Interact Magazine 2000
Volume 11 Number 1
Some years ago, theological liberalism dominated a lot of our thinking as evangelicals. Liberalism was both vocal and visible in its attacks upon what we see to be the core issues in the Christian faith. Its exponents denied the verbal and divine inspiration of Scripture, citing its supposed discrepancies and new findings about the origin of Scripture. They depersonalised God and rejected out of hand the deity of Christ and His bodily resurrection, and laughed at the idea that God in the person of the Holy Spirit supernaturally intervenes in the lives of people, recreating new life within and empowering them to live Christianly.
The open attacks and clearly stated rejection of these core truths made liberalism relatively easy to combat. We at least knew where liberal theologians stood. But we rarely ever hear the term used today. Not that there aren’t significant numbers of those within the church who still hold such views, but they are far less vocal, receiveless media coverage and are less willing to publicly or specifically reject the core truths, especially within groups that are identifiably evangelical. They are far more likely to be ‘cause people’. They will frequently be at the forefront of support for fringe groups in our society or speaking out in support of homosexuality, euthanasia or prison reform. In so doing they gain recognition and influence.
Whilst some of their criticisms of evangelicals for their lack of involvement in social and political issues may be valid, the problem arises when modern liberals, motivated by the belief that the credibility of the Bible and the deity and resurrection of Christ are not necessary (indeed that anything miraculous or supernatural is simply not acceptable to thinking people) simply attempt to reinterpret the Bible, editing out or explaining away what we as evangelicals believe to be essential truths. In so doing they reject the Bible as the final authority in matters of faith and doctrine and in effect take that authority to themselves, increasingly feeding their own arrogance and self-importance.
The incredible thing to me is that these people still call themselves Christians, while at the same time denying the very core truths of the Christian gospel! In the last three editions of Interact, we have affirmed these, expressing our conviction that the Bible is God’s verbally-inspired Word, given a brief overview of the nature and character of God and sought to expound the Bible’s clear teaching on the person of Jesus.
Does it really matter?
There is a trend today in some circles that once had an evangelical tradition to downplay the importance of some these core truths we are talking about. ‘Why do you want to be so pedantic about the Bible or the incarnation?’ they protest. ‘Isn’t the really important and relevant issue that we are better people, that we are committed to justice and equity for all, that we are involved with the disenfranchised in our community?’
The point we’re trying to make here is that these things can never be a substitute for the gospel. These core issues are essential to the authentic Christian message.
We must never lose sight of the fact that the Christian life is about divine intervention—not only in God’s marvellous creative and sustaining work, but also in His commitment to deal with our sin and reconcile us to Himself. Even the Bible came to us through God’s supernatural activity in the lives of the human vessels through whom He spoke. Even our becoming Christians involves God’s intervention in our lives, illuminating His truth, giving us the capacity to comprehend and respond to His recreative work within. Then of course there is the miracle of His indwelling us in the person of the Holy Spirit in order to enable us to grow and mature in Christ. Anything less than this is not authentic Christianity.
C.S.Lewis became a convert to Christianity whilst setting out to discredit its message. He knew that the claims of Christ were at the very core of its credibility. While pondering the issue he stated that either Jesus Christ was all He ever claimed to be or He was the greatest imposter that ever lived—or worse, an imbecile. As he researched the question Lewis became increasingly convinced of the credibility of Jesus and was eventually converted. He reasoned that Jesus was too calm and poised, that he was too rational, too logical and articulate to be insane. His claims were substantiated by His birth, life and death and when properly examined brought C.S.Lewis to the conviction that Jesus was indeed all that He claimed to be.
You Can’t Have One Without the Other
We cannot separate the person of Jesus from His redemptive work. The incarnation was as necessary as the atonement. Indeed, the incarnation was God’s declaration of His unqualified commitment to the atonement. That’s the real import of Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 1:8-10 when he affirms that God’s grace expressed in the gospel was planned before the beginning of time and ‘has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel’. Those who want to deny His deity and denigrate His work have no gospel and no authentic Christianity. The two are inseparably linked: ‘He appeared so that He might take away our sins’ (I John 3:5).
The sacrificial death of Christ is the theme running right through both the Old and New Testaments. The Feast Days, the sacrifices and offerings and much of the symbolism in the Old Testament depict the work of Christ on the Cross and His subsequent impact on the church.
It was this truth that Jesus expounded to the two disciples on the Emmaus road and subsequently to all the disciples in the upper room: ‘He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’ (Luke 24:25-27).‘Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem’ (v45-47).
