Participation, Substitution, Representation

Do “modern scholars” largely reject substitutionary atonement in favour of a representative atonement theory? Does substitutionary atonement do away with the idea of “participation” in Christ because we are mere passive recipients of grace? Christadelphian apologist Jonathan Burke makes these assertions in his “Apostolic Teaching Series” http://Berea-portal.com, but there are several problems with his thesis.
• Burke’s decontextualised quotations do not necessarily represent the consensus he claims (and especially not a movement toward “the Christadelphan position”)
• That substitutionary and representative aspects of the atonement are not mutually exclusive (Christ both represents us and substitutes for us in his incarnate divinity) is not acknowledged
• Substitutionary atonement is misrepresented as having the effect of changing God and initiating his love for us, when in fact it results from God’s love for us and effects a response in Christians
• What Burke means by “participation” is not consistently defined, and could be construed in either a biblical way (which is consistent with substitutionary atonement) or a dangerously non-biblical way.

Burke asserts, “The dominant Christian understanding of the atonement is the penal substitution theory, which states that Christ was punished by an angry God as a substitute for those he came to save.” This is a simplistic and inaccurate caricature of atonement theory. Propitiation is an aspect of atonement that is biblical and which cannot be ignored, but it is overly simplistic to say that “God punished Jesus in our place” and leave it at that. Because Christadelphians see Jesus as a mere representative human being, albeit righteous, they are forced to regard substitution in this context as unjust, which indeed it would be on those terms. This is the argument in John Launchbury’s Change Us, Not God: Biblical meditations on the death of Jesus.[1] . Most Christadelphian arguments against substitutionary atonement rest on non-trinitarian assumptions and a misconception that “punishment” or satisfaction was a prerequisite for God’s love. But God’s love was the cause, not the result of the atonement (John 3:16; Rom 5:8; 1 John 4:10). To suggest that Christian theology teaches otherwise is to misrepresent it. God did not delegate the salvation of the world to a third party; God’s own arm wrought it (Isa 59:16). As John Stott explains,

It is God himself who in holy wrath needs to be propitiated, God himself in holy love who undertook to do the propitiating and God himself in the person of his Son died for the propitiation of our sins. Thus God took his own loving initiative to appease his own righteous anger by bearing it in his own self in his own Son when he took our place and died for us. There is no crudity here to evoke our ridicule, only the profundity of holy love to evoke our worship.” [2]

Was [the substitute] just a man? If so, how could one human being possibly — or justly — stand in for other human beings? … [we are] to think of Christ neither as man alone, nor God alone, but rather as the one and only God-man who because of his uniquely constituted person was uniquely qualified to mediate between God and man. Whether the concept of substitutionary atonement is rational, moral, plausible, acceptable, and above all biblical, depends on our answer to these questions. The possibility of substitution rests on the identity of the substitute… We must not, then, speak of God punishing Jesus or of Jesus persuading God, for to do so is to set them over against each other as if they acted independently of each other or were even in conflict with each other… The Father did not lay on the Son an ordeal he was reluctant to bear, nor did the Son extract from the Father a salvation he was reluctant to bestow.” [3]

Nevertheless, it is clear that Christ is also our representative; he became incarnate in order to share our nature, conquer sin in the flesh it which it normally reigns and be the second Adam, achieving what Adam failed to do. This qualifies him to be our representative, our Advocate and mediator, the parakletos or Counsellor for the defence (Rom 5:15–19; 8:3; 1 Cor 15:47–49; Heb 2:9, 15–18; 4:15–16; 1 John 2:1). For Christ to be our Passover (1 Cor 5:7) the Lamb of God (John 1:29) the atoning sacrifice (propitiation; 1 John 2:2) and bear our sins, being made sin for us (Isa 53; 2 Cor 5:21) and our example (1 Pet 2:21–24) he had to be a genuine representative of humanity. But representation is not the whole story, and that’s where Burke and other Christadelphians make the mistake, in not understanding that being our representative does not preclude Christ also being our substitute. To set these aspects of the atonement against each other is a false dichotomy that has its roots not only in a misunderstanding of the breadth of the atonement but in the nature of Christ. It is because Jesus is divine as well as human that he could bear the sins of the world and overcome sin. Otherwise any mere man could have been the scapegoat, and the result would have been no more effective an atonement than that which came by the blood of bulls and goats.

Burke cites Leon Morris, “Most scholars today accept the view that the death of Christ is representative. That is to say, it is not that Christ died and somehow the benefits of that death became available to men… It is rather that he died specifically for us. He was our representative as he hung on the cross… The death of the Representative counts as the death of those he represents.”[4] What Burke doesn’t present is Morris’ full exposition of the atonement. In the same article Burke cites, Morris writes significantly more in support of substitutionary atonement! Clearly Morris finds the two aspects compatible.  Further, in his seminal work on the Atonement, Morris’ expanded treatment  encompasses covenant, sacrifice, Passover, redemption, reconciliation, propitiation and justification, which culminates in:

There are many facets to the atonement. It may be viewed from any one of a number of angles, each of which brings us to an individual insight into the way of salvation. Some of them emphasize that Christ took our place. We are the sinners. We deserve the punishment. But we do not undergo it. Christ stood in our place and we are free. The New testament witnesses to a many-faceted salvation, one which may be regarded in many ways and which is infinitely satisfying… Each of the ways of looking at the cross then underlines the fact that the way of salvation is not a way of human merit. All is of grace, for all is of God.” [5]

Burke does not clearly define what he means by “participation” in atonement. The scholars he quotes do not seem to be making exactly the same points, and care should be taken with any decontextualised citation. If by citing “It is not so much atonement, as it is ‘sharing in Christ’s death’ that brings salvation,” [6] Burke means we have to be “in Christ,” buried with him in baptism, believe in him, be branches of the true vine, to receive the benefits of Christ’s atoning work — then substitutionary atonement is in no way at odds with this. But if Burke means that we must “participate” in the sense of “contributing” to our atonement, we must part company. Each of these perspectives needs to be addressed. Burke seems to think that only a representative theory involving a non-divine human could accomplish “participation” in Christ’s atoning work. Assuming for now he means the “being in Christ” type of participation, he has not proved his case. Understanding that participation in Christ is essential to our apprehension of his atoning work, in no way undermines substitutionary atonement, nor does it force a dichotomy between Christ as our substitute and Christ as our representative. To assert that anyone can be saved without participation in Christ, being “in Christ,” is universalism. It is not mainstream Christianity.

Christ’s death was sufficient to atone for the sins of the world (John 1:29; 3:16–17; 1 John 1:2) but not everyone accepts this atonement. Not everyone abides in the vine; not all people will be saved (Matt 7:13–14, 21; Luke 10:16; John 3:18–19; 12:46–48;15:6). Only those who accept Christ as Lord and Saviour (John 20:31; Acts 2:21, 38; Rom 10:13), who believe in him (John 1:12–13; Rom 3:21–24; 10:9–13) who “receive him,” are saved (John 1:12–13; Gal 3:26–27). Such are “in Christ.” In Christ we receive justification, propitiation, reconciliation, salvation (Rom 5:8–11; 2 Cor 5:17–21; Eph 2:13–14 1 John 5:20). We share in his death, having died with him, and so will be raised with him (Rom 6:3–11; 7:4–6; 8:1–4, 9–17; 2 Cor 15:14; Gal 2:20; Col 3:3–4). That is what it means to be in Christ rather than as we were, in Adam (our natural state, the universal state of all who are unredeemed; Rom 5:14–21; 1 Cor 15:21–22).

