This blog is devoted to discussing the pursuit of eternal life.
Discussion and participation by readers is desired,
but contributions should correlate to the book,
The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology
of Perseverance & Assurance

Thomas R. Schreiner
& Ardel B. Caneday

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

First Considerations of Chris VanLandingham's Book

Earlier I posted a couple of notices (here and here) Chris VanLandingham's book, Judgment and Justificaiton in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul. I have not yet finished reading the book, but I have definitely caught the drift of VanLandingham's argument in support of his thesis.

First, the author plainly expresses his thesis.
My thesis is that in the letters of Paul and in much of the literature of Judaism from the Greek and Early Roman periods, a post-mortem or Last Judgment of God determines an individual's eternal destiny. Moreover, both corpora agree that an individual's behavior is rewarded with eternal life, bad behavior with damnation. Paul agrees with a significant number of his Jewish contemporaries on the subject. This book also examines the notion of divine recompense within the framework of God's grace and mercy as understood in early post-biblical Jewish texts and in Paul's letters. God's grace and mercy may be present throughout a person's life, working on his or her behalf; but one's deeds determine approbation at the final judgment. On this subject, I find no difference between Paul and his Jewish contemporaries (p. 15).
The first half of Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul (chapters 1 & 2) focuses upon extrabiblical or post-Old Testament Jewish literature but with commentary on numerous Old Testament passages as they are raised by Jewish extrabiblical literature. The first two chapters are "Election, Covenant, and God's Grace as They Relate to Obedience in Post-Biblical Judaism" and "The Last Judgment According to Deeds and Its Relationship to God's Grace, Mercy, and Covenant with Abraham." Chapters 3 & 4 focus upon letters from the apostle Paul respectively, "Behavior, The Last Judgment, and Eternal Destiny in the Pauline Epistles," and "'Justification by Faith'--A Mistranslated Phrase and Misunderstood Concept."

