LAW AND THE GOSPEL

John Baptist’s parents: “Both were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” (Lk1:6)

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THE LAW OF GOD, THE MOST SALUTARY DOCTRINE OF LIFE, CANNOT ADVANCE MAN ON HIS WAY TO RIGHTEOUSNESS, BUT RATHER HINDERS HIM. [Thesis #1 of 28 Heidelberg]

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LUTHER’S SUPPORTING STATEMENT

 “This is made clear by the Apostle in his letter to the Romans (3:21): “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” St. Augustine interprets this in his book “The Spirit and the Letter” (De Spiritu et Littera): “Without the law, that is, without its support.” In Rom. 5:20 the Apostle states, “Law intervened, to increase the trespass”, and in Rom. 7:9 he adds, “But when the commandment came, sin revived.” For this reason he calls the law “a law of death” and “a law of sin” in Rom. 8:2. Indeed, in 2 Cor. 3:6 he says, “the written code kills”, which St. Augustine throughout his book “The Spirit and the Letter” understands as applying to every law, even the holiest law of God”.

MY OBSERVATIONS

It is difficult to conceive that anything Paul declares to be “holy, just and good” (Rom7:12) can  hinder a person’s endeavours to live a righteous life, let alone “kill”. When the bible describes someone as “righteous” it is not inferring they attain to God’s holiness but that they act uprightly in accordance with such divine light as they possess. For the majority that will be perceived through natural precepts –“Gentiles, not having the Law but doing by nature the things contained in the Law so becoming a law for themselves, their consciences bearing witness such that a particular action is either condemned or condoned” (Rom2:14-15). The religious may be further enlightened by what has been revealed in sacred text. A biblical example of the latter case was John the Baptist’s parents, Zacharias and Elizabeth. Luke reports that “Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” (Lk1:6). The Law (Torah) did not appear to be hindering this pair.

Role of conscience

As Paul indicated in Rom2, for most it is the faculty of conscience which witnesses to God’s law written in the heart, i.e. in the human spirit, provided to us at birth (Eccles12:7) the existence of which Augustine and Luther denied, but not so the earlier Fathers and not so Paul (Rom2:15; 1Thes5:23). It is after all the intellectual spiritual entity that departs the body when body and brain are dead and buried. But the point in this context is that those who take heed and act according to their conscience are clearly less likely to commit evil than those who do not. In terms of instruction (i.e. law): what shall set a child on the right track in life? One whose parents and teachers have taught him the difference between right and wrong (i.e. the law) or one who has not received such instruction? Law/instruction/guidance on how God wishes us to live our lives can only be a good influence – yet Luther is quoting Augustine in saying that ALL LAW is detrimental to progress in righteousness, i.e. it is worse than useless. Luther concedes elsewhere that civil law is necessary and beneficial for society, so why should that not apply at the moral level?. When Luther refers to Paul’s statement that “law increased the trespass”, he is right, but that was in the sense of magnifying an awareness of that trespass such that if it were carried out it would be more sinful than if the law had not been known.  Hence, “what shall we say then? Is the Law sin? IN NO WAY! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” (Rom7:7).

Opposing laws within man

But here is an example of where Luther has misunderstood his favourite apostle entirely: When Paul refers to “the law of sin and death” in Rom8:2, he is referring back to what he had said a few verses earlier (7:23) concerning another law (i.e. a governing principle) within his mortal body, or more precisely the brain by which it is governed:

For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my (spiritual) mind and of making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me . Who then shall deliver me from the body of this death? – I thank God it is through Jesus Christ” (Rom7:22-24).

 It is in this context that Paul writes “the law is spiritual, but I am carnal” (Rom7:14). And that spiritual law is witnessed by that which is also spiritual – the God-given conscience, functioning (for most but not all) within the God-given spirit. This is the very heart and purpose of gospel salvation: “that the law is fulfilled by us who do not live according to the flesh but according to the spirit. (Rom8:4). As can be verified at HERE my use of “spirit” (as a component of man -1Thes5:23) rather than “Spirit” (inferring Holy Spirit) is in accordance with the Textus Receptus  – i.e. whether the original Greek for spirit had been transcribed as “πνεῦμα” or “Πνεῦμα”.

Law and the gospel

Concerning Luther’s reference to “the written code kills” – what Paul was saying in 2Cor3:6 is that whilst slavishly observing the letter of the Law may kill, fulfilling its intention in spirit brings life. Again, many Protestant bibles (with the worthy exception of the KJV) disregard the Textus Receptus casing, translating πνεῦμα as Spirit rather than spirit. Paul is not referring to the Holy Spirit but in this case the spirit (i.e. intention) of the law. When the earliest scribes understood Paul to be referring to the Holy Spirit, the Textus Receptus reads “Πνεῦμα” as it does in 2Cor3:3.

Finally, when Paul writes (to the astonishment of many): “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous (Rom2:13), he is affirming that the Christian must indeed fulfil the law, not in letter but in spirit. Likewise, James: “If you fulfil the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ you are doing well” (Jam2:8). As ever Paul when rightly understood concurs with James: “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal5:14). Thus, says Paul, “everyone who loves another person has fulfilled the law” (Rom13:8). It has been fulfilled, not in letter but in spirit; the practitioners have been justified not by the acts of love themselves (i.e. works) but by the underlying faith that prompted them (like the Mt25 “sheep”). This principle is explained in my earlier post on Conscience and the Comic Christ

Slow progress

I had intended to cover the first seven theses in this post. There is no chance – not if virtually every facet of Luther’s alleged insights into law and the gospel are to be shown to be biblically dubious. And as Luther acknowledges in his introduction to the theses, they are paradoxical and therefore counter-intuitive. But that throws dire aspersions on God’s providential care for humanity and Christ’s oversight of His Church through the centuries. For God will have known that very few could come to hear the gospel presented as Luther interpreted it, no one before the 16th century even having had the opportunity. For unlike the principles of right living and compassionate humanity prompted through the working of conscience, Luther’s law and  gospel dichotomy is thoroughly counter-intuitive. Consequently, no one could instinctively know what God required of them unless they had received his version of the Gospel. But pre-16th century that would have been impossible – for Augustine’s much earlier distinctive teaching on law, grace and the virtual bondage of the will was not accepted in full by the Catholic Church, and further contradicted at Vatican II (1960s).

Such concepts are equally alien to the Eastern Orthodox Church, the permanency and sacerdotal nature of which is a further challenge to the validity of the movement Luther initiated. For whilst typically avoiding dogmatic terms such as transubstantiation, they along with Roman Catholics acknowledge the real presence of Christ in bread and wine, typically describing the Divine Liturgy (their Eucharist) as “the awesome sacrifice entrusted to the Church to be re-enacted and given to the faithful for the nourishment of their faith and forgiveness of their sins”. So, if Luther were right, from the 2nd to 16th century no historically traceable church understood or preached the substantive means by which a person could escape an eternity in Hell.  Nor could anyone applying their mind or reason have determined the matter given the counter-intuitive nature of what Luther believed was necessary.

