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Mirror Mirror on the WallEditorial — Do We Distort the Gospel?

The truths of divine revelation are full of paradoxes. There appear to be many contradictions in the Bible. This is because truth can very often be expressed to the human mind only by two statements which appear to be antithetical.

Much harm is done when men seize only one side of the paradox and teach that as if it were the whole truth. Others feel that they can easily "harmonize the apparent contradictions." Failing to appreciate that the full truth is a paradox, they bend one side of the paradox to "harmonize" with the other. This results in a distortion of the message of God's Word. Have you ever looked into a mirror which throws a distorted image of your figure? All your features may be there, but they are thrown out of proportion.

Systematic theology may have its place, but there is a real danger in reducing the varied and paradoxical aspects of infinite truth to a rigid system of human logic.

Let us illustrate these principles with some concrete examples from the Word of God:

1. Fear and Confidence

The Bible writers commend that spirit which fears God and trembles at His Word (see Isa. 66:5; Phil. 2:12; Heb. 4:1; Rev. 14:7). They also exhort us to approach God with fearlessness: "Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace...." "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter...." Heb. 4:16; 10:19.

Here is a paradox. We are admonished to live before God with fear and fearlessness, trembling and confidence. Luther, perceiving the truth of the paradox, said that the Christian must live in a sort of "desperate confidence."

Consider the serious distortion that will result from only stressing one side of the paradox. The timid soul, distrustful of self, needs the assurance that the great King on the eternal throne opens wide His everlasting portals to the trembling touch of a little child. On the other hand, the confident clamor of the Jesus Revolution needs to be confronted with the truth that reverence and godly fear are the first law of worship. Our God is awful in majesty, holiness and sin-hating purity. We must not dare to approach Him with any careless familiarity or to make of Him a popular somebody. We remember what Luther said about some of the radical spirits of Wittenberg. "They talk to God," complained the Reformer, "as if He were a shoemaker's apprentice." We too protest against the irreverent familiarity of much popular revivalism. We do not need youth leaders who merely tell our young people to approach God with fearless boldness, lest they fall into the error of irreverent presumption. The youth need the whole truth of God's Word. When they are taught to fear the Majesty of heaven and to tremble at His judgment seat, then may they properly understand what it means to come boldly before Him by faith in the name of Jesus.

2. Rest and Activity

The gospel is a call to rest. The Lord invites us, "Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Matt. 11:28. And the apostle Paul says, "He that is entered into His rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from His." Heb. 4:10 Yet the believer in Jesus is just as earnestly called to labor. Jesus adds, "Take My yoke [an instrument of toil and service] upon you. . . " Matt. 11:29. The apostle Peter admonished believers, giving all diligence, add to your faith.... give diligence to make your calling and election sure." 2 Peter 1:5, 10. Again he says, "Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind...." 1 Peter 1:13.

Jesus and His apostles repeatedly call us to strive, labor, work, be careful to maintain good works, carry the cross, suffer, endure tribulation, fight the good fight and run the race with patience.

He who rests most fully upon Christ and His free salvation will be the most earnest in active labor for Him. A continual emphasis on resting in Jesus and waiting on the Lord, to the exclusion of an adequate emphasis on the other side of the paradox, leads to mystical quietism. An exaggerated emphasis on the duty of Christian activity leads to pietistic activism. The true message of justification by faith lies in between the two distortions.

3. Faith and Works

It was Melanchthon who said, "We are justified by faith alone; but the faith which justifies us is never alone." The great apostle Paul is noted for his insistence on faith as the only instrument to receive God's justifying grace. Yet Paul could be just as insistent on the necessity of a labor of love. No one will be saved by his good works; yet it is just as certain that no soul is saved who remains without good works.

