The Radical, Upside-down Gospel

 

The approach of the gospel is radically different. It begins not by making a demand upon us but by simply affirming, “God loves you.” “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” What we could not do for ourselves has been done for us; we are forgiven, accepted. The gospel that comes to us in Jesus is the good news that God has acted to come into the far county to live among the pigs with his prodigals. In the gospel there is thus no demand but simply the good news that God’s love is with us and for us. The law, with its threats and promises, is forgotten.  As John puts it: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:18)

 

William Hordern, Living by Grace

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Saved by Christ Through Faith

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Remember that you are not saved by increased levels of holiness, however desirable it is that you should reach them. Indeed, while we often say that we are “saved by faith” or by “faith in Christ,” as Benjamin B. Warfield shrewdly comments, it is not even faith in Christ that saves us. It is Christ who saves us — through faith. Your faith is a poor and crumbling thing, as is your spiritual service. Jesus Christ alone is qualified and able to save you because of what He has done. Cling to anything else and you are relying on flotsam and jetsam floating on a perilous sea. It will bring you down under the waves. But cling to Christ Jesus and His righteousness and nothing can sink you.

Here is our refuge: In Christ, we are as righteous before God as Jesus Christ is righteous, for the only righteousness we have before God is Jesus Christ’s righteousness, to which we contribute nothing. 

Sinclair B. Ferguson, “By Grace Alone” 

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Justified by Faith…Alone

It becomes clear, then, that we cannot talk about sanctification without first saying something about justification. The difficulty we have arises because justification by faith alone, without the deeds of the law, is a mighty breakup of the ordinary schemes of morality and religion; a mighty attack, we should say, on the theology of the old being. The fact that we are justified before God—the eternal Judge, Creator and Preserver of all life—unconditionally for Jesus’ sake and by faith alone, simply shatters the old being’s entire system of values and calculations.

As old beings we don’t know what to do with an unconditional gift or promise. Virtually our entire existence in this world is shaped, determined and controlled by conditional promises and calculations. We are brought up on conditional promises. We live by them. Our future is determined by them. Conditional promises always have an “if-then” form.3 If you eat your spinach, then you get your pudding. If you are a good girl, then you can go to the movies. If you do your schoolwork, then you will pass the course. If you do your job, then you will get your pay. If you prove yourself, then you will get a promotion. And so on and so on, endlessly until at last we die of it, wondering if we had only done this or that differently, perhaps then. . . . Though such conditional promises are often burdensome and even oppressive, they are nevertheless enticing and even comforting in their own way because they give life its structure and seem to grant us a measure of control. If we fulfill the conditions, then we have a claim on what is promised. We have what we call “rights,” and we can control our future, at least to a certain extent.

So, as old beings, we hang rather tenaciously onto these conditional promises. As a matter of fact, that is what largely characterizes our being in this world as old. We hang desperately onto the conditional promises, hoping to control our own destiny. We live “under the law” and cannot get out—because we really don’t want to. We prefer to go our own way even up to the last barrier: death. And there we must either hope that the conditionality ends and all account books simply close, or perhaps we make the fatal mistake of thinking that we can extend our control under the conditional promise even into the beyond. We think we have a claim on heaven itself if the proper conditions are met. Religion is most often just the attempt to extend this conditionality into eternity and to gain a certain measure of control even over the eternal itself.

But the saving act of God in Jesus Christ—comprehended in justification by faith alone—is an unconditional promise. Unconditional promises have a “because-therefore” form. Because Jesus has overcome the world and all enemies by his death and resurrection, therefore (and only for that reason) you shall be saved. Because Jesus died and rose, therefore God here and now declares you just for Jesus’ sake (not even for your sake, but for Jesus’ sake). Because Jesus has borne the sin of the whole world in his body unto death and yet conquered, therefore God declares the forgiveness of our sins.

Now, of course, as old beings we have a desperately difficult time with such an unconditional promise. It knocks everything out of kilter. We simply don’t know how to cope with it, so we are thrown into confusion. Is it really true? Can one announce it just like that? No strings attached? Don’t we have to be more careful about to whom we say such things? It appears wild and dangerous and reckless to us, just as it did to Jesus’ contemporaries. The best we can do is to try to draw it back into our conditional understanding—so all the questions and protests come pouring out. But surely we have to do something, don’t we? Don’t we at least have to make our decision to accept? Isn’t faith, after all, a condition? Or repentance? Isn’t the idea of an unconditional promise terribly dangerous? Who will be good? Won’t it lead perhaps to universalism, libertinism, license and sundry disasters? Don’t we need to insist on sanctification to prevent the whole from collapsing into cheap grace? Doesn’t the Bible follow the declaration of grace with certain exhortations and imperatives? So the protestations go, for the most part designed to reimpose at least a minimal conditionality on the promise.

