Any evangelical- indeed, any real Christian-would probably say that life's key issue is whether someone comes into a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ. How one receives that salvation, however, has been the subject of many debates throughout church history, debates that continue today. At the center of these many debates is an assumption: Every human being born after Adam and Eve is affected (some call this effect total depravity) by the Fall. In order to right the wrong and restore us to a saving relationship with our Creator, Christians affirm that the eternal Son of God assumed to himself a particular human nature in order that he might do the work of being our prophet, priest, and king. He has solved our basic problem by standing in our stead and taking our place. That simple story of Christ's life, death, and resurrection is the gospel. And the gospel message is that Christ did all of this for you and me. The word that most evangelicals would use for this work is a biblical word-Christ Jesus has brought us salvation.
My task would be simple if I were merely to answer the question, "How am I to be saved?" For, the answer to this question is simple as well. It is "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved!" (see Acts 16:31 [nkj]; cf. 1 Tim. 1:16 [nkj]). Although the doctrine of justification is still under attack in many circles, most evangelicals understand the question of salvation and are able to grasp it in its bare simplicity: Christ died for me. But the more difficult thing with which Christians must come to grips is, "What does the gospel matter to my Christian life?" Or, in other words, "What do I do now? Do I still believe the gospel, or is the rest left up to me?"
An Alien Gospel
One of my favorite stories that illustrates this particular matter deals with a time when the German reformer Martin Luther was translating the Bible into German at the Wartburg castle and could only have contact with his colleague Phillip Melanchthon by courier. Melanchthon had a different sort of temperament than Luther. Some would call him timid; others of a less generous bent might call him spineless. At one time, while Luther was off in the Wartburg castle translating, Melanchthon had another one of his attacks of timidity. He wrote to Luther, "I woke this morning wondering if I trust Christ enough." Luther received such letters from Melanchthon regularly. He had a tendency, a propensity, to navel-gaze and to wonder about the state of his inner faith, and whether it was enough to save. Finally, in an effort to pull out all the stops and pull Melanchthon out of himself, Luther wrote back and said, "Melanchthon! Go sin bravely! Then go to the cross and bravely confess it! The whole gospel is outside of us."
This story has been told time and time again by less sympathetic observers than I in an effort to caricature Luther and the Reformation generally as advocates of licentious abandon. These critics assert that if we are not justified by our own moral conformity to the law, but by Christ's, surely there is nothing keeping us from self-indulgence. This, of course, was the criticism of the gospel that Paul anticipated in Romans 6: "Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!" Luther's pastoral advice was calculated to jar Melanchthon out of morbid introspection. Great sinners know liberation when they have it, but Melanchthon had been a scrupulous, pious Catholic. Luther's words did not bring him assurance, but only doubts. For his assurance depended not so much on God's promise to the ungodly as ungodly (see Rom. 4:5), but on his own ability to see growth and improvement in his "Christian walk." Luther's frustrated counsel was not an invitation to serve sin, but an attempt to shock Melanchthon into realizing that his only true righteousness was external to him: "The whole gospel is outside of us."
Melancthon's experience is common among many Christians I know today. Many of them, such as Melancthon did 400 years ago, are looking for assurance of their salvation in all the wrong places. They tend to think that their standing before God-now that they are Christians-is based on their own obedience and their own righteousness. They have forgotten the fundamental fact that the gospel is "outside of us." It was "outside of us" when we turned to Christ for salvation and it is "outside of us," now, as we progress in our sanctification.
This "alien" nature of the gospel is a primary theme in the New Testament: Christ's death was outside of me and for me. It is not primarily something that changes me. After one has been declared righteous by grace through faith, this grace will begin to change us (sanctification). Nevertheless, its changing us is certainly not what justifies us. In Roman Catholicism, and in some forms of American Evangelicalism (like John Wesley's work), however, the accent falls on actual moral transformation. In other words, what makes us acceptable to God is not his external declarationof justification, but his internal work of renovation within our hearts and lives. Thus, through the influence of Arminianism and Wesleyanism, the situation in many evangelical churches is almost indistinguishable on these points from medieval Rome. Some of the preaching in Evangelicalism-certainly some of the Sunday school material and some of the addresses by retreat speakers and Christian leaders-tends to reinforce that old intuition that morally good people are the ones who are saved and that those who are not so good are the ones who are lost.
