Subjectivism and the Everlasting Gospel
This brief dialogue illustrates the stark contrast between the character of God and the character of the natural man. God is concerned for man. Man is concerned only for himself. Through sin he has become the wretched victim of subjectivism.
The worst form of subjectivism is religious subjectivism. Man is a sinner precisely because his own experience is the center of his concern; but how much worse when this tendency is stimulated and "sanctified" by religion. A few weeks ago, while on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, I saw a poster advertising an Eastern religion. The caption read:
Eastern religions are not the only ones that "go in and in and in." Subjectivism is the common denominator of all false religions. Instead of curing the sin problem, they make men prisoners within themselves many times more than before.
The Objective Nature of the Gospel
God's cure for subjectivism is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Says the apostle Paul:
The Christian religion is unique in that it is the only historical religion; i.e., it proclaims a salvation that is based on concrete historical events: the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It is not centered in the worshiper's own experience but in the saving acts of God in Christ – historical acts that were accomplished outside, above and beyond the sinner's own life. The gospel message is therefore an objective reality.
Paul's statement of the gospel is all the more remarkable when we consider it in the context of his first letter to the Corinthians. The church at Corinth had become confused about spiritual gifts. Ecstatic religious demonstrations and marvelous experiences were thought to be the proof of the higher Christian life. In chapters 12 to 14 Paul uses a variety of arguments to point out the fallacy of this "charismatic" distortion. But his crowning argument is in chapter 15. He calls the Corinthians back to reconsider the objective gospel. They were in danger of apostasy (2 Cor. 11:3-4).
Paul's definition of the gospel seems to be startlingly simplistic: Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again the third day. This statement of the gospel makes no reference to subjective religious experience at all. The Corinthians were already far too preoccupied with their "marvelous" religious experiences. Paul seems to be saying to them, "You who are making your boast in your high and mighty experiences are forgetting the gospel which brings you salvation and acceptance with God. None of your charismatic experiences are able to save you or recommend you to God's favor."
The human tendency is to forget the objective gospel and gravitate back to subjectivism. The heretic says, "Who doesn't know that Jesus died and rose again? We can't be forever talking about this. We must rise higher." Failing to see the glory of the mystery of Christ, he does not see that there is no truth or experience higher than the revelation of Christ crucified.
Christ's Victory Is Our Victory
Christ's death, burial and resurrection need to be considered in the light of His position as the second Adam.
Adam was the first head of the human race. Because the whole human race was incorporated in him, he stood before God as if he were every man. When he sinned, the whole race of men became sinners in the sight of God. When he fell, all fell in him. We did not become sinners because of something we did or experienced but by something that happened completely outside of us in the person of Adam, i.e., by a historical, objective event.
God did not redeem us by doing something within our experience. While we were dead in trespasses and sins, He provided humanity with another Father (Isa. 9:6), a new Head, a second Adam. Christ now stood before the bar of eternal justice as the representative Man; for by His Incarnation, humanity was legally incorporated in Him as it was in Adam. He stood before God as if He were every man. When He lived, humanity lived in Him; when He was punished, humanity was punished in Him; when He died, humanity died in Him; and when He rose again, humanity was restored to God's favor in Him. All that a father does and acquires belongs to the children. As Luther declared in a sermon preached in 1519 regarding the repentant believer in Christ, "Therefore a man can with confidence boast in Christ and say: 'Mine are Christ's living, doing, and speaking, His suffering and dying; mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, and suffered, and died as He did.' “Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), Vol. XXXI, p.297.
A football fan goes to see a super bowl game. As he sits watching from the bleachers, his favorite star gets the ball and makes a spectacular touchdown. His team wins. The fan rises from his seat, throws his hat into the air with ecstasy and cries, "We have won!" He does not hesitate to say "we" even though the whole game was won without any effort on his part. If people can become so excited over the exploits of a few men running around with a bit of pig skin, what profound joy should animate the heart of the repentant believing sinner as we consider the greatest contest of all eternity! Christ, the Son of the eternal God, came to earth to take our very place in the arena of life and death. In our name and on our behalf He ran to the finish line to win for us an eternal victory. "It is finished!" he cried. By His death He destroyed sin – our sin (Heb. 1:3), crucified our old sinful nature (Rom. 6:6), defeated Satan — our foe (John 16:11; Heb. 2:14), abolished death (2 Tim. 1:10), perfected His believing repentant people forever (Heb. 10:14) and brought in everlasting righteousness (Dan. 9:24). There is no more need to serve sin, obey our sinful nature, do Satan's bidding or fear death. Looking to Christ's substitutionary work, we can triumphantly cry, "We have won!"