It is crucial to see that here we have arrived at the decisive point which will entirely determine how we look at what we call sanctification. It is true, you see, that as old beings we simply cannot understand or cope with the unconditional promise of justification pronounced in the name of Jesus. ‘What we don’t see is that what the unconditional promise is calling forth is a new being. The justification of God promised in Jesus is not an “offer” made to us as old beings; it is our end, our death. We are, quite literally, through as old beings. To use the vernacular, we have “had it.” All the questions and protests that we raise are really just the death rattle of the old Adam and Eve who sense that their kingdom is under radical and final attack. No doubt that is why the defense is so desperate, and why it even quite innocently takes such pious and well-meaning forms.

But isn’t the unconditional promise dangerous? Of course it is! After all, look what happened to Jesus! It is the death of us one way or another. Either we stick in our conditionality and go to that death which is eternal, or we are put to death to be raised to new and eternal life in the one who lives eternally. The point is that when we come up against the danger and radicality of the unconditional promise, the solution is not to fall back on conditionality but simply to be drawn into the death and resurrection of Jesus. The old being cannot survive the promise, the promise which makes new beings out of nothing. God is the one who calls into being that which is from that which is not. The new being finds its center now not in itself, but in Jesus.

One has only to follow out the argument in Romans to see Paul clearly developing this point. The law, the conditional promise, did not stop sin; it only made it worse. As a matter of fact, the law was given to show sin as sinful beyond measure, a bottomless pit, an endless hall of mirrors. But where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more! But isn’t such argument terribly dangerous? Aren’t all the careful barriers built against sin suddenly destroyed? Doesn’t one come perilously close to saying that sin is somehow presupposed by or even necessary for grace? Couldn’t one then justly say, “Well then, shall we not sin the more that grace may abound?” It is a serious question and one that has to be raised. As a matter of fact, if the question isn’t raised, one probably hasn’t yet grasped the radical hilaritas, the joy of grace. No doubt, it is the old being’s last question prior to its death. But what is the answer? It does not lie in returning to the law, to conditionality, but rather in the death of the old.

Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom 6: 1-11)

Actually, all evangelical treatment of sanctification should be little more than comment on this passage. The end to sin is death, not following the law, not moral progress, not even “sanctification” as the old Adam or Eve thinks of it. To sin the more that grace may increase is, of course, absurd and impossible precisely because of the death. To do so would mean to will to return to sin in order to get more grace. That would be like a lover desiring to return to the state of unloving in order to experience falling in love again. Quite impossible! How can one who has died to sin still live in it? The movement is simply irreversible if one catches a glimpse of what the grace is all about.

Furthermore, it is crucial to note that Paul does not tell his readers that they have to get busy now and die. He announces the startling and unconditional fact that we have died. It is not a task to be accomplished. All who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death, so that out of that death may come newness of life, just like and as sure as the resurrection of Christ. Sin is a slavery from which we escape only through that death. Only one who has died is free from sin. There’ is no other way. The old self has been crucified so that the sinful body might also be destroyed and we might at last be set free. There is no continuity of the old self to be carried over here. Christ now becomes our life.

Just the sheer and unconditional announcement “You have died!”— the uncompromising insistence that there is nothing to do now, that God has made his last move—just that, and that alone, is what puts the old being to death, precisely because there is nothing for the old being to do. The God who says, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy,” has decided to do just that through the death and resurrection of Jesus. There is no way for the old being to do anything about such grace. The unconditional justification, the grace itself, slays the old self and destroys its “body of sin” so as to fashion a new one. It is all over! Christ being raised from the dead will never die again. One can’t go back and repeat it. He died to sin once for all, and now he lives to God. Conclusion? You can now only consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus!

So, when we come to the decisive and crucial point about justification and the unconditional promise of grace, it is imperative to see that God is at work making new beings through this (to us) shocking act. The answer to all our questions, to the “death rattle” questions of the old Adam or Eve, lies not in falling back on conditionality, but in learning to cope with death and resurrection. All the questions must therefore be answered with a confident yes.

Do you mean to say we don’t have to do anything? Yes! Just listen! Do you mean to say that even faith is not a condition, nor is making our decision, nor repentance? Yes! Faith is a gift. It comes by hearing. It is the Spirit’s work. It is a being grasped by the unconditional promise, a being caught by the sheer newness and joy of it, a being carried by the Word of Grace. But is not such unconditional promise dangerous? Yes, I suppose it is in this evil age. After all, Jesus got killed for it! But God has apparently decided to take the risk, and sealed it by raising Jesus from the dead. “Wake up, 0 sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14).

