New-fangled Christological Ideas

In this place my friend Tim Bayly takes my friend Peter Leithart to task for what he wrote here. What are we to take away from all this, besides “my, what interesting friends you have”? I read through Tim’s piece a couple times, and did the same through Peter’s, and here are a few preliminary thoughts on it all.

Tim is pretty severe with Peter, but if Tim is correct in his reading of what Peter is saying, then the severity is not misplaced. If Peter really is saying Calvin’s “maneuver” parallels Paul’s “maneuver,” and they are both equally suspect, then all Tim’s subsequent criticism rightly follows. At a minimum, I think Peter is confusing and needs to clarify whether Paul is an advocate of what he identifies as a problematic “atonement theology.” He also needs to clarify if the Pauline treatment of the events of Christ’s life really is a second order narrative.

In reading these posts, a possible defense of what Peter is writing occurred to me, and it is a defense that does rescue him from Tim’s censures. But in order for that defense to work at all, Peter has to be seen as abandoning our long-shared project of letting the Bible teach us how to read the Bible. In other words, there is a problem in both directions.

Peter says this:

“Allegorization of the Passion narratives isn’t a mistake. Paul does it, at least when he writes about our participation in the cross of Jesus. But one wonders if the allegory hasn’t moved too hastily from the literal to spiritual senses.”

Tim is reading Peter as saying that Paul has moved too hastily. Peter could reply that he explicitly says that Paul is making no mistake, but that followers of Paul (unnamed atonement theologians) do make that mistake. I will get to that shortly, but want to address another oddity first.
My initial concern is the idea that Christ dying for His elect is an “allegory.” Peter points to the fact that in the gospels, Jesus literally stands between the authorities and His friends, His disciples. If we come along later, as King Tirian did, and apply the death of Aslan for Edmund to a death that was for “all Narnia,” are we not adding a second layer to the text? Well, actually, no, not if Lewis wrote all seven books, not if all Scripture is breathed by God.

A Helicopter on the Front Lawn

This last week my friend Peter Leithart did some musing out loud about some problems that he identifies as resulting from an emphasis on the “legal status” of righteousness. One post, “How to Say, ‘I Am Righteous'” is here, and another related post on Luther and imputation/infusion can be found here.

In response I have some questions, some hesitations, some suggestions, some objections, and some exhortations. Here we go.

Peter argues that we hesitate to speak the way the psalmist sometimes does because of unbelief. Peter says that to say that I am legally righteous and existentially sinful is dualism — a dualism “fed and nurtured by Protestant preaching and teaching that treats the ‘legal me’ as righteous while consigning the ‘real, existential me’ or ‘my nature’ to the realm of sin.”

First, what is dualism exactly? I don’t think we can say that it occurs just because we have distinct nouns for distinct things. Sun and moon are two, as are heaven and earth, but do not represent dualism, and to affirm that God created mankind as male and female is not dualism either. So it seems that dualism occurs when two distinct things are put into an unbiblical relation to one another, or one thing that should remain as one is broken in two.

So justification and sanctification could be understood dualistically, just as a misogynist understands sex dualistically. But that is his rebellion, not a design feature. In a very non-dualistic way, the Westminster Confession sings justification and sanctification together in a very sweet harmony. It is certainly possible to differ with Westminster here (although I do not), but impossible, I think, to charge the Confession with dualism.

“Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love” (WCF 11.2).

“This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence arises a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh” (WCF 13.2)

This means that any Protestant preaching that consigns the “real me” to the realm of sin, to drown there in tubs of depravity, would be preaching that is, in addition to being unbiblical, radically unconfessional. As long as I have been Reformed I have been instructed on the distinction between reigning sin (which is no more) and remaining sin (which must addressed and dealt with by faith, in the whole man, on a daily basis). I have also been instructed, over and over, on the distinction between justification and sanctification, coupled with their inseparability. As I said before, this could all be wrong, but it seems to me that battalions of Reformed theologians have taken exquisite pains over the course of centuries to not be dualistic on the point.

But this leads to my central question. Having said all this, I do not dispute that Peter has seen the kind of disjunct that he describes. I don’t doubt that he has seen it because I have certainly seen it. There are more than a few Protestant preachers who wouldn’t recognize the Westminster Confession if it landed in their front yard in a helicopter. There is a functional dualism that is certainly out there. But what causes it?

Greg Boyd’s Demons

Someone has said that in politics a gaffe should be defined as accidentally speaking the truth. Another possibility that is not limited to the truth — or to politics, for that matter — is the option of someone saying what he actually thinks before anybody is quite ready for it yet. That is what Greg Boyd recently did — while walking through the meadows of peace and justice, he managed to step into a cow pie of certain inevitable consequences. I mean, that is what has to happen, right? If the cows of peace and justice eat all that grass, you are eventually going to get some cow pies.

With the concern that this particular metaphor is gotten away from me, let me come back around to the point. Boyd recently said this:

“As shocking as it is, this episode clearly suggests that Jesus regarded Elijah’s enemy-destroying supernatural feat to be ungodly, if not demonic.”

In response to this hootworthy sentiment, I have thus far said this and this.

Let us be frank. Greg Boyd is one of the cool kids. He is well-known pastor and writer, and his books sally forth from places like Baker and Zondervan. He is well placed in the evangelical firmament. He is adept at that unique talent that so many of his ilk — isn’t ilk a great word? — have, which is windsurfing the zeitgeist in such a way as to look like you don’t care about the wind at all. He is a hep cat of smooth jazz theology, lip-syncing the role of a wilderness prophet. This is admittedly an odd juxtaposition to pull off — lyrics about locusts and wild honey for dinner accompanied by finger snapping, gliding trombones, a high gloss floor, and a crisp snare drum — but it can be done. Think Mack the Knife.

But speaking of prophets, let us consider an actual one. John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah, and people thought he had a demon too (Matt. 11:18). Men in the grip of a priori religiosity like Boyd have never liked prophets. Prophets are angular, and don’t play well with others. They say things that are disruptive, like the ax being at the root of the tree (Matt. 3:10), which was kind of hurtful. Demonic even. I hate that guy, Ahab said. He never prophesies nice (1 Kings 22:8).

Now someone might try to clean up Boyd’s comment by saying that all this is really about maturation, and had Boyd spoken that way, he might have had a point. The process from Genesis to Revelation is a history of ethical, social, and cultural maturation, and examples are certainly not hard to come by. We should consider things like polygamy in this category. The New Testament speaks this same way, in multiple places, which is a good reason for accepting it. Revelation really is progressive, and the progression includes ethics.

But change from demonism to godliness is not maturation — it is conversion. And we should also keep in mind that God is not one of the characters who needs to mature.

Beneath all this lurks the real culprit, which is the hermeneutic being employed by Boyd, and the view of Scripture which this hermeneutic reveals. It is not enough to say “that’s in the Old Testament.” God’s enemies do awful things in the Old Testament, God’s friends do heroic things in the Old Testament, God’s friends do shabby things in the Old Testament, and then God Himself comes into the picture to command things to be done, a number of which things offend Greg Boyd’s white bread sensibilities.

And it is this last category which brings us to the showdown of the ages — the view of righteousness held by the Ancient of Days, compared to the view of righteousness held by upscale pastors in St. Paul, Minnesota.

God says this: “And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them” (Deut. 7:2).

Greg Boyd offers a contrary view: “One could go further, as does C. S. Cowles, and argue that Jesus’ teaching on enemy-loving non-violence ‘represents a total repudiation of Moses’ genocidal commands and stands in judgment on Joshua’s campaign of ethnic cleansing.'”

And all I can think of to say in response to this is “you go, girl.”

On the most charitable reading, Boyd was saying that Elijah’s fire-from-heaven work was possibly demonic. And he was certainly saying that it was ungodly. Bad, bad prophet!

But we are now stuck with the cherry pickers’ hermeneutic. We not only can recognize that Bible characters were capable of sinning, which virtually every Bible teacher in the history of the world has known, but we now have a hermeneutic that shows us that one of the central characters who had a lot of growing up to do was God Himself. I mean, Moses didn’t come up with the genocide idea himself; he was told to do it. By somebody. And when Elijah was busy consuming companies of soldiers by fifties with fire from heaven, somebody up in heaven — note this carefully — was helping him. Somebody had to supply the fire.

But once we have begun cherry picking, we find that we need a standard for evaluating cherries. How do we know, for example, that the jubilee laws were Good and the genocide laws were Bad? We need a standard. Fortunately, we have the standard right here — what all us white liberals thought already. We listen to NPR and know what’s what.

