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God’s Righteousness as Forensic

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1.16–17)

This series has given some snapshots of Tom Schreiner’s arguments over “the righteousness of God” in his revised Romans (BECNT) commentary. Again, he summarizes the theme of Romans 1.16–17 saying, “The gospel is the saving power of God in which the righteousness of God is revealed” (63). I’ve looked at the arguments that God’s righteousness is his covenant faithfulness to his covenant people, and the argument that his righteousness is transformative. In his first edition, Schreiner understood God’s righteousness as being both forensic and transformative, with one aspect being emphasized more than the other in certain verses. Now he understands it as entirely forensic. God’s righteousness is a gift given to sinners so that they would be declared righteous in God’s sight. Though they are sinners, they stand not guilty before him.

He gives nine arguments for understanding God’s righteousness as being forensic, but I put a few together here.

Forensic Righteousness

1. Righteousness, Faith, and Believing

“Righteousness” (δικαιοσύνη) is placed near to the words “faith” or “believing.”

Romans 4.11, “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well,”

Romans 10.3-4, “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”

Galatians 5.5, “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.”

The one who believes by faith stands not guilty in God’s presence. They are declared righteous, but that righteousness won’t be seen by all until the day of resurrection.

2. To be Counted

Those who believe by faith are not “made” righteous but are “counted” righteous.

Romans 4.3, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’” (see Rom 4.5, 6, 9, 11).

3. A Gift from God

This righteousness is a gift divinely granted to people.

Romans 5.17, “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.”

God is the origin of righteousness, and he gives that status to the ungodly (see again Rom 4.3, 5, 6, 9, 11) .

1 Corinthians 1.30, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

Here, Jesus is wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption from God. Paul’s comment in Philippians 3.9 refers to righteousness as a gift from God. So in Romans 1.17 and 3.21-22 “God’s saving righteousness is given as a gift to those who believe” (70).

Philippians 3.9, “and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”

So “God’s righteousness may be both an attribute of God and a gift of God, but it doesn’t follow logically that it is also transformative” (70). Philippians 3.1-9 can be paralleled with Romans 10.1-5. Just as Paul couldn’t have a righteousness of his own from the law, Israel as a whole has tried to establish their own righteousness from the law. Paul received God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. Israel must do the same. It is not about keeping the law; it is about trusting in Jesus.

4. Second Corinthians 5

In 2 Corinthians 5.21, Paul writes that Jesus who had no sin became sin so that we could “became the righteousness of God.” God was not “counting their trespasses against them,” meaning he forgave those who put their faith in Christ. Christ died on the cross, and those who put their faith in him, though they are sinners, take on God’s righteousness.

5. Romans 3.21-26

If all have sinned, how can anyone be righteous? Schreiner observes, “Paul argues… that a right relation with God is not obtained by keeping the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. All people who trust in Christ are justified by God because of the redemption accomplished by Christ Jesus (3:24)” (71).

6. Lawcourts

Romans 8.33 says, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.”

Schreiner writes, “The lawcourt background here is unmistakable. Paul followed the usage of the LXX… and other Jewish Second Temple literature… in assigning a forensic meaning to δικαίουν [‘to justify’].”

2 Samuel 15.4, “Then Absalom would say, ‘Oh that I were judge in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice.'”

1 Kings 8.32, “then hear in heaven and act and judge your servants, condemning the guilty by bringing his conduct on his own head, and vindicating the righteous by rewarding him according to his righteousness.”

Judges didn’t make anyone wicked or righteous. They made declarations about the wicked and the righteous. God declares us righteous, and he will transform us at the resurrection.

Proverbs 17.15, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous
are both alike an abomination to the Lord.”

Schreiner: “Paul… does not think God violates any standards of justice, since Christ bears the curse that sinners deserve” (72).

7. Righteousness and Forgiveness

Romans 4.7-8 quotes Ps 32.1-2. David’s sins are forgiven and he stands “in the right before God” (73). David is not transformed, but forgiven.

Conclusion

Honestly, with some of these points (#3) I do wonder why God’s righteousness being a ‘gift’ ‘from God’ means his righteousness is to be understood forensically. We can’t transform ourselves to be righteous. We need another (2 Cor 5.21). So whether it is forensic or transformative (or both), it is still from God. However, do to other points (#6) and parts of Scripture, I can still see how God’s righteousness is purely forensic.