But do you mean to say we can’t say no? That kind of question is, of course, the trickiest of the old Adam or Eve. But in spite of everything, it must be answered with a confident yes—from the point of view of the new being. The old Adam or Eve will, of course, only say no, can really only say no. The old Adam or Eve wants to remain in control of the matter and so says no even while wanting to say yes.

So saying no is not an option? Perhaps the best answer would be, “What do you want to do that for?” It would be like arriving at the altar for the wedding and answering the big question. “Do you take…” with, “Do you mean to say I can’t say no?” If we see at all what is going on, we would see that even here the answer finally has got to be yes: “Yes, I don’t see how you can say no!” The new being by definition is one who says yes. One is not forced here, one is made new, saved—heart, soul, mind. One is sanctified in the truth of the unconditional promise of God.

The answer to the persistent questions of the old Adam or Eve is therefore always yes, yes, yes, until at last we die of it and begin to whisper, “Amen! So be it Lord!” Sanctification is a matter of being grasped by the unconditional grace of God and having now to live in that light. It is a matter of getting used to justification.

Gerhard Forde

 

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Luther on Galatians 5:13

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13)

In other words: “You have gained liberty through Christ, i.e., You are above all laws as far as conscience is concerned. You are saved. Christ is your liberty and life. Therefore law, sin, and death may not hurt you or drive you to despair. This is the constitution of your priceless liberty. Now take care that you do not use your wonderful liberty for an occasion of the flesh.”

Satan likes to turn this liberty which Christ has gotten for us into licentiousness. Already the Apostle Jude complained in his day: “There are certain men crept in unawares. . .turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness.” (Jude 4.) The flesh reasons: “If we are without the law, we may as well indulge ourselves. Why do good, why give alms, why suffer evil when there is no law to force us to do so?”

This attitude is common enough. People talk about Christian liberty and then go and cater to the desires of covetousness, pleasure, pride, envy, and other vices. Nobody wants to fulfill his duties. Nobody wants to help out a brother in distress. This sort of thing makes me so impatient at times that I wish the swine who trampled precious pearls under foot were back once again under the tyranny of the Pope. You cannot wake up the people of Gomorrah with the gospel of peace.

Even we creatures of the world do not perform our duties as zealously in the light of the Gospel as we did before in the darkness of ignorance, because the surer we are of the liberty purchased for us by Christ, the more we neglect the Word, prayer, well-doing, and suffering. If Satan were not continually molesting us with trials, with the persecution of our enemies, and the ingratitude of our brethren, we would become so careless and indifferent to all good works that in time we would lose our faith in Christ, resign the ministry of the Word, and look for an easier life. Many of our ministers are beginning to do that very thing. They complain about the ministry, they maintain they cannot live on their salaries, they whimper about the miserable treatment they receive at the hand of those whom they delivered from the servitude of the law by the preaching of the Gospel. These ministers desert our poor and maligned Christ, involve themselves in the affairs of the world, seek advantages for themselves and not for Christ. With what results they shall presently find out.

Since the devil lies in ambush for those in particular who hate the world, and seeks to deprive us of our liberty of the spirit or to brutalize it into the liberty of the flesh, we plead with our brethren after the manner of Paul, that they may never use this liberty of the spirit purchased for us by Christ as an excuse for carnal living, or as Peter expresses it, I Peter 2:16, “for a cloak of maliciousness.”

In order that Christians may not abuse their liberty the Apostle encumbers them with the rule of mutual love that they should serve each other in love. Let everybody perform the duties of his station and vocation diligently and help his neighbor to the limit of his capacity.

Christians are glad to hear and obey this teaching of love. When others hear about this Christian liberty of ours they at once infer, “If I am free, I may do what I like. If salvation is not a matter of doing why should we do anything for the poor?” In this crude manner they turn the liberty of the spirit into wantonness and licentiousness. We want them to know, however, that if they use their lives and possessions after their own pleasure, if they do not help the poor, if they cheat their fellow-men in business and snatch and scrape by hook and by crook everything they can lay their hands on, we want to tell them that they are not free, no matter how much they think they are, but they are the dirty slaves of the devil, and are seven times worse than they ever were as the slaves of the Pope.

As for us, we are obliged to preach the Gospel which offers to all men liberty from the Law, sin, death, and God’s wrath. We have no right to conceal or revoke this liberty proclaimed by the Gospel. And so we cannot do anything with the swine who dive headlong into the filth of licentiousness. We do what we can, we diligently admonish them to love and to help their fellow-men. If our admonitions bear no fruit, we leave them to God, who will in His own good time take care of these disrespecters of His goodness. In the meanwhile we comfort ourselves with the thought that our labors are not lost upon the true believers. They appreciate this spiritual liberty and stand ready to serve others in love and, though their number is small, the satisfaction they give us far outweighs the discouragement which we receive at the hands of the large number of those who misuse this liberty.