Does Burke really believe that Christians who accept the substitutionary basis of the atonement do not think that they need to be united with Christ, believe in him, be “in him” in order to be saved? If Burke genuinely does think this, then he is way off the mark and knows nothing about the doctrines he seeks to refute. If he doesn’t think this is what Christians believe, then he has  misrepresented those he attacks. His real problem with substitutionary atonement is a Christ who is divine, as well as human. The Christadelphians’ merely human Christ can only be representative and the doctrines tend to stand or fall together. A low view of Christ leads to a low view of his work. And here’s the real rub; if Christ’s work is seen as only representative, not substitutionary, it is incomplete; it requires the believer to conform to what Christ represents. This is the “we must contribute” definition of “participation.” If Christ is merely our representative, then we have to imitate him in order to be accepted by God. It is a very short step from the “representative only” model of the atonement to a denial of the all-sufficient grace of God and the imposing of a requirement for works.  As Christadelphian pioneer Robert Roberts asserted,

This passing by of our sins is the act of His forbearance; that no debt of ours has been paid or can be paid; that what the death of Christ has done has been to declare God’s righteousness that we may, by taking part in it, receive God’s forgiveness through him… The idea that Christ has borne our punishment and paid our debts, and that his righteousness is placed to our credit, and that the only thing we have to do is to believe it, is demoralising… He only is righteous who doeth righteousness… we have to ‘work out our own salvation’ by a ‘patient continuance in well doing.’” [7]

Accepting that God himself had to step in to effect our salvation, by substituting for us, to do what we could not and cannot possibly do, actually is “demoralising” — in a sense. Our righteousness is as filthy rags and we cannot save ourselves. We cannot boast in our works. If “participation” means contributing somehow to our salvation or helping Christ do his job, then it’s definitely not compatible with substitutionary atonement, or indeed the New Testament. Salvation is from God and by God alone. What feeble works we can achieve are in grateful response to our undeserved salvation, and only by the Spirit’s enabling.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.(Eph 2:4–10)

“I am the true vine,” said Jesus, in one of the divine “I am” sayings, “and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit… Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:1–5). What is “abiding in the vine” and thus “bearing fruit” if not “participatory”? But Burke also asserts that substitutionary atonement neglects any consequences of daily life for the believer. That would require a rejection of most of the New Testament, with its commandments of Christ, emphasis on the new life in Christ and Paul’s imperatives for living, which follow so closely on his theological expositions. It also runs counter to mainstream scholars and preachers who diligently uphold the tension between our receipt of the gracious gift of atonement and our response as those “in Christ.”

The great thing about the cross is that God saves us by his grace. We do not merit our salvation, but receive it as a free gift. But every one of the categories [of atonement] at which we looked reminds us that this has implications for the way we Christians are to live. The cross is the making of a new covenant, but this means we are to live as the people of God. It is the perfect sacrifice, but we are to present our bodies as living sacrifices. If Christ died for us, we are to live for him. He has carried our sins away, as the Day of Atonement reminds us, and won for us access into the presence of God… Reconciliation is a process in which we are not to be passive, even though we do nothing to bring it about. We receive it as a free gift, but this way of looking at the cross reminds us that it must be received… an understanding of what the cross means has effects on the way we live.” [8]

John Stott’s classic work on the centrality of the cross and the meaning and implications of substitutionary atonement emphasises the participatory aspect of atonement and its implications for the life of the believer.

The victory of Christians, therefore, consists of entering into the victory of Christ and of enjoying its benefits. We can thank God that ‘he gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ We know that Jesus, having been raised from the dead, is now seated at the Father’s right hand in the heavenly realms. But God has ‘made us alive with Christ… and raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms.’ In other words, by God’s gracious power we who have shared in Christ’s resurrection share also in his throne.” [9]

“Christ has redeemed us from the law’s curse by becoming a curse for us. It is in this sense that ‘Christ is the end of the law’ and we are no longer ‘under’ it. It emphatically does not mean that there are now no moral absolutes except love… or that we have no obligation to obey God’s law… for those who are in Christ there is ‘no condemnation’ (Rom 8:1) for God has already condemned our sins in Jesus Christ (Rom 8:2).” [10]

Scripture is clear, repeatedly, that Jesus Christ bore our sins. He didn’t just represent them, he bore them, carried them, nailed them to his cross and died for them (Isa 53; 1 Pet 2:24). All the benefits of his atoning work, in their richness and sufficiency are ours, if and only if we belong to Christ and are “in him.” Substitutionary atonement is participatory in its apprehension and application. Substitutionary atonement is a powerful and loving work of God himself and not a mere shifting of blame in a parody of justice. It works hand in hand with a high view of Jesus Christ, Son of God made flesh for our salvation. It required divinity and humanity in one great conquering Lion who is also the Lamb. Forgiveness is possible because God himself, the one who is owed the debt, has paid it, which IS the process of forgiveness.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself… For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:17–21)

 

 

References

  1. John Launchbury, Change Us, Not God: Biblical meditations on the death of Jesus (Charleston: WCF Publishing, 2009).
  2. John Stott, The Cross of Christ. Leicester: InterVarsity, 1986, 175.
  3. Stott, Cross of Christ, 176–178. My italics.
  4.  Leon Morris, “Atonement,” in Wood & Marshall, eds. New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed. 102-4.
  5. Leon Morris,  The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1983,  203-4 (my italics).
  6. Attributed to Sanders in in Finlan, “The background and content of Paul’s cultic atonement metaphors” (2004) 117. (incomplete citation)
  7. Robert Roberts, The Blood of Christ, 1895. Repr. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1980,  23.
  8. Morris, Atonement, 204–5.
  9. Stott, Cross of Christ,  279.
  10. Stott, Cross of Christ, 281.
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Island Life

Christadelphians live on a theological island. They are a small denomination, perhaps 60 000 worldwide, with distinctive beliefs. Whilst a few other groups share a similar form of monotheism, these other groups do not share all the doctrinal distinctives of Christadelphia.[1] Christadelphian beliefs, both positive (what constitutes their view of saving truth) and negative (doctrines to be rejected as false) are found in their Statement of Faith. Some of the doctrinal differences from mainstream Christianity are significant; they are non-Trinitarian, deny the immortality of the soul and a personal devil. Other beliefs are shared with current or historical groups, such as believers’ baptism, annihilationism and a focus on the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. Still other doctrines arose from intra-denominational issues, are anachronistic or of minor contemporary relevance, and some arguably are not widely understood or believed within the denomination itself. Yet, at least in the more rigorist Christadelphian ecclesias, adherence to the complete Statement of Faith is a prerequisite for baptism, for continued fellowship, and for salvation.

How important is it that a denomination claiming to have “the Truth,” as opposed to the rest of “Christendom,” or the churches at large, is so tiny? Deuteronomy 7:7–8 states that God did not choose the Israelites because they were more numerous than other nations, but because he loved them and swore an oath to their forefathers. There is certainly a “remnant” theology within the biblical record, and sometimes true believers have been in the minority (2 Kgs 19:18, 31; Isa 10:22; 37:32; Luke 12:32; Acts 15:17; Rom 11:5). The majority is not always right! Nevertheless, Jesus predicted great things for his kingdom, that it would grow and fill the earth and comprise innumerable people from all nations on earth (Psa 22:27; 102:15; Isa 2:2–3; Matt 13:31–33; 16:18; Mark 13:10; Gal 3:8; Rev 7:9–10). On the other hand, Jesus also predicted a lapse in faith in the latter days and that the faithful would not necessarily be the most influential (Matt 24:10–13; Luke 18:8; 1 Cor 1:26–29). In the last days, perilous times would come; the Gospel would not be attractive. Furthermore, false teachers would come in, appealing to what people wanted to hear rather than teaching sound doctrine (Matt 7:15–23; 24:11; Acts 20:29–30; 2 Thess 2:10–12; 2 Tim 3:1–7; 4:3–4; 2 Peter 2:1–2; 3:3; 1 John 4:1–3).

Christadelphians will sometimes apply these verses to the “last days,” which they regard as the present time, but will also use them to support a theory of mass apostasy within the Christian church soon after the apostles passed from the scene.[2] It is outside the scope of this essay to argue about which verses might apply to persecution by Jews and Romans, early Christian heresies, the Roman apostasy or a latter day de-Christianisation of the world. Whilst it is reasonable to assume that different verses might apply to different periods and situations, it’s unreasonable to assume that they had no relevance at all to the early church (as opposed to an unimaginable time nearly 2000 years in the future). In fact, some of the false doctrines can be shown to be quite consistent with early heresies such as Judaizing, Ebionism, Gnosticism and Docetism. It is quite likely that the verses also have some timeless application to a number of periods in Christian history and that the worst may still be to come.

It seems, therefore, that whether a group is large or small is irrelevant to the issue of whether they have “the truth.” Nevertheless, traditional Christadelphian dogma is that Christendom went astray from apostolic teaching very soon after the death of the apostles. This allegedly coincided with the withdrawal of the Holy Spirit as a direct and obvious influence on the church, because the church now had the writings of the apostles (which it allegedly chose to ignore). Some Christadelphian writers like to trace the emergence of Roman Catholicism from a very early stage and effectively blame it for every doctrine with which they disagree, especially the Trinity and the immortality of the soul. [3] This historical syncretism is illegitimate. The doctrine of the Trinity  was articulated well before what could be regarded as the “Roman Catholic Church,” and it was accepted by both Greek and Latin thinkers.

