Christ, the Meaning of All Scripture, Life and History
Chapter 13—The Gospel As Judgment
The gospel judges not only men, but the teachings of men. To embrace the gospel means we must allow it to call all that we do and teach into serious and radical question. It is far better for the holy fire of the gospel to test whether we have placed wood or hay or gold on God's foundation than for it to be consumed on the great day of final judgment. We shall therefore review some aspects of Christian teaching in the light of the gospel set in its historical, legal and eschatological framework.
Our doctrine of inspiration must stand under the judgment of the gospel. As evangelicals we are generally confident that every other theory on the inspiration and authority of the Bible, save our own, is condemned. In our reaction to liberalism we have often contended for "propositional revelation." But this has saddled us with an unfortunate concept of inspiration and revelation. It conveys the impression that truth is mediated to us in abstract propositions rather than by God's concrete acts in history. The tendency of propositional revelation is to place biblical truth in an abstract, philosophical, rationalistic and Grecian framework. But holy history—Jesus Christ crucified and risen—is the framework and the content of revelation. The faith of prophets and apostles is faith in Jesus, faith in God's redemptive activity.
In the well-meaning intention of evangelicals to make belief in an inerrant Bible the touchstone of evangelical orthodoxy, there is grave danger of our substituting a rationalistic faith in an infallible Bible for faith in Jesus Christ.1 Such a rationalistic faith is a mere assent to the truth of Scripture. It is a faith the Pharisees possessed (John 5:39) and even devils may possess (James 2:19). This is the kind of faith the medieval church talked about when it said faith was insufficient for salvation. In one respect the medieval church was correct. Such faith is barren of salvation. It can never justify the sinner or make a Christian. Therefore, in the name of the gospel, we must protest the claim that belief in an infallible Bible is the watershed of evangelicalism and the touchstone of true Christianity. No one will really believe that the Bible is an unerring rule of faith unless the gospel of his salvation has been sealed to his heart by the witness of the Holy Spirit. The gospel is the best apologetic for the truth of the Scriptures.
The gospel, set in the background of the Old Testament, must also call aspects of our doctrine of God into question. There has been a tendency to be more "spiritual" than the Bible. The force of too many Old Testament passages which speak of God in concrete, realistic terms has been dissipated by labeling them as anthropomorphic figures of speech. The whole idea of saying that God is a spirit without objective form needs to be called into question. It is worse when this concept of God's pure "spirituality" is combined with a philosophical, abstract and speculative view of pretemporal decrees which have determined everything that should come to pass (even tomorrow's football score and the price of cabbage in today's market!). We question whether this is the personal and living God whom the Spirit teaches us to address in the endearing and reverently intimate title, "Abba [Aramaic for papa, daddy; the term of loving familiarity with which a small child addresses his father], Father" (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). We do not doubt that there are saints who subscribe to this doctrine of God and yet truly love Him. But we would suggest that they love Him in spite of this doctrine, not because of it. We can be glad that the hearts of the saints are often better than their heads.
G. Ernest Wright says some challenging things about the Old Testament doctrine of God:
Man's tendency toward, and desire for, pagan 'normalcy' being what they are, it is scarcely surprising to find that Christians have sought by a variety of means to avoid this conception and to eradicate the tension occasioned by the dynamic and energetic Lord who will even destroy in order to build. Many Israelites tried to avoid it by saying: 'It is not he; neither shall evil come upon us; neither shall we see sword nor famine' (Jer. 5.12). Men have always tried to escape from this God into deistic idolatry of one sort or another by saying that God does not see them and does not act directly in the affairs of earth. Greek philosophy and Eastern mysticism could certainly envisage no such deity, while in the ancient polytheisms the great gods were the aristocrats of the universe who for the most part were inaccessible to the common man and uninterested in him except as aristocrats are interested in the menial slaves who supply their needs.
The Christian idealist of this day has been very subtle in his rejection of this basic Biblical perception of the true nature of God. By setting the Old Testament to one side, he is not confronted so directly with it and he can proceed to interpret the New Testament along more congenial lines. Among other things, he exhibits a distinct tendency to interpret God in 'spiritual' terms, and 'spiritual' entities are 'spiritually' discerned. The term 'spirit', derived from the conception of breath and wind, is of value when applied to God solely to prevent us from assuming that anthropomorphic language can exhaust the mystery and glory of his being. The difficulty with the term and with its derived adjective, 'spiritual', is that the human perception of God's being immediately becomes diffuse and without objective focus. The knowledge of God is reduced to a feeling, to an 'experience'. In the Protestant churches of our time no two words are in more common use than the terms 'spiritual' and 'experience'. And when the two are coupled together as 'spiritual experience', we have the popular conception of the sum total of religion, especially when the Golden Rule is added to it.
