Has the Gospel-Centered Pendulum Swung Too Far?

The American evangelical church likes to ride pendulum swings. I’m not talking about the revolving door of theologically vapid church marketing gimmicks. I mean things that you and I do. You know, us: the kind of people who read Bible software blogs, who take biblical study and doctrine seriously.

In the most recent issue of Themelios—a theological journal you can get for free in Logos—Dane Ortlund helps us arrest one particularly powerful pendulum swing. His article, “Reflections on Handling the Old Testament as Jesus Would Have Us: Psalm 15 as a Case Study,” addresses the “remarkable resurgence of Christocentric interpretation,” an “impulse to resist moralistic and graceless readings” of Scripture. The relatively recent popularity of biblical theology and of “gospel-centeredness” are also part of this particular pendulum swing.

I think the swing has done great good: American Christianity has indeed suffered under man-centered readings of the Bible which offer all law and no gospel, all duty and no delight, all rules and no relationship. And yet the ease with which I just tossed off those three slogans points to the pendulum problem: any time a movement reaches the slogan-generating stage, people will go trampling over necessary nuances to grab their party’s banners and wave them at their enemies. Pretty soon the pendulum picks up so much speed that it whooshes way past plumb.

That’s why we need Dane Ortlund to sit us down and put our noses into Psalm 15, a small poem which is “at first sight…a straightforwardly gospel-vacuous Old Testament text.” If someone today were to write a hymn with these words, the “Moralism” banner would get whipped out instantly on Twitter:

O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent?
Who shall dwell on your holy hill?

He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
and speaks truth in his heart;

who does not slander with his tongue
and does no evil to his neighbor,
nor takes up a reproach against his friend;

in whose eyes a vile person is despised,
but who honors those who fear the LORD;
who swears to his own hurt and does not change;

who does not put out his money at interest
and does not take a bribe against the innocent.

He who does these things shall never be moved.

This psalm says nothing about Jesus, and little (if anything?) about divine grace. It basically tells us to do good stuff and not do bad stuff. And this yields two opposite pendulum-swing interpretations of this psalm, Ortlund says: “crass moralizing” and “strict Lutheranizing.”

Pendulum Swing Interpretations

On the one hand, an interpreter may crassly ignore human depravity and the necessity of Christ’s saving work, reading the moral demands in this psalm as an indication that people are capable of obedience if they’ll just put their minds to it, no grace needed.

On the other hand—and this is so insightful—a “strict Lutheranizing” may produce:

a hyper-focus on one’s inability to perfectly discharge the summons of the text. This is the hermeneutical tunnel-vision that reads every imperative in terms of the second use of the law, the law as a mirror in which one sees one’s own moral inability. It functions out of a dour anthropological pessimism. It is the refusal to maintain a distinction between meaningful if imperfect obedience, on the one hand, and perfect obedience on the other hand. Instead, sinful depravity and sinless perfection are the only two moral categories in play. This approach has difficulty retaining a category for, say, Noah in the Old Testament, or Simeon in the New: each of whom, while sharing in humanity’s fallenness more generally, is described as a righteous, godly man (Gen 6:9; Luke 2:25). (79–80)

That’s Bible study gold. We read the Bible because we want to apply Scripture to our lives; we all want to come away changed. We shouldn’t swing over and high-five Pelagius, assuming we can all change ourselves; neither should we swing over into a hard determinism in which our original sin makes “meaningful if imperfect obedience” (gold! gold!) impossible. Noah and Simeon were not sinless, but they still received “praise from God” (1 Cor 4:5) for their moral uprightness.

A Way Back to Plumb

We’re never—in this life, at least—going to figure out the complete and final answer to the indicative-versus-imperative problem, because it’s just a variation on the sovereignty versus free will debate. (I won’t say there’s nothing to be said, no scriptural guard rails for our theology here. I just don’t think we’ll achieve complete and final answers when, arguably, Paul’s answer to that hardest of all theological questions is “Who are you to ask this?” [Rom 9:20].)

But Ortlund offers as good a way back to plumb as I’ve seen: five wise steps you should follow when interpreting Psalm 15 and other OT passages, particularly wisdom literature. I’ll summarize them (the headings are copied verbatim).

1. Let It Land

Ortlund first instructs us to “let the full hortatory weight of this psalm land on us.” He fingers the gospel-centered movement for sometimes finding ways to “squirrel out from under the moral instruction” of psalms like Psalm 15. We should not, he says, “prematurely apply comfort to our own hearts or the hearts of others for the many ways we do not live out this summons.” Let your own heart, and the heart of anyone you’re teaching, bend under the pressure of the high moral vision here. “If the immediate application in reading or preaching this psalm is to say, ‘Well, none of us can do any of this—but thank God for Jesus who did it in our stead,’” then we’re not really letting God speak before we pipe up with our “helpful” clarifications. Explore the ramifications of these words. Describe the world we’d all enjoy if people lived this way. Describe the world we have because people don’t.

