Clark and Van Til on Barth, Part 5.

To what extent is Van Til’s doctrine of God similar to Barth’s “Wholly Other”?

This is part 5 of a 5 part series on “Clark and Van Til on Barth.”
Click here for Part 1.
Click here for Part 2.
Click here for Part 3. 
Click here for Part 4.

A. Van Til’s Creator-creature distinction and skepticism.

The Answer, written by Gordon Clark and other elders, accused The Complaint, written by Cornelius Van Til and other elders, of resulting in skepticism. It reads:

“The Presbytery wishes to suggest that if man does not know at least one truth that God knows, if man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge do not coincide in at least one detail, then man knows nothing at all. God knows all truth, and if man’s mind cannot grasp one truth, then man’s mind grasps no truth. Far from being a test of orthodoxy, this test imposed by The Complaint is nothing else than skepticism and irrationalism.” – The Answer, 21.

Clark himself, in an unpublished paper comes to the same conclusion. He writes,

“The Complaint, on the other hand, makes the truth God has qualitatively different from the ‘truth’ man has. There is not a single point in common. Whatever meaning God has, man cannot have. And since the Bible teaches that God has all truth, it must follow on the theory of the Complaint that man has no truth. The theory of the Complaint is therefore skepticism.” – Gordon H. Clark, “Studies in the Doctrine of the Complaint” in The Presbyterian Philosopher, Douglas J. Douma, Wipf&Stock, 2017. p. 260.

Of interest, and probably of surprise to those who have studied the Clark – Van Til controversy, some of those who wrote The Complaint later themselves came to admit its skeptical character. That is, the conceded that the language was “misleading” and “created the impression” of skepticism. They wrote:

“The second statement [in the original complaint] is also misleading, particularly because of the words, ‘single point.’ The whole clause, taken by itself, is liable to create the impression that our knowledge does not come into contact with the objects of the divine knowledge at any point. This would, of course, be incorrect and would also be skeptical in character.” Fifteenth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, meeting minutes (Wildwood, NJ: 13 May 1948), Appendix 21. In The Presbyterian Philosopher, p. 158.

Years after the controversy, Ronald Nash—a voice from outside of the OPC—wrote in agreement that Van Til’s position results in skepticism. Nash said,

“It is well-known that Van Til for years held that a qualitative difference exists between the knowledge God has and that possessed by humans. God’s knowledge and our knowledge do no coincide at a single point. But this implies, of course, that no proposition can mean the same thing to God and to humans. For twenty years or so, as a friendly critic of Van Til’s views, I have maintained that Van Til’s position entails scepticism.” – Ronald Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man, P&R, 1982, p. 99-100.


“In conclusion, one can ask how Van Til knows that no proposition can mean the same thing to God and to a human, that our knowledge and God’s knowledge do not coincide at any point. This very knowledge claim says something about what lies beyond the Boundary.” Ronald Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man, P&R, 1982, p. 101.

It is clear to me, then, that Van Til’s position in The Complaint did result in skepticism. But, as I noted in The Presbyterian Philosopher (see: p. 161-162), Van Til changed his position (or at least clarified it) near the end of the controversy. To avoid skepticism he began arguing that man’s knowledge is derivative of God’s knowledge; not entirely without coincidence as The Complaint had said. Clarkians (and others, like Nash) have generally critiqued Van Til for his earlier position.

But did Van Til entirely give up his earlier position? It seems not. He continued to argue for an undefined difference in “content” between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge (Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 171-2) and speak of “a two-layer theory of knowledge” (Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, p. 35). In doing so he continued to make an unbridgeable gap between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge (based on his Creator-creature distinction) and so resulted in skepticism.

Note: It is important to note that what Van Til and his followers speak of as “THE Creator-creature distinction” is not equivalent to what other theologians speaks of using the same term. All Christian theologians hold that God and man are distinct in being. Van Til’s novelty is to extend the Creator-creature distinction from being to knowledge itself (not solely the mode of knowledge, but knowledge itself).

And, if I’m wrong on this, let someone explain why was The Complaint written? Other than the obviously political nature of it, why would Van Til (and others) have filed a complaint against Clark’s epistemology if they merely held that man’s knowledge is derivative of God’s knowledge? I’m convinced that Clark would have had no issue with that wording.

B. Barth’s “wholly other” and skepticism.

In Karl Barth’s Theological Method, Gordon Clark argues that Barth’s doctrine of God as “Wholly Other” results in skepticism. Clark relays that Barth believes, “God cannot be compared to anyone or anything. He is only like himself.” To this Clark contended that, in addition to Barth’s position being unbiblical, “if God is Totally Other then He is totally unknowable.”

Clark writes,

“Although it is such an elementary point, it seems often to be forgotten that object x can be both like and not like object y. It sounds self-contradictory, like saying that a plane figure is both square and not square; and perhaps the form of the words obscures the difference. But just as a cat is like and not like a dog, so God is like and not like a man.” (p. 169)

C. The “Creator-creature distinction” compared to Barth’s “wholly other.”

Karl Barth explains his doctrine of God—the “wholly other”— as “an infinite qualitative different between God and man.” As such, man is “incapable of knowing Him.” This makes for an unbridgeable gap between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge and so results in skepticism. Van Til’s Creator-creature distinction—when made to argue against any coincidence in man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge— also makes for an unbridgeable gap between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge and so ends in skepticism. So, like in part 4 of this series, we must conclude “different doctrines, same result.”

