|Volume Fifty-two — Article 2||Volume 52 | Home|
The Bible is the record of the saving action of a holy and gracious God. His righteousness is not presented as an abstract quality, but as something which is revealed in concrete, historical events. God moves into the tragic human situation, and His righteousness becomes a dynamic reality. He delivers a handful of believers from the flood, Lot from the flames of Sodom , Israel from the bondage of Egypt , Hezekiah from the threats of Sennacharib, the Jews from their captivity in Babylon , and the Psalmist from the plots of his enemies. And all these Old Testament deliverances point forward to that culminating act of righteousness when God Himself comes to this earth in the flesh and blood reality of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ we see that He is the God who is with us in bodily infirmities, poverty, suffering, loneliness and death. In Jesus Christ He is also seen as the God who is for us in the face of everything that is against us. He comes thus to us because His love calls Him that way. In our alienation from God, only God can help us. He therefore, because of love, must leave all, give all, and suffer all. Neither does He fail nor is He discouraged until He visits and redeems His people in His glorious redemptive act.
This saving action of God which was carried out in Jesus Christ is what the Bible calls "the righteousness of God." Rom. 1:17. It is efficacious for all who believe. That is what the entire Bible is about. When the Bible is read and understood in this framework, its message is as clear as the noonday. But if the theme of Christ and justification by faith in Him slips out of sight or is even moved from the center, the Bible is no longer clear. It becomes pulled about as if it were a fantastic "dispensational" jigsaw puzzle, mutilated into a manual of self-improvement, wrested to sanction any number of bizarre religious experiences, or exploited by those who imagine that they have God's information about forthcoming events in international politics.
Even doctrines which are true in themselves lose their vitality and color when they are abstracted from the biblical framework. The Bible is like a living organism with a living, pulsating heart. When doctrines are separated from that heart, they become artificial, sterile and lifeless. They will often assume an altogether different color than the biblical one. In the first tract written to the English people on behalf of the Reformation, John Bugenhagen declared, "We have only one doctrine: Christ is our righteousness." —Quoted in J. P. Mozley, William Tyndale , p.54. That epitomized the spirit of the Reformation—the spirit which was to a great extent lost in the age of Protestant scholasticism which followed. The "only one doctrine" emphasis of the Reformers did not mean that they ignored other essential doctrines. But they saw the truth of justification by faith in Christ as embracing every other doctrine. It is not good enough to relegate the article of justification by grace, for Christ's sake, through faith to merely one article of fundamental belief among about twenty others. It must become the great center, the strategic vantage point from which we view all other doctrines. For the doctrine of justification by faith, rightly considered, presupposes or implies every other biblical doctrine. It makes the other doctrines clear and invests them with influence and importance as they are seen in relation to this living heart of biblical revelation. For example:
The Bible does not present us with a list of abstract doctrines to be believed. Men and their institutions do that sort of thing, but not the Word of the living God. It is like a living organism which loses its life when dissected.
Too often we present the doctrine of the Trinity as a dry theological abstraction. The Bible does not do that. Where in the Bible can be found the doctrine of the Trinity spelled out as an isolated doctrine? It is not done. But the central biblical message about justification by grace, for Christ's sake, through faith makes the truth of the Trinity to shine with saving reality (see Rom. 3:24 -26).
". . . being justified freely by His grace . . . " Here we are brought to contemplate the source of salvation in the heart of God the holy father.
". . . through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus . . . His blood . . . " This points us to the ground of our acceptance in the doing and dying of God the holy Son.
" . . . through faith . . . " Since the Bible everywhere testifies that we cannot of ourselves come to God or believe in Jesus Christ, this points us to the way in which salvation is applied to our hearts by the work of God the Holy Spirit.
Instead of preaching on the doctrine of the Trinity in an abstract way, how much better to present the matter in the real biblical framework of God's saving action! "For God so loved the world (the efficient cause of our obtaining eternal life is the mercy of the heavenly Father), that He gave His only begotten Son (the material cause is Christ, with His obedience, through which He acquired righteousness for us), that whosoever believeth on Him (the instrumental cause is faith, which comes by the Spirit's illumination of the gospel message) should not perish, but have everlasting life." John 3:16.1
Creation, Law, and Human Depravity
When Paul spells out the great message of justification by faith in the book of Romans, how naturally he takes up the doctrines of creation, the law's inexorable demand for righteousness, and the radical sinfulness of all men.
Redemption implies creation and a Redeemer who is also the Creator. The messenger who proclaims the everlasting gospel points to "Him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters" (Rev. 14:6, 7). Christianity is a historical religion. It not only stands or falls on the historical reality of Jesus Christ, who is called "the last Adam," but on the historical reality of the first Adam in Paradise.
The doctrine of justification by faith implies the inexorable nature of God's moral law. Justification is a term of law. It means "setting one right before the Law." —A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology , p.856. As the righteous Creator, God insists that the demands of His law be fully met. The final judgment will proceed accordingly. (Rom. 2:12-16)
When God sent His Son into this world, it was not to get around the law. Much less was it to modify or relax the law's demand for perfect righteousness. He sent His Son to provide for us what the law demanded in precept and penalty. The first thing that Paul teaches in the doctrine of justification is that the divine law is not set aside by his doctrine of faith. Law is established and vindicated.