2. Remember the Original Audience

But then, Ortlund says, remember that “this is a psalm, an ancient hymn from Israel’s songbook for their own worship. It belongs (to use contemporary categories) to the realm of discipleship, not evangelism. It is something ancient Israelites would say to one another, not something they would say to neighboring nations.”

Psalm 15 isn’t a pamphlet sitting in an airport book carousel offering self-help advice. “It is a summons for those already redeemed, not a strategy for getting redeemed.” As Ortlund points out, the psalm does not actually talk about entering God’s holy precincts, but “dwelling” there. That’s a key difference. Psalm 15 is a covenant document inside a collection of covenant documents.

3. Clarify What Verse 1 Is, and Is Not, Asking

Ortlund explores this point about the word “dwelling” in verse one a little more. One of the most important ways to avoid making every Bible study or sermon sound the same is to pay very close attention to what the texts are actually saying. “Dwell” is a loaded word. And so are all the other key terms: “sojourn,” “tent,” “holy hill.” The original audience knew the allusions these words were making. Psalm 15 is asking,

Who enjoys true fellowship with God under his covenant blessings? Who is on a path to enjoy Eden restored? Who will receive God’s promised inheritance? Who will be included in that final vision of which the physical temple is an echo, a glimpse, a shadow?

4. Take a Closer Look at Verses 2–5

The rest of the psalm is also worth a close look. All our best philological and literary and exegetical skills need to be applied. I’ll just give you one point Ortlund makes: that “while on first reading this may sound like an arid list of virtues to execute, these verses in fact focus on the inner state of the heart.”

The Psalm calls not only for speaking truth, but for doing so “in one’s heart.” It calls for certain emotions like fear and even loathing (of a “vile person”) that crass moralizing can never alter.

5. Say What Would Never Be Said in a Jewish Synagogue about Psalm 15

Only after one has paid close attention to the psalm in its own words and in its own literary and historical context does one have the right to go to Jesus, to view him as the ultimate exemplar of Psalm 15 integrity and blamelessness. But this step toward Christ isn’t only a blessed right; it’s a solemn responsibility.

“Is Psalm 15 Christ-centered?” Ortlund asks. And his answer is a bracing and direct, “No.” But, he says, “The Bible is Christ-centered, and Psalm 15 plots onto a unified whole-Bible trajectory that culminates in Christ.” (87, emphasis mine)

We can’t read Psalm 15 “like an entry in a dictionary, in which context is irrelevant.” We must read it “like a paragraph in a novel, in which context is everything.”

Christians get to read the Old Testament in a slightly different—or should I say a greater—light than did our Jewish brethren before Christ’s birth. We get to communicate a hope they couldn’t see as clearly, a hope in a Christ who died to save us from our failures to obey Psalm 15 and lived—and lived again—to give us grace to obey.

Go and Read Likewise by Grace

You should read Ortlund’s whole article (it’s free, remember?). It’s a model for “crass moralizers” and “strict Lutheranizers.” Good exegesis and interpretation is caught as much as taught, and in this valuable article you get both an example and accompanying explanation teaching you how to go and read likewise. By grace. And effort. And grace.

Paul himself seems to struggle to communicate where “plumb” is:

By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Cor 15:10)

I’ve always found it instructive that he begins and ends with grace. But he’s not afraid to claim that he made every effort (to borrow now from Peter) to add virtue to his faith.

Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

Comments

  1. Arne S-P says:

    Great article – thank you (and Dane Ortlund :-)) very much for your fine and balanced way to handle this subject! I’ve been thinking about this very question and I am very thankful for this profound answer.

  2. David Cote says:

    Different strokes for different folks. I am good with the idea of historical interpretation, but then you have to go through the theological lens. I am sorry that both authors are so gllib on the Lutheran perspective regarding interpretation of Scripture, “strict Lutheranizing.” Sorry to disappoint, but Luther didn’t believe that ALL the BIBLE was Christ-centered (just read his introduction to the NT where he rips James to shreds, “epistle of straw” comes to mind, or the OT where he questions the inclusion of Esther in the canon), rather he advocated for a more nuanced understanding of scripture. I for one will keep Luther’s understanding of Scripture. And I will stick with my “strict Lutheranizing,” as Luther wrote in the Heidelberg Disputation, article 21: “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”

    • David, I gave some careful consideration to whether I should have repeated Ortlund’s use of that terminology of “strict Lutheranizing.” The fact is that I don’t have a deep enough knowledge of Luther to justify it. I’m hoping to read some Luther this year in honor of, well, I’m sure you know. So I’d encourage you to put the emphasis on the “strict.” He can defend himself, but I think he used a purposefully provocative and therefore memorable term. The “strict,” however, distances him from claiming that Luther or all Lutherans think this way.

      • Richard Davis says:

        I am a layman. I object to using “Lutheran” as a pejorative term when referring to a fellow Christian. Name calling for the purpose of being “…provocative and therefore memorable…” is juvenile and does not build up the body of Christ.

