10 Guidelines for Grasping New Testament Ethics

Oct 30, 2014 | Trevin Wax

006063796XWe’re coming to the end of our journey through Richard Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament(You can see my summaries and comments on each chapter here.)

Today, I’d like to backtrack to chapter 13 – “How Shall We Use the Texts?” This is where Hays’ method is laid out most clearly. He sums up his approach and then offers ten guidelines for grasping New Testament ethics.

Summary and Normative Reflections

The Descriptive and Synthetic Tasks

  • Wrestling with sustained close reading of the New Testament texts is likely to produce more compelling and sophisticated results.
  • Attending to the entire range of the canonical witnesses are on firmer theological ground.
  • 3 focal images: community, cross, and new creation. An ethic of the New Testament must be kept in balance by a reading that gives sustained and serious attention to all three of these images.

The Hermeneutical Task

  • New Testament texts must be granted authority (or not) in the mode in which they speak.
  • We should guard against falling into a habit of reading NT ethical texts in one mode only.
  • We must be wary of attempts to use one mode of appeal to Scripture to override the witness of the NT in another mode.
  • Narrative texts in the New Testament are fundamental resources for normative ethics. Rules and principles must find their place within the story of God’s redemption.
  • Extrabiblical sources stand in a hermeneutical relation to the NT; they are not independent, counterbalancing sources of authority. Scripture is privileged.

Moral Judgment as Metaphor-Making

  • The use of the New Testament in normative ethics requires an integrative act of the imagination.
  • Whenever we appeal to the authority of the New Testament, we are necessarily engaged in metaphor-making, placing our community’s life imaginatively within the world articulated by the texts.
  • Our hermeneutic must value rather than denigrate the particularity of the NT texts.

The Church as Embodied Metaphor

  • The transformed community reflects the glory of God and thus illuminates the meaning of the text.
  • The text shapes the community, and the community embodies the meaning of the text.
  • Right reading of the NT occurs only where the Word is embodied.

The Role of the Old Testament in New Testament Ethics

  • The voice of the Old Testament in the New: the full canon is the necessary context of intelligibility for the NT’s treatment of any ethical topic.
  • The Old Testament as grounding for community, cross, and new creation.
  • The New Testament as lens for reading the Old.

10 Proposed Guidelines (Summary)

  1. Serious exegesis is a basic requirement.
  2. We must seek to listen to the full range of canonical witnesses.
  3. Substantive tensions within the canon should be openly acknowledged.
  4. Our synthetic reading of the New Testament canon must be kept in balance by the sustained use of three focal images: community, cross, and new creation.
  5. New Testament texts must be granted authority (or not) in the mode in which they speak (i.e., rule, principle, paradigm, symbolic world).
  6. The New Testament is fundamentally the story of God’s redemptive action; thus, the paradigmatic mode has theological primacy, and narrative texts are fundamental resources for normative ethics.
  7. Extrabiblical sources stand in a hermeneutical relation to the New Testament.
  8. It is impossible to distinguish “timeless truth” from “culturally conditioned elements” in the New Testament.
  9. The use of the New Testament in normative ethics requires an integrative act of the imagination. We are engaged in metaphor-making.
  10. Right reading of the New Testament occurs only where the Word is embodied.

Some Personal Considerations: Hays is strong in his emphasis on exegesis and the role of right application in helping us correctly understand the Scriptural witness. His preference for narrative as the mode of New Testament ethics is surprising (some may expect rules or principles to be favored), but understandable since rules find meaning within a symbolic world. Hays leaves the door cracked for human experience to counter and even overcome the New Testament witness (see top of page 298). Even with his caveats and hesitancy, this openness to overturning Scripture is troubling and runs counter to the rest of his book.

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Worth a Look 10.30.14

Oct 30, 2014 | Trevin Wax

Worth a Look MagnifyingKindle Deal of the Day: Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns edited by D. A. Carson. $2.99.

Provides informed insights on the heart of the Gospel, the soul of postmodern culture, and their complex interface. This book is a compilation of thoughts and strategies from twenty-nine prominent practitioners of contemporary evangelism.

