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The Crux of Theology

Climbing to the topMany Australian cities have annual agricultural exhibitions. The main event is the grand display of primary products. The side events are the merry-go-rounds, big dippers, boxing, magicians, clowns and sundry entertainments. These are lumped together on one section of the grounds and called "side shows."

As a boy about fourteen years of age, this writer clearly remembers how he spent a day at the exhibition. Being a member of an agricultural family, I was expected to show a keen interest in the latest developments in the industry. On entering the grounds, however, my attention was captured by the noise and razzle-dazzle of "side-show alley." Before I realized it, the day was spent and it was time to catch the bus for home. With feelings of remorse, I reflected that I had missed the main event. Imagine my embarrassment when I faced my father's question, "Well, son, what did you see and learn at the exhibition today?" I had not even seen the exhibition!

There never was a time when more theological books and religious magazines were rolling off the press. But most theological discussions are like the distractions of side show alley. Very few are occupied with the main event.

In his Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon says, "All Scripture ought to be distributed into these two principal topics, the Law and the promises [gospel] "—Book of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1957), p.32. Law and gospel compass the whole Bible. Here is the hub of the Christian message, the crux of theology.

By law we mean all that God commands us to do or to be. For example, "Love thy neighbour," "Be kindly affectioned one to another," "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world," are statements of law. In the law God asks for our service, our time and our affections. The gospel, on the other hand, does not command us to do anything. "Be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee," "Christ died for our sins," "God . . . hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings . . . in Christ," are all statements of the gospel. In the gospel God does not ask anything at our hand but draws nigh to give us from His own hand the blessings of forgiveness and eternal life.

Justification by Faith

Most if not all deviations from Bible truth, begin with a faulty view of the relationship between law and gospel. Church history may be seen as a struggle to keep law and gospel in proper tension. When the law is emphasized so as to eclipse the glory of the gospel, the church falls under the bondage of legalism. When the gospel is preached so as to undermine the authority of the law, the church falls into the heresy of antinomianism.

Only in the great truth of justification by faith do we find law and gospel preserved in proper tension. This is the articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae — the article of faith that decides whether the church is standing or falling. We may liken the truth of justification by faith to the straight and narrow path, high and lifted up above the dark valleys of error. There are two ways to fall off the path. On one side is the precipice of legalism; on the other side is the chasm of antinomianism.

The most remarkable feature about the Reformation was the complete unanimity with which all the evangelicals held to the doctrine of justification by faith. The Reformers had their differences. They were not always consistent. But with one voice they confessed that the sinner's acceptance with God is by grace alone, on account of Christ's obedience alone, and received by faith alone (see Rom. 3:24, 25).

Whenever the church is awake and on the march, she is found fighting on two fronts. Never was this more clearly demonstrated than in the time of the great Reformation. Luther's conflict with Rome was a conflict against legalism. His conflict with John Agricola and kindred spirits was a conflict against antinomianism. The same war against legalism and antinomianism is exhibited in all the great confessions of the Reformation—the Augsburg Confession, the Scottish, Belgic and Helvetic Confessions, the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, etc.

Relevance Today

The church today is being drowned in an unprecedented flood of "evangelical" legalism.

People who would laugh at a man who tried to become a Christian by obeying the laws of the Old Testament, urge others to become Christians by obeying the "evangelical laws" of the New Testament. In principle, what is the difference? Charismatic teachers are filling the world with "foolproof" formulas about how men may get the Holy Spirit. It reminds us of what Luther said about Carlstadt: "He wants to teach you not how the Spirit comes to you but how you come to the Spirit."—Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955), Vol. XXXX, p.147.

Evangelists urge upon the rising generation the idea that salvation consists of an experience (usually a very intense and rapturous experience) of having Christ come into the heart—and then confirm that by massive doses of affirmation about the raptures of being "saved." This is certainly a far cry from the Pauline message of righteousness by faith and the Reformation principle that salvation is found in the objective and external rather than in the subjective and internal.

If this avalanche of "evangelical" legalism seems bad enough, consider that it is being outdone by a tidal wave of "evangelical" antinomianism. Students hear their preacher declare that the Christian is no longer bound by the old law of Ten Commandments, but walks at liberty in the law of love. They read Fletcher's Situation Ethics, which says the same thing a little more specifically, and then they are ready to "cover the multitude of sins" with that beautiful whitewash called "love."

The "Spirit-filled" enthusiast declares: "When you are baptized with the Holy Spirit, He will set all the restrictions you need. You don't need law when you are filled with the Spirit." Multitudes are thereby prepared to carry out their own impulses and impressions, thinking that they are being moved by the Holy Ghost.

When liberalism and humanism take over, men think they no longer need the law of God to define sin, but rely on "Christian" insight and their own innate sense of justice. Just to illustrate how far this can lead, in June of 1972 the San Carlos United Church of Christ voted to ordain a self-confessed homosexual to the sacred ministry. The Christian Century (June 28, 1972) thinks this is quite an achievement, when "persons will be judged by the whole context of their lives rather than prejudged by one stereotyped impression."

It would be interesting to know how much of the popular current of lawlessness has been encouraged by a misuse of Paul's dictum, "not under the law, but under grace!' This is an age when all forms of authority are under fire; and behind it all stands the authority of the Scriptures, the law of God, and God Himself.

The time is come for a new Reformation, for the true church of Jesus Christ to awake and be on the march. It is time for God's people to take up the two-edged sword (law and gospel) and fight on two fronts "for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints."