Christ as the Sole Foundation

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John Calvin, in his Institutes, speaks brilliantly of Christ as being the “sole foundation, [the] beginner and perfecter” of the believer’s faith.

Calvin says:

What sort of foundation have we in Christ? Was he the beginning of our salvation in order that its fulfillment might follow from ourselves? Did he only open the way by which we might proceed under our own power? Certainly not. But, as Paul had set forth a little before, Christ, when we acknowledge him, is given us to be our righteousness (1 Cor 1:30). He alone is well founded in Christ who has perfect righteousness in himself: since the apostle does not say that he was sent to help us attain righteousness but himself to be our righteousness (1 Cor 1:30). Indeed, he states that “he has chosen us in him” from eternity “before the foundation of the world”, through not merit of our own “but according to the purpose of divine good pleasure” (Eph 1:4-5); that by his death we are redeemed from the condemnation of death and freed from ruin (1 Cor 1:14, 20); that we have been adopted unto him as sons and heirs by our heavenly Father (Rom 8:17, Gal 4:5-7); that we have been reconciled through his blood (Rom 5:9-10); that, given into his protection, we are released from the danger of perishing and falling (John 10:28); that thus ingrafted into him (Rom 11:19) we are already, in a manner, partakers of eternal life, having entered into the Kingdom of God through hope. Yet more: we experience such participation in him that, although we are still foolish in ourselves, he is our wisdom before God; while we are sinners, he is our righteousness; while we are unclean, he is our purity; while we are weak, while we are unarmed and exposed to Satan, yet ours is that power which has been given him in heaven and on earth (Mt 28:18), by which to crush Satan for us and shatter the gates of hell; while we still bear about with us the body of death, he is yet our life. In brief, because all his things are ours and we have all things in him, in us there is nothing. Upon this foundation, I say, we must be built if we would grow into a holy temple to the Lord (Eph 2:21).

 

The Reformers on Works-righteousness

“For if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal 2:21).

John Calvin, from his commentary on Galatians, writes,

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Hence it follows, that we are justified by his grace, and, therefore, not by works… If we could produce a righteousness of our own, then Christ has suffered in vain; for the intention of his sufferings was to procure it for us, and what need was there that a work which we could accomplish for ourselves should be obtained from another? If the death of Christ be our redemption, then we were captives; if it be satisfaction, we were debtors; if it be atonement, we were guilty; if it be cleansing, we were unclean. On the contrary, he who ascribes to works his sanctification, pardon, atonement, righteousness, or deliverance, makes void the death of Christ.

Martin Luther, from his commentary, says:

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Is it true that Christ suffered death or not? Did he suffer in vain or not? Unless we are quite mad, we have to answer that he did indeed suffer, not in vain or for himself, but for us… Take the…law, which contains the most perfect religion and the highest service to God — that is, faith, the fear of God, the love of God, and the love of our neighbor — and show me anyone who has been justified by it. It will then be true that Christ died in vain, for anyone who is justified by the law has power to obtain righteousness by himself… If you grant this, it must follow that Christ died in vain… Are we to allow this horrible blasphemy that the divine Majesty, not sparing his own dear Son, but giving him up to death for us all, should not do all these things seriously but as a sort of joke? I would rather see all the saints and holy angels thrown into hell with the devil. My eyes will see only this inestimable price, my Lord and Savior Christ.

 

Why Christians Need the Old Testament

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I mentioned in my preceding post that Christians need the scriptures for encouragement, growth, and spiritual fruit, because of the very fact that the scriptures reveal God’s saving purposes for mankind. Martin Luther went so far to say that the Word of God is itself a lengthened telling of the gospel.

In this post, I want to consider just exactly how the Old Testament tells this gospel-story.

And what I want to propose is that the Old Testament is just as much about the gospel than the New. And because of this, the entire biblical narrative is concerned and centered on Jesus — and, as I said in my last post, this is why we need the scriptures, Old Testament too!

So then, how does the Old Testament bear witness to the gospel?

If read carefully, and in context, it should become clear that the Old Testament is concerned with the gospel as much as the New; it just communicates it in different ways. Vaughan Roberts says (source),

[Many] have debated for years whether or not it is possible to point to a unifying theme that binds the whole Bible together…Any unifying theme that is used to help us to see how the Bible fits together must arise from scripture itself…and it must be broad enough to allow each part to make its own distinct contribution. The theme of the kingdom of God satisfies both requirements…

[God’s kingdom can be defined as] “God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule” …[Scripture throughout presents] God longing  for human beings to enjoy an intimate relationship with him in his presence. As he is a perfect, holy God, that is possible only as we submit to his loving rule and do not sin.

What Roberts wants to communicate here is that the Old Testament may not mention the word “gospel”, but the concepts of the gospel are there. Roberts proposes that it’s easier to present “kingdom” as a unifying principle that presents the same gospel-truths, both across the Old and New Testament. I agree with him. I think that the beginning chapters of Genesis present God’s people under his rule and blessing, submitting in humility to him — they present God’s kingdom in perfect form. And Revelation 21, at the very end of the Bible, presents it that way too: God’s people under God’s rule and blessing. This is God’s goal a presented throughout the entire Bible, from beginning to end. However, we find that Adam’s sin (and ours too) corrupted and ruined this kingdom relationship. And for that, all have fallen short and deserve God’s condemnation (Rom 3:23).

God’s response, however, was not to destroy us, but to provide a means for humanity to be in blessed fellowship with him once more. Roberts says well, “[God] is certainly not defeated by the fall”; because in Genesis 3:15, we are told that God promises to restore his kingdom relationship through a Seed (a child) who would come from Eve and undue the effects of our sin, ultimately restoring creation to its original state. How will this happen? Through Jesus. This Seed is Christ, and God will use him to restore his fallen creation. Even in the first few chapters of the Bible, Jesus comes into the picture.

And this is the theme of the Old Testament, which finds fulfillment in the New: God will provide someone who will rescue humanity from their sin. The Old Testament presents God’s preparation for this great rescue.

God begins this rescue-plan by calling Abraham from his land, and giving him a promise. God promises to Abraham that through his Seed (recall Genesis 3:15?) he will bless the world. Roberts rightly says, “the covenant with Abraham is a promise of the kingdom of God…It is a promise to reverse the effects of the fall”. Paul would eventually explain that although Isaac was Abraham’s immediate “seed”, Christ is the final Seed who would bless the nations (Gal 3:16).

Then, after God established this promise, he created a nation called Israel whereby he would reveal this Seed, and set a context for redemption. Many may ask exactly why God dealt with this nation Israel before Christ’s coming? John Piper aptly answers this (source):

Israel’s history is not just about Israel. It’s about “every mouth” and “the whole world.” This was not a 2,000-year detour. God was writing a lesson book for the nations. It’s not an accident that our Bible has the Old Testament in it…Because in God’s wisdom he knew that the nations of the world would grasp the nature of Christ and his work better against the backdrop of Israel’s 2,000 year history of law and grace, faith and failure, sacrifice and atonement, wisdom and prophecy, mercy and judgment.

What Piper here is explaining is that God established Israel’s kingdom in order to teach both Israel, and the observing nations about their need for redemption. God wanted to communicate to all peoples that they could not save themselves. And God needed years of history in order to accomplish this. Paul tells us that the sacrifices, the Law, the priesthood, the temple, everything, was given in order to be a tutor to explain our state in sin, and our need forgiveness and holiness. Paul says that the Mosaic Law “was added because of transgressions…until the Seed would come to whom the promise had been made…The [Law] has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal 3:19-22). So, God used Israel and the Mosaic Law as a training station to teach the nations how one is to be saved; namely through an atoning Savior who would die for the sins of others.

In this way, the Old Testament presented the promise of a Savior, and also presented our need for him. And in the New Testament, Christ became the embodiment and fulfillment of that promised. As Paul says, the Old Testament was “a mere shadow of what was to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:17). God is a great strategist, and this is how he accomplished this great redemption.

