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Schoolwork – Going to Damascus

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The critiques, arguments and authors of the New Paul Perspective largely receive a bad reputation in Reformed/Evangelical circles. In my experience, those who are unfamiliar with the arguments of the New Paul Perspective (NPP) instinctively dismiss it wholesale because of rumors or assumptions they have heard from others. On the other hand, those who understand the NPP arguments and authors to a greater extent might interact with the arguments, but only to point out the weaknesses of them. While I agree with my Reformed Evangelical commitments and tradition, I believe that both of these interacts with the NPP fail to do justice to the arguments being made. Despite the weaknesses of the NPP, when we better understand the critiques and arguments of its proponents we are actually able to embrace the benefits it has to offer the Reformed faith. Specifically, we will find that the NPP allows us to more faithfully understand the context in which we read God’s Word, our understanding of Covenant Theology is strengthened, and the scope of God’s salvation is expanded. For the scope of this essay, I will briefly summarize the writings of Krister Stendahl, James Dunn and N.T. Wright, and then turn to my own reflections.[1]

In his essay The Apostle Paul and the Instrospective Conscience of the West, Krister Stendahl popularizes the notion that the Apostle Paul may not have been as concerned with an introspective burden of conscience as Western Audiences assume. He argues that “the Pauline awareness of sin has been interpreted in the life of Luther’s struggle with conscience.”[2] Western Christians then – in particular, those in the Protestant tradition – have read into Paul a burden from sin and guilt that the Apostle did not originally have. On the contrary, Stendahl argues that Paul actually had a very guilt-free conscience in regard to his participation in covenant law as a Jew.[3] Paul was originally concerned with how Gentiles could be included in the messianic community, but he is now read as principally being concerned with man’s assurance of individual salvation.[4] What was in focus for Paul’s theology then was not a burden of introspective conscience, but an insufficiency in the law now that the Holy Spirit has come.[5] The problem of the law – which was originally meant to be a “digression” in Stendhal’s view – is now read as the main filter for understanding Pauline thought.

Scholar James D.G. Dunn picks up Stendahl’s line of argumentation and even takes it one step further. Dunn contends that “Protestant exegesis has for too long allowed a typically Lutheran emphasis on justification by faith to impose a hermeneutical grid on the text of Romans.”[6] The problem, in Dunn’s view, is not necessarily the emphasis of justification by faith but what this emphasis is set in contrast to. The Western Reformed emphasis of reading Christianity as a religion of “salvation by grace” in contrast to a Judaism as a religion of “salvation by works” is entirely false, according to Dunn. Instead, he argues “Judaism’s whole religious self-understanding was based on the premise of grace – that God had freely chosen Israel and made his covenant with Israel to be their God and they his people.”[7] Therefore, Reformed Evangelicals not only read Paul poorly and in the inappropriate context, but they miss the emphasis of his writing. Agreeing with Stendahl, Dunn believes that Paul was not talking about an individual’s salvation but instead was focused primarily on entrance into and maintenance of status within the covenant community.

N.T. Wright is the most prevalent popularizer of the NPP today, and his work is largely built on and is congruent with the work of both Stendahl and Dunn. Much of Wright’s work is principally focused on the ideas of righteousness and justification in Paul. Wright distinctly retells the history of Israel from a very covenantal focused framework. Israel, as a nation, was given the task of undoing the effects of Adam’s sin. Since they were unable to do so, Christ as the true Israel not only took on the curse but fulfilled the role the nation of Israel was always supposed to perform. In this framework, the terms “justification” and “righteousness” take on a very covenantal flavor. They are no longer associated with one’s moral standing before God, but instead are primarily associated with one’s standing within the covenant community. To be justified then is to have membership in the people of God.[8]

Many Reformed Evangelicals have responded to the claims of Stendahl and Dunn, such as Cornelius P. Venema, John Piper and R.C. Sproul. More recently, Stephen Westerholm has done a sufficient and thorough job of responding to the claims of Stendahl, Dunn and Wright in his book Justification Reconsidered. Westerholm rightly argues that even if the Jewish religion had some concept of grace, it clearly wasn’t to the same extent that Paul believed was now present in Christianity. Further, humanity’s predicament – original sin and the fall – must actually be worse than the Jewish people originally thought. As Westerholm concludes, “Human beings, must not, after all, be capable of the modicum obedience required by the covenant…Along such lines, we may well imagine Paul’s thinking developed.”[9]

The work of these Reformed and Evangelical leaders such as Westerholm is to be much appreciated. However, what I find missing in much of their writing is what we can learn and benefit from the arguments and critiques made by the NPP. The reality is, there are multiple benefits and ways the NPP can enhance our Reformed Theology. The first benefit I find from the NPP is the way in which it enhances our understanding of Paul’s context. Most Evangelical and Reformed circles deliver the gospel by declaring Paul’s message as a religion of grace contrasted to a religion of works. However, Stendahl and Dunn convincingly argue that the Jewish religion did have an understanding of grace behind God’s free choice of Israel to be his covenant people. While it may not be the same level and degree of grace that Christianity proclaims is actually necessary to receive from God in Jesus Christ, nevertheless we should no longer continue to caricaturize the Jewish religion in a false light. Faithful Bible teachers and preachers – as well as every day Christians – should desire to be honest and fair about how we understand and label people, even if it is people in antiquity.

Secondly, the fact that the Jewish religion understood God’s election of the nation of Israel to be motivated by his grace actually supports and strengthens a Reformed Covenant Theology and Soteriology. The fact of the matter is that God’s election has always been motivated by his grace. Whether it was because he loved Israel simply because he loved them (Deuteronomy 7:7) or because God predestines sinners to salvation (Acts 13:48), God has always operated and has been motivated out of his grace toward his people. This was true in the Old Covenant, and it is true in the New Covenant as well. By pointing out God’s grace toward Israel under the Old Covenant, Stendahl and Dunn can actually be cited to support many foundational Reformed convictions.

Third and finally, the view that Paul is merely concerned with entrance into the messianic community rather than the salvation of individual sinners is certainly an extreme reaction to the individualistic readings of Western Protestant culture. Nevertheless, this overreaction is a reminder to us that when we preach the gospel, we should remind people that they are being saved as individuals into a corporate body – the church. All who confess the name of Christ will be saved individually (Romans 10:9). At the same time, God loves and redeems the church as the Bride of Christ (2 Cor 11:2). We are saved individually and we are saved corporately. God the Father knows his children by name (John 10:14-15, Revelation 20:15) and he knows and loves all of his people by name (Isaiah 43:1). We should not be afraid to correct our own blind spots in our theologies and gospel proclamation. The NPP emphasis on entrance into and status within the covenant community is a good reminder and corrective for how Reformed Evangelicals understand their soteriology.