        By your own admission, you “…don’t have a deep enough knowledge of Luther to justify…” repeating Ortlund’s divisive terminology. Please do not support this kind of needless and foolish division within His body of believers!

        When I read Psalm 15 in your article, I was immediately struck by my own inability to reach the perfection described, and my confidence that, despite my own inadequacy, I will one day sojourn in the Lord’s tent. How can this be, other than by the forgiveness given by grace to each of us by Jesus?

        I have learned of God’s grace through a lifetime of training and study guided by scripture and faithful Lutheran pastors. My confidence in His grace is consistent with confessional Lutheran doctrine, as I understand it. I pray that all Christians might have such a solid foundation for their own faith!

    • Brad Novacek says:

      David, please remember that Luther actually changed his tune on James as he continued to study and his understanding of the Christian faith and life improved. His comments about James were actually removed from later editions of his NT introduction. He gained a healthy appreciation of the book once he realized that James was not talking about justification, but sanctification. That’s where the “meaningful if imperfect obedience” comes through in it’s clearest form, and in that sense James is in perfect agreement with Paul’s treatment of sanctification.

  3. What if Gospel-Centeredness isn’t a pendulum swing? What if Gospel-Centered is the right way to read, understand, and apply Scripture? Instead of a spectrum, it’s just a simple “right” or “wrong” hermeneutic; not a swinging target, but one that is either hit or missed.

    There’s a growing movement away from substitution of Jesus’s righteousness and our sin. Moving the pendulum, I feel, moves substitution too. It let’s moralism and legalism creep back in. That’s an enormous error (II Corinthians 5.21). Moving away Gospel-Centered – what, because the church is somehow bored with the “unsearchable riches of Christ” – is an error (Romans 1.16: Why is Paul going to the church in Rome to preach the Gospel…to the church. I Corinthians 15.1-5: If the Gospel is of “first importance” why are we trying to move the pendulum?

    There’s enough power in the Gospel being the “power of God for salvation” for us to agree that or Good Works are Good Word powered (Romans 8.11).

    The “swing” is making me sick.

    • I’m not totally sure I’m following you, Jamie, but I’d point out only that Themelios is published by The Gospel Coalition. We’re not talking about a radical rejection of gospel-centeredness, only a continual recalibration of it to the norm of Scripture—which I think Ortlund did extremely well.

      • My anxiety isn’t Dane’s Article. I think that his article is fair, and helpful…and it doesn’t hint that the Gospel-Centered pendulum has swung too far. To be honest, and not malicious, I’m most anxious about the title of your post. Your title suggests that we need to move. Dane’s article doesn’t make that suggestion.

        Or, what I’m truly anxious about, is that we are going to move. There is not a way of preventing it. We’ll move, as the church always has, from one single facet of the Gospel to some other. From Cross to Kingdom to Cross to something else. Which is precisely why we need to stop saying that there is a Gospel pendulum. Like Keller’s old article (2009) The Gospel in all it’s Forms, we need to see the Gospel in facets of a whole, and in preaching all of the parts of the Gospel maybe we’ll get bored of it less quickly…and stay here, in this “Gospel renaissance.”

        • That is totally fair, and I accept your criticism. I *think* my title reflects Ortlund’s opposition of “strict Lutheranizing” to “crass moralizing”; in other words, he’s laid out the two apexes of the pendulum swing.

          May the Lord help us all to remain at plumb!

  4. Claudius says:

    Great article. Just reading it reignites the passion for a text-faithful reading of the Bible. I really needed it.
    The style is also extremely readable but also smart. So, those looking for more are not disappointed.

    Thx!

  5. I would ask you to prayerfully read C.F.W. Walther in his book available in Logos “The Proper Distinction between the Law and The Gospel.” The only subject of the book is the proper use of both. The application of Law and Gospel is not static but is very dynamic. The real Lutheran use of the Law and the Gospel is not at one end of the pendulum of usage of the two. A Lutheran is always on the one that the individual is in need of. The secure sinner needs the Law, period. And so on. I know you are commenting on an article. I would be interested to read your review of “The Proper Distinction……”

  6. Dave Satterlee says:

    Mark – I think you misunderstand Noah, and Psalm 15. Noah found favor (grace), and then was declared righteous.

    • Francis Rouvinez says:

      Dave, I think that your reply exemplifies exactly why Mark’s article was needed. The expression “to find favor” was not written by Paul (as interpreted in Reformed and Lutheran traditions). It must be understood within the context of OT idioms. Too many Christians have a very poor understanding of the OT and read it superficially by applying all too quickly (frequently traditional confused for “biblical”) theological filters to it. Mark mentions one of Ortlund’s correctives that is relevant here: OT texts were not written in the context of the New Covenant and many expressions or situations must not be forced into that mould.

