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.

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Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

Well said — with Colosians 4 an exceptionally astute & applicable pull.

rorwal
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rorwal

Is Doug suggesting that Justus was a member of the Judaizers? Otherwise, I’m not sure how Justus simply being a Jew (“of the circumcision”) would be an argument for hanging out with Roman Catholics. Justus having been circumcised as a Jew in the past says nothing of his present doctrine.

Given Paul’s smack-down in response to Peter’s slip-up regarding simply *appeasing* the Judaizers, I can’t imagine Paul would actually join hands with one in his ministry.

I have to assume I’m simply missing the actual meaning of what Doug said. Perhaps someone can correct me here.

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

rorwal — it’s like folks who won’t drink for religious purposes.

They’re wrong — but it’s not a critical wrong.

Doug’s guess is that Justus prefers the folks be circumcised — but he’s not a Judiazer as such. because he doesn’t think it actually needs to be required.

jigawatt
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jigawatt

While Pastor Wilson does have a point here, I’m with rorwal about Col 4:11. I’ll need more evidence that “of the circumcision” means “of the circumcision party” rather than simply “a Jew.”

Also, from the ESV rendering, it would include Aristarchus and John Mark.

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

Another way to read Paul’s point about “of the circumcision” =

“I don’t have a prejudice against being a Jew.
See here — I even have a few working with me.
But very few.
So this crew make-up is my way of letting you know you don’t need to convert — but also don’t need to be scared of Jews.”

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

“of the circumcision”, however, is not a phrase I’ve found elsewhere used to substitute for simple “jew” or “israelite”.

On the other hand, where else is “of the circumcision” ever used in a positive or neutral term of art.

Hence such an interesting & astute read by Doug — if still unconvincing.

rorwal
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rorwal

eric Stampher “of the circumcision”, however, is not a phrase I’ve found elsewhere used to substitute for simple “jew” or “israelite”. Acts 10:45, though translated “circumcised believers”, is literally “of-the-circumcision faithful”. Romans 4:12 likewise calls Abraham the father “not only of the of-the-circumcision”. Romans 15:8 Paul says Christ is a servant of the of-the-circumcision and the Gentiles “Of the circumcision” seems mostly a reference to the Jews generally. When we’re told about the “party of the circumcision” in Galatians 2, that is in the context of telling people that those teachers are anathema and that Christ is of no benefit… Read more »

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

Beautiful work

John C
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John C

This becomes so much more clear when we define Sin not as stumbling into one of the laundry list of “Bad things” – Idolatry, sexual immorality, hate, et al…. But rather: Sin is setting your will against God’s will. PERIOD! Nothing else…. Once this is cleared up – it becomes obvious that any form of Self-Will is Sin because I am focusing on ME – not on God…. Ironically… That self will JUST AS EASILY hides under the guise of “Good behavior” as it does “Bad behavior”…. That’s the majesty of the book of Ecclesiastes… 10,000 ways of NOT finding… Read more »

bethyada
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The problem as I see it is that works threatens to replace faith. “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” So the condemnation is those who teach (and follow) works instead of faith because of where it leads. But if someone thinks faith and works they haven’t removed faith and faith is what matters.

rorwal
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rorwal

bethyada Actually, the language of “beginning” in faith and “being perfected” by works is just that — adding, not substituting. The Greek work is a bit more clear — perfect means complete. So he’s saying, “You think that you started this journey with faith, and you will complete your journey with the addition of works.” And nowhere in *any* of Paul’s writing does he suggest his opponents are replacing works and faith. They’re simply *adding* works to faith. The Judaizers weren’t saying (and not a single scholar or theologian would claim otherwise) that you *only* need circumcision and *not at… Read more »

timothy
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timothy

Living this was complicated as a young Christian; it takes a while for God to cook the merit out of a soul.

The old-man does not want to hear that he has no merit and God has a way of making that old yoke very uncomfortable for it.

The doctrine is important, but the process has to be lived.

Grace and Peace.

t

Matthew Paul Abel
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Matthew Paul Abel

Let us, indeed, leave the papists out of it. Instead, couldn’t we just say we’re discussing a fellow who claims to be Christian but cannot correctly articulate the doctrine of justification by faith alone? What we’re trying to determine is whether this fellow is actually a Christian bound for The promised land. In other words, aren’t we talking about assurance of salvation? This sure seems to be the case. Didn’t this start with “are C.S. Lewis and Tolkein saved?” Our salvation sure isn’t assured based on what one and cannot articulate about justification. Ironically for this discussion, what confirms our… Read more »

Dan Phillips
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So… how is Zane Hodges and the “Free Grace” movement wrong again, on this understanding?