God justifies sinners when they believe the human Christ Jesus died and was resurrected. He is currently ruling over all things, and he is the King. We are justified in the eyes of God. We stand “in the right” or “not guilty” before him because we are “in Christ.” Being justified in and of itself doesn’t transform Christians, but other aspects of the order of salvation that occur immediately (e.g., the reception of the Spirit) and other parts will occur over time (e.g., sanctification) will cause us to be transformed. God conforms us to the image of his Son by working in us through his Spirit. Through that, we are transformed “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3.18), awaiting our final transformation at the day of resurrection (1 Cor 15.49, 51-53). Christians are sinners who are declared righteous now and will be made righteous in the future.


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God’s Righteousness as Transformative?

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1.16–17)

In my previous post I noted that in his revised BECNT commentary on Romans, Tom Schreiner summarizes the theme of Romans 1.16–17 saying, “The gospel is the saving power of God in which the righteousness of God is revealed” (63). Commentators have come to different interpretations as to what God’s righteousness is. Schreiner explains three of the different interpretations in his commentary.

Last time I wrote about those who think that God’s righteousness is his covenant faithfulness. This time I present Schreiner’s arguments for (and against) God’s righteousness being transformative.

Arguments For

1. Revealed

God’s righteousness being revealed refers to God’s eschatological (end-time) activity that has invaded history. It makes sense that God’s righteousness here means his saving activity if we ask the question ‘What is being revealed?’—a new status (forensic) or divine action (transformation)?

In fact, both God’s righteousness (v. 17) and his wrath (v. 18) are revealed.

17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

God’s wrath is actively poured out against human sin, and so it fits the parallel that his righteousness would also refer to a divine activity. Schreiner notes, “Since verses 16–17 are connected with a γὰρ (gar, for), we can conclude that the saving power of God is intertwined with the righteousness of God” (68).

So as Paul writes, the gospel is God’s power for salvation to all who believe for in the gospel God’s righteousness is revealed. The gospel is God’s salvation-bringing power. It is a divine activity, and his righteousness is actively revealed in it.

2. Old Testament Usage

Many of the uses of righteousness in the OT refer to God’s saving action.

Psalm 98.1–3

‘Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.

The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.

He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.’

After God brought Israel through the Red Sea and destroyed the Egyptian army, Israel praised Yahweh as a ‘man of war’ (Exod 15.3) whose ‘right hand’ is ‘glorious in power’ and ‘shatters the enemy’ (v. 6). He stretched out his right hand that the earth would swallow up the army (v. 12). He led his people safely through the waters in his ‘steadfast love’ (v. 13; Ps 98.2). God’s salvation is an active salvation that rescues his people from their enemies. See also Isaiah 45.8; Micah 6.5 and 7.9.

3. Made righteous

Later in Romans 6 Paul says, “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be rendered powerless so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, since a person who has died has been freed (δεδικαίωται) from sin” (6.7). Schreiner writes, “The use of the verb ‘to justify’ [translated as ‘freed’]… demonstrates that God’s declaration of righteousness really frees people from sin” (69). In Romans 5.19, many in Adam were made sinners; in Christ, they are made righteous. “God’s forensic declaration is effective because the Lord who was crucified on behalf of sinners was also raised from the dead (Rom. 4:25), and thus sinners now live in a new way (Rom. 6:4)” (69).

Pushback

As Schreiner explains in his commentary, there are a few problems here. I won’t list every rebuttal; you can find that in his commentary. But I will present a few of them. 

Problem 1: Revealed

God’s righteousness (1.17) is the grounds for God’s power (1.16). The two terms are not synonymous. Simply because God’s righteousness in Christ is apocalyptic does not mean that his righteousness is transformative. “God’s declaration about sinners is an end-time verdict that has been announced before the end has arrived” (73). Referring to Linebaugh, Schreiner says, “Justification… is the final verdict, which is pronounced now” before the end has come (73).

Believers, in union with Christ, stand in the right before God, but that does not mean they are automatically transformed because of that verdict. Rather, Christians are transformed through the reception of the Holy Spirit, becoming new creations, being sanctified—conformed to the image of Christ—and ultimately by being glorified. At the resurrection we will truly be transformed. It is then that we will be like Christ—righteous and perfect.