      • Dave Satterlee says:

        And my contention would be that a gospel perspective on Noah (and the OT) IS ALREADY the context. We have Abel, we have Noah, and we have Abram – all with the same gospel context and perspective. Moses takes great pains to make sure that we get it right; Jesus, Paul and the NT writers confirm it, and there is no need for any other context. It was radical then, it is radical now, and the message is consistent.

        • No doubt grace restores nature, as Bavinck put it. But I’m not sure you can use that statement about Noah to prove that point. I believe that all good comes from God, but let me share with you what I wrote in my notes on that passage back in 2007: “It is not clear from this passage whether Noah found favor in God’s sight because of his righteousness (6:9) or whether Noah was righteous because he found grace in God’s sight. All my commentaries (WBC, NICOT, Leupold, Waltke) say that God’s grace was primary and initial, but the passage doesn’t say that. It just doesn’t say. You have to look elsewhere to know.” That’s why I think Ortlund’s formulation of “meaningful if imperfect obedience” is “gold! gold!,” because the passage highlights Noah’s obedience. “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation.” The whole story of Noah, as I just preached on Sunday, shows that the fall was still present in him. But that portion of the passage, at the end of ch. 5 and the beginning of ch. 6, reads most naturally to me as an affirmation of Noah’s meaningful obedience.

          We *should* read our systematic theology back into the text: we can’t help doing so, so we might as well do it on purpose and self-consciously. But we need to let the text push back and shape our systematic theology. I think Ortlund did a great job of this.

          • Dave Satterlee says:

            I get what you are saying, but i disagree. I think the “passage” DOES say it. First, “favor” comes before “righteousness and blamelessness.” I think that is significant. If that is not enough, what is implicit with Noah (and Abel, and Enoch) is made explicit just a few chapters later with Abram (and then, of course, with the rest of the OT and Christ and the NT). In addition, if we date Job before Genesis 12 (as I think we should), we add Job to the mix. All consistent, all grace, all context. In my mind, it is not a round peg in a square hole to interpret Psalm 15 in just this way, it is simply how it was understood by the author and the audience, in keeping with the rest of the OT. I regret that Ortlund, and yourself, my dear brother, don’t see it this way. There is only one Way, and always has been.

          • Brad Novacek says:

            Mark, let’s say that what your notes say is true. I won’t argue whether we can or cannot tell from that passage “whether Noah found favor in God’s sight because of his righteousness (6:9) or whether Noah was righteous because he found grace in God’s sight” because it’s a moot point. You’ve actually answered your own question in that same note. “You have to look elsewhere to know.” So what? What’s the problem with that? By focusing solely on what that passage does and does not say and refusing to accept input from the rest of Scripture, you are ripping it out of its biblical context.

            Sure, they didn’t have the New Covenant, but that doesn’t matter because all of the Law and the Prophets points to Christ. In interpreting the passage on Noah, we have four options that I can see. 1) We rip the passage out of context and say that we just can’t tell how it happened, thereby denying what the rest of Scripture declares to be true regarding righteousness before God. 2) We accept the testimony of Scripture regarding righteousness before God, but insist that (because THIS text isn’t explicit about it) it’s possible that Noah found favor with God because of his righteousness (perhaps as some kind of exception?)…despite what Scripture says about that possibility. This is again ripping the passage out of biblical context. 3) We accept the testimony of Scripture that righteousness before God comes by grace and that it is impossible to find favor with God on our own merits, but insist that since all that was written later (which not all of it was) it was possible for Noah to find favor on his own merits (which he couldn’t) because God has somehow changed in His dealings with men and His plan for their salvation (which He hasn’t). This is again ripping the passage out of context (not so much in the way of salvation here, but in the nature, workings, and eternal promises of God). 4) Or we simply accept the testimony of Scripture that Noah was declared righteous by grace and therefore found favor with God. The argument is even stronger for Simeon because the he had the complete OT cannon which most certainly has something to say about how people become righteous before God.

            That’s why all your commentaries said “that God’s grace was primary and initial.” The commentators read it in light of context. Sure Noah had “meaningful if imperfect obedience,” but that could NOT have been the cause of his righteousness or the favor he found with God. Why not? Bible.

            That’s what true of every passage because that’s what’s true of Scripture. Is there a place for “meaningful if imperfect obedience” in Psalm 15? Of course! But it has nothing to do with righteousness; it has everything to do with God’s people seeking to follow His will out of thanksgiving for the declaration of righteousness God has already given us by grace for Christ’s sake.

            The only relationship between righteousness and obedience is actually the relationship between righteousness and disobedience. We can’t gain righteousness by obedience, but we can loss righteousness by disobedience. If we disregard God’s will as revealed in the Law and live as though we can do what we want because the Law can’t touch us, we are resisting God and His grace. We are hardening our heart to the working of the Holy Spirit and living in willful disobedience to Him. The righteousness declared over us by grace is despised and rejected and therefore revoked. As Christians, we are not accountable to the Law, but we can still sin ourselves to death. Go read James (and much of Paul) in light of this and tell me I’m wrong.