Nevertheless, an important foundation of Christadelphian confidence that their small group possesses “the Truth” is the “widespread apostasy of Christendom” theory. What is seldom considered is that this would seem to negate Jesus’ promise that his kingdom would steadily grow and that the “gates of Hades” would not prevail against his church (Matt 13:31–33; 16:18; 28:19–20; Eph 3:21; 5:29; Heb 12:28). Rather, Christadelphians are happy to accept that Christian truth lay hidden for some 1800 years until one John Thomas rediscovered it. By his own and his followers’ assertion, John Thomas had no special theological training or gifting. He received no new revelation, had no Spirit empowerment, no special insight. Unencumbered by the baggage of church doctrinal authority and with no need of Spiritual guidance, he simply applied his intellect and reason to the Scriptures, as no one before him had done, and rediscovered Apostolic truth. It was simply a matter of approaching the Bible with an open mind, and apparently anyone can do this. And if they do, they should expect to independently come up with the full set of Christadelphian doctrines. The reason the great Reformers like Luther and Calvin and other theologians who applied themselves to Bible study, once the Scriptures became widely available, did not fully rediscover truth, was that they were still held in thrall by Roman Catholic doctrine and church tradition. This blinkered approach allegedly persists today across seminaries, theological colleges and most mainstream churches.

Whilst many Christadelphians have been comfortable with this explanation, particularly the Pioneers and early to mid 20th century proponents of the faith, this confidence has not been universal, even if the emperor’s nakedness is difficult to openly discuss. For Christadelphians who have much contact with mainstream Christians who have a genuine faith in Christ and love his Word, it seems difficult to understand how they could not see the Scriptures the way Christadelphians do. The traditional response was that such sincere Christians were under the “strong delusion” which enables them to believe a lie (2 Thess 2:11–12), or more likely they just don’t read the Bible as extensively and as often and as deeply or as independently as Christadelphians. That was certainly what I used to think (please God forgive my arrogance). But not all Christadelphians are prepared to completely disregard mainstream Christian theological learning, even if they are selective about what they accept and what they reject. The problem for some time, particularly before the internet but even now in the more closed Christadelphian communities, is a lack of understanding of what mainstream Christians actually believe, and why they believe it. When you only learn about someone’s views second or third-hand from a party who disagrees with those views, there’s a danger that the information is inaccurate. Traditional Christadelphian writings, and even contemporary ones, regularly misrepresent orthodox Christian doctrine. What is presented as Trinitarian belief might be Apollinarianism or even Docetism or Nestorianism. This misrepresentation is then torn apart with a few “proof texts” and it’s Game Over. Theological writings are dismissed as “unscriptural” without a rigorous and honest, engagement with their actual positions. All this results from living on the theological island, particularly if one never travels to the mainland, something difficult to avoid in the age of the internet.

There are two other ways to relieve the unease of island culture. The first became popular from the mid 1970s with the publication of Alan Eyre’s book, The Protesters.[4] This is the idea that the truth didn’t completely disappear between the first and nineteenth centuries, but was actually preserved from generation to generation amongst small faithful remnant groups. These groups, like the Bereans of old and like John Thomas, searched the Scriptures “independently” and rejected the doctrines of Christendom. They were little known because they were persecuted and their writings suppressed. But nevertheless, the Truth lived on and Christadelphians are the modern heirs of that legacy. Eyre’s book primarily focused on the Anabaptists and their views on baptism and the nature of the church, with an implication that their doctrines overall were very similar to those of Christadelphians — at least the main ones. The latter part of the book discusses the rise of unitarianism and concludes with John Thomas and “the Faith at the End of the Age.” The preface praises Eyre’s work, to which the small community of Christadelphians is indebted, for “It is a matter of great encouragement to us, whose religious views are regarded as unorthodox by our contemporaries, to find that in a number of cases where major doctrines are concerned, these early believers had come to the same conclusions as ourselves.”

There’s just one problem. The groups of “devout believers” discussed in the book shared hardly any doctrines in common with Christadelphians. The Anabaptists were Trinitarian and the unitarians had differing views on the nature of Christ, as well as other doctrines. The same unitarian forebears are claimed by groups significantly different from Christadelphians. None of these early “believers” would be welcome in fellowship with Christadelphians today. In fact, there is no extant evidence of any group, fellowship or denomination, or even prominent teacher, who subscribed to the majority of the Christadelphian corpus of beliefs, until the mid 1900s. Not Wycliffe, Hus or Tyndale, not the Vaudois, not the Waldenses or the Cathari. Not Servetus, not the Anabaptists or the Mennonites, not even the Socinians (although they were closest in their antitrinitarian views). The island is isolated, it is not part of a chain.

The other perspective has been advanced more recently. This is the view that a considerable number of mainstream theologians are now moving toward the “Christadelphian position,” having evidently seen the light. One Christadelphian apologist claims that what he has discovered “is already enough to demonstrate that mainstream Christian theology has been gradually moving towards Christadelphian theology over the last 40 years. We’ve been waiting for them for almost 100 years, and it’s good to see they’re finally catching up.” (J Burke, pers com. 7/9/17) In other words, Christadelphians have been right all along, and some enlightened individuals are now realising this. The mainlanders are moving to the island!

But this is really the “Protesters” problem all over again. Certainly some, perhaps even many, mainstream theologians hold opinions that cohere with some Christadelphian beliefs. This is not surprising given the same Scriptures are being discussed. But Burke goes too far in claiming “the majority of standard scholarly sources” cohere with his views. There is most definitely common ground, but this is hardly coherence with the whole “Christadelphian position.” Rather than a unidirectional movement from orthodoxy to Christadelphia, it is more a starburst of diversification, some of which intersect the Christadelphian trajectory. Burke also fails to note that (a) many “mainstream” or formerly mainstream theologians have been also proposing and promulgating theologies that are very different from the Christadelphian position, such as process theology, liberation theology, feminist theology, deconstructive theology, universalism, theology of community and so forth. For example, he quotes Clark Pinnock as an annihilationist, without noting that Clark is hardly “mainstream” in his process theology views, nor remotely “Christadelphian” in his denial of the foreknowledge of God. Departure from orthodoxy does not flow in one direction. Also, (b) Christadelphians are leaving the denomination, as presumably some always have. Where do they go? Some become atheists or agnostics, some get carried about by winds of doctrine, and some become mainstream Christians. What does that prove? Certainly, some give up on God, but others search the scriptures diligently for answers to doctrinal questions and find different answers from those they had previously been given. If the basis of John Thomas’ discovery of “truth” was independent scriptural study, why could not others’ independent scriptural study be equally valid?

A comprehensive examination of all of the references and scholars Burke[5] enlists to support his “mainstream movement toward the Christadelphian position” assertion would require an extensive thesis in itself. A closer look at a few will establish the flimsiness of an argument for the validity of doctrinal claims on the basis of such an accumulation of “allies.” Burke cites Leon Morris,[6] as supporting a dichotomy between representative and substitutionary aspects of the atonement. But Morris’s position is much more nuanced than this, as his well-regarded book [7] presents in detail. Morris defends, against Dunn, the understanding of Christ’s propitiatory work as a turning away of God’s wrath (pp 151–176). He also emphasises the many faceted nature of atonement, which encompasses representation as well as substitution and by no means excises the substitutionary aspect, concluding “Christ stood in our place and we are free” (p203). Nor do Morris, or other mainstream atonement theologians, exclude a participatory aspect from substitutionary atonement, by which Burke misrepresents the doctrine. To quote John Stott, (whom Burke elsewhere recruits for his annihilationist stance) “Just so, as our substitute Christ did for us what we could never do for ourselves: he bore our sin and judgment. But as our representative he did what we by being united to him have also done: we have died and risen with him.” [8] The benefits of Christ’s atoning work are applied to us as we participate in him; to assert that substitutionary atonement denies participation is a gross misrepresentation. The published works of Morris and Stott should be uniformly investigated in order to see that their position on the atonement is quite different from Burke’s.

Granted, Burke does not, in the work under discussion, invoke Stott in support of Christadelphian atonement theology, but he does correctly note Stott’s support for annihilationism. Fair enough, but as with the old “Protesters” strategy, Stott’s theology has been selectively mined. Stott may agree with Burke on the principle of annihilationsim, but he is Trinitarian through and through. Furthermore, Stott, although an annihilationist, did not reject the concept of the intermediate state between death and resurrection [9] which Christadelphians do. James Dunn, with whom a number of “mainstream” theologians disagree, is a theologian who has come onto Christadelphian radar as a potential anti-trinitarian ally. But Dunn himself, when asked what are the three main misrepresentations of his position, replied “(1) That I deny or diminish the divinity/deity of Christ in questioning the usual concept of his pre-existence; (2) that in the ‘new perspective on Paul’ I deny Paul’s/the Reformation’s basic teaching on justification by faith’; (3) that I diminish or deny the authority of scripture.” [10] Reading Dunn’s actual works in full will show that his position is much more nuanced and “orthodox” than one might expect from Burke’s out-of-context quotation of Dunn’s statement on kyrios as a way of distinguishing Jesus from God. [11] My point is, coherence on one aspect of doctrine does not imply an endorsement of the whole spectrum or even a handful of Christadelphian central beliefs. Dunn, for example, in the same work argues that Paul believed in supernatural heavenly beings that opposed God (p 104–110). He’s not a Christadelphian advocate, far from it.