In our fight for orthodoxy and commitment to the grace of God we have received in Jesus Christ, we should not be afraid to listen to critiques and other views from outside our theological camp. While I have many disagreements with the consensus of the NPP, many of their arguments have shown me a view and angle on Scripture that I would not have otherwise considered. By wrestling with, digesting, and sorting through their arguments I believe my commitments to and understanding of Reformed Theology are stronger, not weaker. When we reject arguments from those outside of our theological camp entirely, we show ourselves to be closeminded and unwilling to acknowledge our own blind spots and weaknesses. In dialoging with the NPP further, Reformed Evangelicals could not only show themselves to be better at listening, but our faith and understanding of God’s grace would be strengthened.


[1] The scope of this application paper necessarily assumes that the audience has some familiarity with the arguments of the New Paul Perspective as well as the responses from Reformed Evangelicals.

[2] Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” The Harvard Theological Review 56, no. 3 (July, 1963): 200.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 206.

[5] Ibid., 213.

[6] James D.G. Dunn in Karl P. Donfried, ed., The Romans Debate, rev. and expanded ed. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, ©1991), 300.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 51-58.

[9] Ibid., 33.

I don’t generally publish my schoolwork, but when I do it is when I have made sure it is sound and that it will be beneficial to the church. This paper is my most recent work wherein I attempt to recapture God’s heart in Biblical salvation, and articulate why I understand its loss in meaning in our preaching is at the heart of our problems in evangelicalism today.

For the PDF version, click here.



God’s Word does not and cannot change. God is the same yesterday, today and forever, and therefore his Word and promises to us also remain the same. If this is the case, then the Church must be made to see when and where she begins to use God’s Word apart from the way it was originally intended. Like the serpent in Genesis 3, these distortions of Biblical truth are one part lie and one part truth.

One such crafty abuse of language is in the Church’s use of the word salvation. The Greek word from which salvation is derived (σωτηρία) and all its variants shows up forty-five times in the New Testament alone. It is right then for us to see that the Biblical authors had a central and high view of σωτηρία, and so too should we. Unfortunately the common understanding of salvation in the Protestant Evangelical Church has fallen far from its intended purpose.

Today, the concept of salvation and justification are often used interchangeably. Not only is this dangerous and deceptive, but it is dishonoring to the Lord. Such misunderstandings of salvation have led to a shallow Church, made up of shallow Christians, who are expanded by a half-hearted and shallow gospel. Christians today are confused about what exactly is to be found in our shared salvation. The only correction to this grievous error is in reclaiming the intended meaning of σωτηρία; as the Biblical authors used it, as the Reformers understood it, and how it should be understood in our proclamation today.

To understand the intent of salvation, the use of σωτηρία will be studied in its Biblical usage and context. But first, the doctrine of union with Christ in relation to the ordo salutis must first be briefly examined and discussed in order to set the proper framework for understanding.

Understanding Union with Christ

By what do theologians mean when they refer to the doctrine of union with Christ? Simply put, union with Christ refers to the language of “in Christ,”[1] which is common throughout the New Testament. Kevin DeYoung rightly notes that this sort of language is found 216 times in the New Testament.[2] In regards to the relationship between salvation and Union with Christ, John Murray says this, “Union with Christ is really the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation…Indeed the whole process of salvation has its origin in one phase of union with Christ and salvation has in view the realization of other phases of Union with Christ.”[3] Murray here has in mind the language of the Apostle in his letter to the Ephesians[4], where Paul says that God the father has blessed us “in Christ, with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3). [5]

The Reformers too understood that our salvation – all spiritual blessings – are only found within our union with Christ. John Calvin says it this way,

“…that so long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us. To communicate to us the blessings which he received from the Father, he must become ours and dwell in us. Accordingly…we are said to be engrafted into him and clothed with him.”[6]

Citing Romans 6:5, Calvin rightly understands the direct connection between the salvation of the human race and the blessings which Christ received from the Father. Indeed, we have been “united with him in a death like his” and “united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5). Therefore, we must understand that the totality of spiritual blessings which we receive are our salvation, and can only be found in our union with Christ in his death and resurrection. Herman Bavinck accurately sums up this concept,

“All the benefits of grace therefore lie prepared and ready for the church in the person of Christ…Atonement, forgiveness, justification, the mystical union, sanctification, glorification, and so on – they do not come into being after and as a result of faith but are objectively, actively present in Christ.”[7]

Understanding then the relationship between our salvation and union with Christ, the various facets of salvation will now be broken down and further evidenced by the Holy Scriptures.

Salvation and the Ordo Salutis

Theologians have commonly understood the various elements of our application of salvation as the ordo salutis, the order of salvation. Such an idea is helpful for us in understanding how God works in and through the believer. Each one of these acts and processes is distinct and cannot be confused or used in place of one another. There is some disagreement, both semantically and theologically, into what exactly constitutes these various categories. Anglican pastor and theologian John Stott names pieces such as justification, redemption, recreation, regeneration, and sanctification.[8] In a similar but slightly different list, John Murray lists the following facets: calling, regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification.[9]

It is with Murrays naming standard that we will move forward, particularly because it is a more precise breakdown which is helpful in identifying the facets of salvation which pertain to our present and future reality. The error being addressed herein is the error of equating in our gospel proclamation the concepts of salvation and any of its corresponding pieces, particularly justification. Because this is a present proclamation and a present error, my concern is primarily with the four aspects of salvation which have present or future consequence: justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification. In one sense it can be said that all of Murray’s facets have present and future consequence, but for the concern of brevity and precision, the preceding four will only be discussed.

What follows is the Biblical evidence to show that the New Testament authors had these four categories in mind in their use of σωτηρία, beginning with the concept of justification.

Salvation and Justification

Hardly anyone today would disagree with the idea that justification is an aspect of our salvation. Indeed, the most common error in Protestant/Evangelical churches today (in regards to our salvation) is in the equating of these two terms. What makes this error so dangerous is that it contains a partial truth; for one aspect of our salvation is found in justification. However, we must not mix the two, and as John Stott clearly says, “It would be entirely mistaken to make the equation ‘salvation equals justification.’ Salvation is the comprehensive word, but it has many facets that are illustrated by different pictures, of which justification is only one.” Biblical evidence for justification in our salvation hardly needs to be defended, but for comprehensiveness one example will be briefly shown.

The word for justified/justification comes from the word δίκαιος/ δικαιοσύνηand in simple terms means “the quality, state, or practice of judicial responsibility.”[10] John Murray accurately defines justification for our purposes as “to declare to be righteous – it is a judgment based upon the recognition that a person stands in a right relation to law or justice.” [11] Justification is often mentioned separately from σωτηρία (such as in Rom. 2:13, 3:28, 5:1, Tit. 3:7), but can also be mentioned in close proximity to σωτηρία as well. One such example is in Romans 10:10, where the Apostle Paul says this, “For with the heart one believes and is justified (δικαιοσύνη), and with the mouth one confesses and is saved (σωτηρίαν).”

