Looking at Both Sides of the Paradox
Truth is of such a nature that very often it can only be expressed by two statements which appear to be antithetical. We call these statements paradoxes.
Let us take some examples of great truths which are expressed by paradoxical statements:
1. The Human Nature of Christ: ". . . in all points tempted like as we are; yet without sin", is a tremendous and mysterious paradox. How could the One who was sinless in His human nature be tempted in all points like us? "It is a mystery that is left unexplained . . ." 5 B.C. 1128-9.
Inspiration presents us with two groups of statements on the human nature of Christ. One group of statements show how Christ's human nature was just like ours. He was born of a woman, of our flesh and blood, of the seed of David according to the flesh, was encompassed by infirmities, was subject to the laws of heredity, and took our human faculties after they had been weakened by 4,000 years of sin. The other group of statements warn us against making Christ's human nature altogether the same as ours—He was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born without a taint of sin, had no sinful propensities, was without the passions of our fallen natures, had no sin in Him, knew no sin, and was separate from sinners.
Now God has given us two eyes to see both sides of the paradox. If we only see one side or emphasize one side, we shall distort the gospel. We need to recognize both sides of the truth and allow each side to have full weight.
2. A Christian's Relation to God: Isaiah commends those who tremble at God's Word (Isa. 66:5). The Revelator commands us to "fear God" Rev. 14:7. And Paul exhorts us, "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" Phil. 2:12.
On the other hand the writer to the Hebrews invites us, "Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace.. ." "Having therefore, brethren boldness to enter..." Heb. 4:16; 10:19.
Now are we to live before God with fear or with boldness? If we only emphasize "fear and trembling", we may rob our souls of the confidence we may have in the free access into God's grace. If we only consider those statements which exhort us to have boldness we may fall into the opposite error of presumption. As Luther says, the Christian must live in the paradox of "desperate confidence".
3. The Nature of a Christian Man: Is the believer in Jesus a saint or a sinner, righteous or unrighteous? Luther battled with this question until he came up with the famous formula which was the foundation of Protestant doctrine—simul justus et peccator, which means, "at the same time righteous and sinful".
This is a great paradox, but the more it is examined, the more it shines with light. A believer in Jesus is righteous because God declares him justified, cleansed of all sin. Moreover, he is a new creature, old things are passed away and all things have become new. Yet he cannot claim to be without sin, must confess the sinfulness of his nature, continues to fall short even when he does good, has need of daily repentance, and must confess that he is an unprofitable servant who defiles his best endeavours and holiest duties with his corrupt channel of human imperfection (See 1 S.M. 344).
Consider the paradox of both saint and sinner in these statements:
"The closer you come to Jesus (saint), the more faulty you will appear in your own eyes (sinner)." S.C. 64
"No deep-seated love for Jesus (righteous) can dwell in the heart that does not realize its own sinfulness (unrighteous)." Ibid.
"Are you in Christ? (saint) Not if you do not acknowledge yourselves erring, helpless, condemned sinners (sinner)". 5T 48
It is not as necessary to harmonize a paradox as it is to recognize both statements as equally true. Suppose a sincere soul gathers those statements together which speak of the righteous standing of the saints and the victory over sin which they experience in their renewed lives. Then the recognition of any sin or sinfulness in his life may convince him that he is not a Christian. He would thus be robbed of his shield of faith. Or if he is not in this way driven to discouragement, he will be driven to hypocrisy by refusing to recognize how much sin is still left in him. But consider the consequences of the opposite error of those who only emphasize the sinfulness of believers. If these statements are gathered together and dwelt upon the impression may easily be given that overcoming sin is not to be a reality in the life of a Christian.
4. Law and Gospel: Law commands us to run the way of God's commandments, to labour and to fulfill all of its holy requirements. But the gospel proclaims, "Stand ye still, and see the salvation of the Lord", "Be still, and know that I am God." 2 Chron. 20:17; Ps. 46:10.
It is not an easy thing for the human mind to keep law and gospel in proper tension. If law overshadows the gospel, people fall off the path on the side of legalism. If gospel is presented to lessen the tension of the law, people fall off the path on the side of permissiveness.
The constant danger is that people will become "lazy through the continual preaching of grace" (Bezzel) or pharisaical through the urging of law. Luther said that some of his own people reminded him of trying to get a drunken German peasant onto a horse — as soon as he was pushed up on one side he would fall off on the other.