Burke also writes on early Christian baptism and cites many scholars who agree that the early Christians baptised predominantly by total immersion. There’s nothing new here. Many mainstream churches practice baptism by immersion. What Burke does not emphasise is that scholars endorsing immersion of believers would not necessarily advocate the full Christadelphian position, which is the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation, the absolute necessity for a full assent to a complex set of “correct” doctrines beforehand, and baptism’s regenerative character (i.e. that the act of baptism itself is the point of becoming a Christian). [12] Nor does Burke acknowledge that these advocates of the “Christadelphian” view of baptism hardly share Christadelphians’ other beliefs. For example, in Thomas Schreider’s book,[13] which Burke quotes in support of (obviously) adult baptism, “Baptism is to be administered in (eis, lit. into) the name (singular) of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, one of the most explicit Trinitarian formulas in the entire NT” and that “baptismal regeneration… clearly runs counter to biblical teaching.” The work also notes that baptism is one facet of becoming a Christian, as is the gift of the Spirit, which is received at conversion, contra Christadelphians. The implication, then, that agreement by mainstream scholars on selected aspects of theology constitutes a movement toward “the Christadelphian position” is unsustainable. There is no significant link between the Island and the Mainland and we should not pretend there is. Christadelphianism is novel and it is unique.

Why should anyone care about this (apart from Christadelphians themselves)? Christadelphians are virtually unknown to mainstream Christians, even well informed theologians. Christadelphians make little contribution to broader theological or biblical discussion, eschew theological academia and make limited social contribution (apart from that of individuals) beyond their own “missionary” efforts. As has been wryly observed, “Scholars out there are not debating the merits of Christadelphian theology, as they are with Catholic theology, Reformed theology, Orthodox theology, etc. No one is doing a doctoral dissertation on the theology of John Thomas or Robert Roberts… because Christadelphian theology is not on the radar. Christadelphians have not yet made the case that their theological system merits serious scholarly attention” (T Farrar pers. com 6/7/17).

I care about Christadelphian theology, because I have a personal investment, having undergone a major journey of faith, in which I studied these issues in depth. I care because I have good friends who are Christadelphians and who love the Lord. I care because when people leave Christadelphia they often forsake God, turning away from Christianity because they can’t accept the mainstream doctrines which have been thoroughly misrepresented and poisoned to their thinking. Christadelphians should question their island mentality if they are to survive as a denomination, and do their acknowledged duty to be lightstands; they should not adopt a defensive stance that assumes their small and recently emerged community exclusively holds “The Truth.” Nor should they seek legitimacy in the false assumption that they stand in continuity with other similar faith traditions.

Why don’t Christadelphians get theologically educated? Why not find out what others actually believe before assuming they are wrong? Are Christadelphians scared of what they might find? Surely, if they do have the truth, they have nothing to fear from engaging in study of original biblical languages, historical and contemporary theology, biblical studies, pastoral care and missiology. Are they so confident in their beliefs that they feel it is a waste of time to listen to anyone else’s, that all those centuries of scholarship and godly application to Scripture, the legacy of Christian history, count for nothing against the non-Spirit-inspired, tradition-rejecting reliance on human reason advocated by a nineteenth century doctor? There’s some very dangerous thinking underlying these isolationist attitudes and it’s a far cry from the Bereans searching the scriptures to see if what others said was true (Acts 17:11). Rather, “when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding” (2 Cor 10:12).

Christadelphians may be happy on their island, but at the very least they should keep their heads out of the sand.

 

 

References
1. Rob J Hyndman, “Biblical Monotheism Today,” in Thomas E Gaston, ed., One God, the Father. East Boldon, UK: Willow, 2013. This author is no longer a Christadelphian.
2. This is the thesis of the seminal work by Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray From the Bible, 1884. Repr. West Beach, Aus: Logos, 1984.
3. Percy E.White, The Doctrine of the Trinity Analytically Examined and Refuted, 1913. Repr. Torrens Park, Aus: Christadelphian Scripture Study Service, 1996.
4. Alan Eyre, The Protesters. Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1975.
5. Jonathan Burke, Apostolic Teaching Series; Modern Scholars acknowledging apostolic teaching; http://berea-portal.com; topics discussed are “The state of the dead: Modern scholarship” (although by modern he means works from as far back as 1976) “What do modern scholars say about the atonement?”(back to 1904) “Did the earliest Christians believe Jesus is God?” “The state of the dead: 20th century views” and “How did the early Christians baptize?”
6. Leon Morris, “Atonement,” in Wood & Marshall (eds.) New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed. 1996), 103
7. Leon Morris, The Atonement (Leicester, IVP, 1983)
8. John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 2nd ed. Nottingham: IVP, 1989, 320.
9. John Stott, “Judgment and Hell,” in DI Edwards & J Stott, Essentials: A Liberal–Evangelical Dialogue, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988, 317.
10. Interview with James DG Dunn http://frankviola.org/2012/06/25/ jamesdgdunn/ accessed 16/9/17.
11. James GD Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, 254
12. Thomas Farrar, The Christadelphian Baptismal Examination (Interview) Purpose and Content 22nd June 2016; The Christadelphian Baptismal Examination (Interview) A theological critique; 26th September 2016. Dianoigo, http://blog.dianoigo.com/search?q=baptism accessed 16/9/17.
13. TR Schreiner & SD Wright, Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, Nashville: B&H, 2006)

Divine and Human

How can Jesus Christ be both God and man? That he is both fully divine and fully human is the clear testimony of scripture. The Bible shows that the Son shares the attributes and authority of God, the divine names and prerogatives, the glory and honour due to God alone. He is “above the line” that divides Creator from creation. He was sent by the Father and has returned to the Father, with whom he has shared and will share eternity. The Bible’s testimony is equally adamant that Jesus Christ was fully human, exactly like us but for two important differences; he was born of a virgin, and he never sinned. He was capable of being tempted, and was truly tempted, yet he never succumbed to temptation (Heb 4:15). He defeated sin in the very flesh in which it normally reigned (Rom 8:3); this was his salvific triumph in which we are graciously invited to share. Jesus was born and grew, he experienced hunger, thirst and fatigue; he was fully and truly human (2 John 1:7). The Son is distinct from the Father who sent him (Eph 1:3; John 8:42; 1 John 4:10, 14). It was the Son’s task to take on flesh and die for the sins of the world (John 3:16–17). Although he is God, the Son willingly humbled himself, submitting to his Father and taking on the form of a servant (Phil 2:5–11). A correct understanding of Christian doctrine requires an acknowledgement of the full humanity and well as the full deity of Christ.

Comprehending how the Son, eternally one with the Father and Spirit, could become flesh, become fully human, is not easy. This should not in itself bother us, because there is very little about God that we are able to understand, yet which we accept because this is how God has revealed himself, and his most complete revelation is in Christ (Is a 55:8; Heb 1:1–2; Matt 11:27). God’s eternity, having no beginning, his perfection, his unlimited power unsullied by any corruption, his knowledge of our hearts and his ability to hear millions of prayers at once, his providence over the complexities of creation; these are all very hard to understand, yet we accept them on the evidence we have and in faith. Ridiculing doctrines because they don’t make sense to our limited understanding is essentially an attempt to tame God, to insist that he be at our level. Just because humans cannot become God, we have no right to tell God that he couldn’t become human, when he tells us that he did. The problem is compounded when a doctrinal position is willfully misunderstood and misrepresented, as happened in a recent on-line discussion. Here are some of the accusations levelled at the Trinitarian position:

If you ask a Trinitarian which part of Jesus actually made Jesus Jesus, the God bit or the man bit, they’ll eventually admit it’s the God bit. Then if you ask them which bit died, they’ll admit it’s the man bit.”
“For Trinitarians, ‘God incarnate’ and ‘God’ refer to the same thing” – therefore their God died and is not immortal.
“The God I worship is immortal and can’t die. Sorry to hear yours is not.”

I have elsewhere addressed the distinction between the Father and the Son and also the important question of how God the Son could die. Trinitarians do not believe that the Father died on the cross; this is “patripassianism” and has never been mainstream doctrine. It was a result of the early heresy of Modalism. Christadelphians claim that the deity present in Christ was that of the Father, not the Son, that he was the Father manifested in the flesh,  so it is they who come closest to patripassianism, not Trinitarians. However, Christadelphians vehemently deny that God could die, because they equate “God” solely with the Father. They do not knowledge that one person of the Godhead, the Son, could be distinct from another, the Father, and take on flesh, be “incarnate.” They seem to think it must be the whole Godhead, which for them means only the Father, who died, which is clearly not what Scripture teaches. God the Son became flesh in order to die; he took on mortality (John 1:14; 8:42; Matt 20:28; John 12:27; Acts 17:3; Gal 4;4–5). The Father did not.