People can become lazy through a one-sided emphasis on faith. Luther was led to complain about this. Of course, he was fully aware of the opposite error. The Reformer likened his efforts with some of his people to getting a drunken German peasant onto a horse — put him up on one side and he falls off the other. Some teachers will keep harping, "There is nothing for you to do. All you have to do is believe." We cannot deny that there is some truth in the statement if faith is taken in the full, broad, Biblical sense, it is all that is necessary. But many people do not understand faith in the fullest sense. The preaching of the cross of Christ will create faith—a faith that will be busy and active in the service of God and man. Faith is not an opiate that lulls people to sleep. Faith is a stimulant that will stir all the energies of the soul. Never should the impression be given that good works are unnecessary or unimportant. No one can really read the practical teachings of Jesus and obtain this distorted impression.

Two things are clearly taught in Paul — justification by faith and a final judgment according to works. These two great truths may appear to be paradoxical, but both need to be taught. In his great classic on The Doctrine of Justification (reprinted by The Banner of Truth Trust, 1961). James Buchanan reports how his teacher, Dr. Chalmers, used to say, "I would have every preacher insist strenuously on these two doctrines—a present Justification by grace, through faith alone—and a future Judgment according to works." Buchanan adds, "And all faithful ministers have made use of both, that they might guard equally against the peril of self-righteous legalism, on the one hand, and of practical antinomianism on the other."—Pages 252, 253.

4. Law and Gospel

The whole Bible may be divided into these two—law and gospel. Law requires us to do, work and run the way of God's commandments. Anything that commands us what we should do, how we should live and what we must be, is law, e.g., "Love thy neighbor," "Be kindly affectioned one to another," "Love not the world,"" Live peaceably with all men." Law is not only taught in the Old Testament but all through the teachings of Jesus and His apostles. On the other hand, the gospel says. "Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord," "Be still, and know that I am God." It does not tell us what our hand owes to God but proclaims what God's hand freely gives to us. In Jesus Christ, God gives us all that the law requires (Rom.10:4) — perfect righteousness for its fulfillment and perfect atonement for its satisfaction.

Edmund Schlink points out in his Theology of our Lutheran Confessions, "As the law cannot be preached without Christ, so Christ's work cannot be preached without the law."—p. 86. How could we know our sin and the greatness of our debt without the law? (Rom. 3:20; 7:7-13). He who has never had the law instruct him about the bitterness of his sin, could never appreciate the sweetness of the gospel of saving grace. Further, since the gospel gives us all that the law demands of us (Rom. 10:4), how can we appreciate what God gives unless we have first heard the law?

Law and gospel must be carefully distinguished. This is the cornerstone of the Reformation. Yet both must be preserved in proper tension, and, as the Formula of Concord says, "These two doctrines [law and gospel], we believe and confess, should ever and ever be diligently inculcated in the Church of God even to the end of the world."—Book of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1957),p. 261.

The power of gospel preaching will be in proportion to the power of preaching the law. Let the law fall into disuse, and the gospel becomes a tame old tale, a mere sentiment, "cheap grace," a message that bores the world. Let the law be exalted and proclaimed as the expression of God's holy will, and sinners will cry out, "What must I do to be saved?" On the other hand, when the gospel is pushed aside, moralism, pharisaism and self-righteousness triumph, and the social-gospel advocates try to establish the kingdom of God by human activity.

If we stand by the faith of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith, we shall see that the gospel does not cancel out the law nor does the law weaken the free gift of the gospel. Neither can be neglected without neglecting the other.

We live in an age when authority is under fire, and back of all this is the human hostility against the authority of God, His government and His law. Much of today's so-called preaching of justification by faith by so-called Protestants, is wishy-washy sentimentalism that does not lead the hearers to repent of their transgression of God's holy law nor does it produce lives that show any great respect for that law. Such preaching bears no resemblance to the message of the Puritans, the Reformers and, least of all, the apostles.

Law and gospel are a paradox. They must be preserved in proper tension. Unless we do this, we shall distort the gospel of Christ.

5. The Nature of a Christian Man

Is a Christian a sinner or a saint? Luther struggled with this problem until he produced the famous formula that became a firm plank in all Reformation theology — simul justu: et peccator, which means, at the same time righteous and a sinner. This is a tremendous paradox. The Roman Catholic party could not grasp it. But the more this paradox is examined, the more it shines with light, throwing clarity on many otherwise unsolvable riddles.