NKJ Romans 3:31 "Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law."
The fact that God could not spare His own Son but shed His blood to meet the just requirements of the law proves that God will not, cannot change His law one hair's breadth even to save a universe of sinners. Grace does not save anybody in a way that would jeopardize the moral order of the universe. The cross with its bleeding Victim makes it dramatically clear that the moral law cannot be defied with impunity. We live in a universe where all debts must be paid. Calvary was not only God's act of mercy, but an act of highest respect for His own law. If ethics are taught in any other context, they are not Christian ethics. The message of grace alone, Christ alone, and faith alone presupposes man's utter lost-ness. The alone underlines the fact that the fallen sinner can make no contribution to his salvation. The infinite price of redemption, even the blood of the Lord of glory, makes it clear that every human work is valueless to procure salvation. Grace alone means to be accepted in spite of being unacceptable. Christ alone means that we have absolutely no righteousness before God but Jesus Christ. Faith alone means that we confess that the only thing about us which is good is that God has pronounced us good out of sheer mercy and for the sake of Jesus Christ.
The Bible does not present an abstract theory of human sinfulness. Just as a tree is known by its fruit, so the depth of human sin can only be known by its consequences. Sin cost Adam and Eve their home in Paradise and a son torn from them by the murderer's hand. It cost the Jews their beloved city and their children who were carried away by rapacious armies. But even that could but dimly portray the cost of sin. It cost God a sacrifice so infinite that it contained all the accumulated treasure of eternity. He must give the Son of His love over to the murderer's hand—and the murderer in this case was man for whom He gives all to redeem. Sin is the crime of Calvary, and only God's act on Calvary could wipe it out. This is the only context—the biblical context—in which to deal with the doctrine of human depravity.
The doctrine of election should not be presented as a philosophical or speculative concept that inevitably burdens the church with intolerable pastoral problems. When abstracted from the biblical framework, it has appeared before people as if the doctrine of predestination were a hard-fisted, arbitrary determinism that drives men from God rather than draws them to him. John Wesley was provoked to lash out against this in a torrent of eloquent fury. In such reactions, of course, we are prone to throw out both the baby and the bath water.
The Bible gives election its proper framework when it presents it as election "in Christ" (Eph. 1:4). Salvation is wholly due to God's initiative in Jesus Christ. He sought, chose and found us. We did not seek, choose and find Him. Our salvation is grounded in His prior decision to save humanity in the Person of Jesus Christ. Therefore the "full assurance of faith" does not rest on the slender thread of our own fickle decisions. Our faith can never be a contribution or cause of our election, since God elected this Man Jesus Christ on our behalf long before we came to faith. Our faith can only be an echo of "the faithfulness of God." NKV Rom. 3:3. He staked His all on Jesus Christ from all eternity.
The Divine-Human Christ
The Chalcedonian formula of the hypostatic union of Christ's two natures is a brilliant piece of doctrinal orthodoxy. But it will not hit a sinner in the center of his being unless it is presented in the biblical framework of God's saving action in Jesus Christ.
This writer well remembers the occasion when a certain gentleman wanted to argue for an Arian Christ. He was asked to leave his questions aside until he had listened to a presentation on the atonement. As he was confronted with the infinite gulf of sin and the work required to reconcile us to God, he saw that only a divine Person could accomplish such a work. This was no longer a doctrinal abstraction for the man to argue about. It was something which involved God and him on the deepest personal level.
Since it was from man that justice required perfect righteousness, Christ must become Man as man was meant to be. That righteousness which faith can accept as valid before God must be a flesh and blood reality. "For since by man came death, by Man came also the resurrection of the dead." 1 Cor. 15:21. We are not saved by a set of doctrinal abstractions, but by an actual Life in Palestine and a gruesome execution under the reign of Pontius Pilate. It is as down to earth as that!
The doctrine of the final rewards and punishments is illuminated by the cross of Christ. "He who by faith is justified shall live." Rom. 1:17. In the One who was "raised for our justification" Rom 4:25 and who bodily ascended to glory at God's right hand we are given a clear preview of eschatology. The saints shall be "glorified together" with Christ.
While he who believes is justified unto life eternal, he who believes not is condemned. The wrath of God abides on him.
NKJ John 3:36 "He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him."
We are not left to speculate about the temperature of hell and all the fantastic and unbiblical ideas that some people propound in the doctrine of the hereafter. God has shown us the nature of hell and death, for in the cross of Christ "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men." Rom. 1:18. Christ's cry of dereliction, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" was His descent into hell—into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. This is what killed Christ. As we follow the bruised and lifeless body of the Saviour to the tomb, we see clearly what are the wages of sin—death. Death is no phantom, but it is God's judgment on the whole man. It is as concrete and as real as the execution and burial of Jesus Christ. In this also has God given us a clear view of what will happen to the damned. Jesus Christ is the truth of the life hereafter. He is the whole truth about God and the whole truth about man. All the essential doctrines of the Bible are clear when they are seen "as the truth is in Jesus." Eph. 4:21.
1This brief exposition of John 3:16 is found in John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion , Bk. 3, chap. 14, secs. 17, 21.