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Thanks again to Connie at Crossway for a review copy of this book. 

This part of my review of Hamilton’s book, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, will deal directly with the thesis of the book (unlike Part 1, which dealt with other matters in the book).  Hamilton’s thesis is found in the title itself: that the central theological theme of the Bible is God’s glory in salvation through judgment.  Every other theme (God’s love, holiness, etc) “flow from, exposit, and feed back into the glory of God in salvation through judgment” (p56).

Hamilton is making a big claim here.  As he points out, some have tried to make a similar claim, while others despair of finding a single center.  But Hamilton isn’t shy about making his point (and even, somewhat audaciously, outright attempting to do for biblical theology “what Kevin Vanhoozer has done for hermeneutics and David Wells has done for evangelical theology” [p38]), so I won’t be shy in evaluating his attempt to defend his thesis.

Hamilton’s basic approach is to move book by book, arguing that the underlying theological center of each book is ‘God’s glory in salvation through judgment.’  He does this by means of looking at smaller units and stories within each biblical book.

Sometimes it works…

There are certain books that fit Hamilton’s thesis like a glove.  The first book that came to mind when I heard Hamilton’s thesis (even before reading the book) was Exodus.  God judges Pharaoh & Egypt and saves Israel, and does so that Moses/Israel/Egytians/Pharoah will know that he is Yahweh (see chart on p94).  It would be hard to argue against Hamilton in this case.  Another biblical book amiable to Hamilton’s thesis is Revelation.  As in Exodus, God saves his people by pouring judgment on their enemy (Babylon) ultimately resulting in God being glorified for who he is.  Again, not too hard to see the point.

On the whole, Hamilton tends to be strongest in his treatment of the prophetical books, where salvation and judgment are often seen side-by-side and God’s glory is a central theme.  Although there are some questions regarding the definitions of ‘salvation’ and ‘judgment’ in these sections, as well as the exact nature of their relationship to each other, Hamilton makes a strong case for his thesis in the prophets.

…and sometimes it doesn’t

As strong as he is in some areas, Hamilton is particularly weak in others.  I came away completely unconvinced that ‘God’s glory in salvation through judgment’ is the central (or even a central) theme in the epistles.  More on this in a bit, but suffice to say he has to assume his thesis too often in this section to make it work.

Because Hamilton insists on seeing his thesis everywhere, he has some painfully forced interpretations.  This can be seen in some treatments of smaller units of Scripture.  In dealing with the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac, Hamilton claims “Isaac is saved through the judgment that falls on the ram” (p88).  But what exactly was the judgment for?  Did anyone do anything wrong?  What is being judged?  Does all sacrifice have to happen because of judgment?

Hamilton runs into problems on a larger scale, too.  In Ecclesiastes the judgment found is “the judgment of discontentment and unrealistic expectations” (p317).  Really?  I’m not entirely sure what that phrase means.  In Ruth, Hamilton has to read judgment into it on such a deep level that one has to question whether it can rightly be read as the ‘theological center.’  Can something be the center if it’s never mentioned or alluded to?

In his treatment of Jonah I honestly had to wonder if we were reading the same book.  God kills the plant that provided shade for Jonah, then rebukes Jonah for getting mad about it (Jonah 4:5-11).  Hamilton writes, “Jonah was brought through the judgment of his attitude to salvation.  This salvation takes the form of rejoicing in Yahweh’s inclination to relent and show mercy” (p247).  Umm, who exactly is rejoicing and what verses record that rejoicing?  Would anyone have read Jonah thought of this unless they were importing the theme and insisted on seeing it?

The truth is Hamilton’s thesis doesn’t fit most of the books of the Bible.  You may be able to argue it’s there, but arguing the centrality of it is something he doesn’t pull off.

The problem of definitions

What I just touched on is a significant problem for Hamilton’s thesis: how exactly are salvation and judgment defined?  Oddly enough, he never really offers a definition; the result is that their usage is at times so broad it cheapens the ‘real thing.’

Sometimes salvation is obvious- God rescues his people from enemies, sickness, etc.  But sometimes Hamilton really needs to step back and explain what exactly he means by ‘salvation.’  What does it mean for Paul to lead his readers unto salvation when they are already saved?  For example, at the end of his (very short) discussion on 1 Corinthians 15, Hamilton writes, Paul “judges and condemns false notions about the resurrection and through that seeks to deliver the Corinthians for the glory of God” (p461).  But deliver them from what, exactly?  What does it mean for readers who are already saved (in some sense) to be lead to salvation by having judgment cast upon false theology?