Law and gospel must not be "mingled and strewed together" in such a way that one will lessen the force of the other. Both need to be proclaimed in full strength. People must be as earnestly exhorted to labour as to rest, to run as to stand still. The truth can only be expressed by the two statements which appear to be opposite, "Come unto Me...I will give you rest...Take My yoke...ye shall find rest." "Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest." Matt. 11:28,29; Heb. 4:11
5. Faith and Works: "While good works will not save even one soul, yet it is impossible for even one soul to be saved without good works." 1 S.M. 377 And because this is a paradox, the servant of the Lord adds, "It is hard for the mind to comprehend this point." Ibid, 378-379
It was Melancthon who said: "We are justified by faith alone; but the faith which justifies us is never alone." And Luther declared: "Since we are preaching faith in Christ, papists come on and slander us by saying we forbid good works, that we preach too sweetly, that people become lax and lazy through such preaching. And in a sense this is true. There are many among us who understand the message of the gospel in such a way as to imagine that they now need do no good, suffer nothing, and give nothing... If one preaches the comfort of faith, people become coarse and wanton; but if one does not preach it, there is nothing but fear and trembling in the poor consciences." What Luther Says (Ewald M. Plass) Vol.11, p.742.
6. Justification and Sanctification: We cannot speak without paradoxes when we deal with the relation between justification and sanctification. The whole of Church history has been a struggle to hold them in proper tension.
We are justified solely by a work outside of ourselves, but we are sanctified by His Spirit within us. The essence of Roman Catholic legalism is to depend on the work of inward renewal for acceptance with God. But the essence of Protestant antinomianism is to suppose that we can be sanctified and fitted for heaven by Christ's work outside of us.
No amount of sanctification can secure one's admittance to the kingdom of grace; but a failure to pursue sanctification can result in one being cast out. Justification is always endangered if sanctification is not exercised. The blessing of justification cannot be sustained by good works, but unless the believer is careful to maintain good works, he will not retain his justification. Obedience cannot secure the blessing of forgiveness; but by disobedience the blessing can be lost.
But now we must look at the other side of the picture. Sanctification is endangered if it is not based on justification. There must be a constant return to justification, to the word of forgiveness if sanctification is to be preserved from Pharisaism and self-righteousness. Prayer and service are only good by gracious acceptance. The truth of justification calls all that we do in question. True Christian growth can only exist where there is a growing appreciation of justification. We can never reach a point in our progress in sanctification where our acceptance with God does not rest entirely on forgiveness of sins.
The constant need of justification by faith means that sin is inescapable—for there is no man on earth that does not sin (Eccles. 7:20), and all continue to fall short of God's glory (Rom.3:23). But sanctification teaches us of our positive duty to avoid sin. On one hand we are called to repose, on the other to a life of fervent activity.
Justification gives us perfection and sanctification urges us to press on toward it. Through justifying faith the heart is cleansed of all sin; yet are we called to go on purifying our souls by obeying the truth. And so we could go on to enumerate many aspects of the paradoxical relation between justification and sanctification. It is the paradox of present possession and future hope, to be pure and yet impure; to possess all things yet have nothing (2 Cor. 6:10); to rest in faith yet labour in love; to be made free by faith yet to be made a servant of all by love; to be consoled yet to be admonished. And we think of the paradoxical experience of the great apostle:
"We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh." 2 Cor. 4:8-11
Wrongly Relating to the Paradox
There are two things that we must not do with a paradox—yet in our immaturity we are very inclined to make these two mistakes:
1. Bending one side of the paradox to fit the other: We are inclined to accept one side of the paradox as the pre-eminent truth. Consequently, we then proceed to bend the statements on the other side to fit the opposite side of the paradox. Let us illustrate:
Suppose we take those statements of inspiration which show that Christ was separate from sinners, and make that our major thesis. The danger is that we do not let that other group of statements about Christ sharing our hereditary infirmities have full weight. In fact, we might try to explain them away by saying that such weaknesses were not an inherent part of His human nature, but were only imputed to Him just as the sins of the world were imputed to Him. Or supposing we make the opposite group of statements our major premise; then when we read "We should have no misgivings in regard to the perfect sinlessness of the human nature of Christ" (5 B.C. 1131), we start to do some fancy theological footwork, and say, "Oh, that is not talking about the human nature which He took at birth but to the human nature which He revealed in His life."