A plea from the heart

Luther’s take on law and the gospel undoubtedly provided peace for his soul as it has done for millions since. My plea to today’s children of the Reformation is to think through what I have just written concerning their founder’s assertions. Prayerfully consider what his analysis implies about God’s nature and providential care for humanity as well as Christ’s oversight of His Church through the centuries. And what is he saying about people? – if the God whose nature was perfectly reflected in the life of the historical Jesus (Jn14:9) instinctively hates natural man that much, the latter must be odious indeed. “Odious and an abomination to God” wrote Calvin – and that was just the children (ref#1). Having been a Calvinist for 28 years I am grateful that the Holy Spirit has shown me that what I had been convinced was biblical truth was in fact something else. A revelation sweet as honey in the mouth but bitter in the gut in view of what I had earlier believed concerning God and the people (including my parents) I had known and loved but were not Christian. Yet I do not weep for my former Evangelical compatriots, many of whom I remember fondly; for the departed souls of all who have genuinely loved the Lord and their fellow man currently rest serenely in heaven, along no doubt with myriads of unexpected bedfellows. For the context of biblical salvation was never “who gets to heaven when they die” but who shall partake of the divine nature even whilst in mortal flesh (2Pet1:4) so as to become “conformed to the image of God’s Son” and be raised to the sublimity of the divine. Having as it were been pre-prepared, those qualifying to be resurrected in the age to come (Jn6:54) shall receive an extraordinary affiliation with Christ (Rev21:9), unimaginable privileges (Rev3:21) and (although the detail of this is yet to be revealed) have awesome responsibility (Rev2:27-28). Suitable preparation requires access to “the exceedingly abundant grace which is in Christ Jesus” (1Tim1:14), the means for which had been explained by the apostles in both written and verbal form (2Thes2:15) – the sacred mysteries then handed down, faithfully preserved and dispensed within the Apostolic Churches in East and West, but regrettably not within many of the churches that severed from Rome.

Holy Scripture: catalyst for error; arbiter for truth

Back to Luther and his alleged exegetical prowess. If you continue to follow these posts it should become evident that he was textually selective and prone to misconstrue context (here not recognizing Rom8:2 in the context of Rom7:23 – it is the law of the flesh that brings sin and death, NOT the Law of God). Most tellingly, for this is surely the test for any who claim to have skill in exegesis, he was unable to reconcile his interpretation of Paul with the rest of Scripture. That is one reason he wished for James, Hebrews, Jude and Revelation to be removed from the bible. His greater problem was actually the teaching of Jesus (especially Mt25) and the evangelism of Acts, but that would have been pushing it. The bible is anything but perspicuous and has consequently been a catalyst for error. According to Paul it is the Church that is the pillar and ground of the Truth (1Tim3:15). The bible is nevertheless the final arbiter for truth. So, if a fully COHERENT biblical synopsis could be provided it certainly would need to be taken seriously, that is why I am endeavouring to show that Reformed theology simply does not achieve that. [It fails to meet many of the ten points I set out in the previous post on assessing the validity of biblical insights and synopses]. Why such an assault? – because Reformed theology barbarizes God’s character, denigrates His providential care, undermines Christ and the Spirit’s oversight of the churches through the centuries, over-maligns the human condition and jeopardizes any hope of re-uniting the Body of Christ.

The painful path to unity

My motives in all this? First and foremost a defence of God’s intelligible goodness, His equitable justice and providential care. Secondly, to make a stand for the many outside the Church who show by their humanity and deference to the God-given faculty of conscience that they are not “children if the devil” but are beloved of God (cf. 1Jn3:12; 1Jn4:7; Mt25:40), benefitting at a forensic (guilt-removing) level from Christ’s Passion (1Tim2:6).  Thirdly, it is for the healing of the Body of Christ – a sublime prospect in itself and essential if what Jesus referred to as “this gospel of the kingdom” is to be preached coherently before His return in glory (Mt24:14). The world needs to hear such a message whilst those called out from the world need to know how best to prepare for their Master’s return. It is only fair on both counts, for the world has long endured conflicting, confusing, sometimes cringeworthy accounts of the Gospel, whilst the vast majority of Christians find themselves in a particular Christian denomination either because that is the tradition through which they were converted or it was the church they were brought up to believe to be the true one. Only in a few cases are theological acumen or spiritual devotedness the determining factor.  

Such a restoration will occur if God so determines it – by owning and prospering the work of those who seek to bring it about. If that is to be so, and Scripture suggests that it will be or shall at least be attempted (Mal4:5-6), it cannot but be a painful process. For such could never occur from a particular party being able to boast “Told you so”, but from an acknowledgement of error on all sides. That especially applies to churches in the West, primarily due to the influence of an Augustinian monk and his patriarchal head, but also because the Eastern Orthodox Church’s theology has been less systematized and dogmatized, the more impenetrable truths being held in mystery.

I trust the remaining theses shall be processed more quickly. I felt prompted to communicate a little more concerning my background, spiritual encounter and motives in this particular post.

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NOTE on Luther, law and the gospel:

Ref#1 “Children are odious and an abomination to God; their very natures being a seed-bed of sin”  John Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion – Second Book chap. 1 para 8

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HEIDELBERG DISPUTATION

[Supplementary to 2nd Corinthian Posts]

Continuing from the previous post concerning the theology of sovereign grace developed by 4th/5th century Augustine of Hippo, reinforced and further radicalized by Martin Luther, the 28 theses formed the basis of what came to be known as the Heidelberg disputation.

Historical background to the Heidelberg disputation

On Halloween 1517 the instigator of the Protestant Reformation posted 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg in the context of a proposed theological debate he wished to organize. It is thought to be around this time that Martin Luder changed his name to Luther, ostensibly so that it might resemble the Greek word for freedom (elutherius), probably also in view of what his original family name meant in his native tongue. The 95 theses had focussed on the practice of clergy selling indulgences, being certificates believed to reduce the temporal punishment in “purgatory” for sins committed by the purchasers or their loved ones. I won’t expand on that here but in an earlier post I showed that although the burning away of dross for the purpose of purification and punishment is a biblical concept, it cannot be measured in earthly time or degree. The practice of believers doing penance or contributing money to alleviate post-mortem suffering cannot be traced back beyond the beginning of the 2nd millennium. By the middle ages it had become a profitable business: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”, a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel, papal seller of such indulgences having been tasked with raising money for rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Such practices and their doctrinal/biblical basis were clearly open to question. Dr Luther, by that time a highly regarded monk who had risen to become Professor of moral theology at Wittenberg university believed that at the very least the matter should debated. What further aspirations he had at that point of challenging the authority and teaching of the Catholic Church or breaking away from her are also a matter for debate, but the following year the theological scope of his enquiry was broadened, and that is where the 28 theses come in.

These are set out below (my highlighting) and can be verified HERE , for some may not entirely believe what they are reading:

The 28 THEOLOGICAL THESES pertaining to the Heidelberg disputation – presented by Martin Luther and Leonhard Beyer to a meeting of the Augustinian order at Heidelberg on 26th April 1518:

Introductory Statement: “Distrusting completely our own wisdom, according to that counsel of the Holy Spirit, “Do not rely on your own insight” (Prov. 3:5), we humbly present to the judgment of all those who wish to be here these theological paradoxes, so that it may become clear whether they have been deduced well or poorly from St. Paul, the especially chosen vessel and instrument of Christ, and also from St. Augustine, his most trustworthy interpreter”.

1 The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.

2 Much less can human works, which are done over and over again with the aid of natural precepts, so to speak, lead to that end.

3 Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.

4 Although the works of God are always unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits.

5 The works of men are thus not mortal sins (we speak of works which are apparently good), as though they were crimes.

6 The works of God (we speak of those which he does through man) are thus not merits, as though they were sinless.

7 The works of the righteous would be mortal sins if they would not be feared as mortal sins by the righteous themselves out of pious fear of God.

8 By so much more are the works of man mortal sins when they are done without fear and in unadulterated, evil self-security.

9 To say that works without Christ are dead, but not mortal, appears to constitute a perilous surrender of the fear of God.

10 Indeed, it is very difficult to see how a work can be dead and at the same time not a harmful and mortal sin.

11 Arrogance cannot be avoided or true hope be present unless the judgment of condemnation is feared in every work.

12 In the sight of God sins are then truly venial when they are feared by men to be mortal.

13 Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin.

14 Free will, after the fall, has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can always do evil in an active capacity.

15 Nor could free will remain in a state of innocence, much less do good, in an active capacity, but only in its passive capacity.

16 The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty.

17 Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.

18 It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.

19 That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened (Rom. 1:20; cf. 1 Cor 1:21-25),

20 He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

21 A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

22 That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.

23 The law brings the wrath of God (Rom. 4:15), kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ.

24 Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner.

25 He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.

26 The law says, do this, and it is never done. Grace says, believe in this, and everything is already done.

27 Actually one should call the work of Christ an acting work (operans) and our work an accomplished work (operatum), and thus an accomplished work pleasing to God by the grace of the acting work.

28 The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it

Context of this post

Before delving into the maelstrom I should explain that the current and previous post are subtitled “supplementary” for they don’t follow the normal pattern of going sequentially through the New Testament making observations concerning the matters set out in my book on divine providence. The subject under consideration here (sovereign grace as Augustine and Luther interpreted it) is nevertheless a spin-off from those recent studies and pertains to matters central to the book’s primary thesis. That is that once God’s providence has been rightly understood the Creator is seen to be comprehensively and comprehensibly admirable to men and women of reason who (after all) were created in His image. So unusually for this post I provide a short testimony concerning the background to this writing.

A brief testimony

There are twenty-eight theses under consideration at the Heidelberg Disputation and I happened to be an Evangelical for twenty-eight years (1970-1998) but in my case knew nothing of these. If I had, I am not sure what I would have made of them, for as a result of (effectively) two spiritual encounters 14 years apart, my theological perspective has been transformed. The first revelation came in late 1998 and resulted in my joining the Roman Catholic Church. Given that I had just that year completed training for the Baptist ministry, that was a shock for many, and I lost a lot of friends. That particularly was the case with those like myself who had been hard-line Calvinists whereas some more liberal, open-minded Evangelicals I had come to know during my time in Wales (1994-2000) still accepted me as a Christian, even welcoming me along to their house prayer meetings and bible studies.

The second encounter that I am equally clear involved the Holy Spirit occurred early in 2013 just after retiring from my job as a London bus driver (having earlier taken voluntary redundancy as a civil servant). That was more emotionally powerful than the first experience resulting in much joy, not primarily for myself but for humanity as a whole. I came to perceive the breadth of God’s benign providence – His loving intentions towards all redeemable humanity [note 1]. With both experiences, the joy was tempered with sorrow, at times anger and on one occasion sheer horror with regard to what I believed the Spirit was revealing to me.  1998 had focussed on Luther, 2013 more on Augustine, in both cases concerning their interpretation of the Apostle Paul’s teachings upon which so much of Western churches’ theology has been based. As is evident from the Heidelberg disputation theses and their supporting evidence (next post), the Augustinian monk Luther relied heavily upon his patriarch’s interpretations to support his own case. That has been an uncomfortable reality for many post-medieval Catholic theologians but is an indisputable fact.

Testing prophetic insights

In terms of the joy I experienced through those two spiritual encounters – I simply want to share it. Regarding details relating to some of the more dreadful disclosures, I remain either silent or cryptic – unless and until the validity of these endeavours has been authenticated, either to myself at the spiritual level or by popular affirmation. But as is always the case, even if such an affirmation were forthcoming, that of itself would not ensure that what is being presented is the Truth. However, if the following principles/outcomes can be shown to apply, it almost certainly will be the truth, a genuine prophetic insight and indicative that certain prophetic scriptures are also about to be fulfilled. For no one in history including the two men under consideration in this post have come close to meeting many, let alone all of the following criteria:

  1. Any new interpretation must be faithful to a highly literal rather than ultra-allegorical reading of the Hebrew/Greek biblical text.
  2. Paul’s teachings as re-interpreted must not fundamentally contradict the New Testament writings of other apostles.
  3. Paul’s teaching itself should become more coherent, e.g. Romans 2 can be reconciled with the rest of his epistle.
  4. Paul’s doctrines should not turn Jesus’ moral or juridical teaching on its head such that the latter can only be understood in the context of being “a preparation for the gospel of Paul”
  5. God’s providential care for humanity as a whole and the eschatological outcomes should accord with what one would expect from a God defined as love personified (1Jn4:8)
  6. The theology presented must accord with the fact that as Jesus declared to disciple Philip, His nature was a perfect reflection of His Father’s even during His earthly ministry (Jn14:9).
  7. What is proposed should not be entirely opposed to reason such as the notion that for much of the Christian era, the Church as a whole was ignorant of the essentials of gospel salvation.
  8. The proposed theology and ecclesiology should bare some resemblance to that of the very early Church, many of whose leaders had received the Faith from the apostles or their near successors. Whilst allowing for legitimate doctrinal development and revelatory insights, the latter if genuine would not have the effect of turning the theology and polity of the churches that had recently received the Faith from the apostles on its head.
  9. The Eucharist/Mass/Divine Liturgy would be central to the life of the Church, just as it has been in all those churches (East and West) that can trace their origins and sacerdotal lineage back to the Apostles. It will be shown to be essential for gospel salvation being the awesome sacrifice entrusted to the Church to be re-enacted and given to the faithful for the nourishment of their faith and forgiveness of their sins.
  10. The Cross of Christ will be revered as the victory of God over evil (Jn12:31), the provision of pardon and propitiation for the sins of the world whilst also providing sanctification and spiritual nourishment for those worthily participating in its sacramental re-enactment (cf., Jn6:53).

I am clear that my new interpretations accord with all the above whereas the distinctive theology of Augustine and Luther’s insights do not; nor would the latter have believed that they should for he regarded the earliest Christian writers as being in utter darkness concerning faith [note 2].

The next few posts will take a closer look at the Heidelberg Disputation theses and the supporting evidence Luther provided. Whilst temporarily interrupting my sequential observations of the New Testament, it will be observed that many of the points raised in the theses relate to matters covered quite recently in the Romans/Corinthians postings.

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Note#1 – The devil’s seed (cf., Gen3:15)

As considered in an earlier post and chapter six of the Little Book of Providence, not all human beings are redeemable or in a sense fully human. They do not reflect God’s image but that of the one who planted them (Mt13:39 & 15:13). The first such was Cain “who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil, but his brother’s were righteous” (1Jn3:12)

Note#2 – Luther’s extraordinary assertion that ALL the known early Fathers of the Church were in darkness concerning faith:

“OF THE FATHERS OF THE CHURCH”

Behold what great darkness is in the books of the Fathers concerning faith; yet if the article of justification be darkened it is impossible to smother the grossest error of mankind… Augustine wrote nothing to the purpose concerning faith until he was roused up and made a man by the Pelagians, in striving against them. I can find no exposition upon the Epistles to the Romans or Galatians where anything is taught pure and aright. Oh what a happy time have we now in regard to the purity of the doctrine, but alas we little esteem it”. [Martin Luther Table Talk # DXXX Marshall Montgomery Collection – translated William Hazlitt] 

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THEOLOGY OF SOVEREIGN GRACE

Dennis Potter and Augustine's theology of sovereign grace
Playwright Dennis Potter and his incisive if ironic observations on Christian Evangelicalism

When crime detective writer Philip Marlow, the semi-autobiographical character in Dennis Potter’s “Singing Detective” was asked what he really would have liked to have written about, he replied somewhat ironically:

“I would like to have praised the loving God and all His loving creation – and to have seen hosts of translucent angels ascending, spinning shafts of golden light into the deep blue caverns of heaven”.