We cannot slip off the point by saying that the sovereign God of the Bible used Satan to accomplish His ends. This is true, but also well beside the point. God used Satan to cause David to take a census of Israel (1 Chron. 21; 2 Sam. 24:1). God used Satan to accomplish His holy purposes in the life of Job (Job 1:12, 21). God in His sovereignty controls evil, which is not the same thing as blurring the line between good and evil. God uses false prophets every bit as much as He uses true prophets (1 Kings 22:22-23), but this does not mean that the true prophets are false prophets. Most of us are good Calvinists; we don’t find such passages appalling because the Bible teaches that the sovereign God uses evil creatures to accomplish His holy ends. But this is quite different than saying a holy man is an unholy man. It is entirely different than saying a man in the grip of the Holy Spirit of God is actually trafficking with demons.

So when a good man does precisely what God has required him to do, however much this grates with Boyd’s cool vibe, the good man who obeys is right where he ought to be. To obey is better than to parse and slice.

Neither can we find Boyd a way out by saying that he was simply “raising questions.” No, he was making assertions. I take him as meaning “clearly suggests” when he says “clearly suggests.”

My response to this has been to warn Boyd about the blasphemy of attributing the work of God to the devil. That’s a scary business, right there. But we cannot object to this response of mine as an unwarranted reading of Boyd out of the faith. No, actually, Boyd is the one who is reading people out of the faith on this issue. “For Jesus, embodying enemy-loving non-violence was the precondition for being considered a child of God.”

And I actually agree with him about this one. Boyd is at least right about one thing — whether the Holy Spirit is really holy or not should be a watershed issue.

No Servants With Flamethrowers

Sometimes the Bible tells us not to accept certain outrageous things, and we wonder to ourselves, “did churches really need to be told that?” The answer is yes, they did. So do we.

For example, Paul once said that no one speaking by the Spirit could say certain things. “Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (1 Cor. 12:3). This is a head scratcher. Did anybody in a Christian church ever think that you could call Jesus accursed?

Well, the father of lies is good at what he does. We are saved because Jesus became a curse for us, dying under the curse of God (Gal. 3:13). This substitution is the glory of our salvation, but if we substitute something else for that, something that might sound like it, we are blaspheming. And the Spirit of the Lord is not the spirit of blasphemy.

Another example would be how the church at Thyatira was misled by that woman Jezebel. A bunch of them had been dragged off into the “deep things of Satan” (Rev. 2:24), which would seem to be a bad place to be dragged, would it not? Didn’t anybody cover that in the new members class?

Scissors and Library Paste

And now we come to a cautionary tale about what happens when a theologian is left alone with scissors, library paste, and a Bible. Greg Boyd is done with the hard work of letting the ski boat of hermeneutical silliness get him up on the surface, and he is now jumping the wake and doing flips. I mean, look.

Let me say just two things, and I will be succinct. I think.

First, look at how Boyd sets two portions of Scripture at odds with one another, and consider how unnecessary that capitulation is. In ancient times, private vengeance was mediated through the system of the blood avenger. The Mosaic code placed restrictions on this system by establishing cities of refuge. The old system was further restricted by the “eye for eye” code, by the lex talionis. When vengeance was in private hands, it frequently became a life for an eye, a life for a tooth. So the magistrate was required to execute strict justice in judgment himself, and this would remove a great deal of the emotional motivations for private vengeance. “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Ecc. 8:11).

Got that? Eye for eye was required of the magistrate. In the Lord’s day, that phrase was being used to justify private vengenace — in much the same way that someone today might use it. “He hit me so I hit him, Eye for eye.” The Lord was plainly correcting an abusive interpretation of Moses. He was not correcting Moses himself.

The Lord’s teaching, and Paul’s, is entirely and completely consistent with what was required of Moses by a holy God. Paul tells the Romans, for example, not to take private vengeance, but to leave room for the vengeance of God, which was going to be delivered by the magistrate with a sword (Rom. 12:19; 13:4).

But Boyd is not just muddled, although he is that. He has ascended the Mount of All Impudence, on the sides of the north, to walk amidst the stones of fire. His heart has been lifted up, and lo! he has there declared himself to be in charge of reversing black and white, inverting up and down, and substituting satin panties for plaid boxers (Is. 5:20).

“As shocking as it is, this episode clearly suggests that Jesus regarded Elijah’s enemy-destroying supernatural feat to be ungodly, if not demonic.”

I see. Marcion, call your office.

