Saturday, September 30, 2006

Raising up children to Abraham from stones

John the Baptist said, "do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham" (Mt 3.9, Lk 3.8).

I've always taken John's statement to be that, if God chose, he could do a miraculous work and turn the stones themselves into children of Abraham.

And maybe that is what John is saying.

But a thought occurred to me: In the OT, stone (flint) knives are used to circumcise (Josh 5.2-3, Ex 4.25). Perhaps John the Baptist is saying, "Don't count on being Abraham's children to save you, God can always create more children of Abraham through circumcision." That is, John is saying that those stones there could be used to circumcise more people and so create more children of Abraham -- God's plans are not so tied to these individuals (or this generation) that he dare not judge them because doing so would frustrate his plans.

So the reference in the passage to using these stones to raise up children to Abraham is not that God would miraculously turn the stones into Israelites, but that the stones could raise up children to Abraham by being used for circumcision.

Recall, after all, that even in the OT, circumcision, not physical relationship with Abraham, made one an Israelite (Ex 12.48). Indeed, if a physical descendent of Abraham did not receive circumcision, then he was to be "cut off" from the people (Gn 17.14).

This also fits the context, as John admonishes those who are baptized to bring forth fruit in keeping with their repentance (Mt 3.8). John is telling them to receive what it means to be baptized, just as they must receive what it means to be circumcised. As Jeremiah said, "Behold, the days are coming," declares the LORD, "that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised" (Jer 9.25). The rite does us no good if we reject its purpose. (Note, however, that God invites us to trust these rites to receive his grace -- to become a child of God through circumcision, at least in the OT, and to receive forgiveness through baptism.)

Nothing rises or falls on reading John's statement this way rather than the way I typically read it. And I see no compelling reason to read it this way (or the other). Still, it seemed an interesting, possible alternative to the ordinary reading.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Forde’s “On Being a Theologian of the Cross”

This summer I read Gerhard O. Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, but have just now gotten around to blogging about it.

First, this is not exactly a book about Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation. Rather, as the subtitle has it, it is a book of Forde’s “Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation.” These are Forde's thoughts prompted or stimulated by Luther's disputation, not a study on what Luther thought he was advancing in the disputations. So I’m unsure how much of what Forde writes is Luther, and how much is Forde. This makes a difference, as when Forde, apparently, denies the substitutionary atonement of Christ’s death. (See below.) I actually wanted a book that exposited on what Luther meant in some of the perplexing affirmations of the Disputation. In that sense this book did not help me as much as I had hoped it would.

Still, Forde emphasizes two basic themes well worth emphasizing regarding “being a theologian of the Cross.” The first is an extended meditation on the breadth and depth of sin, particularly as it relates to what we think are our "good works." There is nothing (“religiously”) good in what humans do. “Our righteous acts are as filthy rags,” as Jeremiah has it. It is worth emphasizing that all that we do as good results from Christ’s grace, and not from any worthy inclination or merit of our own. Forde (following Luther, and Augustine, and Paul . . .) admirably spells out the broad implications of this for us. There is no room for boasting. Period.

Secondly, it seems to me that Forde is at his best in writing about what a “theologian of the Cross” says about suffering.

Luther’s 20th thesis is: “That person deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God through suffering and the cross.”

The 21st thesis of the Disputation is: “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”

Moderns effectively equate suffering with evil. Philosophy classes discuss “natural evil,” which is suffering caused by tornados, hurricanes and other “acts of God.”

Luther writes: “God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said. Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are dethroned and the Old Adam, who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”

Tough stuff. To his credit, Forde is a discerning enough psychologist to cut off the back route of our temptation to then glory in our suffering. He writes sarcastically: “Jesus is set up as our model, ‘Misery loves company’ is the prime Christological motif. Christ humbled himself and descended into the world of suffering so we ought to too. If, on occasion, this causes a bit of pain or discomfort, we can tally it up on our ledger of good works.”

Forde, following Luther (such as I know Luther), never lets up on this, cutting off every self-deceiving means by which we seek to claim glory for ourselves instead of for God, and cutting off every human pretense that our works in any way merit any glory at all.

So it is a challenging and worthwhile book in that regard.

But Forde also hit some odd notes, in my judgment. Some really odd notes.

The first is his apparent rejection of the substitutionary atonement. Here’s Luther’s thesis:

“Thesis 19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things that have actually happened (or have been made, created).”

Luther provides only a brief explanation of what he means by this enigmatic thesis. Not one to tread lightly, Forde nonetheless barges in:

“Theologians of glory will claim not only to be able to see through creation but also to see through the cross to figure out the final ‘Why.’ Why did Jesus have to die? Apparently to pay for our failures and mistakes in the pursuit of ‘virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth.’ Thus, the cross is not really just what is visible. It becomes a launching pad for speculative flights into intellectual space, into the invisible things of God. It is not simply that a man sent from God is suffering, forsaken, and dying at our hands – as if that were not enough! – but he is payment to God (whose justice one has supposedly peered into and figured out) in some celestial court transaction” (pp. 75-76).

This is, seemingly, some sort of hobbyhorse for Forde, and sits very oddly as an ostensible consequence of Luther’s 19th Thesis.

Ignoring the implication that Forde would have to dismiss any number of passages in the Scriptures that relate to the atonement as the suggestions of defective, if apostolic, “theologians of glory,” it is not at all clear that Forde is tracking with the intended target of Luther's 19th thesis.

Reading the 19th thesis simply as an interested laymen, I would think that Luther has Romans 1.18-21 in the background to this thesis, as it pertains to the claims of natural revelation (or perhaps even natural law).

Paul writes in verses Ro 1.20, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”

Note the echoing in Luther’s thesis of “invisible attributes/invisible things of God” and “clearly seen/clearly perceptible.”

Now, without more, it might seem as though Paul’s claim here flies in the face of Luther’s thesis. After all, in Ro 1.20, Paul says that the “invisible things of God” are “clearly seen . . . through what has been made.”

While all of this can be seen by the soul unaffected by sin, for the fallen man, we do not see what is in fact clearly there. Instead we “suppress the truth in [or by] unrighteousness” (Ro 1.18). So here, I would suggest that Luther takes aim at the pretensions of natural theology to deduce things about the invisible attributes of God through that which is seen. Yes, an unfallen humanity could deduce God's invisible attributes through that which is seen, but fallen man can do so no longer, being so in love with sin rather than God that we deny what is right before our faces. (The Preacher of Ecclesiastes seems to make the same connection, “the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil, and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives,” 9.3.)

This hypothesis tracks with what I take to be the overarching theme of the disputation (such as I understand it) – tracing the implications of the total depravity of man in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The remainder of Romans 1 then traces the implications of our self-deceiving denial of God's nature.

I have a few other quibbles as well. At one point, seemingly caught up in enthusiasm for his topic, Forde speaks of the believer being indifferent about doing good works (because Christ accomplished all for us, don’t you see). This is a claim that he cannot, and does not, sustain when he gets to chapter 4 and considers that the Christian does good works as a result of what Christ did for us. So, too, he takes a gratuitous swipe at the “third use of the law.” To do so he must intentionally misread it (although he's not alone among Lutherans in misreading it just so he can reject it.)

Finally, I had an expectation – and expectation that Forde isn’t responsible for my having – that the book left unfulfilled. For me, Christology leads to ecclesiology. As Christ took up the cross, so we, too, are to take up the cross and follow him. So I expected a more extended meditation on what it means for the church to “walk as Jesus walked” in regards to the cross, and a theology of the cross. His discussion here was, I thought, a bit perfunctory.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Baptism for the Dead

“Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?” 1 Co 15.29

This is a difficult passage, not least because Paul is arguing by reference to the practice of a non-Christian group. This is easy to see from the passage and its context. Paul refers to the Corinthian Christians as “brethren” and in the second person (“you,” 1 Co 15.1). In referring to those who practice baptism for the dead Paul is not referring to the brethren or to “you” Christians. Rather, Paul refers in the third person to “those...who are baptized for the dead.” So Paul is not referring to a practice of the Christian Church. This becomes a problem because Paul distinctly refers to this practice as holding some sort of authoritative lesson for the Christian church. So while “those” baptized are not Christians, “those” who practice this baptism constitute an authoritative example for the Church. How can this be, and what does Paul mean?

First we must set the context. The passage is in the middle of an extended discussion of resurrection. In fact, Paul devotes all 58 verses of chapter 15 to a discussion of resurrection. The structure of the chapter looks like this:

-- vv. 1-11: Resurrection is a doctrine of “first importance” (vv. 3-4).
-- vv. 12-19: If there is no resurrection from the dead, then
-- Christ is not raised
-- Christian faith is in vain
-- the Apostles are liars
-- Christians are still in their sins
-- the dead have truly perished
-- Christians are most pitiable.
-- vv. 20-28: But Christ is resurrected.
-- Christ’s resurrection is only the first fruits of the general resurrection.
-- vv. 29-34: If Christ is not truly resurrected, then,
-- v. 29, Why are “they” baptized for the dead?
-- vv. 30-34, Why does Paul risk danger?
-- vv. 35-58: A discussion of the nature of resurrection.