The believer in Jesus is righteous before God because God pronounces him righteous for the sake of Christ. Further, he has by the Spirit become a new creature and has actually begun to be righteous. On the other hand, he must not imagine that he is without sin (1 John 1:8), must confess the sinfulness of his nature (Rom. 7:14-25) and must constantly plead forgiveness in that he continues to fall short of God's ideal in his best endeavors and holiest duties (Eccl. 1:20; Rom. 3:23). He still has a sinful nature the same as all men, and, because of this, the flesh fights against the Spirit and the Spirit fights against the flesh (Gal. 5:17).

In order to have a true view of the Christian life, both sides of the paradox need to be considered—daily victory over sins and the sinful nature by the indwelling power of God's Spirit on the one hand, and the inevitability of sinfulness on the other hand.

The "holiness movement" emphasizes the victorious life possible to the Christian. It dwells on such statements as, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." It emphasizes much truth that cold, formal orthodoxy needs to hear. Yet the "holiness movement" falls into the serious distortion that comes by too little attention to the other side of the paradox the inevitable sinfulness of all the saints in this life, which is graphically portrayed in Romans 7:14-25.1

The modern Pentecostal movement appeals to the human desire to escape from the continual consciousness of personal sinfulness and human inadequacy imposed on even the saints because of the inherited sinful nature. Many are thus tempted to look for some exciting experience in the Spirit to lift them out of the daily tension of being simul justia etpeccator. Much of the holiness-Pentecostal emphasis is a premature seizure of the glory that shall be—an attempt to bring the not yet of eternity into the now of historical process.

On the other hand, much of the more orthodox stream of Protestantism falls into the distortion of negativism through a correct but unbalanced emphasis on human sinfulness. Consequently, a great number of processing Christians easily excuse sin, carouse on God's mercy and expect the hereafter to bring such victory as they ought to experience here and now.

6. Security and Danger of Falling

A Calvinistic Presbyterian meets an Arminian Methodist and says, "I hear that you Methodists believe in falling from grace."

The Methodist replies, "I hear that you Presbyterians believe in horse stealing."

"We certainly do not," says the Presbyterian.

"But don't you think it possible for a Presbyterian to steal horses?" quiries the other.

"Yes, of course it is possible, but we don't believe in it," answers the Presbyterian.

"Neither do we believe in falling from grace," says the Methodist.

Most of our readers will be well aware of the arguments used to support both Calvinism and Arminianism on this point. The Calvinist likes to stress the security of the believer (less sophisticated traditions call it "once-saved-always-saved"). The Arminian is well armed with those scriptures which warn the believer about the danger of falling away from faith in Christ. This writer was being questioned by a Christian gentleman in New Zealand at the conclusion of a forum presentation. He wanted to know whether this writer stood solidly on what he claimed was the Reformation platform of "once-saved-always-saved." The conversation went something like this:

Mr. X: "You don't deny the doctrine of eternal security for the man who has accepted Christ, do you?"

Editor: "I believe in the eternal security of the believer. But remember, Bible believing is not just one act. In the New Testament, the word believe is generally written in the present continuous tense."

Mr. X: "Then I can take it that you are not Arminian?"

Editor: "That's right!"

Mr. X: "Oh, I'm glad to hear that!"

Editor: "Tell me, upon what scripture do you base your doctrine of eternal security?"

Mr. X: " 'I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand.' John 10:28

'Those that Thou gavest Me I have kept, and none of them is lost....' John 17:12.

'Moreover whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified, them He also glorified.' Rom. 8:30."

Editor: "While we can both gain great comfort from these scriptures that pledge security to the believer, do you also believe the following scriptures?

'Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. Well: because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear.' Rom. 11:19,20.

'Every branch in Me that beareth not fruit He taketh away.' John 15:2.

'But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.' 1 Cor. 9:27.

'Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall.' 2 Peter 1:10.

'And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath He reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy and unblamable and unreprovable in His sight: if ye continue in the faith grounded and settled and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister.' Col. 1:21-23.

'Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?' Heb. 10:29.

'Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.' Gal. 5:4.

Now do you believe these texts too?"