The 15 Spookiest Episodes of Old-Time Radio. The Suspense episode, “Sorry, Wrong Number” is absolutely masterful. Download it today.

This episode of Suspense was its most popular and successful, eventually being not just re-aired, but re-performed seven times after its original premiere in 1943. It’s a fairly simple tale of a woman trying to call her husband’s office at night to check in and find out when he’s coming home. The telephone switchboard wires get crossed somehow and she ends up listening in on a conversation she definitely should not be hearing. There are some unintended consequences, and this story has another ending that will leave you a little bit shocked.

7 Figures: Family Structure and Economic Success

Family structure is one of the most significant, though oft-overlooked, factors that affect the economic fortunes of Americans. A new study from AEI titled “For Richer or Poorer” documents the relationships between family patterns and economic well-being in America and shows how radically it can affect income.

Researchers Identify Wreckage of Amelia Earhart’s Plane:

The fate of pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart has been one of the most enduring mysteries of the last 80 years — but new research on an old discovery indicates the case may finally be closed.

I’m about halfway through Mike Cosper’s new book, The Stories We Tell, and have already learned a lot. Here’s more information:

Keller writes in the foreword, “Mike’s book will help readers learn to put the gospel on like a pair of glasses in order to see the good, the bad, and the ugly in our culture more clearly. This book will be especially helpful, I think, for Christians who preach, teach, and communicate the gospel. And, in the end, learning this discipline—of seeing God’s story in the stories we tell today—will be a way for us to deepen our own understanding of and joy in the gospel we believe.”

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Here’s Where Your Neighbors Are Theologically

Oct 29, 2014 | Trevin Wax

wooden rosary on the open BibleA recent poll by LifeWay Research, sponsored by Ligonier Ministries, surveyed Americans on a variety of theological issues in order to, in the words of Stephen Nichols, “take the temperature of America’s theological health.”

Bob Smietana’s article, “Americans Believe in Heaven, Hell, and a Little Bit of Heresy,” walks us through the statistics and the study’s major findings. The research provides a fascinating snapshot of how churched and unchurched people understand theology.

I’d like to comment on a few of the findings and how they might impact our conversations with friends and neighbors.

There Is Something Beyond

Your neighbor is likely to belong to the 67% of Americans who believe in heaven. If your neighbor identifies as evangelical, the number shoots up to 90%, which explains why books and movies on heaven find such an adoring audience. There’s little debate that heaven is for real.

Similar percentages reveal people believe in hell too, although few seem to be worried about going there. The same number of people who affirm belief in a heavenly afterlife also believe humans are basically good, even if they sin a little. And only 18% of Americans say small sins lead to hell.

In other words, your neighbor is more likely to believe in heaven and hell than not, but they’re not too worried about which destination they’re headed to.

Takeaway: Use the common ground of belief in the afterlife to bring up questions of eternal significance. But don’t forget that most people who are lost won’t recognize themselves as lost. The heaven and hell conversation is likely to be an entry point into deeper spiritual matters. Your evangelism will need to probe deeper than the question, “What happens when you die?”

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

The findings on salvation are distressing, especially when so many of these responses come from people who identify as evangelical or Catholic. Smietana summarizes:

Most Americans (71 percent), and in particular Black Protestants (82 percent) and Catholics (87 percent), say people must contribute some effort toward their own salvation. Two thirds (64 percent) say in order to find peace with God, people have to take the first step, and then God responds to them with grace.

The idea that Christianity teaches that salvation comes through keeping a moral code is prevalent today. Sociologist Christian Smith described America’s religious views as “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a worldview he explains in five statements:

  1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.” That’s the “Deism” part. God created the world, watches things, but doesn’t do much in the way of intervening in human affairs.
  2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.” That’s the Moralistic part. The goal of religion is to be a nice, moral person.
  3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” That’s the Therapeutic part. The most important thing in life is to be happy and well-balanced.
  4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.” Now, we see the Deistic view of God combine with God’s therapeutic purpose. He exists to make us happy.
  5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.” Salvation is accomplished through morality.