I think there is a hint in verse 30 of whom Paul is thinking about in verse 29. That is, the people who place Paul “in danger every hour” are also “those” who baptize for the dead. Just think for a moment: whose practice may constitute authoritative examples for Christians, but are not Christians, and who might place Paul in danger? The natural answer is, of course, the Jews of Paul’s time.

We will return to the precise wording of verse 29 below. I want first to motivate what Jewish practice Paul might be thinking of in the context of resurrection and a baptism for the dead.

Clearly the writings and practice of the Old Covenant economy are authoritative for the Christian Church. This is why the Old Testament is part of the canon of the Church. The practice of baptism, however, is not an invention of the New Covenant Church (nor of Near Eastern mystery religions). There are a number of ritual baptisms described in the Old Testament, and prescribed for the Jews.

Thus, the New Testament author of Hebrews writes of Old Covenant rituals:

"The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed, while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the time then present, according to which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, since they related only to food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the flesh imposed until a time of reformation." (Heb 9.8-10)

The “various baptisms” in verse 10 is often translated as “various washings.” Nonetheless, the Greek word used there is “baptisms” (see, also, “instruction about baptisms” in Heb 6.2).

Now which baptisms is the author of Hebrews writing about? These baptisms are detailed in the immediate context of the passage. Specifically, in verse 13, the author refers to “the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling” as examples of the Old Covenant baptisms that he is writing of. Interestingly, the author here invokes the baptismal picture at key moments of covenantal inauguration. Blood was sprinkled, together with water, at the inauguration of the Mosaic covenant (Heb 9.19, cf., Ex 24.8), which includes the priestly service of the altar (Ex 24.6). (Note a communion meal directly following the sprinkling in Ex 24.9-11, esp. v.11).

But what we’re most interested in with reference to the “baptism for the dead” is the inclusion of “the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled” as one of the “various baptisms” (Heb 9.13).

The sprinkling of heifer ashes refers to a practice described in detail in Numbers 19, and suggestively, is a baptism prescribed for Hebrews who come in contact with dead people. The first 10 verses in chapter 19 describe the means by which the ashes were made, gathered, and stored. The ashes were to be obtained and kept “in a clean place” for the needed times (Num 19.9). Interestingly, the ashes are referred to as “water to remove impurity” (Num 19.9). That is, God terms the heifer ashes, “water to remove impurity.”

The baptism prescribed in Numbers 19 was to be used on two occasions. First, if anyone touched a dead body, then they were to purify themselves with the water/ashes on the third and seventh days after the contact (Num 19.12). So, too, if someone died in a tent, then everyone who entered the tent was unclean, and must be sprinkled with the water/ashes on the third and seventh day in order to be cleansed from the uncleanness of death. (We might note that if a baby inhabited a tent, and grandma passed away during the night, that baby would undergo this baptism as well as the adults who shared the tent, vv. 14, 18).

In the Old Covenant, after the fall of Adam, and as a result of the fall of Adam, death reigned supreme. The entire creation fell in Adam. God introduced life into the fallen creation through His covenants with Abraham and Israel. But “tendency” in the Old Covenant is for death to eat up life. (Now that Jesus has come, I believe we see the opposite tendency in the New Covenant.) That is, death spreads very easily in the Old Covenant. In Numbers 19, anyone coming into contact with a dead person, or who shared a tent in which there was a body, had death communicated to them and were accounted ritually defiled and unclean (cf. Heb 9.14, Nm 19.20). And not only were people who came in contact with a dead person, or in proximity with a dead person, ritually unclean, but anything or person that the unclean person touched became unclean also (Num 19.22). And so death spread.

A person who comes in contact with a dead person, or shares the same roof with a dead person, had death communicated to them, and so needed to undergo the baptism of the water/ashes before they were permitted to rejoin the living in the assembly of God. This should be a familiar theme to Christians, because baptism in fact marks the Christian’s resurrection from death to life. This is the burden of Paul’s argument in Romans 6.3-9 and Colossians 2.12. That is, in baptism we are united with the death of Jesus Christ, and so partake of the resurrection of our Lord. We move from death to life in baptism, just as the Hebrews portrayed the movement from death to life in the baptism of the sprinkled heifer ashes.