So when we read the Old Testament, we are reading God’s promises. God is “getting ready” to present Christ. And he is doing it by revealing through Israel what he will look like, and accomplish.

In this way, the Old Testament is just as much about the gospel than the New. For this reason, we should read, treasure, enjoy, and consume God’s Word on every page.

Why Christians Need the Scriptures

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In his insightful, Freedom of the Christian, Martin Luther writes:

Let us then consider it certain and firmly established that the soul can do without anything except the Word of God and that where the Word of God is missing there is no help at all for the soul. If it has the Word of God it is rich and lacks nothing since it is the Word of life, truth, light, peace, righteousness, salvation, joy, liberty, wisdom, power, grace, glory, and ever incalculable blessing. This is why the prophet in the entire Psalm 119 and in many other place yearns and sighs for the Word of God and uses so many names to describe it…

Luther goes on to describe the Bible as one of the main pillars in the Christian faith. It is a necessary source of nourishment for the Christian. Even the Bible itself attests to this fact. Paul tells us that the scriptures give us encouragement and hope (Rom 15:4). The Psalmists tell us that God’s Word heals (Ps 107:20), and is a constant source of growth and life (Ps 1). Christ himself tells us that we are to live on the very words of God (Mt 4:11). Peter tells us to long and yearn for the scriptures as infants need milk (1 Pet 2:2). Jeremiah says of the scriptures, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and Your words because to me a joy and the delight of my heart. Overwhelmingly, we need the Bible, because it is God’s tool to nourish, sustain, and grow us. It is one of God’s main means to growing his people into the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:13).

But how does the Bible produce this sort of spiritual fruit within us? How does it help us and sustain us in this way?

Luther explains that the Bible does this by revealing to us the saving promises of God in the gospel, and producing faith within us. Luther even goes so far to say that “the Word [itself] is the gospel of God concerning his Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit who sanctifies. [The Bible is meant to] feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it, provided it believes…Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the Word of God”.

Luther makes a remarkable point here, that the scriptures are centered around and concerned entirely with the gospel of Christ. I think he’s right; any cursory reading of the Bible will reveal that it doesn’t actually cover everything we need to know. The Bible is concerned with one thing: salvation. And so, the scriptures primarily revolve around the gospel. They center around God’s gracious plan to save sinners, atone for their sins, clothe them in righteousness, adopt them, and make them forever his. Paul tells us this is 2 Corinthians 1:20, that all of God’s saving promises and actions find their fulfillment in Jesus suffering for sinners. In fact, the overwhelming theme of the Old and New Testament is this: “And you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Jer 30:22). This what the scriptures anticipate, long for, and find their fulfillment in. That God will have a redeemed people for himself in Jesus. And this is why Luther can say that the Bible is, in a very real way, the telling of the gospel itself.

But also, this is why the Bible is a delight, encouragement, nourishment, and a necessary source of growth: because the gospel is the only thing that justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies a sinner (1 Cor 1:30, Rom 16:25). As Luther says, “therefore it is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and consequently it would not need faith“. The gospel and the Bible are inextricably bound together. Because as Luther says, the only reason we need the scriptures is because we need the gospel. And because we need the gospel, God gave us the scriptures. Anyone who enjoys the grace of God found in the gospel, will treasure, grow in, be founded upon, and desire fully to read and know the Bible.

God gave us a book to read over and over again, that we might remember again and again who God is, what he does for sinners, and how we are saved through Jesus. It is a book “concerning all things necessary for…man’s salvation, faith and life” (WCF). 

The Offense of the Cross

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“But if I brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed” – Galatians 5:11

In this magnificent letter, Paul writes the Galatian church who had been inundated by false teachers. These teachers had come into the Galatian fellowship, and had started preaching salvation by self-merit. In fact, they went so far as to force the Gentile Galatians to become Jewish and to follow the Mosaic Law (Gal 5:1-12). Paul therefore wrote this letter to defend his gospel of salvation by Christ’s merit, not our own.