Picture a raging stream that we are required to cross in order to be saved. Treacherous rapids beat on murderous rocks and defy any hope of our swimming across. Then comes a mighty athlete who takes our cause upon himself. He plunges in and strikes across for the other shore. At times it seems that he must surely perish in the boiling, rocky stream. Finally he struggles up yonder bank and raises his arm in a salute of victory. Now Christ is not such a One who stands on the other side and cries, "I showed you how to do it. Now plunge in and do as I have done." When He crossed that river of death and destruction, we were in Him, and He carried the believer across in Himself. We triumphed in Him. That is the gospel.
The gospel is about Christ (Rom. 1:3) – about His doing and dying, and about God's awesome act of redemption in Him. This historical, objective event is the believer's salvation and the science and song of the unfallen angels. Any human experience, other than Christ's experience for us, is very small by comparison and should never be the focal point of our concern, much less of our Christian witness. No wonder Paul declared to the experience-centered charismatics at Corinth, "I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified." 1 Cor. 2:2.
The Work of the Holy Spirit
Says one, "I know that the gospel is about what Christ did for me. But what about the Holy Spirit? The full gospel is the good news of what God does in me." Instead of leading men to bask in the light of the gospel, this "full gospel" leads multitudes to wallow and drown in a sea of subjectivism.
Jesus said, "When He, the Spirit of truth, is come . . . He shall not speak of Himself . . . He shall glorify Me: for He shall receive of Mine, and show it unto you." John 16:13-14.
These comments by Victor Matthews are worthy of note:
The Holy Spirit does not speak of Himself. Neither will anyone who is filled with the Spirit. Many times we have had people stand up in our forums and declare something like this: "I am a Spirit-filled believer. Now let me tell you about my experience. . . " They want to tell what it feels like to receive the Holy Spirit. Others write in detail about how the Spirit gives them marvelous religious sensations, as one clergyman said, "right down to the balls of my feet." But can we imagine Peter standing up on the Day of Pentecost, proclaiming, "Men and brethren, I have just received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and I want to tell you how wonderful it is. When it came upon me, it was like being thrilled with a vital electric current. I felt such a beautiful love and peace thrill through my whole body, right down to the balls of my feet . . . “ On the contrary, Peter made no reference to himself or to his feelings. His message was Jesus Christ and Him crucified: "Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a Man approved of God..." Acts 2:22.
"He shall not speak of Himself." The great affirmation of the apostles was the gospel — God's act of redemption in Jesus Christ. They did not turn the world upside down by telling people about their own exciting experiences in the Spirit. (Pride is never so high as when it has a startling experience to relate, especially a religious experience!) The record says, "With great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all." Acts 4:33. In his Corinthian letters, Paul shows how repugnant it was to him to parade his experiences as the charismatic "apostles" did (see 2Cor. 11).
"He shall glorify Me." The Holy Spirit's work is to make men Christ-conscious. He never causes men to focus on their own subjective experiences but leads sinners out of themselves to behold what God has done outside of themselves in the person of Jesus Christ. In this the Spirit's work is objective.
We have seen that the work of reconciliation has been done for all men in Christ. Christ was born, died and has risen for the sake of all. God's act of liberation in Jesus has been effected for all who believe in Him, and all repentant believing sinners shall personally be justified when they believe and keep on believing (Rom. 5:18).
However, all men have not as yet heard, received and possessed their possessions in Christ. Here is the Spirit's work. Without the work of the third Person of the Godhead, the sacrifice of Christ would be of no avail. Men must hear the gospel of what Christ has done, and they must be persuaded to believe and accept God's gracious provision in His Son. This is the Spirit's work. He comes to create faith by the preaching of the gospel. "Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God." 1 Cor. 2:12.