Now let’s return to 1 Corinthians 15.29. The key word in the verse is the Greek word huper, meaning “for.” The word occurs twice: “what will those do who are baptized for the dead” and, “If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?” Often times, huper means “for the benefit of,” and this is how the Mormons take the verse: That is, there are those who are baptized “for the benefit of” the dead.

Nevertheless, this is not the only way to take huper. Indeed, the Scriptures also use the word to mean “on account of” or “because of”. For example, huper appears in Romans 15.9, “the Gentiles ... glorify God for His mercy.” Quite obviously Gentiles do not give glory to God for the benefit of mercy -- mercy does not benefit from the glory we give God. Rather, we glorify God on account of or because of His mercy. So, too, in 1 Corinthians 15.3, Paul writes that “Christ died for our sins.” Now, Christ did not die for the benefit of our sins. Rather, he died on account of or because of our sins. This use of huper occurs often (see, e.g., 2 Co 12.8, Eph 5.20, Heb 5.1, 7.27, Acts 5.41, 15.26, 21.13). I also consulted several of the best Greek lexicons, and pestered a couple of Greek scholars. All held that this is a permissible reading of the word.

If so, then 1 Co 15.29 can be properly translated or read as the following:

Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized because of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized because of the dead?


Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized on account of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized on account of the dead?

In either case, the problematic nature of the passage fades. Paul indeed points to a non-Christian group and argues that this non-Christian group provides an authoritative example for Christians to learn from. But this is hardly novel, Paul elsewhere points to Israel as providing authoritative examples from which Christians can learn (e.g., 1 Co 10.6,11, Acts 28.23).

How, then, does this baptism fit into Paul’s overall argument for resurrection? The argument is now pretty easy to make from Numbers 19. If, in fact, dead people are not at all resurrected from the dead, the argument would go, then why do we have the picture of resurrection for those who merely come in contact with dead people in the Numbers 19 baptism? Or, to put it another way, if there is no resurrection of dead people, then why does the Numbers 19 baptism portray the resurrection of the dead into life on the part of those who merely come into contact with dead people? Let’s consider this in a little more detail.

Death – real death – is exclusion from the presence of God (2 Th 1.9, Mt 8.11-12, Rev 22.14-15). Resurrection is the movement from being excluded from the presence of God to being admitted into his living presence (Jn 5.25-26, Mt 22.31-32). As noted above, we observe the same movement from exclusion to admission into God’s presence in Numbers 19. The person coming into direct contact with or who is tabernacled with a dead person is excluded from God’s tabernacle – from God’s presence – unless they are baptized (Nm 19.13, 20). This is the very form of death. But upon completing the Numbers 19 baptismal rite – suggestively administered on the third and seventh day after contact with death (vv. 12, 19) – the person is cleansed of death and readmitted into the presence of God (vv. 13, 20).

Of course, the sequence of “death to life” portrayed in Numbers 19 is not a definitive sequence of death resurrected into life. Rather, it is a type, “a shadow of the good things to come” in the New Covenant (Heb 10.1). So Paul’s argument is this: what point is there to having a type if it portrays no reality? If the dead are not resurrected, then why would there be an Old Covenant rite that presents a picture of resurrection? It makes no sense, Paul would argue. The OT baptism for ["on account of"] the dead in Nm 19 is a typological picture of resurrection. But if there is a type, then the reality that it represents must exist as well, therefore the dead are truly resurrected.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A thought about animal sacrifice in the OT & the sacrifice of Christ in the NT

Here's a thought, perhaps a weird thought -- I don't know whether I buy it myself. Still . . .

Adam and Eve sin, they lose the image of God, and so God clothes them in animal skins, emblematic of their new bestial nature.

Throughout the Old Testament, beasts are then sacrificed as representatives of the people who sacrifice them. This is, in fact, appropriate. That God receives animal sacrifices on our behalf as our representatives is then again emblematic of our bestial nature created by the fall. So the OT sacrifices actually reflect, and remind us, of the loss of our humanity in the fall. After all, the sacrifice of a beast can only save another beast.

In that sense, while OT sacrifices protect (from God's wrath), they do not, and cannot, redeem. Something offered for redemption must be worth at least that which was lost. An animal cannot atone for the loss of one's humanity. (Indeed, even the sacrifice of a fallen human cannot redeem -- if humans are bestial because of the fall, then sacrificing another fallen human cannot repay for the humanity that we lost in the fall.)

