Word from the Front Lines

Paul taught us that we fight a spiritual battle, both within ourselves and in our world. Both fronts will ultimately be conquered in the end through Christ, but today the battle rages. Fortunately, the Scripture and Spirit continue to empower us for our combat.

In the first of our two feature articles, Mark Jacobson tackles the ever-difficult passage of Romans 7:14-25. He focuses on the contexts of Romans 7 that help answer whether Paul is talking about a believer or unbeliever when he describes one who desires the follow the Law but cannot. In the second article, I discuss two challenges we face when we study and teach Proverbs. The first challenge is how we approach the uniqueness of a proverb. Is it true? Sometimes true? The second challenge deals with how we handle the seeming randomness of Proverbs 10-30. What do we do with what appears to be a series of disconnected sayings?

Our two book reviews also tackle common issues of ministry today. Paul Johnson reviews A Better Way. It calls us to add a new model of missions to our current mindsets by investing in missionaries trained in every vocational field to go and disciple throughout the world. This approach especially opens doors in “closed” countries. Gary Derickson reviews Women, Slaves and the Gender Debate. This book will open your eyes to an emerging hermeneutical approach that threatens to rob many evangelicals of authoritative biblical convictions.

Thanks for serving at the front lines. We hope this issue of Dedicated encourages you in the spiritual battle.

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Understanding Proverbs without Overpromising or Undermining

Proverbs has presented peculiar challenges for church and classroom. These obstacles may discourage some from teaching or preaching Proverbs. “With the exception of Leviticus, it is doubtful that any biblical book is viewed with less enthusiasm by the preacher.”[1] Some see Proverbs as “nothing more than a deserted stretch of highway between Psalms and Ecclesiastes.”[2] This reticence is not new. Some rabbis doubted that Proverbs even belonged to the canon.[3] More recent “ministers” have misused the proverbs to the injury of the Church. “Riches and honor are for the person that gets wisdom. This is prosperity. If you get wisdom…riches are not far behind.”[4]

Still other interpreters jump to the broader wisdom context of Job and Ecclesiastes to prevent misuse of Proverbs. Longman argues that Job “guards against an overreading of the covenant and of the book of proverbs. It denies a mechanical application of the connection in Proverbs between wise behavior and material.”[5] Others leap quickly from Proverbs into the New Testament to make sense of the sayings. “The Book of Proverbs is like a thousand-word puzzle with no picture to show us what the puzzle is supposed to look like. But we have found the picture: Christ.”[6] While other wisdom contexts and the New Testament certainly join the interpretive process, the book of Proverbs itself has spoken more clearly than it is often given credit.

The purpose of this paper is to consider two key elements that demonstrate how Proverbs communicates its intent. These elements, the book message and literary context, often omitted or slighted in the Proverbs interpretive process, can clarify the meaning of individual sayings and correct some abuses of Proverbs. This paper will examine the book message and its relationship to individual sayings and then consider the potential for immediate literary context for understanding specific sayings.


Reading Individual Sayings in Proverbs’ Message

The starting point of finding the meaning of any passage is grasping the message of the entire book. Osborne notes that “through the influence of form criticism, the emphasis to date has been upon isolated parts rather than upon the whole of a section, and scholars have dissected books into separate and independent units before analyzing their meaning.” However, he concludes, “Only when the message of the whole passage [in his example a biblical book] is considered can the parts be studied for details of the central message.”[7] Elliott Johnson also, “Thus the basic unit of meaning as regards the author’s intent is not the word; rather, it is the author’s text considered at first as a whole. The process legitimately goes, not from the smallest unit to larger ones, but from the largest context to smaller ones.”[8] As with other biblical books, the message of Proverbs defines the meaning of its constituent texts.

The overall message of Proverbs bubbles from multiple springs. The nine chapter prologue sets the moral and religious stage for all individual sayings that follow. Opening that prologue is a seven verse introduction (1:1-7) both spelling out the purpose of Proverbs and voicing the book motto. Following the prologue are strategically scattered Yahweh sayings and comparative sayings. These serve to cast Yahweh’s shadow across the entire proverbial landscape and to highlight the pinnacle virtues of Proverbs. Funneling these springs together ought to establish an overarching message that clarifies the meaning of the individual sayings in the collection.

Introduction and Prologue/Epilogue. Unlike other biblical books, Proverbs clearly articulates its purpose and major emphases. Scholars widely acknowledge that section comprised of chapters 1-9 “serves as a thematic introduction or preamble to the whole document.”[9] Here the competition for the learner’s heart rages between Lady Wisdom and Madame Folly. Having established the poisonous enticements of folly and the exquisite rewards of wisdom (chs. 1-9), Proverbs then offers specific sayings (10-31) applying this overarching theme.

Opening the prologue, Proverbs spells out the specific purposes for the collection of wisdom sayings. The series of infinitive phrases in Proverbs 1:2-7 utilizes a “grand array” of wisdom terms to express the collection’s purpose.[10] John Johnson synthesizes these statements into four key purposes: 1) “To impart an intimate acquaintance with discipline and wisdom (v. 2a);” 2) To impart understanding of wisdom sayings;” 3) to impart moral insight (v. 3);” and 4) “to identify the intended recipients of wisdom.”[11] For the intended learners (all are learners as seen by the use of the merisms simple/young with wise/discerning [1:4-5], the collection serves to instruct in grasping the sayings themselves so that they can be appropriately applied with disciplined wisdom and moral insight.

This introduction surfaces the essential virtue of discernment (בִּינָה / בִּיןvv. 2,5,6) for grasping wisdom sayings. Later sayings build on this foundation by demonstrating the importance of proper appropriation of the proverbs. Proverbs 26:7 and 9 vividly describe the misuse of a proverb as effective as a lame man’s legs and as dangerous as a drunk waving a thorn bush. Further, surely the requirement of discernment of proper proverb application rests at the center of the Proverbs 26:4-5 answer/don’t answer a fool conundrum. Any individual proverb rests in the context of the necessity of applying sayings with discernment.

So the prologue highlights the priority of seeking wisdom in its full array. Its introduction further specifies this righteous pursuit as rightly grasping the wisdom sayings for the purpose of growing in understanding, discipline and discernment; growing wise. The introduction concludes by surfacing the motto of the collection. Growing wise in literature and life must be rooted in a reverential awe of Yahweh.

Motto of Book. Proverbs’ introduction climaxes in revelation of the source of all true wisdom:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (1:7)

John Johnson likens the seven verse introduction to a foundation with this motto the cornerstone.[12] Van Pelt and Kaiser agree, concluding that “the relationship between the fear of Yahweh and both wisdom and knowledge serves as the theme for the entire work.”[13] This motto is rehearsed in 19 more proverbs throughout the collection.[14] The repetitions include 9:10 where the motto serves to complete the inclusio of the nine chapter prologue. The motto also reappears as a conclusion in the epilogue of Proverbs 31. These three crucial literary locations demonstrate the significance of the motto for grasping the meaning of the collection.

The word for “fear” (יִרְאָה) ranges from terror to respect, but in this context refers to a reverenced worship that drives one to proper moral response (Prov 3:7; 8:13; 14;16; 16:17; 28:14). This reverenced worship is the beginning and focus of wisdom and knowledge. The term רֵאשִׁית (“beginning” 1:7) refers to that which is the beginning of an action in time (cf. Gen 1:1) or that which is superior among choices (cf. Deut 33:21). The matching term in 9:10, תְּחִלָּה, refers more specifically to that which comes first in time (cf. 2 Sam 17:9). With the use of the two terms, it is clear that Proverbs intends that reverential worship represents the first requisite to wisdom.

Both repetition and strategic location communicate that this recurring motto represents a seminal theme of Proverbs. One cannot be truly wise if the wisdom does not follow the primary step of fearing Yahweh. As a starting point of wisdom, all wisdom sayings ought to be understood in light of this reverential worship.

Shadow of Yahweh. As seen in the motto, Yahweh rules the center of biblical wisdom. Proverbs is not a collection of secular wisdom for temporal life. Instead, it discloses worship that infiltrates work, words, all the ways of life. Contrary to the secular reputation of Proverbs, when compared to other Old Testament books, Proverbs mentions Yahweh as often as books such as Genesis, 2 Samuel, Ezra and nearly as often as many of the prophetic books.[15] So though His name is not constantly repeated in the collection, Yahweh appears enough and in crucial places to cast His shadow over every saying.

While the motto demonstrates that Yahweh stands at the starting line of wisdom, key proverbs show that He also determines the outcome of the race. This divine prerogative colors the expectations of reward for righteousness.

Agur recognized that ultimately wisdom resided only in God. In language reflective of Job’s confrontation with God, Agur acknowledged his inability to grasp God’s wisdom and ways:

I am the most ignorant of men;

I do not have a man’s understanding.

I have not learned wisdom,

nor have I knowledge of the Holy One. (30:2-3)

His humble confession results from the reality that God alone has established this world and its ways:

Who has gone up to heaven and come down?

Who has gathered up the wind in the hollow of his hands?

Who has wrapped up the waters in his cloak?

Who has established all the ends of the earth?

What is his name,

and the name of his son?

Tell me if you know! (30:4)

Yahweh’s knowledge extends from eternity past in creation to the human heart today. His eyes see all that happens on the earth (15:3). He sees even the motives of mankind. Using imagery of weighing on a scale and testing in a crucible, the sage teaches that Yahweh discerns the intents of His human creation (16:2; 17:3).

God’s power extends past His knowledge into control of all outcomes. No wickedness or wisdom succeeds against Him (21:30; 22:12). Each planned course, decision and word ultimately spring from and accomplish God’s purpose (16:9; 16:33; 16:1). All flows toward His directed end (16:4).

The divine prerogative theme serves to clarify the intent of the individual sayings in the collection. They cannot simply be formulaic, turning God into a heavenly vending machine, but rather must be understood in light of God’s sovereign reality. One cannot presume to know his own way, if God directs each step and every journey (20:24).

Comparative Sayings. Another key element that serves to clarify the author’s intent in Proverbs is the group of comparative sayings. These are typically characterized by the comparative מִן, coupled with טוֹב (“good” or in these contexts “better”). They place the temporal rewards of many proverbs into proper priority.

People often wrongly equate prominence and power with God’s blessing. The proverbs remind us however that meager resources surpass one who merely projects importance (Prov 12:9). Further, the ability to conquer angry urges (אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם) impresses the sage far more than greatness (גִּבֹּור) or military subjugation (Prov 16:32). So place and power may result from piety, but they cannot become the goal of the learner.

For the one seeking riches through righteousness, the comparative proverbs draw attention to a more significant bottom line. Many virtues exceed prosperity. A reputation (שֵׁם) and favor (חֵן) bring greater value than many riches (Prov 22:1). One who lives among the oppressed, but possesses humility (שְׁפַל־רוּחַ) stands in superior position to those enriched by plunder but impoverished by pride (Prov 16:19). A millionaire, though self-impressed, is surpassed by a poor individual with discernment (דַל מֵבִין – Prov 28:11). Riches also fall to a distant second behind other virtues, such as integrity (תֹּם Prov 28:6), righteousness (צְדָקָה Prov 16:8), and love (אַהֲבָה Prov 15:17). In fact, with the trouble often associated with riches (Prov 15:16), the sage asks for the financial middle road, lest in his riches he forgets Yahweh (Prov 30:9). So though riches may result from the exercise of personal virtues, the virtues themselves ought to draw the learner’s primary attention and energy.

Finally, the twin peaks of Proverbs, the “fear of Yahweh” and “wisdom,” tower above the foothills of prosperity. After their establishment in the introduction as the key concerns for the learner, these lofty virtues peak through on occasion throughout the book to remind the reader of their importance. Proverbs 3:13-15 emphasize that the one who lays hold of wisdom has grasped a richer treasure than silver and gold can ever provide. This theme echoes in Lady Wisdom’s call in 8:11 and 19. To choose her is to choose true riches. The wealth of wisdom appears again in 16:16 and then shines a final time in the actions of the Proverb 31 portrait. The fear of Yahweh also echoes from the introduction. This reverence makes a little (מְעַט) to exceed the capacity of multiplied treasure rooms (אֹוצָר) (Prov 15:16). The resounding triumph of fearing Yahweh rings again in the epilogue of Proverbs: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Prov 31:30). The appearance so often longed for fades so soon, but righteous virtue glows always.

The authors of Proverbs do not intend to shift the learner’s focus to the result of wise living. Though enjoyable results often come, the central virtues themselves stand as the true reward. The comparative sayings make it clear that the learner’s investment strategy needs to accumulate moral assets over temporal possessions.

Proverbs, therefore, educates all comers in the godly discernment of words and life for the purpose of producing a worshipful wisdom worked out in every sphere of human existence. This broad message; established in introduction, capped in epilogue, and buttressed throughout; serves to clarify each saying in the book.

Reading Individual Proverbs in Literary Context

After the book message, the next largest context that shapes meaning is literary context. To discuss the role of literary context in interpreting Proverbs opens a hermeneutical mystery. Is there actually context? Von Rad declares that “each sentence, each didactic poem, stands on its own and does not expect to be interpreted on the basis of similar poems.”[16] Longman adds that “reading the proverb in context does not change our understanding of either proverb. It doesn’t even enrich our understanding.”[17] Is there truly no literary context for a proverb? Is the literary genre so unique that the ordering of the text makes no difference, while in all other genres the text order carries great significance? Are scholars searching for context among the sayings close to finding the Giant Panda or fruitlessly seeking Bigfoot?[18]

The discussion at hand will assume that the interpreter already works within the historical-cultural contexts as well as within the literary genre of wisdom literature. Attention instead will focus on the issue of existence and extent of literary context of Proverbs. While scholars acknowledge that one may study Proverbs topically, recognizing that remote proverbs on the same subject may be gathered for study, this section will focus on the possibility of immediate or cluster context for interpreting an individual saying.

This question of literary context for a proverb refers specifically to those individual sayings in chapters 10-31. Chapters 1-9 have long been recognized as a unit serving to introduce the major themes of Proverbs. One should also note that chapters 10-31 contain some units of proverbs, such as the Sayings of the Wise (22:17-24:22), Sayings of Agur (30:1-33), and the climactic Noble Wife Poem (31:10-31). With these brief exceptions, the chapters seem to be a random collection of wisdom sayings. Do these “random” collections in fact reflect a divine ordering and therefore an interpretive demand to discover this order and its implications?

Current evangelical scholars answer this question in three ways: No! Yes! Maybe! Tremper Longman notes that since 1980 we have “seen a growing consensus among interpreters that there is more here than meets the eye.”[19] Spurred by the groundbreaking work of Gustav Boström in 1928,[20] several contemporary scholars have pursued possible connections among the individual sayings of 10-31. Connections may show through aural links (consonance, assonance, alliteration) or through rhetorical devices (catchwords, parallel syntax) or through theme (similar circumstances or theological emphasis). Longman, however, remains suspicious of such arrangements. He notes that no prevailing scheme has surfaced. “There are as many different nuances in the schemes suggested to unravel the mystery as there are scholars.”[21] He suggests that Proverbs follows the random pattern of other ancient Near East wisdom collections. Perhaps as well, this randomness is intentional and “reflects the messiness of life.”[22]

Daniel Estes follows Longman in his approach to the proverbs, but with less skepticism of design. He interprets individual sayings and then compares the result with the interpretation of sayings of similar theme and content. He concludes that one best understands an individual saying as part of a larger picture within all of Proverbs. “That portrait emerges only when all of the relevant sayings on the topic are considered together.” He does believe though that in seeking immediate context links “promising efforts have been made by Whybray (1994b), Murphy (1998b), Heim (2001) and others.” However, at present it remains to Estes “difficult to discern the order to the proverbs, especially in chapters 10-31.”[23] Therefore, Estes does not attempt to interpret individual sayings within literary units.

Bruce Waltke represents the definite Yes group. His commentary introduction traces the attempts to discern structure within Proverbs 10-31. He describes approvingly the work of Skladny, Boström, Whybray, Goldingay, and others as well as his own efforts in discovering proverb arrangement.[24] He concludes, “By knowing the poetics biblical narrators and poets of all sorts, including sages, used to give their compositions coherence and unity, the interpreter can discern unstated and often implicit, not explicit, connections between verses.” Further, “By matching the text’s surface rhetorical techniques (or syntagmatic connections) with the deep structure of its meaning (paradigmatic connections) one may discern a proverb’s or saying’s meaning-rich literary context.”[25]

Waltke’s commentary then demonstrates his understanding of the arrangements and their significance by defining the units and then interpreting individual sayings within the unit context. He concludes the single-line “educative” proverbs serve as a heuristic guide, pointing out the beginning of larger units. Within those units, a number of rhetorical devices reveal sub-units.[26]

Some examples help illustrate the possible significance that this literary context may have for interpretation. First, intentional placement in the editing process seems likely in the arrangement of Proverbs 10:24-11:11. The frequency of the use of righteous/wicked terminology seems to be the magnet that draws these sayings into a unit. Terms for righteousness and wickedness (צַדִּיק and רָשָׁע ) appear 20 times in this brief section. This forms a centerpiece for a larger unit (chs 10-13) in which these terms occur more than 68 times. The concentration of these righteous/wicked sayings appears to extend the emphasis of the prologue (1:8-9:18) into the more thematic sayings. Therefore, an individual saying within the group ought to be interpreted in light of the surrounding proverbs and in relation to the wisdom-folly competition for the heart in the prologue.

A second possible example is the oft problematic verse of Proverbs 22:6. Too many parents have expected guaranteed results or shouldered unfair blame for their children’s lives. Though debated by some, most acknowledge that this proverb emphasizes the parents’ role in moral training of their children.[27] Waltke places this saying in a unit emphasizing Yahweh’s sovereignty in wealth and in moral instruction.[28] Within this unit, the saying in 22:6 ought to be understood along with the 22:15 reminder that foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child. A parent has a tremendous responsibility for moral training, but it does not remove the sin nature nor the moral obligation of the child. Further, the introductory saying for the next subunit calls on every learner to be a responsive hearer: “Pay attention and listen to the sayings of the wise” (22:17). So the danger of formulaizing Proverbs 22:6 may be answered by clarifying statements in its immediate context.

A third potential example clarifies the blessing of wealth in the well-known sayings of Proverbs 3:9-10.

Honor Yahweh with your wealth,

with the firstfruits of all your crops;

then your barns will be overflowing,

and your vats will brim over with new wine.

An uninformed overreading of the text suggests that honoring Yahweh produces massive agricultural success. However, the intent of the proverb becomes clearer in light of surrounding texts. Proverbs 3:13-16 declares that the virtues of wisdom exceed temporal success. The value is more than silver, gold, or any temporal prosperity. The true value rests in the virtue itself, apart from potential reward.

A final example shows how textual arrangement may affect interpretation. Waltke suggests that Proverbs 10:1b-16 form a unit contrasting the righteous and wicked in the arenas of speech and wealth. An introductory “rearing proverb” (10:1b) marks the unit beginning. A mix of chiasm, paronomasia (pun), and catchwords adhere the sayings into a cohesive unit. The strategic use of life (חַיִּים) and death (מָוֶת) in each of the three subunits (2, 11, 16) serves to heighten the significance of the individual sayings. “In short, the stakes are high: one’s deportment with money (vv. 2-5, 15-16) and speech (vv. 6-14) are matters of life and death.”[29]

The above examples demonstrate that indeed if Proverbs 10-31 represents cohesive design, then the contextual setting of the design can impact the interpretation of individual sayings within a unit. If this is the case, then the intent of the authors/compilers of proverbs into Proverbs is expressed not only in individual pithy sayings, but also in carefully constructed units of sayings. Perhaps, since a single proverb encases such a narrow slice of life, groups of sayings better deal with the complexity of life. If cohesive design exists in these chapters, an interpreter hears not a series of solo voices, but a harmonious choir.

At this stage in the study of textual arrangement of Proverbs, one cannot make dogmatic assertions. Longman’s observation concerning the diversity of schematic arrangements and their seeming subjectivity rings clear. Literary design and subsequent interpretive context cannot be decisively demonstrated. However, as Waltke noted, there are some clear evidences of literary design within Proverbs. If some have clear arrangement, perhaps arrangement of other proverbs will be discovered. So current scholarship as a whole answers the literary context existence question with a definite maybe, leaning toward Yes. It seems interpreters may actually on the verge of finding the Panda rather than imagining another Bigfoot.

Two considerations surface before dismissing possible text arrangement in Proverbs. The first is historical. Parallelism was essentially unknown until discovered and explained by Robert Lowth in 1753. Until then an important textual arrangement of poetry was unnoticed and unused. Now it represents a basic element of interpreting Hebrew poetry. The arrangement existed, but took centuries to surface. A similarly delayed discovery rose from the Old Testament psalter. Past interpreters of Psalms seldom interpreted an individual poem in light of its canonical context within the collection. However, most current books on Psalms now discuss the overall significance of the collected arrangement.[30] The second consideration is philosophical. If as evangelicals we believe God has inspired the writings of Scripture, we recognize that involves the arrangement of the text. This seems obvious with the logical arrangement of epistles or the narrative arrangement of the Gospels. It appears important as well in the design of prophetic oracles and psalm collections. Therefore, if inspiration includes literary arrangement and context in other biblical genres, may it also be a part of the divinely guided composition/compilation process of Proverbs?

