When I had the idea of writing a series on the “New Perspective,” I initially thought that it would be a group of posts about its intricacies and arguments, how it distorts and misunderstands the Gospel. But then I realized – it’s simply not that interesting.
That’s not to say that the New Perspective is unimportant, just that there is nothing that I would write about it that hasn’t already been (better) said/written regarding the way it misunderstands sin, God, and people. (Other than that, it’s really good stuff). If any of you are interested in the details of the “New Perspective” argument, please go to www.thepaulpage.com, because for our purposes, the particulars of what N.T Wright and co. have discovered in relation to rules of table fellowship in 1st century Palestine, while helpful in a social-studies-fair sort of way, is not as important as the profound misunderstanding of the Gospel that the larger movement reveals. I’m sure that not everyone will agree with my assessment, and I look forward to hearing what you think.
When reading proponents of any of these supposedly “new” takes on the Gospel, its clear that they all spring from the same fountainhead of righteous indignation. Fed by disillusionment with the church universal, these movements claim to have found a new way of understanding Christianity and want to rescue the Gospel from narcissistic, individualistic, a-political, a-communial, “Western” people, who have overemphasized “Luther’s understanding of Justification.” This (perceived) over-emphasis, it is argued, has been the cause of everything from church disunity to global warming.
So, I realized that what I was really interested in was this fundamental disenchantment with “Justification by Faith alone”, and what, if anything, the Gospel has to say about this. By “Gospel”, I mean the particular message of God’s justifying act through the Cross—not some sort of abstract conception of Love, the holiness of beauty, or a thinly-veiled neo-Marxist socio-political agenda. At the end of the day, the “New Perspective” and many of its arguments can be lumped together with those made by Brian McLaren and the “Emergent” church, those arguing for a “New Monasticism”, and similar movements. When the focus of a preached message is on what your response or duty should be as opposed to what God has done for you in Christ, you can be sure you are not hearing the Gospel.
While I admit that it may be reductionist to lump all of these movements into the same camp, church history does show that there has been, essentially, only one argument against the Gospel message from its inception: preaching Justification by Faith alone will bless sin, increase lawlessness, and let people “get away with murder.” Based upon this fear, it is argued that the Gospel must contain the imperatives necessary to answer Francis Schaeffer’s famous question, How Then Shall We Live? In every instance, these imperatives eventually become standards by which one can know (in the words of Heidi) if he/she is either “in or out.” In his book What St.Paul Really Said, renowned Anglican theologian N.T Wright states, “Justification is not a matter of how someone enters the community of the true people of God, but of how you tell who belongs to that community”(119). This is no mere semantic debate; at stake here is the very understanding of the relationship between God and man. It is my contention that these arguments, in all forms, rest on a misunderstanding of the distinction between the Law and Gospel.
This distinction is not an addendum to Christianity, nor is it some sort of esoteric idea. It is the only message that makes sense of the Bible, the Cross, and our lives. How are the people in Myanmar supposed to understand that “God is Love?” What does the message of being part of a “New Covenant community,” have to offer one diagnosed with terminal cancer? Where is the hope of being one part of the “ancient mystery,” or in the “5th act of the narrative of Redemptive history,” when your spouse leaves you? It is in these sorts of instances, where abstractions break down and idealism is destroyed, that despair sets in.
Dr. Mark Mattes, in The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology, explains:
That people are unaware that they are under God’s wrath does not mean that they are unaffected by it. That people substitute creatures as their ‘higher power’ in place of the creator implies by definition that they subordinate themselves to an idol and suffer the consequences of separation from their true source of life. They thus experience God’s wrath, which hands them over to their sin. This wrath, for Europeans and North Americans, is finally nothing other than the apparent meaninglessness of it all—and ‘eternal recurrence of the same’ (Nietzsche) outside of Christ. . .”(183)
This is the missional understanding of the Law that forces a rejection of the New Perspective and all other such iterations of the “Gospel,” on the grounds that they do not do justice to the place where people actually live. In contrast to much of (what passes for) contemporary theology–which sees the Cross as more of a metaphor/motivational tool than a continuing reality–what we’re trying to do here is re-focus the wonderful, hopeful, life-giving message of the Gospel on the specific areas of human experience that the are most universally affirmed and easily verifiable: longing, fear, despair, disillusionment and loss.
In the last paragraph of Chapter 5 of the AA Big Book is the following statement, “In this book you will read again and again that faith did for us what we could not do for ourselves”(70-71). This counterintuitive pattern of complete surrender preceding victory has been so successful that it has spawned countless other groups aimed at helping the oppressed find freedom. It is no coincidence that the founder of AA was a Christian, the Rev. Sam Shoemaker. AA is so successful is because it encapsulates and communicates, in non-religious language, the message of the Gospel. As Jesus says in John 12:24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”(ESV). The death to life pattern of AA forces the alcoholic to admit defeat, to die so that he/she can be freed. For the Christian, this posture of defeat, of utter helplessness, forces complete reliance on the mercy of God founded on the promises purchased by the Cross.
This is the Gospel; this is the message of the Bible. It is not abstract. It is not conceptual. It is the “old, old message,” continually proclaimed, that, “if anyone sins they have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous.” This is the message for Peter who cried out “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man”(Lk 5:8) and Paul who asks, “Oh Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”(Rom 7:24). The promise of the Gospel assures us that that the words of Isaiah 42:3 still stand, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench. . .”(ESV).
Thanks be to God.