It is interesting to note that as Barth came to reject his doctrine of God as the “Wholly Other” (or “Totally Other”) in his later writings and yet continued to let it influence him, (Karl Barth’s Theological Method, p. 169) so Van Til repudiated his position in The Complaint but yet continued to let it influence his writings.

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Notes on John Frame’s “Theology of My Life.”

In his autobiography Theology of My Life (Cascade Books, 2017), Dr. John Frame notes that he published his recollections because, as he says, “I think they can be of use to some readers.” In this blog post I’ll note some of the things in the book which are of use, or interest, to myself.

1. Notes on Clifford Smith

In The Presbyterian Philosopher I noted a number of pastors (virtually all supporters of Gordon Clark) who left the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the wake of the Clark – Van Til controversy. One of these was Clifford Smith. John Frame notes a meeting he had with Smith:

I got a call from Clifford Smith, assistant pastor of Mt. Lebanon U.P., to meet him in his office. This was a fascinating visit. I knew that both Smith and his senior pastor, Cary Weisiger, were Westminster graduates. Both had opposed the merger of the United Presbyterian Church with the liberal Presbyterian Church, USA. Their preaching, indeed, was powerfully Reformed, and it was one of the factors that impelled me toward Westminster. But Smith did not recommend his alma mater. – p. 64

And Frame footnotes:

Smith expressed respect for Westminster’s theological and academic position, but he noted that the seminary was all too quick to enter into controversy, a comment I followed up in my “Machen’s Warrior Children” Smith had spent some years in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (against which Chikes and Fullerton had warned me) following graduation and had supported Gordon H. Clark in the 1940s controversy between Clark and Van Til. Supporting Clark, who was perceived to be the loser in that controversy, Smith left the OPC and eventually found himself at Mt. Lebanon U.P.

Whether Westminster Theology Seminary, the OPC, and confessionalists in general are too quick to enter into controversy, I think depends on what side of a controversy one is on! Since I think Van Til’s position (in The Complaint) in the Clark – Van Til Controversy was beyond the confession, and that The Complaint was rife with errors, I think they should have spent more time thinking through their position before issuing the complaint. But, in the later Shepherd controversy —since I think a number of his positions to be non-confessional — I think the denomination and seminary should have acted faster!

2. Notes on Frame’s relationship with Van Til

Since Frame was a student of Van Til and often considered one of his best interpreters, one might have assumed that they saw eye-to-eye; having solid communication between the two. But Frame notes at least twice the difficulties he had in communication with Van Til.

Van Til and I did not always communicate well. The philosophical language I learned at Princeton was that of Anglo-American language analysis, which was not easily translatable into Van Til’s language derived from philosophical idealism

Often comments I made in class, intended as analytical questions, came across to Van Til as criticisms of his position. So he was always somewhat reluctant to accept me as an ally.

Later however, when Frame came back to teach, Van Til accepted him. Frame writes,

Although I did not begin as a member of the apologetics department, Van Til greeted me warmly. If he was suspicious of me because of past disagreements, he didn’t express those suspicions when I returned to WTS.

3. “The Dissertation That Never Was.”

Frame speaks of the dissertation he wasn’t able to finish. The topic —propositional revelation— is of great interest to me. Frame notes,

My mind increasingly turned to the concept of ‘propositional revelation.’ Both Gordon Clark and his student Carl Henry had regarded that as a matter of some importance in the theological dialogue about Scripture. And as I read modern theologians like Barth, Brunner, and Tillich, it seemed to me that many of their innovations in the doctrine of Scripture were developed as alternatives to, or arguments against, propositional revelation.

Frame also notes, “So I thought I would, in my dissertation, examine all the arguments used by liberal theologians to oppose propositional revelation, and refute them.” I think this would be of considerable value.

4. The Dooyeweerdians

The philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd swept through Reformed churches in the 1960s and 1970s. In The Presbyterian Philosopher I note the pushback Johannes Vos and Gordon Clark made against Dooyeweerdianism at Geneva College in 1974. In Theology of My Life, Frame gives his recollections of the movement.

When I returned to WTS in 1968, someone told me that there was a “cult” of Dooyeweerdians on campus. Herman Dooyeweerd was a Dutch Calvinist philosopher, a very substantial thinker.
 In years past, Cornelius Van Til had been closely associated with Dooyeweerd’s school of thought, but after Dooyeweerd’s visit to the US in the late 1950s, Van Til had become critical of him. Robert Knudsen, however, though disagreeing with Dooyeweerd’s doctrine of Scripture, was a staunch supporter of Dooyeweerdian philosophy.

About this time, followers of Dooyeweerd founded the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Canada, and their very young faculty scoured North America, seeking to radicalize young Reformed people to embrace their cause. In the Reformed movement (especially in Dutch denominations, but also in the OPC), many churches and organizations (especially Christian schools) came under this influence, and as I saw it they were not open to calm discussion. I was not willing to accept passively the assimilation of the Reformed movement to a group of young militants. Eventually I became myself a somewhat militant opponent of Dooyeweerdianism.

The Dooyeweerdian group in Toronto, the Institute for Christian Studies, still exists, but one rarely hears of them today. I’d be interested in reading a history of this movement.