This represents the paganizing of the Gospel in a form that is pleasing to the cultured and sophisticated. It also presents the Gospel in a form that is more acceptable to the pagan idealist and to the Eastern scholar with mystical tendencies. This Gospel is no scandal nor stumbling block. Its tolerant diffuseness does away with the tension occasioned by the self-disclosure of the Biblical God. The reality of God's being becomes an immanent, inner experience which in practice, though not perhaps in theory, sets aside the whole Biblical doctrine of God's jealousy, the Biblical conception of the definite, dynamic, energetic Being whose transcendent holiness and objectivity are too great to be contained in 'experience', and as well the Biblical conception of the external, objective, historical acts of God. Is it not possible to suppose that God may not choose to reveal himself and his true nature primarily, if at all, in 'spiritual experience'? To be sure, there is an immediate awareness of God's presence in worship, in prayer, communion and confession; but the main emphasis of the Bible is certainly on his revelation of himself in historical acts, and in definite 'words', not in diffuse experience. There is an objectivity about Biblical faith which cannot be expressed in the language of inner experience. For this reason Biblical religion cannot be classified among the great mysticisms of the world. It is scarcely an accident, therefore, that the Bible contains no doctrine of God's spirituality. It has a good deal to say about God's Spirit, or the Holy Spirit, but it does not employ metaphors derived from breath or wind as descriptive of his essence or being.2 From beginning to end it uses the definite and concrete metaphors derived from human society, the most spectacular of all such anthropomorphs being the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
In other words, the Christian disuse of the Old Testament has left the Church an easy prey for the ubiquitous tendencies toward pagan 'normalcy' in which God's being or essence is conceived as in some way immanent in the processes of life, or, as in the more developed intellectual forms of paganism, as an ideal, a principle, a creative event, a vital urge, either within or without the evolving process. In every case, the tension created by God's Lordship, the radically serious conception of sin, and the reality of God's objective, historical acts of salvation are removed as the primary focus of the Christian's attention. In such a situation the distinction between the church and the world of pagan idealism is difficult to maintain, and the Cross as the central symbol of the Church's faith no longer has the meaning it once had.3
God's self-disclosure in historical acts reached its culmination in the historical acts of God in Jesus Christ. As far as the New Testament is concerned, nothing can surpass the knowledge of God given in the face of the historical Christ. The apostles never pointed to the mysteries of subjective experience when they wanted to encourage the church with the knowledge of God's love. They pointed to the love of God definitely revealed in a once-and-for-all act in history (Rom. 5:6-10; 1 John 4:8-10). But the church was soon confronted with Gnostic elements pretending to have access to a knowledge of God beyond the knowledge of God revealed in the flesh-and-blood reality of Jesus Christ. This "advanced" and "superior" knowledge of God was found in some mystical experience or ecstatic vision.
The Gnostic heresy is perpetuated in the modern charismatic movement. It does not deny the facts of the historical gospel. But it tends to postulate a knowledge of God through direct experience in the Holy Spirit—a knowledge of God in addition to Christ crucified and risen. Some charismatics seem to think that Christ crucified and risen does not exhaust the knowledge of God. Christ crucified and risen may be a wonderful place to start. But believers are urged to go on to something "more"—the baptism of the Holy Spirit. If Spirit enthusiasts really believed that God gave the final and crowning revelation of Himself in the historical Jesus (Col. 2:9; Heb. 1:1-3), how could they talk about the Holy Spirit's work as if He added to that knowledge rather than unfolded the meaning of the Christ event to us? The Spirit is "the Spirit of Christ" (Rom. 8:9).
The only way He comes to us is clothed in the gospel of Christ. He has no knowledge of God to impart to us except the knowledge of God in Christ crucified and risen. We must adamantly block our ears to any "knowledge" beside this or above this. As for those with the "gospel" of their exciting experiences in the Spirit, we recall that Luther told Munzer that he would not listen to him even if "he had swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all."4
The gospel, set in the Old Testament's historical and legal framework, calls much of the church's anthropology into question. In the doctrine of man the "Grecianization" of Christian theology has become most apparent. The notion of an innately immortal soul is thoroughly Grecian, foreign to the Bible and contrary to the gospel. The gospel brings life and immortality to us in the same way it brings righteousness to us—by imputing to us what is found in Jesus Christ alone. All created existence continues only by the will and power of God. If He stayed His hand a moment, we would cease to exist. A soul unclothed by a body is as Grecian as rationalism's attempt to divest the gospel of the concrete facts of history. If the New Testament does not record true, concrete facts of history, there is no gospel. For there is no good news apart from this flesh-and-blood history.
