When it comes to our justification–our legal standing before God–our own good works are in no way the grounds of God’s declaration that we are “righteous.” Indeed, that is the very thing that makes the gospel good news. We are saved not by what we have done, but by what Christ has done. We are accepted by God not because of our works, but in spite of them.
But what does God think of our good works after we are saved? Here is where, unfortunately, Christians often receive mixed messages. Somewhere along the way we have begun to believe that our pride is best held in check, and God’s grace is most magnified, when we denigrate all our efforts and all our labors as merely “filthy rags” in the sight of God (Is 64:6) .
But does God really view the Spirit-wrought works of his own children in such a fashion? Is God pleased with only Christ’s work, and always displeased with our own?
Not at all. Time and time again, the Scriptures show that God is pleased with the righteousness deeds of the saints. God was pleased with Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God” (Gen 6:9). God was pleased with Zechariah and Elizabeth: “And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). Christ was pleased with Mary’s gift of perfume (Mark 14:6), a deed he called “beautiful.” Christ was pleased with the widows offering: “She put in more than all of them” (Luke 21:3).
Indeed, one could say that the entire “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11 is a catalog of the great deeds of the saints that are held up by the Scriptures as noteworthy. Think of all that was done by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, David, Samuel, and others. Are all their deeds “filthy rags” in God’s sight?
Of course, we should not be surprised that God is pleased with the good works of his people. As Hebrews 11:1–2 tells us, God is pleased with these works precisely because they were done out of faith. They are good works that are generated from the work of God’s own Spirit in the hearts of the saints (Eph 2:10). Sure, they are not perfect works—they are always tainted by sin to some degree. And, yes, we cannot think for a moment that they merit salvation. They do not. But they are the works of God’s own sons and daughters, and he delights in them.
This larger biblical context can provide the proper framework for understanding the intent of passages like Is 64:6. The “filthy rags” in this passage is not a reference to the Spirit-wrought works of the regenerate, but the outward religious grandstanding of the wicked (see Isaiah 58). This understanding allows John Piper to say the following:
It is terribly confusing when people say that the only righteousness that has any value is the imputed righteousness of Christ. I agree that justification is not grounded on any of our righteousness, but only the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. But sometimes people are careless and speak disparagingly of all human righteousness, as if there were no such thing that pleased God. They often cite Isaiah 64:6 which says our righteousness is as filthy rags…. [But] when my sons do what I tell them to do—I do not call their obedience “filthy rags” even if it is not perfect. Neither does God. All the more because he himself is “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” (Hebrews 13:21). He does not call his own, Spirit-wrought fruit, “rags” (Future Grace, 151–152).
In a similar fashion, the Westminster Confession offers a wonderfully balanced perspective on how God views the good works of his own people:
Yet notwithstanding, the person of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works are also accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreproveable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF 16.6).
This recognition that God’s delight in the works of his people is not, as some might think, a recipe for pride, but rather a tremendous (and much needed) encouragement to those of us who are laboring in ministry. Truth be told, ministry can be difficult. Our efforts can seem futile. We often find ourselves spent and exhausted.
What a refreshment to our souls to know that our Father in heaven actually delights in these labors. It is like salve on our blisters, and a balm to our aching muscles to know that he is pleased with the faith-driven works of his children.
He is like a Father who sees the painting his five-year-old brought home from school. He doesn’t pour scorn on the effort because it is not a Rembrandt. Instead, he takes the painting, with all its flaws, and sticks it on the refrigerator for all to see.
Indeed, it is this very hope—that God might be pleased with our labors—that Jesus lays out as a motive for us in our ministries. For our hope is that one day we might hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:23).
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
Over the years, biblical scholars have challenged the historicity of the canonical gospels on a number of fronts. But no gospel has taken it on the chin like the Gospel of John. Ever since Clement of Alexandria’s famous statement that the gospel of John was “a spiritual Gospel” (recorded in Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.14.7) critics have suggested that John has very little to do with history and has much more to do with theology.
The reasons for such critiques of John are not difficult to find. John writes the story of Jesus in a lengthy, drawn-out style (quite different than the pithy language of the Synoptics), he includes unique events (e.g., the man born blind, raising Lazarus from the dead), and, most of all, he highlights the divinity and pre-existence of Jesus (“In the beginning was the Word”).
If you want to know about the Jesus of history, the gospel of John, we are told, is not the place to go.