The bellwether test as to where a person stands on this issue is what he or she does with Romans 7, particularly passages such as, "For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (vv. 19, 24). Often, those who are not grounded in the Reformation say that this was Paul's experience before he met the Lord. Those of us from a Reformation perspective, however, would probably say there is no better description of the Christian life in the entire Bible than Romans 7. The reformers really believed that the Christian life was a matter of being simul iustus et peccator-simultaneously justified and sinful-and that we would remain in this tension until death.
Any righteousness that we have, even in the Christian life, is a gift to us. It is not the result of our obedience, of our claiming God's promises, of our "victorious Christian living," or of our "letting go and letting God." You might be familiar with some of these ideas if you've spent any amount of time in American church circles. But the reformers would not have been especially impressed with these teachings, commonly called "Higher Life" teachings. In the early twentieth century, the Princeton Presbyterian theologian B. B. Warfield, had this to say about Lewis Sperry Chafer (a Presbyterian minister whose writings helped pave the way for these ideas to infiltrate American churches):
Mr. Chafer makes use of all the jargon of the Higher Life teachers. In him, too, we hear of two kinds of Christians, whom he designates respectively "carnal men" and "spiritual men," on the basis of a misreading of 1 Cor. 2:9ff; and we are told that the passage from the one to the other is at our option, whenever we care to "claim" the higher degree "by faith." With him, too, thus, the enjoyment of every blessing is suspended on our "claiming it." We hear here, too, of "letting" God, and, indeed, we almost hear of "engaging" the Spirit (as we engage, say, a carpenter) to do work for us; and we do explicitly hear of "making it possible for God" to do things-a quite terrible expression. Of course, we hear repeatedly of the duty and efficacy of "yielding"-and the act of "yielding ourselves" is quite in the customary manner discriminated from "consecrating" ourselves.
Did the reformers, then, have any doctrine of sanctification? Of course they did. We are all familiar with the biblical announcements as to what is involved in sanctification: the Word, the Sacraments, prayer, fellowship, sharing the gospel, serving God and neighbor. And the Reformation tradition acknowledges that there are biblical texts that speak of sanctification as complete already. This is not a perfection that is empirical or observable (as Wesley and others would have insisted upon), but a definitive declaration that because we are "in Christ," we are set apart and reckoned holy by his sacrifice (1 Cor. 1:30; Heb. 10, and so on). Anybody who is in Christ is sanctified, because Christ's holiness is imputed to the Christian believer, just as Jesus says in John 17:19, "For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified." God sees the believer as holy. That means that Wesley should not have terrified Christian brethren with texts such as "Without holiness, no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14 [niv]). The Christian is holy, it is all imputed. What would the reformers have done with texts such as 1 Peter 1:16, "You shall be holy, for I am holy" ([nas], cf. Lev. 11:44f; 19:2; 20:7)? They would say we are called to be holy. But, some may ask, why should we be called to holiness if we are already perfect in Christ? That question has been asked before, and Paul's answer in Romans 6 is because we are saved unto good works, not unto licentiousness. Good works are done out of thankfulness of heart by the believer who has been saved, not by one who is trying to be saved by following the law.
How did the law function in the reformers' doctrine of sanctification? They believed that the law in the Bible has three uses. First, it is a civil ordinance to keep us from stealing each other's wives, husbands, and speedboats. The civil use of the law applies to the whole culture. Second, the theological use of the law is to reveal our sin and drive us to despair and terror so that we will seek a savior. Luther believed that is a primary use of the law in all of Scripture. But the reformers also believed in a third use of the law, and that is a didactic use, to teach the Christian God's will for holy living. (For more on this point, see the sidebar, "Defining Law and Gospel.")