Given the clear examples, along with the historical and philosophical considerations, one concludes at this point that interpreting an individual saying should involve checking for possible literary context. If an interpreter discovers clear linkage of a saying with surrounding sayings, these should influence the understanding of the single proverb. The clearer the cohesion of the unit and thematic connection of the sayings within it, the more certain one can conclude that the arrangement expresses an element of the author’s intended meaning.


This study has shown that the message of Proverbs, worshipful practical wisdom produced by discernment and producing moral virtue, ought to guide our interpretation and application of individual sayings. While wisdom genre, broader context of Job and Ecclesiastes, and the still broader New Testament context are important elements of interpreting Proverbs, they should not be used to the exclusion of the book’s message and literary context. In fact, these two closer contexts should have higher priority than more remote ones. Rather than having other biblical texts interrupt interpretation by speaking too soon, it is better to let Proverbs finish its own sentences.

Further, this paper has shown that enough evidence of cohesive literary design exists for an interpreter to seek to locate a saying within a literary unit. These units must exhibit clear literary and thematic consistency. The stronger and clearer the connection, the more influence the unit should exert on the interpretation of a single saying. Allowing these two voices to speak in the Proverbs interpretation process at their proper time can lead to a clearer interpretation and communication of the intended meaning of this beloved portion of Scripture.


[1] John J. Collins, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Knox Preaching Guides (Atlanta: John Knox, 1980), 1.

[2] Thomas G. Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 53.

[3] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), p. 48-9.

[4] Robert Tilton, successinlifeonline.org.

[5] Tremper Longman III, How to Read Proverbs (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), p. 87.

[6] See for example, E. Langston Haygood, “How to Preach Christ from Proverbs,” Preaching (November-December 1991): 48-51.

[7] Grant Osborne, Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: IVP, 1991), p. 22.

[8] Elliott Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), p. 10.

[9] Daniel Estes, Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), p. 19.

[10] Robert Alden, Proverbs (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), p. 21.

[11] John Johnson, “An Analysis of Proverbs 1:1-7,” Bibliotheca Sacra (October-December 1987): 419-432.

[12] Johnson, “Proverbs 1:1-7.” 430.

[13] Miles Van Pelt and Walter Kaiser, “ירא” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) 2:533.

[14] Prov 1:29; 2:5; 3:7; 8:13; 9:10; 10:27; 14:2, 16, 26, 27; 15:16, 33; 16:6; 19:23; 22;4; 23:17; 24:21; 28:14; 31:30.

[15] A search of the relative frequency of “Yahweh” in Proverbs reveals it is found 12.5 times per 1000 Hebrew words. This compares to 8.0 in Genesis, 13.5 in Judges, 13.7 in 2 Samuel, and 9.5 in Ezra.

[16] Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (SCM Press, 1972), p. 6.

[17] Longman, Proverbs, p. 41.

[18] The Giant Panda was thought a mythical creature by the West until Pére David, a French priest and scientist, found one in the mountain bamboo forests of China. Bigfoot remains a mythical beast J

[19] Ibid, p. 38.

[20] Paronamasi i den alder hebreiska Maschallitteraturen, (Lund: Gleerup).

[21] Longman, Proverbs, pp. 38-9.

[22] Ibid, p. 40.

[23] Estes, Wisdom Books, p. 220.

[24] The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15 (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 14-21.

[25] Waltke, Proverbs, pp. 45-48.

[26] Ibid, 21.

[27] See Longman, pp. 404-5 for discussion.

[28] Waltke (Proverbs II, pp. 196-7) marks off the unit as 22:1-16 by thematic elements, repeated catchwords and by inclusion formed by 22:1 and 22:14-15.

[29] Waltke, Proverbs I, p. 450.

[30] For two current examples, see Estes, Proverbs, 145-146 and C. Hassell Bullock, Encountering the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), pp. 58-82.

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The Contextual, Thematic and Literary Context of Romans 7:14-25


This article complements an article that appeared in the Fall 2011 Dedicated Journal.[1] That article proposed an interpretation of Gal. 5:16-18 that promotes a more encouraging prospect for living a godly life than is often communicated in popular presentations. My purpose in revisiting this theme with a survey of Rom. 7:14-25 is that this passage, more than Gal. 5:16-18, has been used to throw considerable doubt on the believer’s chances to live a life freed from the domination of sin. This passage stands at the heart of this controversy; it is the crux interpretum for those desiring to understand Paul’s view of the power of the sinful nature in the heart of the believer.

Getting this passage right is critically important, especially for pastors and teachers whose goal is to “present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). If Paul himself so struggled with sin that he despaired of being able to do what was right—a common interpretation of Rom. 7:14-25—then what chance does the not-so-motivated, weaker Christian have of doing what is right? A careful study will show that this passage should not be interpreted to mean that the believer is unable, despite the best intentions and will-power, to live a life of mastery over sin. Its message instead conveys much more hope.

Brevity demands clarity. Romans 7:14-25 has nothing to do with the struggle (It is a struggle!) of the believer to live a godly life. This passage does not address the sinful nature within the heart of a believer; it does not depict the conflicting desires within a Christian. This passage does not speak about sanctification; Paul is not writing about his present struggle with indwelling sin.[2] Rather, it concludes Paul’s teaching on how sin used the commands of the Law to secure unbelieving Jews in their sinful state and how the (Jewish) believer has been set free by the Spirit from sin and the Law to live a life characterized by righteousness. Paul has another purpose in mind that is very important to him: to defend the Law (really, to defend Paul himself) against the charge that it somehow is an ally of sin, that the Law itself is sinful.

This study supports the “unregenerate” view of Romans 7:14-25. This is the view that the struggle Paul describes in 7:14-25 is not that of a believer, but of an unbeliever. The struggle described is not that of just any unregenerate person, certainly not that of a Gentile. Specifically, it describes the struggle of a Torah-observant Jew to do what Yahweh has commanded him to do, but who finds it impossible to do. Is it then autobiographical? Does Paul allow his audience a glimpse into his own personal struggle with sin as a Pharisee before his conversion? This is possible, but not necessary. This could simply refer to Everyman Jew, given that Everyman Jew is Torah-observant, a lover of Torah who desires to please Yahweh by abiding by it. We should also leave open the option that in his powerful rhetoric declaring his failure to do what is right, Paul does some back-reading, describing his failure from the perspective of a converted Jew looking back on his pre-conversion days.

The title of this article suggests that contextual, thematic and literary concerns will be addressed in an effort to support the thesis stated above. If this passage is removed from its contexts, as it usually is in popular presentations, the struggle with sin sounds familiar—try as you might, you still sin. Who doesn’t have some “besetting sin” that seems to hang on despite our best efforts? For this reason this passage, when taken out of its context, continues to resonate with audiences. But audience response should not shape our hermeneutics. When remove passages from their contexts, misguided interpretations are almost inevitable. Such is the case here. Paul certainly deals with the believer’s struggle with indwelling sin, but not here in Romans 7:14-25.

These three elements—context, theme and literary devices—will be interweaved throughout this study since at times they overlap. As we think of the widest context for Paul’s remarks, we must begin with Paul himself at the time he wrote Romans and what has come to be called the “Jew-Gentile controversy.”

The Cultural/Theological Context: The Jew-Gentile Controversy

At the heart of the controversy was the relationship, if any, of Torah to the Gospel that Paul preached.  The Jews assumed that Gentiles needed to come to God through the institution of Judaism. That had been the way God had operated for over 1400 years; why change now? Gentiles, very understandably, said, “No way are we going to be circumcised and live by the rules of the Law!  Neither one is essential for our salvation.” Paul himself fueled the controversy because he evangelized the Gentiles as Gentiles, not as Jewish proselytes. To do that he believed and taught that the Law as a rule of life had come to an end for Jewish believers and believing Gentile proselytes to Judaism. The controversy became very personal for Paul when he was wrongly accused by the Jews of turning his back on his Jewish heritage, claiming that he had no more use for the Law of Moses, and that he actually advocated not living by it. Worst of all, they accused him of teaching that it did not matter if you lived a life of sin, because grace covers all sin!

Since Gentile conversions had become more prevalent than Jewish conversions, the issue could not be ignored. In fact, with so many Gentiles being saved and so few Jews becoming Christians, it appeared that a major shift in God’s plan of redemption for mankind was underway. This was extremely confusing to everyone—Gentiles as well as Jews. In the midst of this confusion, suspicion, and rumors Paul wrote Romans. Paul’s letter to the Romans, then, like all other New Testament epistles, is situational. While it rightfully can be called Paul’s treatise on salvation, that treatise is firmly set within the context of the Jew-Gentile controversy, at the center of which was the nature and function of Torah.  A helpful way of reading Romans is to imagine in the background a group of frowning, hostile Jews, ready to jump on anything that Paul says that might be construed negatively toward Judaism in general, and Torah in particular. Now nearing the end of his ministry, Paul has often felt the sting of their opposition. He writes Romans with this group always in his mind, being careful at every opportunity to defend the Gospel and himself against charges of antinominianism and betrayal of Judaism and Torah.

Throughout the first five chapters, with the current controversy in mind, Paul cannot help but lay himself open to the accusation that he has adopted a negative attitude toward Torah. He has had to explain the Gospel vis-à-vis the Law, and in doing so has given the impression that somehow Torah has been linked with sin. Consider how the following statements could have been misinterpreted by this behind-the-scene group of Jewish antagonists who loved their religion and were completely dedicated to observing Torah. To obey Torah was to honor Yahweh; to speak against Torah was to blaspheme him.

  • “for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (3:20a)
  • “for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, neither is there violation” (4:15)
  • “but sin is not imputed when there is not law” (5:13b)
  • “And when the Law came in that the transgression might increase” (5:20a)

Paul was not unaware of how his objectors would react to him repeatedly linking Torah with sin. He knew that at some point in his treatise he would have to explain more fully the relationship between sin, Torah and the Jewish unbeliever. This he does in Romans six through the first part of chapter eight.

The Thematic Context of Romans 6:1-8:17

We can now narrow down our study to the literary unit where 7:14-25 resides, beginning with chapter six and extending into the first half of chapter eight. The trigger that sets off the exclamation in 6:1, “What shall we say then?  . . . By no means!” is Paul’s climactic conclusion to the Adam-Christ contrast of Rom. 5:12-21. With a dramatic flourish, Paul extols the grace of God in saving sinners, both Jew and Gentile. But he does so with an apparent knock against Torah: “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (5:21). Paul’s adversaries now have all the evidence they need to confirm their suspicions about Paul! Did not Paul just say that it does not matter what sins a person commits (“sins”=laws of Torah disobeyed), grace covers them all?  So why not live a dissolute life in violation of Torah? Paul spends two and a half chapters to debunk this notion, explaining how that his Gospel has set the Jew free not only from sin but also, necessarily, from the Law. In so doing, he will make sure that his audience understands that he has never been opposed to the Law. He will explain that the Law’s main problem was that it could only command; it was powerless to produce a godly life. It condemned the sinner; it could not justify the sinner. That was the role of the Spirit through the Gospel.

As mentioned at the outset, one of the mistakes made in interpreting chapter seven is lifting it out of this thematic context. Throughout this section Paul employs a number of thematic contrasts to explain what happens when a Torah-observant Jew believes the Gospel and is saved: old man/new man; bondage/freedom; Law/Spirit; death/life. The nature of these contrasts is important to note. They do not describe the difference between an obedient Christian and a disobedient Christian; they describe the difference between the unsaved (Jews primarily) and the saved. The following chart highlights the contrasting themes that are central to these chapters.

Contrasting Themes in Romans 6:1-8:17

The Realm of Law and Sin(unsaved) The Realm of the Spirit and Righteousness(saved)
Old Man


Alive to sin and

dead to God


A slave to sin and

free from righteousness



New Man


Dead to sin and

alive to God


Free from sin and

a slave to righteousness


Eternal Life

These contrasting themes are very important to recognize. They set the theological background needed to interpret properly any text within these two-and-a-half chapters. As the chart indicates, Paul has not left the general subject of justification (chapters 1-5) to now deal with sanctification. He is still dealing with the subject of justification, now taking the time in these chapters to apply the doctrine in a way that addresses concerns regularly expressed in the ongoing Jew-Gentile controversy.

The larger thematic context of our passage narrows its focus in the specific literary unit that comprises Romans six and seven. While these two chapters remain connected thematically to the first part of chapter eight, they more tightly connect to each other than to chapter eight.


The Literary Unity of Romans 6 and 7

Paul structures Romans 6-7 by means of one of his favorite literary devices, the rhetorical “What then?  May it never be!” or its equivalent. This occurs in the four stages of his argument: 6:1; 6:15; 7:7; 7:13. They serve as subject headings and thus indicate the flow of Paul’s argument throughout these chapters.

6:1 What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?  May it never be!

Inconceivable! Once you die, that is it; no more of that life. We have become new people because of our union with Christ. We died to sin and now we live for the glory of God. So act like the dead (to sin) and the resurrected (to a new life of righteousness) people that you are!

6:15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!

No, the change from living under the Law of Moses to this age of unparalleled grace in Christ provides no basis for a life of sin. Just the opposite is the case. Our life now in this age of “grace” is characterized by righteousness. It is completely different than when we Jews were under the Law.  Then we were slaves to sin; now we are slaves to righteousness.

This section begins with the question, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the Law but under grace?” One would think that the answer, which immediately follows, would say something about the Law of Moses. But Paul does not mention the Law again through the end of chapter six. We must ignore the chapter break in our Bibles; the section carries on into chapter seven, which does deal with the Law.

Paul’s illustration of the married couple in 7:1-6 is one of those illustrations that you don’t want to press too far. Neither the husband nor the wife represents the believer, yet in a way both do. The point is that Jews who have come to embrace Christ have died to both sin and also to the Law and now are freed to live a righteous life for the first time in their experience.

7:7 What shall we say then?  Is the Law sin?  May it never be!

The Law was in no way responsible for the spiritual death of those under it. The only reason that “Law” and “sin” can be thought of together as resulting in spiritual death is that Law made the Jews aware of what sin was. It defined sin. It created new categories of sin. It made it possible to sin in ways that nobody had sinned before. Unfortunately, however, it did nothing to remedy sin, so Jews died in their sin.

Romans 7:7 begins a defense of the Law that will be set forth in two complementary sections, the second being 7:13-25. In 7:7-12 Paul says that the Law cannot be sin, because it reveals the will of God; it tells us (Jews) what is right and what is wrong. He then explains that sin is the real culprit, not the Law. Sin took advantage of the fact that the Law could only command; it could not enable the unsaved Jew to obey it.

7:13 Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me?  May it never be!

No, the Law did a good thing. The Law showed me the right way to go. But without the life that the grace of God provides, I am completely helpless to obey it. Try as I might I cannot do anything right, anything at all that pleases God. I am a slave to sin. So it is sin, and only sin, that kills, not the Law.  The only remedy for this is the freedom from sin and death that the Spirit makes possible.

Romans 7:13-25 restates the thought of 7:7-12, only in more detail and with stronger rhetoric. Paul has to convince his Jewish listeners that he really means it when he says that the Law is not to blame for the present lost condition of the Jews. So 7:13-25 is a very dramatic and persuasive depiction of the process itself, one that should convince Jews that indeed the Law, while not the direct cause of Jews being enslaved in sin and subject to death, was nevertheless the means by which sin enslaved the Jews.

The key to this interpretation of 7:14-25 is to see that the rhetorical question of v. 13 introduces it. The question of v. 13—“Did that which was good [Torah] bring death to me?”—is answered with vv. 14-25. Perhaps one reason for confusion can be credited to our translations. The NASB, for example, inserts a paragraph break between v. 13 and v. 14 with “The Conflict of the Two Natures” at the head of v. 14. The NLT does the same: “Struggling with Sin” heads v. 14. If, however, v. 13 is allowed to stand at the head of this section, in the same way that the three other headings do, then it is readily apparent that the topic of vv. 14-25 is how the Law of Moses related to the spiritual death of the Jews, not the believer’s struggle with the sinful nature.

As the investigation of this passage narrows, focus shifts finally to the passage itself, 7:14-25.  Because it has its own distinctive literary quality, it deserves separate attention.



The Cyclical Structure of Romans 7:14-25[3]


Willsey has observed that Rom. 7:14-25 consists of three confessional cycles, four sections to each cycle.1 Seifrid has noticed the same basic structure.[4] Seifrid understands the passage to be an example of Jewish penitential language, which “invites the reader to the same confession.”[5] Unlike Willsey who sees four sections to each cycle, Seifrid sees three. “The passage should be seen as consisting in three sections, each beginning with a statement of self-knowledge, moving to a narration of behavior and ending with a diagnosis of the egō (“I”) confirming the confession which began the section.”[6] It should be noted that the cyclical structure itself does not support the unregenerate interpretation of this passage, nor does it support the regenerate view. It rather explains why the passage sounds so repetitive; it is designed to be! The repetition of the cycle is a dramatic rhetorical touch by Paul. If it is worth saying once, it is worth saying three times to hammer home the point—total helplessness of the “I” portrayed here. The three sections are vv. 14-17, vv. 18-20, and vv. 21-25.

The “I” and the present tense are the most serious problem facing the unregenerate view. However, they can be explained as Paul’s dramatic way of including his Jewish audience in his argument, or as Seifrid puts it, Paul “invites the reader to the same confession.”

As has been noted, this passage repeats the basic thought expressed in 7:7-12. In that passage, there is no question that Paul is talking about his pre-conversion experience with Torah. He refers to the past, apparently to a time of his childhood or youth in which he came to realize that the Law could only command; it did not provide the power to obey.

If it is objected that according to Paul’s own testimony the sinner does not seek after God or desire to do his will (3:10-18), we must keep in mind that is writing “to those who know the law” (7:1) and desire to live by it. Paul’s description of this desire would not be applicable to a pagan Gentile or a non-practicing, Hellenized Jew; it would be, however, to someone like Paul the Pharisee and his Torah-devoted antagonists.

In each of the three cycles Paul admits to complete inability to do what is right. Not once does he do a single thing that is pleasing to God. While the believer may at times feel this way, this does not accurately describe the struggle to do what is right. At least some of the time the believer does what is right! Or at least it is possible to do what is right. Here it is not only total failure, it is total inability.

The first part of v. 25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” is obviously not the cry of an unsaved Jew. As he rounds out his third cycle of desire and failure, and before he completes it, Paul cannot help himself but to shout out this praise to God for his saving grace. This statement, then, should be viewed as a parenthesis. He will develop this thought with the first part of chapter eight, but he first must finish the third cycle. This he does in the second half of v. 25 with a summary statement of the whole process that he has been describing since v. 14: “So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”

In conclusion, to summarize Paul in Romans 6 and 7: “We Christians cannot think to live sinful lives for the simple reason that the old life in sin is forever gone; a new life pleasing to God has taken its place. We are now happy slaves to righteousness whereas before we were slaves to sin and dead spiritually. The change from the age of the Law to the age of Spirit has made this possible. That’s because the Law only killed, whereas the Spirit gives life. Please don’t misunderstand me! I’m not suggesting that the Law itself was in any way evil, or that the Law itself killed anybody. Sin took advantage of the fact that the Law could only condemn us and not save us. Sin used the Law as an unwitting partner in damning us Jews to hell. It was sin, not the Law that killed. Because of the Spirit’s life-giving ministry, however, all this is changed. We can now live a life of righteousness, gladly doing the will of God, and no longer under the domination and condemnation of sin.”  [Amen!]

[1] See article at http://blogs.corban.edu/ministry/index.php/2011/10/spirit-powered-living-a-positive-interpretation-of-galatians-516-18/

[2] Paul’s series of “I” statements will be addressed later in this article.

[3] Jack K. Willsey, “A Textbook for the Study of Romans” (D. Min. diss., Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, 1989), 200-01.

[4] Mark A. Siefrid, “The Subject of Rom 7:13-25.” Novum Testamentum 34 (October 1992), 327.

[5] Ibid., 326.

[6] Ibid.

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Book Review: Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate

Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate

By Benjamin Reaoch

Phillipsburge, NJ: P&R Publishing 2012


Reviewed by Gary Derickson, Ph.D.

Professor of Biblical Studies

Corban School of Ministry


Not only is our world changing, but our theological world is quickly following suit. New hermeneutical methods are being employed by those departing from a traditional evangelical understanding of both Scripture’s meaning and authority to speak directly to our lives. An example of this is an approach to interpreting Scripture called the Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic. To better understand both the hermeneutical approach and the dangers they represents, one must read through this work carefully and prayerfully.

Benjamin Reaoch informs us that when Egalitarian theologians found that they could not exegetically refute the arguments of their Complementarian opponents, that they resorted to a new hermeneutic to overcome the problem. Recognizing that the New Testament authors intended to define the roles of women in the church and in the home in what we today call a complementarian way, they sought an approach that could relegate those clear commands to being culturally bound and so no longer relevant. The Redemptive-Movement hermeneutic met this need. This hermeneutic seeks to “move us beyond the specific instructions of the Bible and toward an ultimate ethic” (Benjamin Reaoch, xvii).