5. Comments on The Shepherd Controversy

I’ve dreamed from time to time of writing a history of Westminster Theological Seminary. I believe it needs to be done, but that I’m probably not the right one to do it. Any history of WTS would need to explain well the Shepherd Controversy. Dr. Frames recollections will be of value to whoever writes the history some day. One particular section I found of great interest. Frame writes,


So far, then, I supported Shepherd’s position. But Norman did not stop there. He also drew an inference: since works are a necessary element of saving faith, and since saving faith is necessary to justification, works are therefore necessary to justification. Now this seemed to me to be a straightforward logical argument: A is necessary to B, B is necessary to C, therefore A is necessary to C. So I could, and still can, defend Norman’s inference.

But others could not. They did not like the term necessary. In that term they heard the idea of “cause,” perhaps, so that if works are “necessary to” justification, then works are “the cause of” justification, even the merit by which we deserve justification. But in fact the term “necessary” does not have that meaning. To say that A is the necessary condition of C is not to say that A is the efficient cause of C, certainly not that A is the merit by which we earn C. This fact seemed simple enough to me. At a later meeting, I tried to explain it to my colleagues, however, and it had no impact at all on the discussion. I was young and did not want to try to dominate the debate. So that was the end of that.

Shephered’s inference, of course, is valid. The logic is correct. The problem is the horrendous premise – “works are a necessary element of saving faith.”

Frame continues,

If I had been Norman, I would have simply apologized for using the term “necessity,” with which many people wrongly or rightly took offense. But as the discussion progressed, it became evident why Norman couldn’t take that course. He had an agenda. He believed that many evangelicals, and those who opposed him in the Reformed community, held views of “cheap grace” or “easy believism,” the view that one can have genuinely saving faith, but without practical holiness. The word necessity, in Norman’s mind, guarded against that degradation of Reformed theology, and no other word really could. Indeed, Norman thought, if one opposed the use of necessity, he could have no motive other than to maintain easy believism.

Maybe Shepherd had ran into “easy-believism” but I know of no Reformed pastors (then or now) who advocate it. 

Frame agrees,

Although self-righteousness and easy believism are twin errors that show up too often in Christian circles, I don’t think either characterizes American evangelicalism generally, and I don’t believe that either characterizes any segment of Reformed Christianity that I know.

But defends Shepherd as being misrepresented,

The problem as I see it is that we tend too often to misrepresent one another. We need to work much harder to understand one another’s words in the best sense, rather than the worst sense. And we should not in any case formulate our doctrines with the intention of saying the opposite of whatever we think American evangelicals say. Shorn of such agendas, we can work together to analyze problematic terms like necessity, and agree on a vocabulary that doesn’t mislead or irritate.

I think Shepherds view, though maybe misrepresented by a few people, was largely understood. And it was understood to be false; a false Gospel.

Therefore, when Frame says,

One of my major regrets about the controversy was that Shepherd was prevented from making further contributions to Reformed theology in areas other than justification.

I’m glad that Shepherd wasn’t able to make any more contributions, because his views are not Reformed.

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Some things that didn’t make the cut for “The Presbyterian Philosopher”

I began discussing some things on the Gordon H. Clark Discussions Forum that did not make the cut for “The Presbyterian Philosopher,” the biography of Dr. Clark that I had published earlier this year.

So I thought I’d note some of these things, and maybe explain why they didn’t make the cut.

1. First, maybe this is a good time to list the articles of Dr. Clark that I’m still looking for. I found hundreds of published and unpublished papers during research into the biography and posted just about all of them on the Gordon H. Clark Foundation website. But I still haven’t found the following. If you have access to these, please let me know!

Articles in The United Presbyterian, 20 March 1950, p. 10; September 1950, p. 4-6; 10 October 1953, p. 20; 30 December 1956, p. 9.
1948. In American People’s Encyclopedia. Chicago: The Spencer Press., Democritus, Emanation.
1949. In Collier’s Encyclopedia, New York: P.F. Collier and Son. Zeno.
1967. Are We Straight on Sunday? Reformed Presbyterian Reporter, Dec.
???? Faith and Presumption in Prayer, Jan. 16, RPCES 2

2. I really wanted to look into an episode at Westminster Theological Seminary where five members of the board of trustees resigned in 1946 (effective 1947). These five were Edwin Rian, A. K. Davidson, Lawrence Gilmore, Matthew McCroddan, and J. Enoch Faw. But why did they all resign? I think this could be related to the Clark – Van Til controversy then ongoing in the OPC. I could not find any information about the reasons for the trustees’ resignations. Some comments about them were noted in the papers of Ned Stonehouse, I recall.

3. I noted the “proto-presuppositionalists” James Orr and Abraham Kuyper as precursors to the work of Clark, Van Til, and others. I had considered mentioning Valentine Hepp, Kuyper’s successor at the Free University of Amsterdam. I avoided mentioning him, however, because of lack of source material. I suspect that he largely followed Kuyper. I’m not aware of any of his own contributions to apologetics. I’d be glad to learn more.

