Review: The Breadth of Salvation

The Breadth of Salvation, Tom Greggs. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.

Summary: An exploration of the extravagant breadth of God’s saving work in all of its dimensions.

The work of the theologian has often been described as “thinking great thoughts of God.” This concise work does just that in regard to thinking about the breadth of God’s saving work, that we often limit with our models and distinctions and limited perspectives.

Greggs begins by considering our models and images of Christ’s saving work on the cross. He reminds us that it is Christ and not a particular model or interpretation who saves. He also refuses to either dispense with or reduce his understanding of the work of the cross to a particular model or image. He lists these all and describes them as a feast, as a buffet from which he hopes to enjoy all.

He then turns to the breadth of salvation in the society of God, the church. We often think of salvation in personal terms, and in vertical terms in relation to God. But God has saved a people, dealing not only with our alienation from God, but also from others. He considers the breadth of the Holy Spirit’s work in reconciling people to each other across all our differences.

He goes a step further to explore the grace of God to the world. He specifically excludes universalism, but also emphasizes the grace of God over human actions, seeing the latter as responses to grace which comes in a variety of ways, and often to those who seem the least deserving or likely. He reminds us of the breadth of human sinfulness–for all of us, and that assurance comes in the act of repentance, as we find rest in the pardon of God and not anything we have done.

This leads him to address further the specific matter of repentance. He observes that the priority is on repentance as turning to Christ rather than from sin. He observes the welcome of Jesus to tax collectors and sinners. I’m reminded of the story of Zacchaeus. Jesus decides he must eat with him leading Zacchaeus to extravagant reparations for all his tax gouging. In both this chapter and the last, he explores the question both in the gospels and our present day of who is on the inside, and who on the outside. He invites us all to humility and wonder at the breadth of our salvation.

It may be that some are laboring under uncertainty with regard to their own salvation, whether they have believed properly or done the right things. It may be that we have focused too much on being reconciled to God and failed to recognize how God has saved a people reconciled to each other. It may be that we have drawn lines between who is inside, who is outside. Greggs offers encouragement to all of the wonderful fullness of salvation transcending our fears and doubts, our narrow perspectives and the lines we draw between who is “in” and who is “out.”

Some might criticize this work for universalism. I see nothing of God forcing his grace on the unwilling. Rather, I understood this work as an invitation to leave the boundaries to God, to extend the extravagant breadth of Christ’s work without distinction, allowing Christ to call whom he wills to repentance and faith. I understand this as an invitation to think great thoughts of a great God’s great salvation.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Gospel Allegiance

gospel allegiance

Gospel AllegianceMatthew W. Bates. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019.

Summary: Contends that our traditional ideas of salvation by faith reflect an inadequate gospel that fails to call people to allegiance to King Jesus.

A couple years ago, Matthew Bates provoked a conversation about the nature of the gospel and faith with his book Salvation by Allegiance Alone (review). Bates’ contention is that our traditional statements about salvation by faith fails to capture a critically important element of the gospel, that the coming of Jesus was the coming of a king, whose purpose was to call people from the nations to a new allegiance to Christ as king.

This book expands on this argument, designed for a pastoral rather than theological audience. He engages other authors such as John MacArthur and John Piper who have written about these matters, noting both where they are in agreement and where their understanding of gospel, faith, and works may be deficient. He proposes that our typical rendering of gospel presentations like the “Roman road” are inadequate.

In addition to the pastoral focus, Bates proposes that this book focuses more on the gospel, defining it more precisely and thoroughly. He goes further in his discussion of faith, grace and works. He argues that this is not a different gospel but a re-framing of the gospel. Finally, this study primarily focuses on Paul.

A key to understanding Bates’ main idea is this phrase in Romans 16:26 which says, “…so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith.” Bates sees pistis, the word for “faith” as more than simply a mental or emotional disposition but rather “faith-obedience” or allegiance, and also emphasizes the idea that Christ’s purpose was to call the nations (“Gentiles”) to obedient allegiance to him.