Reaoch begins his evaluation of the hermeneutic by noting that Egalitarians are attempting to make their issue parallel to the slavery issue. They argue that, though the Bible never condemned slavery, Paul’s instructions to slaves was moving toward its rejection. It was the implications of those teachings that led to the later abolition of slavery. Their point is that as slavery was eventually abolished, women should be similarly “freed” from the Bible’s clear teaching of their subordinate role in the home and church (xviii).

Chapter 1 introduces us to the basics of the Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic, which was built from an assumption that their understanding of Galatians 3:28 formed the foundation from which all other Scriptures should be interpreted. Further, the New Testament’s failure to specifically reject slavery or women’s subordination was a result of its being culturally bound (reflecting the culture of its day) and therefore no longer relevant to today (3-5). Thus the biblical commands must be understood based on the culture (and its assumptions) from which they arose. To the extent that culture has changed, those commands become less and less relevant (6-7).

Some of the significant issues addressed in this book with regard to the debate and the Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic surround “the similarities and differences between the slavery texts and the women’s texts” (10). Reaoch excels in defining and demonstrating those very comparisons in a fair manner in which he readily admits to ambiguities as well as clear distinctions, strengths and weaknesses, even in his own views. He responds well to their attempt to make the two issues analogous. He notes, “The complementarian position observes a fundamental distinction between the slavery issue and the issue of women’s roles. The Bible does not, in fact, condone slavery. Rather, it regulates it and points to its demise. Regarding women, on the other hand, we find instructions that are rooted in the creation order and therefore transcend culture.” (13)

Chapter 2 provides us with Reaoch’s evaluation of the New Testament teaching on slavery in response to the Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic. His discussion of Greco-Roman slavery as opposed to modern forms is very helpful. Further, he addresses the five passages where slaves are commanded to obey masters and notes the commands to masters as well. He admits in the process, “Theological analogy is not conclusive in determining whether a text s transcultural.” (31) Though I found his discussion very enlightening, I don’t agree with everything he says with regard to commands to slaves and how those commands might help determine the Bible’s view of women. However, his is a great example of exegesis and applied hermeneutics in responding to the Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic.

In the next chapter Reaoch interacts with seven passages related to women and wives. He notes such things as “ground” clauses that give the basis of the commands and provide contextual clues as to how they apply today as well as in the first century. These are very helpful discussions in discerning the differences between the slave issue and women’s issues then and now. I found his explanation of Paul’s command to silence in 1 Corinthians 14 insightful and helpful, possibly the most defendable position yet (63-66).

Reaoch’s work continues in this vein throughout, providing a balanced, non-combative evaluation of the hermeneutic with sufficient examples to help us understand. Each chapter is weighty and requires further thought to fully understand the details and implications.

It is clear that students and teachers of Scripture need to be aware of this approach and how to respond to it, lest we see the authority of Scripture continue to be eroded in our churches, colleges, and seminaries. This seems like another method by which theologians can continue to call themselves inerrantists and evangelicals while dismissing those passages that do not fit with their lifestyles or theological grid. To protect ourselves and the next generation from this error, we must learn to recognize and respond to it effectively. Otherwise, as Reaoch notes that it is now being used in the Gay-Lesbian debate, it will be used by others as well to justify their lifestyles even when Scripture speaks clearly to the contrary. This book helps us meet those coming challenges.

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Book Review: A Better Way: Making Disciples Wherever Life Happens

Review: A Better Way: Making Disciples Wherever Life Happens

Author:  Dale Losch

Reviewed by Paul Johnson, D.Min.

Assistant Professor of Intercultural Studies

Corban School of Ministry


Dale Losch, veteran missionary and President of the mission agency CrossWorld, believes that there is a better, more effective way to make disciples of all nations. He is concerned that the traditional way of sending missionaries to make disciples of the unreached is not sufficient to accomplish this massive task. Although Losch understands that many believers and churches want to impact the unreached for Christ, he advocates for a better way — the sending of disciple-makers from all professions to reach the lost. Losch calls upon the church and mission enterprise to pursue the dream of seeing disciple-makers from all professions bring God’s love to life in the world’s least-reached marketplaces.[1]

Losch notes that the traditional practice of having a person attend seminary, apply to a mission agency, raise the required financial support, and then become a full-time religious worker, may actually be keeping many legitimate disciple-makers from considering cross-cultural ministry. Losch sees a large, motivated and untapped source of godly men and women who desire to engage the unreached but not through the well-known, standard process followed by most mission agencies. However, Losch believes that the challenges involved in reaching the unreached require that we reexamine and adjust our strategy to more effectively make-disciples and promote church planting.[2] Losch is not suggesting abandoning the old model of sending fully funded, long-term missionaries. Rather, he suggest that a new model be pursued where the whole body of Christ can be engaged in a way that connects with the needs and lives of the lost in the world’s least-reached marketplaces.

Losch defines a disciple as, “one who is learning to live and love like Jesus and helps others to do the same.” In chapters 3-6, Losch argues convincingly that the making of reproducing disciples is the priority of Christ mission. However, by focusing on the product (the church) at the expense of the process (disciple-making) the method and practice of traditional missionaries often complicates and limits the effectiveness of global mission strategies.[3]

Loush also claims that the concept of a unique “call” required for “fulltime ministry” has wrongfully communicated “to 99 percent of Jesus’ followers that there are two classes of Christians – those ‘called to ministry’ and everyone else. He explains how the Western mission enterprise has traditionally limited the disciple-making mandate almost exclusively to full-time religious professionals, while Jesus ‘clear mandate is for all believers to be disciple-makers. This focus on vocational missionaries has sidelined many potential disciple-makers, resulting in the ratio of cross-cultural workers to the total evangelical population of roughly 1:1,000.[4] Losch believes mission efforts must readdress the great challenges of reaching the unreached by mobilizing disciple-making professionals for the world’s least-reached marketplaces.

Compelling examples are given of how professionals are using their experiences and skills in business, tourism, education, community development, etc., to make disciples for Christ in restricted access countries.[5] Losch notes how relationships established through the daily activities of life have great impact. Through their professions, disciple-makers can share their beliefs and engage people in the context of the normal activities of life. Losch believes that the most strategic places for marketplace disciple-makers is in the growing urban areas of the world. Mission agencies that equip disciple makers “in the world’s least-reached urban marketplaces” can bring lasting change in a country through making disciples in influential cities.[6]


Losch is convinced that “if we are to have any hope of discipling the billions of still-to-be-reached people of this world, it will take far more than the full-time ministry model of the past. It will take a host of uniquely gifted and courageous men and women who will rise to the challenge in new ways.”[7] Losch is quick to add that the sending of professionals as disciple-makers to the unreached is in no way an effort to discontinue the traditional practice of sending full-time, supported missionaries. Vocational missionaries are still needed as they partner with professionals to reach the unreached.


A Better Way provides a much-needed challenge to strengthen the Western mission enterprise with a biblical model that mobilizes every believer and their skills, talents and professional training with the disciple-making priority of Jesus. In A Better Way, people from all walks of life and professions can discover a better way to impact and reach the lost, through building real-life relationships through living and working among the unreached.

[1] Dale Losch, A Better Way: Make Disciples Wherever Life Happens (Kansas City, MO: UFM International, Inc. DBA Crossworld, 2012), Preface.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 13.

[4] Ibid., 15.

[5] Ibid., 102

[6] Ibid., 91-92.

[7] Ibid., 104

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Picking Up the Pieces

A quick glance at the headlines, a short listen to the water cooler, a look around most communities. It doesn’t take much to reveal that our world is broken. Frayed around the edges and crumbled at its core. We’d be tempted to turn from current news programs to vintage cartoons, except Bluto keeps trying to crush Popeye. There’s no hiding from our world’s brokenness; pieces are everywhere.

Each year the faculty and students at Corban focus on a theme. Themes are chosen for their foundational role in a biblical worldview. We have centered on authority and truth as well as creation in past years. This year our focus is the Fall and its fallout. Though the subject can be depressing, it is central. Only the Fall explains why such a marvelous creation suffers so now. Only the Fall illuminates why redemption is so incredible.

Dedicated has taken an edition each fall to share some of the reflections of Corban scholars on the annual theme. This issue we look at four elements of the Fall.

Professors Alan Scharn (Criminal Justice) and Allen Jones (Biblical Studies) have teamed to bring historical and biblical insight to the subject of imprisonment. What they uncover may surprise you as they explore the purposes behind imprisonment.

Professor Gary Derickson surveys the usage of nekros (dead) in the New Testament. He focuses on the figurative usages of the term to help define its proper meaning in crucial passages on faith.

Professor Tim Anderson examines what the Fall has done to our personal relationship with God. He reveals some of the barriers sin has built that have blocked our intimacy with God.

Professor Collette Tennant (Humanities) shares a portrait through her poetic skills, beautifully exposing our fallen desires and their true identity.

A special bonus in this issue are two video presentations by Dr. Mark Yarhouse, Christian psychologist and expert on ministering to those struggling with homosexuality. The links are to his chapel presentation and to his pastor forum.

In our book reviews, Mark Jacobson reviews Slow Church by Smith and Pattison. If you’re weary of the “McDonaldization” of ministry by the megaministries today, you’ll enjoy this challenging and refreshing perspective. Gary Derickson reviews The Crucified King by Treat. Dr. Derickson critiques what he considers a classic and clear treatment of Reformed hermeneutics.

If you put the paper down, weary of all the bad news, take heart. It’s not the last edition.

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God, the Fall, and Prison: Opportunities for Engagement in a Sin Struck World

I.  Introduction

If we were to claim that America’s prison system is fraught with problems and plagued by difficulties, it is likely that no one would object.  Public opinion has come to associate prisons with overcrowding, racial disparity, human debasement, and with an inability to accomplish a core purpose – the reduction and prevention of criminal activity.  Whether one operates from a Christian worldview, one that hopes in the idea of human redemption, or from a secular-humanistic perspective, there is broad agreement that our prison system is failing to do what we intend for it.[1]  Yet, despite our general cynicism toward the prison system, there is also a partial antipathy ascribed, at times fairly, to persons with conservative leanings, many of whom come from evangelical Christianity.  On a practical level, we want state and federal systems to keep us safe from harm and injustice by removing violent and malicious criminals from society.  If this swells our prison population, so be it.  After all, the criminal is the person who chose to commit a crime.  Further, on an ideological level, there is a sense that it is liberals, both secular and Christian, who would push for prison reform.  Efforts to shorten prison sentences, to introduce treatment plans, or to use diversion programs must stem from a belief in human perfectibility and evolutionary progression that does not give credence to depravity and sin.  To be soft on crime is to lessen the gravity of sin, both at the level of specific infractions and at the higher level of humanity’s sin nature.

Clearly, these are complicated and thorny issues with which to deal, and it would be wrong for us to claim that the solutions are simple.  Our world does not need more trite answers.  However, as persons living under the call of God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit, we do recognize our cultural mandate.  Jesus calls us to be salt and light in the world (Matt 5:13-16), and one way to do this is by facing the problem of sin, particularly as it relates to our practice of dealing with sin by incarcerating offenders.  Thus, in this essay, we will proceed by examining the idea of imprisonment from two perspectives: from a modern perspective by considering the history of prisons and current practices in the state of Oregon, and from a biblical perspective.  To close, we will offer our thoughts on how a biblical perspective can engage the reality of prison as it stands in our community.


II. Imprisonment: Development and Current Practices

While it may come as a surprise to most, the practice of imprisonment has undergone drastic reformation over the past 200-300 years.  Humans have imprisoned other humans since ancient times, but in each era religion, sociology, psychology, political policy, and matters of practicality combine in various ways to influence what a community means to accomplish through its detention system.  In what follows, we will briefly outline the evolution of imprisonment practices, and then we will discuss what the state of Oregon is currently doing with its correctional facilities.


A. Prison: A Short Modern History

Scholars in the field of Criminal Justice trace the concept of prison or imprisonment as far back as the 5th cent. B.C., but it is important to recognize that the original purpose of imprisonment was not to punish criminals.[2]  Rather, prisons existed to detain an alleged perpetrator until the community could determine their guilt or innocence.  If a person was cleared, they went free.  If they were found guilty, the actual punishment would follow.[3]  Imprisonment provided a practical means of keeping the accused on hand for trial and to receive the prescribed punishment.  This ancient system of justice is quite similar to certain aspects of our modern criminal justice system.  People who are arrested for serious crimes must wait in custody at county jails until the adjudication of their case.

Through the centuries, societies and individuals have developed various theoretical concepts of laws, of crime, and of punishment.  However, it is not until the 17th and 18th cents. A.D., the Colonial Era, that incarceration began to stand as a form of punishment in its own right.  In this period, the Anglican code provided the legal framework for the western world and allowed for capital punishment, corporal punishment, fines, and exile to designated penal colonies for offenders.  Thus, the British government established prison colonies in America, Australia, and Tasmania.[4]  In this way, there was a wedding of religious and social law where we begin to see the early structures of our modern corrections system.[5]  Popular sentiment at this time saw the death penalty as too severe for anything but serious offenses.  Hard labor was a better fit for minor crimes, and proponents of the penal colony system saw it as an effective tool to deal with crime for two reasons; a) it removed the criminal from society, and b) it acted as a deterrent to future criminal behavior.

Toward the later part of the 18th cent., known as the Penitentiary Era in the field of Criminal Justice, penal reformers like John Howard and Jeremy Bentham began to argue for changes in society’s detention practices.  These men were on the cutting edge of penal reform by suggesting that prisons should rely on paid employees, that each prisoner should receive an appropriate diet of food, that inspectors ought to evaluate facilities, and that men and women should stay in separate facilities.  These efforts resulted in a more equitable system of punishment for offenders, in better living conditions inside prison facilities, and in better treatment of inmates by their wardens.  At this time, Bentham also designed a new style of prison house, which we know as the Panopticon.  His structure “allowed a centrally placed observer to survey all the inmates.”[6]  It featured cell blocks radiating out from a central point where a single guard could monitor inmate behavior.  Bentham’s design became the standard for prison construction over the next 50 years.[7]  It was during this period that the United States opened its first prison, the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, designed to incarcerate “sentenced offenders” with the purpose of reformation as its “primary objective.”[8]  Richard Seiter explains that “inmates were expected to read the Bible, reflect on their wrongdoing, and do penance for their crimes.”[9]  For these reasons, such centers came to be known as penitentiaries.

In the first half of the 19th cent., capital punishment continued to decline in use, and the so called shaming sanctions, such as the medieval stockade, also fell out of favor.[10]  Throughout the rest of the 19th cent. and early 20th cent., the Reformatory Era, religious groups such as the Evangelicals and Quakers were responsible for moving prison policy away from the notion of punitive punishment and toward rehabilitation through “personal redemption.”[11]  Other aspects of the Reformatory Era featured a greater awareness of social, economic, psychological and political influences affecting crime.[12]  Reformers pushed for education and vocational programs to prepare inmates for life after prison.[13]

From the early 1900s to around 1935, the United States experienced a 170% growth in its prison population.  This sparked the Industrial Era of prison practice, where prison organizations would use inmates to produce goods which the prison could sell on the open market.  This practice mirrored the contemporary context with the growth of factory labor, but officials quickly ran afoul of labor unions who objected to the free inmate labor that prisons could utilize.[14]  After the unions successfully lobbied for new laws restricting competition with prison-made products, thousands of inmates were suddenly idle, leaving prison administrators with a dilemma.  Prisons that had been built for manufacturing abruptly lost the demand for their products.[15]  Thus, prisons in the U.S. went through major transitions from 1935-1960.  With overcrowding, an unoccupied workforce of inmates, and a lack of programs to keep them engaged, frequent riots broke out in prisons across the country.  This period also marked the end of the “hands-off doctrine” which “restricted judicial intervention in the operations of prison.”[16]  This opened the floodgates of legal cases filed by inmates in federal and lower courts demanding better living conditions and an end to cruel and unusual punishment.[17]

In the 1970s and 1980s, the crime rate in the United States rose to historic levels, changing the political landscape.  Public officials felt pressure to find new solutions to age old problems of crime control and prison overcrowding. During this time, corrections began to move away from a rehabilitation model of imprisonment to, as Todd Clear and George Cole say, “crime control through incarceration and risk containment.”[18]  New tough on crime laws were passed with “determinate sentencing” intended to “incarcerate offenders for longer periods of time.”[19]  Judges were less likely to grant bail to offenders accused of serious crimes and were mandated to impose maximum penalties on career criminals convicted of certain crimes.  Many states also reinstituted capital punishment at this time.  In Oregon, the rise in crime manifested itself, in part, by the migration of criminal street gangs from California into Oregon’s larger cities.  Oregon responded by implementing policies and laws specifically targeting gang activity, which they followed with aggressive prosecution at the federal, state, and local levels.  On a national scale, the more punitive philosophy of crime and punishment that arose in the 1970s and which has carried through to the present day, has led to an explosion in prison populations and in prison construction.  However, faced with the unsustainable price tag of the tough on crime policies, officials are once again looking for ways to better manage our criminal justice system.


B.  Current Practice in the State of Oregon

Oregon’s solution to the perplexing dilemma of crime and punishment in an era of crime control is the Oregon Accountability Model (OAM).  The OAM is designed to reduce recidivism by incorporating new policies, programs, and community partnerships prioritizing the use of empirical research and measurable results.  The OAM, according to the state’s site, has six components, which, when woven together “strengthens [its] ability to hold inmates/offenders accountable for their actions.”[20]  The components are Criminal Risk Factor Assessment and Case Planning, Staff/Inmate Interactions, Work and Programing, Children and Families, Re-entry, and Community Supervision and Programming.[21]

Criminal Risk Factor Assessment and Case Planning assesses each individual who enters Department of Corrections (DOC) custody for risks and needs.  After meeting with an offender, a social worker creates a customized plan of programs and services, which provides a roadmap to success.  Persons with substance abuse issues will receive drug and alcohol treatment.  Persons with anger problems can receive anger management counseling.

Emerging research in criminal recidivism is suggesting that Staff/Inmate Interactions are also key to assisting inmates in learning pro-social behaviors.  Thus, prison staff receive training in using the 3 R’s: Role Modeling – create a pro-social learning environment for inmates; Reinforcement – reinforce pro-social behavior; Redirection – intervene and redirect anti-social behavior.[22]

Oregon’s Ballot Measure 17, the Prison Reform and Inmate Work Act of 1994, mandated that all inmates work full-time or be engaged in programs such as education, alcohol and drug treatment, mental health services, religious services, and/or cognitive classes.  This constitutes the Work and Programming aspect of the OAM.  Work opportunities include employment with Oregon Corrections Enterprises (OCE). The OCE is a prison industries organization, affiliated with the Oregon DOC, where inmates manufacture select products that other agencies then use in their programs around the state.  Other work opportunities include institution-based small businesses, community work crews, and community service projects.[23]

Research has also shown that keeping inmates connected with their children and families helps decrease the number of behavioral problems within the institutions, makes re-entry into the community easier, and reduces recidivism dramatically after release.[24]  Thus, an inmate can receive regular visits from family members, and prison facilities incorporate equipment for play and interaction.

The goal of the OAM’s Re-entry component is to create a “bridge or link” for an inmate with their new community outside of prison.  This begins with a “reach in” by parole and probation, presently called Community Corrections Officers, working with inmates on a release plan which may address needs like housing, employment and education.[25]

Finally, Community Supervision and Programming works to keep the community safe by monitoring the conditions of a former inmate’s supervision and by holding them accountable for violations.  Post prison programming includes, alcohol and drug treatment, mental health and sex offender treatment, domestic violence treatment, drug courts, cognitive restructuring, and anger management training.[26]

Although the OAM is a secular-based program, it clearly has high ideals that are in step with religious and moral principles.  Repentance and redemption are key concepts in the model’s efforts to change anti-social behavior and to help rebuild the individual and their community. Oregon’s low rate of recidivism and proven success with the OAM suggest that this approach to prison practice is an effective way to address crime and its effects in our society.

The modern history of imprisonment reveals that imprisonment as a means of punishment has been a relatively late introduction, within the last three hundred years. Early imprisonment served to hold a prisoner until just punishment could be administered. Current trends in the penal system reveal a priority in reforming and restoring criminals as a part of imprisonment.


III. Imprisonment: Biblical Data

As we transition from current practices of imprisonment to the Scriptures, our study will proceed in two steps.  First, we will briefly describe a few of the prototypical cases of imprisonment in the Bible.  This will include both why humans imprison other humans, as well as why God may imprison humans.  Second, we will consider in depth how God uses imprisonment in Isa 40-55 as a tool for redemption.