Problem 2: Old Testament Usage

Simply because the words righteous and salvation are in parallel (as in Psalm 98.1-3) does not mean they are equivalent. Schreiner says, “Words may overlap in meaning, but it doesn’t follow from this that they have an identical meaning. The righteousness of God, then, denotes the ‘rightness’ and justice of God’s salvation in Psalms and Isaiah” (73).

Problem 3: Made righteous

“Virtually all scholars agree that in the vast majority of cases the verb ‘to justify’ (δικαιόυν) is forensic” (74). Most English Bibles translate δεδικαίωται as “freed.” Even if δεδικαίωται here held a transformative connotation, it does not mean that every use of ‘justify’ or ‘righteousness’ holds that same connotation.

Schreiner observes, “God’s declaration that sinners are in the right before him is the foundation for a changed life” (74). Because believers are justified, are in union with Christ, and are given the Holy Spirit who works in us to image Christ. We are transformed not because of our ‘not-guilty’ verdict, but because God’s Spirit works within us.

As for Romans 5.19 and people being made sinners or made righteous, 2 Corinthians 3.9 points to a forensic use of righteousness. There, righteousness is contrasted with condemnation, “a declarative term” (74). When God condemns someone, he doesn’t make them wicked. They don’t turn into wicked people. They already are wicked. Similarly, God’s declaration that someone is righteous doesn’t mean he turns him into a righteous person. “The declaration that Jesus,” vindicated in his resurrection, “stands in the right is granted to all those who belong to him, to all those who are united to him by faith” (75).

Conclusion

One of the major differences between Schreiner’s first and second editions is his move toward God’s righteousness indicating a forensic status instead of both a forensic status and transformative state. Think about this scenario. Harry and Marv rob a bank. They have committed a crime. They are bandits. They are criminals. A judge declares Harry and Marv to be guilty of their crime. The judge’s sentence does not transform them into criminals; they became criminals when they robbed the bank.

We are sinners. Yet those who believe on Jesus Christ are declared to be “in the right” by God. I am still a sinner. I am not a ‘righteous’ person. As I said above, when Christians receive their resurrected bodies, they will be like Christ (1 John 3.2; 1 Cor 15.49, 52-53). They will be righteous, and they will be perfect. God sees what they will be in the future and he declares them to be that now. Christians have the status of righteousness even though they are still presently sinners because we are now in Christ.

In my next and final post I will look at what Schreiner has to say about God’s righteousness being forensic.


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A Scholar’s Devotion with Tom Schreiner

Going through seminary, students are taught to study the Bible and uphold its doctrines about God while also being encouraged not to neglect their devotional times with God. Yet during my own devotional time I, and probably many others, often ask, “Is this approach the best way to grow spiritually, or is there a better way? What could I do differently? Should I incorporate my studies with my devotions?”  From time to time, one can wonder how scholars and seminary professors manage to continue to grow spiritually while fulfilling their numerous responsibilities with family, work, and ministry.

Each week, I ask a different scholar two questions about how he or she spends time with the Lord and continues to love him with all their mind, strength, and heart. While no one method or style is “the only way,” we can draw on one another’s experiences to help us reflect on other ways we had not thought of before. This isn’t meant to hold each interviewee up as a perfect model, but to give you ideas of how to think about your devotionals from those who teach us the Scriptures. 

In this inaugural post, I have asked Dr. Tom Schreiner if he would share his thoughts.

1. How do you spend your devotional time with the Lord? 

Everyone is different, but I read two chapters in the OT in English, then one chapter of Psalms or Proverbs, one chapter usually of the Hebrew OT, and one chapter of the Greek NT. I try to read meditatively and pray about what I am reading.
.
I pray for daily concerns, for the members of our church, and through Operation World.
.

2. How do you practically seek to deepen your love for Christ? 

I have nothing dramatic to say here.
  • Bible Reading
  • Prayer
  • Regular fellowship and attendance with God’s people
  • Reading good books

Dr. Schreiner is the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of NT Interpretation and Professor of Biblical Theology (1997), the Associate Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and an elder at Clifton Baptist Church 

He has written commentaries on Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Hebrews, Peter and Jude, and Revelation, as well as a Pauline theology, a NT theology, and a whole Bible theology, and more.

Thank you, Dr. Schreiner!
Twitter: @DrTomSchreiner

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God’s Righteousness as his Covenant Faithfulness?