The two terms here are used in such close proximity and in such a way that one would be highly susceptible to switching either around, or using the two interchangeably. As such, if this were the only verse in the New Testament using σωτηρία, then it would be accurate to conclude that justification and salvation could indeed be equated! Theologian James Dunn notes this when he says that there is a “near equivalence” between justification and salvation in this context.[12]

John Calvin too noted the close link in this passage between justification and salvation. In his commentary on Romans he says,

“And surely, he who is justified has already obtained salvation: hence he no less believes with the heart unto salvation, than with the mouth makes a confession. You see that he has made this distinction,—that he refers the cause of justification to faith,—and that he then shows what is necessary to complete salvation.”[13]

What Calvin is getting at here is that justification by faith is an entry point to the realization of our salvation; when one believes in his heart he is justified and salvation is applied to him, what follows is his public confession in salvation.

This idea of the application of our salvation is important for us to remember in our gospel proclamation today. For salvation does not stop at our justification, but is only the beginning of its application manifesting in our lives. What follows next in this application is our divine adoption by a gracious and loving Father.

Salvation and Adoption

Author and Scholar Dr. John Frame says “there is nobody who is justified but not adopted.”[14] In our union with Christ, justification and adoption are necessarily linked. Adoption is the “height of our privilege as God’s people.”[15] Unfortunately, as Frame also observes, “So the doctrine of adoption deserves far more emphasis in our preaching and theological work than it has usually received.”[16]

So what does the term adoption mean in its theological context? Perhaps Romans 8:17 is the best descriptor of this term, “and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”[17] Our adoption is our co-inheritance with Christ. In our adoption as sons and daughters – as heirs – everything that is Christ’s becomes ours. How undeserving we are of such a gift, to be called sons and daughters despite our wickedness and rebellion.

Adoption in particular reminds us that in our salvation we are brought into a covenant family. While we were formerly separated from God and walking in darkness (1 John 2:8-9), we are now “called children of God, and so we are” (1 John 3:1). As we become sons and daughters in our vertical relationship to God, we become brothers and sisters in our horizontal relationship to one another. Among the many gifts the Holy Spirit gives to us, they are deemed to be used in the edification, building up, and taking care of God’s family.

How then is salvation spoken of in relation to our adoption as sons and daughters? In perhaps the longest sentence in the history of the world’s literature (Eph. 1:3-14, in the Greek of course), the Apostle Paul touches on the most important doctrines of the Christian faith. Previously discussed was the idea of our union with Christ, specifically mentioned in verses 3 and 4. Paul continues in this passage to say that God has “predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ” (vs. 5), and soon follows by saying that in the belief in the gospel of our σωτηρία God seals us with the promised Holy Spirit (vs. 13).

One could show how verses 1:3 and 1:13-14 form somewhat of an inclusio in this massive sentence; how between verses 3 and 13-14 we see the result of our union with Christ and the appropriation of every spiritual blessing. However, to see the close link between salvation and adoption in this passage one only needs to turn to another Pauline text to see this close link. As Paul says in this passage in Ephesians, we have been predestined for adoption and upon believing in the gospel of our salvation we are sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit. This logic is further explained in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians when he says,

“…to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ (Gal. 4:5-6).”

If we connect the dots between these two passages, we see that it is the sealing of the Holy Spirit in our hearts that causes us to cry out “Abba! Father,” and it is only upon the belief in Christ for our salvation that this sealing happens.

Herman Ridderbos understood this link between the Holy Spirit and our adoption well. He writes, “When God reveals his Son, the adoption of sons also takes effect (Gal. 4:4), and it is the Spirit of God’s Son whom God has sent forth into our hearts, who cries: ‘Abba, Father!’ (v.6). It is sonship ‘in Christ Jesus’…given with him in his advent; as the eschatological bringer of salvation…There is in the Pauline pronouncements a peculiar relationship of reciprocity between the adoption of sons and the gift of the Spirit.”[18]

Here Ridderbos is saying that because Christ is the bringer of salvation, and because it is Christ’s Spirit that dwells within us crying out to our heavenly father, we therefore become co-heirs and sons and daughters of God.

Not only can adoption not be separated from justification, but it cannot be separated from salvation either. What’s more, the blessings of salvation found in Christ do not end here. As Frame continues from his quote above, “there is nobody who is justified but not adopted, or adopted but not sanctified.” It is this next facet of salvation – our sanctification – that will now be discussed.

Salvation and Sanctification

It must be said that sanctification is a definite aspect of our salvation; there is no way to get around the fact that those who are justified are and will be sanctified. Indeed, in our salvation we will by God’s grace be conformed into the image of his Son. There is perhaps no better passage in scripture to emphasize this fact than in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, specifically in verses 2:12-13.

This passage, beginning with the words “Ὥστε, ἀγαπητοί μου,” (Therefore, my beloved), tells us that Paul is going to draw a conclusion from his preceding argument. In this particular context, Paul has just spent some forty-one verses giving us examples of joy and obedience during suffering. Beginning with his own example and moving on to the far exceeding superiority of the sufferings of Christ on the cross (vs. 2:1-11), Paul issues a command to his audience. The conclusion of Paul’s imperative command is powerful, “μετὰ φόβου καὶ τρόμου τὴν ἑαυτῶν σωτηρίαν κατεργάζεσθε(with fear and trembling work out your own salvation).

What does it mean for Paul to say “work out your own salvation”? Could Paul really be insisting that our salvation is merited by our own works? In addition to being inconsistent with the entirety of Paul’s writings, thinking this imperative means we earn salvation for ourselves would also be inconsistent with the entirety of Philippians. Paul says later in the letter “…not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9). What we begin to see in this imperative, and will continue to see in the remainder of the letter, is that it is very important for Paul to communicate this idea: that because we have grace and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we must continue to devote ourselves to obedience and strive to persevere until the end.

Paul continues to explain this idea of grace-fueled obedience in verse 13. Continuing with an explanatory clause he says, “θεὸς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ἐνεργῶν ἐν ὑμῖν” (For God is the one working in you). The primary observation to be made from this segment should be that Paul chose to put θεὸςat the beginning of the sentence, rather than ὁ ἐνεργῶν. As the latter is the subject (since it has the article), we would normally expect the subject to precede ἐστιν. It should be noted thusly that Paul chose to put θεὸςat the beginning of the sentence to provide weight, “For GOD is the one working in you”. This emphasis on God being the one working in the believer would indeed back up the idea that it is not works-based salvation Paul is speaking of in these passages, rather obedience to God who is already working in us.

So we see how these two verses show how sanctification and σωτηρία are necessarily linked; because salvation is of the Lord, it is God who continues to work in us in our salvation through the means of our sanctification. Reformed thought today has done an excellent job in communicating this very idea. Leon Morris explains it this way,

“Salvation is not only a privilege, but also a responsibility, specifically a responsibility to God. In discussing service we should emphasize what God does in the servant rather than what the servant does in serving. Thus God works in His people.”[19]

Speaking of the application of our benefits in Christ (σωτηρία), Bavinck summarizes: “The application of Christ’s benefits, accordingly, has to consist in justification but also in sanctification.”[20]

Reformed thinkers have often held that our sanctification does not speak of what we have been saved from, but what we have been saved to. Our life as Christians is a life of repentance, obedience and being molded by God into the image of his Son. Praise God that he does not leave us where he found us! The final reality of what we have been saved to will someday result in our glorification, which is the final aspect of our salvation left to be discussed in this paper.