But the Christadelphian doctrine of “God manifestation” never truly explains what “God manifestation” actually means in a concrete sense, that is, in what way divine attributes can be attributed to Jesus and in what sense the Father indwelt or influenced him. If the Father was “manifested” in Jesus to the extent that his human tendency to sin was completely controlled (even as a child) and he had the authority and self-understanding to do what he did and made the claims he made, then was God still in Christ when he went to the cross? Or did the Father leave his Son at this point, because “God,” (i.e. the Father) cannot die? This was what many of the Gnostics claimed, that the divine Christ left the body of the man Jesus at the crucifixion, because the divine could not be associated with fleshly death. If the Father was not truly “manifested” in Jesus as to afford him the ability to remain sinless and “do everything the Father does,” then was God truly manifest in Christ? But if “God manifestation” simply means Jesus demonstrated what God was like, or spoke as his representative, then what made Jesus who he was? You can’t have it both ways; enough divine influence on the man Jesus to ensure he achieved all he was destined to, yet that influence/ manifestation/ indwelling in no way connected with his death.

Yet Scripture says,  “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3:16) Who is the “he” here? If it is “the Father” manifested in the flesh, then it is “the Father” who was vindicated by the Spirit, “the Father” who was believed on in the world and “the Father” who was taken up into glory. Yet we know that all these things refer to the Son (John 1:14; Heb 10:5; Matt 12:28; Mark 1:10–11; Luke 4:8; John 3:34; 15:26; Rom 8:11; Heb 1:5–6; John 1:12; 3:15–18; 6:29, 40; 11:25–27; 14:1; 17:21; Matt 26:64; John 6:62; 17:5; Eph 4:8–10; Phil 2:9–11; Heb 2:9; 1 Pet 3:22; Rev 5:12). The word “manifested” (phaneroo) actually means nothing more than “appeared;”  “He (God) appeared in the flesh;” it actually carries no sense of indwelling or incarnation. God appeared, and he will do so again (Titus 2:13). So the God who appeared in flesh is not the Father, but the Son, which is consistent with the rest of the New Testament.

Christians have long wrestled with what it means for the Son of God to be both fully human and fully divine. For orthodox Christians, the non-negotiables are; that we cannot minimise or downplay the divinity of the Son, nor can we deny or minimise his full humanity. Reconciliation of the divinity and humanity of Christ must be done without making him two persons in one body, or by blurring the distinctions between the two and allowing one to overwhelm the other. The fourth century christological controversies that resulted in the Chalcedonian definition of 451 AD rejected a number of heresies along the way.

Adoptionism: Jesus was the natural son of Joseph and Mary, but became the son of God when the Holy Spirit entered him, and he earned the title of Christ
Arianism: the Son was pre-existent but was only a creature, on whom divinity was bestowed
Docetism: Jesus was fully divine but only seemed human; his humanity and suffering were merely in appearance
Apollinarianism: the divine Logos took the place of a human soul in Jesus so he was a divine mind in a fleshly shell
Eutychianism: Christ had only one nature, the divine
Nestorianism: Christ’s divine and human natures were not fully united

When Christadelphians ridicule the concept of the divine and human in Jesus, they usually attack one of these heresies rather than the genuine Trinitarian position. This is the straw man fallacy, to tear down a caricature or misrepresentation of something, and pretend that the actual true position has been defeated. If we were drafting the Chalcedonian definition today, perhaps we would use somewhat different vocabulary and phrasing. Nevertheless, credit where credit is due, the orthodox statement carefully and correctly delineates the boundaries of truth. It was a statement for its time, addressing the heresies of the day, but I doubt we really could do any better:

One and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin…one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably, the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and occurring in one Person and one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ…”

The Chalcedonian definition set the boundaries, outside of which there is an unscriptural imbalance between the divine and human aspects of Christ; it is primarily a statement of who/what Jesus is not, rather than who/what he is. Philippians 2:6–8 explains that the emptying the Son underwent when he was sent was not an emptying of his divine attributes. He displayed those attributes in abundance during his ministry. Rather, he relinquished the rights of equality with God and submitted himself to the Father, taking on the form of a servant and being found in appearance as a man. In doing this, he accepted certain limitations on the functioning of his divinity; he held his divinity in check. He was, according to one analogy, like the world’s greatest boxer fighting with one hand tied behind his back. These limitations were not the result of a loss of divine attributes, but the addition of human attributes, so he could experience and learn dependency on the Father, overcome real temptations and effectively bear sin to the cross and destroy it (John 14:28 cf Luke 2:51; Heb 2:14–18; 5:7–8; 10:7; Rom 8:3).

The idea that divine nature could not assimilate with human nature comes from Greek dualistic philosophy, not from the Bible. God made mankind in his image in the first place; why should it be thought incredible that God could enter into humanity? (Gen 1:26–27; Matt 1:23; Col 1:15–20). Perhaps deniers of the incarnation not only limit God, but limit the brilliance of his creation as well. Jesus is more truly “human” than we are, in that he accomplished all that Adam was meant to do, and more, undoing the effects of Adam’s sin on us too, who fail to live up to the intended human standard (Rom 5:12–19; 1 Cor 15:21–22, 45–49; 1 John 3:2). He is what humanity was meant to be.

In the accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds we do not ever get the impression that his divine and human natures functioned independently, still less that there was a “God bit” that made Jesus the Christ and a “man bit” that died, as my correspondent claimed. Jesus functioned as a whole person. He referred to himself in the singular and was regarded by others as an individual. To claim that orthodox Christians teach otherwise is to misrepresent our position. He was the Word, who was with God and was God, made flesh (1 John 1:1–2, 14; 1 Tim 3:16). He, the Son of Man who came from heaven, has now returned there (John 3:13; 6:62; 7:28–29; 13:3). The brief and precious account of Jesus’ childhood describe him as growing, becoming strong and wise (Luke 2:40, 47, 49, 52). The same child who was proclaimed to be the Saviour, Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11) grew and learned, and never sinned.  Only by recognising the perfectly combined full humanity and full deity of Christ can the issue of Christ’s sinlessness be resolved.

The same man who hungered in the wilderness could have turned stones into bread to feed himself, but rather miraculously provided bread for thousands (Matt 4:2–4; 14:19–21). The same weary man who asked for a drink of water from a woman at a well told her everything she’d ever done (John 4:6–7, 39). The same man who slept, exhausted, through a storm was able to calm the winds and waves (Matt 8:24–27). Well might his awestruck disciples gasp, “Who is this man?” No one ever spoke like this man, or did the deeds of this man, but no one ever questioned that he was a man (Matt 13:54–56; John 7:46). Some of his divine prerogatives were directly connected with his being Son of Man (Matt 9:6; 12:8; 19:28; 24:27; John 5:26–27), and the necessity of his death was also a function of his Christhood as the Son of God (Luke 24:26; Rom 5:8; 8:3; Col 1:13–14; 1 John 1:7; Rev 19:13–16). The son of David is also David’s Lord (Matt 22:42–46; Luke 1:32, 35). The same man who wept for his friend raised him again to life (John 11:33–44). It was the Lord of glory himself who was crucified (1 Cor 2:8). The same man who bore the wounds of his crucifixion was addressed as Lord and God (John 20:28). The same Living One who died and is alive for evermore and has the keys of death and Hades is the First and the Last; the offspring of David is the Alpha and Omega (Rev 1:17–18, 22:13–16). Christ’s divinity and humanity are perfectly united.

Christ’s human nature and divine natures are inseparable, and both were essential to the task of redeeming his estranged creation (Col 1:22; Rom 5:1–2; 2 Cor 5:18–20). By his own blood, shed as a man on the cross, he justified, redeemed, reconciled, adopted and sanctified the children of God (Rom 5:9; Eph 1:7; Col 1:20; Heb 9:12; 10:19; 13:12). The reconciliation that occurred between God and man in the Lord Jesus has been made available to all who put their faith in him. The atonement is a work of God, from beginning to end and has been absolutely assured from all eternity. It did not depend on the tenuous ability of a gifted but merely human man. God’s own arm brought salvation (Isa 59:16), he reconciled us to himself in Christ (2 Cor 5:18–19) and purchased us with his own blood (Acts 20:28).

“Who do you say that I am?” is the essential question Jesus asked and continues to ask (Matt 16:15; John 3:36). Addressing the unbelieving Jewish leaders, who refused to accept Jesus’ divine claims, he stated, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he (ego eimi, YHWH) you will die in your sins” (John 8:23–24).

Who do you say that he is?