Stare at those words, and wonder mildly to yourself why fire from Heaven has not come down upon Woodland Hills — no, no, you mistake me. I am not falling into the trap the disciples fell into when they did not know what spirit they were of (Luke 9:55). I want fire to fall upon Woodland Hills the same way it happened at Pentecost. You know, to turn them into Christians.

Because the way it is now, their pastor just wrote that the Spirit that was upon Elijah, and was upon Elisha in double measure, and which came upon John the Baptist, the one who came in the Spirit and power of Elijah, in order to prepare the way for Jesus the Messiah . . . was demonic.

Friends, that is not what I would call a denominational difference.

Gospel Guardians

I want to follow up on our earlier discussion having to do with how much of the gospel a man can misunderstand or be ignorant of and still be saved by it. Can a faithful Roman Catholic, accepting what Rome erroneously teaches about the gospel and salvation, still be saved? This came up because of my answer to a question about the salvation of Chesterton and Tolkien. My answer to that is of course. Such men can be saved precisely because Rome is in error on this point. This reply causes consternation in some quarters, and I do understand why. This is my attempt to explain this carefully enough to avoid at least the wrong kind of misunderstanding.

The gospel is good news, it is gospel, precisely because it saves. A gospel that does not save is no gospel at all. So what is the content of the saving gospel? Here it is:

Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, was born as a member of the human race, lived a perfect sinless life on behalf of those He came to save, was crucified for their sins in accordance with the Scriptures, was buried, and was raised from the dead by the Father for our justification. He ascended into Heaven, where He intercedes with the Father for the sake of all those for whom He died. From that place He will one day come to judge the living and the dead.

That’s the gospel. The necessary response to this gospel is repentance and faith. In order to be saved a man must repent of his sins, and he must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. My basic point is that there is no variability in the gospel itself. There is, of necessity, a good deal of variability in human responses to the gospel. Fortunately, the impact of those variations is not really in our department — since God is the one who gives repentance and faith (Acts 5:31; 2 Tim. 2:25; Phil. 1:29: Eph. 2:8-9), it is up to Him to make sure that He gives the right kind.

So the first thing we must do is distinguish the objective gospel from the subjective reception of the gospel. The objective gospel cannot be altered — if it is altered in any way, it is no longer the saving gospel. The subjective response — repentance and faith — must be sincere, and in order to be sincere, it must be God-given. It cannot be sham repentance and it cannot be faux faith. But sincere doesn’t mean perfect.

Here is an illustration. Suppose the existence of a medicine for a fatal disease that is made up of five components. Suppose further that the label on the bottle says to do and/or not do five things while taking it — every three hours, don’t take it with Tylenol, etc. Now if you take any one of those five components away, you don’t have the medicine at all anymore. You can’t mess with anything; the medicine is what it is. But it is not quite the same with taking the medicine. Taking it every 2 hours is an error but not the same kind of error as taking a pill every three years. Taking Tylenol once by accident is a mistake, but not like doubling up on the Tylenol. The medicine is what it is. The regimen approximates. Now some patients die because they try to alter the medication, and others die because they did not follow instructions. Other patients, who also do not follow instructions, are nevertheless helped by the medicine. It may not seem fair, but that’s the way it is.

Now when guardians of the gospel claim that so and so is “altering” the gospel that saves, they frequently do not make the distinctions I am making here. There is a difference between changing the medicine and doing things with the medicine you ought not to do.

I am saying that in order to save anybody, the gospel has to be perfect. You can’t take any part of it away and have it remain gospel. But — and this is the glorious thing — it is not possible to take any part of it away. Jesus did what He did, and that great conquest cannot be undone. He rose from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and is completely out reach of the malevolence of sinners. The gospel is therefore unalterable.

You can claim to have altered it, and you can keep people from following the directions on the label on the bottle, and you can expedite the damnation of many in this way. Challenging God on such things is not a trifle, and can have a soul-destroying impact. Nevertheless, the medicine is still there — Jesus Christ died and rose — and this message can bring life out of death in many strange places. And to claim that the divine seed can germinate in some desert places is not to endorse the desert.

