The Radical Basis Of Acceptance with God
From an address delivered by Geoffrey J. Paxton
Let me begin by asking a very fundamental question. It is this: On what basis does God accept a man?
Look at the question carefully. It is the most fundamental of all religious questions. I will propose several answers, and I shall ask you to choose the one which is correct.
1. A life of obedience to the law
We are a little embarrassed about asking for a show of hands on this question because so many give the wrong answer. The situation is even worse when we are at a seminary and find that the professors give the wrong answer! But the glorious thing about the gospel is that we are accepted even when we are wrong. So let us put ourselves on the line and choose answer number 1, number 2 or number 3.
2. Faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ
3. Some other way
[The speaker asks for a show of hands. One hundred percent reject number 1. About ninety percent choose number 2. A few choose number 3. And some abstain.]
As I have said, this question which I have asked is most basic. It is the most cardinal religious question a person can be asked. It demands a clear answer. And in order to give such an answer, we must be clear in our own minds about this important matter. This was the great issue of the Reformation. Some feel that times have changed and therefore newfangled questions are more relevant. But we believe our question is as relevant today as it was in the days of Paul or Luther. It is the most fundamental question that plagues the human heart. It is at the root of all problems in society.
We of the Australian Forum believe that the only correct answer to this question is number 1. Some of you are looking cross-eyed! Well, that is all right. But we hope that by the end of the lecture your eyes will be uncrossed. Unequivocally, we choose answer number 1. The only basis upon which any person is accepted with God is a life of obedience to the law.
The Answer of Legalism
I'll tell you why you chose number 2 and why you didn't choose number 1. You did not want to appear to be a legalist. Most people choose number 2 (i.e., faith in the gospel of Christ) because they think it is against legalism. But number 2 is really the legalistic answer.
I can see that some of you are beginning to look confused — like a university student in Minnesota who had a big K written on the back of his shirt. I asked, "What does K stand for?" He replied, "Confused —— I'm confused — that's what it means." "But," I replied, "you don't spell confused with a K." "Ah," he said, "you don't know how confused I am." So you may be saying, "I'm confused. You've tricked us. That's the last time I'll come to your forum."
Let us reason together!
Number 2 is really the legalistic answer. What is another word for basis? [The audience answers, "Foundation," "Ground."] Good. What is the basis, foundation, or ground, on which a man is acceptable with God? None of the Reformers and no Bible scholar worthy of the Reformation tradition has ever said that faith is the basis, or ground, of acceptance with God. Never! Faith is glorious. Of all attributes that grace implants in the human heart, it stands right at the top. It is the gift of God and the root of all virtues. But irrespective of the princely nature of faith, it never has the position of the basis, foundation, or ground, of salvation. And one of the perils of the modern religious scene is the idea that it is because of my faith, because I'm born again, or because I trust in Jesus that God accepts me.
To say that faith is the basis of acceptance with God is legalistic, because it offers to God something which is within me as the basis of acceptance with God. (That God gives faith makes no difference to the principle. Faith is still a quality within me.) If you take the time to look at the decrees of the Council of Trent on justification, you will see that number 2 is the classic Roman Catholic answer. The Reformers stood against that position.
The Answer of Faith
Now let us look at Romans 2:12, 13:
For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law; (for not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.)
The Bible is unequivocal. None but the doers of the law are accepted by God. That is an eternal principle. God will not turn from it. He has never changed His mind. A life of obedience — that is to say, a life of righteousness — is the only basis of acceptance with God.
The trouble with so much evangelicalism today is that the gospel is regarded as a smart way of skirting around the law. It has come to mean a smart trick whereby we can jump over the claims of the law straight into the presence of God. We think that the gospel means that God is less demanding than He used to be.
God demands a life of perfect obedience to His law. No lame, imperfect, halfway, broken obedience will satisfy His holiness. ". . . the doers of the law shall be justified." This fundamental basis of biblical religion has been overlooked in this twentieth century. There is little true preaching of the law today. We have neglected to preach the holiness and majesty of God. God is presented to men and women as an easygoing Benevolence who frantically runs around heaven seeking how He may please insatiably worldly people. No wonder we're in such a religious quagmire. We need the law. We need to know the holy requirement of God. We need to know the standard of God. We need to preach the standard of God in such away that people will cry out, "How then can I be saved?"