I’m not saying that Hamilton is necessarily wrong here, but he never explains what he means.  Perhaps he thinks the answer is so obvious that it doesn’t need an explanation, but, I’m sorry to say, he’d be wrong.

The same point can be made for the concept of ‘judgment.’  There are obvious cases (previously mentioned), and not so obvious ones (note the aforementioned ‘judgment of discontentment’).

So what happens is that the definitions of both words seem flat.  If something good happens- rescued in battle, healed from sickness, falling in love- it’s salvation.  If something bad happens- going into exile, overcoming sin, or wondering if your life is going anywhere- that’s judgment.  Methinks someone lacks a bit of nuance…

None of this is simply an academic critique or a debate over fine points of theology.  I have a deeper reason for my frustration regarding this.  I agree that salvation comes in many forms in the Bible; it is, as they say, a many splendored thing.  My problem is this: Hamilton never weaves the various strands together to demonstrate the beautiful tapestry that the Bible itself presents to us.  To change the metaphor, he’s too busy strumming his one chord- an important one, no doubt- that he can’t allow the reader to hear the symphony.

Contrast this, for example, with Christopher Wright’s Salvation Belongs to Our God (reviewed here).  Now, I have disagreements with Wright’s book; at least as many as I do with Hamilton’s.  But Wright does something that Hamilton doesn’t.  He connects the themes and shows the reader how it all fits together.  All throughout his book I was blown away at how brilliant God’s plan of salvation has been shown throughout history, and will be right up until the end.  In 1/3 of the space, I learned far more about what the Bible actually says about salvation than I did reading Hamilton’s book.

Can the Center Hold… Methodologically?

Truth be told, I think Hamilton’s project- proving that salvation through judgment to the glory of God is the central theological theme of the Bible- is pretty much doomed from the start.  Because what he cannot do is find a method that will actually back up what he says he’s going to do.

Hamilton has to assume his thesis in too many places to prove its centrality.  This is most clearly seen in his treatment of the epistles.  Hamilton’s method is basically this: show how each NT epistle fits with the thesis, then say something like “see, this is the central theological theme of the book.”

But all he can really do- and I would argue this is true of any one proposed center- is show how it fits, but not how it is central.  For example, let’s say I wrote a book arguing that creation/new creation is the central theological theme of the Bible.  I can easily demonstrate (in fact, far more easily than Hamilton can with his thesis) that Paul, John and the other NT writers assumed that God’s new creation is primarily seen in his people, so when they wrote their epistles they expect that Christian communities live out of the life of a new creation (in their ethics, in their preaching, in their ministry, etc).  So even if not explicitly stated, ‘new creation’ is the controlling theme underlying everything that is said.

What I would be doing in this hypothetical book is exactly what Hamilton is doing; that is, showing how my thesis sheds light on aspects of the Bible.  But what I’m not actually doing is showing that it’s central.  It’s there, it’s important and it is a basic assumption of the biblical writers.  But the central theme?  I can’t really even begin to think of a method that could carry that weight (unless, of course, your central theme is ‘God’).

Concluding Thoughts

I realize it seems I’m being hard on Hamilton.  The truth is, as I’ve stated, he sets the bar high for himself with his rather large claims.  He claims to be demonstrating the single most central theme of the entire Bible.  He doesn’t hedge his bets much, an admirable trait.  If he had simply said ‘here’s an important, but often overlooked, theme of the Bible’ this review would have been about ¼ of its size.

I truly did enjoy this book.  I learned a lot, was challenged in some areas, and confused in others.  I feel sorry for whoever might borrow this book from me, as there are now markings all over the place.  This is a sign of a good book, one I’m glad I read.

So I’m not convinced his thesis is correct, but I am convinced that Hamilton is on to something important.  I happily recommend the book to anyone who would wish to read it and learn more about our glorious God.

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Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Heb. 4:16)

I recently watched a sermon by Matt Chandler that has caught me in some interesting tensions.  In his sermon, Chandler offers a “test” by which one can know that they have really grasped the Gospel (my words, not his; and to be fair, the following loosely paraphrases his point, which was not the main point of his message).  The test boils down to this:  Do you approach God any differently on a good day versus a bad day?

Consider the bad day:  You wake in the morning with a complaining, ungrateful heart, skip your morning devotions, back slide into one of your recurring sin patterns, wimp out when you feel like you should share with the stranger sitting next to you on the bus, and short change your family in favor of watching the Bruins game, eventually falling asleep discouraged and convicted by your sin.  In every regard, you blow it.  Now, consider the good day:  Your morning is marked by a powerful encounter with God through His Word, you meet a friend in need and bring them encouragement and truth to help them through their hard time, you lead that stranger on the bus to Christ and plan to meet them at church that week, and you skip the Bruins game to finish your translation work for the sermon series in Hebrews, but only after you’ve spent another hour in deep, soul-satisfying prayer, and have given a month’s pay to a missionary couple heading to Bhutan.  In every regard, you “nail it” (to use Chandler’s language).