A. Exemplary Cases

As one might expect, the imprisonment practices that we observe in the Bible largely accord with a pre-modern perspective on prisons.  Typically, authorities held a person in prison only until they can determine the subject’s innocence or guilt.  Perhaps the most commonly known examples of such detention come from the Joseph narratives in Genesis.  By the time we reach ch. 40, Joseph’s brothers have already sold him into slavery in Egypt, and Potiphar’s wife has arranged for his unjust imprisonment.[27]  At the beginning of the chapter, the narrator explains that two of Pharaoh’s attendants – his cupbearer and his baker – have offended him, and so they land in prison with Joseph (vv. 1-3).[28]  These three remain incarcerated for an undisclosed amount of time (ויהיו ימים) (v. 4), after which, Pharaoh metes out his justice.  The text does not reveal the reasoning behind Pharaoh’s decisions, but, in accordance with Joseph’s predictions (vv. 12-13, 18-19), Pharaoh clears and reinstates his cupbearer, and he executes his baker (vv. 21-22).

In the wilderness narratives of the Pentateuch, we find two more cases that are similar to what we see in the Joseph stories.  On separate occasions, two men, for whom the text does not give names, transgress laws that Yahweh has given to Moses.  In the first case, a man uses God’s name in a curse (Lev 24:10-11), which violates Exod 22:27.[29]  In the second case, a man chooses to gather wood on the Sabbath (Num 15:32), which violates Exod 31:13-17.  In both cases, the community is not sure of what to do with the offender, and so they detain each (ויניחהו במשׁמר Lev 24:12; ויניחו אתו במשׁמר Num 15:34) until they can hear from Yahweh.  He deems that each man is guilty of a capital offense, but for our purposes it is sufficient to note that the actual imprisonment is simply a necessary step in determining guilt.  It is not a form of punishment in its own right.[30]  Had the community known how to act in these situations, there would have been no need to hold these men.[31]

Whereas the preceding examples deal with humans detaining other humans, there is also a case of God incarcerating persons for the purpose of deciding their punishment.[32]  Isaiah 24:21 describes a day in which Yahweh will bring judgment on “the high host in the height, and on the kings of the ground.”[33]  Verse 22 goes on to explain that these parties, “are gathered as a collection of prisoners into a pit – they are shut up in a dungeon,” and “after many days, they will be judged.”[34]  Calvin suggests that this imprisonment is intended to, “plunge [the host and kings] into darkness and filth, and gradually wear them out, in order to subdue their obstinacy,” but this fails to account for the temporal clause at the end of the verse.[35]  Yahweh will first detain his enemies, and then he will come at an undisclosed time following their detention to judge them.[36]  Walter Brueggemann appears closer to the sense of the verse when he sees incarceration for Yahweh’s enemies, “and then an even more ominous unspecified punishment.”[37]  Yahweh’s enemies may have to wait “many days” (מרב ימים), but they can expect a separate dispensation of judgment when Yahweh decides.[38]  Thus, again, we find the distinction between imprisonment and punishment.[39]

Before moving on to the concept of imprisonment in Isa 40-55, there is one, puzzling passage in Ezra to consider.  In ch. 7, the narrative introduces Ezra and describes his relationship to the restoration community.  Ezra is a descendant of Aaron, Israel’s first high priest (vv. 1-5), and a skilled scribe himself (v. 6).  Further to our point, the narrator also explains that Yahweh has influenced king Artaxerxes so that he would support Ezra’s work in rebuilding Judah (v. 6).  This cooperation leads the king to give Ezra a charge in vv. 25-26 before he sets out for Jerusalem:

And you, Ezra, by the wisdom of your god that is in your hand, appoint leaders and judges who are to be judges for all the people who are beyond the river, that they may know the laws of your god, and if one does not know them, you may teach him.  Any who does not do the law of your god or the law of the king – diligently, let judgment be done to him because of it, if death, if corporal punishment, if confiscation of property, or if imprisonment.[40]


In the closing list of authorized punishments, we are familiar with capital punishment, corporal punishment, and confiscation of property (cf. Exod 21:12, 15-17, 29; Deut 25:1-3; Exod 22:1-15), but the use of imprisonment to induce law-keeping is surprising.[41]  Sensing this irregularity, a number of commentators have referred this stipulation to Persian law.  Joseph Blenkinsopp is representative of this solution when he says, “imprisonment was not part of Israelite penal law…it seems that the Persian penal code was invoked even for infractions of traditional Jewish law.”[42]  However, Blenkinsopp et al. do not give any evidence of this practice in ancient Persia.[43]  Surely this indicates the need for further research, but at this point it is sufficient to see that, at least during the Restoration period, the ancient Judeans did see imprisonment as a possible form of discipline.  It is unclear, though, if the community ever actually maintained a prison population.  In the Ezra story, we only see Ezra threaten the loss of property for those who refuse to follow his reforms (Ezra 10:7-8).[44]

We can see that while the ancient Israelites did have practices and policies for imprisonment, they do not appear to have used prison as a primary form of punishment.  Generally, prisons held accused persons so the authorities could decide their fate.  Where Ezra appears to offer a counter example, it is unclear if this is a novelty that came from Persian culture, or if the Restoration community ever actually followed the practice.

B. Prison, The Servant, and Redemption

As we turn to the book of Isaiah, we will proceed in two steps.  First, we will consider the function of chs. 40-55 in relation to the material that precedes it.  Second, we will discuss those passages in chs. 40-55 that deal with prison/imprisonment.  This will also entail significant discussion of the Servant of the Lord, as this figure plays a prominent role in all three passages dealing with prison/imprisonment.

1.  Isaiah 40-55

In the past century, there has been much discussion over how Isaiah came to exist in the form that we have it today, but we will not enter into that debate at this time.  Rather, we will only review a few of the literary features from Isa 40-55 in relation to the wider book, as this is what is relevant to our current study.  For those who are interested in the literary history of Isaiah, we suggest the literature below.[45]

In Isa 1-35, there is a clear perspective describing God’s judgment as a future reality.  If Israel will engage with Yahweh and acknowledge its sin problem, he is willing to forgive and start anew (Isa 1:18).[46]  If, however, Israel continues to sin and reject the prophetic message, then Yahweh will bring judgment in the form of an Assyrian invasion (Isa 8:6-8).  Thus, in ch. 32, Yahweh’s warning sounds an ominous note for the nation when he foresees an abandoned city and the cessation of rejoicing (vv. 9-14).  Judging by chs. 1-35, it appears that the nation will not repent.  It is destined for military defeat.

This is in stark contrast to a number of features in Isa 40-55.  First, while Assyria is the military threat in chs. 1-35 (cf. chs. 8, 36), Babylon assumes the role of the adversary in chs. 40-55 (cf. Isa 43:14; 47:1; 48:14, 20).[47]  Second, it seems as if God’s judgment has already come on the nation, and now it is the time for restoration.  In ch. 47, Yahweh castigates Babylon for its harsh treatment of his people (v. 6) and warns of their coming judgment (v. 9).  This, however, assumes that Judah has already gone into exile in Babylon and that it is time for the return to Jerusalem (cf. Ezra 1-2).  Third, in conjunction with the previous point, there is a marked turn toward comforting the people in chs. 40-55 as compared with chs. 1-35.  God still has to correct his people at times (cf. Isa 42:18-25; 43:22-24), but he also tells them to forget the former things (i.e. judgment) because he is doing a new thing (i.e. bringing restoration) (cf. Isa 42:9; 43:18-19; 48:3-14).[48]

With this brief review in mind, we need also to give attention to the literary function of Isa 40:1-2 with regard to the rest of chs. 40-55.  In a close reading of the verses, we see the command go out from God to comfort his people and for his messengers to speak tenderly to Jerusalem (Isa 40:1-2aα), for the nation’s striving is completed and its penalty for iniquity is concluded (Isa 40:2aβ).[49]  This change in God’s disposition toward the nation has come about because the people have received their punishment from Yahweh (Isa 40:2b).  In this way, vv. 1-2 provide a global perspective on what comes in the following chapters.[50]  Isaiah 40-55 is God’s argument to his people for why they should be obedient and trust that he has their best interests in mind, particularly by leading them out of exile and back to their home land.  God is working to restore their covenant relationship, and Isa 40:1-2 encapsulates what his prophetic message will accomplish.  The nation has languished in exile for long enough, and now chs. 40-55 – God’s statement of release from exile – are his comforting words to his people.  Thus, it is the nation’s experience in exile that sets the context for chs. 40-55, and which helps us to understand any of the text’s references to prison/imprisonment.

2.  Imprisonment and the Servant in Isaiah 40-55

In Isa 40-55, there are three passages that have vocabulary related to detention and incarceration.  Coincidentally, each of these passages also deals with the enigmatic Servant of the Lord, so, in each of the following three sections, we will examine what the text has to say about prison/imprisonment and how the Servant interacts with these matters.

a.  Isaiah 42:7

Our first case appears in Isa 42:7, where Yahweh says that he has appointed his servant, “to lead out the prisoner from the dungeon – those dwelling in darkness from the prison house.”  However, we must set this passage in the context of its chapter to grasp its full sense.  In Isa 42:1, Yahweh sets forth his servant (עבדי), whom he has chosen (בחירי).  This reference recalls similar vocabulary in Isa 41:8-9 where God identifies Israel as his servant (עבדי), the one whom he has chosen (בחרתיך).[51]  Assuming that Israel continues to be the referent in this passage, we see that Yahweh has called the nation to bring justice to the gentile nations (Isa 42:1b) and even to be a light to them (Isa 42:6).[52]  Verse 7, then, goes on to describe what this ministry will be like: Israel is to reach out to the nations, making the blind to see and setting the captives free.

The chapter moves on from this point to discuss Yahweh’s preeminence, but we can draw two conclusions for our study.  First, we should note that vv. 6-7 employ multiple metaphors to describe a greater reality.  Yahweh is not saying that Israel will take on bioluminescence for the sake of the nations, and in this way they will enable them to see.  Rather, the idea of being a light evokes images both of salvation and instruction.[53]  If this is the case, then we should likely consider the prison language in v. 7 to be metaphoric as well.  The appositional equation of those in the prison house with those who sit in darkness in the closing hemistich shows that imprisonment is a figural condition.  Second, it is also important to note that it is the gentile nations that are imprisoned in this passage, not Judah.  This is significant for our study because Isa 40-55 has Judah’s punishment and exile in view.  If the gentile nations are in prison, it raises questions about how they got there and the purpose of their imprisonment.  If this were a typical case of imprisonment, we would expect Israel to arrive as a judge to decide the gentiles’ innocence or guilt.  This would accord with our understanding of imprisonment in ancient Israel, but this is not Israel’s role.  Instead, they are to enlighten and save the nations.  If, however, we consider this imprisonment as a metaphoric reality, perhaps we should understand it in relation to the paired metaphor of blindness.  As Claus Westermann suggests, blindness and imprisonment are examples of human suffering, which Israel comes to relieve.[54]  Rather than being a place of decision, in this passage prison is a condition that highlights the need for salvation.  Like blindness, its woeful state directs a person to the possibility of relief in God’s mission.

b.  Isaiah 42:22

If Israel is Yahweh’s chosen servant, sent to liberate gentile nations from their suffering in Isa 42:7, we find a dramatic reversal by the time we reach Isa 42:22.  In v. 18, Yahweh addresses the deaf (החרשׁים) and the blind (העורים) commanding them to hear and to see, and we might assume that he is referring to the gentile nations.  This would pick up their earlier description as blind and in need of light (vv. 6-7; see also v. 16) and would seem to add deafness to their list of maladies.  However, in the following verse, a series of rhetorical questions reveal that it is Israel that is in view.  Yahweh asks, “who is blind (עור), but my servant (עבדי), and who is deaf (חרשׁ) but my messenger that I send?  Who is blind (עור) like the one who is made at peace, blind (עור) like the servant (עבד) of Yahweh?”[55] (Isa 42:19)  Apparently, though Yahweh had intended for Israel to heal and release the nations, they are in an even worse physical state.  They are blind and deaf.[56]  This serves as an explanation of the nation’s current condition which comes in v. 22.  On account of their sins, Israel is a nation, “spoiled and plundered – all of them trapped in holes and hidden away in prison houses” (Isa 42:22a).  Furthermore, the text says, “they are spoil with no one to deliver, plunder with none to say, ‘Go back!’” (Isa 42:22b).  Israel was supposed to be an agent of release and deliverance, but now, the same fate that they came to relieve has befallen them.[57]

Considering the importance of this exchange for our study, we should begin yet again by acknowledging the metaphoric nature of these images.  J. Alec Motyer and Westermann both note that Judah’s experience in exile was, to the extent that we are aware, less severe than these images describe.[58]  The Judeans were able to settle together in communities in Babylon, and they engaged in a range of economic activities while in exile.[59]  This does not, however, undermine the power of the images.  By referring to Judah’s exile as an imprisonment, this passage makes the concept abstract and continues to push the reader to understand prison in new terms.  It directs our attention to broader questions related to the circumstances and purpose of Judah’s time in exile.  In this light, it is interesting that vv. 24-25 expressly ground Judah’s exile – their metaphoric imprisonment – in Yahweh.  Verse 24 opens with a rhetorical question, “Who gave Jacob up to be plunder and Israel to despoilers?” and then answers, “Was it not Yahweh?”  On account of their sins, Yahweh had, “poured out the heat of his anger,” on the people (Isa 42:25).[60]  We should not, though, categorize this passage with Isa 24:22 as a case of detention awaiting decision.[61]  Judah’s violations of God’s laws were numerous and evident to all (cf. Isa 42:24bα; 2 Kgs 24:19-20).  Rather, we would do better to compare Judah’s experience with exile to the gentiles’ experience earlier in the passage.  Israel was intended to relieve suffering like one would find in prisoners, but now they find themselves in the same situation.  In the same way, then, their suffering ought to direct them toward their need for salvation.  Like the gentiles who were helpless to remedy their condition, so Judah is also in need of a savior, one who can release them from their bondage.

c.  Isaiah 49:9

The final occurrence of prison language in Isa 40-55 appears in Isa 49:9a.  Yahweh is addressing his servant and explains that he has commissioned him, “to say to the imprisoned ones ‘Come out!’ – to those in the darkness, ‘Be revealed!’”  Yet, as has been the case in the previous two passages, we must set this verse within the growing concept of the servant in these chapters.  Only then can we understand the scope and significance of the servant’s actions.

In Isa 42, we saw the unraveling of Israel’s mission to proclaim release for the gentiles (v. 7) to the point that they too are bound and held in prisons (v. 22).  Not only did this turn of events link Israel’s experience to that of the gentiles, but it also began to raise doubts about the nation’s effectiveness in the role of God’s servant.  This theme resurfaces in Isa 48, where the text accuses the nation of false devotion (v. 1).  In the past Israel was unfaithful to God (v. 4), and even under exile, they have neither heard nor understood what God was doing (v. 8a).  All of this comes about because, as God accuses, “I have known that you would be treacherous, and that you have been called a rebel from the womb” (v. 8b).  To borrow Brevard Childs’ words, “The whole chapter now functions in a homiletic style to confront Israel’s unbelief in relation to the divine prophecies made on its behalf.”[62]  However, an individual does emerge at this point in the text who appears to take on the role of the servant.  The first hint of this individual comes in Isa 48:16b – “But now, lord Yahweh has sent me and his Spirit” – but he waits for ch. 49 to step into full view.[63]  The opening four verses describe the special relationship that exists between Yahweh and the servant, and then, in Isa 49:5-6, we get a clear picture of the servant as an individual.  He relates what Yahweh has said to him, that his role is, “to turn Jacob back to him [Yahweh], that Israel may be gathered to him [Yahweh]” (v. 5a).[64]  Yet, Yahweh did not stop there.  The servant continues, “He said, ‘It is too small for you to be a servant for me who upholds the tribes of Jacob and who turns back the preserved ones in Israel.  I give you as a light of the nations, to be my salvation to the ends of the earth” (v. 6).  In this way, the servant presents himself as a person from within the nation, who now has a mission to the nation and to the world at large.[65]

Noting the transition of the servant from the entire nation of Israel to an individual from within the nation provides context for our understanding of the prison language in Isa 49:9.  The vocabulary of the verse is most closely related to the wording in Isa 42:7, wherein Israel is to free the nations.  In ch. 49, Yahweh sends the servant to give the command “Come out (צאו)!” to the “imprisoned ones (אסורים),” and in ch. 42, Yahweh commissions the servant to “bring out [lit. cause to come out] (הוציא)” the “prisoner (אסיר)”.[66]  Further, the servant will say to, “those in the darkness (בחשׁך), ‘Be revealed!’” (Isa 49:9aβ), which picks up the idea of prisoners, “dwelling in darkness (חשׁך)” in Isa 42:7bβ.  Apparently, the individual servant is to carry on the service that Yahweh originally gave to Israel with respect to the nations.[67]  This does not mean, though, that the individual servant will not serve the nation of Israel as well.  We have already noted that the individual servant will bring the nation back to Yahweh (Isa 49:5), and we know that the nation, too, is bound and suffering in prison (Isa 42:22).  Thus, when Isa 49:9b-12 pictures a new exodus and a return to the land, we see that Judah will also partake in this release.[68]  As Yahweh has said, the individual servant will serve both Israel and the nations (Isa 49:5-6).

We can divide into two categories the implications of this passage for our understanding of prison/imprisonment.  On the one hand, we have the formal aspects of the text.  As we saw in the previous cases, Isa 49:9 clearly uses prison as a metaphor.  The first half of the verse views the servant’s subjects as humans, but the second line pictures them as livestock.[69]  The passage describes the human condition with known categories.  We can also say that this is not a case of an imprisonment awaiting a ruling.  The fact that v. 9 intentionally recalls Isa 42:7, along with Isa 42:22 by extension, shows that the servant is still dealing with the imprisonments from earlier in the section, and neither of these detentions are for the purpose of decision.  These points are both apparent, but also repetitive of what we have learned from Isa 42:7, 22.  On the other hand, the theological statement of the passage is fresh and profound.  In taking over the nation’s job as the servant, the entire thrust of Isa 49:1-9 is for the individual servant to bring redemption to all of humanity.  Like the gentiles, God has shut up Judah in prison.  All people suffer under his judgment, but Yahweh’s focus in ch. 49 is to find an instrument to bring release and renewal.  In Isa 40-55, prison is simply a means to a restored and repaired relationship.  The incarceration of the peoples has anticipated their release and return to God.  Thus, Isa 49:13 sees all of creation rejoicing because, “Yahweh has comforted (נחם) his people.”  The resonance between this verse and Isa 40:1 – “Comfort (נחמו), comfort (נחמו) my people” – brings us full circle.  In Isa 40, comfort is a command and is, therefore, potential.  Someone must comfort God’s people.  In Isa 49, comfort is a completed action.  Now that God has found a servant willing to proclaim the nation’s release from prison, their release from exile, along with the gentiles, this is Yahweh comforting his people.[70]  The metaphor of imprisonment and release from prison in Isa 40-55 gives a vivid picture of God’s grace and redemption for all of humanity.

IV. Conclusion

We would like to offer three concluding thoughts related to our relationship with our prison system.  First, considering what we have learned about the development of imprisonment as a form of punishment, perhaps it would be helpful to reexamine our assumptions about proper forms of criminal discipline.  The cult of the present can lead us to believe that “this is how it’s always been done” – that is, we imprison offenders – but it fails to see that humanity has made due without long-term incarcerations for millennia.  This, of course, does not mean that any use of prison for punishment is necessarily wrong.  The references to prison in Isa 40-55 give precedent for the use of prison in this manner when coming from a biblical worldview.  We only mean to point out that our attempts to deal with crime through detention is a historical anomaly.  Second, while the Bible does have room for the use of prison as a punishment, it offers a much wider scope of punishments to deal with criminal behavior than just imprisonment.  In fact, God, in all of his wisdom, did not see fit to institute a standing prison system when he promulgated his laws to the nation of Israel.  This, again, does not mean that we feel all of our legal punishments should mirror punishments found in the Law.  We mean only to say that the idea of alternative consequences for criminal behavior also finds precedent within the Bible.  Should a political or civil figure suggest a mandatory treatment plan, a restitution arrangement, or a diversion program, this is not necessarily a rejection of a biblical perspective on how to confront sin.  Finally, inasmuch as the prison system seems to be an entrenched part of our society, we would hold out the Servant in Isaiah as a model for our actions.  God, who is just, used prison for his own ends, even if only metaphorically, but we must also recognize God’s call on the Servant’s life and his service to what appear to be intractable criminals.  It is only through his sacrifice of his own person that others were able to find release and redemption – He was crushed for our iniquities, oppressed and afflicted, for the transgression of my people (Isa 53:5, 7-8).  His heart of compassion, his unselfish sacrifice and his yearning for repentance and restoration light a righteous path for His followers as they minister to those who have fallen short of the standard.




[1] For an informational report on recidivism rates in America, see Caitlin Dickson, “America’s Recidivism Nightmare,” The Daily Beast, n.p. [cited August 21, 2014].

Online: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/04/22/america-s-recidivism-nightmare.html.  For a stinging critique, see David Haglund’s re-posting of John Oliver’s segment (“Watch John Oliver Explain How Broken America’s Prison System Is,” Slate, n.p. [cited August 21, 2014].  Online: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/07/21/john_oliver_prison_segment_on_last_week_tonight_is_one_you_should_watch.html. CAUTION: This clip includes coarse language and mature topics.

