Eating the Egg, Still Wanting the Chicken
Too Much Not Yet, Not Enough Gospel
A review of Dual Citizens, by Jason Stellman, forward Michael Horton, 2009, Reformation Trust ( the RC Sproul business)
PCA pastor (Exile Presbyterian, Seattle) Stellman has shifted places on the evangelical bus. He used to be a Calvary Chapel “minister” but now he has moved up to the Upper Crust “Ancient Sacramental” seats. Stellman gives no indication that his gospel has changed, and assumes that he has been a Christian all long, but now he wants to persuade us of some “Reformed” propositions so that we can be less “Gnostic” and individualistic.
Why then should we who are not Reformed concern ourselves with what Stellman says about the two kingdoms? Can’t we disagree about eschatology and ecclesiology and still have the gospel? In this review, I want to highlight two statements which should alert us all to the need to check if we have a common gospel. Although I disagree with the way Stellman profanes grace (common grace) and defends the legitimacy of a second kingdom in which Christians can also “legitimately” kill to protect their “national identity”, for now I want to focus on two issues which intrude on the gospel itself.
The first issue (not first in the book, in chapter 12 of the book) is the question of redemptive history. When I report that Stellman wanted to persuade people he already considers Christians but not yet “Reformed”, the question becomes : what kind of reformed? Do you mean tulip without the cultural mandate? Do you mean the people who follow John Murray who are mono-covenantal, and who deny a covenant of works and say that all covenants are both gracious and conditional?
The answer to the question in Stellman’s case is that he follows Meredith Kline. Kline of course followed Vos and Ridderbos, but some in the John Murray (Gaffin, Shepherd) folks also talk a lot about redemptive history. But Stellman, following Kline, sounds almost dispensational, when he interprets Romans 6:14. And I want to write about this, because Romans 6 is, I think, very important in talking about gospel.
For those curious to know, I am an amill person who thinks Christ is also a lawgiver and not simply an exegete of Moses. But my concern here is not to say when Jesus will return (I agree with both Kline and Gaffin in being amill) or even to defend new covenant law ( I am a pacifist not an antinomian.). My concern is the indicative in Romans 6:14—“for sin shall not have the dominion over you, for you are not under the law but under grace.” I read that as saying that sin shall not reign over a justified person, because that person is justified. Stellman says that my reading is a non-answer.
I want to keep focused here, so I cannot discuss the biblical definition of sanctification and traditional and confessional definitions. (For more on that, see AW Pink on Sanctification, or David Petersen, Possessed by God) I am not even making a suggestion about being able to tell a lot about a person’s gospel from looking at their doctrine of the Christian life. Rather, I am saying that what Stillman writes about Romans 6:14 is not what John Calvin or Robert Haldane or the confessions thought about it.
I quote from p 143: “According to this view, under law means under the condemnation of God’s moral law, and under grace speaks of the deliverance from this condition. Some problems arise from this view. First, Paul usually uses the word law to refer to the law of Moses in particular…When Paul spoke to those saints in the churches of Galatia who desired to be under the law, was he talking to people who longed to be under the condemnation of the law?…When Paul wrote that Jesus was born under the law, did he mean that Christ was born under the condemnation of the law? Under law means under the jurisdiction of the Mosaic covenant. Furthermore, if under law and under grace are existential categories describing an individual’s condemnation or justification, then Paul’s argument is a non-sequitur. It is not justification but sanctification that frees us from the dominion of the sin.”
It is that last sentence which is the most objectionable (to me) in Stellman’s book. Of course, that reading of Romans 6 is very common to many Reformed people. Like John Murray, or Lloyd Jones, or Sinclair Ferguson, they tell us that “freed from sin” in Romans 6:7 cannot mean “justified from sin” because this chapter is about sanctification and not about justification. It seems obvious to me that this is simply begging the question, and without some attention to the chapter, I will be guilty of simply begging the question the other way.