Whilst lacking Potter’s literary flourish, I am privileged to be doing something along those lines – more specifically, revealing the thoroughly intelligible nature of God’s goodness and the generosity of His providence towards humanity as a whole. I wish such a task could be undertaken in an ambience of sweetness and light but regrettably polemic and controversy are unavoidable. For in order to show God for what He truly is (comprehensively and comprehensibly adorable), some traditional biblical interpretations and the doctrines that arise from them must be revisited. That especially applies to those of Augustine and the Protestant Reformers who believed the 4th/5th century Bishop to be Paul’s most faithful interpreter. Given that God is indeed sovereign it is also necessary to show that the existence of evil and suffering (in which God through His Son lovingly participated) actually serve a purpose within God’s Plan of Loving Goodness to raise the sons of earth beyond Adamic innocence to the sublimity of the divine.

The theology of sovereign grace

Polemic will have been evident in the previous post, also touching upon St. Augustine’s theology of sovereign grace. Vatican II (1960s) had surreptitiously rescinded the Catholic Doctor’s more draconian doctrines regarding the dire prospects for anyone outside the Catholic Church and the souls of unbaptized infants. The vastly broader benign providence of “Lumen Gentium” was a substantial doctrinal development. It had been impacted by the 19th century Evangelical turned Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman, humanly speaking the greatest influence in my spiritual journey. However, whilst other errors remain, such broader providence cannot be underpinned from Scripture, so it is unlikely to gain traction with Evangelicals. The latter tradition are also perfectly entitled to adapt and refine the earliest statements of their founders, but the purpose of this post is to challenge those of my former ilk to review Luther’s 28 theses upon which that tradition has been founded. And as you will see, Augustine and his theology of sovereign grace is at the heart of the matter.

Whilst the Heidelberg theses are not the articles of the Reformed Faith or Protestant Church, they are as Luther affirmed in his introduction what he believed Augustine’s theology of sovereign grace to be intimating. And in view of his legitimate “distrust of human wisdom” they reflect what Luther believed the Holy Spirit had imparted to him concerning how the apostle Paul should be interpreted. But his interpretations apart from needing to be valid in themselves must also be capable of integration with the rest of the New Testament, otherwise Paul effectively becomes the inventor of Christianity. He absolutely is not – that idea results from a misinterpretation of his epistles, especially Romans.

The distinctives of Paul’s Gospel

However, as a result of the 13th apostle’s late conversion and to what the resurrected ascended Jesus and the Holy Spirit imparted to him, he did have some new revelation which on a couple of occasions he describes as “my gospel”. But that was not to overturn the moral and juridical teaching of Jesus and the twelve, rather it pertained to the constitution of the people of God: “the MYSTERY which had been hidden from the past ages and generations, but now has been revealed to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what the wealth of the glory of this MYSTERY among the Gentiles, that is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col1:26-27).

That passage along with Ephesians 3 vv3-11 and Romans 11 (vv11,12,15,30) are the starting point and focal point of what I am in the process of disclosing, for their providential implications are wondrous indeed yet have been  quite eluded. In the case  of the Western Church (Catholic and Protestant) that was through a misinterpretation of other aspects of Paul’s teaching, whilst the theology of the Eastern Church has always been less systematized and dogmatic, more accepting of mystery, of which there is plenty in the bible as that earlier statement of Paul indicated. However, Luther’s pronouncements are dogmatic and so they do need to be assessed in themselves as well as squared with the rest of the New Testament – the teaching of James, the writer to the Hebrews and Jesus Himself being the most troublesome flies in the ointment, not least the Judge of the Earth’s own teaching on final judgement (Mt25:31-46). But for this post (split into two or three parts) I am focusing on Paul’s teaching and what Luther made of it.

That is bound to be irksome for many, so I restate my motives another way: to demonstrate from Scripture God’s goodness, love and justice in terms of how human beings have been divinely programmed to understand such qualities. That involves the recognition of a role for natural law, especially the faculty of conscience and the exercise of human reason. Also, by observing how Scripture actually defines these qualities, most especially love, being the essence of God and the outworking of faith. Given that humans were made in the image of an invisible God, that must pertain to His nature. And in the case of the One whom Luther aptly described as “the Proper Man”, the Nazarene carpenter’s apprentice was also without sin. As the Lord affirmed to Philip, although His glory was veiled, the historical Jesus’s nature, instincts and inclinations were a perfect reflection of those of His Father, and that applied even during His earthly ministry (Jn14:9). Philip had wanted to know what God was really like; “Show us the Father, that will suffice us”. “But how long have I been with you, Philip? If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father”.

Jesus’ reply challenges fundamental assumptions about both divine and human nature, in particular how the Former regards the latter. The fact that the Lord’s glory was veiled does not affect His nature or His attitude to people – He just appeared far less scary (cf. previous post). So, the historical Jesus was not the compassionate face of God, He was His express image. But then think of how He dealt with His disciples and their sinful frailties. In the only two references to the matter, Peter was more concerned about his own deficiencies than the Lord was (Lk5:8) whilst joker Nathanael was described as a man without guile (Jn1:47). Such has nothing to do with the imputed or imparted righteousness of Christ or indeed the defilement of Adam’s guilt. It is the Son of Man’s tolerance of human weakness resulting from Adam’s misdemeanor that Jesus responds to. So, is it always “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild?” By no means, at times He vents His righteous fury when confronted with genuine evil, hypocrisy and lies, warning of punishment in Hell.

In other words, the One who is to judge the Earth acts like man at his best: loving, filled with compassion and tolerant of human weakness, but One who shall come crashing down on hateful, hurtful compassionless liars that He describes as children of the devil (Jn8:44). Failure to do so would not be an act of love but injustice and indifference to the suffering of others. Our loving Creator’s intention is that all of Adam’s seed that are genuinely human (1Jn3:12) come to adore Him, not merely “to thank God for His great glory” but to love Him for His intelligible goodness and the wonders of His providence.

Returning to Luther and how he regarded the Creator, it is more a case of “we are here, God is there; we are this, God is that”. Love and justice mean something different to God than they do to man. Such would have to be the case if Luther’s teaching was to be reconciled with God’s own assessment of Himself in Exodus34:6-7, let alone the points already made about the historical Jesus. Hence his paradoxical notion that what the bible might mean by love, kindness and goodness and the like, mean something different when applied to God.

The mystery of providence 

The outworking of Augustine’s two-pot sovereign grace theology reinforced by the Protestant Reformers is cosmic catastrophe on a scale no fictional horror writer could ever contemplate. The Arminian Evangelicalism more prevalent today fares little better – an inexplicably harsh Cosmic Chess Master being replaced by an incompetent, uncaring Overseer. It is also based on a false premise: the seemingly reasonable assumption that a loving God would wish as many people as possible to come to Christ as Savior and that He had given us the innate capacity to do so. That is refuted by the bible on both counts (Rom8:29 & Jn6:44 inter alia). Even if that were not the case it would mean that God had (at the least) overseen cultural, religious and ecclesiastical developments that He knew would result in vast swathes of humanity having no opportunity to hear a faithful account of the gospel to which they could ever respond to avoid perdition.

All is resolved once the true nature and purpose of salvation is disclosed. Firstly, that the source of man’s problem is not his God-given eternal soul but the temporary vessel or “tent” it inhabits whilst in mortal flesh (Rom7:24-25). Secondly, “the saved” are not the totality of souls who “go to heaven when they die” but those being sanctified in the present so that they may serve the living God whilst in human flesh. As for their future – “Rejoice, for the Wife has made herself ready” for marriage to the Lamb (Rev19:7). Far from detracting from God’s sovereign grace, such a perspective enhances it, for clearly no one apart from Jesus Himself could innately deserve such honor.