[2] “A History of Prison in the World,” Laws, n.p. [cited Aug. 6, 2014].  Online: http://prison.laws.com/prison/prison-history.

[3] Punishment, as defined here, could take two forms.  Capital punishment sought to remove a threat from the community permanently.  For non-capital offences, corporal punishment was the most common penalty.  Such punishments included, but were not limited to, beatings, whippings, and/or bodily mutilation (Deut 25:11-12) (“History of Imprisonment,” Crime Museum, n.p. [cited Aug. 6, 2014].  Online: http://www.crimemuseum.org/crime-library/history-of-imprisonment.).

[4] The British government also experimented with housing prisoners at night on large ships – hulks – that were anchored just off a shoreline, but this practice did not become widespread (“History of the Prison System,” The Howard League for Penal Reform, n.p. [cited Aug. 6, 2014].  Online: http://www.howardleague.org/history-of-prison-system/.).

[5] History of World Criminal Justice, directed by Banning Lary (2008; New York: Insight Media/Promedion Productions, 2008), DVD.  Todd Clear and George Cole, American Corrections (6th ed.; Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomas Learning, 2003), 58.


[6] “History of the Prison System.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Richard Seiter, Corrections: An Introduction (4th ed.; Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2014), 3.

[10] “History of the Prison System.”

[11] This was also part of an increasing sense of compassion or humanity on the part of society (Ibid.).

[12] Clear and Cole, American Corrections, 48.

[13] Seiter, Corrections, 22.

[14] Ibid., 22.

[15] Ibid., 22.

[16] Ibid., 22.

[17] The U.S. Supreme Court decision ending the “hands-off doctrine” is found in Cooper v. Pate (1964) (Ibid., 22).

[18] Clear and Cole, American Corrections, 57.

[19] Ibid., 57.

[20] “The Oregon Accountability Model,” Department of Corrections, n.p. [cited Sept. 12, 2014].  Online: http://www.oregon.gov/doc/GECO/pages/oam_welcome.aspx.

[21] Each of these components began as a stand-alone program in the Oregon Corrections system, and, technically, they still stand on their own as discreet projects (Ibid.).

[22] The DOC implemented the 3 R’s in 2003 and has “received national recognition” for this concept.  Research shows that the principles employed in the 3 R’s contribute significantly to a reduction in recidivism (Ibid.).

[23] Institution-based businesses include “mattress repair, boot repair, wood products, sewing, mending and embroidery.” Inmate work crews include firefighting, planting trees and maintaining trails in parks and campgrounds (“The Oregon Accountability Model – Work Programs Component,” Department of Corrections, n.p. [cited Sept. 12, 2014].  Online: http://www.oregon.gov/doc/GECO/Pages/oam_work.aspx.).

[24] The DOC’s initiative, The Children of Incarcerated Parents Project, “provide[s] inmates with tools for successful parenting and allows opportunities for inmates to practice those pro-social behaviors” (“The Oregon Accountability Model”).

[25] The DOC coordinates the release of around 4,500 offenders per year. The Governor’s Re-Entry Council is a statewide leadership group that works collaboratively to improve success and safety in an inmate’s transition back into our communities (Ibid.).

[26] Offenders typically have many restrictions and conditions placed upon them when released from prison.  Community Corrections Officers are the offender’s primary point of contact upon release, and they must adhere to all conditions of their release or possibly face being sent back to prison (Ibid.).

[27] While this section focuses on the detention of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker, it is still worthwhile to discuss Joseph’s imprisonment.  Potiphar places him in prison for his supposed infraction (Gen 39:11-20), but we should be surprised when the authorities do not determine his guilt or innocence in the following scene.  Instead, Joseph remains in prison for more than two years (Gen 40:4; 41:1).  This novelty, though, plays a literary role in the development of the Joseph narratives.  God has been clear about his future (cf. Gen 37:2-11), but circumstances appear to frustrate God’s plan.  From the reader’s perspective, it seems that Joseph will remain in prison without trial.

[28] The text at this point is quite expressive, using three distinct descriptors for the prison account: [Pharaoh] gave them into the watch (משׁמר) of the chief of the house of the bodyguards (בית שׂר הטבחים), to the round house (בית הסהר).

[29] Lev 24:11 is, admittedly, difficult to understand, and interpreters are divided over whether the man cursed his opponent using Yahweh’s name (this seems to be the position of Baruch A. Levine, Leviticus: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation [JPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989], 166), or if he directed his curse toward Yahweh (cf. Dennis H. Livingston, “The Crime of Leviticus XXIV 11,” VT 36, no. 3 [1986]: 352-54).  Erhard S. Gerstenberger gives support for both views without deciding either way (Das dritte Buch Mose: Leviticus [völlig neubearbeitet Auflage; ATD 6; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993], 330-31).  However, one’s choice on this matter does not affect the point that we make here.

[30] It is surprising that the Israelites did not know what to do with the man in Num 15, as Exod 31:14-15 clearly dictates that he should die.  For a discussion of this point see Philip J. Budd, Numbers (WBC 5; Colombia: Thomas Nelson, 1984), 175-76.

[31] Exod 32:2-6, 21-28; 1 Kgs 21:9-13.

[32] One might point out that vocabulary related to prison is common in Jer 32-33, 37-39, where authorities imprison Jeremiah for extended periods of time, but it is best to view Jeremiah as a kind of political prisoner.  His experience is not indicative of how prison relates to guilt and punishment.  For similar examples in the HB, see 1 Kgs 22:27; 2 Kgs 17:4; 23:33, and in the NT, see the gospel stories of John the Baptist (Matt 14:3-5; Mark 6:17-20;) and Peter and Paul in Acts 12:1-4; 16:16-24; 24:24-27.

[33] All translations come from Dr. Jones, unless noted.

[34] A number of scholars suggest that the NT authors may draw their ideas of God’s eschatological judgment from this passage (cf. George Buchanan Gray, The Book of Isaiah: I-XXXIX [vol. 1; ICC; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912], 423; and Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah: The English Text, with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes [3 vols.; NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965-1972], 1:179-81).

[35] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (4 vols.; trans. William Pringle; Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1850-53; repr. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 1:185.

[36] For similar comments, see Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 1-39 (NAC 15a; Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2007), 425.

[37] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 (Westminster Bible Companion; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 195.

[38] If 2 Pet 2:4 is re-using Isa 24:22, 2 Pet 3:8 – “a day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years are like a day” – may suggest that God does not count the “many days” before his judgment like humans do.

[39] For additional examples, the interested reader can consider Gen 42; Judg 15; Job 12, 36.

[40] For a discussion on translating לשׁרשׁו/לשׁרשׁי as corporal punishment, see Frithiof Rundgren, “Zur Bedeutung von ŠRŠW – Esra VII 26,” VT 7, no. 4 (1957): 400-404.

[41] See Jean Louis Ska, “‘Persian Imperial Authorization’: Some Question Marks,” in Persia and Torah: The Theory of Imperial Authorization of the Pentateuch (ed. James W. Watts; SBLSymS 17; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001), 167.

[42] Joseph Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah: A Commentary (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1988), 152.  See also F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 108; and H.G.M. Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah (WBC 16; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985), 105.

[43] The ancient Sumerian “Nungal-Hymn” does discuss imprisonment and possibly imprisonment for correction, but it is difficult to link this text to Ezra for two reasons (for a translation and commentary on the hymn, see Tikva Simone Frymer, “The Nungal-Hymn and the Ekur-Prison,” Journal of the Econoic and Social History of the Orient 20 [1977]: 78-89).  First, it is possible that the hymn uses prison as a metaphor for the afterlife.  Second, there is little evidence of Sumerian influence in Ezra elsewhere.

[44] Nehemiah uses corporal punishment in Neh 13:25, but it is unclear if he does so under Persian authorization.

[45] Bernhard Duhm, Das Buch Jesaia (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1892); John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 17-23; andH.G.M. Williamson, The Book Called Isaiah: Deutero-Isaiah’s Role in Composition and Redaction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

[46] In this paper, we follow Isaiah’s relatively lax approach to naming the audience.  Though the biblical narrative pictures a political divide between Israel and Judah (cf. 1 Kgs 12), Isaiah seems to use the names Israel and Judah, among other names, to address the Judean audience (cf. Isa 1:1, 3).  This device continues even into chs. 40-55, when we would expect only Judah to be in view (cf. Isa 41:8; 48:1).

[47] Yahweh does mention Assyria in Isa 52:4, but this is in retrospection.  Outside of this verse, Assyria does not appear in chs. 40-66.

[48] Interpreters have accounted for these contrasts in Isa in various ways.  Scholars who tend toward critical methods argue that an anonymous prophet penned Isa 40-55 during the exile, whereas scholars who tend toward a conservative stance hold that the historical prophet Isaiah has simply projected himself into the future and speaks as if he is standing in the exile.

[49] There is a long standing debate as to whom God addresses with his commands (cf. Christopher R. Seitz, “The Divine Council: Temporal Transition and New Prophecy in the Book of Isaiah,” JBL 109, no. 2 [1990]: 229-38), but how one decides the matter does not affect our discussion.

[50] On this point, see Young, Isaiah, 3:26; and Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40-55: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (vol. 3; AB 19A; New York: Doubleday, 2000-2003), 179.

[51] Cf. Shalom M. Paul, Isaiah 40-66: Translation and Commentary (ECC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 184.  Others argue that the referent has shifted away from the nation and onto an individual – Christ (Young, Isaiah, 3:108-11; Fraz Delitzsch, Biblischer Commentar über den Prophet Jesaia [Leipzig: Dörffling und Franke, 1866], 414-15), but we see this shift coming in ch. 49.

[52] There has been much discussion over what לברית עם (a covenant to the people, NRS) may mean in Isa 42:6 (Delitzsch, Jesaia, 417-18; R. N. Whybray, Isaiah 40-66 [NCBC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975], 74-75; Mark S. Smith, “BĔRÎT ‘AM / BĔRÎT ‘ÔLᾹM: A New Proposal for the Crux of Isa 42:6,” JBL 100, no. 2 [1981]:241-43), but how one decides on this matter does not necessarily affect our discussion.  The closing reference to bringing light to the gentiles suggests that they continue to be in view in Isa 42:7.

[53] Cf. Mic 7:8; Rom 2:19.  Consider, also, Yahweh’s command to Isaiah to deafen and blind the people, which is closely related to their understanding and their salvation (Isa 6:9-10).

[54] Claus Westermann, Das Buch Jesaja: Kapitel 40-66 (4. Ergänzte Auflage; ATD 19; Götingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1981), 83-84.

[55] The term משׁלם (one who is made at peace) has troubled interpreters (cf. Paul, Isaiah, 199-200), but the parallel reference to the “servant of Yhwh” makes clear who the referent is.

[56] For a discussion of how this passage picks up themes of deafness and blindness in Isa 6, see R. E. Clements, “Beyond Tradition History: Deutero-Isaianic Development of First Isaiah’s Themes,” JSOT 31 (1985): 101-03.

[57] Cf. Paul (Isaiah, 201), who notes the similar imagery in vv. 7 and 22 – prison house(s) (בית כלא/בתי כלאים).  See also Young, Isaiah, 3:135.

[58] J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (TOTC 20; Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1999), 300; Westermann, Jesaja, 92.

[59] Cf. Laurie E. Pearce, “New Evidence for Judeans in Babylonia,” in Judah and the Judeans in the Persian Period (ed. Oded Lipschits and Manfred Oeming; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2006), 401-02, 408.

[60] For similar comments, see Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40-55, 219; and Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66 (Westminster Bible Companion; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 51.

[61] Nor should we understand this passage as saying that the Judahites are simply prisoners of war.  (For this, see Zech 9:11-15.)  Terms such as spoiled/spoil/despoilers (בזוז/בז/בזזים) and plundered/plunder (שׁסוי/משׁסה) (vv. 22, 24) could point in this direction, but our knowledge of Judah’s time in exile suggests that at least the references to being trapped in holes and hidden in prison houses is metaphoric (see n. 33).  Further, the other occurrences of prison house (בית כלא) in the HB suggest that it was a place of detention and confinement (1 Kgs 22:27; 2 Kgs 17:4; 25:27; Jer 37:4, 15, 18), which does not accord well with the purpose of taking prisoners of war.  Conquering peoples did better to put their prisoners to work, rather than to detain and sustain them.

[62] Brevard Childs, Isaiah (OTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 372.

[63] There is nothing in chs. 48 or 49 indicating that this person is a male, but if ch. 53 describes the same individual, a point that most assume, there are masculine pronouns that reveal his gender in that passage.

[64] Reading the qere לו over the kethib לא.

[65] For similar readings of the passage, see Christopher R. Seitz, “‘You are My Servant, You Are the Israel in Whom I Will Be Glorified’: The Servant Songs and the Effect of Literary Context in Isaiah,” CTJ 39 (2004): 124-31; and Peter Wilcox and David Paton-Williams, “The Servant Songs in Deutero-Isaiah,” JSOT 42 (1988): 88-93.  However, if the reader sides with those scholars who continue to see the servant as the nation (cf. Philip Stern, “The ‘Blind Servant’ Imagery of Deutero-Isaiah and Its Implications,” Bib 75, no. 2 [1994]: 224-32; Tryggve N. D. Mettinger, A Farewell to the Servant Songs: A Critical Examination of an Exegetical Axiom [Scripta Minora; trans. Frederick H. Cryer; Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1983], 38), it should only have limited implications for this essay.  One would simply need to reapply our conclusions related to prison/release to the nation’s service.  We would, though, offer Childs’ comments on the passage as an important stipulation in our view, “what is crucial to observe is that one, bearing all the marks of an individual historical figure, has been named servant, not to replace corporate Israel – the servant in Second Isaiah remains inseparable from Israel – but as a faithful embodiment of the nation Israel who has not performed its chosen role” (Isaiah, 385).

[66] The verbal component in each of the verses is a differing conjugation of the same verb יצא (go/come out), and the nominal components are adjectival and participial forms of the root אסר (tie/bind/imprison).  Similar vocabulary appears in Isa 61:1, where the speaker proclaims that Yahweh has appointed him, “to proclaim an opening (פקח־קוח) for the imprisoned ones (אסורים),” but we have decided not to include this in our study for two reasons.  First, references to “those taken captive” and the “release” of the Jubilee year in the verse suggest that it may be best to read אסורים as “bound ones,” i.e. captives of war or enslaved persons.  Second, the noun פקח־קוח is a hapax legomenon, which makes the entire phrase difficult to interpret.

[67] Blenkinsopp (Isaiah 40-55, 306) sees a similar re-appropriation of the servant’s task, though he differs on which characters fill the various roles.

[68] They will pasture along the roads, and on every open space they will have their pasturing.  They will not hunger and they will not thirst, and the burning heat of the sun will not strike them, for the one who has compassion on them will lead them.  He will guide them to streams of water.  I will make all my mountains into a road, and all my highways will rise up.  Look at these! – from afar they come.  And look at these – from the north, and west and these from the land of Sinim.  (Isa 49:9b-12)  Calvin (Commentary, 4:26-27) also sees a reference to the Exodus in this passage.

[69] See Paul, Isaiah, 329-30 for similar comments.

[70] So Childs, Isaiah, 387; and Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40-55, 307.

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Ineffectual But Not Missing: The Figurative Use of “Dead” in New Testament Literature

The noun, “dead” (νεκρὸς), when used figuratively in New Testament literature, has a relational sense when used of people, and an effectual sense when referring to other realities such as sin, the law, and faith. Its consistent use indicates something’s ineffectualness, or inability to influence or act upon someone, rather than non-existence. Recognizing this pattern of use, and resulting sense, should help in the debate over the meaning of “dead faith” in James.



The noun, “dead” (νεκρὸς) occurs 127 times in the New Testament, with at least 20 occurrences being figurative.[1] Its verb form occurs three times, once in a figurative sense.[2] What is the basic sense of this figurative use? Is there a consistent nuance to its use, or does it carry a diversity of significances? For example, does it indicate non-existence, past existence, inability, a combination of senses, or something else? These questions shall be explored by examining the various instances where it is used figuratively.


People with Respect to People


Twice in the New Testament νεκρὸς is used to describe people who are alive, but somehow cut off from communion with loved ones. In one instance physical death separates the two. In the other instance, distance separates the two.




The first figurative use of “dead” is found with Jesus in the Gospels. In these two parallel passages Jesus addresses a young man whom He calls to follow Him, but who then seeks to delay joining Jesus in order to “bury” his father. His father most likely was either dying or had died earlier. He would not have died that day. The practice of that time was to bury someone on the day of their death. The young man would have been at home with the family, not out in public if that were the case. If his father was dying, then the delay would be for an unspecified time. At any rate, a son’s recognized duty was to care for his father in these circumstances, and so his request might not seem unusual or unreasonable. On the other hand, as noted by Craig Keener, “One of an eldest son’s most basic responsibilities (in both Greek and Jewish cultures) was his father’s burial. The initial burial took place shortly after a person’s decease, however, and family members would not be outside talking with rabbis during the reclusive mourning period immediately following the death. It has recently been shown that what is in view here instead is the secondary burial: a year after the first burial, after the flesh had rotted off the bones, the son would return to rebury the bones in a special box (an ossuary) in a slot in the tomb’s wall. The son in this narrative could thus be asking for as much as a year’s delay.”[3] This gives us better insight into Jesus’ response.

When Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” Bullinger identifies this figure as antanaclasis (word-clashing) in which the same word is repeated in the same sentence, but with a different meaning.[4] The first use of dead may also be viewed as either a metaphor or metonymy.[5] That Jesus is speaking figuratively is evident, though, because someone must be alive to bury a dead person. Thus His first use of “dead” refers to living people who are quite active, though His second clearly should be taken literally. The common interpretation of this passage is to see Jesus referring to those left behind by the disciple as “spiritually dead.”[6] They are either not following, or not being called to follow Jesus. Though this is an “evangelistic” interpretation of Jesus’ words, nothing in the context requires this meaning beyond His reference to preaching the coming kingdom in Luke’s Gospel. Willoughby Allen raises the possibility that this may be a proverbial saying carrying the sense of “cut yourself adrift from the past when matters of present interest call for our whole attention.”[7] This would then follow the idea expressed by D. A. Carson, that these words are a “powerful way of expressing the thought” that “even closest family ties must not be set above allegiance to Jesus and the proclamation of the kingdom.”[8] Alternately, Jesus may be referring to those elderly who are awaiting their own deaths and would be unwilling, or unable, to follow Him. The “dead” doing the burial are not inactive, nor are they corpses, but are viewed as dead in some non-literal sense.




The prodigal son is another example of a living person being called “dead.” The term is used by the father to describe the significance of their separation. His son passes from the “dead” status to “living” with his return to the presence, and therefore fellowship, of his father from whom he had separated himself. His deadness is described from the perspective of the father, not the son. And, again, in his deadness he is very active, though not acting as a son should. Robert Stein correctly identifies the metaphor, but misunderstands its significance when he makes the father’s description of his son as “dead” to mean “spiritually dead” and “alive” to mean “saved,” or, “possessing life in God’s kingdom.”[9] Nothing in the text requires or implies such a meaning. Jesus’ point in the three parables (lost sheep, lost coin, lost son) is our response toward the repentant, not who is regenerate (saved) and who is not, or how to become regenerate.[10] I. Howard Marshall notes the Jewish background by which “dead” could carry the sense of having been disinherited and was now returned to the family, though he does not endorse it. Rather he sees the son “as good as dead.”[11]  John Noland understands the significance of the terms better when he notes that “the father does not use the language primarily in connection with the son’s experiences in the distant land—he does not know about this except by supposition, and minimally from the state in which he finds his son—but in connection with his own “bereavement” and “finding again” of his son: the language is relational.”[12] Further, the point of all three parables is crystallized in the contrast between the father’s response, representative of God the Father, and the eldest son’s, representative of the murmuring Pharisees. But, here again, “dead” does not mean non-existent or that he was lying around as a corpse. Rather, it vividly pictures the pain and sorrow caused by separation and inability to commune with a loved one.


People with Respect to Things


A second figurative use of νεκρὸςdescribes living people’s relationship to conceptual or non-living things. In this case, these entities have no influence on the person and so are “dead” in relation to them. These include both sin and the Law.




Paul uses the imagery of death contrasted with life to describe the believer’s attitude toward and response to sin and God. His metaphorical use of “dead” in Romans 6 anticipates the imagery of the following chapter wherein the literal death of a husband frees a woman from the law of marriage. Here he does not describe sin as dead, but says that believers are to view themselves as dead to it.[13] This relationship to sin is a result of our identification with Christ who died literally and lives literally.[14] Kenneth Daughters notes well that “these verses make it clear that sin has not died, but rather we have died to it. And furthermore, the issue at hand is sin’s mastery. … Just as Christ died once for all, never to die again, so we have permanently been liberated from sin’s mastery. And just as Christ now lives His life to God, so we should follow in His steps.’[15] We can do this because sin no longer has the power to make us sin, we are “dead to its power” and “ought to recognize that fact and not continue in sin.”[16] Carson clarifies our relationship to sin in this context. “To be ‘dead to sin’, thus, does not mean to be insensible to its enticements, for Paul makes clear that sin remains for the Christian an attraction to be battled with every day (see v 13). Rather it means to be delivered from the absolute tyranny of sin, from the state in which sin holds unchallenged sway, the state in which we all lived before conversion (see 3:9). As a result of this death to sin, we can no longer live in it (2b)—for habitual sinning reveals sin’s tyranny, a tyranny from which the believer has been freed.”[17] James Dunn agrees. “The figurative sense is well enough known … and so would be sufficiently meaningful and realistic—‘dead’ in the sense of ‘lost to,’ ‘completely out of touch with’; … The death is not an actual death, nor a mere playing with words, but a living in relation to the power of sin (see on 3:9) as to all intents and purposes dead.”[18] Again, this use of “dead” does not mean people are inactive or cease to exist with regard to sin. Rather, they are not impacted by it. It is ineffective in influencing or controlling them.