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1.16–17)

In my previous post I noted that in his revised BECNT commentary on Romans, Tom Schreiner summarizes the theme of Romans 1.16–17 saying, “The gospel is the saving power of God in which the righteousness of God is revealed” (63). Commentators have come to different interpretations as to what God’s righteousness is. Schreiner explains three of the different interpretations in his commentary.

Proponents

The first here is the understanding that God’s righteousness refers to his covenantal faithfulness to his people Israel. Those who argue for this position understand God’s righteousness to be “both effective and forensic” (67). His faithfulness toward Israel is due to his covenant with them and it is seen in his saving activity—that is, it is seen when he saves them from their enemies.

In his commentary Romans 1–8, James Dunn says, “God is ‘righteous’ when he fulfills the obligations he took upon himself to be Israel’s God, that is, to rescue Israel and punish Israel’s enemies” (41). God’s righteousness is to be understood as his covenant faithfulness (Rom 3:3–5, 25; 15:8). It is “God’s act to restore his own and to sustain them within the covenant (Ps 31:1; 35:24; 51:14; 65:5; 71:2, 15; 98:2; 143:11; Isa 45:8, 21; 46:13; 51:5, 6, 8; 62:1–2; 63:1, 7)” (41). 

In his book, Pauline Perspectives, N. T. Wright says, “God must be true to his covenant” with Abraham who would be the father of a great nation and who, by following God, would be a blessing to the world. He continues, “Paul [in Romans 4] quotes extensively from Genesis 15 and 17 to prove that covenant membership always depended on grace and faith” (31). Wright notes that “as God ‘redeemed’ his people from Egypt with the covenant blood, so now the blood of Jesus Christ becomes the blood of the new covenant, shed for the worldwide forgiveness of sins, achieving the redemption (3.21) of the true family of Abraham. God has dealt with sin; he has renounced partiality; he is true to his covenant. The Gospel of Jesus Christ reveals that God is in the right (Romans 1.16f.)” (31). Through the death and resurrection of the Son, God has saved Israel, Jew and Gentile—“the true family of Abraham”—from their ultimate enemies: sin and death.

Finally, Wright says, “The ‘righteousness of God’ is the divine covenant faithfulness, which is both a quality upon which God’s people may rely and something visible in action in the great covenant-fulfilling actions of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit” (74-75).

Old Testament References

Schreiner says, “God’s saving actions are rooted in his faithfulness to the covenant enacted with his people. That the righteousness of God involves his loyalty to the covenant is defended by OT and Second Temple antecedents” (75).

Psalm 36.5–6

“Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
your judgments are like the great deep;
man and beast you save, O Lord.”

Psalm 88.11–12

11 “Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?”

God’s righteousness is compared to his faithfulness and steadfast love to his people Israel seen through his wondrous works.

Psalm 142.1 (LXX)

In the Septuagint, the psalmist draws a parallel between God’s truth and his righteousness when he says,

“O Lord, hearken to my prayer.
Give ear to my entreaty with your truthfulness.
Hear me in your righteousness.”

God is both truthful and righteous to his covenant people.

Pushback

Yet just because terms such as ‘righteousness,’ ‘truthfulness,’ ‘faithfulness,’ and ‘steadfast’ are paralleled does not mean that they all denote the same thing. Even though the idea the idea of God being faithful to his covenant is present in the broad context of the above psalms, Schreiner points out elsewhere that “God’s salvation of his people is also the right thing to do; he vindicates his people in saving them.”

Israelite judges were to “acquit the innocent and condemn the guilty” (Deut 25.1). Schreiner notes the forensic aspect of their judgments saying, “Judges do not make someone righteous or wicked. They render a forensic declaration based on the reality that is before them.”1

While in Romans 3.1–8 Paul links God’s ‘righteousness’ (3.5) with his ‘faithfulness’ (3.3), ‘reliability’ (3.4), and ‘truth’ (3.7), Schreiner points out that Romans 3.5 speaks of God’s judging righteousness. The Jewish opponents ask if God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on them. God, in his righteousness, judges guilty sinners and pours out his wrath upon them (1.18). God is right and just to judge sinners.