Bates shows in this book how this is not salvation by works and yet how works are saving in the idea of allegiance to the King embodied in a life of obedience. He show how these are distinct in the writing of Paul from works of the law. His discussion of grace is perhaps the most challenging part of the book, both in terms of understanding and in terms of the ideas he presents. He argues that grace may be both unmerited and require bodily reciprocation, and by this, argues against “free grace” movements as cheap and false grace.

In his final chapter, he connects allegiance back to the Great Commission and Jesus call to make disciples. He argues:

   Any gospel that makes discipleship optional or additional is a false gospel. Gospel allegiance helps us to understand why faith in Jesus, discipleship, and obedience to his commands to hand in hand. In traditional articulations that place saving faith in opposition to works and the law, it is hard to find a positive place for Jesus’s commands. Not so if saving faith is allegiance to the king.

One of the distinctions that I am not at ease with is the distinction he makes between our being saved and our final salvation. He proposes that forgiveness, justification, reconciliation, redemption, adoption, and glory, are benefits of our final salvation. He speaks of all of these in the present as potential benefits. I would contend that they are already realized in our lives by grace in part, while our full realization of these will be in glory.

The value of Bates’ work is in his idea of allegiance and how it integrates faith, grace, and obedience, often set in conflict with each other. Furthermore, allegiance reminds us of the ultimate claim Jesus has on our lives above any other allegiances, involving our implicit and embodied obedience. It speaks as a challenge to allegiances to present-day Caesar’s and their empires, and all other false gods. It challenges versions of cheap grace that allow people to rationalize persisting in unrepented sin or refusing to advance in one’s discipleship and embodied holiness, claiming they have “believed” and are saved by grace. What most impressed me in this book is that it was clear that Bates’ concerns for gospel allegiance arise from a passion for the glory of Christ and a desire to see people truly converted, and set upon lives of discipleship. He models the kind of concern that every minister of the gospel ought have to be sure we have not run in vain or labored in vain (Philippians 2:16).

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Erasmus and Luther: The Battle Over Free Will

Erasmus and Luther: The Battle over Free Will Luther Erasmus edited by Clarence H. Miller, translated by Clarence H. Miller and Peter Macardle. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012.

Summary: This work is a compilation of the argument between Erasmus and Luther over the place of free will and grace in salvation, excluding most of the supporting exegesis but giving the gist of the argument.

How free is the human will? This is a theological and philosophical discussion that has been ongoing for at least two millenia. In our present context the question arises in light of research findings in evolutionary biology and neuroscience. More narrowly, this has been a point of contention within Christian theology from the disputes between Augustine and the Pelagians (fourth century) to more present-day discussions between Calvinists and Arminians. The argument between Luther and Erasmus at the beginning of the Reformation comes a bit over midway in this history and helps us understand some of the theological fault lines between the churches of the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church that are still under discussion to the present day.

The “battle” is really a disputation in a formal sense that was initiated somewhat reluctantly by Erasmus who was actually sympathetic to many of Luther’s contentions for reform but felt that Luther’s Augustinian embrace of sovereign grace alone with no place for human will in salvation to be extreme. His initial discourse with Luther was a somewhat moderated appeal that sought to thread a path between grace alone and some allowance for the place of human will assisted by grace. Luther’s reply, which we know as The Bondage of the Will argues forcefully, and at times acerbically, that when it comes to our salvation “free” will is a non-existent entity. Erasmus responded with a two part reply, known under the title of The Shield-Bearer Defending in which he more forcefully defends the place of human will in salvation.

The arguments are lengthy, detailed and at points repetitious and thus the group I read this work with were glad for a compilation rather than the full versions of both works. In the introductory material, the editor outlines the works, showing in bold print the sections included in the compilation. This edition is well-annotated, providing background material for allusions and helpful connections back to opposing arguments when these are referred to.

As I mentioned, this debate helped delineate some of the fault lines between Catholic and Reformation churches:

  • The question of the perspicacity of scripture–how easy or difficult is it for the individual reader to understand scripture?
  • How important is the tradition of how the church has read scripture versus the priority of the individual reader, particularly Luther?
  • Assumptions about “fallen” human nature. Are we utterly incapable of doing anything to contribute to our salvation or is there some “spark” of goodness which may be assisted by grace?
  • Related to this, is our salvation to be attributed exclusively to the sovereign grace of God or is there some place for the human will in seeking and believing?