Not only does Paul describe our changed relationship to sin as “dead,” but also our changed relationship to the Law.[19] Using the imagery of a once-married widow’s relationship to her departed husband, Paul describes “the believer’s transfer from the domain of the law to the domain of Christ.”[20] He teaches that the Law no longer has jurisdiction over a believer because of his or her identification with Christ. Paul’s sense is that the believer “is no longer enslaved to the law.”[21] John Witmer sees the connection between this use and what Paul said in Romans 6 about the believer’s relationship to sin. And, in fact, the two concepts are parallel, with Paul using the same metaphor to describe the believer’s relationship to the Law as identical to that of his relationship to sin. “Just as a believer ‘died to sin’ (6:2) and so is ‘set free from sin’ (6:18, 22), so he also died to the Law and is separated and set free from it.”[22] William Mounce notes that this “death of the believer took place when by faith that person became identified with the crucified Christ” whose death was very literal, but also changed Jesus’ relationship to the Law as well.[23] Again, in this imagery the Law is still very much alive and present, and the Saint is very much alive and active. But, any relationship they once shared is severed. And, in this case, the Law loses its ability to command obedience or bring condemnation.


People with Respect to God


A third figurative use of νεκρὸςis to describe living people’s relationship to God. This is a relationship of separation rather than non-existence on the part of the person. Further, the “dead with respect to God” person is still very present and active in the expression of his or her deadness.




Ephesians 2 introduces us to a fascinating insight into the life history of every elect person.[24] When writing the Ephesian Christians, Paul uses a synecdoche (effect for the cause) to describe those chosen “before the foundation of the world” (1:4) as being “dead” before the day they become saints by spiritual birth.  This state of deadness is not a state of inactivity, but a lifestyle.

Prior to their conversions, Paul’s readers were very active, but their conduct was not in the sphere of good works (2:10) to which they were subsequently spiritually born. In this state of death, the elect were identified with “the sons of disobedience” who are “children of wrath” (2:2-3) rather than being “blessed with every spiritual blessing” (1:3) including communion with God.

The elect person, who has not yet believed and therefore been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, is described by Paul as “dead.”[25] This cannot mean non-existent or unable to act, but unable to respond positively to God.[26]So, “dead” does not mean a lifeless corpse,[27] but a separated pre-saint, someone unable to commune with or respond to God.[28] Kenneth Wuest describes it well. “Death itself is a separation, whether physical, the separation of the person from his body, or spiritual, the separation of the person from God.”[29]

Ephesians 4:17-19 describes the “dead” life of Gentiles, the sons of disobedience. Again, it is not inactivity, but activities apart from God that Paul lists. He moves from this description to contrast the “old man” (4:22-23) with the “new man” (4:24). Both are active, but their conduct is very different, depending on whether they are “dead” or “alive” to God. These verses explain what Paul means in Colossians 2:13. “This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart.” They are living, active people, separated from the living God and unable to commune with Him.[30] That being said, as the elect, they are not destined for destruction, but salvation. Even so, their pre-justified state is the same as that of the non-elect which is a life characterized by death as expressed in their deeds.[31] Harold Hoehner describes: “This death is spiritual, not physical, for unsaved people are very much alive physically. Death signifies absence of communication with the living. One who is dead spiritually has no communication with God; he is separated from God. The phrase ‘in your transgressions and sins’ shows the sphere of the death, suggesting that sin has killed people … and they remain in that spiritually dead state. … Both suggest deliberate acts against God and His righteousness and thus failure to live as one should. The plural of these two nouns signifies people’s repetitious involvement in sin and hence their state of unregeneration.”[32]




Later in Ephesians, Paul again uses the imagery of death to conclude a call to a changed lifestyle with a poetic interlude. This short poem may be an allusion to or paraphrase of Isaiah 60:1.[33] Or it may be a quote from an early church hymn.[34] At any rate, it is the culmination of a call to be different from the world out of which his readers had been saved. It is interpreted in one of three ways.

First, the sense of “dead” in this poem is thought by some to refer to the readers’ previous identification with the unregenerate.[35] Thus it is a call to the unregenerate to come to Christ for salvation.[36] “Arise” then alludes to their identification with Christ’s resurrection.[37] A second view sees it as addressing both believers and unbelievers. “Believers are called on to ‘awake’ out of sleep; unbelievers, to ‘arise’ from the dead.”[38] A third approach takes it as addressing only the church. It is a call “not to life still, as if she were asleep or dead,” but to be a light to the world; “not to sleep or loiter, but spring forth as if from the grave, and pour light on the world.”[39]

Since the context of the passage is the Christian’s separation from a sinful mindset and lifestyle, described as darkness, this passage metaphorically applies the previously stated truth that dark deeds are exposed by the light. Since believers are not to be a part of that dark world, the call is best seen as addressing the church. “You who sleep” and “the dead” are synonymous terms. “Light,” then, must allude to life. So, if this were a resurrection formula, “the dead” could be taken literally. But, in the context of the Ephesian church and its possible allusion to Isaiah, it is better to see “the dead” as symbolic of those formerly spiritually dead upon whom Christ “shines” as their Savior. Thus, these “dead” are physically living, previously unregenerate people, who had been separated spiritually from God until Christ changed their status. This call is a reminder to the Ephesians of their previous call out of darkness to become light in the Lord (verse 1).





In Colossians 2:13 Paul is addressing his readers’ identification with Christ in their salvation. In the process, he describes them as previously “being dead” in trespasses and “the uncircumcision of your flesh.” This use of “dead” again refers to their spiritual condition, not physical.[40] And so death here is a metaphor for separation from God which ultimately means lacking the life of God. [41] MacDonald and Farstad conclude “This means that because of their sins, they were spiritually dead toward God. It does not mean that their spirits were dead, but simply that there was no motion in their spirits toward God and there was nothing they could do to win God’s favor.”[42] Richard Melick notes, “In these equations, ‘dead’ and ‘uncircumcision’ form a semantic field so that they refer to the same condition. They both confirm the fact that believers’ circumcision occurs at salvation and reaffirm that the ‘unhandmade circumcision’ corresponds to being made alive.”[43] James Dunn relates the terms more to the Jewish background of the Colossian heresy. “Their ‘being dead’ refers to their status outside the covenant made by God with Israel (cf. again Eph. 2:12). That is to say, their ‘transgressions’ (παραπτώματα, usually violations of God’s commands) would be those referred to already in a similar passage (1:21), the transgressions of the law that from a Jewish perspective were typical of lawless Gentiles (see on 1:21). The Jewish perspective is put beyond question with the complementary phrase ‘you being dead (“although you were dead”) in … the uncircumcision of your flesh.’”[44] So, they were separated from God, not inactive. They, as elect, could not commune with God while in their spiritually uncircumcised state.


A State of Being


A fourth figurative use of νεκρὸςinvolves describing regenerate people, thus who are spiritually “dead,” with regard to their being out of fellowship with God. This use is not a denial of their salvation, but a description of the seriousness of their condition.




Having addressed the issue of the sin nature, Paul turns to the Spirit’s work in the believer’s life. Robert Hughes and Carl Laney note that “these verses expand and elucidate the contrast between the mind conditioned on and patterned after the flesh and the mind conditioned on and patterned after the Spirit.”[45] The believer’s body is “dead because of sin.” This metaphorical use of “dead” clearly does not mean presently, literally, dead. But in what sense is the believer’s body dead?

The first view sees “dead,” as used here, describing the regenerate person’s continued physical mortality. In this passage the believer’s body and spirit are distinguished in their experience.[46] While the body is still subject to the consequences of sin, and will die physically,[47] the believer’s spirit is immune to its power.[48] As a result, the believer enjoys the life of God now and anticipates resurrection.[49] This is accomplished by the Holy Spirit who supplies “the risen life of the Lord Jesus” in the life of the believer.[50]

A second view proposes that Paul is describing the inner man rather than the physical man. Charles Pfeiffer and Everett Harrison represent this approach. “The false self is dead or useless because of sin. This self cannot be effective for God. But the spirit—the true self—is living because of the righteousness which God bestows. Of course, there are not two separate selves. When the self becomes false, it acts in accordance with the flesh. When the self is true, it acts in accordance with the Spirit.”[51] However, since Paul calls the body dead, and not the man, the former view is best. He uses “dead” to refer to mortality and anticipates resurrection with the promise of life.





Paul, in giving instructions to Timothy about the support of widows, warns him not to support some. In particular those that give themselves over to wanton pleasure were to be excluded. He uses oxymoron[52] to describe them as being “dead” even while they “live.” This use of “dead” is almost universally understood to be a figurative way of saying she is not spiritually right with God. Some see this as describing a believer whose life has become spiritually empty.[53] The majority question her salvation and see Paul saying she is spiritually dead while physically alive, “a mere professor” and, by implication, unregenerate.[54]A third option is to see “dead” referring to her as “useless to God and others,” but still a believer.[55]

This “dead” person is certainly active, but not doing what pleases God. Her activity is sinful. She is not a corpse, but quite alive. Yet, she is certainly not devoting herself to prayer, and thus is not experiencing communion with God.




The last figurative use of “dead” in the New Testament is found in Revelation 3:1 with Christ’s criticism of the church at Sardis. He calls the church dead and warns them to salvage what they have left of their life. But what does Jesus mean by a “dead” church? This use of dead indicates a lack of life in the church with a reputation for being alive.[56]

One approach is to see “dead” in this context still to mean the church is basically unregenerate, either because many of its members had “forfeited” their salvation,[57] or because the church congregation was mostly composed of unregenerate members.[58] Charles Feinberg describes it as “full of empty profession” because “the union of church and state brought about more profession than life.”[59]

A second approach is to see the church as a whole, rather than its individual members, as spiritually dead.[60] This is better since the promise of heavenly rewards to those who overcome in all seven churches is based on their deeds rather than as a gift of God’s grace for their faith. Further, the danger of a removed lamp stand is addressed to each church as a whole rather than its individual members. G. K. Beale understands well Jesus’ use of figurative language here. “Though it considered itself spiritually alive, and perhaps other churches in the region respected the Sardian Christians, in reality, they were in a condition of spiritual death (cf. other such uses of ‘dead’ in the NT). Verse 2 reveals that this assessment of their condition is a figurative overstatement (hyperbole) intended to emphasize the church’s precarious spiritual state and the imminent danger of its genuine death.”[61] If they did not “get their act together” spiritually, the church would cease to exist when Jesus removed their lamp stand. David Aune sees Jesus intending a paradox using the contrasting metaphors of “life” and “death” to “represent moral and spiritual vitality and morbidity.”[62]

Again, though called dead, the church’s members were living human beings and the church was active, though not in a spiritually vital way.


Inanimate Concepts


A fifth use of νεκρὸςinvolves concepts rather than human beings. These are realities affecting humans and can be described in terms of their influence on humans. Recognizing their figurative sense and the intent behind its figurative use should also shed light on the interpretation of these difficult passages.




As he continues his discussion of the believer’s relationship to the Law and sin, Paul personifies sin and employs the same metaphor to describe it as being “dead” apart from the Law. Then, in detailing its impact, he describes himself as starting out alive and ending up dead when personified sin uses the Law to produce evil desires in him. But what does he mean by sin being “dead”? The two major interpretations are that sin is nonexistent,[63] or that it is dormant or inactive.[64]

In this description of the believer’s struggle with his sin nature, sin is neither absent nor inactive, even when “dead” apart from the Law. It is just unable to act upon its intended victim.[65] If it were absent or non-existent, it would not be able to “take the opportunity” when the Law came in. As Paul describes it, sin is essentially standing by until it finds a means of killing him, namely, the Law. Dunn describes it as “ineffective” and “powerless.”  William MacDonald and Art Farstad see a slightly different nuance. “The sinful nature is like a sleeping dog. When the law comes and says ‘Don’t,’ the dog wakes up and goes on a rampage, doing excessively whatever is forbidden.”[66] Though inactive, when the Law comes, sin uses the commandment to “deceive” and “kill.” Thus Paul’s use of “dead” to describe sin does not indicate its non-existence or even its inactivity, but only its inability to influence and act on him. Sin, now active, “produces” death in Paul in verse 13. But this death also is not inactivity or non-existence, but a condition of existence that is a consequence of disobedience. In this context it is not hell, but loss of communion with God, separation from fellowship with God in the life of a believer.[67] Paul does not lose his salvation. He just loses his enjoyment of the benefits of that salvation, his experience of eternal life in this life.




Twice the author of Hebrews uses the terms, “dead works,” a metonymy of effect,[68] as a contrast to serving God. The contrast does not imply the absence of works. On the contrary, there are works being done, but they are ineffective in pleasing God. Further, the contrast assumes the existence of those works, though they are the wrong kind. But what does he mean by this?

First, this could refer to works “devoid of faith.”[69] This is argued on the basis that “dead works” is paired with and thus contrasted to “faith toward God.”[70] Thus, they might not be sinful acts, but “works without the element of life which comes through faith in the living God.”[71] They are works done by the unregenerate “in an effort to earn their own cleansing.”[72]

Second, this may be works which were good under the Law, but “now are dead since Christ has come. For example, all the services connected with temple worship are outmoded by the finished work of Christ.”[73] For Jewish converts to Christianity, the rituals were replaced by Christ”[74] These rituals, “in contrast with the work of Christ, can never impart spiritual life.”[75]

Third, this could be works that lead to or cause spiritual death, sinful deeds.[76] For example, Paul Ellingworth argues, “νεκρὰἔργα is an expression peculiar to Hebrews … The contrast, here as in Gal. 5:19, 21, is between actions which incur the punishment of death, and the καλὰἔργα (10:24; cf. 13:21) which enable God’s people to take possession of what God has promised them (cf. Heb. 6:12). The author may have in mind the choice set before Israel by Moses in Dt. 30:15, 18.”[77] And with Eugene Nida he says, “The implication is that the useless rituals (or literally ‘dead works’) actually make the conscience unclean or impure, or even cause death.”[78]

The term “dead works” in this case, regardless of which interpretation one follows, refers to something that exists. It involves activity, but does not please God. Again, it is a relational term. The works exist, but are of the wrong kind.





This is probably the most disputed passage that uses the analogy of death to describe something. Using hypallage, or interchange, James tells us that faith without works is “dead.”[79] But what does he mean by that and what significance does it have in the life of a believer?

The first approach to this passage is to see James asserting that the absence of works means the complete absence of faith. For James, dead faith means “no faith,”[80] or only a false “claim to faith.” [81] MacDonald and Farstad state the view well. “What James is emphasizing is that we are not saved by a faith of words only but by that kind of faith which results in a life of good works. In other words, works are not the root of salvation but the fruit; they are not the cause but the effect.”[82] The basic logic of this position is that justifying faith continues to express itself permanently and so necessarily produces works.[83] John MacArthur states it this way. “Workless faith is dead faith, and dead faith is no faith at all. Real faith cannot die, but if you have a so-called faith that is devoid of works, it is not living faith, and it cannot save.”[84] As John Calvin is reputed to say, “We are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.”[85] Therefore, the absence of works means the absence of faith. And, since James describes non-work producing faith as dead, it must necessarily not be justifying faith.[86] John Hart answers well the problem of calling this a false claim to faith. He notes the syntactical parallel with Romans 7:8b (“For apart from the law sin is dead”) and says, “No one would suppose that Paul intended to say that apart from the law sin was ‘false sin’ or an unreal sinfulness. Sin is still real and true sin, even apart from the law. The thought is that sin lies dormant and unrecognized until the law arouses it to action. In the same way, faith apart from works is true and real faith. But works have a way of enlivening faith and arousing it from abeyance.”[87] Furthermore, James is talking about works done to another “brother,” a fellow believer. [88]

A second view is to see faith as ineffectual, though present.[89] Keener seems to express this view and notes that “writers like Epictetus could use ‘dead’ the same way as here; this is a graphic way of saying ‘useless’.”[90] Zane Hodges argues that dead should be understood in this context to mean “sterile, ineffectual, or unproductive.”[91] Donald Burdick sees the faith as present, but not able to “save.”[92] Hart catches well the point of the analogy, that “when a Christian engages in practical deeds to benefit others, James says our faith comes alive.”[93] Kevin Butcher notes further that James, rather than defining faith, “defines the condition of a faith that is not accompanied by works.”[94]

In verse 22, faith uses works to express itself and to bring itself to completeness (perfection). James uses the analogy of the body to describe the relationship of faith to works. The body without the spirit is dead. Faith without works is dead in the same way. However, both are still there! Neither can function without the other, but both are still present. The idea here is the need for expression and activity, not a lack of existence. Further, nothing in James or any other New Testament author indicates two kinds of faith, saving and non-saving faith.[95] It is not the quality of one’s faith that saves him. Faith’s validity is in its object, God, not its source, man.




The use of “dead” in a figurative manner throughout the New Testament involves two major concepts. “Dead” is used relationally to describe a person’s separation from God, or from the spiritual life of God. It is also used to describe inability to act on someone or something. But, always that which is ineffectual is always present, not absent.

In most instances the figure of speech is obvious and its significance in the argument of either Jesus or a New Testament author is fairly obvious, but not always. Further, theology seems to control most people’s interpretation of the term more than the implications of the surrounding context, especially in James 2. There the general consensus is that “dead” means missing, non-existent. The absence of works means “no faith.” Yet, it is better to see it as meaning ineffectual in the same way that sin is unable to act, or get the Saint to misbehave, apart from the Law. Rather than say that the faith that justifies necessarily sanctifies, it would be better to say that the faith that justifies will not sanctify unless it continues to express itself in the life of the believer. Such an understanding allows James 2 to be a positive motivation to personal evaluation and action rather than a source of doubt in an immature believer’s life.




[1] Figurative uses include Matt 8:22; Luke 9:60; 15:24, 32; Rom 6:11, 13; 7:8; 8:10; Eph 2:1, 5; 5:14; Col 2:13; Heb 6:1; 9:14; James 2:17, 26; Rev 3:1.

[2] Rom 4:19, Col 3:5 (figurative sense), and Heb 11:12.

[3] Craig S. Keener and InterVarsity, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Mt 8:21 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993).

[4] E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968 reprint), 286.

[5] It would be seen as a metaphor if the first use of “dead” is seen to describe a spiritual state of being rather than physical. It might be seen as a metonymy if “dead” is seen to refer to those about to die, the elderly of the community.

[6] Louis A. Barbieri, Jr., “Matthew” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, 2:38 (Wheaton: Victor, 1983-c1985); Craig Blomberg, vol. 22, Matthew, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary, 148 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001, c1992); Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, 290; D. A. Carson, New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, Rev. ed. of: The New Bible Commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer, 1970., 4th ed., Mt 8:18 (Leicester, England; Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1994); David E. Garland, Reading Matthew (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001) 99; Donald A. Hagner, vol. 33A, Matthew 1-13, Word Biblical Commentary, 218 (Dallas: Word, 2002); R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1943), 343; Homer A. Kent, “Matthew” in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary: New Testament, Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison, editors, Mt 8:18 (Chicago: Moody, 1962); Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 203; John Noland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 368; A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. V c1932, Vol.VI c1933 by Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention., Mt 8:22 (Oak Harbor: Logos, 1997).

[7] Willoughby C. Allen, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to S. Matthew, Third ed., The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, n.d.), 82.

[8] Carson, “Matthew” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 209.

[9] Robert H. Stein, Luke, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary, Vol. 24 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001, c1992), 407. Also, Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1946), 817. Walter L. Liefeld (“Matthew” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8 [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984], 984) notes this as the possible significance of the terms, but by connecting it to the language of Ephesians 2:1-5. The two passages should not be connected, nor should Paul be used to interpret Jesus in this instance.

[10] Contra John MacArthur (The Gospel According to Jesus [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988], 153). He says, “Here is a perfect illustration of the nature of saving faith. Observe the young man’s unqualified compliance, his absolute humility, and his unequivocal willingness to do whatever his father asked of him.  … His demeanor was one of unconditional surrender, a complete resignation of self and absolute submission to his father. That is the essence of saving faith.”

[11] I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 611.

[12] John Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 9:21-18:34, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 35B (Dallas: Word, 2002), 786.