Because God is righteous and doesn’t “pervert the right” (Job 8.3), he faithfully and steadfastly fulfills his OT saving promises and his covenant promises. However, “it is quite another thing to say that God’s righteousness is his covenant faithfulness” (75). Schreiner writes, “The righteousness of God, then, denotes the ‘rightness’ and justice of God’s salvation in Psalms and Isaiah,” which displays itself in his faithfulness to his covenant people (73).


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What is the ‘Righteousness of God’?

16For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1.16–17)

After explaining how eager he is to preach the gospel of the resurrected Jesus Christ in Rome, Paul tells the church in Rome that he is not ashamed of the gospel (Rom 1.16). Why? It is the power of God that brings salvation to all who believe it. In the upcoming second edition of his Romans (BECNT) commentary, Tom Schreiner summarizes the theme of Romans 1.16–17 as, “The gospel is the saving power of God in which the righteousness of God is revealed” (63).

But just what is the ‘righteousness of God’? This is an important question to ask because “in the bulk of the letter, Paul fills in the content of this gospel so that the Romans will understand why he is so desirous to preach the gospel in Rome and Spain. The letter as a whole focuses on the content of the gospel because the gospel gives Paul boldness to preach in places where Christ is not named (Rom 15:20–21)” (63).

Yet many commentators understand God’s righteousness differently. In a series of posts, I will look at three different understandings of the righteousness of God from Schreiner’s new commentary. Commentators understand God’s righteousness as: 

  1.  Covenantal faithfulness
    1. God’s faithfulness toward Israel is due to his covenant with them and is seen in his saving activity—that is, it is seen when he saves Israel from their enemies.

    2. N.T. Wright says, “The ‘righteousness of God’ is the divine covenant faithfulness, which is both a quality upon which God’s people may rely and something visible in action in the great covenant-fulfilling actions of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit” (Pauline Perspectives74-75). 

    3. Proponents: James Dunn, Robert JewettN.T. Wright, etc.
      .
  2. Transformative
    1. On this view Schreiner says, “God’s forensic declaration is effective because the Lord who was crucified on behalf of sinners was also raised from the dead (Rom. 4:25), and thus sinners now live in a new way (Rom. 6:4)” (69). In his first edition he says that God’s declaration of righteousness is a gift that “is an effective declaration, so that those who are pronounced righteous are also transformed by God’s grace” (67).

    2. Romans 5.19, “For just as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also through the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

    3. Proponents: Ernst Käsemann, Eberhard Jüngel, Adolf Schlatter, Tom Schreiner 1.0 (he advocated for both the forensic and transformative meaning in his first volume). 
      .
  3. Forensic
    1. God’s righteousness is a gift given to sinners so that they would be declared righteous in God’s sight.

    2. Philippians 3.8b-9, “so that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ—the righteousness from God based on faith.

    3. Proponents: Martin Luther, John Calvin, C.E.B. Cranfield, Doug Moo, Tom Schreiner 2.0 (he now advocates for only the forensic understanding).

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Book Review: The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing (Jonathan Pennington)

Jonathan Pennington, Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation and the Director of Research Doctoral Studies at SBTS, author of Reading the Gospels Wisely and Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew, has written “a historical, literary, and theological exposition of the Sermon on the Mount” (1). He situates the Sermon “in the dual context of Jewish wisdom literature and the Greco-Roman virtue tradition, both of which are concerned with the great theological and existential question of human flourishing” (1). It is laid out in three parts with his own translation and an introduction providing an overall reading strategy for the Sermon.

No section of Scripture has been written about more than the Sermon, and in the introduction Pennington summarizes how the Sermon has been interpreted throughout the patristic, medieval, reformational, modern periods, and he helpfully includes non-western and non-caucasian readings. Although not everyone would be interested in reading the history of interpretation, Pennington says, “We cannot simply identify one of these readings as right and others as all wrong. Each has a contribution to make to our understanding” (13).