As for the rest of the world, remaining sinful in nature during their earthly life, they could never earn the right to be received into God’s eternal Kingdom or have the joy of being re-united with those they had loved and lost. Yet such shall be the case, at least for all who in the language of second century Christian writers “attend to moral discipline, paying heed to the natural precepts of the law by which man can be justified” [“Irenaeus against heresies” Book IV chap 13 para 1]. The Creator being “a God who accepts those who imitate His own qualities of temperance, fairness and philanthropy and who exercise their free will in choosing what is pleasing to Him” [first apology of Justin chaps. 43 & 46]. Such was the language of those who had received the faith from the Apostles or their near successors. The idea of natural precepts being subsumed within the understanding and outreach of the very early Church is also indicated by the witness of Church historian Eusebius (see my earlier post on the unity of doctrine within the 2nd century Church). Such is how the forensic (pardoning) dimension to Christ’s Passion avails for the many; the participatory (sanctifying) benefits being the preserve of those who worthily partake of His body and blood so as to have spiritual empowerment in the present and be raised, or if alive bodily transformed on the last day (Jn6:54; 1Cor15:51).

Only when such a pre-Augustinian perspective on free will (to choose good, not to respond to the gospel) is reinstated, and the Christ-related dimension of natural law understood (for it is Christ’s internal enlightenment and has reference to His Passion); only then shall God’s caring providence towards humanity as a whole be vindicated and the scope and efficacy of Christ’s saving work appreciated. It will be perceived as a “theology of glory” but one that is predicated on a theology of the Cross: A divine Savior’s suffering to deal with human sin – suffering in which those who shall one day be His Escort and come to share His throne must in measure have participated (Rev3:21; Rom8:17; Heb2:10).

And then then we have the 28 paradoxical statements of Luther and Beyer which I intend to comment on briefly in the next post but can be perused HERE

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JUDGEMENT SEAT OF CHRIST

JUDGEMENT SEAT OF CHRIST

6 Be of good courage, knowing that while we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 We are of good courage and would prefer rather to be absent from the body and at home with the Lord Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. 10 For everything about us will be revealed before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive compensation for the things done through the body in accordance with what he has done whether good or bad (2Cor5:6-10).

The Judgement Seat of Christ

Paul continues the theme of the soul’s existence in the body, this time the context being the Judgement Seat of Christ. Whist resurrection in a glorified body is the ultimate aim, he would much sooner be in spirit with the Lord in heaven than be at home in the body and away from Him. For those with no belief in a soul or the afterlife, this will be a meaningless concept. But going back to my previous post (for I am struggling to the get the subject out of my mind) even as a Christian and speaking personally, I used to consider the mind as synonymous with the brain. Now I realize that simply cannot be the case. For what departs the body at death is itself a conscious entity with a mind and memory of its own (Lk16:25). So, whilst in “our earthly tent” as the apostles Paul and Peter describe the soul’s mortal existence, we effectively possess two minds – one pertaining to the spirit, the other to the flesh, the latter being the brain. The former entity Paul describes as the spirit, inner man or sometimes simply “the mind” (Rom7:23), the latter being “the flesh”.

 This is crucial to understanding the inner conflict of the human psyche that Paul refers to in Rom7 and what he means by “the body of this death” (v24). Crucial because that pertains to the very nature of gospel salvation: its context and purpose (v25), impacting in turn on one’s appearance before the Judgement Seat of Christ. The historical misunderstanding that has occurred in this area will be piously couched in terms of “exalting the grace of God”. Yet in the form it has taken it demeans God’s perceived providential care for humanity as a whole, diminishes the scope and efficacy of Christ’s saving work at Calvary and portrays human nature as virtually depraved. As for any who dare challenge it, they may readily be dismissed as “humanistic detractors from the grace of Christ”.

It must surely have delighted Satan’s heart to see the divine economy presented in such a way by the architects of biblical theology: An incomprehensibly harsh Creator and selective Savior presiding over a humanity punished for ancestral sin such that it becomes innately incapable of any good. The bulk of human souls deemed as collateral damage within God’s wish to demonstrate “the wonders of His grace” towards the proportional few. For “many more are to be left under punishment than are delivered from it, in order that it may thus be shown what was due to all” (Augustine’s De Civitates Dei XXI chap. 12).

Here is the Good News: God is the loving Father whose nature His Son precisely mirrored even whilst in mortal flesh (carefully examine Jesus’ reply to Philip in Jn14:9). Jesus’ response affirms that YHWE is comprehensibly and adorably GOOD, even from a human perspective . He is fair to all and has wondrous plans to raise the sons of earth – plans that required the agonizing death of His only begotten Son. As for human suffering, Eden was God’s master stroke and Satan fell for it (cf. Rom8:20). For mankind’s destiny is not merely to return to Adamic innocence but to partake of the divine nature. That starts with Christ’s little flock who with their Savior become the heirs of God (Rom8:17) . YHWE knew what additional ingredients were required for such an elevation and Satan with his seed have unwittingly provided them (cf. Heb2:10).

How could such munificent providence have become so disfigured? Well, the following extraordinary exegesis regarding Paul’s inner conflict passage by that same Augustine of Hippo, principal architect of Western theology will not have helped. [He is the man Luther regarded as Paul’s most faithful interpreter and HERE is the result] Writing in his “Confessions” (Book VII ch.21), Augustine rightly acknowledged the apostle Paul to be indicating in Rom7 that man by nature has opposing instincts, the one hating God’s law, the other delighting in it though often failing to keep it. He then proceeds to infer from this that mankind’s will now reflected that of Satan’s. [His brief analysis is outlined in this earlier post]. His perspective is consolidated in a more formal treatise later when he wrote HERE that man by nature is able to do “absolutely no good thing, whether in thought or will, affection or in action” except they “had fled to the grace of Christ”. This is an observable absurdity; and as for who is the heretic here, equating man’s will to that of Satan’s contradicted both the tenor and teaching of the recorded writings of virtually all his predecessors, the earliest of whom had received the Faith from the apostles and their immediate successors. Such men were therefore less reliant on having the ability to fathom the sometimes abstruse writings of the Apostle Paul (see my earlier post on the unity of doctrine within the 2nd century Church).

As for Augustine’s analysis of Rom7, it is extraordinary given that contrary to many later commentators he rightly takes Paul to be referring to man by nature, not to the Christian. But he fails to discern that it is those who do not have such a conflict within their nature who reflect the mind and will of Satan, and such people exist. They with their devilish master instinctively delight in and practice what is evil, and they are without restraint. For these few, the inner voice of conscience has been permanently muted. These are the reprobate children of the devil – devoid of compassion or empathy for their fellows and with no instinct whatsoever for the truth (Mt25:45; Jn8:44). But as Paul had indicated both in Rom7 and a few chapters earlier, that is not man by nature. Many possess an inward admiration for God’s law (focused on love for neighbor – Gal5:14). In Paul’s words the many “do by nature that which is in the law, so becoming a law for themselves” (Rom2:14). Then there is the Christian – having been provided with the means of grace by which he or she (should) both delight in and practice what is pleasing in God’s sight. Hence the three soteriological categories I have been outlining.