[13] Roy L. Aldrich, “Grace in the Book of Romans, Part 1,” Bibliotheca Sacra,  97:386 (April 1940; 2002), 227; Lewis Sperry Chafer, “Soteriology,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 103:412 (October 1946; 2002) 398; Frederic L. Godet, Commentary on Romans, Kregel Classic Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1977), 249; W. H. Griffith Thomas, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 169.

[14] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, single volume edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959, 1965, 1968), 225-26.

[15] Kenneth A. Daughters, “How to Win Over Sin: An Exposition of Romans 6,” Emmaus Journal, 1:2 (Summer 1992; 2002) 119.

[16] John A. Witmer, “Romans” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton: Victor, 1983-c1985) 2:463.

[17] Carson, New Bible Commentary, Rom 6:1.

[18] James D. G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 38A (Dallas: Word, 2002), 324.

[19] Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 242-43.

[20] Carson, New Bible Commentary, Ro 7:1.

[21] Brice L. Martin, “Paul on Christ and the Law,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 26:3 (September 1983; 2002) 275.

[22] Witmer, “Romans,” 465.

[23] Robert H. Mounce, Romans, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary, Vol. 27 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001, c1995), 161.

[24] Skevington Wood (A. Skevington Wood, “Ephesians” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 11 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 33) does not see this expression as figurative, but that a literal sense lies behind it. It is describing a spiritual reality.

[25] Most would take this to refer to spiritual death rather than physical. Examples: T. K. Abbott, The Epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, n.d.), 2:39; F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 280.

[26] W. G. Blaikie, The Pulpit Commentary: Ephesians, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones, 61 (Bellingham: Logos, 2004); MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, 92; Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament: For the English Reader, Eph 2:1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997, c1984).

[27] Contra Joel R. Beeke, “Does Assurance Belong to the Essence of Faith? Calvin and the Calvinists,” Master’s Seminary Journal, 5:1 (Spring 1994; 2002) 64; and Wiersbe (Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, “An exposition of the New Testament comprising the entire ‘BE’ series”–Jkt., Eph 2:1 [Wheaton: Victor, 1996, c1989]).

[28] Aldrich, “The Gift of God,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 122:487 (July 1965; 2002) 248; George Meisinger, “Salvation by Faith Alone, Part 2 of 2,” Chafer Theological Seminary Journal, 5:3 (July 1999; 2002) 23; Alfred Martin, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary: New Testament, Eph 2:2, Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett Falconer Harrison editors (Chicago: Moody, 1962).

[29] Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, Eph 2:1.

[30] MacDonald and Farstad, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, Eph 2:1.

[31] Carson, New Bible Commentary, Eph 2:1.

[32] Harold W. Hoehner, “Ephesians” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton: Victor, 1983-c1985) 2:622.

[33] Jamieson, et al., A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Eph 5:14; Blaikie, The Pulpit Commentary: Ephesians, 210.

[34] Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 376; Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Eph 5:14; Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 42 (Dallas: Word, 2002), 332.

[35] Hoehner, “Ephesians,” 2: 639.

[36] Lincoln, Ephesians, 332; MacDonald and Farstad, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, Eph 5:14.

[37] Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Eph 5:3.

[38] Jamieson, et al., A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Eph 5:14.

[39] Blaikie, The Pulpit Commentary: Ephesians, 210.

[40] Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene Albert Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, Originally published under title: A Translator’s Handbook on Paul’s Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon., Helps for Translators; UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1993], c1977), 59.

[41] Carson, New Bible Commentary, Col 2:13; Norman L. Geisler, “Colossians” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1983-c1985), 2:678; Peter T. O’Brien, Word Biblical Commentary: Colossians-Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 44 (Dallas: Word, 2002), 122; Edward R. Roustio, “Colossians” in the KJV Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1994), 2461.

[42] MacDonald and Farstad, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, Col 2:13.

[43] Richard R. Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary, Vol. 32 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001, c1991), 262.

[44] Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1996), 163.

[45] Robert B. Hughes and J. Carl Laney, Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary, Rev. ed. of: New Bible Companion. 1990.; The Tyndale Reference Library (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 2001), 535.

[46] Chafer, “The Consummating Scripture on Security,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 107:426 (April 1950; 2002) 142; Jamieson, et al. (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Ro 8:10) rephrase Paul thus: “If Christ be in you by His indwelling Spirit, though your ‘bodies’ have to pass through the stage of ‘death’ in consequence of the first Adam’s ‘sin,’ your spirit is instinct with new and undying ‘life,’ brought in by the ‘righteousness’ of the second Adam”

[47] J. Barnby, The Pulpit Commentary: Romans, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones (Bellingham: Logos, 2004), 208; Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8, 431; Godet, Commentary on Romans, 304-05; MacDonald and Farstad, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, Ro 8:10; Kroll, “Romans,” 2239.

[48] Even so, this is not to affirm that believers sin in the body but not in the spirit. The person sins; not parts of his being.

[49] The Letter to the Romans, ed. William Barclay, lecturer in the University of Glasgow, The Daily Study Bible Series, Rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 2000, c1975), 105; Barnby, The Pulpit Commentary: Romans, 208; Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Ro 8:10; Mounce, Romans, 179; Witmer, “Romans,” 2:470.

[50] MacDonald and Farstad, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, Ro 8:2.

[51] Mickelsen, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary: New Testament, Ro 8:5-13.

[52] Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, 816. “An oxymoron is a wise saying that seems foolish.”

[53] A. Duane Litfin, “1 Timothy” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton: Victor, 1983-c1985), 2:742.

[54] Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, 818; Carson, New Bible Commentary, 1 Ti 5:6; A. C. Hervey, The Pulpit Commentary: 1 Timothy, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones (Bellingham: Logos, 2004), 96; Jamieson, et al., A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, 1 Ti 5:6; Homer A Kent, Jr. The Pastoral Epistles, Revised ed., (Chicago: Moody, 1958, 1982), 170; George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans; Carlisle, England: Paternoster, 1992), 219; Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin,  1, 2 Timothy, Titus, electronic ed., The New American Commentary, Vol. 34 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001, c1992), 147; MacDonald and Farstad, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, 1 Ti 5:6; Mounce, Word Biblical Commentary: Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 46 (Dallas: Word, 2002), 282.

[55] C. Sumner Wemp, “1 Timothy” in KJV Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1994), 2503.

[56] MacDonald and Farstad, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, Re 3:1; Walvoord, “Revelation” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton: Victor, 1983-c1985), 2:938.

[57] Alan F. Johnson, “Revelation” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 12 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 449.

[58] Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Revelation (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1943, 1963), 127.

[59]Charles L. Feinberg, “Revelation” in the KJV Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1994), 2664.

[60] Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 110; Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody, 1966), 79.

[61]G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans; Carlisle, England: Paternoster, 1999), 273.

[62]David E. Aune, Word Biblical Commentary: Revelation 1-5:14, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 52A (Dallas: Word, 2002), 219.

[63] Ibid., 164; Woodrow M. Kroll, “Romans” in the KJV Bible Commentary, Edward E. Hindson and Woodrow M. Kroll general editors (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1994), 2235, states, “Sin has no existence apart from God’s law, since by definition sin is the violation of God’s law.” (bold his)

[64] Godet, Commentary on Romans, 274; Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, On spine: Critical and Explanatory Commentary, Romans 7:8 (Oak Harbor: Logos, 1997); Witmer, “Romans,” 2:466; The Nelson Study Bible: New King James Version, Earl D. Radmacher, general editor, H. Wayne House, New Testament editor, Romans 7:8, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997); Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Romans 7:8; W.E. Vine, Romans 7:8 in Collected Writings of W.E. Vine (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1996); Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, Translation of: Exegetisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990-c1993):461. A. Berkeley Mickelsen (The Wycliffe Bible Commentary: New Testament, Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison, editors, Romans 7:7 [Chicago: Moody, 1962]) expresses a different understanding by saying, “Paul does not say that sin is not committed without law. He is saying that without law sin is not apparent to us. It takes a carpenter’s level to make clear how far from straight a board really is.”

[65] Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 250.

[66] William MacDonald and Arthur Farstad, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, Romans 7:8 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1995).

[67] Romans 7 describes Paul’s post-conversion struggle with his sin nature, not pre-conversion.

[68] Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, 538, 564.

[69] MacDonald and Farstad, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, Heb 6:1; B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 144.

[70] Jamieson, et al., A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Heb 6:1.

[71] Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament (Bellingham: Logos, 2002) 4:442.

[72] MacDonald and Farstad, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, Heb 9:14.

[73] Ibid. Heb 6:1.

[74] Zane C. Hodges, “Hebrews” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary editors (Wheaton: Victor, 1983-c1985), 2:793.

[75] Hodges, “Hebrews,” 2:802. See also, Earl D. Radmacher and H. Wayne House, editors The Nelson Study Bible: New King James Version, Heb 9:14 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997).

[76] Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 113; Paul Ellingworth and Eugene A. Nida, A Handbook on the Letter to the Hebrews, Originally published: Translator’s Handbook on the Letter to the Hebrews. c1983., UBS Handbook Series; Helps for Translators (New York: United Bible Societies, 1994], c1983), 110; James Freerkson, “Hebrews” in the KJV Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1994), 2547; Jamieson, et al., A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Heb 9:14; Leon Morris, “Hebrews” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 12 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 53. Kent (The Epistles to the Hebrews, 106) sees the “dead works” as sins in general in 6: 1 but including “legalistic ceremonies which cannot impart life” in 9:14.

[77] Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text, Spine title: Commentary on Hebrews (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans; Carlisle, England: Paternoster, 1993), 314.

[78] Ellingworth and Nida, A Handbook on the Letter to the Hebrews, 196.

[79] Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, 535. Hypallage is where two nouns are “reversed in order or construction without regard to the purely adjectival sense” of the clause. In this case “faith” and “dead” are interchanged and Bullinger (537) sees James actually meaning that “the man who says he has such faith is dead.”

[80] James Dunn (“Response to Michael P. Barber,” in Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment, Counterpoints, eds. Alan P. Stanley and Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013) 201) describes “dead faith” as “not … true faith.” See also James Adamson, The Epistle of James, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 124; Jamieson, et al., A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Jas 2:17; Simon J. Kistemacher, James and I-III John, New Testament Commentary, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), 89-90, and “The Theological Message of James,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 29:1 (March 1986; 2002) 58; MacDonald and Farstad, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, Jas 2:17; Ralph P. Martin, Word Biblical Commentary: James, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 48 (Dallas: Word, 2002), 85; Walter W. Wessel, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary: New Testament, Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison, editors, Jas 2:15 (Chicago: Moody, 1962); John F. Walvoord, “Series in Christology, Part 4: The Preincarnate Son of God,” Bibliotheca Sara, 104:416 (October 1947; 2002) 423. Charles Ryrie, (Charles C. Ryrie, So Great Salvation (Victor, 1989), 133) says that “unproductive faith is a spurious faith.”

[81] J. Ronald Blue, “James” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck editors (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1983-c1985), 2:825; James Montgomery Boice, Christ’s Call to Discipleship (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 17; Peter Davids, Commentary on James, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 119; Hughes and Laney, Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary, 682; James D. Stevens, “James” in the KJV Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1994), 2590; Kurt A. Richardson, James, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary, Vol. 36 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001, c1997), 133; Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Jas 2:14.

[82] MacDonald and Farstad, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, Jas 2:17. So, too say others: MacArthur, “Faith According to the Apostle James,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 33:1 (March 1990; 2002) 16, 22; Larry Richards and Lawrence O. Richards, The Teacher’s Commentary (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1987), 1023; Robert L. Saucy, “Second Response to ‘Faith According to the Apostle James’ By John F. MacArthur, Jr.,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 33:1 (March 1990; 2002) 44.

[83] Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter, The Daily Study Bible Series, Revised edition, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 2000, c1976), 74; Chafer, “The Eternal Security of the Believer, Part 2,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 106:424 (October 1949; 2002) 401. Walvoord modifies Chafer’s position slightly and says that “while works are not the ground or justification for salvation, they can be the fruit or evidence of it” (“Christ’s Olivet Discourse on the End of the Age, Part VII: The Judgment of the Nations,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 129:516 [October 1972; 2002] 312).

[84] MacArthur, “Faith According to the Apostle James,” 32.

[85] As quoted by Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Jas 2:14.

[86] Aldrich, “Some Simple Difficulties of Salvation,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 111:442 (April 1954; 2002) 167; Davids, The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 122, 134; William W. Howard, “Is Faith Enough to Save? Part 2,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 98:392 (October 1941; 2002) 500.

[87] John F. Hart, “How to Energize Our Faith: Reconsidering the Meaning of James 2:14-26,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, 12:1 (Spring 1999; 2002) 62-63.

[88] Paul Benware, “The Social Responsibility of the Church,” Grace Journal, 12:1 (Winter 1971; 2002) 7; Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege: Faith and Works in Tension, second ed. (Dallas: Redencion Viva, 1981, 1992), 30.

[89] Hodges, Absolutely Free: A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1989), 125.

[90] Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Jas 2:17.

[91] Hodges, The Epistle of James (Irving: Grace Evangelical Society, 1994), 63.

[92] Donald W. Burdick, “James” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 12 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 183. He also fits into the first category when he says (182), “Faith that does not issue in regenerate actions is superficial and spurious.”

[93] Hart, “How to Energize Our Faith: Reconsidering the Meaning of James 2:14-26,” 48.

[94] J. Kevin Butcher, “A Critique of the Gospel According to Jesus,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, 2:1 (Spring 1989; 2002) 35. Hodges (“Calvinism Ex Cathedra: A Review of John H. Gerstner’s Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, 4:2 [Autumn 1991; 2002], 65) correctly notes James’ figurative use of dead, but wrongly argues that this “implies that a dead faith was once alive, just as a dead body that has lost its spirit was once alive. He develops this analogy more fully in Absolutely Free [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989], 125).

[95] Some might argue that James describes demons as having non-saving faith in James 2:19. Though James uses πιστεύω with demons, his use of “believe” is not a reference to either justifying or sanctifying faith. Rather, it refers to recognizing certain facts as true. James follows the verb with a ὅτι of content to describe what they believe, not in whom. When πιστεύωis used with regard to faith directed toward an object, the prepositions εἰςor ἐνare normally used with the object or person following, thus faith “in Jesus” or “in God.” Jesus employs both uses of πιστεύωin John 14:10-12 when He tells the disciples to believe what He has taught them, and then refers to someone believing in Him. Thus, demons are not trembling because God is the object of their faith, but because the undeniable truth about God terrifies them.


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Intimacy With God and the Fall


People feel God is distant, far away, absent.

People run from God, are estranged and separated from Him.

People feel God is their enemy, that He hates them.


The challenge of relational intimacy is illustrated in the famous American short stories, Sherwood Anderson’s “Unlighted Lamps”.[1]  In it, Anderson depicts a small town in America circa 1908, and the relationship of a father—the town doctor—with his eighteen-year-old daughter.  Late on a Sunday afternoon, the girl decided to go for a long walk, thinking about her father’s recent comment, that he was a victim of heart disease and might die at any moment.  Anderson adds,

With these words the Doctor had turned and walked out of his office, going down a wooden stairway to the street.  He had wanted to put his arm about his daughter’s shoulder as he talked to her, but never having shown any feeling in his relations with her could not sufficiently release some tight thing in himself.

During her walk she reflects on her lack of intimacy with her father.  She had no real relationship with her father or with anyone in this small town for that matter.  He not only buried himself in his work, but was also, obviously, a man closed off to close relationships with anyone, which appears to be why his wife left him years earlier.

Before her return, the daughter and the father on their own resolved to reach out to each other.  The daughter “resolved that the night should not pass without an effort on her part to make the old dream come true,”[2] the dream of an intimate loving relationship with her father.  At the same time, her father on a house call actually said out loud, “Tonight I’ll do it.  If it kills me I’ll make myself talk to the girl.”[3]  This promise of resolution is palpable and right within their grasp.  However, the story closes with him ascending to the top of the stairs to find his waiting daughter, but he suddenly then falls backward down the stairs, presumably the result of a heart attack, and dies.

Sherwood Anderson often contended that not only was small town Americana extremely romanticized, but its citizens were as well.  They were full of flaws and inabilities to cultivate intimate relationships, so flawed that he labeled them “Grotesques”. And while there is truth in his assessment of early 20th century Americana, the Bible clearly declares that every human who has ever lived (and will live) is a grotesque.  This malady is evidenced not only in their relationships with each other, but also with God Himself.  From Adam and Eve’s fateful choice to disobey God, human capacity for intimacy with their good Creator has been deeply flawed.  What is the source of these flaws, this estrangement, these barriers?  How can we understand them in order to draw near to God?  Let’s look at the backstory in light of these questions.



The capacity for intimacy with God begins with His creation.  Unlike the father in Anderson’s short story, God has always initiated intimacy with Him.  In fact, it is a reflection of His very own nature as the Triune God.  Creation is not only the act of the God, the Spirit and His Word (Gen 1:1-3; John 1:1-3; Col 1:16-17) as individual members of the Godhead, but the act of “Us” (Gen 1:26).[4]  This creative interaction has set the pattern for the active relationship God has with His creation.

God instilled the capacity for intimacy in humans themselves.  He made man and woman in His image as the capstone of His creation.  Von Rad rightly observes that when the text of Genesis 1:26 notes “the announcement of a divine resolution: ‘Let us make man’ . . . God participates more intimately and intensively in this than in other works of creation.”[5]  The resemblance men and women have to God is found at minimum in the companionship and complementarity they have for each other.  Hoekema aptly adds, “In this way human beings reflect God, who exists not as a solitary being but as a being in fellowship.”[6]  The active intention of this is when God shares His dominion over the rest of creation with them.  We might wonder whether God and Adam and Eve were discussing the management of His creation during their walks in the Garden (Gen 3:7).

Furthermore, built into the created order is the intimacy of humankind patterned after their Creator.  Part of this dominion has been to fulfill the mandate to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28), an aspect of their one-flesh marriage union (Gen 2:24).  What follows is a simple summary description of their open and safe relationship, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen 2:25).  This is strategically placed in the narrative at the end of their creation in chapter 2 and preceding the description of the Fall in chapter 3.  It describes the pattern of human intimacy and its subsequent distortion.  Thus central to understanding the nature and relationship of God and His creation is the intimacy within the Godhead itself and the profound capacity for human intimacy with God and others.



This designed capacity for intimacy with God was severed at one moment in history.  The Fall was the result of the serpent’s test and twist of the thesis that the man and woman’s relationship had been based upon an honest open sharing between them and God.  The serpent deceived the woman into believing that God indeed had not been sharing everything with them.  Why hadn’t He allowed them to experience the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?  Had God really said that about it?  It appears Eve at that very moment was to either trust God because of the intimacy of their relationship up to that point, or go and make a trusting connection of intimacy with God.  In other words, why not simply ask Him?  But instead they both rebelled and ate the forbidden fruit.

The consequence of this sin did not bring about “the promise of divine enlightenment,” but “mistrust and alienation replaced the security and intimacy they had enjoyed”[7] not only with each other, but also with God Himself.  The self-conscious nakedness and inadequate attempt at self-protective covering underscore the destruction of their intimacy.  Furthermore, the previous pattern of their walking with God in the Garden in the cool of the day (3:7) was interrupted forever.  God calls for them, asking, “Where are you?” in order to draw them out of their hiding.  Universal estrangement had begun.  Because they both did not trust in God’s revealed law or will concerning the source of wisdom from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” the LORD God declared clearly that the consequence would be becoming in a most perverted way “like Us, knowing good and evil” (3:22).  It appears, then, that the ban from the Garden, the wandering of Cain, etc. are examples of this universal estrangement playing itself out, and the Tower of Babel, Jacob’s wrestling with God, etc. are just some of the examples strewn along the path of man’s vain attempts to restore intimacy with God on their own terms (cf. Rom. 1:21-23).

The Apostle Paul personalizes this universal estrangement by describing humanity as God’s “enemies” (ἐχθροὶ, Rom 5:10).  The human mind is set on the flesh and practices “enmity” (ἔχθρα) or open hostility toward God and His will (Rom 8:7).  What concept describes the recalcitrance and relational distance and discord more vividly than this?  That is why it is so significant that Christ’s atoning sacrifice not only provides forensic justification to the believing sinner (Rom 3:24-26; 4:5; 5:1), but also the complete removal of the boiling wrath with which God reciprocates the enmity and replaces it with reconciliation (καταλλάσσω) (Rom 5:10-11)!  Forensic justification is the foundation for this restored intimacy, because “having been justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1).



We humans are truly “grotesques.” Further investigation into what the Scriptures have to say about our universal estrangement from God reveals continuing barriers to intimacy with Him.  These barriers are cultivated in the human heart and mind, and yet, external forces also play into this relational discord.  Let’s look at a sampling of certain key results of the Fall that cause this human-divine estrangement.


Spiritual Adultery

James 4:8 is one of the clearest passages in the Bible exhorting believers to keep close to God.  In this case, God’s people are to draw near to Him.  James, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, promises, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” However, this is not a promise without significant conditions.  The aorist active imperative (ἐγγιεῖ)[8] not only describes the privilege to draw near to God, but additionally shows that failure to do so is, at minimum, disobedience.