In the book Dual Citizens, Stellman does not write about 6:7 or about anything else in Romans 6 (not even about water baptism, which he elsewhere credits with bringing infants into salvation). Instead he spends the rest of the chapter in chapter 7 of Romans arguing against the traditional (Reformed!) view of Romans 7, and for a more redemptive-historical (dare I say, dispensational ) reading. I have neither time or interest in entering that discussion. Instead I want to attend to two of his rhetorical questions about Romans 6:14.
You can read them in context above, but the first asks: When Paul was warning the Galatians, were the false teachers wanting to be under condemnation? My answer is that Paul’s answer is that the false teachers were under the condemnation. If you go their way, Christ will be of no profit to you. The gospel does not tell people that they want to be damned. The gospel says that they will be damned if their trust in anything else but Christ’s death for the elect. That death alone, apart from works enabled by the Spirit, be those works of Torah or of new covenant, is the only gospel.
Stellman’s second rhetorical question: when Paul wrote that Jesus was born under the law, did he mean that Christ was born under the condemnation of the law? My answer is yes. Gal 4:4: born of the law to redeem those under the law cannot mean only that Christ was born under the jurisdiction of Moses to get Jews free from that jurisdiction. According to Gal 3:13, Christ became a curse under the law to redeem a people from the curse of the law.
I am not denying that Christ kept the Mosaic law. I am not even denying that Christ was under the Mosaic law to keep that law vicariously for the elect. (I would deny NT Wright’s idea that Christ was born with a Jewish sense of exile and failure to obey for life.) What I am affirming is that the sins of all the elect were imputed to Christ, and that as surety for the elect, Christ was born under the condemnation of God and God’s law. To see this, we need to attend to the first part of Romans 6 before we rush to the second part and conclude that it has to be about a sanctification that makes it ok for God to justify the ungodly. Romans 6:10 says that “the death He died to sin”.
Before we jump to the redemptive historical complexity of union and identification with the death (when? 2000 year ago? At imputation? Before or after faith?), we need to focus on Christ’s death to sin. Does this mean that Christ was unregenerate and then positionally cleansed by the Holy Spirit? God forbid. Does it mean that Christ was carnal but then infused with the divine and became a partaker of the divine nature? Again, God forbid. Does it mean that Christ by being in the environment of the world and of the old covenant needed a deliverance from “the flesh” and from the physical body? Once more, God forbid. One more does it mean, and then I move on, lest I try your patience. Does it mean that God had to suffer intensely and infinitely before he died, because only in that way would He be “dead to sin”. And again, no (examine your mystical soundbites at the door, along with “on the altar of his deity”)
What does it mean that Christ died to sin? It means that the law of God demanded death for the sins of the elect imputed to Christ. As long as those sins were imputed to Christ, He was under sin, he was under law, He was under death. Now death has no more power over Him? Why? Because the sins are no longer imputed to Him, but have been paid for and satisfied. And this is about the gospel, because the gospel is not about just about God justifying, but also about God being just and justifier.
Liberals say that it’s not forgiveness if God had to pay for it. Arminians say it’s not justice for God to condemn a person without giving Jesus to die for that person, and that Jesus has done that,so now God can justly condemn those who won’t accept it.
A lot is written about imputation these days. A lot of it‘s Arminian or Lutheran talk of an exchange made by the sinner’s faith. A lot less is written about the imputation of Adam’s sin. (Blocher, for example, in his original sin book, concludes that Adam’s sin only moved the redemptive historical clock forward (bringing in death) so that individual sins could then be imputed.) But even less is written about the imputation of sins to Christ. I think at least part of the reason for the silence is that “ministers” don’t want to talk about either whose sins are imputed or when they are imputed. (See for instance, the new book by southern baptist Vickers)
This is not the time to think through the timing. (Even when we agree with Owen’s use of impetration, where sins which have been imputed to Christ are still imputed to the elect until their justification, we still have the question if imputation logically immediately precedes or follows faith.) If we say that the sins of believers are imputed to Christ, we not only avoid the good news of election but also (by lack of antithesis) contribute to the evangelical consensus that the efficacy of Christ’s death depends on believing. But the gospel tells how believing is the effect of the cross, and the gospel also tells us what is the object of the believing (contra the Arminian idol and lie).