Now return to my statement of the saving gospel above. Who can be saved while failing to affirm what I said there? Well, babies for starters. They fail to affirm all kinds of things. I believe that babies who die in infancy are saved, and I believe that they are saved by the gospel. But their response to the gospel need not be the propositional equivalent to what was said by the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:37). Nevertheless, the gospel remains what it is, and when God saves them He does it by giving paedo-repentance and paedo-faith. You might not like this, but if you deny it — and you believe that little ones dying in infancy can still be saved — then either you must say they are saved without repentance and faith at all, or you must posit a miracle in which the Holy Spirit enables a zygote to say the Apostles’ Creed.

What about some Romanists who do more than fail to affirm? What about those who deny some of what I wrote above? First, let us make sure that we are weighing these things with equal weights and measures. Arminians deny some of it too. Arminianism and Rome share the same central error. Do not consign John Paul II to Hell on grounds that apply equally to Billy Graham.

Remember that denial of one of the five components of the medicine doesn’t make that component go away. This is why there are people who are blessed by the imputation of the righteousness of Jesus Christ who themselves deny that any such imputation ever took place. At the same time, we must never forget the false brothers in Galatia who were damned precisely because they added human effort to the finished work of Christ. Two patients are in the same ward, and both of them don’t follow instructions. One dies and the other lives. Having a problem with that means that we are somehow trying to wrest control of the salvation process from the hands of Almighty God, which we ought not to do.

So in the meantime, if in the interests of maintaining a pure gospel, you require all patients to become pharmacists of precision, the central problem is that you are not maintaining a pure gospel of free grace. Human pride can feed upon doctrines as well as upon works, as John Newton once put it.

More could be said about all this, of course, and probably will be.

Dogs and Brothers

If you would be so kind, please allow me to say a few more things about how essential sola fide is. A few weeks back, I did a segment with Darren Doane on Ask Doug about whether Tolkien and Chesterton were saved, followed it up with a few posts here, and then earlier this week James White interacted with my Ask Doug bit on his show The Dividing Line.

If you ask me what the gospel is, I am going to give you as much of it as I can — the person and work of Jesus, His death for our sins, His burial and His resurrection for our justification, and all in accordance the Scriptures. Now assume for the sake of discussion that I get my statement of the gospel absolutely correct. What I just declared in my proclamation is a very different question than how much of what I said has to be fully comprehended and believed by someone in order for them to be saved.

Sometimes the pure gospel is preached, but it is heard in confused ways, but the person hearing is still saved. Sometimes it is heard more accurately, but the person hearing is not saved. Sometimes the confusion is on the part of the preacher, and listeners are saved despite that. Other times the gospel is set forth with excruciating precision and everybody involved in the process, preacher and congregants alike, are all equally damned. And then there are glorious times when the preacher declares the truth, the listeners hear the truth, and God adds daily to the number of the saints.

So “what is the gospel?” is one question. A related but very different question is “how much of that gospel does God need to use in order to save somebody?” I have a friend who got saved watching a movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon back in the day, a movie in which the gospel elements would have to be described as anemic. My mother was dragged forward at a revival by a friend who had been urged to go forward herself by an elderly lady, and because she wasn’t about to go down there by herself, she grabbed my mom. My mother went home and told her family that she had gotten saved, and they asked what that meant. She said, “I shook the preacher’s hand.” But the next morning, because she was a Christian now, she got up in the morning to read her Bible, and never looked back. These are not methods I commend to you. Don’t try this at home, in other words.

God’s sovereignty in His use of slender means is not an authorization to us to make the means as slender as we can. We are not to sin that grace may abound. No, rather we should seek to make our evangelistic means as robust as we can.
I know what the pure gospel is. I also know what a bowl of sugar is. But how much sand can you put in the sugar bowl before it is no longer the sugar bowl? I don’t know, but I know there is a point where that happens, and I know that we are not supposed to test God.

“Look at it this way, and let us leave Roman Catholics out of it for just a minute. Could a man be damned because of his connection with the circumcision party? Of course. They were dogs and evil workers (Phil. 3:2). They were unruly, vain talkers, and deceivers (Tit. 1:10). That said, could a man be saved and useful to Paul in the work of the gospel despite his connection to the circumcision party? Well, again — because of God’s inexorable grace — of course. ‘And Jesus, which is called Justus, who are of the circumcision. These only are my fellow-workers unto the kingdom of God, which have been a comfort unto me’ (Col. 4:11).”

Paul says that Justus is “of the circumcision.” This cannot mean simply that he is a Jew, because that would mean that Paul himself would also be “of the circumcision.” There were members of the circumcision party who were God-haters. There were members of “the circumcision” who were not. Some of them were false brothers, and some were not.

