Review: Baptized into Christ, by Jordan Cooper

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Jordan Cooper, Baptized into Christ: A Guide to the Christian Life, Just and Sinner Publishing (2016). 175 pages.

Jordan Cooper is a conservative Lutheran pastor, whose blog and podcast can be found at Just and Sinner. Although I have never personally met Jordan, we have engaged in conversations via social media over the past couple years, and he has helped correct many of my misconceptions about confessional Lutheranism (see my post here, for example). He has also helped me to find much common ground between Lutheranism and my own Reformed tradition, though we certainly still have our differences. So I was grateful for the opportunity to review his recent book Baptized into Christ, a concise primer on Lutheran theology and practice. It’s not intended as an academic work; there are hardly any footnotes and little direct engagement with scholars of other traditions. But it serves its purpose well as a practical guide for the average Lutheran parishioner. I would also commend its usefulness to non-Lutherans, as it challenges many of the common assumptions of modern American evangelicals.

My overall impression of the book was quite positive, and although I will devote some space below to a few critiques (after all, I’m a Calvinist!), I do not want that to overshadow the numerous strengths of the book. I deeply appreciate Jordan’s emphasis on the sacraments, liturgy, and confessions—all of which are too often neglected in American churches today.

Jordan begins with a chapter on discovering one’s baptismal identity, revealing a distinctively Lutheran take on the Christian life. His focus is not on the believer’s profession of faith or moment of conversion, but rather on the transforming grace of God as conferred in the sacrament of baptism. I suspect that many readers will raise questions here about the idea of baptismal regeneration. For my part, I will simply say that the Reformed tradition has always acknowledged with Lutherans that baptism is indeed a means of grace, and it is a mistake to say that baptism “doesn’t do anything” to us. First Peter 3:21 goes so far as to state that baptism “saves” us, and I agree with Jordan that this passage is speaking of water baptism rather than just spiritual baptism. But I would also add the qualification that “salvation” in Scripture is often described in administrative or covenantal terms rather than subjective or individual terms (we ordinarly call this the visible/invisible church distinction). For this reason, I’m a bit more reluctant to use the language of “baptismal regeneration.” [1]

Jordan proceeds to discuss what I consider to be one of Lutheranism’s most valuable contributions to Christian theology: the two kinds of righteousness. This insight of Luther’s (and, I would add, Calvin’s; see Institutes 3.17.10) helps to resolve the tensions between justification and sanctification, between James and Paul, and between our faith and our obedience. Stated simply, there exists the passive and alien righteousness which we possess coram Deo (before God) by virtue of Christ’s perfect righteousness imputed to us, and there also exists the active righteousness which we exercise coram hominibus (before men). Maintaining this distinction helps us to rest in the free grace of the gospel, while also urging us to fulfill the law’s requirements in our dealings with fellow humans. Jordan emphasizes that our relationship to God was never law-based, not even for our first parents in Eden before the fall. He argues that Adam “was not called to earn anything, but to live in the relationship that God’s grace… already established” (28). This may have been meant as a subtle jab at certain Reformed theologians who speak of merit in the covenant of works, but I think that Jordan is right about this point. Adam enjoyed his standing before God by grace (taken in the broad sense of divine love or benevolence, not mercy or forgiveness), and he had nothing to gain by obedience. [2]

Where I might differ with Jordan is in his apparent denial of any vertical dimension to the believer’s obedience. He insists that our law-keeping cannot be the grounds of assurance for our salvation or the means of entering heaven (39-40). To be sure, we can never say that we are justified by obedience to God’s law, but Reformed theologians have generally been more comfortable speaking of the law’s positive role in sanctifying us, assuring us of God’s favor, and attaining final glory. On this subject, as well as on the more general subject of the law/gospel distinction, I have already responded to Jordan here and here. I would also mention the contributions of John Piper, Mark Jones, and Kevin DeYoung (in the interest of fairness, I should add that Jordan has responded to these writings here). In short, it seems difficult to square Lutheran theology with the Bible’s teaching on the law as a blessing (Ps. 19:7-11; Jas. 1:25) and on the role of works at the final judgment (Matt. 25:31-46; see my review here).

Another point of difference is over Jordan’s take on “two kingdoms” theology, a subject covered frequently on this blog (see here and here, for example). Now it needs to be acknowledged that there is no single view of two-kingdom theology, and that Luther’s version of this teaching is (in my humble opinion) much to be preferred to modern Reformed variations of it. Still, I worry that two-kingdom theology of any variety runs the risk of isolating our faith from broader culture, of underestimating the effects of sin (and thus the need for redemptive engagement) in civic life, and of minimizing the value of ordinary vocations in reflecting God’s kingdom. I would generally prefer to speak of the one kingdom of God, which rules over all the different spheres of life (on this subject, see my review of John Barber’s One Kingdom).

I found myself in agreement with much of the remainder of the book. Jordan helpfully explains the differences between Christ’s redemptive work for us and his work in us, which correspond to the Reformed distinction between redemption accomplished and redemption applied. There are also insightful chapters on the imitation of Christ, on our identity as sinner-saints (including a discussion on the third use of the law, which, contrary to popular belief, is a part of confessional Lutheran theology), and on living out our vocations. [3] He ends the book with a discussion of the subject on liturgy, including the Lord’s Supper (I only wish his critique of the symbolic memorialist view had also included engagement with Calvin’s view of real spiritual presence) and the church calendar.

Jordan has done a commendable service for the Lutheran church, presenting the best of his tradition’s theology in accessible and practical terms. I have reservations about some of the distinctive teachings of Lutheranism, but I can still affirm that what unites us is far greater than what divides us. I look forward to reading more of Jordan’s work in the future.

Notes

[1] For more on the subject of baptismal realism, I’d recommend a two-part article written by my mentor Dr. C. John Collins, “What Does Baptism Do for Anyone?” in Presbyterion 38/1-2 (Spring-Fall 2012).

[2] For others in the Reformed tradition who would agree with this view, see for example G.C. Berkouwer. Many of the Westminster divines, such as Samuel Rutherford and Thomas Goodwin, also denied any notion of Adamic merit.

[3] On the subject of gender roles, Jordan may have inadvertently stepped into a controversy currently raging in Calvinist circles. He points to the Son’s submission to the Father within the structure of the Trinity as a model for the wife’s submission to her husband (139). This sounds similar to the position espoused by Baptist scholars Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware, who have taken a lot of heat recently for departing from traditional Nicene theology. The standard view is that authority and submission are not helpful categories for describing the ad intra relations of the Trinity, since God’s will is simple and undivided (thus you can’t have one will in submission to another will). For more on this controversy, see here.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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