had (and should continue to have) on their conduct (1 Pet. 1:14-18; 2:20-25; 3:13-18). There is no indication anywhere in the letters of Peter or Jude that Christ’s death had the same significance for them or the believing Israelites to whom they wrote as it had for Paul and those in the body of Christ.

3. The eonian salvation of those to whom Peter wrote was (from their perspective at least) conditional, for they had to “endeavor through ideal acts to confirm [their] calling and choice” (2 Pet. 1:10). Only in doing so would they “under no circumstances be tripping at any time,” and would, consequently, be “richly supplied” an “entrance into the eonian kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (v. 11). In other words, the “calling and choice” of those to whom Peter wrote was something of which they could have continual assurance only by their faithfulness in doing good works, or “ideal acts.” But for those who have been called by God through the evangel Paul heralded among the nations (and have thus become members of the body of Christ), our future glorification can be anticipated with just as much certainty as the occurrence of the snatching away itself (Rom 8:29-30).

4. Peter also described the believers to whom he wrote as those who had come to “the recognition of our Lord, Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:8), and who were consequently “fleeing from the corruption which is in the world by lust” (2 Pet. 1:4). But later in this same letter, Peter wrote that for those who, after having fled “from the defilements of the world by the recognition of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” became yet again “involved” in these “defilements,” the following would then be true of them: “their last state has become worse than the first” (2 Pet. 2:20). Peter went on to warn, “For it were better for them not to have recognized the way of righteousness, than, recognizing it, to go back to what was behind, from the holy precept given to them” (v. 21). Again, Peter is referring to those who, in their “first state,” could be characterized as believers, for they had come to “a recognition of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (which was true of all who believed the “evangel of the Circumcision” heralded by Peter). But for those who have been justified through the faith of Christ and received the righteousness of God, it could never be the case that our “last state” could be worse than the state we were in before we were justified.

5. Those to whom Jude wrote were exhorted to “keep [themselves] in the love of God, anticipating the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ for life eonian” (v. 21). Here, the receiving of eonian life is not only understood as involving the (future) mercy of Christ at his coming, but it’s implied that this mercy was for those who kept themselves in the love of God. In other words, remaining in “the love of God” was something that depended on the present and future conduct of those to whom Jude wrote. In contrast with this, we find in Romans 8:31-39 that, for we who have been justified by God on the basis of Christ’s faith, nothing can condemn us or “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”

The letter to the Hebrews

The letter to the Hebrews came up frequently in my discussion with Frank, so among the “circumcision letters,” it will receive the most attention in this article. Frank claimed that, for both the members of the body of Christ to whom Paul wrote and the believing Hebrews to whom the author of this letter wrote, the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works was “milk doctrine” – i.e., it was a doctrine that was considered rudimentary or foundational, and in which one needed to grasp and be grounded before they could go on to spiritual maturity (rather than remaining a “minor” in Christ). However, the author of the letter to the Hebrews actually referred to doctrines that he considered “milk” (as opposed to “solid nourishment”) and “foundational,” and – significantly - the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works is not mentioned as one of them (Heb. 5:11-6:3). Instead, we find “repentance from dead works,” “faith on God,” the “teaching of baptizings,” the “imposition of hands,” the “resurrection of the dead,” and “judgment eonian.” It was these doctrines that were considered by the author “rudimentary elements of the oracles of God” and the “rudiments of Christ” in which those to whom he wrote had to be grounded before they could “be brought to maturity.”

Immediately following this passage concerning “milk doctrine,” the author went on to write the following to the Hebrew recipients of his letter:

“For it is impossible for those once enlightened, besides tasting the celestial gratuity and becoming partakers of holy spirit, and tasting the ideal declaration of God, besides the powerful deeds of the impending eon, and falling aside, to be renewing them again to repentance while crucifying for themselves the Son of God again and holding Him up to infamy. For land which is drinking the shower coming often on it, and bringing forth herbage fit for those because of whom it is being farmed also, is partaking of blessing from God; yet, bringing forth thorns and star thistles, it is disqualified and near a curse, whose consummation is burning.

The author then “switches gears” from fearful warning to encouraging exhortation:

“Yet we are persuaded of better things concerning you, beloved, and those which have to do with salvation, even if we are speaking thus. For God is not unjust, to be forgetting [your faith? No, but rather] your work and the love which you display for His name when you serve the saints, and are serving. Now we are yearning for each one of you to be displaying the same diligence toward the assurance of the expectation until the consummation, that you may not be becoming dull. Now be imitators of those who through faith and patience are enjoying the allotment of the promises.”