My view — not willing to go to the stake for this one, understand — is that John Mark, the author of our second gospel was “of the circumcision.” I also think he was the rich, young ruler, but that is for another time. Mark’s gospel is the only one that records that the Lord looked at him and loved him (Mark 10:21). I also think he was the young man who ran away the night of Christ’s arrest (Mark 14:51-52), another singular detail from Mark’s gospel. But that also is something for another time.

Anyhoo, according to early church tradition, John Mark got his info about Jesus from Peter, who was apostle to the Jews. He accompanied Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey and when he abandoned ship is telling (Acts 13:13). It was at the first convenient port after Paul had presented the gospel cold to his first Gentile, a conversion with no visible tie to the Jews (Acts 13:7). This also explains Paul’s strong aversion to John Mark shortly after, to such an extent that he parted with Barnabas over his possible inclusion on the next missionary journey. Paul’s concern was doctrinal, and not that John Mark had been a sissy. Before Paul and Barnabas split up, the Jerusalem Council had decided in Paul’s favor, and John Mark was apparently willing to go along with their decision, but Paul was not yet convinced that he had gotten rid of all his Judaizing cooties. Later on, years later the apostle Paul was convinced — John Mark was useful to him in ministry (2 Tim. 4:11).

I believe that John Mark, like Justus, was “of the circumcision.” I believe that before the Jerusalem Council, he was on the wrong side. After the Jerusalem Council, he was okay. But after the Jerusalem Council, some of the factions and parties were still distinguishable. And among the circumcision, it was important to distinguish the dogs from the brothers.

Treacherous Merit Ladders

A few days ago I told a little story about a justification test being administered at the Pearly Gates. If you missed it, you can find it here. And now comes a magnificent article on the same subject by Mark Jones over at Ref21.

It is not a trivial point. Years ago a woman, talking about D. James Kennedy’s approach of asking people what they would say at the Pearlies if they were asked “why should you be allowed in Heaven?” — with the correct answer being something like “because of the death of Jesus alone” — responded along the lines of “gee, I hope I remember to say that.”

The point is a simple one. We are justified by faith in Christ alone, and that is not the same thing as being justified by correct answers about justification by faith alone.

But in the comments to my post, a worthy objection was raised and it needs to be addressed separately.

“Except Paul says in Galatians that those teaching a Gospel of faith-plus-works are anathema, and says to those following that so-called ‘Gospel’ that Christ is of no benefit to them. Doug is using an extreme no one is playing at here. When the Romanists add works, our complaint is not that they fail to be 100% perfect on the exam, but simply that they add works — that is, they do the thing that makes Christ of no benefit to them, and everyone teaching that message is anathema.”

This point is well-taken, up to a point. What about those who, by advancing false methods of justification, reveal themselves to be false brothers? What about those who craft systems that attempt to lean treacherous merit ladders against the walls of God’s great city of grace? This includes, by the way, those whose systems of merit are entirely confessional and which insist that we deny merit entirely. When the heart is darkened, an adamant denial of all merit ladders is the most treacherous merit ladder of all — that thing is virtually invisible.

But the point I have been making is not that you cannot be damned because of a denial of sola fide. Of course you can. Paul warns the Galatians the way he did because that was a matter of some urgency. But our issue is quite a separate one — whether everyone who is confused or muddled by false teaching is equally damned. In Galatians, Paul is attacking wolves. We have turned it into a justification for attacking mangled sheep. Precisionists often operate as the clean-up crew for the wolves, finishing them off.

Look at it this way, and let us leave Roman Catholics out of it for just a minute. Could a man be damned because of his connection with the circumcision party? Of course. They were dogs and evil workers (Phil. 3:2). They were unruly, vain talkers, and deceivers (Tit. 1:10). That said, could a man be saved and useful to Paul in the work of the gospel despite his connection to the circumcision party? Well, again — because of God’s inexorable grace — of course. “And Jesus, which is called Justus, who are of the circumcision. These only are my fellow-workers unto the kingdom of God, which have been a comfort unto me” (Col. 4:11).

If Paul can pal around with Justus, I can pal around with good Roman Catholics (who are, for that reason, bad Roman Catholics). But — also in imitation of Paul — I reserve the right and responsibility to attack merit mongers wherever they might be, whether in the Vatican or in some high confessional tower overlooking Escondido.