Along these lines, it’s no wonder that so many Americans believe there are more ways than Jesus to get to heaven. The good news is, evangelicals are much more likely to affirm the Christian teaching that Jesus is the only way to God, a sign that despite offering moralistic understandings of salvation, they recognize there is something uniquely powerful about Jesus and His gospel.

Takeaway: Realize that most gospel presentations are going to be interpreted from within a moralistic framework. Terminology like “Get right with God” and “make a decision for Christ” is likely to be heard by lost people as “get your act together” and “ask Jesus for help in being good.” We must always stress our inherent sinfulness and Christ’s gracious rescue in order to counter the moralistic assumptions of our culture.

If It’s Not Practical, We Don’t Get It

On fundamental Christian doctrines like the Trinity, the results are abysmal. Almost 60% of self-identifying evangelicals claim the Holy Spirit is a force, not a person. The findings get worse from there, even among the most religious.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this doctrinal confusion is that Americans are unlikely to have much patience for truths that don’t provide immediate practical benefits. Churches, in turn, are less likely to see a doctrine like the Trinity as relevant to the Christian’s daily life, thus leading to less emphasis on these matters in weekly teaching.

Americans respect the Bible, and evangelicals score well on affirming a concept similar to inerrancy (a sign that the battle for the Bible led to higher views of Scripture among many churchgoers). But the survey also shows that Americans are more likely to look to Scripture as “helpful” rather than see it as objectively true.

Takeaway: We need to do a better job teaching the basic doctrines of the Christian faith and why they matter. The pastor should handle Scripture, not as a manual for life betterment and moral instruction, but as a grand narrative that gives us a worldview – a formative story that shapes our attitudes and actions.

The Afterthought Church

Americans love their independence. If the church wants to come alongside and strengthen their personal, individualized sense of spirituality, well and good, we say.

But church leaders shouldn’t assume their congregants see attendance as essential to spiritual growth. Half of Americans think worshipping alone is just as good as going to church, and a staggering 82% say their local church has no authority to make a pronouncement about their Christian identity. (No wonder baptism gets reinterpreted as an individual expression of faith and church discipline is rare!)

According to this research, churchgoing is an afterthought. It’s an optional exercise judged primarily by its usefulness in one’s spiritual journey, not an essential part of faith and commitment.

Takeaway: We need to ensure that when we invite people to respond to the gospel with repentance and faith, we are making it clear that we are calling them into a community. Repentance and faith entails belonging to the community of repentant believers in Jesus. Church attendance is not the fine print at the bottom of our gospel presentations.

What about you? What statistics stood out? How do they impact the way you consider your ministry?

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Worth a Look 10.29.14

Oct 29, 2014 | Trevin Wax

WorthALook1Kindle Deal of the Day: My book Gospel-Centered Teaching is on sale for $2.99.

Lore Ferguson – Healing Handlers of Mud:

The Bible doesn’t command us (ever) to trust people. We’re called to trust the Lord, and to honor others, to, as much as it’s possible, be at peace with all men. But trust them? Trust is nothing less than a miracle, astounding wherever it rises.

Terry Mattingly – This Just In! Southern Baptists Still Convinced Christianity Has Been Correct on Marriage for 2000 Years:

You don’t have to agree with this point of view in the current age. But it is crucial for journalists to understand the doctrinal, the theological, point of view that drives the actions of many small-o orthodox believers caught up in these debates. If the goal is to quote them accurately and, who knows, even to anticipate their actions in future news stories, it helps to know these kinds of facts about history.

Logan Gentry – The Missional Margin of the Good Samaritan:

Are we so overscheduled that someone interrupting our day is not seen as a potential act of God, but as an attack on our achievements? This could be church activity or it could be our careers, our hobbies, or the many family activities we add to our plates.

Bob Hyatt – Did “The” Church Hurt You, Or “A” Church?

Engaging the pain caused by the brokenness of believers is essential for honest, faithful ministry. Bob Hyatt offers a helpful perspective on where our hurts come from, and guess what? Grammar matters.