What we have continually called the framework of the gospel is the visible form or body which God has given to His gospel. But the "Grecian" mind has shown contempt for this body just as it shows contempt for the human body. We also say that anyone who adheres to the Bible will confess that the soul has no existence independent of the body. God made human life to be whole. From the word whole comes its English derivations health, hale, holy. Biblically speaking, holiness of life is wholeness of life. A naked soul would be unwhole and therefore unholy in the extreme. It would certainly be unfit for fellowship with God.
The gospel not only glorifies God. It humanizes man. We need to bring all dehumanizing views on the nature of man under the judgment of the gospel. What a "cleansing of the sanctuary" the restored gospel will accomplish in the church's doctrine of man!
Christianity stands alone among all religions because it proclaims a salvation wrought out and accomplished in an "out there" act in history. Salvation was what God obtained for us quite independent of our moral transformation. The historical aspect of the gospel means we cannot be saved by our religious experiences, nor need we look in that direction. The legal or juridical aspect of the gospel means we cannot be saved by our moral transformation although we are saved to moral transformation.
In setting salvation wholly outside us, apart from all religious experience and moral transformation, the gospel takes us outside ourselves to look for salvation wholly in what Another has done and suffered. This is a liberating truth. It destroys egotism and self-preoccupation.
Whenever the historical and legal framework of the gospel is ignored or set aside, it is impossible to avoid making the human heart the locus of the saving event. This is what inevitably happens in liberalism—in "encounter theology," in Bultmann's demythologizing and in the moral influence theory of the atonement. But it has also happened in conservative evangelicalism. This great branch of the church is drowned in its preoccupation with the Christian's internal life. Salvation is said to be achieved by being born again or by "letting Christ come into the heart." What connection these internal experiences are supposed to have with the historical events of the historical incarnation is unclear. The way this experiential "gospel" is often preached could easily give the impression that salvation could take place quite independently of God's great acts of salvation history. In any case, salvation history is put far in the background. The spotlight of attention is not on God's act in Christ. It is on His act in the human heart here and now. This is a far cry from the New Testament gospel. This experiential gospel is in profound harmony with the soteriology of classical Romanism. It has little in common with the gospel of the Protestant Reformation. The restored New Testament gospel must therefore call the popular evangelical message of salvation into serious and radical question.
The opponents of the Reformers forever caricatured them as opposed to good works. But they were only against putting good works in the article of righteousness by faith. They excluded good works from justification so that, having put them in their proper place, they could give them their proper emphasis.
We meet the same caricatures because we exclude Christian experience from the glorious righteousness of faith. "Oh, they're against all experience," our critics may say. But we are against confusing Christian experience with saving righteousness or saving grace lest people look to their subjective experience for acceptance with God rather than to the substitutionary experience of Jesus Christ. To put our experience in the place of His experience for us is surely the doctrine of antichrist himself!
Jesus said we should seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then everything else would be added—including, of course, a good and proper experience. Can we not see that experience is a byproduct of something greater, namely, the gospel of His righteousness? But when we seek the byproduct in place of the cause of the byproduct, the pursuit is as self-defeating as the pursuit of happiness. The truth is that the gospel brings with it a glorious experience. It is an experience of forgetting ourselves because we are caught up into something far bigger than ourselves. While we are not saved either in whole or in part by our Christian experience, we are saved to a Christian experience. The Bible calls this sanctification or holiness. Holiness means supreme concern for God's holiness. It is an intense concentration on God's point of view about everything. As G. Ernest Wright says:
He has bound his elect to himself, on the one hand, by great acts of love and grace, and, on the other hand, by a covenant in which his will is expressed. By means of these two elements of Biblical proclamation, the good news of salvation and the requirement of obedience, God wills to bind a people to himself by ties of love, faith and trust. Sin is no longer aberration; it is a violation of communion, a betrayal of Divine love, a revolt against God's Lordship.5
We need to beware that we do not substitute an emotional religious flutter or glib talk about being saved by a "born-again experience" for a lifelong commitment to doing the will of our Father in heaven. Frothy religious experience is cheap. Pride may be never so high as when it has a startling experience to relate. But a life of unspectacular yet grateful obedience to the commandments of God (1 Cor. 7:19) is worth more than all the noise of the charismatic movement. We need to soberly reflect that on the last day Jesus will say "Away from Me" to all except those who have done the will of His Father (Matt. 7:20-23). In this connection it seems that the message of Matthew, with his emphasis on faith and unspectacular discipleship, may come into its own. There is evidence that Matthew wrote his version of the gospel to counteract the early tendency to look too much to signs, miracles and charismatic endowments as the essence of Christian existence. One thing clear in Matthew (and the rest of the New Testament for that matter) is that the ethics of the New Testament are no different from the ethics of the Old. True, the cultic religious requirements of Judaism have dropped away. But the New Testament ethic is not another religion or another ethic. The fact that there is no argument in the New Testament over the content of ethics shows that the apostolic church was moving within the framework of Old Testament ethics. The standards of right behavior we encounter in the Old Testament are not set aside in the New. Rather, they are taken for granted. Indeed, they are radicalized by the glorious light of Jesus and His gospel. But the commandments of God are not so spiritualized that they lose their concrete, objective content.