Faith is not self-generated. Calvin expressed the view of all the Reformers when he said,". . . faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit." Again he says, "We have said that perfect salvation is found in the person of Christ. Accordingly, that we may become partakers of it, 'He baptizes us in the Holy Spirit and fire' [Luke 3:16], bringing us into the light of faith in His gospel. . . " John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (Philadelphia: the Westminster Press, 1960), Bk. III, pp.541-542.
Salvation has been freely provided for all in Jesus. The Spirit first works to bring conviction of guilt and sin to all who hear God's word. Then He enables convicted sinners to find forgiveness and eternal life by faith in the sinless life and atoning death of Christ on the cross of Calvary.
As Luther said, there is no reason why men should not believe the gospel. But in their resistance to the Spirit, men call God a liar and bring condemnation on their own heads (John 3:36; 1 John 5:10). The unpardonable sin is to believe not. If any reason could be given for it, it would not be unpardonable. We cannot explain it because it is "the mystery of iniquity."
Faith Is Objective
We are called to be heirs of the righteousness which is of faith (Rom. 1:17; 4:13; Heb. 11:7). Faith — not feelings, euphoria, ecstasy or demonstrative spiritual exercises — is the principal work of the Spirit. Feelings, rapture, and extraordinary spiritual manifestations are subjective. The Christian is not saved by them nor can he live in security before God by these things. But faith is objective. It is always "faith to God-ward" (1 Thess. 1:8). It is the eye of the soul. Like the eye, it cannot see itself. It looks to the glory of the person of Christ and appropriates His merit for the needy soul.
There is no saving virtue in faith itself but in the object of faith—Christ Himself. Just as the football fan identifies himself with his favorite team and cries, "We have won!" so by faith the believing guilty soul identifies with Christ and says, "When Christ lived, I lived in Him; when He died, I died in Him; and when He arose, I arose in Him.” “Mine are Christ's living, doing, and speaking, His suffering and dying; mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, and suffered, and died as he did'" (see Luther's Works, loc. cit.).
Again we say, Faith is objective, for it glories alone in Christ's doing and dying. Although it is rooted in the heart, it rests upon something which is completely outside the heart. It is the eye of the soul that beholds the glory of Christ. And faith is the Spirit's work. When religious people are devoid of the "Spirit of faith," they try to find some confirmation and security in tangible demonstrations; hence the temptation to put God to the test in the appeal for charismatic manifestations.
Now faith, being a gift of God through the Spirit, becomes a living, busy, active principle in the life of the believer. As Paul explained to the Galatians, faith works by love (Gal. 5:6). Love is also objective. It "seeketh not her own" (1 Cor. 13:5). Self is not the center of its concern. It is self-forgetful, for faith has released the soul from the intolerable burden of looking for salvation and forgiveness within its own experience. Through Isaiah, God rebukes subjective religiosity and calls men to serve Him by unselfish service for others, feeling or no feeling:
Love is obedient.1 Bible obedience is not a matter of following uncertain voices within our own hearts, confounding human impulse with the movings of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit teaches believers to obey God by conforming the life to the objective Word and law of God as the unerring, absolute standard of right and wrong.
Karl Barth was once asked what was the most profound thought he had discovered in a lifetime of study. He replied:
That old song for children proclaims a gospel theology, because its criterion of truth is objective.
The gospel of Christ is objective, for it points the guilty sinner (a victim of subjectivism) to something which is completely outside of his own experience. The Holy Spirit comes to cause the repentant sinner to make the experience of Christ the foundation of his hope and crown of his rejoicing. By beholding the glory of Christ through the revelation of the Spirit, he is brought out of himself to live in Jesus Christ. His life has a new center. He is delivered from the prison of subjectivism. This is what Paul means when he says, "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." 2 Cor. 5:17.
1 It is commonly and erroneously thought that agape love is an emotion. The charismatic movement confounds eros with agape. In this kind of revivalism, people can become very infatuated with a sensual and exciting experience which is called "love." But agape is a principle that transcends any feelings of rapture.