Jesus, the true king and embodiment of God’s Law, “is the epitome of wisdom and virtue” (15). Pennington defines what he means by flourishing:

True human flourishing is only available through communion with the Father God through his revealed Son, Jesus, as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. This flourishing is only experienced through faithful, heart-deep, whole-person discipleship, following Jesus’ teachings and life, which situate the disciple into God’s community or kingdom. This flourishing will only be experienced fully in the eschaton, when God finally establishes his reign upon the earth. as followers of Jesus journey through their lives, they will experience suffering in this world, which in God’s providence is in fact a means to true flourishing even now. (14-15)

Summary

It isn’t enough to translate the sermon and think that words mean to us what it means to Jesus’ audience. What does it mean to be “blessed”? In chapter one Pennington provides and “encyclopedic context of the sermon” by examines Israel’s story, the setting of Second Temple Judaism wisdom literature, and the Greco-Roman virtue tradition and how their worldviews around certain terms Jesus uses. Peace (shalom) was established in God’s original creation. Wisdom and, later, apocalyptic literature came about because the fear of the Lord, faithfully living under the kingship of Yahweh, brought true life, and Israel looked to the end when sin would be vanquished. For the Greco-Romans, true flourishing came with virtuous living. Jesus’ Sermon brings these two ideas together, which can be seen in his use of specific words like “blessing/flourishing,” “perfect/whole,” “wise,” “fool,” “righteous,” and “reward.”

In chapters two and three, Pennington performs a word study on the words makarios (“blessed”) and teleios (perfect)two major concepts within the Sermon. When Jesus says, “Blessed is the one…” he means that in this certain state of being, this one is flourishing. The one who is meek, humble, and looked down upon in society, but who is in covenant with the Lord, is experiencing true flourishing. The idea of teleios (“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” 5.48) is one of wholeness“the teleios person in the Old Testament… is the one in total submission to God, who has an unimpeded relationship with Yahweh” (75). To be whole is to follow the Lord with all one’s heart, soul, and mind—to follow him with one’s whole self—and not to be a double-minded hypocrit.

In chapter four Pennington concisely examines seven more key terms that recur throughout the Sermon:

  • righteousness
  • hypocrisy
  • heart
  • Gentile//pagans
  • the Father in heaven
  • the kingdom of God/heaven
  • Reward/recompense/treasure

In chapter five Pennington lays out the structure of the Sermon and it’s setting in Matthew, noting that “Matthew’s literary skill is all about structure” (106). He “appears to be less concerned with the individual narratives per se than with how these stories fit together in conjunction with major teaching blocks to tell a larger story” (106). Pennington lays out the broad structure og Matthew and of the Sermon and says that the Lord’s Prayer is located at the center of the Sermon (132-33).

Part two consists of six chapters of commentary on the Sermon—Matthew 5.1–16; 5.17–48; 6.1–21; 6.19–34; 7.1–12; and 7.13–8.1. Part two is filled in with the information from part one, as the structures and word studies give shape and fill the commentary portion.

It is under persecution and slander (5.10–11) that God’s people paradoxically flourish (5.1–9). “Jesus’ macarisms [5.1–11] are grace-based, wisdom invitations to human flourishing in God’s coming kingdom” (161).

For Pennington, the Sermon’s theme is that of “greater righteousness.” Unlike the hypocritical Pharisees who do the right things but have selfish hearts not seeking to honor God, Jesus’ followers are to be fully devoted to God. Rather than following the external instructions of the Torah, they are to follow it with the heart by watching their teacher live it out. In this they will be “whole” like their heavenly Father.

The false prophets of 7.15–23 are not necessarily devious false teachers, but hypocrites (i.e., the Pharisees) who have evil hearts. Pennington sees many parallels with the rest of Matthew (healthy or decaying trees: 3.10 and 12.33–37; lawlessness: 23.28 and 24.12; 7.21–23, cf. 18.6 and 24.4–11).

Part three gives a theology of the Sermon and human flourishing in six theses. The Bible is about (1) human flourishing with (2) God in the center where his disciples live under (3) divinely revealed (4) virtue (5) under his grace. (6) God saves us to know him and to serve and love one another in his creation.

Recommended?

No section of Scripture has been written about more than Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “The Sermon, standing as it does as the first teaching of the new-covenant documents, likewise reveals much about how one understands several issues of theology and Christian practice” (3). Jesus teaches his new-covenant members—then and now—how to flourish and live virtuously in a covenantal relationship with their Father, the God of the universe.

Anyone studying the Sermon on the Mount would be at a loss without Pennington’s book. This isn’t the end-all-be-all of comments on the Sermon, but Pennington has spent fifteen years in Matthew, and one sees the depth of his research in his insights, explanations, and footnotes. Pennington has an eye for Matthew’s literary techniques such as structuring, inclusios, and word plays. If you’re going to study or teach on the Sermon, or if you simply want to know more about the Sermon, Pennington’s book is a must.