We concluded that the arguments did not resolve these questions for us. In our reading group were those leaning toward Luther and those toward Erasmus, although most of us were troubled on the one hand by Luther’s exclusive emphasis on sovereign grace, and on the other by Erasmus’s language of “meriting” grace and his implication that justification is a process, confusing justification and sanctification. We wondered if the word “free” might be a sticking point and a discussion of human agency might have been more helpful. We recognized that we are dealing with things that are either paradoxical (apparently contradictory) or antinomies (two contrary things that are both true). We saw the challenge of attempting to reconcile as abstractions (“free will” vs. “grace”) realities lived out in the existential life of faith where we experience both our “chosenness” and our “choosing” under the grace of God.

Hence, if one is looking for a “pat” answer to this discussion, this work will either simply confirm your pre-understanding or not help. But if you wish to understand the discussion, listening to these two great figures will prove illuminating and perhaps help you think more deeply about some of the fundamental questions in Christian theology.

Review: Paul & Judaism Revisited: A Study of Divine and Human Agency in Salvation

Paul & JudaismThe New Perspective on Paul espoused by E.P. Sanders, J.D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright, each in somewhat distinctive ways, emphasizes the idea of continuity between the Apostle Paul and the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism writers. These theologians oppose the idea that the Old Testament focused on salvation by works of the law while the New Testament teaches salvation by God’s gracious initiative. They propose the idea of “covenantal nomism”, that is that God initiates a covenant relationship with his people and obedience to the law or commands of God follows as a response of covenantal faithfulness to God’s gracious work. The Apostle Paul’s main contention was that under the New Covenant, God has extended that covenant to all peoples and that covenant faithfulness continues to be the appropriate response of recipients of this grace. The “works of the law” to which Paul refers are the “identity markers” of circumcision, and ceremonial and food laws that excluded Gentiles.

My point in this review is not to discuss or debate the New Perspective (which I hope I’ve adequately summarized) but to review Preston Sprinkle’s recent work which takes a finer grained look at the contention of “continuity” between Paul and his various Jewish sources. First of all Sprinkle makes a distinction which he observes in Old Testament scripture between approaches to salvation that emphasize divine versus human agency. The latter he refers to as Deuteronomic and emphasizes that the blessings of the covenant depend on the human agency of keeping the law. The former he refers to asProphetic which emphasizes a perspective he finds in the prophetic literature that emphasizes human inability to keep the law or even come to repentance and the initiative of God to restore Israel apart from these things. The prophetic prospective also emphasizes divinely empowered obedience to the law that comes from heart renewal. Sprinkle would contend that this is in continuity with Paul.

He then explores the Qumran and other post-Old Testament writings, looking at the issues of the work of the Spirit, pessimism about human ability to repent and keep the law, the basis on which people are declared right with God, and the issue of judgment according to works. While he finds some instances of a more Prophetic perspective (particularly in some Qumran hymns, and Pseudo Philo and the Testament of Moses), he finds that most take a Deuteronomic or mixed approach that emphasizes human agency in repentance and observance of the law.

What Sprinkle helpfully does then, is show that the contention of continuity between Paul and Second Temple Jewish sources needs to be nuanced. His extensive survey of this literature, which he often parallels with Paul, makes the discontinuities apparent. What I wonder about however in his use of the distinction between Deuteronomic and Prophetic perspectives is, has he created or sanctioned a discontinuity within the Old Testament canon, and is this warranted? He simply seems to accept and argue this discontinuity, or at least distinction without consideration of the implications thereof.

The great value in this work is its exploration of the Qumran and other Jewish writings of the Second Temple Period in the light of the New Perspective discussion. What he makes clear is much of this literature reflects an “obedience to the law” rather than strictly “covenantal nomism” perspective. These sources do not speak with one voice, and not all are in harmony with Paul.