The most striking feature of this exhortation is that it provides a cure for two specific cancerous destroyers of intimacy: spiritual adultery and Satanic opposition.  First, James calls out his readers for their unfaithfulness to God.  His people who are selfish, envious and quarrelsome (4:1-3) will not only see their prayers to God go unanswered, but will find themselves acting as His enemies.  Friendship or intimacy with the world and its materialistic values is nothing other than spiritual adultery (v. 4-5).  There could be no more horrific and painful image that James could use to describe this kind of sinful breach of intimacy with God.[9]   On this drawing near, Davids notes, “This term normally indicates an activity of worship: All their church’s worship is not a coming near, for their community disharmony rooted in preoccupation with worldly success makes it unacceptable.”[10] The cure for this first barrier is plainly given: humble repentance before God.


Satanic Opposition

The second destroyer of intimacy with God in this passage comes from Satan’s opposition.  James calls his readers to cease succumbing to Satan’s desires to separate them from their intimate relationship with God.[11]  In verse 7, James calls them to “resist the devil and he will flee from you.”  Then he exhorts them to draw near to God.  It is at that point that He will draw near to them.  The flow of thought is as if James was reflecting on Satan’s role in the Fall of humanity.  He had caused Eve and Adam to doubt their close relationship with God, and now seems to have this same strategy for all believers.  God must be holding out on us and so we shouldn’t trust him with our needs and wants.  Thus, estrangement is cultivated.

The cure for this relational cancer is clearly again humble repentance in refusing to listen to the Devil’s lies about how to fulfill one’s desires.  This humble repentance assumes that spiritual and emotional cleansing of this Satan-inspired adultery needs to take place.  This is because James immediately exhorts the offender in verses 8b-10: “Cleanse your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, you double minded.  Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.”  Moo aptly describes this image, “Those who sincerely repent and turn to God will find him, like the father of the prodigal son, eager to receive back his erring children.”[12]  God is open to intimacy, but not as if He was a sort of jovial Santa Claus.  We must understand the seriousness of our sin and the damage it does to our relationship with God.  We must seek to make things right with Him, rather than arrogantly assuming He will “forgive and forget” the hurt He experiences.


Arrogant Self-Sufficiency

A related example of a barrier to intimacy with God is the effect that arrogant self-sufficiency has on our relationship with God.  David provides us a window into this malady.  In a moment of candor when reflecting on the Lord’s deliverance, he described his own self-deceived satisfaction.  He had allowed himself to think he was fully responsible for his safe and prosperous lifestyle in Jerusalem.  However, the Lord allowed it all to be taken away by rebellion of his own son, Absalom.  It was at that point that he saw his sin’s connection to his feelings of estrangement from God.

Now as for me, I said in my prosperity

“I will never be moved,”

O LORD, by Your favor You have made my mountain to stand strong;

You hid your face,

I was dismayed (Ps 30:6-7).

He had made the illogical leap to surmise that his prosperity (shalu-ease) was a sure sign of his enduring rule and safety.  His assumed enduring stability[13] was born out of his wrong-headedness.  It is because of this that the Lord concealed or covered (sathar) His very warm, supportive and intimate presence.  This brought David to a point where he felt his life was in complete ruin.

David should have known this from Saul’s life.  The Lord was deafeningly silent when Saul was arrogantly self-sufficient.  The infamous witch of Endor incident is one such case in point (1 Sam 28).  The Lord was already displeased with him, and refused to be some sort of genie at his beck and call (v. 6, 16).  His lack of closeness with the Lord was in stark contrast to David, “the man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam 13:14).

We must remember that taking on an arrogant self-sufficient attitude is characteristic of the wicked[14] (cf. Ps 10:1, 6).  We are assuming that we are ultimately responsible for any successes we have, or perhaps that we cannot be moved from our stable position in any aspect of life (cf. James 4:13-17).  The Lord takes this as a show of contempt or a spurning of Him and His gracious presence (Ps 10:3). He then blocks not only our ability to see Him and to enjoy His gracious presence, but also withdraws His blessing of personal peace and stability.



Often distraction is a barrier to intimacy with God.  The familiar account of Mary, Martha and Jesus in Luke 10:38-42 is a great example.  Martha welcomed Jesus into her home, but became distracted with her hostess preparations and became worried and bothered.  Mary was in the deeply intimate position of sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to his teachings.  Martha’s distraction caused her to miss a marvelous opportunity simply to be with the Lord.  It drove her to resentment rather than reclining in the Lord’s very presence.  She even blames Jesus for allowing such cultivation when she exclaims, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone?  Tell her to help me.” Jesus, however, does not get sucked into Martha’s distraction, but simply states, “Mary has chosen the good part.”  He affirms her choice to spend time with Him when she could have been distracted.

The Fall has introduced into the human race the skewed value of doing good things at the sacrifice of the best.  Many of us get so busy and then notice, “Where’s God?”  It is like drifting in an inner tube from the beach.  The joy of floating distracts from the wisdom of staying close to the shore.  Relaxing in the sun lulls one into distraction from the drifting. Suddenly, the shore is no longer visible.  Martha probably should have recognized at that moment her humble, and maybe even seemingly humiliating, need to admit her being distracted from the most important person who has ever walked this earth.  Like her, we must not allow ourselves to become distracted and drift away from sitting at our Lord’s feet and hearing His voice.



On a different level than the previous barriers, the Fall has brought suffering that somehow hides God.  The feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and being alone often come in these times.  The transparency of David in the Psalms, for example, allows us to see into the heart of a believer who experiences the inner turmoil of the Lord’s perceived absence in the very midst of devastating trials.  He cried out in Psalm 27:7-10,

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;

be gracious to me and answer me!

You have said, “Seek my face.”

My heart says to you,

“Your face, Lord, do I seek.”

Hide not your face from me.

Turn not your servant away in anger,

O you who have been my help.

Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation!

For my father and my mother have forsaken me,

but the Lord will take me in.

The Lord’s hidden face appeared to be the worst possible result of the circumstance.  In Psalm 69:17, David called this a “distress,” the binding, cramping, or besieging feelings of an inescapable trial (from tsarar).  He knows God’s expressed desire for close fellowship with him, but he has to remind the Lord and himself that separation and feeling alone and abandoned are not the way their relationship is supposed to be.  He saw himself as the Lord’s servant (cf. Ps 102:2).  Logically, the Lord should move His ear, as it were, closer to them and quickly answer His suffering servant’s calls for help.

These trials may seem like they will last for an eternity.  Repeatedly David cried out to the Lord in Psalm 13:1-2,

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I take counsel in my soul

and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Not only was he not experiencing the blessed nearness of His God, but he seemed also to be left with the conclusion that he had been forgotten, left on his own, and utterly humiliated by his enemies (cf. Job 13:24-28; Ps 39:12-13).



Humans truly are grotesques.  We are broken and things are not as they should be. Yet we are fully culpable for cultivating estrangement from God.  It is as if too often the fallen pull of our hearts polarizes away rather than pulls toward God’s heart.   Beyond that, our suffering through the trials of life externally threatens our sense of His nearness to us.  Where is He in the midst of losing a job, enduring a divorce, watching helplessly over a suffering child, etc.?

Any expectations for an easy, long lasting and unassailable intimacy with God do not reckon with the radical effects of humanity’s Fall.  One might wonder if ideas in our culture about storybook romances and the unrealistic fantasy of living happily-ever-after have helped, in part, to create an inability to take personal responsibility for human movement away from God.  In his incisive study, Thomas Bergler describes an aspect of the typical middle-class American church as having worship services where,

The congregation sings top-forty-style songs addressed to God and heavily peppered with the words “I,” “you,” and “love”.  In the sermon, the pastor may talk about “falling in love with Jesus.” With or without the romantic analogy, the preacher will spend a lot of time on the topic of God’s love.  Even in theologically conservative churches, you won’t hear much about guilt, suffering or judgment.[15]

This can lead to expectations of a sort of intimacy with God that are not based in repentant obedient trust in the holy Creator and Redeemer, but rather in a form of adolescent idolatry and self-deception.  We may one day find ourselves looking at our “relationship” with God and find that He hasn’t delivered what we expected. Some may even break-up with Him.

Nevertheless, we are not without hope.  James’ words continue to call us to “draw near to God” in humble repentance with the promise that He will draw near to us.  Our calling from God is to trust and obey and to be loyal to Him as our Savior and Master.  He is proven and trustworthy.  In this damaged era before Christ returns, He ever invites us to experience true intimacy with Him.  It is part of our calling as His servants and children to respond.  We can enjoy the closeness of His presence.  We can experience communication with Him and hear His voice through His Word prompted by His Spirit.  We can see His face and sense the lifting of His countenance as we recount His promises and celebrate His blessings.  We can know His care as we feel His hand of blessing and deliverance.  The Fall can never fully separate us from God.


[1]Sherwood Anderson, “Unlighted Lamps,” Great American Short Stories, edited by Wallace and Mary Stegner,


[2]Anderson, “Unlighted Lamps,” 298.


[3]Ibid., 302.


[4]See Wenham, Genesis 1-12 (Waco:  Word, 199), for a good summary of the evidence that these first person plural pronouns in Genesis 1 and 3 refer to God as more than one person, as opposed to the “royal ‘we’”, or God and angels views.

[5]Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, Translated by John H. Marks (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961), 55.

[6]Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 14.

[7]Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 137.

[8]The only means for gaining intimacy with God in this age of salvation history is coming to God through His Son, Jesus Christ.  There are several passages in Hebrews where Christ is the means to drawing near to God.  Hebrews 4:16; 7:19, 25; and 10:22.


[9]For an extensive study of this biblical theme see, Raymond C. Ortland, Jr., God’s Unfaithful Wife: A Biblical Theology of Spiritual Adultery (New Studies in Biblical Theology), (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003).

[10]Peter H. Davids, James, New International Biblical Commentary, vol. 15, (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrikson, 1989), 102.

[11]Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 148.


[12]Moo, The Letter of James, 148.


[13]The Hebrew term mot here shows he assumed his lifestyle would notfalter, give way, be shaken, or totter and fall.


            [14]Wickedness is devastating to intimacy with God.  Proverbs 15:29 declares, “The Lord is far from the wicked, but He hears the prayer of the righteous.” These “wicked” are rasha or criminally evil.  In 15:26 they are known for their evil plans vs. pleasant words.  In 15:27 they offer bribes. 15:28 provides a serious contrast by stating, “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer,But the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.”  Since there were “believers” and “unbelievers” in the physical nation of Israel (Rom 9:6), the wicked here are probably unbelievers.  However, it does imply that the Lord then is not only near to the righteous, but that because He is, He hears their prayers, and hears them close up, so to speak.  What does this imply about our intimacy with Him when we dream or plan evil in our hearts and have unpleasant and evil words like the wicked?


[15]Thomas E. Bergler, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 1.


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Eden and After

“Every way of knowing is
blessed by bootleggers.”
Robert Bly

Bootleggers know some of the
best things in life
can’t be bought
out in the open.

They know our thirsts
are vagrants,
our hungers
liars and cutthroats.

In the back country,
bootleggers get caught every autumn,
their stills exposed
when leaves drop off the trees,
a yearly rehearsal for our lives –
living in the fall,
our sour mash exposed
to the light.

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The Crucified King Book Review

The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology

Author: Jeremy R. Treat

Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014. 305 pages

Reviewed by Dr. Gary W. Derickson, Professor of Biblical Studies


What is the relationship between Jesus’ crucifixion and coming kingdom? When will or did Jesus’ reign over His kingdom begin? What is the nature of His kingdom? Is it spiritual and redemptive? Jeremy Treat addresses these questions from a Reformed, and therefore Amillennial, perspective in his work, The Crucified King.

The book’s ten chapters are divided between his biblical theological and systematic theological arguments for a direct connection between Jesus’ death on the cross and the coming of His kingdom. In his introduction he states the purpose of his work. “This book will not only demonstrate the inseparability of kingdom and cross, but will also define the way in which they relate. (37)” He then defines the kingdom of God in terms of two aspects: “God’s reign through His servant kings over creation,” and “God’s redemptive reign through Christ and his reconciled servant-kings over the new creation” (41-43).

He begins his biblical theological argument by affirming his view that the central overarching message of Scripture is “one grand story of redemption” where “the coming of God’s kingdom and the crucifixion of his Son both transpire within the same overarching story of redemptive history (53).” His view is that “the kingdom of God is established on earth by the atoning death of Jesus on the cross” and that “the end-time reign of God shockingly breaks into the middle of history in the death of the Messiah.” (53)

Treat considers Isaiah as the “mountaintop” of the Old Testament’s “story of Israel” and the “viewpoint to look forward into the New Testament” (68). He argues that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52-53 should be read in light of both Christ’s suffering and His rule as king. His basic thrust is that since this Servant is depicted elsewhere in Isaiah as the coming King, the two aspects should be combined and seen as a unity rather than as two separate things (70-71). The thrust of his argument ultimately develops around a rejection of the idea that Isaiah could be describing two distinct comings of Messiah, one as the Suffering Servant, Jesus’ first coming, and then as reigning king, Jesus’ second coming. As an Amillennialist, he must argue that Jesus’ suffering on the cross began His royal reign and the kingdom came then. Jesus’ exaltation to heaven for Treat is the beginning of Jesus’ reign as Messianic king. Thus, there is no need for a future return until the end of the earth and beginning of the eternal state.

His discussion of Mark’s Gospel as portraying Jesus’ coming to His kingdom by way of the cross (88) is heavily dependent on his theory that Mark was building his imagery and argument from Isaiah 40-55 because of Mark’s reference to Isaiah in the first three verses of his Gospel. This appears to be more a case of finding connections and allusions that promote one’s idea rather than being the focus of Mark himself. In short, he failed to convince me that the Gospel’s focus was to show the King receiving His kingdom through the “victory” of the cross rather than His resurrection and exaltation (110). This can only work if the kingdom promised Israel is a spiritual kingdom rather than a physical kingdom that includes the land of Israel with Israelites dwelling in the land.

Rather than seeing the kingdom of God as a literal reign of Christ on earth as promised to Israel in the Old Testament, Treat says “the kingdom of God is God’s redemptive reign through Christ and his reconciled servant-kings over the new creation, which entails victory over evil, forgiveness of sins, and a new exodus” (135). For him, the second of the two ages anticipated by the apostles (this age and the age to come when Jesus will bring His kingdom) began at the cross and “the end-time reign of God on earth has broken in at the midpoint of history in the crucifixion of Christ. Furthermore, the cross not only falls between the ages, it is the hinge on which ages turn. … The cross does not merely fall between the two ages of redemptive history; rather, it causes the very shift from one to the other” (137). This ignores the fact that, after Jesus had spent 40 days with the apostles after His resurrection, instructing them further, they asked Him just before He ascended in Acts 1:6, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (NKJV, emphasis mine) Jesus did not reply that they were mistaken and the kingdom had already begun. Rather, He gave them our marching orders—be witnesses to the ends of the earth—to be obeyed until He returned.

Treat’s arguments from systematic theology reflect his Reformed theology as he connects the cross with his understanding of the kingdom as a present spiritual reality rather than a future hope.

I found the strengths of the book to be twofold. First, Treat uses a lot of imagery and pictorial language to convey ideas. I found I could visualize much of what he said. Second, he reviews in advance what his presuppositions are and what he hopes to accomplish in each chapter. Thus one knows what to expect and can read his arguments more comprehensively and critically. I also appreciate his consistency in articulating his position and interpretations. His work is an excellent study of a Reformed approach to interpreting Scripture and integrating it with one’s theological system. This is a work I would point someone to who wants to understand how Reformed theologians approach both testaments with respect to the kingdom promised David and Israel that is yet to be fulfilled by Jesus’ return to rule. I say this as a Dispensationalist who believes in a literal future kingdom with all of God’s promises fulfilled to Israel nationally, not through the church spiritually. This leads to a further assessment of this work.

Beginning with the introduction, I found Treat often difficult to follow. I seems he was attempting to speak more to the scholarly community than the body of Christ (normal people). Also, to me his use of such complex definitions indicated he was trying to put too much into each concept or explanation. I had to re-read passages to understand fully what he was trying to say. As a result, I found this book to be slow reading. Even so, I must admit it made me think more thoroughly through the issues, even though he failed to convince me his understanding of the messages of the Old and New Testaments are correct.

Treat seems to read the Old Testament historical and prophetic literature typologically. For example, when Jesus spoke of His suffering fulfilling prophecy in Luke 24:46, “he was not merely proof-texting Isa 52:13-53:12 or some other elusive individual prophecy of a suffering Messiah. He was interpreting his life, death, and resurrection as the fulfillment of a pattern in the story of Israel, a pattern characterized by humiliation and exaltation, shame and glory, suffering and victory” (54). Further, his attempt to show a pattern throughout the Old Testament of the connection between God’s kingdom and Christ’s atoning death involves selectivity of a very few instances or individuals, and ignores vast sections of the Old Testament that would not support his thesis. Israel’s history is one of disobedience and discipline (Exodus, Numbers, Judges, Kings, Chronicles, the prophets), not atoning sacrifice.

I found the greatest weakness of the book to be his failure to address those passages or arguments by Premillennialists. It would seem that he has taken the presuppositions of his theological system and squeezed the Old and New Testaments through its grid. This made his arguments less convincing and explains why few if any other theologians, even within Reformed theology, understands the relationship between Jesus’ death on the cross and the coming of His kingdom in the same way.

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Review of Slow Church

Review of Slow Church

Authors: C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison

Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

246 pages, including end notes

Reviewed by Mark A. Jacobson

Inspired by the Slow Food movement in the late 80s and motivated by the conviction that the McDonaldization of the American church—the Church Growth Movement—remains the default thinking for many congregations, Chris Smith and John Pattison have written a book with the goal “to help inaugurate what we hope is a broad and long and even slow conversation on the topic” of how best to impact our neighborhoods with the Gospel (16).

The term “McDonaldization” is used throughout the book to refer to the values of the Church Growth Movement, values that include homogeneity, top-down governance and decision-making, an emphasis on numbers, efficiency, predictability and control. Smith and Pattison set against those values the values of Slow Church, which include quality never sacrificed to quantity, being purposeful but unhurried, community as opposed to individualism, a bottom-up thoughtful conversation about the mission, goals and direction of a church, all in the context of the firm belief that a local congregation should view itself as fulfilling a dynamic, fluid, synergistic role in its neighborhood.

“Neighborhood” instead of the more general “community” is intentional. One of the chief metaphors used by the authors for the church is that of rootedness. The metaphor emphasizes the concept of “local” in “local church.” Attractional churches may draw people in from far outside the geographical margins of the community and end up not resembling the church’s neighborhood. Satellite churches are largely shaped and influenced by a source outside of the community in which it is located. The authors urge the alternative model of a church being an integral part of its neighborhood. This kind of church has grown up in the neighborhood soil. It reflects all its unique characteristics—racial mix, income disparities, education, and so forth. Slow churches are patient churches, skeptical of the “advantages” of uprooting and relocating. The authors have written this book “as a way of reimagining what it means to be communities of believers gathered and rooted in particular places at a particular time” (15).

For those familiar with the philosophy and distinctive practices of evangelical Friends congregations this book will have a familiar ring to it. Passive engagement of the culture, decision-making by consensus, relationship-building, conversing with each other and listening to one another are values shared by the Friends and Slow Church advocates. This is not to suggest that the book is a Quaker manifesto; these values are seen primarily from the standpoint of New Testament teaching regarding the nature of the church.

The book is structured around another metaphor, that of the family meal. The opening chapter—“A  Theological Vision for Slow Church”—is the appetizer, with three courses following. The first course is Ethics, which sets forth the principle that quality must never be sacrificed to quantity or any of its siblings, such as efficiency, expediency, predictability, homogeneity and control, all virtues of the Church Growth Movement. Anything of lasting value takes time, and time over time. The second course is Ecology, which places the local church within the larger context of God’s reconciliation of all things in the culture. The authors constantly remind their readers that church ministry is holistic, potentially impacting every aspect of one’s neighborhood. The third course is Economy, which celebrates the abundance of the resources that God has provided for churches, emphasizing a gratitude that leads to generosity and, especially, hospitality.

The authors do not set forth their own ministries as reproducible models to be cut and pasted into any other neighborhood, which is the genius of McDonaldization. Chris is involved in a Christian Church located in urban Indianapolis that forty or fifty years ago had two thousand members (less today); John in a Friends Church in the small town of Silverton, Oregon. The two locales couldn’t be more dissimilar. Both churches, however, are exploring what it means to be deeply connected to the neighborhood in which each is situated. This causes the reader to think more it terms of principles behind Slow Church than to duplicate specific ministries used throughout the book as examples of those principles.

Do not look for a full-blown description of what it means to be a Slow Church. Much more could have been said, but the authors limited themselves to certain basic concepts at the core of Slow Church thinking. As with any book on church ministry, readers will agree and disagree with thoughts presented. Slow Church, however, deserves a second and third reading, especially for those weaned on Church Growth principles and thus for whom “Slow Church” may seem anachronistic, a throwback to another time and place.

This book is an invitation to think biblically about church ministry, an invitation that church leaders and members should accept with gratitude.




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