What should the Christian do if he is reading the law and says, "This is not yet true of me: I don't love God with all my heart, and I certainly don't love my neighbor as I love myself. In fact, just today I failed to help a poor man on the side of the road who was having car trouble. I must not yet be a Christian." The answer of the Higher Life movement to the struggling Christian is, "Surrender more!" or, "What are you holding back from the Lord?" The Reformation answer is different: "You hurry back to the second use of the law and flee to Christ where sanctification is truly, completely, and perfectly located." After this experience, the believer will feel a greater sense of freedom to obey (thus fulfilling the third use of the law), and this is the only way that one will ever feel free to obey. The most important thing to remember is that the death of Christ was in fact a death even for Christian failure. Christ's death saves even Christians from sin. There is always room at the cross for unbelievers, it seems. But we ought also to be telling people that there is room at the cross for Christians, too.
Too often in evangelical circles, the law only condemns. It comes back to undermine the confidence of the gospel. It can still make threats; it can still condemn. There is wonderful grace for the sinner, and the evangelical is at his best in evangelism. But the question as to whether there is enough grace for the sinful Christian is an open one in many gatherings. I have had people come up to me after I had spoken and tell me, "This is about the last shot I've got. My own Christian training is killing me. I can understand how, before I was a Christian, Christ's death was for me, but I am not at all sure that his death is for me now because I have surrendered so little to him and hold so much back." That perversion is the result of a faulty understanding of the gospel and of a faulty application of the law.
Instead, there must be a clear and unqualified pronouncement of the assurance of salvation on the basis of the fullness of the atonement of Christ. In other words, even a Christian can be saved. The other "gospel," in its various forms (Higher Life, legalism, the "carnal Christian" teaching, and so on) is tearing us to pieces. I must warn you that the answer to this devastating problem is not available on every street corner. It is available only in the Reformation tradition. This is not because that particular tradition has access to information other traditions do not possess. Rather, it is because the same debate that climaxed in that sixteenth-century movement has erupted again and again since in less precise form. In fact, since Christ's debates with the Pharisees and Paul's arguments with the legalists, this has been the debate of Christian history. At no time since the apostolic era were these issues so thoroughly discussed and debated as they were in the sixteenth century. To ignore the biblical wisdom, scholarship, and brilliant insights of such giants as the reformers is simply to add to our ignorance the vice of pride and self-sufficiency. The Reformation position is the real evangelical position.
The only way out is an exposition of the Scriptures that has to do with law and gospel-an exposition of the Scriptures that places Christ at the center of the text for everybody, including the Christian. All of the Bible is about him. All of the Bible is even about him for the Christian!
I used to tell my students at an evangelical Christian college that they had never heard real preaching, with the exception of a few sound evangelistic appeals. Their weekly diet in the congregation was often a moral exhortation to be like Jesus, or Paul, or Daniel, or some other super saint in the Bible. They were constantly peppered with the question, "What are you doing for Jesus?" The preaching was not, as it should have been, a proclamation of God's grace to them because of the finished and atoning death of Christ-God's grace for them as Christians. That emphasis is desperately needed. But the only way we can recover this message is by ceasing to read the Scriptures as a recipe book for Christian living, and instead find within the Scriptures Christ who died for us and who is the answer to our unchristian living. We must have that kind of renewal (a renewal, which not surprisingly, was important to the reformers, as well), and it can only come if we realize that the gospel is for Christians, too.
A friend of mine was walking down a street in Minneapolis one day and was confronted by an evangelical brother who asked, "Brother, are you saved?" Hal rolled his eyes back and said, "Yes." That didn't satisfy this brother, so he said, "Well, when were you saved?" Hal said, "About two thousand years ago, about a twenty minutes' walk from downtown Jerusalem." This is the gospel message. It's just as important for Christians to believe for their sanctification as it is for pagans to believe for their justification; for it is the same message, the same salvation, the same work of God. It's just as important for the evangelical church today as it was for the reformers in the sixteenth century. Without this simple, but mind-boggling message, there is no hope, not for the sinner nor for the saint.