Providence, Vindication, Vengeance

I take an occasional interest in a doctrinal fight that I really don’t have a stake in, some bit of inside baseball in a tribe that’s not my own. It’s a tedious exercise, since it requires me to get up to speed on issues I wouldn’t normally pay any attention to, but the work pays off. When you’re not on one side or the other, you can see a bunch of other things more clearly: how they treat one another, how they treat the Spirit-created unity they all have despite their differences, how the fight is perceived by the outside world, that sort of thing. In this way, I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons that I apply to the fights I do have a stake in. Here follows one of those lessons.

Many years ago, some folks in the PCA went after Peter Leithart, accusing him of heresy. At the time, I didn’t know Leithart from St. Moses the Black, but the accusations were related to one of those controversies I was studying. The matter went to trial before the presbytery; I remember listening to the recordings. The lead prosecutor in that trial, one Jason Stellman, argued (among other things) that Leithart was sliding slowly toward Rome, and had departed from the doctrine of the PCA.

As it happens, Leithart was (rightly) acquitted, amid much howling by the heresy-hunters, but that’s not really the point here. The point is what happened next. Fast forward a couple years, and lo and behold, this same Jason Stellman resigns his ordination in the PCA…and joins the Roman Catholic Church. Meanwhile, Leithart remains (as ever) a Presbyterian.

***

In Philippians 3, Paul urges his readers to have no confidence in the flesh, and recounts his own fleshly pedigree:

If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.

Because we’re conditioned by our heritage of revivalism, the meaning we see right away is the individual salvation from hell: Paul has forsaken his reliance on fleshly credentials for the sake of justification by faith. He now trusts in God alone. But there’s more here: a social layer of meaning as well as a theological one.

Remember that Paul had been excommunicated from synagogues multiple times for teaching that Jesus is the Messiah–which He is! They should have welcomed Paul with open arms for teaching the true meaning of the Hebrew Bible, and instead they threw him out.

Now imagine what would have happened if he’d gotten hung up on that. If he’d spent his whole life in a vain search for a retrial, for a fleshly vindication that he’d been right all along. Hold on to that idea, and read what he says next.

Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Again, the individual, theological meaning is there, but so is the social meaning. Paul is not seeking a vindication before the Law. A human court has nothing to offer him. He’s leaving all that behind to pursue Christ. If he suffers, if he’s wrongly convicted–that’s just another way to be more like Christ, isn’t it?

If God wants to vindicate him, then God can do it. Paul isn’t going to waste energy chasing that vindication. As it happens, God did vindicate him, although Paul didn’t live to see it. In A.D. 70, God delivered Jerusalem into the hands of Titus the Roman, and expressed His opinion of the Temple that rejected His only Son. Not one stone was left on another.

***

If we wait, if we just keep pursuing God, we often find that God will vindicate us. He vindicated Paul in the destruction of Jerusalem. Anybody with eyes in their head could see what was happening there (although many are blind).

The same thing happened with Leithart’s heresy trial, not through the acquittal, but in the subsequent events. If you have eyes to see, Providence has painted a little picture in the form of Jason Stellman–the federal head of the heresy-hunters–swimming the Tiber. We are being invited to consider the Romishness of their position, and it’s right there in the trial transcripts, if you missed it the first time through. God has decisively vindicated Leithart in this matter.

I’ve been on the receiving end of similar attacks myself–two stand out as particularly memorable. In one case, I don’t think it was all that hard for bystanders to see what was happening at the time. In the other, it was very hard to see. “The sins of some follow after them,” like Paul said. But in both cases, as time has passed, Providence has done its vindicating work. The people that matter, know. They may be fuzzy on some of the details, but they know enough.

Things become clearer over time.

  • One person holds to the doctrine he was accused of abandoning, while his accuser—that guardian of orthodoxy–abandons it.
  • One person remains faithful to the people he was accused of failing to serve, while his accuser skips town, leaving a trail of wrecked relationships in his wake.
  • One person continues in unity with the believers around him, while the one who excluded him in the name of “preserving unity” excludes more and more people until there’s only a few he’s not at war with.

Over time, it becomes easy to ask a few clarifying questions. Where are the two parties today? Look at one. Look at the other. What do you see?

***

“He who covers his sin will not prosper,” the proverb says, and the sin of slander is certainly included. God has the habit of causing the truth to come to light in time, and this is one of the practical reasons for leaving vengeance to God.

God does not say “Vengeance is bad;” He says “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” As we are tempted to push for vindication, we are also tempted to seek vengeance. Don’t. God’s got it…and He’s better at it than you are.

Count it all loss for the sake of Christ. Pursue knowing Him. Let God take care of the rest.

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