In this letter, Paul had to argue on a myriad of levels in order to convince his hearers that his gospel was the true gospel. Because of this, Paul gave many differing defenses of his gospel.

One of Paul’s defenses for his gospel was the fact that he was being persecuted heavily for preaching it (by both Jews and Gentiles — the persecution was just as bad on either side). In fact, in Galatians 5:11, Paul called his message “the offense of the cross”. Apparently, for Paul, the fact that his preaching was an offense to man was confirmation of the validity and veracity of his gospel. And in fact, Paul did offend most of his hearers. Over the course of his ministry, his gospel earned him scores of beatings, mockings, imprisonments, and banishments. And this was for Paul a good thing, because it meant that his gospel was about Christ and not him.

In contrast, however, Paul mentioned repeatedly that the false teachers who were misleading the Galatians had not been mistreated or persecuted at all for their message. Paul said that they preached their message of salvation by self-merit in order to be praised. He argued that the false teachers preached their “gospel” in order that they might be esteemed by others (Gal 4:18), and boast in themselves (Gal 6:13). In fact, Paul accused the teachers of preaching salvation by merit for the very purpose of avoiding persecution (Gal 6:12).

One question that we have to ask from all this is: what was so offensive about Paul’s gospel? And, what was so non-offensive, even self-promoting about these false-teachers’ message?

I think the obvious answer is merit: Upon whose merit are you attempting to be saved?

The false teachers preached a gospel of self-merit. It was a salvation that depended on proving yourself worthy of love and acceptance by God. It was a gospel that esteemed human willpower and morality. It was a gospel of self. And for this, these false teachers were praised (and they loved the it!), because the message boasted in its hearers. It was a message of, “You can do it! Just follow the rules!”

In contrast, Paul preached a gospel that pleaded the merit of Another. It was a gospel that despaired of human ability. It disparaged of self-will, and insulted the moral capacity of men. Instead, Paul’s gospel pleaded and hoped in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It found acceptance in Christ’s righteousness, and forgiveness through Christ’s death. It was a gospel that boasted in Christ alone, through whom we die to the world and find acceptance, love, and fellowship with God (Gal 6:14).

This was what Paul was trying to highlight when he gave attention to the false teachers’ need and desire for praise. They had a man-centered gospel! And, this is why Paul highlighted his own persecution. He had a Christ-centered gospel; one that was offensive to his hearers. It was a message of offense — and Paul did not want that offense removed, even if it led to his own martyrdom (which it eventually did).

James Boyce comments on Galatians 5:11, saying, a man-centered gospel is “part of a system that seeks to attain standing before God through merit. In opposition to this, the cross proclaims man’s complete ruin in sin, to the degree that nothing he does or can do can save him, and thus also proclaims man’s radical need for God’s grace. The natural man does not understand such teaching (1 Cor 2:14) and, in fact, hates it, because it strips away any pretense of spiritual achievement”.

Luther adds to this, saying, “God forbid, therefore, that the offense of the cross should be taken away. This would happen if we should preach what the prince of this world and his members would be glad to hear — that is, the righteousness of works”.

 

Horatius Bonar on the Great Exchange

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Bonar’s Everlasting Righteousness is by far one of my favorite books. In it is a wealth of gospel truths that will cause the soul well up in joy. Below is one of my favorite quotes from the book:

The man who believes in Jesus Christ, from the moment that he so believes, not only receives divine absolution from all guilt, but is so made legally possessor of His infinite righteousness, that all to which that righteousness entitles becomes his, and he is henceforth treated by God according to the perfection of the perfect One, as if that perfection had been his own. “As He is, so are we [even] in this world” (1 Jn 4:17), that is, even now, in our state of imperfection, though men of unclean lips, and though dwelling among a people of unclean lips. As it is elsewhere written, “There is therefore now [even now] no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). Not only are we “delivered from the wrath to come” (1 Thess 1:10); not only shall we “not come into condemnation” (Jn 5:24); not only are we “justified from all things” (Acts 13:39); but we are “made [literally, ‘we become’] the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21).