And with regards to the Christian: “Have as your ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For everything about us will be revealed before the Judgment Seat of Christ, so that each one may receive compensation for the things done through the body in accordance with what he has done whether good or bad” (vv9,10). It is to be observed that in referring to the Judgement Seat of Christ or in any biblical passage concerning final judgement, neither Adam’s guilt nor Christ’s personal justice are ever a factor. How prophetic were the words of St John: “Little children, let no one deceive you – he that practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous” (1Jn3:7). Everyone shall be judged on the basis of what they have done “through the body” (v11).  But it is only those privileged to have known Christ as Savior, suffered with Him in life and had the Holy Spirit as their Enabler that can anticipate being presented “faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy” (Jude1:24). There will be awe a plenty but also joy to be had at the Judgement Seat of Christ for those found worthy to receive an extraordinary inheritance, having as we have seen, become joint heirs with the Judge Himself (Rom8:17).

For a fuller picture:

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OUR EARTHLY TENT

Our earthly tent - body and brain

For we know that if our earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made by hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed, in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling FROM heaven, since in fact after putting it on, we will not be found naked. For indeed, we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave us the Spirit as a pledge. (2Cor5:1-5)

“Our earthly tent” – this is how Paul describes the body in which the God-given soul resides. So also does Peter (2Pet1:13-14). But it is of course not just the body but the brain also – both were procreated from our earthly parents and both shall return to dust – whereas the human spirit “shall return to the God who gave it” (Eccles12:7). And that spirit/soul is itself a memory-retaining intellectual entity. As Scripture affirms, the rich man wondering why he must experience suffering in Hades was told by Abraham to “remember that in your lifetime you received good things and likewise Lazarus evil things, so now he is comforted and you are tormented“ (Lk16:25) – an interesting statement in itself which we won’t deal with here. 

Inner conflict

It may be stating the obvious to some, but it follows from the above that as earth-bound human beings our thoughts and actions derive from two sources: the brain and the internal “psyche” or whatever you wish to call the intellectual, memory-retaining spiritual entity that leaves the body after death. And these sources conflict with each other as Paul teaches in Romans chapter 7. They have opposing laws or governing principles: “For I am gratified by the law of God in my inner man, but I perceive a different law in my bodily members warring with the law in my mind and bringing me into captivity to the sinful law that is in my bodily members (Rom7:23). The “law in my bodily members” refers of course to the bodily senses as they are processed through the brain. Truly, it is our earthly tent and the brain in particular that is the SOURCE of mankind’s problem, not his God-given soul/spirit. The problem is therefore temporary, not eternal. However, whilst the soul is pure, it is also pliant, i.e. liable to corruption, and that can have consequences that extend beyond our earthly life which Jesus refers to in the context of salting with fire (earlier post). Only the Christian is given the spiritual resources “to possess his own vessel (tent) in sanctity and honor” (1Thes4:4). That is what effectively the apostle (and bible) means by being saved: “O wretched man that I am; who can deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God it is through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom7:24-25).

Once the above is understood, many theological conundrums are resolved, not least Augustine’s unsavory teaching that infants who die unbaptized “must endure sensual pain throughout eternity, albeit to a mild degree” – either to pay for Adam’s sin or the depravity of their own God-given souls [ref# 1]. Such was watered down to an extent by the Catholic Church but they still effectively taught (until Vatican II) that Jesus Christ would not tolerate the souls of any unbaptized infants in Heaven (characteristics somewhat at odds with the Gospels’ accounts of the Savior’s dealings with children). Also, the dilemma for many creationist Christians who rightly discern that the spirit/soul is not derived from sperm or ovaries but is planted by God at birth – unavoidably implying in the context of Augustinian/Reformed theology that a God-given entity is corrupt and itself hell-deserving. Absolutely not, the source of the problem is man not God. My sin-infested intellectual vessel (earthly tent) was derived from my earthly father, ultimately from Adam, That which God supplied was pure, albeit liable to corruption (1Pet2:11) once one is of an age to discern good from evil.

THAT is the true nature of original sin – not a soul corrupted at birth or Adam’s guilt imputed to everyone’s account, but God-given souls operating within their temporary housing that was conceived in sin (Ps51:5). This is not to deny that mankind is indeed paying a price for Adam’s sin through the corrupted vessel/tent we have inherited. But as hinted at in my recent posts even this is an act of supreme love on God’s part, especially in view of the implications to His Son in remedying the situation. God’s mysterious strategy was in the context of mankind’s glorious destiny and how it should best be accomplished and perfected (Heb2:10 cf. Rev10:7).

Re-clothing the soul

So, returning to the featured passage it is no wonder Paul writes “In this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling that is from heaven, since in fact after putting it on, we will not be found naked” (vv2-3). This affirms the related truth that the Christian’s destiny is not fulfilled when his or her spirit enters heaven, which Paul here describes as being naked and elsewhere as being asleep, but when one is re-clothed in that which is FROM heaven. Not so as to be spiritual entities at rest in their heavenly home but for the soul to reside in a glorious resurrection body, in which unlike the situation in Romans 7, material and spiritual co-exist in perfect union. Then one can truly be united to the Man who is God and actively participate within His realm. That will be joy unspeakable and full of glory.

How the above is reconciled with Scripture as a whole is set out in The Little Book of Providence:

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Ref #1: Latin: paena sensus . (cf. New Advent: Catholic Encyclopaedia under headings “Unbaptized infants”, “Limbo” and the “Teaching of St Augustine”).

THE GOD OF THIS AGE

Depicting the god of this age

4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they will not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants on account of Jesus. For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen containers, so that the extraordinary greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves…  17 For our momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison (2Cor4:4-7;17)

Firstly, a point about translation. Many bible versions have “god of this world” (v4) whereas the Greek is as translated above. The god of planet Earth is God – He created it, sustains it and shall one day renew it (cf. 2Pet3:13; Rev21:1-3). It is true to say that Satan is the prince of this world order (Greek: archon tou kosmou) for that is how Jesus refers to him in Jn12:31. But both Paul and Jesus were referring to the situation in the current age (Greek: aionos) and that is the word Paul uses in verse 4.

For, extraordinary as it appears, God has permitted his archenemy to have an ongoing controlling influence in the world. The current epoch is not really the “age of Christ” as some describe it, that has  yet to come, in spite of the fact that the resurrected Jesus declared “all authority has now been given to Me”. It has been, but it is not being exercised in the usual executive sense on planet Earth. Rather, Christ’s Kingdom here is being inaugurated through the Church, Currently they alone acknowledge Him as Lord or observe His royal charter. It is why the leaders of this world are not all men and women “after God’s own heart”, some far from it. It is why Satan is able to blind people’s minds concerning “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (v4). The Apostle John also affirmed that the whole world is currently under the sway of the Wicked One (1Jn5:19) and that only the Christian can be entirely delivered from its controlling influence through the power of the Holy Spirit.

It follows from the above and is more explicitly affirmed elsewhere by the doctrine of election that those who do respond to the Gospel do not do so through any wisdom or virtue on their part. Quoting Paul again, gospel salvation is a result of the “One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (v6)The apostle, formerly known as Saul of Tarsus, arch-persecutor of Christians will have known that very well. Now as a leader in the work of God’s Kingdom, he was experiencing persecution: “We are constantly being delivered to death for Jesus’ sake so that His life might be manifest in our mortal flesh” (v11). And more generally the apostle has stated that Christians must expect to suffer with Christ in the present so that they may reign with Him in the future (cf. 2Tim2:12), to which Paul now adds, “For our momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (v17).