4. I debated long and hard whether to present a major challenge to Clark’s philosophy, and a possible solution to it. This challenge is related to the doctrine of “divine simplicity.” Simply put, how is it that Dr. Clark held to divine simplicity while also arguing for the univocity of man’s knowledge and God’s knowledge? That is, if God’s attributes are really one, such that any individual attribute necessarily entails all the others, how can man know anything (and presumably share that attribute as “a knower of x” with God) but not have all of God’s attributes? I had considered making a grand contention that the Clark – Van Til controversy really was about Divine Simplicity. Van Til’s “Creator-creature” distinction is certainly related closely to Divine Simplicity. But the controversy never actually mentions Divine Simplicity, and no one seems to have asked Clark about this later. I spent months thinking about this topic, and am not satisfied with my understanding of it, nor of any “solution” in Clark or elsewhere. I’ve collected series of quotes from Clark related to the topic. Maybe at some point I’ll try to work this out further and present it.

5. One letter I never got permission to quote in the biography, and which I will leave anonymous mentioned:

“[One minister] was talking to me about Van Til’s apologetics. he said he believes he understands it thoroughly, but he does not believe that Westminster is carrying on the Old Princeton tradition—especially in this particular subject. He believes the questions of Dr Clark’s ordination (to be brought up at the Assembly) is one between those who hold to Old Princeton’s position and that of the Dutch or Van Til’s.” (An OPC member, May 16, 1944)

This is an interesting letter, but it is my contention that neither Dr. Van Til nor Dr. Clark followed Old Princeton’s position on apologetics and epistemology.

6. Finally, some things about the relationship between Dr. Clark, Dr. Robbins, and Dr. Zeller.

I spent three years studying at Sangre de Cristo Seminary under their emeritus president (and son-in-law of Dr. Clark) Dr. Dwight Zeller and his son (Dr. Clark’s grandson) the president of the seminary Dr. Andrew Zeller. I highly respect each of these men and think higher of the Zeller family than about any other I know. The lives of Dr. Clark and the elder Zeller coincided such that they knew each other for over 30 years; from the time Dr. Zeller married Dr. Clark’s daughter in 1955 until Dr. Clark’s death in 1985. Neither the elder nor the younger Dr. Zeller are strict “Clarkians” but have certainly been influenced by their “Dad” Clark. They are both retired military chaplains and Reformed ministers with their credentials in the PCA.

That being said, I trust the accuracy and fairness of the things they told me.

Likewise, for the record, though I never met Dr. Robbins, who died in 2008, I do respect his work. And so, when noting differences between Dr. Zeller and Dr. Robbins, I want to believe that they each had some valid points, but largely “saw past each other.”

So, first, what did Dr. Clark think of Dr. Robbins? Extant letters, now published in Clark and His Correspondents: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark evidence a good relationship between Dr. Clark and Dr. Robbins. Dr. Clark twice writes letters of recommendation for Dr. Robbins and was grateful for his work with the Trinity Foundation to publish Dr. Clark’s books. Dr. Clark had had plenty of frustrations with other publishers through the years and so was very glad for Robbins’ zeal in publishing his works.

But it is this same zeal for Dr. Clark’s thoughts (which as his biographer I surely understand and share!) that made Dr. Robbins a bit of a nuisance at times for Dr. Clark. In once instance, as Dr. Clark was in the hospital in his final days he received a call from Dr. Robbins. This is not surprising considering how Dr. Robbins’ cared for him. But, from Dr. Clark’s perspective, Dr. Robbins’ had apparently called many times through the years (they knew each other for about 12 years) and so Dr. Clark voiced his annoyance with Dr. Robbins’ calling him at that time. This I was told by the elder Dr. Zeller.

A more aggressive tone, perhaps, was mentioned by Dr. Zeller in recalling that one time (unknown year) Dr. Clark said to him, “I don’t trust that man” referring to Dr. Robbins. Now, the context for this is not clear, and its meaning shouldn’t be extended too far.

Finally, an episode I had in the biography but removed when I thought it too tangential to the topic at hand, occurred between Dr. Robbins and the elder Dr. Zeller in about 1999. This is where we specifically need to be gracious to both sides in a disagreement. The scene is that Dr. Robbins had been teaching a course on apologetics every 3 years at Sangre de Cristo since about 1990.

According to Dr. Zeller in an interview I conducted with him in 2015:

John [Robbins] had an article in his review [The Trinity Review] saying “there are no seminaries that teach solid Reformed theology” and he mentioned names. Well, a lot of these people were my friends, good Christian men. I told John, “You’re being inconsistent,” and he said [in a loud voice and pointing], “Tell me where I’m being inconsistent.” For him, being called inconsistent was equivalent to being called a sinner.

Finally, concerned about Robbins’s apologetical positions, Dr. Zeller asked him to write a paper on the place of charity in apologetics. Robbins refused, effectively ending his visiting professorship. It is possible that Zeller’s request for charity was interpreted by Robbins as a request for compromise in his system of apologetics. It seems to me, from my research, that the seminary didn’t handle the situation properly. That is, Dr. Robbins wasn’t notified of the decision and so didn’t know that he wasn’t coming back to teach. He was surprised to learn of the situation some time later. This was a very unfortunate affair.

So, let us not idolize any man, be he Clark, Robbins, Zeller or any one else. No two theologians will agree in all instances. Read, for example, the differences in political views in the series of letters between Dr. Clark and Dr. Robbins in Clark and His Correspondents: Selected Letters of Gordon H. Clark.

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Sermon on Romans 1:18-32

[An excerpt from a sermon I preached at Dillingham Presbyterian Church, Barnardsville, NC, on Sep. 3, 2017]


. . .