Lagniappe

  • Author: Jonathan T. Pennington
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Academic (January 17, 2018)

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Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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The Center of the Center of the Center of the…

In his new book The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, Jonathan Pennington says that in the Gospel of Matthew, “Matthew’s literary skill is all about structure” (106). When comparing Matthew’s stories of Jesus’ healings and miracles with the two other Synoptic Gospels, Matthew generally gives shorter retellings. Throughout the Bible, structure is often just as important as what is said.

The biblical authors didn’t use chapter headings, (parentheses), italics, bold, or different colors to frame different sections. They often used words and themes in a literary technique called an inclusio. Why does this fancy word matter?

Imagine holding a dark, rustic 5×7 picture frame. You intend to hang your annual family Christmas photo (the serious one) in your living room. You are not going to put a 3×5 picture in a 5×7 frame—that would look silly. Neither will you try to cram a 5×7 picture into a 3×5 frame; that would destroy the picture and tell people that you don’t care for your property (and that you have bad taste!) Because you appreciate aesthetics, you place your 5×7 annual family photo into that dark, rustic, 5×7 picture frame. The smooth frame matches the pleasant picture. It fits (while your silly Christmas picture will go into the neon frame).

Matthew’s skill isn’t seen in telling elaborate stories. Pennington says he “appears to be less concerned with the individual narratives per se than with how these stories fit together in conjunction with major teaching blocks to tell a larger story” (106). Matthew presents the message of his Gospel through the shape of his Gospel. He frames texts with intentionality. Beginning with the whole Gospel of Matthew:

Abraham

1.1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

[Matthew’s Gospel]

28.18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

In Genesis 12.1–3, Yahweh commissioned Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. Although Matthew doesn’t cite Abraham’s name at the end of his book, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the true King, the new “David,” his disciples receive the commission to proclaim his kingship to every nation that they would be converted and would follow him, continuing his line (or “genealogy”).

The Presence of Christ

1.23 Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

18.20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

28.20 …And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Three times Matthew states that Jesus (or God) will be with his people. The presence of Christ frames the text, and it is the proclamation of his present-and-coming kingdom which brings a separation among humanity seen throughout Matthew’s Gospel (110).

The Gospel of the Kingdom (of God)

Narrowing our search down, it is well known that there are five major blocks of teaching in Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7) is located within a larger block of narrative (4.17–9.38).

4.17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

4.23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

[Sermon on the Mount; 5–7]

[Healing and Calling Disciples, 8–9]

9.35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

This block of narrative (4.17–9.38) is framed by a call to repentance, a prayer for more laborers (disciples), and the phrase “the gospel of the kingdom.” Pennington says this whole section is “to be read as one unit, the theme of which is the call to discipleship (through repentance) that comes from the coming of the kingdom of heaven” (114).

The Sermon is meant to be read as the explanation of what it means to live according to God’s coming kingdom” (114). The Sermon is the perfect example of an “exposition of what repentance toward God and his Fatherly reign looks like (4:17), of what the life of discipleship looks like” (114).

The “New Law” of the Sermon

5.1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

[The Sermon on the Mount] 

7.28 And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, 29 for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. 8.1 When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him.

The Sermon itself is framed by Jesus ascending up the mountain (5.1–2) and descending down the mountain (7.28–8.1). Jesus, the greater Moses, taught the people what it should look like to live in God’s kingdom. He spoke with authority, unlike the scribes who pretend to have Moses’ authority (23.2).1

The Law and the Prophets

Pennington provides a three-fold outline to the Sermon:

  1. Introduction: The Call to God’s People (5.3–16)
  2. The Body: The Greater Righteousness for God’s People (5.17–7.12)
  3. Conclusion: Three Warnings Regarding the Prospect of Eschatological Judgment (7.13–27)

The Body of the sermon is framed by the phrase “the Law and/or the Prophets.”

5.17 “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.

[Greater righteousness for God’s people]

7.12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Pennington says that the theme of the sermon is “greater righteousness.” To be a repentant and forgiven disciple in God’s kingdom, and to be in covenant with God and to know his word (Ps 1.1; 2.12), is to live life as it was meant to be lived. It is a “whole” life; it is a flourishing life (cf. the blossoming, fruitful tree by the rivers of water in Ps 1.3, which resonates Garden of Eden imagery). The Pharisees were hypocrites who performed the right actions but with evil hearts. To have “greater righteousness” is to be whole and complete like the Father in heaven (5.48). It is to be “pure in heart” (5.8). It is to follow God’s instructions both outwardly and inwardly. Christ fulfilled the law, and we live under the law of Christ (1 Cor 9.21; Gal 6.2).