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Book Notes: In the Kingdom of Ice / Next / Expositional Preaching

Oct 28, 2014 | Trevin Wax

The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette
by Hampton Sides

If you’re looking to lose yourself in a gripping but largely forgotten moment in U.S. history and exploration, then look no further than this book. Hampton Sides is up there with Laura Hillenbrand (author of Unbroken) when it comes to recounting history and biography in a way that focuses on the overarching narrative without losing sight of the human drama on display in all of the main characters.

In the Kingdom of Ice tells the story of explorer, George Washington De Long’s attempt to navigate through a wall of ice in hopes of discovering the open polar sea at the top of the world. The journey is told with attention to the details left by surviving crew members, the diaries of De Long, and the scientific theories at their disposal at the time.

“Grand” and “terrible” are great adjectives for this voyage. Hands down, one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Pastoral Succession That Works
by William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird

Every pastor is an interim pastor. No matter how long our tenure at a church, we are temporary. Someone will pick up after we leave, whether our succession is due to emergency, moral disqualification, forced, or expected. Next focuses primarily on expected successions and what can go right or wrong in a congregation.

Reading this book, you sense that hard fast rules are difficult to come by, because every church is so unique. Still, the authors do an admirable job of distilling wise principles from successful transitions and issuing warnings from transitions that proved disastrous. W. A. Criswell’s transition from First Baptist in Dallas and the more recent events at Crystal Cathedral are two of the most famous examples of disastrous successions given in the book.

How We Speak God’s Word Today
by David Helm

The 9Marks series of small hardback books are brief doses of potent medicine for church health. David Helm’s contribution on expository preaching isn’t comprehensive, nor does it intend to be. Instead, it’s an accessible introduction to the basics of exposition, unpacking the why‘s and how’s of exploring Scripture’s historical context, engaging in accurate exegesis, giving space to theological reflection, and delivering personal application.

There is no shortage of preaching books in the bookstores, but what makes this one so special is the amount of solid, practical material in such a small volume.

New preachers will find Helm’s insights to be a superb introduction to the basics of the craft. Veteran preachers will find a refresher on why good exposition is so powerful and needed. Don’t miss this one.

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Worth a Look 10.28.14

Oct 28, 2014 | Trevin Wax

Worth a Look MagnifyingKindle Deal of the Day: Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry by Greg Thornbury. $0.99.

Using the life and work of Carl F. H. Henry as a key to evangelicalism’s past and a cipher for its future, this book provides crucial insights for a renewed vision of the church’s place in modern society and charts a refreshing course toward unity under the banner of “classic evangelicalism.”

The live stream of the ERLC conference “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage” continues today. The live stream will be active at A detailed schedule for the live stream is available at the conference liveblog page.

Jonathan Leeman lays out 22 problems with multi-site churches. J. D. Greear responds to four of the most common objections:

  1. Is multi-site evangelistically effective?
  2. Is multi-site a biblically sound model?
  3. Is multi-site pastorally helpful?
  4. Does Multi-Site Discourage Leadership Development?

Eric Geiger – Believing the Wrong Story:

Eric provides one of the best illustrations for why we should be gospel-centered.

Are You Smarter than a 19th-Century 5th Grader?

Like Lincoln, most self-educated Americans of the 19th century embraced a vast constellation of topics — including natural history, Christian allegory and all things Shakespeare. Ready to match wits with a 19th-century student? Read on!

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The Mirage of “Golden Age” Christianity

Oct 27, 2014 | Trevin Wax

compass_telescope_old_treasure_map-1920x1200Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age skewers the notion that secularism is the result of a straight-shot progression from religious superstition to objective rational belief in science. His historical survey delves into the complexities of the historical record, and along the way, he shows how easy it is to interpret history as a way of justifying our own biases.

The Progressive’s Abandonment of the Past

The non-religious person today who is fully convinced that ours is the era most privileged and progressive and advanced in human history will find it unnecessary to reach into the past and retrieve insights that may be useful for contemporary society. The past is something we are escaping from, not something we would ever turn toward.

“Those who identify totally with our times can easily accept a straight theory of progress,” Taylor says. “We have nothing to learn form past epochs; insofar as they were different from ours, we can set them aside as irrelevant” (745).