Such is God’s thoroughly intelligible goodness and justice towards all people: towards His elect who bear affliction for Christ’s sake to attain the aforementioned “eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison”. But also towards people of good will who have not received “the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ but respond positively to the divine light they have received engrained within the spiritual faculty we know of as conscience (cf. Jn1:9 King James Version; Rom2:15). As explained in a recent post, such are justified by an underlying faith that works through love and shall also be accepted into God’s Kingdom (Mt25:40).

As for the rest, it should be evident that a God who is Love would never act cruelly or mercilessly towards anyone. But it is surely right and just that those depicted in Matthew’s gospel as “goats” devoid of any compassionate concern for the needy with whom the Son of Man personally identifies should go on to receive post-mortem punishment (Mt25:45). As to why the devil and his agents have a continuing role within God’s extraordinary plan to raise the sons of earth, a clue may be Heb2:10 – a detailed biblical synopsis being provided in The Little Book of Providence:

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ON SPIRIT AND LETTER

Augustine's treatise on spirit and letter with which this author disagrees
Augustine’s treatise with which I can no longer concur

 2 You are our epistle, written in our hearts, known and read by all people, revealing yourselves, that you are an epistle of Christ, delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence we have toward God through Christ. Not that we are adequate in ourselves so as to consider anything as having come from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the spirit; for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. (2Cor3:2-6)

For all their faults, Paul is here depicting the Corinthian Church as “an epistle of Christ”. He is saying that their lives reflect the teaching of Christ that the apostle and his fellow workers had imparted to them. That pertained not only to their service to God but was something that could be observed by the world: “an epistle known and read by all people” (v2). But the key point I am drawing out from this passage concerns the relationship between the spirit and the letter, misunderstood amongst others by the ultra-influential Augustine of Hippo.

God’s Law imparted through Moses had been inscribed on tablets of stone but now such had been inscribed on believers’ hearts by the Holy Spirit (v3). However, contrary to the translations in many versions of the bible, Paul’s later reference in v6 to the letter killing and the spirit giving life is not referring to the Holy Spirit.  If you examine the Greek interlinear translation of 2Cor 3 in the Bible Hub (available HERE), you will note that in verse 6 πνεῦμα (=“spirit” in the nominative case) has been translated  “Spirit” (by implication the Holy Spirit) in many versions (e.g. NASB), whereas in verse 3 which is indeed referring to the Holy Spirit Πνεύματι (“Spirit”  in the dative case) has a capital Pi “Π”  rather than a lower case Pi “π”

The Bible Hub Greek text is utilized by the Berean Interlinear and literal Bible. It is the highly regarded “Nestle 1904” version and corresponds exactly in this regard to the Textus Receptus followed by the Reformers translating the English Authorized Version of the Bible (note 1). Yet most Protestant bibles translate πνεῦμα   as “Spirit” (i.e. the Holy Spirit) rather than “spirit” so as to support their particular theological understanding (referred to below). Of course, the Holy Spirit does “give Life” but that is not what Paul is alluding to in 2Cor3:6. Rather, he is contrasting the letter of the Law with the spirit of the Law – comparing a slavish observance of dead ordinances on the one hand with heart-felt obedience that fulfils the spirit (i.e. ultimate intention) of the Law on the other.

The reason I make the point about the Holy Spirit (apart from the fact that my interpretation is supported by the Textus Receptus) is that those who are not privileged to possess the divine Spirit’s presence (i.e. virtually everybody in Old Testament times and proportionally speaking the vast majority in the current age) are, contrary to the teaching of Augustine and the Reformers, well able to fulfil the spirit of God’s law, the heart of which is a love for humanity: “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal5:14). Such were the “sheep” in Mt25:31-46, being the definitive New Testament passage on final judgement – a passage in which religious faith or a personal knowledge of Christ as Savior are not so much as mentioned. For as I have been outlining, what Scripture refers to as “salvation” does not itself determine “who goes to Heaven when they die”. Neither is the possession of the Holy Spirit essential for that purpose.

However, the Spirit’s presence, His energies and a personal knowledge of Jesus as Lord and Savior are essential for those who are to be “saved”, i.e. delivered from the overriding influence of what Paul describes as “the body of this death” (Rom7:24-25). By that he is referring to the sin-polluted intellectual vessel (body and brain) procreated from our parents that the soul inhabits and utilizes during its earthly existence (cf. Eccles12:7; 1Thes4:4; Rom7:23). Those of God ‘s children chosen for His Son (note very carefully the wording of Jn17:6) need to be cleansed of their sin and receive ongoing sanctification so that they may become “free indeed” to serve the living God whilst in mortal flesh. As Paul has just affirmed to the Corinthian Church, they then become “a (living) epistle of Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (v3). Also depicted as the Body of Christ, these people have been called out from the world to be prepared for unimaginable glory in the ages to come – corporately to be betrothed to Christ and even to share His throne (Rev3:21 & 19:7). As for their precise activity it is not currently lawful for anyone to state it (2Cor12:4), but we are offered clues (cf. 1Jn3:2; Rev2:26-29; Gen15:5). It is a destiny for which those who do not come to know Christ as Savior or gain possession of an indwelling Holy Spirit cannot possibly attain, at least in the age that follows this one.­

Such sublime providence could never be substantiated from mere philosophical reasoning, a few passages of the bible, still less from wishful thinking. A re-synopsis of the whole bible is what is needed, one that could be verified or otherwise by its intrinsic coherence. Albeit shabbily presented, such has now been provided in The Little Book of Providence:

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Note 1: It should be pointed out that the original New Testament text was written entirely in capital letters with no spaces or punctuation. So, whether the Greek word for spirit was a capital or lower case Pi is a scribe-based rather than genuinely textually based issue. But the point is that in all cases my interpretation is in line with that of the scribes with regard to whether Paul is referring to the Holy Spirit, the human spirit. or as in this case the spirit in the sense of fulfilling an aim or purpose (i.e. the spirit of the law) .

PAUL: CHIEF OF SINNERS?

The apostle Paul writing - no longer the chief of sinners

As the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are partners in our sufferings, so also you are in our comfort… …12 Our exalting is in the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you. (2Cor1:5-7;12)

Many Christians understand Paul to have regarded himself as “the chief of sinners”, but that statement should be understood in context. For every account of Paul’s post-conversion life and ministry shows him to be a thoroughly spiritual man who had “lived in all good conscience before God up to this day” (Acts23:1). He was someone whose behavior set a pattern for his converts to follow (1Cor11:1). Speaking of himself and his fellow workers in this passage he writes “our exalting is in the testimony of our conscience that in godly sincerity and purity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God we have conducted ourselves in the world” (v12). That is hardly the testimony of one who still regarded himself as the “chief of sinners”(1Tim1:15). That description had been in the context of what he had referred to just two verses earlier concerning his pre-conversion attempt to tear apart the infant Church of Jesus Christ.

“Chief of sinners” pertained to the past, but the conversion and subsequent apostleship of the fanatical Christ-hating Saul of Tarsus reminds us again that God’s elective choice is entirely a matter of grace. As for those who are chosen, it is not so that they might join “an assembly of justified sinners”. As Paul would tell Titus: “Christ gave Himself for us to redeem us from all sinful activity and purify unto Himself a peculiar people filled with zeal to do good works” (Tit2:14). And in terms of the Corinthian Church to whom he was writing, he regarded them as “partners in the apostles’ sufferings” (v7). Such they needed to be if they (or indeed we) are to become “the heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ; providing we suffer with Him so that we may also be also glorified with Him” (Rom8:17). The Protestant Reformers had insisted on emphasizing “the theology of the Cross” and it is certainly the case that apart from Christ’s Passion there would be no salvation for anybody. But Christ’s suffering and ours (if we are truly His disciples) are not ends in themselves but the means to an end, and that end is glory: “because it was fitting for (Christ) for whom are all things and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory to perfect the Originator of their salvation through suffering” (Heb2:10).