Rewards from the Father in Heaven

  1. The Body: The Greater Righteousness (GR) for God’s People (5.17–7.12)
    1. GR in Relation to God’s Laws (5.17–48)
    2. GR in Relation to Piety Toward God (6.1–21)
    3. GR in Relation to the World (6.19–7.12)2

6.1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

[Greater righteousness in one’s piety toward God]

6.19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Here, point two of the Body is framed by a few words/ideas. Both sides speak about rewards/treasures either from God in heaven or with the treasure being in heaven. Good deeds are not to be done to impress people (on earth), but to honor God who is in heaven. The Pharisees, who do not have pure hearts, want to receive all of the honor (as do the scribes, for they sit in the “seat of Moses,” 23.2), yet they give none to God. They will obtain no reward from the Father (vv. 4b, 6b, 18b) for they perform their pious acts in public to gain honor from others who see them (vv. 1, 2, 5, 17).

The Lord’s Prayer

Finally, at “the center of the center of the center of the Sermon” lies the Lord’s Prayer (125).3

6.7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do [cf 5.48], for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this:

[The Lord’s Prayer]

6.14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Being the center of the center of the center of the Sermon, Pennington says, “We should expect that the Lord’s Prayer has much to teach us about the whole, and such is the case,” for it “is a model of what kind of petitions and God-orientation should mark the Christian life. It is the scaffolding around the tower of prayer or the guiding handrails along which the disciple walks in forming his or her own prayers” (222).

In the first half of the prayer (vv. 9–10) oriented toward God the Father, Jesus tells his disciples to ask “our Father” to “give us this day our daily bread” (6.11). Bread is an item that is repeated throughout Matthew’s Gospel. In Jesus’ temptation, he refused to turn stones into bread but obeyed God instead (4.3). Later in Matthew 14 and 15, Jesus feeds thousands of people with bread and fish. At the Last Supper, the bread that was broken represented Jesus’ soon-to-be broken flesh (27.17–30, see v. 28). Within the Sermon, God the Father always knows our needs and provides for us (6.10, 25–34; 7.7–11). Our Father “gives good gifts to those who ask him” (7.11).

The second half of the Lord’s Prayer (vv. 11–13) is the “human-oriented part of the Prayer [which] focuses on interpersonal sin and relational conflict” (226). This is “reiterated in the conclusion to the Prayer” (6.14–15) and is seen throughout Matthew, such as in 5.7, 9.1–8, 12.31–32, 18.15–20, 21–35, and 26.28 (226).

Without giving away too many details about the Lord’s Prayer, Pennington says, “The introduction to the Prayer is an exhortation to focus on heart-driven, simplicity of prayer. The conclusion likewise focuses on the heart and inner disposition” (228). The conclusion seems to come from out of left field, especially as the conclusion to the frame. It doesn’t seem to match the introduction (6.7–8). Pennington adds that this concluding remark “is a commentary on the Prayer that is meant to drive home the weightiness of interpersonal relationships among God’s people” (229). The one who seeks forgiveness is ready to forgive from the heart (18.35).

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Knowing the ways Matthew frames his whole Gospel and sections of his Gospel helps us to interpret what occurs in the middle. Keeping the larger picture in view, Pennington gives the reader an avenue for even the most difficult parts of the Sermon on the Mount.

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1 Pennington also says that the “flourishing” statements that make up the Beatitudes (in the Sermon—Jesus’ first discourse) are contrasted with the “woes” to the Pharisees in Matthew 23—the beginning of Jesus’ fifth and final discourse in Matthew.

2 I won’t get into how points two and three overlap (they both use 6.19–21) only to say that those three verses serve as a bridge between the two sections.

3 Amongst all of the inclusios I’ve shown, this is not to say that the Lord’s Prayer is the center of Matthew. That should be obvious (it’s the first of five discourses). Rather, it’s more likely that Matthew 13 (the third discourse) is the center (if Matthew is written as a chiasm, p. 110).

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