But is it really true that John is more theology than history? In 2007, Richard Bauckham published an article in NTS entitled, “Historiographical Characteristics of the Gospel of John,” which answers precisely this question. In my opinion, Bauckham’s article has not received the attention it deserves.
In his article, Bauckham argues that John bears certain characteristics that his readers would have understood as historiographical—meaning they would have understood it to be a work of history. And these characteristics are actually more prominent in John than in the Synoptics. Let me just mention three of them.
1. Topography/Geography. John exhibits impressive knowledge of the places where the events of Jesus’ life took place. John’s numerous geographical references have been tested and found to be very accurate. But even more than this, John is often much more specific than the Synoptics. He adds a layer of detail and precision that does not occur as often in the other three gospels, which tend to be more general in their geographical references.
2. Eyewitness Testimony. In the ancient world, good history was eyewitness history. For a historical account to be credible, a historian either needed to have witnessed the events himself, or he needed to have received his information from someone who did witness those events. Here, the Gospel of John stands out because it expressly claims to have been written by the “beloved disciple” (21:24) who was an eyewitness from the beginning (1:35-40) and present at the last supper (13:23).
3. Length of Discourses. While scholars suggest that John’s gospel must be embellished because the discourses are so much longer than the Synoptics, Bauckham makes almost the opposite point, namely that the Synoptics are more likely abbreviated versions of longer speeches. The Synoptic gospels give evidence of being summaries or condensed version of Jesus’ actual teachings (they are not for this reason unreliable; this was just what historians sometimes had to do). This leads to the rather surprising reality that John’s lengthy discourses are, historically speaking, more realistic than the Synoptics. They capture more accurately what Jesus would have probably sounded like.
All of these considerations leave us with a rather counter-intuitive conclusion—at least from the perspective of modern critical scholarship—namely that John’s gospel actually contains clearer historiographical credentials than the Synoptics. After all the hits that John’s gospel has taken over the years, this is remarkable fact.
It is a reminder, once again, that the “consensus” of the academy has its limitations. Indeed, sometimes the truth lies in the opposite direction. Thus, when it comes to John’s gospel, one can truly say, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
“You can’t say everything.” This is one of the refrains I often cite to my students as we discuss historical documents. When ancient authors put quill to papyrus (or parchment), we need to remember that they had a limited amount of space, a limited amount of time, a limited number of goals, and often a very specific purpose for which they wrote.
Inevitably, therefore, an historical account will include some things that other historical accounts (of the same event) might omit, and they might omit some things that other historical accounts might include.
This reality is particularly important to remember when the Gospel accounts are analyzed and compared with one another. Differences aren’t (necessarily) the same as contradictions. Each author inevitability gives a limited perspective on the whole. They can’t say everything.
Unfortunately, in Bart Ehrman’s recent book, How Jesus Became God–The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (HarperOne, 2014), this particular principle goes unheeded. In order to demonstrate contradictory Christologies in the New Testament (particularly amongst the Gospels), Ehrman leans heavily on what the Gospel authors don’t say. Put directly, Ehrman uses an argumentum ex silentio (argument from silence).
This discussion of Ehrman’s use of the argument from silence will be the final installment of a series of posts interacting with and responding to his new book (for the prior post see here, here, and here).
For Ehrman, a central example of contradictory Christologies comes from comparing Mark with Matthew and Luke. Mark, he argues, believes Jesus became divine only at his baptism and was a mere man prior to that point. Matthew and Luke, in contrast, present Jesus as divine even from birth (since he was born to a virgin).
But how does Ehrman know that Mark rejects the virgin birth and therefore rejects the higher Christology that goes with it? Simple: Mark doesn’t mention it. Ehrman states,
[Jesus] was already adopted to be God’s Son at the very outset of his ministry, when John the Baptist baptized him. This appears to be the view of the Gospel of Mark, in which there is no word of Jesus’s pre-existence or of his birth to a virgin. Surely if this author believed in either view, he would have mentioned it (238).
Here is where we see the clear use of the argument from silence. Ehrman assumes that if a New Testament author doesn’t mention something, then they must not believe it. But there is a reason why arguments from silence are regarded as fallacious. As noted above, we simply do not know why an author included some things and not others, and it is very dangerous to suppose that we do.
Think, for example, of Paul’s discussion of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor 11:23–26—a topic he never discusses anywhere else. Now, imagine for a moment that (for some reason), we didn’t have 1 Corinthians. We might conclude that Paul didn’t know about Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper; indeed, we might even conclude that Paul didn’t believe in the institution of the Lord’s Supper. And we would be flat out wrong.