I. All men know God. (vs. 19-22)

Paul begins this passage with some very interesting statements about man’s knowledge of God.

His claim is that there are no atheists! Though there are some people who profess to be atheists, Paul tells us that in truth all men know God. But in their sin, men suppress their knowledge of God.

But HOW do all men know God? We haven’t seen him, so how can we be sure that he exists?

Paul says, “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world.”

Some theologians have held that Paul is essentially stating a form of what has been known as “The Design Argument for the Existence of God.”

The Design Argument is essentially that since the universe appears to have design to it, it must have a Designer; there must be a God.

Thomas Aquinas, the great Catholic theologian, held this view. He basically borrowed it from the Pagan Aristotle. Some Protestants have also held this view. The most famous representative is William Paley and his “Watchmaker Argument.” Paley contended that just as when you find a complex watch on the ground and make the inference that it was made by a designer, so when you see the complex universe around you, you can correctly infer that a God designed it.

So this is one view of what Paul is saying in Romans 1:20 when he writes, “God’s invisible attributes have been clearly perceived, ever since the beginning of the world.”

There has been a long history of debate, however, on the validity of such “Design arguments.” And there may even be good reason to think there are flaws in the argument.

Fortunately, there is, I think, a better view of what Paul is saying. Rather than understanding Paul to be saying “When you look at nature you come to know God” I think he is best understood as saying “YOU ALREADY KNOW GOD, and so when you look at nature, you can understand that He is the cause of it all.”

This may be a surprising thing to hear. Rather than making arguments for the existence of God, many Reformed theologians argue that the Bible teaches that we are BORN with a knowledge of God. It is INNATE in our minds. Similarly, the law of God is “written on our hearts.”

It is because we retain an element of God’s Image in us that we know God already. We know him innately, or as John Calvin says we have the “sense of the divine,” the “sensus divinitatus” and thus when we look at nature, already knowing God in our minds, we attribute the great things we see to His power.

b. Therefore, all men are without excuse. (vs. 20b)

Therefore, as we continue in Paul’s argument, since all men are born with a knowledge of God, and understand his power to be evident in the world, all men are without excuse when they do not worship or obey Him.

God is even known to those who are born blind, because knowledge of God is within all men from birth. Therefore, there is no excuse.

You may have had someone question you, “What about the man who lives on a far away island, and has never heard of the Bible, shouldn’t he be given a pass by God if he does not believe?”

How do you think Paul would answer?

He would say “By no means!” [one of his favorite phrases] Because all men — even those on far away islands — are born with a knowledge of God, they are without excuse.

As will become a stronger and stronger theme as we continue in the book of Romans, no one is righteous. All people need the grace of God for salvation. They need his righteousness as a gift to them.

II. All men are unrighteousness.

So, knowing there is a God, but then ignoring Him and acting according to one’s own desires, the unrighteousness of man is clearly seen.

. . .

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Guilty of Calvinism

In my university days—and before I ever was a Calvinist—I wrote a letter to the editor of the local daily press. The letter was in response to the previous day’s article written by a General Studies major at the same university who lamented the fact that she was struggling to find a job that “fully utilizes her college education.” In my letter I pointed out the absurdity of this given that she evidently studied so broadly that no job in the world existed that could meet her criteria. A number of responses came to the newspaper; some on my side, some on the other side. One of the letters that opposed me referred to me as a “Calvinist,” almost as if that were a sufficient argument against my position. Now that I am a Calvinist, I look back and feel quite honored by this preemptive accusation.

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Sermon on Romans 1:16-17

[A Sermon I preached at Dillingham Presbyterian Church, Barnardsville, NC on Aug 27, 2017]


Romans 1:16-17 – The Righteousness of God Revealed in the Gospel


These are the two most important verses in the most important epistle in the most important book in the world.

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

It goes without saying that the Bible is the most important book in the world. Not only does it sell more copies every year than any other book, it has been more influential than any other book. And even more importantly, it is the Word of God by which we come to know of Him and of His salvation.

That Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is the most important epistle in the New Testament may be debated. But it is here, in this epistle, in this letter, more clearly than anywhere else, that the uniquely Christian and Biblical path of salvation by Grace through faith is laid out against all works of men. The epistle of the Romans is a treatise on God’s love for His people.

These two verses; verses 16 and 17 of Chapter 1, are the most important in the epistle because they give the theme of the entire letter; The Righteousness of God Revealed in the Gospel and this received by Faith.

With these 2 most important verses, we want to look at three points in particular today:

1. The Gospel is the Power of God for Salvation.

2. The Gospel reveals a Righteousness from God.

3. The Righteousness of God is through faith.

Let’s repeat the passage one more time:

Paul says: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

I. The Gospel is the Power of God for Salvation.

First, because Paul says he is not ashamed of the Gospel, we must ask:

A. Why might one expect Paul to be ashamed of the Gospel?

In the preceding passage in the book of Romans, which I last preached upon, Paul makes mention of the learned or wise people. Now Paul brings to the wise, as he brings to everyone else, the message of the Gospel. It is this message, as Paul tells us in 1st Corinthians 2, that he preaches not with “lofty speech or wisdom” nor any “plausible words of wisdom.” It is a message that the world does not consider to be wise; a message said to be “foolishness to the Greeks.” But Paul is not ashamed of the message, even amongst learned people, because the message is the power of God for salvation. Paul is faced with the possibility, even the likelihood of being ridiculed when he preaches the Gospel. But he is not ashamed, for the Gospel is the power of God for salvation.