The Christian message is essentially one of atonement. If we seek to invalidate the death and resurrection of Jesus we destroy the very core of the gospel with its call to reconciliation and freedom. If there is no sacrifice for sin there can be no relationship and friendship with God.
The Bible uses a number of key words to help us better comprehend what God has actually done for us through Christ’s redemptive work:
This is one of the great words of the gospel. It embodies the idea of being released through the payment of a ransom (Matt.20:28). The apostle Peter beautifully encapsulated the biblical concept of redemption when he wrote: ‘For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake’ (1 Pet.1:18-20).
The sacrificial lamb in the Old Testament was a clear picture of Christ the Messiah who would be ‘the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).
R.C.Sproul says, ‘The doctrine of the Atonement is central to all Christian theology. Luther called Christianity a theology of the Cross … To atone is to make amends, to set things right.’ The Bible clearly teaches that Christ on the Cross suffered the judgment humanity deserved for its sin. He made atonement for us by His substitutionary death. Paul said in Galatians 3:13 that ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us’. To quote Sproul again, ‘Orthodox Christianity has insisted that the Atonement involves substitution and satisfaction. In taking God’s curse upon Himself, Jesus satisfied the demands of God’s holy justice. He received God’s wrath for us, saving us from the wrath that is to come (1 Thess.1:10).’
The whole objective of Christ’s coming was to deal with the sin question and make it possible for us to be reconciled, recreated and restored to God’s image, which was God’s original purpose in creation. In the process God could not transgress His own holy, just and righteous character.
The gospel of course recognises and affirms the sinfulness of humanity but that’s not its main focus. Its focus is rather upon the character of God. Paul said in Romans 1:16,17: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes … For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed.’
This theme is expounded in Romans 3:21-26. Having developed the lostness and sinfulness of humanity Paul explained that God’s redemptive work in Christ to reconcile humanity to Himself without transgressing His own character: ‘For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.’
Through the redemptive work of Jesus, God’s righteousness and justice remain entirely intact. His holiness, love, mercy and grace are affirmed.
This is one of the really precious words of the gospel. In fact those who haven’t grasped the concept and significance of justification will always struggle in their Christian lives because one cannot know the freedom of forgiveness without it.
The apostle Paul makes it very plain in Romans 3 that there is absolutely no possibility of any person being justified or acceptable in the sight of God through their own acts of goodness (v.21). The wonderful message of the gospel is that because of the redemptive work of Jesus we can be seen to be righteous in His sight through the gift of grace that comes from God (Rom.3:20-22). Paul of course is writing this out of the depth of his own experience. Until his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, he had spent his life trying to establish his own righteousness. He develops this in Philippians 3 and then declares that because of his relationship with Christ he has now experienced a righteousness that comes from God (v9). So he writes in Romans 3:24 that we are ‘justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’. Justification refers to God’s act of unmerited favour whereby He declares guilty sinners righteous, seeing them now just as if they’d never sinned.
The only basis for our acceptance with God is the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. The writer to the Hebrews declares Christ to be not only the sacrifice for our atonement, but also our high priest who offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, so that through Him we are not only given access to the very presence of God, but are declared to be holy in His sight because of His perfect and completed redemptive work within us.
When properly understood the whole concept of justification and forgiveness takes all of the strain out of Christian living. It takes the focus away from our own need to find acceptance with God through our own performance and places the focus on God and His gracious work within. Our acceptance by Him as believers is total and unqualified because of all that Jesus has done. That’s authentic Christianity!
It’s God intention that our daily Christian lives be lived with the same dependence upon His completed work within, rather than trying to become more acceptable through our good works, knowing instead that we are completely forgiven and in Christ will never be more acceptable to God than we were at the moment of our conversion.
God’s purpose in His work within us is to restore us to His image, to mould our lives so that the character of Jesus becomes evident as we live and function in our relationship with others. Authentic Christianity affirms both the miracle of the incarnation and the wonder of His atoning death and resurrection. It also embraces the necessity of a personal encounter with the risen Christ, whereby God recreates new spiritual life and indwells the Christian in the person of His Holy Spirit. We believe that in our salvation experience and in our daily walk with God ‘His divine power has given everything we need for life and godliness through our ongoing knowledge of Him’ (2 Pet.1:3).
We are passionate about the gospel and want others to know Jesus. We believe it is truth that comes from God that is not only worth living for but, if the need arises, is also worth dying for.
© Rev. Kel Willis (1 March 2000)