After either of these days, do you approach the Lord in prayer with any more or less confidence that He hears you?  Loves you?  Delights in you?  The short way of presenting this “test” might be: “How does your performance affect your posture to God?”  If you get the Gospel, Chandler says, it doesn’t.  You know that it is not by your righteousness that you have God’s ear, but by Christ’s, and you know that your righteous works “are as filthy rags” anyway, so on either day, you are equally confident and aware of God’s love, acceptance and attention.

On the surface, I like this “test.”   I think it illustrates the point of being saved by grace through faith quite clearly.  While I do take it as a mere illustration (i.e., not a systematic, precise, delicately nuanced description of our lives in Christ), it leaves me dealing with all sorts of tensions, some of which are quite  illuminating.  To throw out two:

(1)  Confidence and humility.  While we may approach God with confidence (on the basis of what Jesus has done for us), scripture testifies that we must also do so humbly (e.g., Lk.18:9-14, 1 Pet. 5:6, and about a million other places).  I think this is a tension for me because I’m not used to being confident without being prideful, or at best, confidence is often the slippery slope that leads me to pride.  Perhaps the reason here is that my confidence is often misplaced.  After all, one usually has a basis for one’s confidence.  Mine too often falls on my own ability or performance.  Don’t blink, because we’re right back at the Gospel again:  It’s about Jesus; who He is and what He’s done, not me.

(2)  Pleasure and displeasure.  Certainly God does not delight in my sin.  Yet, even though I still sin, in Christ, I’m white as snow.  So God takes pleasure in me as I’m in Christ, yet displeasure when I sin (which is quite often).  This tension can probably be filed in the (bulging) “already/not yet” folder, but for now it leaves me in an interesting place:  Do I not feel guilt and shame when I sin?  Am I not overjoyed when I experience victory over my sin?  So how could my good and bad days look the same with respect to my posture towards God?  Here, I think my tendency is to confuse emotions with reality.  I can feel ashamed and guilty as I approach God on my bad day, yet I remember that in reality I’m free of all guilt and shame.  I can feel joyous on my good day, yet I remember that in reality I’ve nothing good in myself; it’s all thanks to God.

Here are two examples of how the gospel changes everything.  To point (1), Confidence and humility can co-exist because the confidence is placed in someone other than ourselves.  For point (2), our standing before God doesn’t require us to trivialize sin, nor does it require us to exalt ourselves.   We can be simultaneously sorrowful (“I’m a sinner!  Forgive me!”) and joyful (“Praise be to God that I’m forgiven!”), or, joyful (“I spent my entire day helping the poor!”) and humble (“Thank you God for giving me a heart for the poor!”)

In all, I’d say Chandler’s “test” probably does require plenty of explanation and refining if we want to carry it beyond illustrative purposes; It’s certainly not meant to answer the question of one’s personal salvation (i.e., “I failed the test!  I must not be saved!”).  But as a point of meditation, or a question to ask yourself, it can be helpful, revealing, convicting and encouraging all at once, much like the Gospel itself.

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I’ve been staring at my computer screen for about 10 minutes, wondering how to start this book review.  So I’ll just jump to my conclusion- I loved it.  Christopher Wright is quickly emerging as one of my favorite authors, combining a biblical scholar’s precision, a theologian’s broad scope and a missiologist’s heart, not to mention an uncanny ability to say much in little space (the book is under 200 pages). 

The book, as you can surmise from the title, is about salvation- Salvation Belongs to Our God: Celebrating the Bible’s Central Story.  The “control text” (as he calls it) is Revelation 7:10:

Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.

He unpacks this little song, sung by the innumerable multitude from “every nation, tribe, people and language,” phrase by phrase, sometimes dealing with something as small as a word (“our”), to unpack “what the Bible means when it uses such phrases” (p16).  That may seem painstakingly slow, but what the reader is treated to is a whirlwind trip through the Bible.  This is not a classic, systematic theology-style treatment of soteriology.  Wright is much more concerned to unpack the story of salvation, from Eden through Abraham to Jesus all the way to Revelation.