Then Jesus comes, a new Adam (Ro 5; 1 Co 15). In him, then, is the sacrifice that can atone for the sins of a man. And through that sacrifice, God re-creates us as a new humanity in Christ.

Monday, September 11, 2006

"You are blessed if you do them"

"And so when Jesus had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and reclined again, he said to them, 'Do you know what I have done to you? You call me teacher and Lord; and you are right; for so I am.

'If then, the Lord and the teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master; nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.

'If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them'" (Jn 13.12-17).

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Imprecatory Prayer

My friend, Peter Leithart, has an interesting discussion of imprecatory prayers ( that prompted some thoughts I’ve been musing on for a while.

I don't want to "get around" imprecatory prayers for sentimental reasons. I also reject C.S. Lewis’s idea that they exist in the Psalms as examples of the way we shouldn’t pray. I also don’t want to mitigate the problematic nature of these prayers merely by “spiritualizing” away the problem.

But it did strike me a while ago that that I pray imprecatory prayers against myself all the time, and I welcome others to pray imprecatory prayers against me as well. In his small catechism, Luther talks about us drowning the old Adam in us daily, that a new man should daily emerge. What is this but a prayer of imprecation against the old Adam in us?

God kills the old man (Col 3.3, Ro 6.2,6, Gal 2.20, 6.14,). This is the only “me” that exists prior to baptism, and this is a real death, it is a death more real than physical death. After all, in physical death the spirit separates from the body; the death of the old man is the extinction of this self.

I pray imprecatory prayers against myself, and welcome others to do so as well: I pray that every remnant of the old man would be cut off from this world. I pray that every remembrance of the old man would be forgotten, I pray that every cent of the old Adam's wealth be taken away and given to the new man, I want the entire legacy of the old man to die with him. Indeed, I bless the name of the one who dashes my Old Adam's little ones against the rock – for the rock is Christ (Mt 21.44) and, like me, they are killed in baptism so that the new man may emerge.

But if I want all of that for myself, then how can I deny it to my enemy, whom I am commanded to love as myself? So I pray that God would kill them as well through baptism, that the new man may emerge.

More so, isn't the prayer, "God forgive them, they know not what they do," in principle, a prayer of imprecation? After all, isn't it a prayer for the destruction of sinful man?

To be sure, God may destroy without converting. But that's his business. We are to take as our example God's actions in sending rain on both the good and the evil (Mt 5.45). So I pray that God drown the old man daily. I pray it zealously for myself, for his church, and for the whole world. The prayer for grace and forgiveness is a prayer of imprecation against the old, evil man.

More generally, God and his people are engaged in a holy war against Satan and his people, and the tools of this holy war are the Word and sacraments, and sacrifice on behalf of the world. Ironically, of course, and it is a delicious irony, God kills the evil one's people by giving them life.

Monday, September 04, 2006

How I understand the NPP Story (with tweaks here and there)

Ok, here’s the way that I construct the “NPP” argument, such as I understand it, regarding the trajectory of redemptive history, Israel’s role in that history, and how the coming of the Messiah changed that role (at least as understood by important segments of Jewish society in Jesus' time). I like parts of the story, but I'm not sure I agree with it all. Indeed, I'm not sure that I know enough to agree or disagree with some of the more central and controversial claims. So my goal here is mainly to engage in a useful exercise (useful for me, at least, I won't speak for the reader): to write down the overall story in order to understand it better, and to tweak parts of it that I think may need to be tweaked.

[1] God chose Abraham out of all the nations to work through him. God’s purpose in Abraham ultimately was to bless the world by taking away its sin problem, allowing it to receive life from God and live in his presence.

During this interim period – the transitory period during which God would work through Abraham – the other nations were allowed to go their own way in ignorance (Acts 14.16, 17.30).

[2] God would draw Israel out as a whole nation through Moses, creating them a nation of priests, and speaking to the world through them (Ex 19.6, Dt 4.6, Ro 3.2, Acts 7.38). But there was a problem – a sinful people cannot draw near to a holy God without incurring judgment.

Because of Israel’s proximity to God in the Mosaic covenant, God needed to deal with Israel’s sin problem in a way that he did not need to deal with the sin problem of the Gentiles (who, being allowed to go their own way, were not in the same proximity to him as the Israelites).

This is Gal 3.19 in which the (works of the) law were added “because of transgressions.” This does not mean that the law made sin all the more sinful by defining them. Rather, it means that the sacrificial system of the law was added in order to provide forgiveness (or protection) to Israel in their dealings with God prior to the definitive provision of forgiveness by the messiah.

