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Moses facing the MountainThe Question of Authority

A few months ago this editor was meeting with a group of evangelical preachers in an American city. These men were concerned with the plague of Pentecostalism and religious subjectivism that was sweeping the churches. They were convinced that the challenge could only be met by a clear proclamation of the objective gospel. A Reformed pastor declared, "I have preached the gospel in my church. I'm always talking about grace, faith, and justification, but it does not make the impact it should. What am I doing wrong?"

When this editor asked the preacher if he was just as diligent in arraigning his hearers before the high claims of God's law and the judgment seat of Christ, he admitted that he had allowed this phase of his Reformed heritage to fall into disuse. "Then you need look no further to answer the lack of quickening power in your preaching," he was told.

The Word of God is a sharp, two-edged sword. The two cutting edges are law and gospel. The gospel is good news to sinners, but it is a sheer waste of time to try to comfort those who do not mourn – that is to say, those who have not been made conscious of their sins by the proclamation of God's law. Jesus said that we should not cast our pearls before swine. Those who have not heard the law will not hear the gospel. As C.F.W. Walther (The Proper Distinction between the Law and the Gospel) well says, "The law is for secure sinners, and the gospel is for alarmed sinners."

John Bunyan declared:

He that is dark as touching the scope, intent and nature of the law, is also dark as touching the scope, nature and glory of the gospel.... I say, therefore, if thou wouldst know the authority and power of the gospel, labor first to know the power and authority of the law. For I am verily persuaded that the want of this one thing, namely, the knowledge of the law, is the one cause why so many are ignorant of the other.... Again, that man that doth not know the nature of the law, that man doth not know the nature of sin; and that man that knoweth not the nature of sin, will not regard to know the nature of a Saviour.—John Bunyan, The Doctrine of Law and Grace Unfolded.

The God of the Old Testament is the God of law. He who is holiness personified demands a holiness from man which is without variableness or shadow of turning. "Obey and live; disobey and die," is as fixed as the stars in their courses. This inexorable demand of law provides the background to the glory of the New Testament message of justification by grace, on account of Christ, through faith. Take away that background, and the message of grace becomes a meaningless platitude.

It was a lively sense of God's holiness and deep conviction of sin that prepared the Reformers to appreciate the light on justification by faith. And in every age where there has been a revival of genuine religion, men have been brought by the law to cry out, "How can a man be just with God?"

Protestantism has grown fat and flabby. Luther warned that people would become secure and lazy by the continual preaching of grace. To make matters worse, Protestantism's reaction against legalism has made the church very suspicious of law. In a recent article, Professor Gordon H. Clark shows that even the word legalism has evolved a new meaning. He writes:

The term legalism in theology used to designate a theory of justification by works. Liberals have now redefined it so as to exclude rules, laws and obedience from moral living! Amorphous love replaces definite commands. This enables the liberals to transfer the odium of legalism in its historic sense to the evangelical view that is not subject to such a criticism. Gordon H. Clark, "Concerning Justification," Christianity Today, March 16, 1973.

The church today is not too concerned with the great Reformation article of justification largely because the law has fallen into disuse. Justification is a legal word, a law term. Dr. Strong defines it as being set right before the law. The message of justification by faith is music to those who take the demands of God's law seriously and realize that "the law must be fulfilled so that not a jot or tittle shall be lost, otherwise man will be condemned without hope" (Luther's Works [Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press; St. Louis: Concordia], Vol. XXXI, pp. 348, 349). But this is a very permissive age. God is too often viewed as an easy-going Benevolence who forgives sins quite apart from upholding the integrity of His law. In an "Introductory Essay" to Buchanan's masterful volume on The Doctrine of Justification (reprinted by The Banner of Truth Trust, 1961), Dr. J.1. Packer says:

Protestants of today (whose habit it is to take pride in being modern) are accordingly disinclined to take seriously the uniform biblical insistence that God's dealing with man is regulated by law.... Thus modern Protestantism really denies the validity of all the forensic terms in which the Bible explains to us our relationship with God.

The modern Protestant, therefore, is willing to see man as a wandering child, a lost prodigal needing to find a way home to his heavenly Father, but, generally speaking, he is not willing to see him as a guilty criminal arraigned before the Judge of all the earth. The Bible doctrine of justification, however, is the answer to the question of the convicted lawbreaker: how can I get right with God's law? How can I be just with God? Those who refuse to see their situation in these terms will not, therefore, take much interest in the doctrine. Nobody can raise much interest in the answer to a question which, so far as he is concerned, never arises. Thus modern Protestantism, by its refusal to think of man's relationship with God in the basic biblical terms, has knocked away the foundation of the gospel of justification, making it seem simply irrelevant to man's basic need.—pp. 5-6.

Much of today's revivalistic preaching is sentimental and subjective. As Professor Joel C. Gerlach declares in The Northwestern Lutheran:

The emphasis is an old and familiar one. Accounts of personal encounters with Christ are given top billing at the expense of the salvation message. Experience is "in," doctrine is "out.". . . Church history has a name for people who want to experience Jesus without any doctrinal formulations, restricting creeds, or code of Christian ethics. They are antinomians. They flourished in Luther's day also.

For several months Present Truth Magazine has been doing a serious research of American evangelical literature. The amount of antinomianism advocated in much of it is scandalous. Big-name authors and some of the best-known Christian publishing houses are filling the land with theories which undermine the authority of God's law. If this were in the realm of civil government, it would be called by its right name – treason.
Dispensational theories, ideas on Christian love, baptism-of-the-Spirit mentality and theories on grace – all are being used as if they were substitutes for obedience to God's law. This is a desperately permissive and lawless age, and surely society needs no encouragement from the church to cast off the discipline of law.

In previous issues of Present Truth Magazine, we have stated that Protestantism is drowning in a sea of religious subjectivism. No one can successfully challenge that observation. The cause is not neo-Pentecostalism and emotional revivalism. They are symptoms, not causes. The cause is rejection of God's law. If men reject the authority of an objective rule of life, what other authority have they to fall back on but their own subjective experiences?

In different ages the church has had to grapple with great points of the faith and clarify its theology. In the second century the great points of contention were creation, the incarnation, and the resurrection. In the third and fourth centuries they were the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. In the tenth century the church grappled with the doctrine of atonement. In the sixteenth century the evangelical church had to clearly define the doctrine of justification by faith. The church today is desperately in need of a clearly defined theology of law. Witness the flood of Christian existentialism, social relativism, and neo-orthodoxy that has deluged the churches. Their rejection of legalism is commendable. But in their reaction they have undermined the Christian's only absolute, objective authority. They leave us with nothing to fall back on but our own human experiences. But experientialism is the worst form of legalism!

The great issue today is authority – the authority of God's Word versus the authority of human experience. The battle lines are being drawn.

It is in the context of this conflict that the angels of the Apocalypse proclaim their startling message:

And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment is come: and worship Him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters. And there followed another angel, saying, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication. And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, the same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of His indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb.... Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus. Rev. 14:6-10, 12.