When Paul contrasts the way of faith and the way of works in Romans and Galatians, he is not contrasting faith and works as such, but faith and our (weak, puny, defective) works. We must not get the idea that faith is against the law. In Romans 3:31 Paul argues that the way of faith is not against the law. Faith establishes the law. Faith is not the negation of the law of God. Faith honors the law. Faith acknowledges that it is only on the basis of answer number 1 — a life of obedience to the law — that God will ever accept a man.
In the early chapters of Romans Paul shows the perilous predicament of man. What is that perilous predicament? Paul shows clearly that neither Gentile nor Jew is able to meet the holy standard of God which is demanded in the law of God. And it is to rectify this situation that Paul talks — as he does in Romans 3:21-26 — about Jesus Christ and the righteousness of God.
But we often jump into Romans 3:21-26 without giving due attention to the force of the preceding argument. Let us remember that in Romans 1:13 to 3:20 Paul seeks to hammer home with unsurpassed clarity and inspired force the message that the whole human race is in a terrible predicament because man has not been able to give God what is God's due — and that is nothing less than perfect conformity to God's law.
The Christian gospel honors the law of God. Faith honors the law of God. True faith will always gravitate to answer number 1. Since faith always feeds off its object and takes its value from its object, faith will always answer, "Number 1."
The Righteousness of God
Romans 3:21 begins, "But. . ." That is the biggest little word in the Bible. That was the biggest little word in my childhood, too. My father would take me aside and say, "Your mother has told me that you've been a very naughty boy. You deserve to be punished. You ought to be thrashed." Thus he would work up to a great psychological climax wherein I could feel the impending thrashing. Then he would say, "But. . . I want you to know what grace is. I'm going to withhold what you deserve." Whew!
"But now the righteousness of God..." This is what intervenes into our terrible predicament. Let us understand that it was this "righteousness of God" around which and out of which the Reformation exploded. What is meant by the righteousness of God?
1. The righteousness of God is that which is measured by the character of God Himself. It is that which is commensurate with the holiness of God. It has God as its measure. It is His holy, spotless, divine character.
2. This righteousness of God is the demand of God. His justice demands it of every man and woman. This is what He has always demanded, and this is what He will always demand of us, because He could never demand anything less than His own perfect being. This is the matter over which Luther wrestled. He almost despaired when He saw this facet in "the righteousness of God." You remember how he struggled with all his power and ascetic principles to give to God what God required. Yet his conscience gave him no rest. "Have I done enough? Have I done it well enough? How can I be sure?"
We submit that it is because we today are not wrestling with these same convictions that the gospel is virtually unknown. For the gospel only makes sense against the backdrop of God's radical and uncompromising demand. When men and women understand that a life of perfect conformity to the law is the basis of acceptance with God and when they are distressed as to how they can meet that demand, then, and only then, will the gospel make any sense.
What is so wrong with much of our religiosity today is that we are not asking theological questions. We rather want to know, "How can God please me? How can He satiate my world-loving heart?" But the fundamental question of the Bible and the fundamental question which gave birth to the Reformation was, "How can I please God?" Only when this question is an urgent necessity will the third point about the righteousness of God make any sense.
3. The righteousness of God is that which God Himself provides. When Luther discovered this, the Reformation was born. That is good news. It is glorious!
Jesus is both the demand of God and God's provision. If you want to see what God demands of you and me, look at the perfect life of Jesus Christ. He was truly man as man was meant to be. But don't turn Jesus into a greater Moses. Jesus is the righteousness of God in that He is the provision of God. When He was born into this world, it was a birth such as had not been since Adam fell. He came to this earth to live a life that no one had lived since Adam fell. If you look at the whole stream of human history from the Fall to the end of the world, you will see only thirty-three years that God endorses. Jesus came to give the perfect sacrifice, the antilutron (the substitutionary ransom) for the failure of men and women to live acceptably before God. He arose from the tomb and ascended to the right hand of God, so that right now He is in God's presence as a perfect Man on behalf of all those who trust Him.