By the time one reads the first two chapters one gains considerable insight into the trajectory of thought that VanLandingham will have when he discusses the apostle Paul's letters in chapters 3 & 4. The author projects his observations and conclusions the following way.
In early post-biclical Judaism, it is axiomatic that God renders judgment to each according to his or her deeds. Likewise, in this chapter, I argue that Paul believes that dees not only affect one's eternal destiny, but form the ultimate criterion for determining one's eternal destiny at the Last Judgment. The specific deeds proscribed, permitted, or even required may differ, as they do, for example, in the Qumran texts and Sirach; but the idea remains the same: obedience matters to God and forms the basis for final acceptance with God, despite disagreements over what exactly God requires. Regardless of one's divine requital, whether eternal life or damnation, one's behavior determines the outcome (p. 175).
Indeed, it is clear from Paul and from all the other New Testament writers that judgment will be according to our deeds and that deeds are consequential with regard to our salvation in the Last Day. However, the direction VanLandingham takes the discussion poses enormous dissonance with the Protestant and Evangelical faith. He is aware of this, for he acknowledges
Of course, once cannot make any arguments about judgment by deeds in Paul without considering and ultimately reconciling them with the notion of "justification by faith." Since Martin Luther, the Pauline doctrine of "justification by faith" has had a direct bearing on the interpretation of the Last Judgment in Paul. . . . Widespread, though not unanimous, support persists for the view that justification refers to an acquittal at the Last Judgment that is pronounced proleptically at the time of faith in Christ. Such an understanding cannot be sustained if at the Last Judgment God recompenses each one's eternal destiny according to behavior. In the pursuit of this overall thesis, a number of sub-arguments are necessary for correcting certain readings of Paul that force judgment passages to conform with the doctrine of justification by faith. The notion of justification by faith must be understood in light of the judgment passages (pp. 175-176).
Following are VanLandingham's itemized sub-arguments.
  1. One of Paul's primary concerns for his converts pertains to their moral state, particularly at the time of the judgment. Paul endeavors to make the Gentiles acceptable to God, in part by bringing their behavior into conformity with what God requires. What is at issue "before God" at the judgment is one's moral state--in the end one's moral state makes one "acceptable" to God.
  2. Justice at the Last Judgment is retributive and, consequentially, eternal life and damnation are given respectively to those who are deserving. Eternal destiny is the primary issue at the Last Judgment. One's eternal destiny has not been determined beforehand, such as at the time of faith in Christ. Specifically, if justification by faith refers to an acquittal at the Last Judgment, which one receives proleptically at the time of faith in Christ, then one should expect some hint of this idea in the Pauline judgment passages. This idea, however, remains absent in those very judgment passages where this notion of justification by faith should have some imprint (based on the forensic interpretation of the dikai- group of terms).
  3. The Last Judgment includes a possibility that God might reject believers on the basis of their moral failure. Paul does not state directly, or even imply that one cannot forfeit "salvation" regardless of one's behavior.
All this raises many questions, but one question leaps to the foreground. If entrance into eternal life will be on the basis of our deeds, as Chris VanLandingham contends, then for what purpose did Jesus Christ offer himself as a sacrifice for our sins? One will read page after page without finding the answer to this question. Nevertheless, while reading, the answer begins to dawn upon the reader. An explanation begins to take some anticipated shape, but the anticipated explantion for why Christ died may prompt the reader to adopt a Macaulay Culkin pose, expressing some measure of astonishment. Why did Jesus Christ give his life as a sacrifice for sin, according to VanLandingham?
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul presents the solution to the problem besetting human existence. Indeed, the solution lies within the message of his gospel that God has sent his son Jesus, who in turn "gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age" ([Galatians] 1:4). The problem this solution addresses is less easy to identify, but apparently it either refers to "the present evil age" in which both Jews and Gentiles find themselves enslaved to malevolent, personal forces (4:3, 8-9) or refers to "our sins," which notes the process by which humanity is enslaved to these malevolent, personal forces. Both were perceived as major problems in the ancient world. Portions of the Hebrew Bible and a great number of post-biblical Jewish texts indicate that sin is endemic to Jews and Gentiles alike. . . . A thread runs through the Hebrew Bible--especially in Leviticus and Deateronomy, the historical books, and the Prophets--and in post-bibilical texts--many of the apocalypses, but also texts such as the Psalms of Solomon, Judith, Tobit, 2 Maccabees, Baruch, and Josephus--that state that foreign hegemony results from the presence of national sin and God's punishment of Israel. Paul lived in such a time (p. 206).
Are you clasping your face yet? Wait, we have not yet arrived at the part that prompts the Macaulay Culkin pose.
Paul certainly believed that a connection existed between sin and these sinister, cosmic forces, a point central in understanding Paul's soteriology, that is, how one will escape God's coming wrath and live eternally. Paul says that Jesus gave himself up for our sins, that is, he sacrificed himself in order that . . . he might set us free or rescue us from the present evil age (1:4). By expiating a person's sins, the power that demonic forces have over that person is broken. Of course, an individual appropriates this forgiveness by faith (2:16), but as a result the believer is "made righteous" in the sense that the person no longer bears the guilt, stain, and akaqarsia of personal sins. The believer, now purified and fit for God's presence (cf. 1 Cor 3:17b; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:14-7:1), receives the Spirit of God/Jesus ([Gal] 3:2, 14; cf. 2:20 and Rom 8:2-4). In turn, the Spirit of God/Jesus inspires the believer so that he or she now has the ability to produce the obedience that leads to eternal life (6:8-9; cf. Rom 8:4-13) (p. 207).
What begins to emerge from the pages of VanLandingham's book, then, is that Jesus Christ's sacrificial death is not the basis upon which God renders his Last Day judgment in advance upon the one who believes in Jesus Christ (Gal 2:16), that which I believe that the apostle Paul calls "justification, acquittal, being set right with God." Instead, according to VanLandingham, Jesus Christ's sacrificial death constitutes us righteous now because it is a sacrifice for our sins past but does nothing to atone for sins that the believer may or will commit after one first believes in Jesus Christ. He explains,
Accordingly, God rectifies this situation [of human sinfulness and inability to obey God's requirements] by making it possible through Jesus' sacrificial death for humans to possess the Spirit that catalyzes the obedience necessary for divine approval. Why it takes Jesus' sacficial death so that humans possess the divine Spirit remains unclear (p. 210).
So, evidently, Jesus' sacrificial death brings forgiveness for past sins and puts us into a new position to have the capacity to obey God's requirements by virtue of possessing the Spirit. Now that we possess the Spirit, however, our final standing before the judgment throne of God will be, not on the basis of Christ's sacrificial death but on the basis of our deeds.
Being a recipient of God's kindness does not indicate whether one will be spared at the judgment: but how one responds to this kindness, which has repentance as its goal, provides evidence. Even the participant in God's covenant is not guaranteed deliverance at the judgment. God's kindness is available only before the judgment and is presently active in order to make a favorable judment possible. A favorable outcome at the judment, then, depends on whether one obeyed the covenant stipulations, not on God's kindness or mercy at that time; otherwise the judgment would not be impatial (p. 218).
This is where I will suspend these first considerations of Chris VanLandingham's book. It should become rather apparent that he has recast virtually every aspect of biblical theology concerning salvation to fit his grid that entails a number of theological assumptions and beliefs that he has embraced. I invite you readers to identify several of his theological assumptions and beliefs that govern the conclusions I have cited above.

(Note: Some are embracing VanLandingham's thesis. See here, for example.)


John said...

Is Paul then at odds with John, when he writes in,

"If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John8-9)

John states that we do have sin, that we still must confess them, and God will forgive them. Sin is not simply something we do prior to being justified.

abcaneday said...

You raise a good and necessary question. VanLandingham does not address 1 John 1:8-9 anywhere in his book. So, I can only conjecture how he might respond.

He might argue that John disagrees with Paul, but I am inclined to think that he would not go that direction. For various reasons, such a response would not assist the thesis of his book. It would work better for him to try to make his case that John is in line with Paul and with post-biblical Judaism.