The transaction [of Christ’s righteousness] is not one of borrowing. The perfection made over to us is given, not lent, by God. It becomes ours in law, ours for all legal ends, ours as efficaciously as if it had been from first to last our very own in deed.

Horatius Bonar, from Everlasting Righteousness

You can read another post here with insights from Bonar on the vicarious (as he puts it) sin-bearing life of Christ, and another here on Bonar’s take on the book of Revelation.

Are Christians Called to Grow in Holiness?

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I’ve been considering this issue for the past few weeks as I’ve read many different posts on this topic of holiness. Specifically, this question has been debated on the Gospel Coalition site, with a lot of interaction between people like Tullian Tchvidjian (post), Kevin DeYoung (post), and one very refreshing post from Jen Wilkin (post).

Because of this whole exchange, I was forced to think over what exactly God expects from his people. If salvation is by grace through faith alone, isn’t striving toward holiness against that very grace?

I think this question can be understood better if we get a real grasp for the point of the gospel. What is the purpose of the gospel? Why did Jesus die for sinners like us? Why did he experience the wrath of God on my behalf? Why did he bare my sins in his body?

Paul tells us that the reason for Christ’s death was that God might have a people for himself that are “holy and blameless” (Eph 1:4), and who are pure and “zealous for good works” (Titus 3:14). Peter adds to this, saying that Jesus died under our sins that we might be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:14). John says that Jesus “appeared to take away sins” (1 Jn 3:5), and that by faith in him we become “God’s children” (1 Jn 3:2). And one day Jesus will appear, and we will be “made like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he (Christ) is pure” (1 Jn 3:2-3).

The New Testament gospel overwhelmingly tells us that part of the purpose of the gospel is to purify a people for God. The gospel makes people who are inherently sinful, holy — both positionally and practically. Paul says this, that in salvation we were “washed, …sanctified, …[and] justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 6:11). Paul also tells us that we are regenerated and given a new heart with new-creation abilities, expected to live like Jesus (2 Cor 5:17-21, Titus 3:5-7).

It seems to me that the gospel itself enables us to be willing and ready to obey God in all areas of life. This doesn’t mean we will be perfect of course — but we should at least desire to obey God (when we do sin, Jesus is always and will always be our advocate and our basis for our continued security and forgiveness. God always gives grace to those in Christ). The gospel itself is the very foundation for our holiness, because that is its very purpose!

What this tells me is that growth in holiness is not something we should cringe at. Holiness is not opposed to grace. Rather, it is the inevitable fruit of the gospel. And so we should yearn for holiness. We should hunger for holiness. Because we know that holiness is the end for which we were redeemed. This type of gospel-founded aspiration for holiness is not legalism. It is simply aspiring for what God himself has enabled for us in the gospel. In the gospel, God enables, empowers, and guides us into all obedience. That’s why he sent Christ. That’s why he gave us his Spirit. That’s why he cleansed us and regenerated us. That’s why he redeemed us. It’s all so that we might be his people, desiring his glory and his holiness. 

As Jen Wilkins said in her very apt post, “the gospel grants both freedom from the penalty of sin and freedom to begin to obey”. The gospel itself is the freeing power by God’s Spirit to obey as we have never been able to obey! Why then would we not want to obey? 

For this reason, I see no reason not to expect Christians to grow in holiness. The message of the gospel itself points to that. God has saved a people for himself, unto holiness. And if we have been redeemed by Jesus, made clean and empowered by his Spirit, we should be people who yearn and thirst for righteousness, knowing that God has already provided it in Christ Jesus. It is not legalism to trust that God will empower us each day to live obedient to Christ. It is not wrong to want to honor Jesus. It is not wrong to take up our cross and die to the old man. In fact, the gospel itself propels us into this type of holiness!

As Paul said in Romans 6:2: “how can we who died to sin still live in it?”.