            That’s what confessional Lutherans believe, teach, and confess.

          • I hope what’s coming out of this conversation is that some Christians, thankfully, do not resonate with the experience Ortlund and I are describing: the experience of hearing biblical interpreters (particularly preachers) implicitly denying either that a) anyone can perform meaningful if imperfect obedience or that b) God’s grace is necessary for obedience. I grew up, frankly, hearing preaching on the b) side. In the time since college a lot of my reading has moved into the same space Ortlund’s appears to be in (and I include here reading comments on social media); I’ve heard a lot more a) in those circles. It’s become a knee-jerk response, a cultural proclivity. And I’ve felt that tendency in my own heart. If you live in an ecclesiastical context in which no one is committing either one of these errors in preaching or inside his or her heart, I rejoice. I don’t live in such a context.

            I want to reflect the Bible’s emphases, so I don’t want to flinch at stern calls to obedience, nor do I want to flinch at man-humbling affirmations that all human good comes by grace.

            I’d encourage commenters upset by my repetition of the “strict Lutheranizing” terminology to read me as charitably as they can: I would never affirm that my righteousness causes God’s grace, finally and ultimately. But “God gives grace to the humble,” too, and I think all Ortlund and I are saying is that one’s preaching and interpretation must not immediately skip over the obvious exegetical meaning of that statement to affirm that, “Well, of course, no one can be humble unless God gives them grace first.” The Bible doesn’t do that, so we shouldn’t. In my heart I want to give all honor to God, and I know I deserve only punishment and not mercy and grace, so I feel the tug of that particular systematic-theological temptation. But I, for one, am going to seek to “let it land” the next time I preach a statement like “God gives grace to the humble.”

            Here’s another one: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Did Jesus get the order wrong? Did he forget that indicatives are supposed to precede imperatives? Let it land, let it land.

          • Greg Luecht says:

            Hi Mark-
            I will start by noting that I am not a biblical scholar but I do have a thought. Can the grammar above be implying a real EFFECT of one’s inability to receive if one is in unbelief? RE: James 4:6- how can one receive God-ability (grace) if he refuses, in his pride, to stop relying on his own ability? The second instance of Mark 11:26/Matthew 6:15 is somewhat similar-how can one forgive if he has not believed in God’s forgiveness thru Christ? I understand your wonderings about the way that the scripture is stated (“God gives grace”; “neither will your Father forgive”). Is the form of grammar used to imply that God moves in reaction to man’s actions (or worthiness?)? I believe this would not be consistent with NT Grace but the above viewed as describing EFFECT fits.

          • Greg Luecht says:

            I would also add that Mark 11:26 and Matthew 6:15 are Christ’s statements made pre-passion and therefore would stand as written under the Old Covenant. Colossians 3:13 and Ephesians 4:32 further the idea of forgiveness post passion.

          • Greg Luecht says:

            An additional example of the superior “obedience of faith” to the spirit of the Law is Christ “upping the ante” by commanding to “love one another as I have loved you”. Through the cross we are now empowered through Grace to a love superior to the commandment of the Old Covenant of “love your neighbor as yourself”. Praise God who through Christ’s sacrificial love poured into our hearts enables us to do what we could not do in our flesh through the Law.

          • Brad Novacek says:

            Mark, regarding the forgiveness imperatives/indicatives: depending on your theological background, we may start talking past each other here due to different beliefs regarding the “Perseverance of the Saints.” That said, I give you a Lutheran interpretation of that passage, which can take or leave.

            It doesn’t matter which Jesus used first in this case because both are ongoing in the life of a Christian. We have received forgiveness by grace through faith in Jesus, and we are called to forgive others as a thankful response to that grace. But we are still sinners who will need forgiveness again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day….just as we will regularly have reasons to forgive others.

            We know from Scripture that our forgiveness of others is not a “condition” of forgiveness by God, but what affect does that unforgiving heart/attitude have on our Christian walk? Take the parable of the unforgiving servant as an example of this. Forgiveness was given to the servant without condition, certainly he was not required to go and forgive his fellow-servant first. But when the servant is found to be unforgiving towards neighbor, the forgiveness granted to him freely was then withdrawn. Forgiving others is not a “condition” of salvation, but salvation is withdrawn from those who have despised that gift by their unforgiving heart. It’s a similar thought to my statement in a previous comment that as Christians we aren’t accountable to the Law, but we can still sin ourselves to death. Resisting God’s grace in Jesus Christ, whether by open and unrepentant sin or by a heart attitude incompatible with that grace (such as forgiveness), is tantamount to turning from Christ Himself and results in the loss of salvation.

            I’m not sure how a Calvinist would explain that passage, but I’d be interested to hear it.

          • A good comment. Thank you for this. This is an edifying discussion.

            I agree that forgiveness is ongoing in the life of a Christian. I repent from sin daily, and I forgive daily (as necessary—I don’t always have sins committed against me daily).

