Grace that is greater than all our sin: An interview with Timothy Paul Jones
EDITOR’S NOTE: In what follows, Timothy Paul Jones, C. Edwin Gheens Professor of Christian Family Ministry and associate vice president for online learning at Southern Seminary, discusses his new book — co-written with Sojourn Community Church pastor Daniel Montgomery — PROOF, with Towers book review editor Matt Damico. A brief review of the book appears in the May 2014 issue of Towers.
MD: So, proof of what?
TPJ: The focus of PROOF is the unassailable proof of grace that God has provided through the cross of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, all that God’s justice demands has already been delivered, and nothing remains for us to do to earn God’s favor. To make this point about God’s grace, we unpack a simple acronym throughout the book: planned grace, resurrecting grace, outrageous grace, overcoming grace and forever grace.
MD: What was your aim in writing the book?
TPJ: The point of this book is to provide people with a fresh reminder that our salvation doesn’t depend on us and to present this reminder in a way that highlights the beauty of God’s plan and the joy of sharing this good news with others. In his book Killing Calvinism, Greg Dutcher notes that “Reformed theology is not an end in itself; it’s a window to the awe-inspiring universe of God’s truth, filled with glory, beauty and grace.” That attitude and approach to Reformed theology is what we wanted to exemplify throughout this book.
Geerhardus Vos says something to the effect that God’s work of grace in the life of a sinner is meant to be a mirror that reflects God’s glory to the world. Sometimes, presentations of Reformed theology express all the right facts about how God’s grace works, but they miss the grandeur and joy that God intends to display through the workings of his grace.
MD: For whom did you write PROOF?
TPJ: Although I certainly hope that professors and seminary-trained pastors read the book, we didn’t aim this book at scholars and specialists. As I wrote portions of this book, I thought often of my father — a small-church pastor who read voraciously but who never had the opportunity to attend high school, college or seminary — and I asked myself, “Would this have made sense to him?”
MD: How does your acronym relate to TULIP? Are you replacing it?
TPJ: Well, it’s somewhat unfortunate that, if someone has heard of Reformed soteriology, it’s typically been described to them in terms of “five points of Calvinism” and summarized using a flower from the land of windmills and wooden shoes.
I suspect that John Calvin would have deplored the thought that any theological system might bear his name. Calvin didn’t even want his name to appear on his own tombstone! His desire was to be buried in an unmarked grave alongside the common citizens of Geneva. And, of course, the “five points” didn’t emerge until the Synod of Dort in 1619 summarized their soteriology in five doctrinal headings, more than a half-century after Calvin’s death. That’s not to say that Calvin wouldn’t have assented to the five points — I think he would have — but the representatives of the Reformed churches at the Synod of Dort arrived at these five points through vigorous discussions with one another and rigorous exegesis of Scripture, not because of anything John Calvin said or did.
Related: May 2014 Issue of Towers
As far as I have been able to find at this point — and I’m certainly open to correction on this if anyone finds something earlier — the TULIP acronym itself didn’t emerge until the early twentieth century, although all of the individual phrases used in the TULIP can be found in the nineteenth century or earlier. Phillip Schaff, in an article from the 1890s, specifically referenced all five, using all of the now-familiar terms.
We believe that PROOF makes the same points as TULIP in a way that’s more memorable and truer to the proceedings of the Synod of Dort. “Planned grace” is analogous to limited atonement, “resurrecting grace” points to total depravity, “outrageous grace” goes with unconditional election, “overcoming grace” is the term that Timothy George has suggested in place of irresistible grace and “forever grace” is the same as perseverance of the saints.
MD: What keeps people from discovering and living in, as you write, “the intoxicating joy of God’s wild and free grace”? What’s the solution?
TPJ: Martin Luther once pointed out that humanity after the fall is no longer able to imagine or to conceive any way to be made right with God other than works. That’s why it’s crucial that we return again and again to an emphasis on grace alone. If we pull back from a consistent proclamation and explanation of grace, the people in our churches tend to take one of two wrong turns in their Christian faith: Some confuse grace with divine approval and see grace as God’s acceptance of whatever they do or desire to make them happy; the result of this wrong turn is a diluted sentimentalism that downplays holiness and never calls for transformation. Others begin to see grace as the starting-point for their salvation but then become convinced that it’s up to their efforts to maintain God’s favor; this wrong turn leads toward legalism or simply to exhaustion and frustration, with people forgetting that Christ has already delivered everything that God’s justice demands. Freedom and joy come when we simultaneously rest completely in Christ and recognize this rest in Christ as a foundation for our active pursuit of holiness. Grace not only liberates us from the demands of the law but also frees us and enables us to pursue holiness.
Excerpts from PROOF
Editor’s note: The following excerpts come from a review copy of the book, and may not reflect the final version.
From the chapter, “Planned Grace”
Long before he created the world, God had already mapped out his people’s salvation from beginning to end.
But it wasn’t only a plan for salvation that God mapped out in eternity past! According to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, God “works out everything” however he pleases (Ephesians 1:11; see also Psalms 115:3; 135:6). Sovereignty is essential to God’s nature. God cannot relinquish his sovereignty over human history any more than God can commit suicide. That’s why he’s able to promise his people that he will make “everything beautiful” at precisely the right time (Ecclesiastes 3:11; see also Romans 8:28 – 29). His purposes are so secure that they can never be thwarted (Psalm 33:11; Isaiah 14:27). His mapping of history is so meticulous that he can declare “from the beginning … what is still to come”
From the chapter, “Resurrecting Grace”
We are living likenesses of God, but we are blinded to the life-giving beauty of the gospel (Genesis 1:26 – 28; 2 Corinthians 4:4). We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), but we are spiritual zombies from the moment we’re conceived (Psalm 51:5). “We are all sinners, not only from our birth, but before,” medieval theologian John Wycliffe observed, “so that we cannot so much as think a good thought” (see Genesis 6:5; 8:21).
From the chapter, “Outrageous Grace”
Outrageous grace does not back away from the truth that the law tells — that God demands obedience and his standard is high. What grace declares is that God’s standard is nothing less than perfect holiness, that you were born shattered and short of the standard, but that the Son has met the standard once and for all. The God of all grace has invaded human history in the flesh of Jesus Christ, and he has trumped and trampled the treadmill of trying to earn favor by keeping the rules (Hebrews 10:1 – 18). The bill has been paid in advance, and God’s disposition toward you no longer hangs on the thread of your performance.
From the chapter, “Overcoming Grace”
One of the most common contemporary depictions of our salvation portrays a chasm of sin between God and humanity that’s bridged by the cross of Jesus. And, up to a point, this is a helpful and appropriate image. The problem with this picture is that it sometimes leaves humanity on one side of the chasm and God on the other. There, on his end of the bridge, God waits for sinners to find their own way across. He beckons us and begs us, but he never crosses the bridge himself. Well-meaning Christian teachers make this same point in different words when they claim that “God is a gentleman, and he waits for people to come to him.”
But that’s not even close to how the Scriptures describe God’s saving work.
The God of the Scriptures is no debonair gentleman who waves to us from the opposite side of a chasm, hoping we will find it in our hearts to respond. In Jesus Christ, God himself crossed the chasm between himself and humanity (John 1:14; 12:27). He came as a righteous shepherd who sacrifices his life to snatch his sheep from the jaws of the beast (Ezekiel 34:10; Matthew 18:12 – 14; John 10:11 – 15).
From the chapter, “Forever Grace”
God’s grace isn’t just his pardon for your sin; it’s his power at work in your powerless life. And that’s why grace isn’t opposed to working out our salvation; grace is opposed to working for our salvation.
Perseverance isn’t about performance that earns God’s favor; it’s about putting in effort to bring to fulfillment what God has already accomplished and guaranteed.