Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Assurance and “Fear and Trembling” from the text of Paul’s letters

Over at Reformation21, Noel Weeks has posted the second part of his two-part series, Background in Biblical Interpretation.

Weeks offers a piece of guidance that is always important to keep in mind, especially in discussions of Sola Scriptura with Roman Catholics:

First and most important of all, the biblical text must have priority. If the explanation does not fit what the text itself tells us, it is wrong.

How different is this thought from the notion that “the Church has the authority to tell us what the interpretation is”.

This rule comes to mind in a discussion that Dennis (formerly “TheDen”) is having over at Green Baggins.

Dennis (158) said:

Scripture explains clearly throughout…that we are called to love Christ and in love we are obedient to Him.

Well no kidding. Does he think Protestants are not cognizant of this?

But we are not obedient because it somehow “increases” our justification. That is the notion that is unbiblical.

The problem with Roman Catholicism is that after God speaks his Word, the Roman Catholic Church has imposed meanings on the text that simply aren’t there. It may be that some church father misunderstood something, or had some axe to grind, and that church father was believed to have some authority, and thus, the “new meaning”, which is called “Tradition”, is precisely the thing that Jesus talked about in Matt 15: “You nullify the Word of God for your tradition”.

The result is that Christians may find assurance in the form that Calvin describes it: “our salvation flows from the wellspring of God’s free mercy” in the form of “election from before the foundation of the world”, which cannot ever be revoked. “How much the ignorance of this principle detracts from God’s glory…”

Instead of seeking God’s word and His glory, Roman Catholics instead find themselves working at unbiblical rituals (the Mass, confession, and even Bryan Cross’s ritual of saying an Act of Contrition every time you sin) – things which, by the way take attention away from God’s actual promises, and put the attention on the question, “am I doing the right things?”

Whatever kind of authority that Christ gave to the church, it is not “authority” to change the terms of God’s promises.

Dennis continues:

Preceding Ephesians 2:8-9, in v. 2, Paul explains how they “once lived following the age of this world…” and how the spirit is now at work in the disobedient.

To me, this implies that those who are saved by grace through faith are obedient (seeing as how they were once “disobedient.”)

Notice how the spirit of the age has crept into Dennis’s “analysis”: “To me, this implies …” In many cases, Roman Catholics do not even rely on their church’s teaching.

But Dennis is missing a whole lot of the process here, and that leads him to wrong conclusions. What he is missing is contained in statements like these [from the text that he fails to cite]:

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have [it is accomplished] redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us [it is accomplished]. …In him we were also chosen [it is accomplished], having been predestined [it is accomplished] according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked [applied] in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance [accomplished] until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

This all reflects the language [the text] of Romans 8 as well: chosen before the creation of the world to be holy … predestined to adoption for sonship … freely given … redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins …

In Romans 8, this “golden chain” is “foreknown” [and all of this is completed past tense], “predestined”, “called”, “justified”, “glorified”.

This is all accomplished in the decree of God. Just as we cannot add an inch to our stature, we cannot add one iota of righteousness to the status that God has given to us “before the creation of the world”: “holy and blameless in his sight”. We get this information “from the text”.

To be sure, we are born “disobedient”, “dead in transgressions and sin”. There came a point at which our lives intersect with God’s decree that we be “holy and blameless in his sight”. At that point, it is “applied” to us: “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ”. At that point, we are “raised up with Christ, and seated in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus”.

This is the context for the verse, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” And of course, this is the context for this: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Of course, the purpose for being made “holy and blameless in his sight” has a purpose, and that is given in verse 7: “in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

And that leads in to Dennis’s next comment:

In Philippians 2:12, Paul mentions obedient as you have always been… [emphasis in original] which implies that it’s obedience that is key to working out your salvation in fear and trembling.

So, in both cases, Paul is explaining that we need to love Christ by being obedient to Him in all things. If we are disobedient (e.g. by not forgiving all who have sinned against us) then we would not be saved. as we are not loving Christ as He commands us to forgive our neighbor 70×7 times

Dennis again is imposing foreign meanings onto the text.

The commenter Peter O’Brien notes, in the words “just as you have always obeyed”, Paul “probably has in mind their initial response to the divine summons in the gospel he preached (cf. Acts 16:14-32-33).

Our “working out our salvation in fear and trembling” then (Phil 2:12) is not because we should somehow fear the loss of this incredible salvation that God has bestowed on us. The “fear and trembling” is awe before God. In context, O’Brien says, commenting on the Greek text, “work out your own salvation” “is an exhortation to common action, urging the Philippians to show forth the graces of Christ in their lives, to make their eternal salvation fruitful in the here and now as they fulfill their responsibilities to one another as well as to non-Christians”. We may do these good works – we are blessed to do them because they show the grace of Christ, and those who are disobedient cannot at all do them – first, because they are “prepared in advance that we may walk in them”, and second, “to show “the incomparable riches of his grace”. “Obedience” is a privilege. It is the key to “showing the incomparable riches of his grace”.

The “fear and trembling” is a man-ward kind of humility, the awe that He has given us the task of being the Christ-bearers in the world. It is the same notion given in 1 Cor 2:3, 2 Cor 7:15; Eph 6:5, and O’Brien notes, the expression is synonymous with humility” and it connotes the healthy respect the Philippians are to have for one another. Thus, the phrase with its manward orientation indicates the way they are to live out this salvation.

See these verses:

1 Corinthians 2:3: “I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.”

Is Paul afraid of losing his salvation? No, he came in humility. He says, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” Your faith does not rest on anything you do, but on “God’s power”.

2 Corinthians 7:15: “we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was, because his spirit has been refreshed by all of you. I had boasted to him about you, and you have not embarrassed me. But just as everything we said to you was true, so our boasting about you to Titus has proved to be true as well. And his affection for you is all the greater when he remembers that you were all obedient, receiving him with fear and trembling. I am glad I can have complete confidence in you.”

Again, the Corinthians here exhibited a Pauline “fear and trembling”, exhibiting humility and hospitality toward Titus.

Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.”

Again, “fear and trembling” is a man-ward orientation. True, God is watching, and true, God rewards our service to him.

But in the case of the Philippians, the “fear and trembling” is not fear that they’ll lose their salvation. “Fear and trembling” is the attitude that they are to bear in front of each other (and those non-Christians around them) which gives glory to Christ.

The Roman Catholic Hermeneutic involves beginning with Roman doctrine, and then looking for isolated verses in Scripture that can be used to somehow “show support” for those doctrines.

That’s because Roman doctrines cannot be derived from Scripture, and in fact, are contradicted by the Scriptures.


  1. Note how Joel addresses his audience, Joel 1:2.

    First, the elders, the leadership, those who should "mediate" in a sense the Word of the Lord (v1) to the people.

    Then, in the next breath (or the same breath), Joel goes ahead and bypasses those same elders, and directly addresses the people.

    He ensures by the will of God that even if the elders should fail their charges, the Word of the Lord has also come to the ears of the people themselves, and they are duty-bound to receive it, though it comes to them mediated through a weak "disguise."

    The authority is never in the man, but in the Message.

    1. Thanks Bruce -- again, I think that's the importance of understanding the whole Bible -- God doesn't change the way he operates over time. It is always the message of God's word.