This explains why, on a controversial issue such as the definition of marriage, appealing to thousands of years of history or worldwide consensus can so easily be brushed aside with the swoop of the hand.

You’re appealing to tradition and history? There are other things in history we’ve evolved from, including the subjugation of women or the use of slavery. Who cares if history is on your side? The future is on ours.

Whatever we find in the past that does not fit with the contemporary zeitgeist can be swept away without even the slightest engagement.

The Conservative’s Search for the “Golden Age”

The religious person, on the other hand, is more likely to commit the opposite error. Feeling the pressure of increasing alienation from the modern age, and holding tightly to the significance that comes from believing in transcendence, the Christian is likely to pine for the “good old days” when belief in God was assumed, not challenged, when the burden of proof was on the shoulders of the irreligious, not the devout.

The thoroughgoing progressive believes things have been getting better, not worse, and the thoroughgoing conservative believes things have been getting worse, and not better.

As such, the Christian is likely to push for a return to a previous era. Taylor explains:

“They (the Middle Ages, or the seventeenth century, or the pre-60’s America) got it right, and we have to repudiate whatever in modern times deviates from that standard” (745).

Because evangelicals see ourselves tasked with engaging and resisting the culture simultaneously, we always face the temptation of pining for a golden era of Christianity.

The Early Church

Some believe in the pristine days of the early church and want to return to the simplicity of those times. But a cursory reading of the New Testament reveals that the earliest days were not flawless. Doctrinal crises, moral quandaries, disciplinary actions, and divisive factions often carried the day. There is much good we can retrieve from the early church, but we cannot and must not try to return.

The Great Tradition

In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in the church fathers. I have benefited from the writings of Chrysostom, Augustine, Hilary, and Basil. The recent translations and commentaries on these ancient works offer us spiritual nourishment.

And yet, it is a mistake to think of the centuries of ecumenical councils as a “Golden Age.” These were also the years that gave us an amped up neo-Platonic vision of the body, downplayed the ordinary Christian life, led toward ascetic extremes, and married church and state to the point crusades could be led in the name of the Prince of Peace.

The Reforming Puritans

The gospel-centered crowd today is most likely to look back to the Reformation and the subsequent centuries. We look back with gratitude for the recovery of justification by faith and the Puritan era of personal piety, doctrinal precision, which stirred revivals that shook the landscape of early America.

But even here, we are wrong to spot a “Golden Age.” All the Reformational heroes are marred in one way or another: Luther’s anti-Semitism, Calvin’s egregious treatment of doctrinal disputants, Edwards’ acceptance of slavery, etc. Geneva is a Ghost Town with buried treasure still being unearthed; it is not a home we can ever inhabit again.

“Immediate to God”

In short, there is no Golden Age of Christianity. Taylor quotes Ranke’s famous phrase unmittelbar zu Gott applied to the ages of history. Loosely translated, it means all ages are “directly or immediate to God.”

In other words, these ages “differ because each mode of Christian life has had to climb out of, achieve a certain distance from its own embedding in its time… But far from allowing these modes to be neatly ranked, this is the difference which enables them to give something to each other” (745).

Church History as Treasure Box, Not a Map

What is the takeaway for evangelicals today? In contrast to the progressive’s rosy view of the present and untested view of the future, we may often be standing in the middle of the road with our hands outstretched, saying, “Stop and consider!” as the rushing crowd surges forward to a future unable to fulfill their utopian dreams.

But we must also resist the temptation to see a past era as necessarily “better” or “worse” than our own. Church history is a treasure box, not a map. We don’t honor our forefathers and mothers by seeking to return to their times; we honor them by receiving their wisdom and learning from their victories and failures. We retrieve from the past the elements and tools needed for faithfulness today.

There is no “golden age” of Christianity in the past, only an unbroken line of broken sinners saved by the grace of God and empowered to transmit the gospel to the next generation. One day, we’ll be history and our insights will be in the treasure box too. Let’s make sure we’ve given our best.

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Worth a Look 10.27.14

Oct 27, 2014 | Trevin Wax

WorthALook1Kindle Deal of the Day: Spiritual Rhythm: Being with Jesus Every Season of Your Soul by Mark Buchanan. $2.99.