In the New Testament there is a sense in which the law is done away. And there is also a sense in which the law is not done away. This is a paradox. But it is no less the truth than the fact that the believer is pure and yet at the same time is exhorted to purify himself. Yet now, as never before, the church seems unsure of herself in the matter of the believer's relation to the law of God. Because the liberals have dehistoricized the gospel and stripped it of its juridical garments, they have an ethical system as naked as their gospel. It is called "situation ethics." It invariably ends in the most pitiful legalism. Because dispensationalism has also vastly separated the Old Testament from the New, it often leaves the impression that the believer, being freed from the law of God in every sense, lives by the leading of the Holy Spirit and the love of Jesus in the heart. We are not told how to distinguish between the Spirit and the uncertain voices of sinful human nature. But if we can be saved by a mighty internal transformation, why cannot we be guided by this "Christ within"? We need Luther's doctrine of the sinfulness of the regenerate to stop the language of the born-again experience from becoming too loud and confident.
If God's salvation act in Christ was a juridical transaction, if it was designed to save us by honoring the claims of the divine law, then is there not a profound harmony between law and grace? If the cross was the hilasteiron (mercy seat, place of atonement), then does not the gospel show us how justice and mercy unite in the cross? If the gospel is preached in the framework of Old Testament jurisprudence as the apostles preached it, then there is no room for the antinomian misunderstanding to follow Paul and Luther like a dark shadow.
The Cross reveals the love of God so profoundly and dramatically that it makes faith possible. It reveals the importance of the law and the seriousness of sin as revolt against the order and structure established by God. The Cross proclaims and preserves the holiness of God's law, while at the same time revealing his boundless and overwhelming love. This means that it is impossible for those who take the Protestant faith seriously to take the sinful revolt of human beings against God lightly. The Cross makes it apparent that God cannot forgive sin as an indulgent parent may forgive an offense. Forgiveness which is merely indulgence would subvert the order and structure of the universe.
Ignoring the structures which maintain life and make society function is not mercy or love but sheer irresponsibility. It is against this background that Protestant assertions about the Cross must be understood. Through the Cross the holiness of God's law is preserved. This law protects all people and makes the life of society possible. At the same time the Cross also reveals God's boundless love.6
A gospel shorn of its Old Testament background can only lead to a faith shorn of concrete ethical content. Like the naked Greek soul, it is unwhole, unhealthy and unholy. Obedience to God's covenantal order of life, the norm of righteousness, is the only test of genuine discipleship to Jesus Christ. Otherwise, what is to prevent a person—like the gay clergyman interviewed in The Wittenburg Door—from justifying his abominable lifestyle by appealing to his "beautiful relationship" with the Lord?7 The biblical message of a final judgment according to works means that the objective law of God stands over all human experience. By its unerring standard of righteousness it will judge whether that experience is good or evil (Rom. 2:6-16; James 2:10-12). The purpose of justification by grace is to set the believing sinner right before the law. This is implicit in the meaning of justification. It is impossible to be reconciled to God while remaining unreconciled to His law, for the law is the holy will and character of God. It is the carnal mind which refuses to be subject to the law of God (Rom. 8:7). There is a popular "gospel" which oozes contempt for that holy law which is to judge all men. But there is no room for antinomian cheap grace when the gospel is placed in the framework of Old Testament history and law. God's saving act paid the deepest respect to the law. Otherwise Christ need not have died. The biblical message of a final judgment before the law of God and according to works is entirely consistent with such a gospel. Indeed, the final judgment is mysteriously present in the preaching of this gospel. By their attitude to the law of God, men reveal their attitude to this gospel and so pass judgment upon themselves.