Salvation and Glorification

There is a certain tension that exists in our salvation. For Christ has once and for all died and given those who trust in him their salvation through union with him; yet, at the same time, our salvation is yet to be attained by those who wait for Christ’s return. This eschatological tension is often referred to as the “already, but not yet.” This tension will not be relieved until Christ’s return and all saints of history past, present and future are glorified. Thus it is certain that salvation and glorification are closely linked together.

The Apostle Peter acknowledges this tension in his first epistle when he says Christians “who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5). Our salvation already is secured and guarded by our faith, but it is not yet fully revealed to us. Leon Morris acknowledges this tension in Peter’s epistle when he says “Salvation is a present possession, certainly. But it is also something that will be ‘revealed in the last time.’”[21]

The author of the epistle to the Hebrews also recognizes the “not yet” glorification aspect of our salvation. Multiple times in this letter σωτηρία is spoken of in relation to our glorification, such as verse 1:14 (Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit σωτηρίαν?), 5:9 (And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal σωτηρίας to all who obey him) and 9:28 (so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to σωτηρίαν those who are eagerly waiting for him). The author of Hebrews had a clear understanding that in our salvation we eagerly look forward to it being perfected upon the return of Christ.

Glorification then is the final aspect of our salvation and is the necessary conclusion of what God planned in eternity past. It is the conclusion of what God begins in the present in our justification. As Leonhard Goppelt says, “Hence salvation appeared as that end toward which expectation looked in the final judgment…based on justification in the present.”[22] Glorification caps off these four facets of salvation and so the importance of preaching and teaching this full understanding of salvation begins to take place. To measure what happens when salvation is misunderstood, I will now examine the teaching and preaching of those who would claim otherwise.

Salvation Incomplete

It has been shown, albeit briefly, how the four aspects of salvation – justification, adoption, sanctification and our future glorification – are necessarily linked and understood as aspects of our σωτηρία. It has also been shown how the Biblical authors used and Reformed theologians understand this salvation in relation to these four facets. The unfortunate reality however is that not everyone understands σωτηρία this way in their preaching and teaching today.

In his book Basic Theology, theologian Charles Ryrie begs the question, “Is commitment of life a necessary part of faith and thus of the Gospel?”[23] Ryrie would answer in the negative, and cites a few examples to back up such a claim. Ryrie states that the Bible “furnishes some clear examples of people who were saved but who lacked commitment.”[24] One of his chief arguments is the account of the Samaritan woman (John 4:10). Ryrie explains this account as follows,

“He did not require the Samaritan woman to set her sinful life in order, or even be willing to, so that she could be saved. He did not set out before her what would be expected by way of changes in her life if she believed. He simply said she needed to know who He is and to ask for the gift of eternal life.”[25]

His conclusion to this so-called lack of commitment found by Biblical characters is that proclaiming a gospel where commitment to Christ is required “fails to distinguish salvation from discipleship and makes requirements for discipleship prerequisites for salvation.”[26]

What Ryrie fails to take into account however is the radical, life-changing experience that an encounter with Christ contains. We do not read much more about this Samaritan woman, but what we do read of is a radically changed life, one where she immediately responds in obedience and tells others about Christ. While it is true that Jesus did not explain to her the details of a committed Christian life at her conversion, we can rightly assume that the Holy Spirit issued her a similar charge as Christ did to the woman caught in adultery, “…from now on sin no more” (John 8:11).

In response to Ryrie’s positioned question it must be asked, “How could commitment of life not be a necessary part of faith and thus of the gospel?” If, as we have seen, salvation necessarily contains our justification, adoption, sanctification and eventual glorification, at what point could there be a total lack of commitment? Can one be adopted without being committed to the family of God? Can one be sanctified without a commitment to obedience? If our adoption and sanctification are tied to our justification, how could we be glorified without a commitment to either? This is not to say that the Christian does not still sin – of course we do! But to suggest that it is possible to not only sin but also be uncommitted to the Christian life and our salvation is completely unwarranted.

This type of “free grace” theology is not only antithetical to the gospel proclamation, but it is harmful to the people of God. There is no power for the conviction of sins and victory in the Christian life when the gospel is reduced to a “believe, but don’t worry about commitment” message. This message manifests and sneaks itself into the western church in a variety of ways. In a time where rock star pastors take the stage without any formal theological training, where a pastor’s character is measured by how likeable he is and not how mature he is in the faith, and where the church is fed a half-hearted gospel of comfort to the American dream, just about anything flies as “orthodox” today. Worse than that, the result of declaring poor or false teaching and calling people to a Biblical faith only results in attacks and chastisement from those we seek to love and help grow in their relationship with Christ. I am convinced that at the root of these problems is a fundamental misunderstanding of what exactly salvation is. When a student begins an algebra problem with the wrong equation, no matter how earnest she is she will always arrive at the wrong answer. Similarly, if we misunderstand or confuse salvation our preaching and teaching of it will always end in the wrong place.

One such example of this is in respected mega-church pastor [name removed] preaching on the meaning of being a Christian. In a recent sermon given on [date removed], Pastor [name removed] argued that it is possible to be a believer in the Christian life but not a disciple. He argued this is not only what he believes is right, but that it’s not an essential point of orthodoxy. He argues this from Luke 14:26, when Jesus says “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Pastor [name removed]’s conclusion is that there are two levels to Christianity – the entry level, and the next level: “He was calling on the crowd to take their commitment to him to a higher level, the next level, a level of discipleship.”[27] On matters of commitment and obedience in the Christian life, [name removed] goes on to say this: “salvation and discipleship are different. Salvation is for everyone. Discipleship is for those who are supremely committed. Salvation is based on coming to the cross, discipleship is based on carrying the cross.”[28] [name removed] goes on to elaborate on his views of salvation,

“Salvation is based on Christ dying for us. Discipleship is based on us being willing to die for Christ. Salvation is a free gift. But based on what Jesus says here in Luke 14, discipleship has a cost. Everybody see that. And let’s look at it from some straight up Bible verses. Salvation, what’s the Bible say? Ephesians 2:8 for by grace you have been saved through faith, and that salvation is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Titus, 3:5, God saved us not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his Mercy. Salvation, the Bible says, involves no human works, no human effort, no human activity, no cost to us.”[29]

Pastor [name removed] defines a disciple as someone who strives “to be Christ-like in every part of his or her life. It’s a higher level of commitment. And a deeper commitment than just believing what Jesus did for us on the cross for salvation.”[30]

So it is that Charles Ryrie’s propagated “free grace” theology is revealed in Pastor [name removed]’s teaching; our salvation is a one and done experience of simply believing in Christ, but if you want to be some form of a “Super Christian,” then you live to a higher form of obedience. After all, as [name removed] says, salvation involves nothing on our part at no cost to us. But is this not completely different than the use of salvation in the New Testament that we have previously seen? Is not salvation a complete reorientation and renewal of our lives, beginning in the present with our justification, progressing through adoption and sanctification, and eventually ending in our glorification? We have seen how God works in our lives in our justification, works out our sanctification, seals us in adoption, and will come again to perfect our salvation. What Pastor [name removed] has done instead is he has made a cheap justification equivalent to salvation, and by doing so he has completely missed the point.