But back to Romans 6. Stellman’s reading is not the way most Reformed people in the past read Romans 6:14. Maybe now it’s the new majority way. But everybody needs to deal with the question: whatever you say about the Christian being dead to sin, this also needs to be said about Christ. If all it means is not under Moses, is that your gospel? Is it the gospel that Christ was born under the Mosaic law but isn’t anymore? Isn’t that something like an universalism which takes us all toward the “not yet done”? Nobody is under Moses anymore —how is that a good news for an individual on his death bed?
I have now come to the second main concern I have with Stellman’s Dual Citizens. He is so concerned to praise his ancient sacramental view of church that he throws around some careless accusations against “Gnostics” and “pietists”. Instead of now collecting the details, I want to rush to his solution on p79 and 80. I quote, “While adults coming out of pagan backgrounds may indeed experience a seismic shift in loyalties, this is the exception rather than the rule. The Christian faith, normally speaking, is passed on from parents to children by means of infant baptism.”
Now we got you, I hear the reader. You are a sectarian who turns everything into a discussion about being a Baptist. I plead not guilty. There are many different ways to defend infant baptism, and many of them contradict each other. Most of the reformed ways of defending infant baptism depend in some way on not focusing the redemptive-historical character of covenants. Despite his Klinean (some would say dispensational) model, Stillman also relies on “the covenant” talk, expecially when he claims that worship is the same in the new as the old (re-enactment of the covenant).
But my aim is not to pit one paedobaptist against another (though that’s fun enough, see the little book from Evangelical Press by Watson). For one thing, that would not get to the crux of the question, which has to do with ordained “ministers” doing something and saying that God is doing and man is not. Rather, I think most paedobaptists have what Stillman would call a pietist model of crisis conversion, and do not believe in covenant succession.
This is why “ancient sacramental” folk spend so much time quoting Calvin and Nevin to their own people. And I will grant them that the Constantinian tradition is on their side: if they wanted to, the Doug Wilson types can find plenty to support them also in Hodge and even in Zwingli. But it’s going to take more than accusing me of being a Gnostic and quoting the confessions about the office of the “minister” to convince me. Stellman makes his case in chapter 7 (“reformed piety”).
I do not agree that “God never deals with us as individuals” (p9) I do not agree that, when we hear Christ preached, we then hear Christ preaching. (p13) Or that we hear an official “minister” absolving our sins, that we hear Christ forgiving our sins. Who is hearing?
WHO IS HEARING? Are the non-elect not hearing, because they don’t care about their sins? If so, then it comes back again to the faith of the hearers? Or, instead, are the non-elect hearing “you are forgiven” by the “minister” as telling them that their sins are forgiven? Is it “pietism” to warn people that the New Testament is written only to Christians? It’s ironic that Stillman says this for Sabbath (no death penalty for this for non-Christians!) but he can’t make such a distinction for those observing the cult. He must acts as if everybody observing the sacrament is an exile from the world and a Christian. Otherwise he would have to speak to the church as if were the world, and then he would have to think more about water passing on salvation to pagans who are not children, and about the supper being converting for those halfway in. Even if there is no faith, is there no blessing? (see p 14)
To the extent Stellman uses “the covenant” to argue for sacraments, all his distinction between the old and new covenants collapses. When he talks Sabbath, he doesn’t want the death penalty to apply, but when he talks sacraments, he still wants to talk sanctions and curses. (p77) Like his mentor Kline, he warns that God may break you off if you don’t observe the rituals. Following DG Hart (Mother Kirk), Stellman doesn’t want us to talk about “dead” Christians (p80) as if some internal work of the Spirit needed to be done, but rather ask if people are “observant” at the sacraments. Maybe you agree with him. My point now is not all paedobaptists agree with him on that.
