SHAKING THE FOUNDATIONS
A layman must be considered utterly ungracious to venture an opinion on contemporary theology. But, as an active and deeply concerned churchman, I am forced to conclude that much which goes for scholarly thinking in religion today is so far afield that effective witness, even the very life of the Church is being enervated.
Our concern is not with peripheral matters on which men of equal scholarship and piety may differ. The situation involves doctrines having to do with man; the nature and consequences of sin; the nature of God; the implications of the Cross; the motivation of the Christian witness; and, proceeding from these, the message of the Gospel. It is on these doctrines that Christianity is built. Let them be changed, and the witness of the Church becomes hazy or completely obscured.
What is Man? While man was created in the image of God, he has become by inheritance, by choice and in practice a sinner. Sin has separated him from God, and this desperate condition of the human heart, this potential for wickedness, is a matter of personal experience as well as a fact everyone can observe.
Only in the light of man’s sin and predicament can God’s remedy be understood.
What is Sin? Much in contemporary theology breaks down at this point. While we may thank those theologians who have rescued modern thought from the morass of old line rationalism, too few of them have been willing to admit that sin is an offense against the holiness of God. They have not seen it as something terrible demanding the blood of the incarnate Son of God on Calvary to make atonement for the sinner in the holy presence of God.
The Consequences of Sin. Sin separates man from God. Unatoned-for, unrepented-of, and unpardoned sin means eternal separation from God’s presence. Despite this awesome reality, there is now spreading across our land, like a blight, a neouniversalism which proclaims Christ as the “perfect pedagogue” and therefore the ultimate Saviour of all mankind.
This philosophy is cutting away the very root of Christian motivation in seeking to win the lost. It is destroying the nerve of the Church’s world-mission. It is engendering a false optimism that leads to diverted efforts and a meaningless message.
The “hell-fire and damnation” preaching of past generations is now held up to ridicule. But it was far closer to true biblical theology than much of the sermonizing heard today. Peripheral rather than central matters are being dealt with; a nonexistent hope is being implied.
The Gospel message is one of mercy against the backdrop of impending judgment. If we study Old and New Testament references to God’s judgment on sin and on unrepentant sinners, this is revealing. Sometimes we are told that the Old Testament reveals a God of judgment while the New reveals a God of love. Actually one will find more than twice as many references to judgment in the New Testament than in the Old, and some of the most frightening come from the lips of our Lord himself.
The Nature of God. No man should presume speculatively to define the nature of God. But the Holy Spirit reveals spiritual truths, and he speaks to our hearts of those things which, to the unregenerate, are foolishness.
We know that with God holiness is absolute, not relative. We know that Christ who reveals his Father to us is holy, without sin. It is this absolute holiness that must be considered in the face of sin and its sordid implications.
God is a consuming fire in whose presence no sinner can stand. For this reason, divine cleansing is necessary before man can come into His presence and live. This work of transformation was made possible by the work done on the Cross. Through it the vilest reprobate can become a pure saint in God’s sight.
The Implications of the Cross. It is true that no one theory of the atonement fully expresses the implications of our Lord’s death on Calvary. It is equally true that in omitting the vicarious and substitutionary aspects of Christ’s atoning work we make void all other theories, for only in the light of Christ’s taking on himself our guilt and punishment can we see the enormity of sin, the price of redemption, and the love of God which was willing to pay that price.
Protestations of the love of God are meaningless until we face up to what that love did. God did not send his Son to die merely to inject in us a sense of remorse and a determination to follow him as Lord. Christ died on the Cross to accomplish something we could not do for ourselves. He who was sinless was made sin for us. He whose home was in heaven suffered the penalty of hell in our place. Everything that sin has made us now, and that eternal separation from God which is the result of sin, has been taken care of by God himself so that through an act of childlike faith we become as righteous in God’s eyes as the One who died in our place.
The Motivation. It is at this point that some modern theology is dangerously weak. We are told that God is a God of love and therefore he must eventually save all men.
True—God is love, and the living evidence of that love is Calvary. This is a love not to be trifled with, but to be recognized with reverence and holy fear—for this God who is love is also a consuming fire.
The motivation for Christian witness is therefore the solemn truth that all men outside of Christ are lost souls—that there are two ways, one broad, one narrow; two gates, one wide, and the other restricted to those who will enter on God’s terms.
Permit a man-made philosophy to prevail at this point and the Incarnation, the Cross, and the Resurrection become distorted incidents of history rather than the unfolding of a divine plan worked out in the councils of eternity.
The Message. The American pulpit is woefully weak today. Entirely too much preaching is being based on the false premise that the hearers are already Christians. It is one thing to preach to those who are redeemed and to lead them on to growth as mature believers. But it is futile to try to make non-Christians act like Christians.
The basic message of the Gospel, the foundation on which all other messages must be built is found in 1 Corinthians 15: “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.”
Therefore, to imply that preaching is primarily bringing men to “accept the fact they are accepted of God” is true only as the condition of acceptance is also preached—repentance for sin and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us beware lest while we work to build the superstructure of Christianity we find that we have shaken the foundations of our glorious faith.
L. NELSON BELL
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.