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All is worked out in detail and reconciled with Scripture as a whole in The Little Book of Providence:

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STING OF DEATH IS SIN?

Portrait of G F Handel who wrote Messiah incorporating the words "the sting of death is sin"
George Frideric Handel

51 Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised, incorruptible – and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on what is incorruptible, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 But when this corruptible puts on that which is incorruptible and this mortal puts on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. 55 Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law; 57 but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1Cor15:51-57)

The sting of death is sin

Still in 1Cor15, the featured text includes one of my favorite passages from Handel’s famous Christmas oratorio “Messiah”. That is because, with Paul I regard resurrection as the apotheosis of Christian salvation, rather than the spirit’s temporary abode in the spiritual realm when the body dies, which Paul again here refers to as being asleep (v51).

But the main point of this post is to observe carefully what the apostle writes concerning sin and death vv54-56: “The sting of death is sin and the strength of sin is the law”. The converse idea, namely that the sting of sin is death is better understood and Paul quotes as much from Hosea (25:8). But as I have often intimated, the apostle generally intends exactly what he writes (even in Rom11:11,12 & 15!) Here he is confirming among other things that when speaking of death it is not referring to a state of damnation for in Paul’s recapitulation of Hosea’s teaching, sin results from death as well as leading to it. Something being already spiritually dead has resulted in sin, that something being the mortal body and brain which Paul has elsewhere referred to as our vessel (1Thes4:4), tent (2Cor5:1+4) and most pointedly “the body of this death (Rom7:24).

For in responding to the body’s natural inclinations, the soul rebels against the divine light of conscience and so disrupts the relationship with the Source of its spiritual life. For what had been conceived in sin (Ps51:5) has “died” leading in turn to sin that destroys Life once the “law” (a sense of right and wrong) is perceived and invariably breached (Rom7:9). Hence “the sting of death is sin and the strength of sin is the law“. Hence also, the need for heavenly grace by which one can be spiritually purified, receiving ongoing cleansing of the soul so that those God has chosen for His Son (Jn17:6) may serve Him whilst in mortal flesh in preparation for their eternal Courtship (Rev19:7).

The apostle had further asserted that “death will be swallowed up in victory” (v54), yet even celestial grace does not fully resolve the problem of mortal embodiment. God intends to save our soul and body, but He does not do so simultaneously. So even the Christian is tempted to sin whilst in mortal flesh which is why it is his body that is to be offered as a living sacrifice “so that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk after the flesh but after the spirit” (Rom8:4); for it is the spirit that having been supplied by God loves His law and wishes to serve righteousness.

Not until “this corruptible” (body) has been transformed at resurrection will death (physical and spiritual) finally be swallowed up in victory when the body itself is redeemed (Rom8:23). The soul’s vessel in its current degenerative state is the cause of the human problem being the outworking of original sin – sin being the result of that death (Paul’s point). The final solution will not be for the soul to lose a body altogether and be eternally at rest in the spiritual realm (a spurious dualism), but to be re-clothed in a new body which is from heaven (2Cor5:2) and to be united to the Man who is God and actively participate within His realm; that will be joy unspeakable and full of glory.

All this and how it fits in with the rest of Scripture is worked out in detail in “The Little Book of Providence”:

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CHRIST THE FIRST FRUITS

"Christ" can refer to the person of the Messiah but also His people the Church

Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith also is in vain. 15 Moreover, we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then not even Christ has been raised; 17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If we have hoped in Christ only in this life, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20 However, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. 21 For since by a man death came, by a Man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, 24 then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to our God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. (1Cor15:20-24)

Unusually, I did not provide a post for 1Cor14 which concerned speaking in tongues and the role of women in the Church, for unlike virtually every chapter of the New Testament covered so far it has little direct relevance to the subject matter in hand, being the scope of God’s benign providence. But there is more to focus on in 1Cor15 although I shall only do so here briefly for it is likely to become a recurring theme. Paul is dealing with those in the Church who questioned whether there or not there was to be a resurrection of the dead. No doubt they believed that if you were a Christian your soul will go to heaven when you died, so, thought they (as do some today), isn’t that salvation done and dusted? On the contrary, it is just the beginning: disembodied spirits reposing in heaven is an interim, albeit blissful state that Paul here describes as being asleep (v20). An influence in the early stages of my spiritual journey, Prof. Tom Wright* would sometimes quip, there is life after life after death. Paul points such doubters of the resurrection to Jesus, who died for our sin, was buried, raised on the third day, ascended into heaven, being “the One whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things” (Acts3:21). But to Paul the vital aspect was the Lord’s resurrection by which God had vindicated everything Jesus had done, most vitally the accomplishment of human salvation: “for if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (v17).

But Christ is risen, Hallelujah! And “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive”. However, as Paul goes on to say there is to be an order in terms of who are to be made alive and when: “everyone in his own class (Greek: hekastos de en to idio tagmata): Christ the first fruits, afterwards, those who are Christ’s at His coming (v22-23). Later he writes to the Thessalonians along similar lines concerning the Lord’s return: “Christ shall be glorified in His saints and be marvelled at by those that believe on that day, just as our testimony among you was believed (2Thes1:10). The key to understanding the providential implications to this is exactly what Paul meant by “Christ the first fruits”. Is it Jesus or His people? I have become clear it is the latter, particularly in view of what else has been brought to light. In terms of the Corinthian passage, I made the following observation in my later book from which I will quote to close:

“Christ the first fruits” refers to the Church, which a couple of chapters ago Paul had simply referred to as Christ (12:12) for it is, after all, His mystical body on earth. Christians are the first fruits of creation (Jam1:18). Jesus is also described as first fruits (of them that sleep) but He was never “dead in Adam” in the Pauline sense being Himself the Second Adam; and He cannot be a “class of those in Christ” for He is the Christ. Moreover, Paul is referring to those who would be made alive in the future which cannot include Christ Himself but refers to Christ’s elect and those who believe at His coming. This aligns with Old Testament prophecy that all who shall call on the name of the Lord will be delivered from perdition. Logically the same principle applies to those who have died having never had the opportunity to know the Saviour, and that is substantiated on two occasions in the first epistle of Peter (3:18-20 and 4:6). On the other hand, those alive at His coming who are not of God and refuse to obey the gospel of Christ will in Paul’s language be set ablaze (2Thes1:8), removed from God’s presence and everyone else’s. By “not obeying the gospel” is meant refusing to acknowledge the Lordship of Christ even after His identity has been manifested. For one can only obey or refuse to obey what has been clearly presented and understood. So, when Christ re-appears on earth and indeed wherever He has presented Himself in person there can be no excuse for those who reject Him. Likewise, if a universally agreed announcement of the coming Kingdom of Christ were provided to the world from a re-unified Church it would be a clarion call that would seriously need to be heeded (Mt24:14).  And such would be the roll call: Who is on the Lord’s side; who will serve the King? [Extract from “The Little Book of Providence” chapter seven]

If I were dependent on a passage like this to prove that God’s kindly intentions extend far beyond Israel and the Church, it would be flimsy evidence indeed. But no, the Little Book of Providence** utilizes the bible from cover to cover to explicate such munificent providence, adducing in the process that the fruits of Christ’s Passion avail, albeit at a two-fold degree, for all true humanity.

* N.T. Wright – former Anglican Bishop of Durham (England); Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity St Andrews University (Scotland); Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University

** Paperback, e-book or free PDF available HERE

A book exploring the mystery of divine providence