Above the Line

There is a definitive “line” that separates God from everything and everyone else, the infinite from the finite, the Creator from the created. The God of the Bible is someone who is altogether Other. God is unique; there is no other being or entity who can be called God. “I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (Isa 45:5) “For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it… I am the LORD, and there is no other.” (Isa 45:5, 18; Deut 4:35,39; 32:39; Gen 1:1) This unique God is righteous and just. He is the only Creator and the only Saviour of his creation. “Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me” (Isa 45:21).

God is incomparable; “’To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him?’ says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing” (Isa 40:25–26). This unique God is not only powerful, but good and just; he is holy (separate). “Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God?” (Psa 77:13) “But the LORD of hosts is exalted in justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness” (Isa 5:16; 6:3). God is so very different from his creation: he is incomprehensible in his wisdom, beauty and greatness. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:8–9). God alone has immortality and is the giver of life (Rom 1:23; 1 Tim 1:17). God is “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion” (1 Tim 6:15–16). He is the first and the last (Isa 44:6).

Because of this exclusivity, this uniqueness of right to be worshiped, God will not tolerate the worship of anyone or anything else (Deut 6:15; Exod 20:5; Ezek 39:25, Joel 2:18, Zech 1:14) Everyone and everything else is created; worship of a created being or thing is idolatry and brings God’s wrath.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (Rom 1:18–25)

Human beings, in contrast, are mortal, sinful, of limited knowledge and incapable of intrinsic holiness. We are fools and blind and can never, of ourselves, reach for the divine (Rom 3:10–12; 5:12; Psa 8:3; Job 42:3–6; 1 Pet 1:24).

God is above the line, we are below it. The question is, which side of the line is Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father? There are a number of passages that apply the name of God to the Lord Jesus, (John 8:58; 20:28; Rom 9:5; Titus 2:13–14) but lest they be dismissed as mere honorifics, there is a much wider and deeper testimony throughout the New Testament. Here is a sampling.

• The Son, the Word of God who was to be made flesh, was with God in the beginning, as God (John 1:1–2; 17:5–8, 24)
• The Son is himself the Creator (Col 1:15–17; 1 Cor 8:6; Heb 1:3, 8, 10)
• Jesus shares the honours and glory due to God alone (John 5:23; 2 Pet 3:18; Rev 5:12–13 cf Isa 42:8)
• Jesus is to be worshipped (Matt 2:11; 14:33; Luke 24:52; John 9:38; Heb 1:6)
• Jesus is the object of saving faith (John 1:12; 3:15, 18; 5:24; 8:24; 14:1, 6; 20:31; Acts 3:16; 16:31; Rom 10:11; 1 John 3:23)
• Jesus deserves our absolute devotion and obedience (Matt 5:21–22; 10:37; 24:35; Luke 14:26; John 14:15, 21; Eph 6:24)
• In Christ is all the fullness of God (Col 1:19; 2:9; Heb 1:3)
• Jesus has a unique relationship with God (Matt 11:7; 25:31–46; John 10:30; 14:7–10)
• Jesus has the authority of God (Matt 8:8–9; 12:28; 13:41; Mark 1:27; 2:5–12; Luke 6:5; John 11:25; 14:12–14)
• The Son shares the attributes of his Father (John 1:14–17; 3:31–32; 6:69)
• The Son shares the names of God (Psa 45:6; John 10:11; 20:28; Phil 2:10–11; Rev 21:7; 19:16; 22:13)
• The Son is able to do all that the Father does — everything! (John 5:17–19)
• The Lord Jesus Christ shares the throne of God in heaven with his Father (Heb 1:8; 8:1; Rev 3:21; 7:17; 22:1–3)

Thus Jesus shares in the exclusive claims and attributes of the Creator God, the One who will not share his glory with any other. Jesus is included in the very identity of God. He is unequivocally above the line.

The separation between God and humanity, between immortal and mortal, perfect and imperfect, Creator and created, cannot be crossed by those below the line. Human beings cannot become God. We cannot, in our own strength or by our own efforts achieve holiness or righteousness, let alone undo the curse of sin and death (Isa 6:5; Rom 3:23). But God was willing and able to reach down to humanity itself and effect the cure of his creation from within it (Rom 5:8; 8:19–21; 2 Cor 5:21). His own arm brought salvation (Isa 59:16 ) as “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory” (John 1:14). Immanuel, God with us, the in-fleshing of the Word occurred at a blessed moment in time when the Son of God, by the Holy Spirit, took on flesh in the womb of Mary (Matt 1:23; Luke 1:35; 2:11; Gal 4:4). This was the beginning of the man Jesus Christ, fully human and yet all the fullness of the Godhead, bodily. He humbled himself, emptied himself, in taking on the form of a servant (Phil 2:7–8). He became “sin” for us who knew no sin (2 Cor 5:21), and bore our sins to the cross. Jesus Christ is the perfect man, embodying all that humankind was meant to be. The writer to the Hebrews quotes Psalm 8, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him?” The true Man was made for a little while lower the angels but is now crowned with honour and glory. He tasted death for every man, the one for whom and by whom all things exist; Jesus, the author and completer of our faith (Heb 2:6–9). God, in Jesus, did for us what we could not do for ourselves. We could not reach up to him, but he in love reached down to us, in reconciliation. In Christ, we are made righteous, sanctified and glorified. And one day, we shall be like Christ, for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).

The 4th century theologian Athanasius, wrote; “It was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out his love for us, so that he made haste to help us, and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of his taking human form, and for our salvation that in his great love he was both born and manifested in a human body.” Some three centuries earlier, Paul had written, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8:3). Likewise, the writer to the Hebrews; “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14).

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die —but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Rom 5:6–11). Such is our assurance, anchored in the person and work of the Son.

How great is the Lord Jesus, one with the Father, fullness of God, Creator and Redeemer! In all things he has the supremacy; he is “above the line” that divides God from creation. And yet in his love for us he entered creation, took on flesh and bore our sins. The song of the redeemed multitude is his; “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (Rev 4:11; 5:12) and “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”

Hope

Hope has been redefined. It has been morphed and melted down from something strong and dependable to something vague and unsubstantial; something that speaks of doubt rather than faith. “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow;” “I hope I pass this exam;” “I hope he’s not mad at me;” or even, “I hope I get away with this.” This sort of “hope” is a mere caricature of true hope, a watered-down, anxiety and guilt-ridden shadow of the real thing. It is not how the Bible presents hope. In the world today hope is the vague glimmer of positivity for the glass-half-empty person, whereas for the biblical writers it was a concrete expression of anticipation for the glass-half-full, whose complete and overflowing fullness is ultimately assured.

Consider how the Bible speaks of hope:
“Hope does not put us to shame” (Rom 5:5)
The hope of salvation is a helmet, part of the full armour of God (1 Thess 5:8; Eph 6:17)
“Full assurance of hope” (Heb 3;11)
“a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb 6:19)
“a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3)

What is this hope, which is certain, living and secure? It is the hope of salvation. It is not some elusive wish, a pie-in-the-sky tenuous desire that may or may not come to fruition. It certainly does not rely on us being “good enough” or worthy. Quite the contrary, hope is the acknowledgement that what we are assured of is still future and is something that we look towards with absolute confidence. It is there ahead of us in time, in the hands of a timeless God, ready and waiting for us. That which we anticipate, which we long for, the focus of our hope, is eternal life in perfection with Christ in his consummated Kingdom.

The reason we hope for it is not because it is uncertain, but simply because it has not been fully manifested yet. We have eternal life now, with the Holy Spirit as a guarantee. In Christ we are now justified and are already citizens of the heavenly kingdom (Greek basileia), under the reign (basileia) of God in our lives. This hope, this guarantee is an anchor of our soul because we know that the God who promises our salvation cannot lie and is fully able and willing to bring it to completion. Paul prayed for the Ephesians, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might” (Eph 1:17–19). To the Thessalonians Paul wrote, “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 5:8–9). Paul greeted Titus, “in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began” (Titus 1:2).

Notice that the apostles don’t express any doubt about the object of our hope. Their words of encouragement are not directed at God, pleading with him to follow through (“I hope God meant what he said”). Absolutely not! Their words of encouragement are directed at us, those who have every reason to hope in the sure and certain promises of God. We are not to waver, we are not to lose faith. We are to persevere, knowing that the strength to do so lies not with us, but with the God who cannot lie. Hope is not an expression of false modesty as to our worthiness; hope is something to be grasped with absolute confidence because it is anchored to a rock. That rock lies within the veil, in the very presence of Almighty God, whose throne Jesus shares. He has gone before us and laid that anchor, which cannot be moved, no matter what turbulence and storms we face in the seas of our lives.

So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf” (Heb 6:17–20).