Jesus came and lived a life of perfect obedience to the law of God. His life matched the holiness of God at every point. What the holiness of God demanded, Jesus provided. Have you ever read Concerning the Incarnation of the Word of God, by Athanasius, or Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Man?), by Anselm? We ought to read these classics instead of this cotton candy stuff that floats about. These men grappled with the question of the incarnation. God had to become man in order to provide for us what His only holy self-consistency demanded.
The Action of Faith
Jesus provided the righteousness that God requires, but we are still obligated to present it to God in order to be personally justified. Christ's obedience to the law will not help you unless somehow it becomes yours. You've got to present it to God. You've got to say, "Here it is, Father." How does that come about? It comes about through (not because of) the princely channel of faith.
When we come before God in repentance, we say, "Lord, I see myself portrayed in Romans 1:18 to 3:20. I have not kept Thy holy law. I have not presented what Thy holiness requires. Be merciful to me, a sinner." But faith says, "Thy holy gospel says that Thou hast done it for me in Jesus Christ." We reach out our beggarly hands and say, "Mine are Jesus' birth, His sinless life, His death, resurrection and ascension." That is the language of faith. Faith reaches out and grasps the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ. Then through faith we are able to present His life to God as ours.
4. The righteousness of God, therefore, is my righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. Sometimes charismatics come up to us and ask, "Brother, have you made the exciting discovery of the Spirit-filled life?" The tragedy is that, when thus confronted, many Christians feel spiritually nude and embarrassed. The only answer of a man or woman of faith is, "Yes, what a life! I was born perfectly, I have lived commensurately with the holiness of God Himself in my Substitute, Jesus Christ." When we boast about that Spirit-filled life (which is ours by faith), it makes every other Spirit-filled life look small and insignificant by comparison. Our trouble is that we have not out bragged the charismatics.
5. The righteousness of God, which is mine through faith, is in Jesus Christ. It is not a quality in my heart. This is the emphasis of Romans 3:21-26 — "in Christ Jesus." This righteousness is found alone in Jesus at God's right hand. Paul tells the Colossians:
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory. — Col. 3:1-4.
So don't set your affection on the wrong life. Your life of sanctification, which of necessity follows justification, is a shadow of the Christian's true life at God's right hand. I like the way Calvin put it (and this is an antidote for once-saved-always-saved-ism — as if faith for a moment brings life for eternity): "Christ justifies no one whom He does not at the same time sanctify."
Let me conclude by saying this: A life of obedience to the law — that which God demands — has been performed by the doing and the dying of Jesus Christ. I am able to present it to God by faith. This is not presenting the righteousness which I have within, but it is presenting the righteousness which is Jesus Christ. It is, as Luther said, the alien righteousness of Christ. It is reserved in heaven as a great treasure for people who live among thieves. Heaven is a safe place for it to be. Thus, God accepts us on the basis of a perfect righteousness. He saves us justly. This means that our salvation is grounded on the justice of God. That is good news. We sometimes wonder if the mercy of God will run out. The pastor might tell us that God is merciful. Yet we may say, "But he doesn't know my heart. Is God that merciful?" But have you thought it possible that God would cease to be just? No! That is why we think His mercy may run out — because we know how just He is.
Here is the glorious message of Romans 3:25, 26, which is not taught as much as it should be today: The gospel is a declaration of God's justice. God has saved us in a way that affirms that He is just. He has not skirted around the law. He has not been inconsistent. Before God could reject a man who trusts in Jesus Christ, He would first have to become unjust. ". . . to declare, I say, at this time His righteousness: that He might be just, and the justifier of Him which believeth in Jesus." Rom. 3:26. So our security is grounded firmly in God's justice.
God has never changed His mind. He has always required perfect obedience to His law. And when He looked out on a world in utter desperation, He came Himself — God in a donkey's food box, sucking at the breast of a Palestinian maiden; God allowing the Palestinian dust to sift through His toes as He fulfilled His own law on our behalf. Faith acknowledges the law because Jesus acknowledged the law. Faith always chooses the perfect, law-conforming life of Jesus as the basis for acceptance with God (answer number 1) and not itself (answer number 2) or any other way (answer number 3).
Geoffrey J. Paxton is an Anglican clergyman and president of the Queensland Bible Institute, Brisbane, Australia.