Let us take another illustration of trying to bend one side of the paradox to fit the other. Protestantism is divided between the Calvinistic and Arminian streams of thought. Actually either side is the result of an exaggerated emphasis on divine predestination on the one hand and human responsibility on the other. The Calvinists seize certain statements about predestination—and let's face it, they are in the Bible. But instead of looking at the other side of the paradox and giving it equal weight, the Calvinists proceed to bend the Bible statements about universal atonement to fit their concept of predestination. They labour hard and long to explain away those specific Bible passages which declare that Christ died for all men.
This pinpoints the danger of so-called Systematic Theology—and the greatest systematic theologians are the Calvinists. It was the German theologian, H. Bezzel who said, "Extreme views have the advantage of remarkable consistency." p.64. That statement is worth thinking about.
Instead of accepting one side of the paradox as the essential truth, and then trying to bend the other side to fit (this is often called the art of "harmonizing the apparent contradictions of the Bible") we must allow both sides of the paradox to have full weight and to stand in their undiluted strength. It is the mark of maturity to accept the fact that infinite truth is often expressed to the finite mind in two antithetical statements.
2. Resolving the paradox: Trying to resolve a paradox may be even worse than bending one side to fit the other. Let us take a familiar illustration:
The Christian man is simul justus et peccator — at the same time righteous and sinful. The nearer he comes to Christ, the more sinful he sees himself to be. Now a "final atonement experience" as we once conceived of it would certainly resolve the paradox. After that the saints would supposedly keep drawing nearer to Christ, but they would no longer be "troubled" by the humbling consciousness of their own sinfulness. Certain of our ideas on the final atonement were an attempt to resolve the paradox of the demand for perfection of Christian character and the need for continual confession of human sinfulness; of the necessity and obligation of complete victory over sin on the one hand, and constant repentance on the other hand.
Any resolving of the paradox in this life can only end in a distorted, or at best, partial view of the truth. "Extreme views have the advantage of remarkable consistency."
Consider also what this call to holiness and confession of abiding sin means in our concept of the Church as a whole. Inspiration speaks of a church without spot or wrinkle in the last days, a church going forth conquering and to conquer. But this is only one side of the paradox. Unless we give the other side equal weight, we will end up with an exaggerated picture of the "loud cry church". We are also told that evils will exist in the church till the end of time. If one then says, "How can it be a pure church?", we will reply, "If a Christian still has sin in him, how can he be said to be cleansed from all unrighteousness?" (1 John 1:8,9) If the single believer is certainly the aggregate of believers are simul justus et peccator.
How to Relate to the Paradox
In this life we must live by accepting and living with the paradox of having and not having, of being righteous and unrighteous, of being complete and incomplete, of rest and activity, of believing and working, of confidence and fear, of being able to do all things through Christ and not being able to do the things that we would, of avoiding sin and confessing its inevitability, of victory over sin and mourning that when we would do good evil is present with us, of advancement and repentance, of freedom and subjection, and so on. It is the mark of immaturity, we repeat, to emphasize only one side of the paradox, especially so as to cancel out the truth of the other side.
Law and gospel, faith and works, justification and sanctification and all the great paradoxes need to be kept in proper tension. If we proclaim the glory of His justifying grace and imagine that this alone will motivate people to earnestly pursue sanctification, it will not be long before we shall realize that people need to be warned and sharply admonished in the pathway of obedience. But lest the language of Christian experience become all too loud and confident, there must be a return to the critical sternness of justification otherwise sanctification will turn into romanticism or dangerous "holiness" pretensions.
Think of flying a plane. There are two antithetical forces — gravity and speed. One must not cancel out the other, but the secret of flying is to keep both in proper tension. If the tension of speed against gravity is not maintained you come crashing down. If gravity ceases you go off into orbit somewhere.
Now think of gravity as the power of indwelling sin, and speed as the power of sanctifying grace. Human "wisdom" may lead us to think we could make better spiritual flight if we could find some way to do away with the limiting pull of "gravity". But as long as we are in this world we need this "gravity"—it is part of the curse that God uses to bless us (Gen. 3:17). How can a curse bless us? Well, that is another paradox.