Mr. X: "Yes, I have to believe those scriptures too, because they are in the Bible."

Editor: "But do you really take these scriptures just as seriously as the other texts you cited about the security of the believer?"

Mr. X: "I don't suppose I really do."

Editor: "This is why Luther had the correct position on this question. He fully realized that the truth of the matter could only be expressed by two groups of statements which seem to be antithetical. His emphasis was neither Calvinistic nor Arminian. He took each side of the paradox with equal seriousness and preserved the tension between confidence in his security in Christ and fear of the possibility of his falling from grace. I will not ask you to take the texts you quoted to me less seriously. I simply appeal to you to take the other side of the paradox just as seriously. Unless you do this, your view of truth will be distorted."

Mr. X: "Thank you. I'd like to do some further study on this point."

7. Predestination and Atonement for All

Some of my friends feel that they must believe in a "limited atonement" in order to be consistent with the Bible doctrine of predestination. Some of the letters to the editor even claim that the entire Reformation stood on the concept of predestination and limited atonement. We readily admit that, humanly speaking, predestination and limited atonement are consistent. But we also hasten to add, "Extreme views have the advantage of remarkable consistency."— H. Bezzel, Berufung and Beruf (Neuendettelsau, 1926), p.64. Such consistency is achieved by either ignoring or destroying the paradoxical nature of divine truth.

We would also point out that the greatest Reformer believed in predestination and an unlimited atonement. Some will reply, "Unfortunately, Luther wasn't consistent." If consistency means destroying the Biblical paradox, Luther would be first to admit his teaching was not consistent. But he was too well aware that the truths of divine revelation often appear antithetical and illogical to human reasoning.

In the book of Romans, Paul does not start with predestination as his theme. He moves from justification by faith to predestination. He does this to show that God is wholly the author of our faith and that every notion of human merit must be rejected.

Even those Reformers who adopted the view of a more rigid determinism did not defend their view of predestination for its own sake. Their central concern was the exclusion of human merit. Luther found the doctrine of predestination useful when disputing with men like Erasmus, because it took the entire initiative of our salvation out of our fallen wills and placed it in the divine will.

Let us now look at the other side of the paradox —the doing and dying of Jesus Christ for the sins of the whole world. Does the Bible teach that Jesus really died for all?

    "And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." 1 John 2:2.
    "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life" John 3:16.
    "For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that He might have mercy upon all." Rom. 11:32.
    "And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord." Luke 2: 10, 11.
    "And He said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" Mark 16:15.
    "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." Rom. 3:23
    "For there is no respect of persons with God." Rom. 2:11.
    "Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of One the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life." Rom. 5:18.
    "For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if One died for all, then were all dead" 2 Cor. 5:14.
    "For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus; who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time." 1 Tim. 2:5-6.
    "For therefore we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe" 1 Tim. 4:10.
    "For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men. ..." Titus 2:11.
    "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." 2 Peer 3:9.

Not long ago this writer read a book on Predestination by a rigid predestinarian. A very large section of the book was devoted to "explaining" and "harmonizing" such texts as cited above with his rigid determinism. After many pages of juggling, labored explanations and fancy foot work, he expressed his satisfaction in having a view that was consistent "Extreme views have the advantage of remarkable consistency."

Luther once received a letter from a man who was deeply troubled about whether he was one of those predestined to salvation. The Reformer replied:

    "Look at the words [of John 3:16] I beseech you, to determine how and of whom He is speaking. 'God so loved the world,' and 'that whosoever believeth in Him.'

    "Now, the 'world' does not mean Peter and Paul alone, but the entire human race. All together. And no one is here excluded. God's Son was given for all. All should believe, and all who believe should not perish, etc. Take hold of your own nose, I beseech you, to determine whether you are not a human being (that is, part of the world) and, like any other man, belong to the number of those comprised by the word, 'all'."—What Luther Says, comp. E. Plass (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959). Vol.11, p.608.