My guess is that he would argue, as some others have done (e.g. Peter Gillquist, Love is Now), that 1 John 1:8-9 is not addressed to Christians but to non-Christians. Peter Gillquist, for example, argues that if God truly forgives an individual, then there is never any future need to receive forgiveness from God ever again. Hence, 1 John 1:9, he contends, is not a verse to be used by Christians to confess their sins and to receive forgiveness. He contends that any Christian who seeks God's forgiveness insults God who has already forgiven him.

Now, VanLandingham, I suspect, would not go the whole way with Gillquist. Instead, he might contend that 1 John 1:9 addresses the forgiveness of the sinner and not of the believer, but would surely not agree with Gillquist that God's forgiveness includes all future sins that the believer might commit.

If VanLandingham would not respond something like this, it seems to me that he would have a problem with his thesis in that there are intimate and inextricable links between forgiveness and justification.

Brooks said...

Wow. Well, it seems from the small amount of the book I've now read that the author is not able to distinguish in his mind between Paul's use of the words for "basis" and "according to" when speaking about the Last Day judgment. Tell me if you think this is correct, but the author seems to assume that both words are speaking about the same exact idea; namely, judgment "on the basis of".

abcaneday said...


You have nailed it. VanLandingham confounds the two. Thus, he regards our obedience to be the ground or basis of our salvation in the Last Day.

Dan Chen said...

Dr. Caneday,

Thanks for reviewing the book. Could you define what you mean between "basis" and "accordance"? I know generally that "basis" means the "meriting, deserving, and achieving" foundation or grounds of salvation and "accordance" mean the "evidences, fruit or the things which are harmony with" salvation. I am asking because Wright states that the works/pattern of life " will count to his (our) credit on the last day", giving the impression that our behavior is in some sense "deserves and achieves" the final verdict. But when i remember to examine this "earning/achieving" of the final verdict in the context that 1) By God's sovereign grace, he connection us, sinner, to Christ's death and resurrection which provide forgiveness of sins and new life 2) God give us the Holy Spirit to change our heart in order for us to have faith and good works 3) Our connection to Christ is evident by faith (present justification) which is a guarantee of future justification by the pattern of one's life, then this "earning/achieving" become more like the meaning of "accordance". Does that make any sense? I would love to hear your thoughts



abcaneday said...

Invariably, Scripture (both OT & NT) portrays God's judgment as according to our deeds. Thus, what Paul says concerning judgment according to our deeds in Romans 2:6ff is in accordance with what all Scripture says. According to and in accord with means in keeping with or corresponding to. Does this mean on the basis of or on the ground of? No.

Paul says, "God 'will give to each person according to what he has done.' To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism."

God's judgment will be in keeping with our deeds. This is what Paul means when he says, "For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is the doers of the law who will be declared righteous" (Romans 2:13). What does this mean? Is Paul saying that we who will be declared righteous will be declared righteous on the basis of our deeds? No! Paul is not speaking about the basis of being declared righteous. Paul is not speaking about how we will be declared righteous. Paul is speaking of one thing in verse 13. He is speaking of who will be condemned, and he is speaking of who will be declared righteous. In other words, he is speaking of the same thing of which he speaks in Romans 2:6-10, where he begins by saying, "God 'will give to each person according to what he has done.'"

God's judgment will correspond to reality. No one will be able to question his judgment in That Day, because his judgment will be truthful, corresponding to our behavior, in keeping with what we have done, in accordance with our deeds.

Our difficulty with what Paul says in Romans 2 is not essentially due to what Paul says. Rather, the difficulty arises from our preconceived notions of what Paul means because we have been misled concerning the passage by otherwise good and godly teachers and preachers, such as, Martin Luther, John Murray, or Doug Moo.

Dan Chen said...

I get the idea that good words is in accordance to final judgment to mean that God will judge us in our deeds to verify if we have truth faith in Christ, and if this is the case, then God will vindicate us in the last judgment, that is, good works will be the evidences for final justification. Is this the right understanding of how it works? And if so, can we say that in some sense Christian "deserve" this judgment because it was done by us, but of course in the context of Christ's accomplishment, which of course nullifies any strict sense of "deserving" or "achieving" justification? This appears to be what Wright and say Gathercole seem to mean by "basis". And I understand that because the word "basis" usually means deserving justification in the "strict sense" then works should be said they are in "accordance" to justification, which i believe is your point. Sorry if iam not making any sense



abcaneday said...


If I understand your comments correctly, I think that is what N. T. Wright, in particular, is saying. Until proved wrong in my generosity toward N. T. Wright, I am willing to give to him the benefit of the doubt that when he uses the word basis concerning the whole life in relation to judgment and justification in the Last Day that he does not mean basis in the sense of meritorious. Nonetheless, conciliatory as I am toward N. T. Wright on this matter, I fear that his choice of words is unhelpful and injurious to his own theological formulations and understandably provokes intense accusations of theological error from anyone who is already inclined to read him in a less than charitable manner.