How can anyone who trusts in Jesus Christ, believing the promises of God, doubt their salvation? Doubt only arises when we forget that the basis of salvation is the work of God; Father, Son and Spirit, not our own work. That is why it is not a case of making ourselves “worthy,” for that is impossible. These exhortations about our hope are not there to make us worry whether we are good enough, as if we could save ourselves. If that were the case, then there would be no hope. Consider the encouragement in these words of hope; for the purpose of these exhortations is to build up our faith in Jesus Christ, the captain of our salvation, and to give us courage (“en-courage”) for whatever lies ahead. Hope prompts us to rejoice, and to persevere.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:1–5).

The key elements of hope in this passage are that it comes through the work of Jesus Christ, who has justified us and reconciled us to God and given us the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of our sonship (2 Cor 1:21–22; 2 Cor 5:4–6). A guarantee makes a promise certain. Paul elaborates on this in Ephesians, having just prayed that they would be enlightened as to their hope, “the riches of his glorious inheritance” (Eph 1:18). Remember, he says, that once they were alienated from God, strangers to the covenants of promise, “having no hope and without God in the world, but now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ, for he is our peace…” for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father and are now fellow citizens and members of God’s household (Eph 2:12–19). Christ reconciled us; tore the veil, broke down the wall, anchored us to the very throne of God in heavenly places. The writer to the Hebrews paints this picture; “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf (Heb 6:19–20). “A better hope [than the law] is introduced, through which we draw near to God” (Heb 7:19). “Let us then hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb 10:23). This hope is the same as that which God promised to faithful Israelites, which is why this reconciling work applies to both Jew and Gentile (Eph 2:12–19) and Paul could proclaim, “It is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain” (Acts 28:20).

This hope is a call to endurance and a source of rejoicing (Heb 10:23; Rom 5:3–11; 1 Thess 4:13–18; 2 Thess 2:16–17) Speaking of the hope of salvation, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another, and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thess 5:8–11).

The certainty of our hope lies not in ourselves or our efforts, but in the very character of God, as manifested in the person and work of his Son Jesus Christ. This is indeed good news.

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person— though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom 5:5–10).

God’s Son came into the world, humbling himself even to death, to do what we could not do for ourselves. He conquered sin in the flesh it which it had always reigned and bore our sins on the cross, redeeming us by his blood. We were ransomed, not by perishable things like silver and gold, “but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you, who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pet 1:19–21).

Our hope is situated in the person and work of Jesus Christ, God with us, and currently “laid up for you in heaven” (Col 1:5) where Jesus is at the right hand of God, behind the opened veil. We, who have “the firstfruits of the Spirit,” wait eagerly for the bodily completion of our adoption and redemption; “for in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope…but if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8: 23–25). That hope will appear with Jesus and be made a reality. Until then we are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us…” (Titus 2:13–14).

Given the certainty of our hope, vested as it is in the unchangeable promises, person and work of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, what should be our response? As the New Testament repeatedly emphasises, good works are the result of, not the cause of our salvation. We are not called to sit on a remote mountain top, navel gazing as we wait passively for his appearing. Nor are we to simply blend in with the world, keeping our hope to ourselves. We have been called to the hope of the glory of Christ by the gospel and are to make this hope known, for it is good news indeed (Col 1:27). “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word” (2 Thess 2:14). Paul encouraged Timothy to strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, the Saviour (1 Tim 4:10). He reminded Titus that we have been redeemed and purified to be Christ’s own people, “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:13–14). We are to hold fast in our hope (Heb 3:6; 10:23) but not hold still! “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb 6:10–12). Because of our living hope, our imperishable inheritance, we are to prepare our minds for action, setting our hope fully on the grace that will be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:3–5, 13). We are not to be “conformed to the passions of our former ignorance,” but be holy as Christ is holy, knowing the price of our redemption (1 Pet 1:14-21). Peter concludes this exhortation with a reminder that our hope is not in ourselves and our works however, but in God.

Let’s be clear, a works-based view of salvation, which sets its hope in our own abilities to please God, to earn his favour, to add to the all-sufficient work of Christ, is no hope at all. Such a hope is no firmer a base for our lives than the hope that it won’t rain tomorrow, or that someone won’t be too angry with us, or that we get away with our imperfections. If any Christian doubts their assurance of salvation, the reality of the hope set before them, they should reflect on where their hope is actually placed. Are they clutching the strong rope of the anchor which holds firm in the holy place, or relying on themselves? Is a lack of faith in Christ’s work a result of a lack of understanding of, and faith in him, as “our great God and Saviour,” the one who  has by his blood redeemed, reconciled and justified us and will bring us to the certain hope of glory?

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation” (Psa 42:5 )

Obedience, Full and Free

Given the New Testament’s emphasis on salvation as a free gift of grace, which we can by no means earn, and the assurance we have in Christ, it’s not surprising that some might think this contradicts the notion of obedience. The Bible, after all, is full of commandments and imperatives. These range from the requirements of the Law, which were specific to the Israelite theocracy of the Old Testament, to the commandments of Christ; do to others as you would have them do to you. Little wonder that the ignorant opponents of the Gospel accused Paul of antinomianism (Romans 3:8). Paul’s response was to vigorously deny that grace was in any way a licence for sin or slackness concerning obedience. “What then, are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Rom 6:15). But extremism can work both ways. In the medieval church, and in moralist or legalistic denominations through the ages and down to today, there can be such an emphasis on the necessity for obedience that it becomes seen as the means of salvation, rather than the response to salvation.

The Law was given to the theocracy of Israel, to teach God’s ways and principles, to separate them from the nations as an example. The Law draws attention to sin, but it cannot save, because no one is able to keep it, other than the Lord Jesus Christ. He kept it perfectly for us with the result that we are now dead to the Law, and under grace (Rom 3:19–24; 8:1–4; 2 Cor 5:21; Eph 2:8–9).

Yet we are still commanded not to sin, and have been given, if anything, stricter precepts by which to live (Rom 6:12–14; 14:23). Because it’s not enough just to refrain from murder; we must refrain from the brooding hatred and jealousy that can lead to murder. We are not just to refrain from overt sexual immorality, but from lustful thoughts and desires (Matt 5:19–22, 27–29). “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:1–2; 1 John 3:4–9).

Which brings us to the issue of obedience. “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam 15:22) even though sacrifices were part of the obedience required of Israelites. Is this a contradiction? How can we be fully justified by grace, apart from works, and yet still be required to obey? “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). Here obedience seems to be a prerequisite for salvation, however that interpretation would ignore the first part of the verse, that to believe is the key to eternal life. The problem only arises if we force a dichotomy between belief and obedience. In the New Testament, particularly in John’s writings, belief and obedience are inseparable, because belief (faith; same word) is not mere intellectual subscription to theological concepts or a list of propositions, but belief IN Jesus Christ. Belief IN Jesus necessarily involves a change of behaviour, that results from a genuine relationship with him. The work of God IS faith in Jesus (John 6:28–29) and genuine faith will always be demonstated by obedience (John 13:34–35; James 2:17–22). Right behaviour and obedience to Christ is the expected flow-on from being in Christ, indwelt by the Spirit and “equipped for every good work” (Gal 5:22–25; 2 Thess 2:16–17; 2 Tim 3:16–17). This doesn’t mean we will never sin, this side of perfection, but it is no longer a way of life. We do not continue in sin (Rom 6:11–18; 1 John 3:4–9) but in sanctification. But if and when we do fail him, and sin, there is forgiveness, because we have an Advocate with the Father and the cleansing blood of Jesus whitens our soiled garments anew (1 John 1:7–10; 2:1).

The difference between legalistic obedience and the fruit of the Spirit comes down to a focus on internals rather than externals. Ritual obedience to sacrificial laws, tithes and ritual cleanliness are useless and even offensive, if the heart is not right with God. Without right motives, the greatest works are pathetic posturing (Amos 5:21–24; Matt 7:21–23; Luke 11:42; 18:9–14; 1 Cor 13;1–3). This is why the New Covenant had to involve more than prescriptive behaviour and external obedience. It had to address the heart, for that is the origin of evil (Mark 7:20–23; James 1:14–15). “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33).

What motivates obedience? Essentially it comes down to one of two things; fear or love. A child might obey his parents out of fear of consequences; being spanked, or having privileges revoked. But every parent would prefer that the child obeyed out of love for the parent, trusting that the parent actually has the child’s best interests at heart. Obedience through fear of consequences can be powerful for a time, but it is an immature form of obedience. The parent wants the child to mature in order to discern potential dangers for themselves and make sensible choices. The same applies to moral choices. The parent hopes the child will learn to not hit her sister, out of love for her sister, rather than fear of consequences. When an adolescent turns 18 his parents hope he will have an adequate moral foundation to not drink recklessly or be sexually immoral, even though those things are now “legal” for him. Similarly, there are laws prohibiting drink-driving, speeding, theft, murder and so on. These laws are established for the good of society. It would be great if every citizen obeyed the laws all the time out of common sense, moral decency and a love for country and fellow citizens. Moral people actually do this; they restrain selfish impulses because they realise that crimes do not help the greater good. They obey laws out of love rather than fear of consequences. Nevertheless, in any society there are people who put themselves above the law, and their interests ahead of the common good. That is why we have a judiciary system, to punish offenders. For a proportion of society, it is only fear of consequences that keeps them on the right side of the law. Even people who would never dream of stealing or murdering might only be restrained from speeding because of fear of a fine.