Although the author follows his words of doom with words of hope, even his encouragement presupposed that the future salvation of those to whom he wrote - those who had been “enlightened” (cf. Heb. 10:32) - depended on their “work and the love which [they] display for His name when [they] serve the saints, and are serving” (which is precisely the kind of faith-perfecting works of love that James had in mind in chapter 2 of his letter). As if this doesn’t make it clear enough that their future salvation was based on works done in faith and not “faith only,” we find that their “assurance of the expectation” (i.e., enjoying the allotment of the promises) required “displaying the same diligence toward the assurance of the expectation until the consummation” (v. 11). And, from the context, it’s evident that this “diligence” involved doing the things which the author described in v. 10 (which, of course, involved works of love and not “faith only”).

In other words, those to whom the author wrote could have assurance that they would be saved at the consummation (i.e., at the return of Christ) if they faithfully continued doing what they had been doing – which meant being “imitators of those who through faith and patience are enjoying the allotment of the promises” (v. 12). Their enjoying the allotment of the promises was not by faith only. Rather, it was “through faith and patience.” But what was the author referring to by the word “patience” here (or, we might ask, “patience doing what?”)? Again, the context makes it clear what this “patience” referred to: “…displaying the same diligence toward the assurance of the expectation until the consummation.” If they were to be saved at the consummation, their faith required works just as their works required faith.

This is consistent with what the author had written just a chapter before (after noting that Christ “learned obedience from that which He suffered”): “And being perfected, [Christ] became the cause of eonian salvation to all who are obeying Him…” (Heb. 5:8-9). The eonian salvation that these believing Israelites hoped to enjoy at Christ’s return was one that required their obedience – which, of course, is consistent with what Christ taught during his earthly ministry, as well as with what he declared to the seven ecclesias of Revelation. For those to whom the author wrote, “holiness” was a status or condition that was not only required for their salvation (for we’re told that “no one shall be seeing the Lord” apart from it), but it was something that they had to “pursue” (Heb. 12:14) – the implication being that, if they weren’t pursuing holiness (through obedience), they wouldn’t “be seeing the Lord.”

Another glaring example of the difference between the nature and means of eonian salvation for the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews and those in the body of Christ can be found in Hebrews 10:24-31. There, the author wrote:

“And we may be considering one another to incite to love and ideal acts, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves, according as the custom of some is, but entreating, and so much rather as you are observing the day drawing near. For at our sinning voluntarily after obtaining the recognition of the truth, it is no longer leaving a sacrifice concerned with sins, but a certain fearful waiting for judging and fiery jealousy, about to be eating the hostile. Anyone repudiating Moses' law is dying without pity on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, are you supposing, will he be counted worthy who tramples on the Son of God, and deems the blood of the covenant by which he is hallowed contaminating, and outrages the spirit of grace? For we are acquainted with Him Who is saying, Mine is vengeance! I will repay! the Lord is saying, and again, "The Lord will be judging His people." Fearful is it to be falling into the hands of the living God!”

In this somewhat lengthy passage, the author is warning the believing Israelites to whom he wrote – those who’d obtained the “recognition of the truth” and been hallowed by the blood of Christ - of the possibility of suffering an even worse punishment than that which was inflicted upon those who repudiated Moses’ law (compare this with the author’s warning in Heb. 12:25). The author goes on to refer to this “much worse punishment” as “destruction,” and contrasts it with the salvation (the “procuring of the soul”) that the Hebrews hoped to receive at the coming/arriving of Christ (see Heb 10:35-39 and compare with 1 Pet. 1:3-9). Given that the salvation in view is that which will be received when Christ arrives and “is seen a second time” (Heb. 9:28), and the “punishment” and “vengeance” of which the author wrote is contrasted with this salvation, we can reasonably conclude that the author had in view the vengeance of God that will be poured out on unbelieving Jews and gentiles alike during the “day of the Lord.”