Yes, justification comes at no cost to us and based on no merit on our part. But the life of salvation is one of working (sanctification) and service to our adopted family, because it is God who works in us to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13)! It pleases God to work out our salvation in us, so how could it be possible for us to preach and teach anything less? The end result of [name removed] and Ryrie’s teaching is that our obedience becomes based on human will-power rather than the working of God. When this will-power becomes the motivation for obedience, you are no longer dealing with the gospel and salvation but inefficient moralism.

Salvation Proclaimed

I imagine a young man sitting in Pastor [name removed]’s congregation during this referenced sermon who is feeling a deep, nagging feeling that his addiction to pornography is not pleasing to the Lord. I imagine a wife who has begun a workplace relationship that is bordering on adultery. I picture a husband who is abusive toward his wife and has been neglecting his kids for his work. Where is the power for the conviction of sins in a salvation that requires no effort, no will, and no cost?

Christ himself told us that there would be weeds among the harvest (Matt. 13:24-30) and goats among the sheep (Matt. 25:32). However, this eschatological reality should not come to fruition due to lack of faithful teaching on the church’s part! Church leaders have a necessary obligation to preaching the truth (Jude 3), and to handle the Word of God with care (2 Timothy 3:2). Christ will hold teachers of the Word to a higher standard (James 3:1). We owe Christ and his Church truthful, delicate and faithful exposition of God’s Word.

So it is that the Church, particularly the Church of the West, is at a crossroads. We are at a time where we must seriously measure whether it is worth continuing to attract big crowds and simply hope and pray that God will save people in spite of bad teaching, or whether we must seriously confront the errors in our ways. Theologian David F. Wells accounts for the problem this way, “Today, in the evangelical church, there are apparently many who have made decisions for Christ, who claim to be reborn, but who give little evidence of their claimed relationship to Christ. Something is seriously amiss if, as George Barna has reported, only 9 percent of those claiming rebirth have even a minimal knowledge of the Bible, if there are no discernible differences in how they live as compared with secularists, and if the born-again are dropping out of church attendance in droves. If these numbers are anywhere close to being accurate, then the gospel has become a stand-alone thing, and many who say they have embraced it have never entered the Christian life to which it was supposed to be the entry point.”[31]

Wells nails the problem right on the head, and summarizes exactly what we’ve seen in understanding Biblical salvation. When sanctification in salvation is misunderstood, then many professing Christians will have no commitment to the Word of God or a living, active obedience. When this same salvation is misunderstood in regards to our adoption, then of course professing Christians will have no obligation to the family of God. I contend with Wells that this is a problem that we cannot allow to continue to fester. As he states, if we continue to preach this kind of Gospel, then “we have completely misunderstood what it (Christian faith) is all about.”[32]

When a package is delivered from one location to another, it is not simply a one-step process. It does not just appear at its destination. The process of delivery is a multi-step process wherein a package is purchased, picked up, changes ownership, and eventually arrives at its destination. Similarly our σωτηρία – our salvation and deliverance – must be understood as more than a one-and-done deal. It is of utmost importance that the Church reclaims the proper understanding of σωτηρία as the Biblical authors used it and as the Reformers understood it. We must teach and proclaim all of the benefits of this great salvation, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism (32) explains, “They that are effectually called do in this life partake of justification, adoption, and sanctification, and the several benefits which in this life do either accompany or flow from them.” Teachers of the Word cannot separate any of these benefits of salvation from one another, for they are all found and bound together in the Christian’s union with Christ.


[1] Richard B. Gaffin, By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, second ed. (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2013), 41. Richard Gaffin notes that the primary language for union with Christ is found in the “in Christ/the Lord” language, with other variations such as “with,” “for us” and “for our sins.”

[2] Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012), 95.

[3] John Murray, Redemption, Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975, 1955), 161.

[4] In another of his writings, Murray notes that it would be “exegetically impossible” to separate the scope of spiritual blessings from those blessing mentioned in the immediate succeeding context – adoption (vs. 5), redemption and forgiveness of sins (vs. 7), the knowledge of the myster of God’s will (vs. 9) the inheritance (vs. 11), and the seal of the Holy Spirit (vss. 13, 14). John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray: Professor of Systematic Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1937-1966, vol. 2, Select Lectures in Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), 126

[5]Richard B. Gaffin, By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, second ed. (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2013), 45. Gaffin cites Murray as particularly helpful in understanding Union with Christ. Dr. Gaffin summarizes Murray by saying “To sum up: present union with Christ – sharing with him in all he has accomplished and now is, by virtue of his death and resurrection – is, as much as anything, at the center of Paul’s soteriology.

[6] Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 349.

[7] Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003- 2008, 523. In agreement with Bavinck, Kevin DeYoung says this, “Union with Christ is not a single specific blessing we receive in our salvation. Rather, it is the best phrase to describe all the blessings of salvation, whether in eternity past (election), in history (redemption), in the present (effectual calling, justification, and sanctification), or in the future (glorification).” Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012), 94.

[8] John R W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, 20th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006), 185.

[9] John Murray, Redemption, Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975, 1955), 80.

[10]William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 247.

[11]John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray: Professor of Systematic Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1937-1966, vol. 2, Select Lectures in Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), 206.

[12] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9–16, vol. 38B, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 609. “The near equivalence of “righteousness” and “salvation” in this context is wholly Jewish in character, as their frequent use in parallel in the Psalms and Second Isaiah makes clear.” This is a profound insight on the part of Dunn, but its depth and implications are out of scope for the purpose of this paper.

[13] John Calvin and John Owen, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Bellingham, WA 2010), 394.

[14] John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2013), 971.

[15] Ibid., 980

[16] Ibid., 977

[17] WLC 74 is also a theologically and Biblically sound summation of the doctrine of adoption. “Adoption is an act of the free grace of God, in and for his only Son Jesus Christ, whereby all those that are justified are received into the number of his children, have his name put upon them, the Spirit of his Son given to them, are under his fatherly care and dispensations, admitted to all the liberties and privileges of the sons of God, made heirs of all the promises, and fellow heirs with Christ in glory.”

[18] Herman N. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, pbk. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1997, ©1975), 199.

[19]Leon Morris, New Testament Theology, pbk. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Academie Books, 1990, ©1986), 36.

[20] Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003- 2008, 570.

[21] Leon Morris, New Testament Theology, pbk. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Academie Books, 1990, ©1986), 320.

[22] Goppelt, Leonhard. Theology of the New Testament, Volume 2. Edited by Jürgen Roloff. 2 vols. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1981-1982, 137.

[23] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systemic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1999), 391.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Citation removed, can be given if asked for.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] David F. Wells, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients Our World (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2014), 158.

[32] Ibid., 159



Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003- 2008

Calvin, Jean. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008.

Calvin, John, and John Owen. Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans. Bellingham, WA, 2010.

DeYoung, Kevin. The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012.

Dunn, James D. G. Romans 9–16. Vol. 38B. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998.

Frame, John M. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2013.

Gaffin, Richard B. By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation. second ed. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2013.

Goppelt, Leonhard. Theology of the New Testament, Volume 2. Edited by Jürgen Roloff. 2 vols. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1981-1982.

Moo, Douglas J. Encountering the Book of Romans: A Theological Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.

Morris, Leon. New Testament Theology. pbk. ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Academie Books, 1990

Murray, John. Collected Writings of John Murray: Professor of Systematic Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1937-1966. Vol. 2, Select Lectures in Systematic Theology. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1977.

Murray, John. Redemption, Accomplished and Applied. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975, 1955.

Ridderbos, Herman N. Paul: An Outline of His Theology. pbk. ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1997, ©1975.

Ryrie, Charles Caldwell. Basic Theology: A Popular Systemic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth. Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1999.

Stott, John R W. The Cross of Christ. 20th ed. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006.
Wells, David F. God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients Our World. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2014.



As the school year came to a close last year, I published a list of things that I had come to learn during my time in the introductory year of my studies. Following the pattern I’ve set for myself, here is another list from year two.

1. Being a Christ-like husband is infinitely more difficult than even the most strict and arduous of classes.

I was engaged for only a small portion of my first year. My professors often hit on the Biblical necessity for putting wives ahead of ministry and studies, for sacrificing yourself for your wife and striving to love her as Christ does the church. I naively thought this was easily doable and something I would excel at.

Enter marriage and seminary year two, where I discover that sacrificial and Christ-like love is far more than an idea in a Tim Keller book or a good exegetical preaching point from 1 Timothy. It’s hard. Really hard. Pride, envy and selfishness in marriage – sin – are a very real thing.

Despite its difficulty, marriage is so, so good. Through all of the struggles and tears God is growing both my wife and I to better understand the deep commitment that exists between Christ and his church. I am so thankful for my wife, her support, her patience and the gift of grace that marriage is which God uses to grow and sanctify us in our wilderness journey. I’d be twice the cynical and selfish goober that I am today if it wasn’t for her.

2. Nobody cares about my theology.

I don’t say this in a mean way, but at the end of the day – nobody else really cares about my theology other than my classmates and professors. Quotes from Augustine and Calvin don’t help anyone get through the struggles of life. There is hardly a person in my church who could give a lick about the theology of the Reformers and church Fathers, Greek nuances or eschatological differences. What people want and need – and this is a very good thing – is the grace of God through the sustained and faithful ministry of His Word to their souls. Grace, assurance, exhortation, the person and work of Christ and his gospel are the fruits of our labors; all of which are nourishment for our tired and weary souls. As it has been said, “Show them the Bread, not the bread factory.”

3. Nobody cares that I am in seminary.

Honestly, I think there was a time where I had a bit of an elitist mentality to seminary, as if it was somehow unique over other learning institutions. The truth is, its really not any different and it is incredibly dangerous to think anything different. Like every other masters degree programs, seminary requires hard work, sacrifice and dedication. The attendance of seminary is not something to boast in but something to be humbled by, something that creeps into the background of our lives as we instead seek to share what we have in common with our brothers and sisters – the riches of all that we share in our union with Christ.

4. Doubt and fear are paralyzing.

Theology is the remedy for doubt and fear; yet, knowing theology is not a vaccination for doubt and fear. Throughout my second year in seminary I faced many doubts and moments of paralyzing fear over my future, slowly and cripplingly putting me in a place where I forgot the promises and graces of God. It was only recently as I’ve been studying the book of Deuteronomy that my doubts and fears were cast out. I was struck by Moses’ attention to detail as he recalled the victories of the Israelites that were won because of the promise-keeping God that they served.

A remark by Pastor Ajith Fernando is what really shattered my paralyzing shell of fear and doubt. Commenting on Deuteronomy 1:28, he said this: “We must apply the implications of what we believe about God to every situation we face. Then we can conclude, ‘If God is God and I am obedient to him, he will see me through.’ That is the logic of faith. Believing God’s goodness, power and love for us helps us to be obedient.” I realized that this God of the Israelites is the same God we serve today, and I can rest assured in God’s promises and goodness to me not because of anything I do or my circumstances but because of who God is as a covenant and promise-keeping God. Truly, he is so good to us.

5. Adoption is the “height of our privilege as God’s people.” – John Frame

I can’t say enough of how much I love my church. The congregants, members, leaders and volunteers have all been such a blessing and gift of grace to me. I’d be nothing if it wasn’t for the way my brothers and sisters challenge me, sanctify me, pray for me, and love me. I am coming to really understand how, as John Calvin says, there is no sacrifice more pleasing to God that cultivating brotherly good-will. If any of you are reading this – thank you.

This is a paper I wrote in the summer of 2013. Not my best work, but my critiques and criticisms stand. For the PDF version, click here.


David Hume’s definitive work Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is widely considered a philosophical classic, particularly in regards to the relationship between philosophy and the knowledge of God. I was quite eager to read this work, as Hume is not only commonly referred to in the letters and writings of giants like C.S. Lewis, but was the subject of much deliberation in the classic debate between Doctors Gordon Stein and Greg Bahnsen in 1985. In this interaction with the text through a discussion of its characters and thoughts, it will be seen that this book fails to accomplish the devastating critique on religion that it attempted to prove.

  1. A Brief Background

It would first be helpful to understand a brief background of Hume and his work now being discussed. David Hume was a British Philosopher who lived from 1711-1776. The Dialogues are one of a handful of popular texts Hume wrote that have had profound impact on modern philosophy. Hume is cited as having large influence in the lives of renowned thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley.

The Dialogues are a unique text in that they were publish posthumously. After finding out he had intestinal cancer, Hume arranged for the work to be published after his death. This task was ultimately carried out by his nephew in 1779, three years after Hume.[1]

The text largely focuses on arguments from empirical observations and statements of fact. The latter quarter of the book takes a slight turn to some discussion on the “Problem of Evil”, but for the most part Hume spends a majority of his time attempting to dismantle any sort of cosmological argument from design. This argument is heralded as a “devastating critique” to cosmological arguments, and has been the basis for conclusions by many succeeding philosophers and theologians writing after Hume’s death.[2]

This text is also unique for another reason in particular. Harkening back to Plato’s many dialogues, Hume’s Dialogues employs the classic Philosophical system of a fictional dialogue between two or more characters. This system is meant to be the authors attempt at best communicating complex ideas through relatable (yet stereotyped) characters representing opposing views. The Dialogues are then written as if they are the recordings of one Pamphilus in an address to his friend Hermippus. The dialogue observed by Pamphilus takes place between three characters, Cleanthes, Demea and Philo.