Likewise, God set rules for Israel, and because he knew their immaturity, he set down clear consequences for obedience and disobedience (Deut 28). He set before them life and death, good and evil. He literally put the fear of God into them. Sometimes that worked for a time, but not in the long run. They obeyed when it suited them, and reverted to cycles of sin, punishment and repentance, only to sin again, as the book of Judges attests. The problem was, fear is a poor long term motivator for devotion. What God really wanted was Israel’s love. He wanted them to obey him as a child loves, honours and obeys a loving Father. He wanted them to understand that,

As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust… But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments” (Psalm 103:13–18).

He appealed to them on this basis: “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name.” (Mal 1:6). By putting his law into our hearts, and establishing us as his sons through adoption in Christ, the game has changed. Our obedience springs not from fear, but from the vigorous, empowering motivation of love.

God’s love is the cause of our justification and sanctification, not its result. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). Greater love has no one than this, that Christ laid down his life for his friends (John 15:12–14). We are his friends if we do whatever he commands us, which we will if we genuinely believe IN him. Paul tells us “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Was this because we were already obedient? No! “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…. but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We have already been justified (declared not guilty) by his blood, saved by him from the wrath of God (against the children of disobedience Eph 5:6), so we are not motivated by fear.

“For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Rom 5:5–11). We are reconciled NOW, not after a lifetime of endeavour. Because we are now God’s children in Christ, we have the sure and certain hope of being fully conformed to his Son. We are Spirit-indwelt, and Spirit-enabled. Because of this we are motivated and empowered as never before, to obey. He has sent the Spirit of adoption into our hearts whereby we can cry “Abba, Papa,” (Rom 8:11–17) and progress from an immature, fear-based obedience which seeks to impress by works, to a now-natural, genuine, obedience from love. See how all this comes together in John’s first letter; our themes of obedience, not continuing in sin, belief IN Jesus, being children of God, abiding in him and overcoming.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are… Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure… No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:1–10).

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:15–21).

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world —our faith. (1 John 5:1–4)

To insist that obedience is somehow the foundation of salvation, and the means by which God is coerced or persuaded to love us, is to promulgate a different gospel (Gal 1:6–9). Legalism is obedience from fear, and is no gospel at all. The true Gospel of Christ is the Gospel of love. To love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves, is the sum of every commandment, the motivation and enabling of true obedience.

Yes, the Gospel alone can save

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel,” proclaimed the Apostle Paul, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).

This statement at the beginning of his letter to the Romans summarises what Paul will show the gospel to be; a mighty work of grace that is solely the work of God, to be received by sinners holding out the empty hands of faith, knowing they cannot do anything to add to it.

The gospel, or euaggelion, means good news, the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. It is called the gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1, Rom 1:9; 2 Cor 4:4; 9:13; 10:14; Gal 1:7; Phil 1:27) the gospel of the kingdom (Matt 4:23) the gospel of God (Rom 1:1; 1 Thess 2:2) the gospel of peace (Eph 6:15) and the gospel of grace (Acts 20:24). The corresponding verb, euaggelizo, means to proclaim good news (Luke 2:10; 16:16; 1 Pet 1:25). The same gospel was proclaimed and taught by Jesus and the apostles, in fulfillment of the Old Testament promises (Luke 4:17–19; Acts 8:35; 13:32; Gal 3:8; 1 Pet 1:12). Jesus is central to the whole biblical narrative, or “salvation history” from Genesis to Revelation. The early church exegetes saw Jesus as the great interpreter of Scripture, the antitype to which everything in the Scriptures pointed and in whom they found ultimate fulfillment. On the road to Emmaus, the risen Christ gently berated his disciples for failing to understand this, “and beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Earlier he had stated to the Jews that Moses wrote about him and that the Scriptures witness to him (John 5:39, 46).

There is only one true gospel, that of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and his kingdom. Paul was adamant on this point; it is his purpose for writing to the Galatians. They had turned from “the grace of Christ” to “a different gospel, not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (Gal 1:6–7). Paul finds this “astonishing” because the gospel he preached to the Galatians was not man’s gospel, but one he received through a revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal 1:11–12). So significant is this point of a single, true , God-given gospel that Paul states, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8–9). Strong words! But then nothing less than the glory of God and their very salvation was at stake.

What was it that was so central to the gospel that the Galatians had missed? When Jesus preached the gospel he accompanied it with healing and blessing. It was a gospel of reconciliation, of healing and peace, a foretaste of the consummation of the kingdom of God. Jesus brought the kingdom, or reign of God, into the world because he is its king, and one day that kingdom will fill the earth. The gospel is for all nations, for the Jew first and also for the Gentile (Luke 2;10–11; Matt 24:14; Acts 15:7; Rom 1:14–16; Gal 2:7; Col 1:23; Rev 14:6). It is a gospel of peace (Eph 6:15) because it is the means of peacemaking, or reconcilation between God and humankind, and there is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved (Luke 2:11–14; Acts 4:12; 10:36; Rom 5:1).

Jesus accomplished many interrelated things in his great work upon the cross, and central to his reconciling work are both the tearing of the veil that restricted approach to the Holy God, and also destroying the barriers between Jew and Gentile. For Jews under the Law, the only way to please God according to the Law was to keep it in every detail, which of course is impossible. The Gentiles were even worse off, they were “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). The gospel changes all that. Paul continues:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father (Eph 2:13–18).

The new covenant in Christ, which is the essence of the gospel, can bring this reconciliation for all, because it is not based on human works. It is the gospel of grace. Paul opens his letter to the Romans by introducing himself as “set apart for the gospel of God… concerning his Son… through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” (Rom 1:1–5). Later in the letter, Paul reminds them “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Rom 5:1–2). In Ephesians, Paul makes it even more explicit: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8–9).

This is the heart of the gospel; salvation by grace, appropriated by faith, without any contribution of human works. As Paul goes on to explain in Romans, after his damning indictment of sinful humanity:

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:20–24).

This was what the Galatians had departed from. They had been enticed back to the works of the law, adding to the gospel of Christ. They had become persuaded that Christians should be circumcised, a work of the flesh, which Paul points out made them a debtor to the whole law and disqualified them from grace.

Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified… For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain–if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith — just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’? Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal 2:16–3:7)

Returning to those opening words from Paul, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek,” we see how the gospel is the power to save both Jew and Gentile. It is precisely because it is a gospel of grace and faith, not of works. Because the power to save is all of God, it is absolutely assured.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:1–4).

To try to add anything to the gospel, to add anything to the work of Christ, is to say that the gospel is not good enough, that the work of Christ is not good enough. It is to make salvation a human accomplishment, which is impossible. It is to base salvation on human works, human “righteousness” which is a garment of filthy rags (Isa 64:6).

The gospel is the power of God for salvation. It is the good news that salvation is in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone. What would the Apostle Paul say to those who subscribe to the Christadelphian Statement of Faith,  then, which lists as a Doctrine to be Rejected, #24, “that the Gospel alone will save, without obedience to Christ’s commandments”? This flies in the face of all that Paul says about the gospel. It adds works to the gospel. It makes salvation a human achievement; only those who have obeyed the commandments will be saved. To this a Christadelphian might respond, that they are the commandments of Christ and he did not issue them in vain. That of course is true, and to ignore the commandments and teachings of Christ would be antinomianism, of which, ironically, Paul was accused! (Rom 6:1–2)

Obedience is our loving response to all that Christ has done for us. Obedience doesn’t save us, works don’t save us. Salvation is by grace on the basis of the work of Christ, received by faith. As Paul explains in Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8–10). Good works are the response to salvation, not the means of salvation. In Christ Jesus we have been created for good works, enabled by the Spirit to bring forth his fruit.

A Christadelphian might respond, yes, I believe all that, I believe I am saved by grace, not works. In fact, many Christadephians do believe this. They do have the right perspective on the means of salvation, yet that is not what their basis of fellowship states. To become a Christadelphian, in most ecclesias, one has to assent to the Statement of Faith and reject the Doctrines to be Rejected, in order to be baptised and to enjoy fellowship. The Statement of Faith is very detailed; thirty positive affirmations and thirty-six negative affirmations. Some of them are broad and foundational, a number are anachronistic and some are difficult even for many Christadelphians to accept. But to deny that the gospel alone can save, that works are required, is to preach another gospel, and what would Paul say to that?