Because of this, the reader learns more about the Bible than a few quick tips on “how to get saved.”  Wright covers the variety of ways God saves (sin, danger, sickness, enemies, etc).  He emphasizes the uniqueness of God’s identity as Savior (especially in Isaiah, if you’re studying Isaiah you should get this book), as well as the implications for understanding Christ as Savior.  The way he weaves the biblical covenants into the story line of the Bible was perhaps my favorite part of the book.  In most sections, he demonstrates from both OT and NT texts what he is emphasizing, showing the reader that there is far more continuity between the testaments regarding salvation than many think.

Wright does, of course, deal with some heavy theological issues.  How do other religions fit into the picture (though I should point out that he’s quick to affirm that Christianity itself does not save someone)?  What about the destiny of the unevangelized?  What is the relationship between Jew and Gentile, Israel and the nations, in the New Covenant?  Many readers will not agree with everything he states, but nonetheless he treats positions fairly and argues his case well.

It’s not that I learned something new in this book.  Wright’s conclusions and arguments are hardly novel.  Most evangelical readers can affirm the theological points he is making without reading the book, save for maybe one or two.  But it’s the way Wright goes about writing about salvation.   Having such a fully-orbed treatment of the subject, written in an engaging- one could even say “worshipful”- tone was refreshing to my soul. 

That isn’t to say I agreed with everything in the book.  No doubt in effort to keep the book short, Wright sometimes makes assertions without support (I, of course, notice these things on points of disagreement between him and me).  He is an Anglican (paedobaptist), so when he draws a strong connection between Old Covenant circumcision and New Covenant baptism, I (the credobaptist) automatically have my defenses up.  I’m also uncomfortable saying that salvation is “mediated” through the Scriptures and the sacraments.  I wonder why he chooses that word, since it hardly clarifies what he was trying to say.

I did have one disappointment regarding the holistic nature of salvation and eschatology.  Early in the book, and scattered throughout in smaller chunks, Wright notes that the Bible talks about salvation in a number of ways: salvation from enemies, poverty and so on.  He notes the danger is separating “theological” or “spiritual” salvation too far from “physical” salvation.  But, he argues, rightly in my mind, that salvation from sin and its consequences is given highest priority in the Bible.

And while he does speak about the eschatological (future) nature of salvation, I kept wishing he would bring these points, the holistic and eschatological, together more definitely.  The clear implication of what he says throughout the book, in my opinion, is that in the new creation- the New Heavens and the New Earth- salvation in all its facets, spiritual and physical (if we can use these terms) are brought together.  Physical salvation (salvation from sickness, enemies and so on) which has been experienced by various portions of God’s people at various points in history, will be experienced fully (Rev 21:4, for example).  But the key to experiencing that eschatological salvation is to experience salvation from sin in this age.  Throughout the book I felt like Wright (though perhaps he wouldn’t agree with this) was leading the reader to this point, only to dance around it and never fully state it.  I felt like he was a football team, marching down the field with ease, only needing to punch the ball across the goal line for the winning touchdown, only to settle for a field goal (sorry, football season is right around the corner and I’m getting antsy).

But you know what?  I don’t care.  I liked this book too much to worry about it for too long. 

I have not had a book capture my attention like this one in quite some time.  I took, no exaggeration, 33 pages of typed notes on this book!  33 pages!  (Now you’ll understand why I’m having trouble keeping this review short).  There was so much to soak in, I didn’t want to miss anything.  Even my detractions demonstrate how engaging Wright’s book is, as I found myself thinking alongside him with my Bible open and pen in hand.  And I’m not ashamed to admit that my heart literally raced at points as I was so drawn into God’s plan of salvation and His identity as Savior.  A theology book that brings you to worship- now that’s a great book!

So go out and get Salvation Belongs to Our God.  Read it critically (in the good sense).  Read it carefully.  Read it reverently.  Because the God who saves is not merely a point on your statement of faith.  He is the God before whom we will stand and sing, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

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If salvation were something that we could find for ourselves or achieve through some self-chosen religious pathway, then evangelism would be a matter of going to other people and trying to persuade them to be like us, to follow our religious practices, or adhere to our sacred methods and rituals.  We would be salesmen for our particular religious brand.  We would be advertisers, making claims for our own particular product and promising happiness and satisfaction to those who buy this product instead of some other one.  Sadly, that is how a lot of Christian evangelism actually does operate, and certainly it is what it often sounds like to the outside world.  And understandably people reject such tactics.

But God did not call his people to persuade others to follow the practices of their religion in the hope of finding salvation for themselves.  He did not call us to advertise our own brand or extend our own franchised salvation outlet stores.  God called his people to be witnesses to what God himself has already done.

Christopher J H Wright, Salvation Belongs to Our God, p110.

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