Likewise, to suppose that Mark’s omission of the virgin birth means he doesn’t believe in the virgin birth (and thus must not share Matthew and Luke’s Christology) is an unsustainable line of reasoning. After all, Mark doesn’t even include a birth account! Should we conclude from that fact that he didn’t believe Jesus was born at all? Indeed, Mark omits many other stories that the other Gospels include; shall we conclude that he did not know any of them? Historical records are inevitably limited in scope; an author cannot say everything. Thus, we cannot draw hard and fast conclusions about things an author did not include.
Later, Ehrman makes the same argument from silence again. This time, he wants to show that Matthew and Luke don’t share John’s view of Jesus as pre-existent. He states:
I should stress that these virginal conception narratives of Matthew and Luke are by no stretch of the imagination embracing the view that later became the orthodox teaching of Christianity. According to this later view, Christ was a pre-existent divine being who ‘became incarnate through the Virgin Mary.’ But not according to Matthew and Luke. If you read their accounts closely, you will see that they have nothing to do with the idea that Christ existed before he was conceived. In these two Gospels, Jesus comes into existence at the moment of his conception. He did not exist before (243).
Notice particularly the last line: “He did not exist before.” But, how does Ehrman know that Matthew and Luke don’t believe Jesus existed before? Do they state such a thing anywhere? No. Ehrman is simply assuming this because they don’t directly mention Jesus’ pre-existence. In other words, he assumes this because Matthew and Luke are silent on the matter.
In the end, the repeated use of the argument from silence suggests that Ehrman is more intent on finding contradictions than he is on simply exploring the Christology of the New Testament authors. But if one gives historical documents the benefit of the doubt, and doesn’t assume that omissions of a fact equal rejection of a fact, then the Gospel accounts actually prove to be quite complementary in regard to their understanding of Jesus as the divine Son of God.
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
Note: This is the first installment of a new blog series announced here.
This new blog series is designed to help the lay believer learn some basic facts about the New Testament canon—the kind of facts that might be helpful in a conversation with a skeptic or inquisitive friend. The first of these facts is one that is so basic that it is often overlooked. It is simply that the New Testament books are the earliest Christian writings we possess.
One of the most formidable challenges in any discussion about the New Testament canon is explaining what makes these 27 books unique. Why these and not others? There are many answers to that question, but in this blog post we are focusing on just one: the date of these books. These books stand out as distinctive because they are earliest Christian writings we possess and thus bring us the closest to the historical Jesus and to the earliest church. If we want to find out what authentic Christianity was really like, then we should rely on the writings that are the nearest to that time period.
This is particularly evident when it comes to the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are the only gospel accounts that derive from the first century. Sure, there are a few scholars who have attempted to put the Gospel of Thomas in the first century, but this has not met with much success. After all the scholarly dust has settled, even critics agree that these four are the earliest accounts of Jesus that we possess.
Now, a few qualifications are in order. First, it should be noted that there are disagreements about the dating of some New Testament books. Some critical scholars have argued that some New Testament books are forgeries written in the second century. Meanwhile, other scholars have defended the authenticity (and first-century date) of these books. This is a debate that we cannot delve into here. However, even if these debated books are left aside in our discussions, we can still affirm that the vast majority of the New Testament writings (including the four gospels) still remain the earliest Christian writings we possess.
Second, some may point out that 1 Clement is a Christian writing that dates to the first century, and it is not included in the New Testament canon. True, but the consensus date for 1 Clement is c. 96 A.D. This date is later than all our New Testament books. The only possible exception is Revelation, which is dated, at the latest, around 95-96 A.D. But some date Revelation earlier. Even so, this does not affect the macro point we are making here.
Just to be clear, we are not arguing here that books are canonical simply because they have a first century date. Other Christian writings existed in the first century that were not canonical—and perhaps we will discover some of these in the future. Our point is not that all first century books are canonical, but that all our canonical books are first century. And that is a point worth making.
In the end, every Christian should remember one basic fact, namely that the New Testament books are distinctive because, generally speaking, they are the earliest Christian writings we possess. None are earlier. If so, then it seems that the books included in the New Testament are not as arbitrary as some would have us believe. On the contrary, it seems that these are precisely the books we would include if we wanted to have access to authentic Christianity.
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
Dr. Michael J. Kruger is President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC. In addition, he is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serve as an Associate Pastor (part-time, of course) at my home church, Uptown PCA.