            I think you’re perceptive to see a difference between the interpretive model of the Calvinist believer in “P” and that of the Lutheran, particularly when it comes to Matthew 18 and the story of the unforgiving servant (one of my favorite passages in Scripture; I’ve preached it many times).

            I suppose I’d want to go back to Ortlund’s first point: “let it land.” Let the stern words of Jesus about forgiveness land. Don’t immediately retreat to, “Well, of course, you can’t earn your salvation, and God’s forgiveness is not conditional upon my perfect obedience.” That’s all true. And Jesus knew it better than we do. But that didn’t stop him from saying what he said, and it shouldn’t stop us from repeating it. We have to make theological formulations and denominational doctrinal standards. As Lewis said long ago, the meat and drink are in the denominational rooms off the great hallway of the church. But semper reformanda, and norma normans non normata—we’ve got to the let the Scripture keep norming and reforming us. We can’t be afraid to talk like the Bible does.

            I happen to believe in the perseverance of the saints, yes, and after I let that statement from Jesus about forgiveness land on myself and on others, I explain it in a way I think is similar to you: if someone doesn’t forgive his neighbor, he shows that he’s never really been forgiven by God. Because people who are forgiven have to repent first, and that means they have to “come to themselves” like the prodigal son. They have to perceive the enormity of their sin. But when I preached this passage several times to non-Christian people in an outreach ministry in the very religious South, I let Jesus’ statements land with force. I wanted to shock them into realizing that they weren’t forgiven like they thought. I did not apply any comfort to their souls, and I waited to offer it. I laid the law heavily on their shoulders and then did offer the gospel.

            Does that help?

          • Brad Novacek says:

            Mark, in reading your response, I see that I stepped a bit away from the main topic. In preaching and teaching, I would also let the imperative hit with the full force; people need to hear the Law (whether it is applied to them is 2nd or 3rd use), and once the Law has had opportunity to do its work, then the Gospel truth can provide comfort to afflicted souls.

            In that application of Gospel, I’d also be careful not to erase the imperative because “Jesus did it for you,” but it must be done in a way that does not confuse Law and Gospel. I’d ensure that the hearer understands that the imperative still stands as God’s will (3rd use) and we are called to live up to that standard, but no matter how imperfectly (or even perfectly) we do follow it, that will not gain us favor with God. God’s favor is by grace alone without consideration of anything in us or anything we do; following His will perfectly out of thankfulness is simply what is expected of us…and we can’t even maintain that. I don’t expect God’s favor for failing to even do the minimum…not matter how hard I try or how sincere I am.

            I thank you for humoring me on the Calvinist interpretation (and for recognizing my statements as a simple acknowledgement of fact regarding different interpretive methods rather than an “attack” or what have you). I see how you got to that understanding and also that it makes logical sense from the “P” perspective. I just disagree. I don’t think that it’s the best explanation of the text, just as I don’t think that Calvinism adequately explains Scripture as a whole. But I suppose that’s both cause and effect for me being Lutheran (at least it part of the cause and effect). I get the premise and understand how Calvin (and Calvinists) got there, but I think he/they/you are wrong. Please excuse my political incorrectness, but they’re mutually exclusive ideas. If I didn’t think you’re wrong, I’d be Calvinist. Not saying it doesn’t change the fact that I think you’re wrong, and you think I am.

            I don’t mean to start up a Luther vs. Calvin debate that no one has solved for nearly 500 years…just a healthy exchange of ideas. The problem I have with your interpretation of the parable is the same as I have with “P” in general: it actually detracts from the assurance of salvation that it is designed to uphold. In modern terms, let’s say there is a bulwark in the church (pastor/elder/deacon/whatever…doesn’t matter) who becomes the victim of an unspeakable crime, can’t forgive the perpetrator, and “falls away” (not sure of Calvinist terminology for that). Or it could just be that his old nature got the better of him and he falls into open and unrepentant sin and leaves the church. Whatever the reason, he’s gone. This man has borne all the marks of the new life in Christ for decades…fruit of the Spirit, spiritual gifts, etc. He was active in the Church and in outreach, and he was very forthcoming about his faith; in short, he’s a model disciple. While we can’t judge the heart, no one has any doubt that he is counted among the redeemed. But despite how likely it may be, he fell; it happened (and it does happen). According to “P” he was never saved in the first place, no matter how much we (or he) thought he was. When something like this happens (even if the case is not so extreme, which is far more common), what does that do to others in the church? “I think I’m saved, and everyone assures me that I am. But everyone said the same thing about him. How can a really know if I’m just deceived like he was?” The assurance of salvation proclaimed in “P” is pulled out from beneath us as soon as the first seemingly genuine Christian falls away.

            I just can’t get behind that. I’ll stick with simply taking God at His word that whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. All the while remaining sober-minded and watchful because the adversary is prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (not to mention that my own flesh daily seeks to lead me astray).

