Editorial — 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
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.
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
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
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
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,
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.
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.
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
justus 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
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
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 justus et peccator.
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
"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?"
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?
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.
in Me that beareth not fruit He taketh away.' John 15:2.
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."
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?
is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also
for the sins of the whole world." 1 John 2:2.
so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever
believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life"
hath concluded them all in unbelief, that He might have mercy upon
all." Rom. 11:32.
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.
said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel
to every creature" Mark 16:15.
have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." Rom. 3:23
is no respect of persons with God." Rom. 2:11.
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.
love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if One
died for all, then were all dead" 2 Cor. 5:14.
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.
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.
grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men. ..."
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
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:
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.'
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).
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
Let us not distort the
plain utterances of the Bible to fit our scheme of systematic theology.
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
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.
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"
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.
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.