Paul intentionally uses a type of understatement for effect. By saying “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” he really means “I am proud of the Gospel.” And he has reason to be: it is the power of God for salvation. Technically, the literary device Paul uses is a litotes which is when a positive statement is made by negating its opposite. It is like saying “A million dollars is no little sum.” Similarly, Paul says “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.”

The Gospel does not only contest the wise but it is also goes up against the powerful. The Romans boast of their power in conquering the world, but the Gospel is superior by far. Earthly armies destroy, but the Gospel saves. In the whole Rome empire, there was no power that could save even a single person. And thus Paul can say of the Gospel, “I am not ashamed of it” for it can do and already has done something greater than the powerful Roman empire could ever do. Paul writes this perhaps to say to church at Rome, who he has wanted to visit but has been unable to, “I’m not avoiding Rome because of Rome’s power, nor because of any weakness of the Gospel in confronting such a place.”

To apply this point, remember this: Do not be ashamed about the Gospel, or being a Christian, or of anything in the Bible. You might not always know the answers when someone questions you about your faith, but there are good answers to all objections to the Christian Faith. And those good answers come from the Bible.

When I was 14 I started questioning what I was being taught at church. This is a very typical thing for teenagers to do. And often you’ll see they fall away from the church for a period. That 15-25 age group is always under-represented at a church. The return to the pew often occurs after they are married and start having their own children. So, anyways, I questioned the faith. Had I merely questioned the faith, maybe I would have ended up not attending church anymore. But I REALLY QUESTIONED IT. I kept going. I kept questioning. It was hard, but I found answers! Incredible answers, in the Bible. And over time I became more and more convinced of its truth. So I’ve found that there is no reason to fear study or questions; the Bible always is shown to be the truth have the truth.

If there is something you are questioning in the faith, ask questions. Look for biblical answers. Ask your Christian elders (whether actual church elders or others you respect). Ask them to help you answer the questions you have. And in this way you will grow stronger in your faith.

B. The power of God, not the power of man.

We must note also that the Gospel is the power of God, not the power of man. It is the power of God for salvation.

The Greek word for power, in the original text, is δύναμις (dunamis), from where English gets the word Dynamite. The Gospel is the dynamite power of salvation.

1. The Gospel is not
a weak request that you fill in the remainder of the work.

2. The Gospel is not
that Jesus did 99% and you need to the do the remaining 1%.

3. The Gospel is not
some moderately good news that Jesus is here to help you out.

Rather, the Gospel is THE GOOD NEWS that is THE POWER OF SALVATION. It needs no help from man, but is the announcement of what Christ accomplished on the cross when he said “IT IS FINISHED.” The power of God accomplishes what is sets out to do, for there is no power that can stand up against God.

C. For everyone who believes.

Paul continues saying the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

The Gospel is not the power of God for everyone, but for everyone who believes. The gift of belief, the gift of faith, is given to the same people whom God elected and whom Christ died for. The power of the Gospel for salvation doesn’t become active for you when you believe, but salvation was already accomplished at the cross. And the same power, the power of God, brings you faith through the Holy Spirit.

Make no mistake, in this passage “the power of God” does not end when Paul speaks of “everyone who believes.” It is not your belief that turns the Gospel into the power of God. But it is the Gospel, as the power of God, that makes you believe. The power is entirely God’s, not your own. And the glory earned for salvation belongs to God, not to man.

When Paul says the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation is to everyone who believes” he explains that it is “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” This means EVERYONE. All types of people.

But why does he say it this way? Why “the Jew first?” and then “also the Greek?”

God had a divinely planned historical order. Although there were Old Testament believers outside of the race of the Israelites, it was primarily the Jews with who were God’s people. When Jesus for the first time charged his twelve disciples, he sent them only to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ And when Paul carried out his mission mandate, he and his companions, wherever possible, first of all brought the gospel to the Jews.

But even in the Old Testament God promised that salvation was not going to be limited to one nation. Rather, in the Old Testament, in the book of the prophet Isaiah we hear of a New Covenant to be made with the Gentiles:

Isaiah 42:6: I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and
will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles.

This New Covenant is made in Christ. It is a covenant made by God and kept by God. And it is the Gospel of this fulfilled New Covenant which is the power of God for salvation.

Knowing this first point, that the Gospel is God’s power of salvation, we must ask “how does the Gospel save man?”

II. The Gospels reveals a RIGHTEOUSNESS FROM GOD

We now move on to the second point of the sermon today: The Gospel reveals A RIGHTEOUSNESS FROM GOD.

Paul writes, “For in it (THE GOSPEL) the righteousness of God is revealed.

It is this passage that God used to make a believer of the German monk Martin Luther, and so begin the Reformation.

Our two verses today are of great historical importance for it was here that Martin Luther began to understand the true Gospel, so long diminished in the church.

Let us break here to note the by “Martin Luther” I’m referring to the 16th century church reformer, and not the 20th century civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr.

I had a TIME Magazine once that ranked the 100 most important people of the last 1000 years. Martin Luther was ranked number 2! I think he was only behind Christopher Columbus. That in our nation today we don’t know that much about Martin Luther is a sad reflection of our society’s priorities. The public schools don’t teach the Reformation!