            Again, I’m not looking for a debate; I’m just giving you a different perspective (I’m open to yours as well). In the end, however, I’m guessing we’ll just need to agree to disagree.

          • Model “ecumenical” dialogue—or perhaps I should say, “cross-denominational.” No offense taken at all. Respectful disagreement and engagement are so rare on the internet; here’s a great example.

            And an example it’ll take me more time to mull over in a busy day with other responsibilities! I invite others to comment in the same spirit.

            I’ll say preliminarily that though we’re on different pages I think we’re on the same spread.

  7. Hi Mark, thanks for you post about Dane’s Post. I am in complete agreement with your // Dane’s concerns about the gospel centered movement. Though I’ve really appreciated the emphasis on Jesus // Gospel, I am convinced that my job as a preacher is to preach the main point of the author as the Main point of the text.

    But as I’m sure you’re aware, when it comes to the Psalms, “author” is a bit of a slippery concept, since we not only have the author of the Psalm but also the individual // school of individuals who stitched the 5 books together in a particular ordering for particular reasons. I have been // am increasingly convinced that a Messianic approach to the psalms must pay careful attention to the structure of each of the 5 books. For example, in Psalm 15, the question “Who May Ascend the Hill” is ultimately answered by Psalm 24: “The King of Glory.” Psalms 15 through 24 have been shown (convincingly in my opinion) to be a Chiasm. (i.e. http://www.academia.edu/3848951/The_Coherence_of_Psalms_15_24_Gregorian_Biblical_Press_2013_). Psalm 24 answers the question of who the King of glory is as well. It’s the Lord, strong and mighty. The King of Glory, who is the Lord, is the one who ultimately has clean hands and a pure heart and is qualified to enter the gates of the “heavenly” city.
    I’d appreciate your thoughts on this type of connection if you have time… I believe it has the potential to be very helpful in preaching the Psalms. For example, I’d never preach Psalm 1 alone and try to say something like, “The Blessed man in Psalm 1 is ultimately Jesus, and we can have his perfect law keeping righteousness through faith…” Instead, I’d always preach it with Psalm 2 as the “gateway to the Psalms.” I think the Main point of Psalm 1/2 is “The Blessed Man is the one who heeds God’s word, and takes refuge in the Messiah.”

    • Joel: Jesus and the Gospel is the main point of the text…always. It’s what Psalm 15 ultimately hopes for, that only One can dwell on God’s holy hill and yet dies on another, in our place. Psalm 24 is the classic example that I always use, as a Gospel-Centered pastor. Again, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?” Only Jesus.

      There is a way to always get to Jesus…in every text.

      • Joel Aubrey says:

        Hi James – I certainly agree with you brother – big picture. My struggle has always been with the details of how preachers (including myself) get there. I do agree that there’s a way to Jesus in every text and that Jesus is the Main Point of the entire Canon and every book in it. Often though from my perspective, the way to Jesus reflects the creativity and systematic theology of the preacher as opposed to the exegetically provable Messianic intentions of the original author. Getting to Jesus often takes a ton of work: A working knowledge of the intertextuality of the OT, including the intentional development of Types, and the Messianic thrust of the Torah, etc. I guess I’m just curious what Mark thinks about not just preaching “One Psalm” and when preaching Messiah from the Psalms. He didn’t mention Psalm 24 in the article…

        • Joel, these are fantastic comments—and it appears you're ahead of me in thinking through the "authorial intent" of an apparently inspired editor. I've read Wenham on this a bit (The Psalter Reclaimed), and in fact he makes a similar comment to yours:

          The importance of Psalms 1 and 2 for the theology of the Psalter is now accepted: the first gives a wisdom slant to the collection, and the second draws attention to the role of the king. (62)

          But he follows up with this comment:

          Whether the promises to the house of David were understood messianically by the Psalter's editor is still a matter of contention. (62)

          In other words, the jury is still out on key questions. It may remain out, and I tend to think it will. My inclination is to protest that there just isn't enough evidence, even if I side with Gerald Wilson in his comments in this book:

          In contrast to the predominantly negative conclusion of a preceding generation of Psalms scholars that the canonical arrangement was largely random and without a unifying editorial purpose, recent scholarship has convincingly demonstrated that the canonical Psalter is the end result of a process of purposeful editorial arrangement of psalms and collections of psalms producing a unified whole marked by structures indicating editorial intent.

          So, as with so many frustrating "conclusions" in biblical studies, this calls for further research. I, for one, am going to dig into that Gerald Wilson article I just quoted.

  8. Timothy Joseph says:

    Mark,
    First, thanks for this blog. I would agree with the premise. As a Pastor-Teacher, I continually see this swing. I have to remind myself and others that Paul, the apostle of Christ and Grace, wrote the put-off and put-on passages!

    Tim

  9. Mark, thank you so much :-)

  10. “Is Psalm 15 Christ-centered?” Ortlund asks. And his answer is a bracing and direct, “No.” But, he says, “The Bible is Christ-centered, and Psalm 15 plots onto a unified whole-Bible trajectory that culminates in Christ.”