One of the reasons for the remarkable success of the Wesleyan revival was its universal appeal that Christ died for all. The sheer good news of God's unlimited grace set hearts singing, voices ringing and feet running. Wesley abhorred the thought of any cold determinism. His critics were able to point to some weaknesses in his theology, but Wesley had a better over-all concept of the character of God than did some of his more orthodox critics.2 And few would deny that he accomplished more good.

Let us not distort the plain utterances of the Bible to fit our scheme of systematic theology.

8. Justification and Sanctification

We cannot speak without paradoxes when we deal with the relation between justification and sanctification. The whole of church history has been a struggle to hold them in proper tension.

We are justified solely by a work outside of ourselves, but we are sanctified by God's Spirit within us. The essence of Roman Catholic legalism is to depend on the work of inward renewal for acceptance with God. But the essence of Protestant antinomianism is to suppose that we can be sanctified and fitted for heaven by Christ's work outside of us.

No amount of sanctification can secure one's admittance to the kingdom of grace; but justification is always endangered if sanctification is not exercised. Obedience cannot secure the blessing of forgiveness; but by willful and persistent disobedience, the birthright may be sold.

But now we must look at the other side of the picture. Sanctification is endangered if it is not based on justification. There must be a constant return to justification, to the word of forgiveness, if sanctification is to be preserved from Pharisaism and self-righteousness. Prayer and service are only good by gracious acceptance. The truth of justification calls all that we do into question. True Christian growth can only exist where there is a growing appreciation of justification. We can never reach a point in our progress in sanctification where our acceptance with God does not rest entirely on the forgiveness of sins.

The constant need of justification by faith means that human sinfulness is inescapable for there is no man on earth that does not sin (Eccl. 1:20), and all continue to fall short of God's glory (Rom. 3:23). But sanctification teaches us of our positive duty to avoid sin. On one hand we are called to repose; on the other hand, to a life of fervent activity.

Justification gives us perfection, and sanctification urges us to press on toward it. Through justifying faith the heart is cleansed of all sin; yet are we called to go on purifying our souls by obeying the truth. And so we could go on to enumerate many aspects of the paradoxical relation between justification and sanctification. It is the paradox of present possession and future hope; to be pure and yet impure; to possess all things, yet have nothing (2 Cor. 6:10); to rest in faith, yet labor in love; to be made free by faith, yet to be made a servant of all by love; to be consoled, yet to be admonished. And we think of the paradoxical experience of the great apostle:

    "we are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh." 2 Cor. 4:8-11.

How to Relate to the Paradox

In this life we must live by accepting and living with the paradox of having and not having, of being righteous and unrighteous, of being complete and incomplete, of rest and activity, of believing and working, of confidence and fear, of being able to do all things through Christ and not being able to do the things that we would, of avoiding sin and confessing its inevitability, of victory over sin and mourning that when we would do good evil is present with us, of advancement and repentance, of freedom and subjection, and so on. It is the mark of immaturity, we repeat, to emphasize only one side of the paradox, especially so as to cancel out the truth of the other side.

Law and gospel, faith and works, justification and sanctification, and all the great paradoxes, need to be kept in proper tension. If we proclaim the glory of God's justifying grace and imagine that this alone will motivate people to earnestly pursue sanctification, it will not be long before we shall realize that the sinful nature needs to be warned and sharply admonished in the pathway of obedience. But lest the language of Christian experience should become all too loud and confident, there must be a return to the critical sternness of justification; otherwise, sanctification will turn into romanticism or dangerous "holiness" pretensions.

Think of flying a plane. There are two antithetical forces — gravity and speed. One must not cancel out the other, but the secret of flying is to keep both in proper tension. If the tension of speed against gravity is not maintained, a person comes crashing down. If gravity ceases, he goes off into orbit somewhere.
 
 
1 Most "holiness" authors and preachers try to avoid the embarrassing implication of Romans 7:1-25 by saying that this passage does not apply to a victorious Christian or a Spirit.filled believer. Of course, this argument is not new — it was used by Roman Catholics who opposed the Reformers.

2 We hope that some of our readers who were disappointed with our criticism of Wesley's doctrine of the "second blessing" in volume 5 (special issue) of Present Truth Magazine will take heart at this comment.