A. Martin Luther’s rediscovery

Well, it was Martin Luther whom God used to ignite the Reformation of the church and return Christendom to the truth of the Gospel. And in this process the Lord used the very passage we are considering today; Romans 1:16-17.

Luther says explicitly (of his conversion):

I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’ which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically of the formal or active justice, as they called it, by which God is righteous and punishes sinners and the unrighteous.

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt I was a sinner before God with a most disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, indeed, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners. Secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God.

Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Finally by the mercy of God, as I meditated day and night, I paid attention to the context of the words, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Then I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith.

This, then, is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, viz. the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous one lives by faith.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of all Scripture showed itself to me. And whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.”

So struggling with his own sin in the face of a righteous God, Martin Luther found great relief in Paul’s epistle to the Romans which explained how the elect are saved by the righteousness of God credited to them.

Luther was right that Paul, in this passage is not talking about that righteous quality of God himself, but a righteousness that God credits freely by His grace to people who don’t have righteousness of their own.

The righteousness by which one is saved is not their own. It is an alien righteousness; a righteousness that belongs properly to somebody else. A righteousness outside of us; the righteousness of Christ.

It is important to note that we are not MADE righteous, but righteousness is credited to us. None of us, even after coming to faith in Christ, live without sin. We are not righteous in ourselves. But the righteousness of Christ is credited to us by God as if it were our own righteousness. God looks upon as and sees the holy Christ instead of our terrible sins.

You’ll hear other words in this connection as well. I like the word “credited” but others will say “imputed” or “ascribed.” That is, God’s righteousness is imputed to His people, or God’s righteousness is ascribed to his people. These are all acceptable terms.

It is not altogether different from having money credited to your bank account for work you have not done, but finding that money has shown up in your account one day as a gift from a friend. Likewise, Christ did the work of our salvation, but credits it to our account, despite the fact that we did not do the work. And it is precisely because of this that we can refer to what Christ has done as a gift of God. But what Christ has given us is greater than any monetary sum in one’s bank account.

Luther’s interpretation, that God’s righteousness is credited to us in the Gospel, is evidently correct when we look at other verses in the Book of Romans:

3:24 “[we are] justified freely by his grace.”

4:3 “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

4:8 “Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

10:3-4 “For being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

These verses tell us that the righteousness of God is something He credits us in faith. We are declared righteous not of our own doing, but because of what Christ has done. God provides us with the very righteousness that he demands.

All orthodox Reformed and Presbyterian ministers and theologians agree with Luther’s interpretation. When Paul speaks of the revealed “righteousness of God” in the Gospel, he is speaking of the righteousness of Jesus Christ credited to God’s elect.

Luther’s insights were a virtual rediscovery of the Gospel, which had almost laid dormant in the church, save for a few believers through the centuries. With the rediscovery of the Gospel and the Reformation of the church, millions of people came to know of love of Christ and the righteousness obtained through faith.

But, there is a troubling movement in the world of modern scholarship. There are some who disagree with Luther’s interpretation and so return the errors of Rome. Ironically, they call their view “The NEW Perspective on Paul.”

Now, as a general rule, if you hear of anything called “new” in theology, RUN. Run away. But here particularly, beware of the “New Perspective on Paul” and its primary spokesman N. T. Wright.

B. A warning against the “New Perspective on Paul”

I wouldn’t usually want to bring up an issue like this in a sermon. That is, an issue of arguing against a false interpretation. Usually we want to focus on the correct interpretation. But, the false interpretation is here so prevalent in modern times that I think it necessary to warn you about it. It has taken me some years of study to understand this movement even at a basic level.

What is the New Perspective on Paul?

The New Perspective began sometime in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the work of various non-Christian scholars. Since then it has been adopted and modified by various others.

The New Perspective, among other errors, corrupts the meaning of Romans 1:17 by saying that the “Righteousness of God” is not something that God imputes to the Christian believer but rather is solely that quality of righteousness that belongs to God.

The New Perspective on Paul, championed by the Anglican Bishop (one of the most well-known theologians in Europe) N. T. Wright, has been calls heresy by well-known orthodox theologians including R. C. Sproul and Michael Horton.

This charge of heresy is a serious charge. But it is a correct charge. For the New Perspective denies the very heart of the Gospel, that the righteousness of God can be credited to a believer through faith. The proponents of the New Perspective explicitly deny substitutionally atonement, the substitution of Christ on the cross for sinners, and the substitution his righteousness for our sinfulness in the eyes of God. Rather, the New Perspective proponents fall back into the works righteousness of Rome by declaring that our righteousness is not credited by faith (God’s gifts to us) but by one’s FAITHFULNESS, one’s own ability to stay in the covenant.

We are warned in the Bible that such other Gospels are no Gospels at all. And so I warn you that the New Perspective on Paul is “another Gospel” and therefore not the true Gospel.

How do we know that the RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD refers to that righteousness which God credits to us for Jesus’ sake rather than the property of righteousness within God himself? (as Rome contends and as the New Perspective contends?)

In the immediate context the verse itself explains “The righteous shall live by faith.” Here, “The righteous” are the people of God. And just as “the righteousness shall live by faith” the next verse tells us “the righteousness of God is revealed in faith.” There is a parallel here. Those who by faith are called “righteous” are called so because they have credited to them “the righteousness of God.”