To be sure, the “works of the law” include positive moral commands. To the extent that one does not sin against the law, then one does not need a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. But the law fully and completely anticipated that Israel would fail to obey the positive moral commands of the law. After all, the whole point of the sacrificial laws is to provide a remedy for Israel’s sin, even if that remedy was transitional, due to pass away when the messiah came.

Israel does the “works of the law” and is therefore “under a curse” not in the sense that doing the works of the law meant that one was involved in a cursed works-righteousness – practicing the “works of the law” actually protected Israel, “he who practices them shall live by them” (Gal 3.12) – but Israel was under a curse in the sense that if they did not do the works of the law they would be accursed. That is, they took a vow to obey the law (Ex 24.7). Taking that vow put them “under a curse” in the ordinary sense that, if one takes a vow and does not perform it, then one is cursed (Acts 23.21).

In Gal 3.10, Paul does not mean that works righteousness is accursed (although it is, it’s just not what Paul is writing about at that point), he rather means that an Israelite was cursed if he sinned by not performing one of the works of the law (for example, he stole something) and then did not perform the works of the law required to receive forgiveness for it – the sacrifices that the law stipulated.

These are “works of the law” because the Israelites had to do the work of sacrificing the animals, in contradistinction to salvation through trusting in the sacrifice of God for them – the work that God does for them (and for us as well).

So, in fact, those who practice the works of the law do indeed live by them. If Israel did not perform these works, their sin would be equivalent to that of the Gentiles, and they would die as a result of their heightened contact (relative to the Gentiles) with the holy God.

[3] Israel’s special status relative to the Gentiles of having heightened access to God (and, hence also, heightened judgment) was never meant to be permanent. The coming of the messiah would end that special status, not in the sense of demoting Israel, but in the sense of promoting the rest of the nations. With the coming of the messiah, the “times of ignorance” came to an end (Acts 17.30).

[4] There were many faithful Israelites in Jesus’ day. They obeyed the law (including sacrificing for forgiveness) and, therefore, were “perfect” in the law.

Jesus faced two main problems with official Israel and its followers. First, sheer unbelief. This is not a sin unique to people in positions of power. They worship the god of this world, and oppose those who would take power from them, as Jesus threatened to do in his own world-transcending manner.

Secondly, Jesus (and later, Paul) faced the problem that large segments of Israel did not recognize the transitional nature of the ministry that Israel held for the world. God set up Israel to be the transition into salvation for the whole world, as the Gentiles would be lifted up and, as it were, put on the level of blessed access to God’s presence. Indeed, Jews and Gentiles alike would be lifted to a level of greater access to God the father through the work of Israel’s messiah, having access greater than even Israel’s high priest (Heb 7.26-27, 10.19-22).

Because Jesus’ vocation as Abraham’s seed was precisely to bring the blessing God promised through Abraham to the world, opposition on the part of some Jews to that vocation (whether during Jesus’ life or afterwards through the ministry of Paul and others) represented a repudiation of God’s very purpose in the world and, particularly, a repudiation of God’s particular work in Israel. In that sense, this part of Israel becomes an anti-Israel that must be removed so that God’s true work through Israel may be brought to fulfillment.

Hence, the reconciliation of the Gentiles with Israel through the messiah is the Gospel of Christ (Gal 3.8). Rejection of this fact was of course not new to the Israel of Jesus’ time. Jonah grieved over the grace God showed to the Gentiles. The Old Testament prophets prophesized of God’s grace delivered through Israel to the Gentiles. From the very beginning, Jesus’ life is threatened when he preached that God shows his grace to the Gentiles (Lk 4.25-30).

Contrary to NT Wright and others, however, it’s not ethnic “exclusiveness” that is Israel’s problem. After all, Gentiles could become Israelites through circumcision (Ex 12.48). Rather, the particular sin of Israel in Jesus’ time was their failure to recognize that the “times of ignorance” were now over, and that the entire world would be blessed through Abraham. That is, that God had redeemed his promise to Abraham, and that the transitional edifice of OT Israel was not only no longer needed, but would become a barrier to God’s purpose in Abraham if maintained beyond the coming of the messiah.
So that's basically how I understand the overall story of the Bible, as told by the NPP guys (particularly via Wright). I biggest question concerns the arguments regarding the "works of the law" phrase in Paul. The overall story pretty much hinges on that. I don't know enough to be able fully to judge their work on that.