Paul cannot possibly be misunderstood for he says: “Brethren, ye have been called unto liberty.” In order that nobody might mistake the liberty of which he speaks for the liberty of the flesh, the Apostle adds the explanatory note, “only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.” Paul now explains at the hand of the Ten Commandments what it means to serve one another in love.

Via Luthers’ Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (1535) Chapter 5, translated by Theodore Graebner (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1949).

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In the Crucible of Chaos

“In the crucible of chaos God delivers His best when we least expect it, when we least deserve it. When we are desperately experiencing our worst God delivers his best and that’s the Gospel. That when we were in the throws of calamity God came, that’s what the Bible tells us. While we were yet sinners Christ came; he died for us (Romans 5:8), he entered into our chaos, He submitted himself to the chaotic darkness of the cross so that we could be set free.”
Tullian Tchividjian

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Defiant Grace

For the grace that comes to us in Jesus Christ is not measured. This grace refuses to allow itself to be tethered to our innate sense of fairness, reciprocity, and balancing of the scales. It is defiant…However much we may laud grace with our lips, our hearts are so thoroughly law-marinated that the Christian life must be, at core, one of continually bathing our hearts and minds in gospel grace. We are addicted to law. Conforming our lives to a moral framework, playing by the rules, meeting a minimum standard—this feels normal. And it is how we naturally medicate that deep sense of inadequacy within. The real question is not how to avoid becoming a Pharisee; the question is how to recover from being the Pharisee we already, from the womb, are.

Law feels safe. Grace feels risky. Rule-keeping breeds a sense of manageability; grace feels like moral vertigo. After all, if all that we are is by grace, there is no limit to what God can ask of us. But if some corner of our virtue is due to personal contribution, there is a ceiling onwhat God can ask of us. He can bring us only so far. He can only ask so much.

Such is not the call of Christ. The Jesus of the Gospels defies our domesticated, play-by-the-rules morality. It was the most extravagant sinners of Jesus’ day who received his most compassionate welcome; it was the most scrupulous law-abiders who received his most searing denunciation. The point is not that we should therefore take up sin. The point is that we should lay down the silly insistence onleveraging our sense of self-worth with an ongoing moral record. Better a life of sin with penitence than a life of obedience without it.

It is time to enjoy grace anew. Not the decaffeinated grace that pats us on the hand, ignores our deepest rebellions, and doesn’t change us, but the high-octane grace that takes our conscience by the scruff of the neck and breathes new life into us with a pardon so scandalous that we cannot help but be changed. It’s time to blow aside the hazy cloud of condemnation that hangs over us throughout the day with the strong wind of gospel grace. “You are not under law but under grace” (Rom 6:14). Jesus is real, grace is defiant, life is short, risk is good. For many of us the time has come to abandon once and for all our play-it-safe, toe-dabbling Christianity and dive in. It is time, as Robert Farrar Capon put it, to get drunk on grace. Two hundred-proof, defiant grace.

Dane Ortlund

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Because – Therefore

 

We tend to view Christianity as an “if-then” statement. Let me explain, we look at it as if we do this, then God will do that. If I obey, then God will save me, or at least bless me. We should dare not look at it like this. Christianity is not an “if-then” statement, but a “because-therefore” declaration. If we miss this we miss out on the glorious declaration of grace that the gospel proclaims, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:8-9). Therefore, His blood alone justifies, and in turn, we will surely be saved from God’s wrath. So, because Christ died on our behalf, therefore, he will surely save us all the more. We will always miss out on the Gospel of Grace if we look at as an “if-then” statement, but when we look at it as a “because-therefore” declaration it frees us, even to obey, which seems ironic, but it does. No longer is it if we follow the law, God will save us, but now, because God has already saved and has justified us, therefore now we can freely obey the law or not. “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” (1 John 4:16-19). Therefore, we no longer obey God or the law out of fear of punishment, but out of love, perfect love. In perfect love, we no longer fear an “if-then” statement, but can freely dance in a “because-therefore” declaration that, “it is finished” (John 19:30). While “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12), it does not save us or have the power to save us; only Christ saves, “I am the door” (John 10:9). Now we can come to God as we are, as it says in Hebrews 4:16, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and grace to help in time of need”. As much as our conditional hearts want to make the Gospel about us and how to save ourselves, it simply is not how it works in God’s heavenly realm. It is about Christ and his completed, justifying work for sinners. When the focus removes from ourselves, and focuses on our Great Savior, then we will see. Only when we come to the end of ourselves, will we come to the beginning of God. O how great and mysterious and magnificent, yet, unsafe is He; He is surely good though (C.S. Lewis).

Sola Gratia

 

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