  1. A Discussion of Main Characters and Arguments Made
    1. Cleanthes

The first prominent character of Hume’s Dialogues is accurate and rational Cleanthes. Hume wastes no time communicating to the reader that Cleanthes primarily thinks and argues from rational thought and empirical observation. It is clear throughout the text that Cleanthes is the equivalent chief-opponent of Hume, and it is his attempt to completely dismantle the arguments of someone like Cleanthes.

It is Cleanthes’ belief that “students of philosophy ought first to learn logics, then ethics, next physics, last of all the nature of the gods” (Page 5). As the book progresses, Hume portrays Cleanthes evermore as a philosopher at the far end of a spectrum, where only rationalism and empirical data can belong. Cleanthes is certain that because we use evidence in the realms of all natural, mathematical, moral and political science, we therefore ought to in theology and religion as well (Page 12). Cleanthes echoes the argument of Francis Bacon when he says “A little philosophy makes a man an Atheist: A great deal converts him to religion” (page 13).

Cleanthes’ major argument relies on the classic anthropomorphic argument from design. He argues that the universe is “one big machine”, made up of many smaller machines and parts, that have been adjust top such an accuracy that they surely point to a grand designer. These parts and machines resemble the thoughts and contrivances of man, so therefore we ought to conclude that the author of nature ought to be somewhat similar to the mind of man at a much larger scale. It is “by this argument alone” that Cleanthes proves the existence of a deity (Page 19). He will continue to say later that the intricacies of the universe, such as the way males and females fit together, as well as “millions and millions” of other instances are natural and convincing arguments that cannot be rejected (Page 31).

Cleanthes’ ultimate downfall in his argument is his confession that his argument only goes so far, and then must stop lest he continue on ad infinitum. When he is backed into a corner by Philo, Cleanthes’ concedes that he relies on his empirical evidences to point to an author, and so therefore he stops at the idea of a divine rather than continuing past the material world and into the metaphysical realm when asking the question “…and who made that?” This confession ultimately becomes Philo’s sticking point against Cleanthes, as well as Philo’s seeming victory over him.

When the argument takes a turn towards discussing the “problem of evil”, Hume portrays Cleanthes as a man who is so logically and rationally based that he cannot concede any sort of argument from emotion or feeling. Philo begins his argument based on a universal understanding of human wickedness and misery, a sentiment that Demea shares with Philo. However, Cleanthes says that he does not understand the argument being made, “I can observe something like what you mention in some others, but I confess I feel little or nothing of it in myself, and hope that it is not so common as you represent it” (Page 76). It is Cleanthes’ belief that human misery and divine benevolence are contradictory, and only if you deny universal misery can you believe in divine goodness (Page 79).

  1. Demea

The second character of Hume’s Dialogues is the orthodox and religious Demea. Demea is portrayed as arguing purely a priori, and that we must have assumed presuppositions to know anything about God. He is the polar opposite, on the opposed end of the philosophical spectrum from Cleanthes. Demea does not really argue from any particular religious perspective, although it is hinted he is supposed to be Christian which is likely. This character gets the least amount of text in the book, a rough estimate probably being about ten percent or less. Demea is also portrayed as being incapable of keeping up philosophically, and often resorts to shouting or quick retorts which are dismissed even quicker. Ultimately unsatisfied with the direction of the conversation, Demea storms off before the conversation is even over (Page 93).

This character is uncertain of any part of philosophy or science, and regards the principles of religion as the starting point for all matters of discussion (Page 5). The existence of the divine is assumed, and Demea therefore raises the argument that the supreme question is not concerning the being but the nature of God (Page 17). The interesting thing about Hume’s portrayal of Demea is that Demea at times appears to be more of a skeptic than either of the other two characters, yet is supposed to be the most committed to religion. Because God is so much higher than us, says Demea, his mind and attributes are completely unknowable to us (Page 17). It is in this regard that I question whether we can critically say that Demea is supposed to be the Christian character, a topic which I will address in my criticisms later in this paper.

Unlike Cleanthes, Demea believes that we ought not to imagine God with any resemblance to man (Page 18). Demea proclaims that knowledge of God must be argued a priori, to do otherwise is to give the advantage to Atheists. It is our infirmities in our nature that our untrustworthy, as our thoughts are “fluctuating, uncertain, fleeting, successive, and compounded” so we are therefore unable in our own reasoning and understanding to reach any understanding of the Divine (page 33).

There are a few points in the text that Demea and Philo seem to somewhat agree. The chief religious character of the Dialogues concedes that much of his understanding comes from the idea that each man feels deep within him the truth of religion, which is bred from universal misery amongst men (Page 71). It is a similar argument that Philo argues from shortly thereafter. As the conversation on misery and evil continues, Demea becomes progressively unhappy with the direction of the conversation and storms off (Page 93). The last sixth of the book is then left to what is portrayed as the first-fruits arguments of Philo and Cleanthes, meant to be too lofty of Demea’s understanding.

  1. Philo

The final character in Hume’s famous text is Philo the philosophical skeptic. It is widely regarded that Philo most likely is meant to be Hume writing himself into this fictional dialogue, as Philo’s views most closely resemble much of Hume’s other writings. Ever the skeptic, Philo believes it is impossible to trust our senses, thoughts or empirical observations but ultimately sees a priori arguments as equally unsatisfying.

Philo’s character gets the significant majority of screen time in this text, likely at least sixty percent of the book is Philo’s dialogue. He has something to say about everything, but never actually lands on any solid ground. Philo is much better at critiquing Cleanthes and Demea rather than actually making any statements of belief. But it is this idea that really sums up Philo’s character, critical and skeptical of everyone to the point that he has no foundational truths himself. Philo’s views are much more based on probability, so while one idea can be more probable than another, it can never be absolutely certain.

Like Demea, Philo believes that human reason has contradictions and imperfections and cannot be trusted (Page 6). It is actually this initial agreement that fools Demea into thinking that the two of them are in agreement. Demea’s realization that this is not the case is a contributing factor to his departure early from the conversation. A post-modern hipster, Philo believed that perfection was relative and therefore we cannot comprehend the attributes of the divine (page 18).

Most of Philo’s hot air is spent refuting Cleanthes, the chief argument being the argument from design. Upon Cleanthes’ initial statement of his argument, Philo responds with the typical house analogy – if we see a house we conclude there was a builder, therefore when we see a universe we conclude a designer. However, as Philo reasons, a house and the universe are so different that there is no way we can make this analogy work between the two, inferring the same kind of certainty about a designer as we would about a house builder (Page 20). Philo also refutes Cleanthes’ idea of the universe resembling a machine made up of many small parts when he says “I will not allow any one part to form a rule for any other part” (Page 24). Ultimately, Philo says, there is no ground to suppose a divine plan for the universe as an architect draws up a plan for a house (Page 37).

As I said before, the lynchpin in Cleanthes’ argument would be his admission of needing to stop his argument with the idea of a divine, otherwise he would have to go on ad infinitum. This confession of Cleanthes comes shortly after Philo argues that Cleanthes must take his anthropomorphic arguments into infinity, continually questioning the matter of existence of the forces behind subsequent forces (Page 38). Philo basically argues that if we suppose a designer, we must then ask “Who designed the designer?”