Mark Buchanan replaces our spirituality of busyness with a spirituality of abiding. Sometimes we are busy, sometimes still, sometimes pushing with all we’ve got, sometimes waiting. This model of the spiritual life measures and produces growth by asking: Are we living in rhythm with the season we are in?

You can catch the live stream of the ERLC conference “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage” today beginning at 2:00 p.m. EST. I’ll be on a panel this afternoon discussing Marriage and Millennials. The live stream will be active at A detailed schedule for the live stream is available at the conference liveblog page.

New York Magazine - I Survived a Weekend with the Cult of Oprah:

I’m determined to meet her. It feels like my destiny: to come to this House of Oprah and not find her physical form would be the ultimate failure. I have eight hours plus a press pass and am very sneaky. I will find Oprah. For moms everywhere, I will find Oprah at this Oprah weekend.

Prajwal Kulkami – Science Says Creationists Aren’t Idiots:

Note they make an empirical claim: because of their beliefs about the origins of life, creationists cannot think rationally or logically anywhere. Put another way, it’s possible to determine people’s general reasoning and analytical skills by knowing what they think about the theory of evolution. Interestingly, neither Helmuth nor Nolan nor anyone else provided any evidence for this assertion—none whatsoever. Given that their argument depends on their ability to draw conclusions from creationists’ beliefs, it’s a glaring oversight.

Timothy Tennent – Alice Was Right: Thoughts on Orthodoxy, Heterodoxy, and Homodoxy

In recent years it has become clear that the contemporary church has a misunderstanding about the word orthodoxy. This has, in turn, led to a profound misunderstanding about the nature of the church’s unity.

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Help Us Rise to the Challenges of Our Times

Oct 26, 2014 | Trevin Wax

613vc4UmQjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_O God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
and of all who have gone before us on this earth,
we give thanks for Your faithfulness
from generation to generation,
and we ask Your forgiveness
that we live as if we were Your only concern
and our time were the only time there is.

Grant that as we seek to serve You,
we may understand our times,
we may see our time in the light of all times and of eternity,
and we may understand Your purposes in our generation.

May no challenge or crisis daunt us,
no enemy or attack unnerve us,
and no failure or setback cause us
to take our hands off the plough
or let the sword slip from our hand.

Grant then that we may rise to the challenges of our times
as the great heroes of the faith did to theirs,
so that together with them
we may be the servant agents of Your kingdom
and worthy of Your high calling.
In the name of Jesus, Amen

– Os Guinness, Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times

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Every Spiritual Blessing in Christ

Oct 25, 2014 | Trevin Wax

Halfway cross 17aBy God’s grace, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, believers are assured of “every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph 1:3).

  • We are justified; that is, we receive here and now advance declaration by God of the verdict of his court on the day of judgment, that we are included among those whom we will declare righteous on account of our faith in Jesus and his obedience unto death.
  • We are saved; that is, we are delivered from the wrath to come, rescued from the anger of God against all wickedness and rebellion.
  • We are reconciled; that is, the enmity between us and God has been removed, because God himself bore our sins in the person of his own Son on the cross.
  • We are forgiven; that is, God chooses to “carry” (the Hebrew word usually translated “forgive”) our sins, rather than repay them to us, because they have been “carried” by Jesus on the cross. They will never be held against us.
  • We are redeemed; that is, God has achieved our liberation from all the bondage of sin, as he rescued the Israelites out of Egypt, through the sacrificial blood of Christ.
  • We are adopted; that is, God includes us among his children, or more specifically, treats us as firstborn sons (whether male or female), and thus as his heirs, sharing in the inheritance that belongs to Christ.
  • We are made alive; that is, from the death of sin we are given new life, the resurrection life of Christ himself.
  • We have the Spirit; that is, the promise that God made to Israel, that would bring about their renewal and “resurrection” and obedience (as, e.g., in Ezek. 37), is now poured out in us, bearing the fruit of transformed lives.

– Christopher Wright, The Mission of God’s People193.

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