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Thursday, October 22, 2015

John Piper’s Exploding Cigar

Not John Piper
Do you want to be a Jew? John Piper thinks every Christian should:

“God is at pains to explain to you that you are a true Jew. It is a great gift to us that he should tell us that an essential part of our identity is that we are true Jews if we fulfil the obedience of faith. Don’t reject God’s good gift.”

Why does it matter if a Gentile thinks of himself as a Jew or not? It seems like a trivial issue to debate, doesn’t it? Why would anyone go to as much trouble as Piper goes to in this sermon from 1999 just to convince Christians to get excited about being “Jewish”?

I sure don’t want to reject any of God’s good gifts. But this particular “gift” is more like the proverbial exploding cigar: it comes with more than you bargain for when you take it.

Bring In the Replacements ...

The package Piper is selling here is called supersessionism or replacement theology. That’s why it matters to him to obscure any biblical distinction between Christian and Jew as thoroughly as he can. Supersessionists hold that the Church has permanently replaced Israel as God’s chosen people, that all God’s promises to Israel are fulfilled spiritually in the Church rather than to be fulfilled literally on the world’s stage in a future day, and that Israel is permanently cursed for their rejection of Messiah. Though supersessionists regularly insist that it is unreasonable to link their theology to anti-Semitism, Christian Jews beg to differ.

Personally, I highly doubt most supersessionists are consciously anti-Semitic, though I have certainly encountered some debatably Christian anti-Semites who use supersessionism as a justification for anti-Zionist rhetoric. My primary concern is the violence done by replacement theology to the great prophetic passages of the Old Testament, to Revelation, to the distinctly Jewish aspects of my Saviour’s role in scripture and, yes, to the meaning of Paul’s argument in Romans, as John Piper does in this very sermon. The imposition of supersessionist assumptions makes murk out of what is otherwise helpful and clear.

Bottom line: I am a Christian but I am not a “true Jew”, thank you very much. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Here’s why, at least as far as Romans is concerned:

1.  Piper’s View Puts Words in Paul’s Mouth

I generally try to avoid arguments from silence, but this is a notable exception. Here are the verses John Piper says teach that Christians are “true Jews”:
“For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.”
If “circumcision is a matter of the heart”, Piper reasons, then a Gentile whose lack of circumcision is “regarded as circumcisionbecomes a true Jew.

But Paul does not say this. He says that not all those who are Jews physically are also Jews spiritually. He does not even hint at the reverse. His argument has the effect of reducing the set of Jewish individuals who might potentially be considered righteous by eliminating from consideration those who claim nothing more than physical descent from Abraham. There is no suggestion that he is expanding the field in any way. He is simply saying that bloodlines cannot make anyone righteous in the eyes of God. Nowhere here does Paul say that Gentiles become Jews.

This is significant, because John Piper says his discovery is very important indeed. He says it is a “gift” from God to the Church to be called a Jew. He says it is “thrilling” and God has taken “pains” to share it with us. He says we should “revel in it”. Without this knowledge, we will “not know who we are in our essence”. He maxes out on the hyperbole without offering any proof of his assertion.

You know, if it’s really all that important, Paul would probably have given it a chapter, or a paragraph, or a verse, or maybe even three plain little words: “Gentiles become Jews”. That would have done the job, and we could start reveling right now.

But he didn’t. Piper’s view puts words in Paul’s mouth. So let’s hold off on the celebration for a minute or two.

2.  Piper’s View Ignores Context

Piper’s difficulties in understanding the verses at the end of Romans 2 come from his failure to observe the context in which they fall. Paul is in the middle of what we might call an abstract theological argument that goes on for chapters, in which he frequently poses implicit hypotheticals and answers them for the reader.

We may break down the teaching in Romans 1-2 by noting that Paul addresses the status of mankind in the eyes of God by posing and answering three hypotheticals, going from the general (humanity in the absence of law) to the very specific (the Jew):

Q. What about the heathen? (Romans 1:18-32)
A. He stands condemned. (Romans 1:32)

Q. What about the moralist? (Romans 2:1-16)
A. He stands condemned. (Romans 2:12-16)

Q. What about the Jew? (Romans 2:17-29)
A. He stands condemned. (Romans 2:25)

Like an oblivious boor at a party, Piper’s assertion that the Christian is a “true Jew” forces itself into a discussion that has nothing whatsoever to do with Christians.

Piper smoothly substitutes the words “regarded as true Jews” for “regarded as circumcision” without missing a beat or offering any explanation. But Paul’s point is not that Christians become Jews. “Regarded as circumcision” in this context simply means that particular actions are viewed by God as acceptable or unacceptable on their own merits, rather than because the person performing them has subjected himself to a medical procedure. His point is that the Jew, like the moralist and the raw pagan, is “under sin”. His purpose (and God’s) is to stop the very last unindicted mouth in the world, the Jewish mouth, from laying claim to righteousness on the basis of genetics or culture.

3.  Piper’s View Implicitly Teaches Works-Based Salvation

This is almost surely not Piper’s intent, but it is the inevitable consequence of trying to read into a passage things that are not there. Verses 25-29 contrast circumcision with uncircumcision, but not with respect to the question of salvation. If you are going to argue that salvation is at issue, it can only be salvation by works.

In verse 25, “circumcision” is equated with obeying the law, “uncircumcision” with breaking it. Legal language occurs over and over again: “obey the law”, “break the law” (v25); “keeps the precepts of the law” (v26); “keeps the law”, “break the law” (v27). Here the spiritually “circumcised” man is not a Christian, but a man who keeps the law. He is not a hypocrite. His actions accord with his words.

If you want to introduce salvation here, it is going to have to be salvation by works, which contradicts Paul’s thesis that “The righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith”, not to mention Pipers own insistence that “we are true Jews if we fulfil the obedience of faith”.

But Paul is not talking about salvation at all. He is talking about the “day when God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus”. On that day, he says, the conflicting thoughts and consciences of men will “accuse or even excuse them”. It is in the context of this judgment that verses 25-29 occur and in which Paul can say, “His praise is not from man but from God”. Salvation has nothing to do with praise from man: man has no part in it. The true meaning of “regarded as circumcision” in this context, then, is that, for the purposes of God’s judgment, it is not ethnic pedigree but actual deeds that matter.

I repeat, the issue is not salvation but the judgment of specific works. Paul will certainly get to the subject of salvation, but he does not do so in this chapter.

Piper, perhaps in his familiarity with Romans, is anticipating where Paul is going with his argument in chapter 4. That’s fine and dandy, but it ought to be recognized that he does not do it in chapter 2.

In Summary

Because he has approached Romans with his mind already made up about the relationship of Christians to Jews and Israel to the Church, Piper’s exposition of Romans 2 is incoherent and inattentive to both the larger and immediate contexts of the words he seeks to exposit. He connects “circumcision” and salvation without warrant. He brings Christians into an argument in which they have no place. In his eagerness to justify a theological position he has imported into the passage, and which has no bearing on it whatsoever, he reliably misses the point of almost every statement Paul makes.

His exposition is less a “good gift” than a theological exploding cigar.

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