As Cleanthes believes that the universe is entirely uniform and obviously pointing to a designer, Philo believes that the more we study in biology, anatomy and chemistry the more we should see that the universal cause of life is vastly different from mankind and not uniform at all (Page 42). Since Philo observes the universe to be more of a system of connected but different parts rather than a well-oiled machine, he asserts that the universe much more resembles a plant or animal than a designed machine (Page 53). The universe therefore most probably arose from a process of generation or vegetation, rather than design. However, even on this supposition Philo seems more intent on just arguing with Cleanthes rather than asserting it as fact, as even Philo confesses this is a new argument that he just thought of during the course of the conversation.

During the discussion on wickedness and evil, Philo does argue from a universal feeling of misery and wickedness amongst man. Man, he says, is the greatest enemy of man (Page 73). However, true to form, while he concedes this is the best argument for a deity, Philo also sees it to be inconclusive. Bringing up the classic “problem of evil” credited to Epicurus, Philo says Epicurus’ questions remain unanswered and thus Philo remains a skeptic (Page 77). Therefore, because man universally agrees on wickedness and evil, which could point to some divine, this divine being, or “original source of all things” must be entirely indifferent to good or evil (Page 91).

Now that a survey and foundation of the three primary characters and the arguments have been conducted, I will continue into my interactions and criticisms with the text.

  1. Criticisms of the Text

David Hume’s Dialogues is a text that has piqued my interest for quite some time, and I was very eager to finally have a reason to sit down and read it. I knew that this was a text that I would ultimately not agree with, but I was hoping to get a taste of “the other side”, a chance to really understand arguments made against orthodox faith, and to be intellectually challenged. Unfortunately, while this text did make some interesting points and at times was challenging to understand, the Dialogues failed to make the point that it intended to make. While I understand the argument Hume was trying to make, it ultimately failed for three reasons: 1) because it categorically straw-man’s its characters and arguments, 2) because it does not adequately and completely address the subject matter, and 3) because its skeptical undertones completely undercut any reliability of the authors arguments.

While it is widely recognized that the skeptical Philo is playing the part of Hume in this text, the other two characters are completely stereotyped and straw-manned into two completely unrealistic and irrational people. The first rule to any good response and debate is to never straw-man the ideas of your opponent as it makes you appear rude and uneducated, yet this is something Hume fails to accomplish throughout his text. Cleanthes is a character that has no tolerance for any argument other than that from observed, rational thought and has no conception of the moral or emotional realities of humanity. On the opposite end of the scale, Demea is an orthodox religious character who is neither orthodox nor very religious. His apparent lack of foundation on any characteristics or attributes of God is surprising, and he really belongs in more of a new age/mystic camp than any orthodox Christianity that I am aware of. Even more frustrating is the depiction of Demea’s character, who is not only quick to fly off the handle but appears unable to respond to any of the more intellectual arguments made by either Philo or Cleanthes. Ultimately, Demea is fooled by Philo into a false sense of security and must storm off from the conversation before it even ends. This picture of a religious person does have some truth to it, but it is not the entire story nor is it appropriate to paint a false picture that it is so.

More to the point, with such opposite characters standing in contrast to Philo, one would be led to believe that the third character Philo would play the part of the middle ground where the two polar opposites could dialogue and interact. Instead, Philo is skeptical and critiques both sides but never really lands anywhere himself. This leads to a false sense that there is no blend between the religious thinker (Demea) and the philosophical, rational thinker (Cleanthes).

This brings me to my next criticism of the text, and that is that Hume did not adequately nor sufficiently address the subject matter. Based on the primary subject of the book, attempting to address whether or not men can come to know and understand the divine on their own merit, one would think there would be more room given to the vast considerations that should and need to be made. As Hume even states in his opening pages, “What truth so obvious, so certain, as the being of a God, which the most ignorant ages have acknowledged, for which the most refined geniuses have ambitiously striven to produce new proofs and arguments? What truth is as important as this…?” (Page 2).

If then this truth is so important, where are the considerations of morality? Where is there discussion on blending the rational and theological minds together? After all, God created us to be rational beings who all have a common sense of God we “feel within ourselves” (Page 71). If this is true, there must be more room allowed for discussing the intersection of faith and philosophy. Regrettably, the Dialogues fails to accomplish this in any way.

Further, Hume only dedicates approximately one-fourth of a very short book to the lofty discussion of pain and evil in the world. When countless volumes of the subject have been written by philosophers and theologians alike, how can such a large conversation be sufficiently squeezed into such a short space? Hume brings up the classic Epicurean problem, “Is he willing to present evil, but not able? Then is he important. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”, but then he blows right through those high questions and never addresses them. I fail to see how this is an ample argument for any reader to buy into when it is not even expounded upon.

Further, why is Demea unable to respond to these charges? If he is meant to play the orthodox Christian (which is questionable at best), how can he not echo similar words as Augustine says, “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil” (Kerr, 114)? Is this not what we see in Christ’s victory over death on the cross? Hume’s silence in this area is staggering and causes me to lose respect for him as a fair author or thinker, unable to adequately depict the argument he is trying to deconstruct.

Finally, Hume makes it clear in this book that he is trying to push the ideas of Philo as the strongest and most realistic. This is seen in the fact that Philo gets the large majority of text to speak, and also in the way neither Cleanthes nor Demea are able to adequately respond to Philo’s charges. Philo himself is skeptical of Cleanthes’ rational thinking, as well as Demea’s weak attempt to argue the common sense of the divine. While he originally makes an argument for the divine from the common sense of wickedness and evil in men (Page 71), he then contradicts himself by saying “But there is no view of human life, or the condition of mankind, from which, without the greatest violence, we can infer the moral attributes, or learn that infinite benevolence, conjoined with infinite power and infinite wisdom, which we must discover by the eyes of faith alone” (Page 81). So are the common senses of man adequate, or are they not? Philo’s shaky ground gives him no place to stand, leaving his arguments unconvincing nor impactful in any tangible way.

In the closing pages of Hume’s work, Philo asks the rhetorical question “Who can explain the heart of man?” (Page 102). There is a Christian response to this question, and that is of course through the illumination of truth via the Holy Spirit through His Holy Scriptures. If I could, I would love to awaken Hume for a short conversation and complete the Scripture he is no doubt invoking, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). I would like to explain to Hume that his skepticism is no better than a house built on sand, and that he needs the Rock (Matthew 7:25-26) to firmly stand on in order to be led into “all truth” (John 16:13). Regrettably so, this is a conversation that will never take place. Praise God for taking the skeptic, lost Hume in all of us and redeeming us, giving us blood-bought sinners a place to stand firm on in truth and righteousness.



Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. 2 vols. Lexington, KY: Empire Books, 2012

Kerr, Hugh. Readings in Christian Thought (second Edition). 2 Sub ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume/


[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “David Hume,” accessed July 20, 2013, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume/

[2] Ibid.