The New Testament gospel proclaims that Old Testament history has been summed up and completed in Christ. God's promised salvation in the eschatological fullness of time has been realized in Him. This is why the New Testament declares that the Christ event is the end of the world (Heb. 1:1, 2; 9:26). In Christ the old order has passed. Sin, death and the devil have been overcome by the death and resurrection of Christ. In Him the new age and the new creation have arrived.
The New Testament shows that eschatology is concentrated in Jesus Christ. Christ is so overwhelmingly the subject of eschatology that we should speak of the end as the Last One rather than as the last things. Christ is the Last One (Rev. 1:8; 2:8). All things exist for His sake (Col. 1:16). All history points to Him and finds its meaning in Him. Nothing has any meaning unless it is related to Jesus Christ. The only legitimate preaching of the end of the world is the preaching of Jesus Christ, the Last One. Did God promise Israel rest and riches and glory? The gospel proclaims that this has been achieved in Christ. Did God promise a faithful remnant? Christ is that Remnant. (In another sense it includes all who are in Him by faith.) Did God promise Israel rest in its own land? Christ is God's Israel. The work of the faithful Servant of Yahweh is finished, and He has entered into His rest. All who are now in Him by faith are in Israel. They are in God's own country. They have entered His rest. There is now no chosen people except Jesus Christ, the chosen One. There is no holy land except where He is. He is the reality of which both Jew and Palestine were only shadows. Since Christ is in heaven, there is no inheritance except the one in heaven (1 Peter 1:3-5), no promised land except the one in heaven (Heb. 11:13-16), no Jerusalem except the one in heaven (Gal. 4:26), no Mount Zion except the one in heaven (Heb. 12:22) and no temple except "God's temple in heaven" (Rev. 11:19).
The gospel of an eschatology concentrated in Jesus Christ must stand in judgment over the popular eschatology concentrated in a Palestine which is now no promised land and in an Israel with no claim to be God's Israel more than any other nation. All geographical and national boundaries which once served as shadows of Jesus Christ have been swept aside. Now that the reality stands revealed in Jesus Christ, there is no more need to play with childish shadows. The fact that so many evangelicals can be caught up in this childish Palestinian eschatology shows that, for them, Christ and Him crucified has not become all and in all. What a mighty "cleansing of the sanctuary" is demanded by the restoration of the apostolic gospel! What a judgment must begin at the house of God!
1 Brian G. Armstrong shows that the rationalizing of faith has also taken place in Reformed orthodoxy: "Again, perhaps one of the most overlooked changes in later Reformed theology from the theology of Calvin is the radical change having to do with the doctrine of faith. For Calvin, faith was the key to all theological knowledge, indeed, the locus under which all of theology was to be discussed and understood. Calvin's approach was basically in terms of the experience of the believer, as directed by the Word of God. But when the synthetic methodology was introduced, faith automatically lost its overarching position in theological formulation and was relegated to the position of one of many topics, or loci, usually one quite far down the line. Not only did faith lose its position as central and introductory to theological formulations, but, treated simply as one of many loci, it quickly lost the existential quality present in Calvin's formulations. Grundler has carefully detailed the very significant reorientation of this doctrine of faith in Zanchi. He has shown that the object of faith for Zanchi is simply an assent to the truth of the Scriptures. 'In unequivocal terms faith, or the act of faith, is described as assent to the propositions of the entire body of Scripture as the true Word of God.' This far-reaching position was to become the common idea in orthodox Calvinism but is a far cry from Calvin's definition, which makes faith founded not upon the truth of the Scriptures but 'upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.' "—Armstrong, Calvinism, pp. 138-39.
2 "Readers may wish to make an exception of the Johannine literature, basing the conclusion on John 4.24 ('God is spirit'). This statement must be interpreted, however, in the light of the whole Johannine vocabulary and in relation to the other Johannine sentences, 'God is light' and 'God is love'. When this is done, it is doubtful whether it can be used to sustain a doctrine of God's spirituality. These phrases are primarily concerned with the nature of the Divine activity and revelation, rather than with the ontology of God in the Hellenic sense. "—G. E. Wright, God Who Acts: Biblical Theology As Recital (London: SCM Press, 1952), p.24.
3 Ibid., pp.22-4.
4 WA, 17 I, 361-62.
5 Wright, God Who Acts, pp.21-2.
6 G. W. Forell, The Protestant Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960).
7 The Wittenburg Door, no.39 (Oct.-Nov. 1977).