But regardless of when, exactly, the Israelites addressed in this letter believed this “much worse punishment” and “vengeance” would be suffered by those “falling into the hands of the living God,” it is simply not possible to reconcile these words of warning and exhortation with Paul’s words to the body of Christ in Romans 5:9 and 8:1, or with what he wrote in 1 Thess. 1:10 and 4:9-11. If these Israelites had been justified by faith apart from works (as is the case for all in the body of Christ), why were these believing Israelites being warned/exhorted to avoid doing that which would expose them to the vengeance and judgment of God that unbelievers will suffer before and during the time of Christ’s return, as if they could (by doing what the author exhorted them not to do) forfeit the eonian salvation they hoped to receive at the unveiling of Christ?

In an attempt to support his view that what the author of Hebrews wrote was consistent with everything Paul wrote concerning justification by faith apart from works (meaning that no works or obedience was required for the salvation of the Israelites to whom this letter was written), Frank wrote: “Hebrews chapter three and four uses a beautiful analogy of God resting from His works on the seventh day. This is to illustrate to the Hebrews that Christ brings them to the same rest. It does not however mean that they will not be displaying righteous acts.” Frank’s argument seems to be that the “rest” (or “stopping”) which the author had in view figuratively represents justification apart from works, or being justified by faith alone. However, the author does not once say that those to whom he wrote had been justified by faith apart from works, or mention anything at all about justification or righteousness apart from works.

Even in chapter 11 where faith is emphasized, the emphasis is not on “faith only” but on what certain notable people of faith had done “by faith.” Noah, for example, is said to have become “an enjoyer of the allotment of the righteousness which accords with faith” because of what he did by faith (Heb 11:7). Although Noah’s righteousness was “in accord with” faith, it wasn’t based on “faith only,” but on what he did by faith (i.e., construct an ark). This faith-based obedience is the source of the righteousness of those to whom the author of Hebrews wrote, and it is the same sort of righteousness of which James wrote to the twelve tribes. Everything the author of Hebrews wrote is perfectly consistent with what James taught in his letter, and which Christ taught during his earthly ministry.

A better (and, I think, more contextually informed) understanding is that the “rest” or “stopping” referred to by the author of Hebrews simply refers to the “allotment of salvation” and “eonian salvation” to which the author referred several times in the letter, and which those to whom he wrote hoped to enjoy at “the consummation” (Heb. 3:6, 12-15) – i.e., their entering into their “eonian enjoyment of the allotment” (Heb. 9:15) at Christ’s return. It is only THEN – i.e., when Christ “is seen a second time by those awaiting Him” (Heb. 9:28) that the exhortations and warnings with which this letter abounds will no longer be needed for Israelites, because their eonian salvation will be an experienced reality rather than an expectation that requires their obedience, diligence, patience, endurance (etc.) “unto the consummation.” No longer will such diligence and patience in avoiding and “contending against sin” (12:4) be necessary for salvation, since they will have been saved and will be enjoying their deserved “rest” or “stopping.”

Until this time comes, the Jewish brethren to whom the author wrote had reason to “Beware, lest…anyone of you may be hardened by the seduction of sin. For we have become partners of Christ, that is, if we should be retaining the beginning of the assumption confirmed unto the consummation…” (Heb. 3:12-15). Their “rest” – which is also referred to as “a sabbatism” that is “left for the people of God” (4:9) – was not a present, fulfilled reality for them, but rather the future realization of their expectation.

Another objection raised by Frank in support of his position is that the Israelites to whom the author of Hebrews wrote were no longer under the old covenant; hence, keeping (or attempting to keep) God’s law – even as an expression of their faith - could not have been a requirement for their eonian salvation. With regards to the old covenant, Frank states that “[the author of Hebrews] emphatically declares” that the old covenant had been “done away.” Contrary to Frank’s assertion, nowhere does the author of Hebrews “emphatically declare the old covenant to be done away.” Of course, the author could have easily said this. But this he did not do. Rather than saying that the old covenant had been “done away,” he instead wrote that the old covenant was “GROWING old and decrepit” and was “NEAR its disappearance” (Heb. 8:13). Since this was true of the old covenant when the author wrote, it would not be true to say that it had already been “done away” by this time.

It’s true that the new covenant was “ratified” or “confirmed” by Christ through his death, but its fulfillment – when what God promised actually goes into effect and is “in force” for all with whom the promise was made - is still future. The future fulfillment of the new covenant is one of a number of things that Christ procured through his death, but which await future realization/fulfillment. The fulfillment of the new covenant will take place when Christ returns to rescue Israel, and brings an end to this present wicked eon (see Rom. 11:25-27).

The time between Christ’s death and his return to the earth is a “transitional” period for Israel, covenantally speaking. Again, even at the time the author of Hebrews wrote (which could’ve been close to forty years after the death of Christ), the old covenant wasn’t yet “done away with.” It was simply “growing old and decrepit” and was “near its disappearance.” It had not “disappeared” at that time, but it will disappear completely when Christ returns and “all Israel is saved.” Moreover, the “nearness” of the disappearance of the old covenant is consistent with the motif of “imminence” that runs throughout the Greek scriptures. James, for example, wrote that the “presence of the Lord is near” and “the Judge stands before the doors.” Peter wrote in his first letter, “Now the consummation of all is near.” Insofar as the nearness of Christ’s return was true then, the disappearance of the old covenant could be said to have been “near” as well, since it is at the consummation referred to by Peter (when the “Chief Shepherd is manifested”) that it will disappear and be replaced by the new covenant.

John’s first letter

In 1 John 1:6-9, we read:

“If we should be saying that we are having fellowship with Him and should be walking in darkness, we are lying and are not doing the truth. Yet if we should be walking in the light as He is in the light, we are having fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, is cleansing us from every sin. If we should be saying that we have no sin we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we should be avowing our sins, He is faithful and just that He may be pardoning us our sins and should be cleansing us from all injustice.”

Notice how, according to John, one’s being cleansed from sin by the blood of Jesus depended on one’s conduct – i.e., “walking in the light as he is in the light,” rather than “walking in darkness.” John and those to whom he wrote were being “cleansed from every sin” by Jesus’ blood if they were doing this. What did John mean by “walking in the light” rather than “in darkness?” In the next chapter it is clear that walking in the light involved “keeping his precepts,” “keeping his word” and thus “walking as he walks” (2:3-6). And to be doing this meant (or at least essentially included) “loving [one’s] brother,” rather than hating one’s brother (vv. 8-11), and “believing in the name of [God’s] Son, Jesus Christ” (3:23-24). Only in keeping these precepts would those to whom John wrote be “remaining in the light” and not “walking in darkness.” Moreover, John explains that one of the reasons for writing was so “that [those to whom he wrote] may not be sinning” (2:1); however, when they did sin, they had to “avow” their sins so that their sins could be pardoned and “cleansed from all injustice.”

John went on to say that it was those who were “doing the will of God” who would be “remaining for the eon” – and, in the immediate context, doing the will of God evidently meant “not loving the world” or “that which is in the world” (1 John 2:15-17). In the larger context of John’s letter, “doing the will of God” involved “keeping [God’s] precepts” and “doing what is pleasing in his sight” (1 John 3:22-24). Only those who remained in Christ would not be “put to shame by him in his presence,” and those who remained in him were those who were “doing righteousness” and were “begotten of him” (2:28-29).

Concerning what it meant to be “remaining in Christ,” John went on to say: “…everyone who is remaining in [Christ] is not sinning...let no one deceive you. He who is doing righteousness is just, according as he is just. Yet he who is doing sin is of the Adversary…everyone who is not doing righteousness is not of God, and who is not loving his brother” (1 John 3:6-7). Thus, one’s “remaining for the eon” – i.e., having eonian life – required not just believing in the name of Christ (which, being the evangel of the circumcision, was essential), but also keeping his precepts and loving one’s brother (rather than “the world” and “that which is in the world”).

The only “just” status or standing of which John wrote in his letter is that which depended on the precept-keeping conduct of those to whom he wrote. John did not seem to be aware of any other “righteousness” that the recipients of his letter could have except that which was based on “doing righteousness” (which, again, meant “keeping [Christ’s] precepts,” “keeping his word” and “walking as He walks”). For John, it was because those to whom he wrote were keeping Christ’s precept to “be loving the brethren” that they were aware of having “proceeded out of death into life” (3:11-13).

On the other hand, one who hated his brother was a “man-killer,” and consequently had no “life eonian remaining in him” (v. 15). For those to whom John wrote, keeping Christ’s precept by loving the brethren was just as essential to having life eonian as “believing in the name of the Son of God” (1 John 5:13). It was, in other words, just as essential for their salvation as it was when Christ first gave his disciples this precept, shortly before his death (John 15:12-14). It was by keeping Christ’s precepts that they remained in his love (John 15:9-10). 

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