If you are faking it at the sacrament, then God can kill you. That argument in itself does not prove that it is a sacrament or that God is the agent in water baptism and in the Supper. Those questions have to be answered biblically. By that, I don’t exclude any sense of individuality at conversion. Neither do I exclude use of confessions. But when Stellman says minister or sacrament, I do wonder if that is what God meant in the Bible.
Oh by the way, I think it’s ok to not work all the time. I like chapter 11 against the puritans., even though I wish he could have found somebody besides the Romanist, Calvinist-hating, Chesterton to make his case. But he does quote a book I like: How to be Idle by the British writer, Tom Hodgkinson. But as I suggested before, we don’t need to talk about “common grace” to make this point. Read Protestant Reformed leader Englesma’s plea against profaning grace in his answer to Mouw .
I do want to recommend some better books than this on the topic of living in exile in the world. I will only list one Mennonite book: For the Nations, by John Howard Yoder (Eerdmans), expecially the chapter on diaspora, “See How they Go with Their Faces”. And one book by a Quaker, A Biblical Theology of Exile, by Daniel Smith-Christopher( Fortress). And by the premill evangelical Robert H Gundry, Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian (Eerdmans). On the land, read Reformed amill The Israel of God, by Palmer Robertson (P and R). On weakness, read the Lutheran (and expert on Ellul) Marva Dawn, Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God. For Romans 6, read Robert Haldane. If you want something very short on Romans 6, read Steele and Thomas, Outline on Romans , p46.
I think any of these books will be more helpful than the stuff Horton likes from the Yale School (I will write Hauerwas here, even though he wouldn’t like to be placed there anymore than I like being called Gnostic for not being ancient sacramental) But Stellman is more liberal than Hauerwas, and federal visionists (Leithart) use Hauerwas to defend something a lot more Constantinian than what Stillman would approve. They all agree on sacrament holding the church together . But I am not sure they would be agreed on what to say about the Exodus 32 ordeal/ intrusion. After the golden calf, Moses asked: who is on the Lord’s side? Go forth, and kill your brother… Today you have ordained yourselves for service. “ Even though they want to follow the OT (the covenant) model for worship, they are not agreed about what is legitimate for the people of God when they operate in a second kingdom.
Stellman makes an interesting note about being guilty (as a member of the “legitimate” second kingdom) for the guilt of all the innocent killed in Iraq.(p71) But he still interprets God’s protection from the death penalty (on earth) as being about God by “common grace” giving the state to protect us. (p56) I guess he thinks it’s ok to kill for the state (or the economy), just so long as we don’t make the mistake of thinking this is redemptive. As a pacifist, of course, I don’t find much to get excited about in this distinction. It’s like talking about talking about the glories of the new covenant, as a chaplain in the military!
It seems to me that Stellman wants to eat his cake, but still have it. Or to eat the egg, but still have the chicken which would be born from that egg! He is ok with war, just so long as it’s legitimate but not holy. He wants to avoid covenantal discontinuity, and still have ancient worship: “we are the product of our ancestry in some sense.” (P122) Children get salvation passed to them by water. But, on the other hand, in talking about texts like Romans 6:14, Stellman wants to talk about the future having “already” arrived so that the gospel is not merely the forgiveness of sins by Christ’s death to the law, but the gospel becomes amillennial eschatology. As he quotes Vos, “eschatology precedes soteriology”.
Interesting! First, I read that as saying: there is a covenant of works before there is sin. And that would fit the Meredith Kline model. But Stellman narrates the drama this way: the desire for eternal life is before the desire to be saved from God’s wrath for our sins. Adam on probation still needed (and wanted) eternal life. And I have no big problem with saying it that way. My problem is when eschatology not only precedes soteriology but becomes the soteriology. My problem is when we read Romans 6:14 to only say that nobody is now under the Mosaic law. Of course I agree that nobody is now under the Mosaic law. But 1. I don’t think Romans 6:14 is teaching that. And more important, even if it did teach that. 2. I don’t think that is gospel.