And the rest of the book of Romans bears witness to this; this righteousness which God credits to us.

3:22 – The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
4:3 – Abraham believe God and it was counted to him as righteousness.

And, consider 2 Corinthians 5:21. It doesn’t get much clearer than this. 2 Corinthians 5:21 “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

III. The Righteousness of God is through faith.

So we know that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation, and that it saves us by revealing the righteousness of God credited to the elect. But how does God apply this righteousness? This is answer in the third point of our sermon today. – “The righteousness of God is through faith.”

We read in the passage that God’s righteousness is revealed FROM FAITH FOR FAITH.

A. What does this mean?

One commentator, William Hendrickson interprets this phrase “From Faith to Faith” as meaning that “From start to finish this righteousness is sola fide; that is, by faith alone.” So for Hendricksen “from faith to faith” emphases the “Alone” of salvation by faith alone.
But for John Calvin, the phrase means something more like “the Gospel gives us faith, so that we may advance in knowledge and sanctification.”

These views may both be correct. Salvation is certainly by FAITH ALONE, and it is also true that part of the Good news of the Gospel is that our very faith is itself a gift from God leading towards sanctification.

But what is Faith? What is that by which God applies this righteousness of His to the elect? Faith is not some jump into the unknown. This is not, and never has been, the Biblical definition of faith. Faith, rather, is simply belief. That is, as Paul later says, if you believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, you shall be saved.

B. Paul was not the first to say that righteousness comes through faith.

He says “As it is written” and then essentially quotes from Habakkuk 2:4 which reads “Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith.”

Salvation through Faith was therefore not a new doctrine, but one that had been taught in the Old Testament.

And not just in Habakkuk.

But also in Genesis (15:6) – “And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted it to him as righteousness.”

So Paul was not creating some new doctrine, some new idea of his own, but reviving that idea of salvation by faith which existed in the Old Testament.


So to summarize our three points. The Gospel is the power of God; through it the righteousness of God is credited to the elect, and this is done so through Faith.

It was the happiest day in Luther’s life when he discovered that ‘God’s righteousness’ as used in the book of Romans means God’s verdict of righteousness upon the believer.’ That is, God has declared us NOT GUILTY because of Christ. Luther says that it was like opening Paradise to him, that he at once ran through the Scripture with ecstasy, seeing everywhere how this righteousness opened salvation and heaven to him.

The Apostle Paul experienced this joy.
Martin Luther experienced this joy.
And this joy is ours today. For all who believe.


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The state of the Church in Iceland

I was fortunate to spend two weeks this month (August, 2017) traveling around Iceland. Northern places have always intrigued me. I had been to the Yukon and Alaska in 2002 with college buddies and to Vinland (maritime Canada) and Markland (Labrador) of the Icelandic Sagas with my brother back in 2007, but now I’ve been to the “Ultima Thule” of the ancient Greek traveler Pytheas.

Iceland was incredible and beautiful, but it is clear that something is missing: Christianity.

One might immediately say, “Well, isn’t the country over 90% Christian?” Though true that the vast majority of the country is on the books as members of the Lutheran state church, it seems almost no one attends. One Sunday I was in the second largest city in the country, Akureyri (somehow pronounced with only three syllables!, Ah-ku-ree) and came by the Lutheran church to see its service times. They did not have any morning services, but only an 8 PM “prayer meeting”!

There are 138 Lutheran ministers in Iceland, but what do they do? If the church in the second largest city is down to a single weekly prayer meeting, what is the status of the other churches?

Researching further, it seems the Icelandic Lutheran church is similar to the ELCA in America. That is the “Evangelical Lutheran Church of America,” a denomination whose views would disgust Martin Luther. The Icelandic Lutheran Church, completely contrary to the Bible’s own teaching, has a woman Bishop. Their main church, in Reykjavik, is little more than a tourist attraction with an occasional organ recital. If they were to try to survive off of donations, rather than the state, they would almost certainly quickly falter.

So how did it get like this? I really don’t know, but gathered a few ideas on the history. Christianity was accepted as the state religion in 1000 A.D. at the Althing, but the worship of Norse Gods seemed to have continued behind the scenes. The island went Lutheran after the Reformation despite a strong fight put up by one of the Catholic priests who ended up have his head chopped off. In modern times, I can’t hardly tell what has happened. There is little information online. Maybe if I could read Icelandic it would be easier to research the church in Iceland.

Anyways, beyond the decrepit state church, there are a smattering of the usual suspects in the country: one Catholic church, some Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and Pentecostals. These groups have at most a few churches, and a few thousand members; the largest of which is probably the Pentecostals. The one Pentecostal we met had not been to church in a few months and basically never read the Bible from what I could gather. He was strongly attached to prayer (a good thing) but in a way that seemed out of balance with the rest of what a healthy Christian life should look like.

In the last couple days of my trip I found one “Reformed” Baptist church in Reykjavik. If I lived in Iceland it would be here that I would attend. The pastor was supported largely by U.S. donations as the church had scarcely 20 attenders on average. The service was contemporary. The Gospel was preached in Icelandic with an English interpreter one could listen to on headphones. Though the pastor had not attended seminary, he had a strong drive to learn, and could very well be God’s worker for a revival in Iceland. Let us pray for revival in Iceland, and in the North, and in the whole world.

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