    (love that paragraph)

  11. Rev. Keith Bowman says:

    I think Ortlund may be responding to Gerhardt Forde and those influenced by him when he speaks of “strict Lutheranizing.” Forde struggled with the Law because he saw it as sola accusat or only accuses. While traditionally the Lutheran understanding of the law was semper accusat or always accusing. It seems like a small difference but the key is that semper accusat sees the Law as more than a mirror hence, in the Formula of Concord the Law as guide or Third Use of the Law is affirmed.

    That said, outside of Forde influenced Lutheranism we will see this Psalm in three ways. First, we will see it as Christocentric because how can one not see Jesus’ perfection described? He is the one who could dwell in the Lord’s tent and upon the mountain. He is the one fulfills the list given in response to the Psalm’s questions..

    Secondly, we will see that measure by which we fail. It is a statement of Law. So, it also stands as a call to repentance. There isn’t a single person whose name is not Jesus of Nazareth could say that’s me.

    Thirdly, we will also see the person we should strive to be. We should strive to do what is said in this psalm for they are good and beneficial to our neighbor.

    A good starting point for jumping into Luther is his Larger Catechism, it’s an easy read and some translations are free on the internet.

  12. Brad Novacek says:

    Thank you to Rev. Keith for pointing out the 3rd use of the Law. My brain was screaming the same thing from the time Lutherans were accused of looking only to the 2nd use. Yes, the Law accuses, but it also instructs God’s people regarding His will for how we are to live in this sin-fallen world.

    I think it’s also important to point out that confessional Lutherans don’t preach the 2nd use of the Law just as we don’t preach the 3rd use. We preach the Law, and the Holy Spirit applies that Law to the individual hearer as they have need.

    But however that Law is applied, they must also have the Gospel. If they hear in the Law their own depravity, they must hear how the work of Christ makes them righteous before God by grace…despite their own sinfulness. If they hear in the Law the standard they are to strive for, they must be reminded that despite how much they “improve” or how much more sanctified they become, true righteousness comes only through the blood of Christ…not by our own works, but by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. That’s the point of Christ-centered preaching; that’s why we have such an emphasis on the proper distinction of Law and Gospel and the application of both to all people.

    With all of that in mind, as I read the 5 steps listed for coming “back to plumb,” I’d like to point out that confessional Lutherans are already doing that. I know that I strive to do just these things in my preaching and teaching (though my terminology may be a bit different). I know that sometimes I fail in that endeavor just as we all fail, but then….Jesus.

    As for Noah and Simeon, I really don’t see the problem. Sure, they sought to do right and follow God’s will…good for them; that’s what we all ought to do. But just as for the rest of us, they weren’t righteous because their conduct, they had good conduct because of their righteousness. They sought the righteousness promised by God in the coming Messiah by grace through faith. And, having received it, they sought God’s will in a way that only a believer can…not to become more righteous, but out of thanksgiving to God who had already declared them righteous. For the sake of argument, let’s say that we can’t determine this grace then obedience idea from the passages pertaining to Noah and Simeon. Saying that we can’t tell at all would be to rip those passages out of their biblical contexts. Scripture interprets Scripture; we must use the clear portions to inform our interpretation of those which are less clear. One clear verse is enough to establish doctrine; why isn’t it enough to establish how Noah and Simeon were both righteous and obedient? How does anyone become righteous and blameless? How does one find favor with God? Scripture is clear that it is by grace alone!

  13. Guymon Hall says:

    “Psalm 15, a small poem which is “at first sight…a straightforwardly gospel-vacuous Old Testament text…This psalm says nothing about Jesus, and little (if anything?) about divine grace. It basically tells us to do good stuff and not do bad stuff.”

    This is not a very good job in exegeting the text. Psalm 15 is to be taken in context with Psalm 14, which contains the ultimate condemnation of every single of us:

    “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
    to see if there are any who understand,
    who seek after God.

    They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
    there is none who does good,
    not even one.”

    It then ends with a desperate plea, “O that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!”

    Then Psalm 15 opens by asking, “O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?”

    In light of Psalm 14, the answer is clearly not us. We meet none of the qualifications listed in the rest of the psalm to be able to do so. And it’s not even close.

    But, Psalm 15 shows the characteristics of one who can, and those characteristics match perfectly with the life and work of Jesus Christ.

    So rather than Psalm 15 saying nothing about Jesus Christ, Psalm 14 and 15 taken together in their proper context show us nothing short of a picture of Christ and the very gospel itself! That’s about as far away from a “too far swung gospel-centered pendulum” as you can get!

    • Precisely, Guymon—you’re exactly right that Psalm 15 must be read in the context of other psalms and of the whole Bible. Ortlund’s point (and mine) is that on an initial read, and taken by itself (and taking it by itself is something you can’t and shouldn’t do!), Psalm 15 doesn’t mention Jesus or grace.