Matthias
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Matthias

Matthew Paul Abel: Just a note, the question was regarding Tolkien and Chesterton. Incidentally, to some, that makes a difference. If a man can be forgiven for being unable to articulate correct doctrine, or alternately, for teaching incorrect doctrine, then I think a man can be forgiven for thinking someone will get to heaven who actually won’t. While we are very careful to emphasize sanctification as an outpouring or an entailment of justification, I think there’s a strong tendency to put a legalistic spin on grace. We don’t want to be anti-nomians, after all. Someone who teaches Arminianism to his… Read more »

Moor
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Moor

To add to what Matthew Paul Abel has so astutely pointed out, it seems as if the flip-side of this discussion has to do with the fact that sometimes even a commitment to sola fide can become a kind of works-righteousness (or faith + something else) system, with a proper articulation of the doctrine as the thing added. At face value, his statement (and I think mine) constitute the original parameters of the discussion. Granted, Doug introduced the Colossians passage in a way that has prompted some helpful exegetical work, and that ultimately might not serve his purpose in the… Read more »

John Rabe
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John Rabe

It seems to me you’re aiming your guns at D. James Kennedy a bit glibly here. (Full disclosure: I worked for him for a number of years, so I’m not a disinterested party.) Undoubtedly there are those (especially among the Reformed) who require a perfect-jots-and-tittles doctrine of justification in order to actually be justified. But that’s not what that question is about. Dr. Kennedy’s question, when actually evangelizing someone, is quite a good one. It’s a diagnostic question. If faith is not merely some mysterious, ineffable substance, we would (for the most part) expect someone to at least be able… Read more »

Clayton Hutchins
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Clayton Hutchins

Does being “of the circumcision” mean that they held to the false teaching Paul addressed in Galatians? Or could it just mean that they are Jewish Christians? I don’t see any exegetical reason to say it must be the former, and I see much evidence that it is the latter. Would Paul call someone a “fellow worker for the kingdom” (Col 4:11) who he pronounced an anathema on in Galatians 1? Paul seems very clear in Galatians that the false teaching amounts to a “different gospel” (Gal 1:6), that those who teach this heresy are unsaved (1:8-9), and that those… Read more »

Clayton Hutchins
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Clayton Hutchins

That’s the last time I use the one cross reference in my ESV people for a word study. :-) Turns out there are many other occurrences of the phrase “of the circumcision,” as @rorwal showed, and the linguistic evidence seems favorable for seeing the phrase as inherently a neutral one meaning “Jewish Christians.” Doug, if you’re reading along, I wonder how you’d reply to this. It seems that there is now a theological reason (from Galatians) and a linguistic reason (from other occurrences of the phrase) for viewing Aristarchus, Barnabas, and Justus in Colossians 4 as Jewish Christians, not Judiazers.

SarahS
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SarahS

I’m just stuck on why a good Catholic is a bad Catholic. I mean, I know I’M a bad catholic….but i also know Catholics (ie, the saints, canonized and non) who are/ were good Catholics bc of , not in spite of, being faithful, orthodox Catholics. And i think it’s extremely condescending to suggest otherwise. But I realize this is the wrong place to complain about that. Like I said, bad Catholic.

Moor
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Moor

@Sarah: FWIW, my sense was that a good Catholic is a bad Catholic because their commitment to the Roman Catholic Church and its attendant theological and doctrinal affirmations (dogma, if you will) means that their very “goodness” (at being Catholic) has connected them to what most Protestants would consider critically compromised affirmations (i.e. bad Catholic).

That’s how I read it anyway, which could very well mean that your bad Catholicism would be the very reason for you being a good Catholic (in the minds of Protestants, theologically).

Tim Mullet
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Tim Mullet

Dan, I am not following your objection. Zane Hodges would argue that salvation simply involves intellectual assent of the right facts of the gospel. Doug is, among other things, critiquing this understanding of saving faith. Saving faith does not simply involve an ability to intellectually pass a test administered by the celestials on justification. “We are justified by faith, not by our belief in justification by faith.” Doug is allowing that there are some situations where a person who is born again might be actually resting in the gospel, despite his stated theology. Regardless of whether or not this is… Read more »