Monday, May 5, 2008

Senator Obama on biblical interpretation?

The Reverend Jeremiah Wright has stirred a lot of controversy with some of his inflammatory remarks about the good old U. S. A. When confronted with these statements by his former pastor and mentor, Senator Obama complained that these remarks were snippets of sermons taken out of the context of decades of preaching. So, the media was challenged to put them back in their contexts and listen to them again. They did, and everyone, including the senator, was appalled! They sounded even more hateful when heard in context.
Senator Obama, however, understood something that every student of Scripture should know, namely, that words must be understood in their particular context. This rule of hermeneutics (the principles of interpretation) was very important for a recent message I preached on Christ as our sanctification. The text was 1 Corinthians 1:30, "He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (ESV).
What does it mean that Christ is our sanctification? According to many theology books and in popular Christianese, sanctification is a process of becoming more holy or Christlike in our conduct, a process that will not be completed in this life. If we come to this text with this definition in mind, then we come away understanding that Christ is the source of our spiritual growth and maturity. There are passages of Scripture that teach this. But is this what Paul intends in 1 Corinthians 1:30? A great place to begin is to look at the near context of this verse. Just begin with chapter 1. In verse 2 the church of God that is in Corinth is called "those sanctified in Christ Jesus." The word sanctified is in the perfect tense, which in Greek denotes a state resulting from a completed action. In other words, the Corinthian believers were already sanctified and now enjoy a state of sanctification. This is further indicated by the very next phrase in verse 2, "called saints." "Saints" means "holy ones" or "the people who belong to God as a treasured possession" (see Exod. 19:5-6; Deut. 7:6).
With this understanding of sanctification, how might we understand Paul's statement in verse 30 that Christ is our sanctification? Perhaps, that Christ is the One whose sacrifice removes the offense that keeps us from God thereby giving us a new position in the presence of God. Out of this new position flows a life increasingly more consistent with a holy God (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
Paul's point is not about a gradual process, but about a new position. In Christ you are a treasured possession of God!!
If you are interested in the New Testament teaching on sanctification check out David Peterson's book, Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness, IVP.
If you are interested in understanding words in context start with D. A. Carson's, Exegetical Fallacies (chapter 1).


Jamie Fugate said...

Josh, I have to tell you I am impressed that you drew interpretive wisdom from Senator Obama. Yet that is absolutely right. Words only have meaning in context, we could establish any teaching as Biblical if we were not bound to the context of the verse.

But I want to ask you, do you think that the usage of the word sanctification in the NT seems to normally be the view of the process of becoming practically holy. Let me know what you think.

Joshua Owen said...

Well Jamie, David Peterson makes the argument that hagiasmos is used primarily for positional holiness. I have only found one usage in the NT that seems to me at least to require a progressive understanding. 1 Thess. 5:23, "Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." The word "completely" (holoteleis) implies that their sanctification is incomplete at present. However, Peterson argues that Paul is praying for the Christian community to be sanctified completely, not individual Christians. Those who were disrupting the fellowship needed to be reconciled to the church, thus the church would be completely sanctified at the appearing of Jesus. He has a good argument from the preceding context, but I'm not sure that his reading of "spirit and soul and body" as rhetorical flourish holds much water.
So to answer your question, no, I believe that the language of sanctification has fundamentally to do with one's acceptance with God. A holy life that is maturing in Christ-likeness is the product of the new position, but the thing (sanctification) should not be confused with the results (holy conduct).
Let me just add one last word. Every occurrence of the word should be studied in its context. I don't want to create a new definition for "sanctification" that is to be read into every context. 1 Thess. 5:23 illustrates the danger of this.
Regarding Senator Obama, it is too bad that he does not have the same respect for Scripture as he had for his former pastor. He referred to Romans 1 as an obscure passage compared to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount! Interestingly enough, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus states, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." I leave it to you to discover what OT law says about homosexuality.

John Lucas said...

Love the post brother. Having read it a second time and soaking it in I am finding myself more sanctified! I want to pose a question to you. Last week in a men's Bible study this same issue of sanctification came up and I made the same arguement you do (though much more infantile). We were looking at John 17:17 when Jesus petitions the Father: "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. My question is this: how does that fit into your paradigm? It is an aorist imperative, which I think implies a one time work, not the beginning of a process. And in verse 19 Jesus says he consecrates (same verb for sanctify in the present tense) himself in so that they may be SANCTIFIED in truth (perfect participle). I think the context supports your case for an aspect of sanctification that is a one-time event effecting our standing with God. Another question: How does that one time work mesh with the one time work of justification?

Joshua Owen said...

John, those are great observations on John 17.17. I also found confirmation for positional sanctification here. It makes little sense for Jesus to say that he became progressively more holy so that His disciples may also become progressively more holy. It makes much more sense, not to mention the Christological problem with Jesus progressing in holiness, to understand Jesus setting Himself apart for the work of God, namely, the incarnation and the cross/resurrection/ascension, so that the disciples might also be set apart to God because of His work.
As far as the tenses go, the aorist is the default tense for imperatives (v. 17); and by definition the aorist aspect is undefined. The perfect tense of v. 19 definitely makes it hard to argue for any progressive view, at least from this text.
I think that justification and sanctification (defined positionally) have a similar application to Christian living. They both form a basis for conduct. While justification frees us from the condemnation of the law for sin, sanctification frees us from the filth of sin, to be welcomed into the presence of holy God.