Solo Christo

Robert M. Norris
Wednesday, May 2nd 2007
May/Jun 2007

“Jesus Christ is Lord” has been and continues to be the conviction of the Christian. It is this conviction that has enabled men and women of every century, including our own, to face persecution and death rather than renounce the faith of Jesus Christ. This earliest and simplest of Christian confessions focuses attention upon the central and unique place that Jesus Christ holds within the Christian faith as being the sum and substance of its faith and message.

The hope of salvation is rooted in the provision of God, whose character is holy and righteous, and is mirrored in his Law. That Law demands that “the soul that sins shall die.” At the same time, God’s nature is love, and his purpose is to show mercy. While he cannot ignore people who are guilty of violating his Law (to do so would make him unjust), yet neither can he bear to see us perish. The astounding truth of the gospel is that God in his sovereign and free love fulfills his own law and provides a “just” forgiveness, by himself becoming our substitute in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the incarnate God!

It was and remains the conviction of Christians that the only way to know God is to be found in his self-disclosure and that there can be no real or lasting peace, joy, or sense of purpose or fulfillment apart from the God whom we were made to know; and there is no knowing God apart from Jesus Christ. This truth was enshrined in the formula “Solo Christo.” Its proclamation calls the world away from its counterfeits, whether religious or secular, to Jesus Christ alone as the one who alone can remove guilt, who alone can provide a reconciliation to God and remove the painful experience of alienation from God. It not only captures the central message of the Scripture, but also explains and validates any true encounter with God.

Solo Christo expresses the uniqueness of the authority of Jesus Christ by revealing his identity. It is the unambiguous testimony of the Scripture that Jesus taught as one with authority unlike other religious leaders (Mark 1:27; Luke 4.36). This authority was derived from his identity as “Son of God.” So close is the identification of Jesus with God, that his Jewish critics sought to kill him precisely because they understood his claim to be equal with God. Such claims are found in the language with which he described himself, adopting a very form of divine self-disclosure, “I am,” and applying it to himself as “the bread of life,” “the true vine,” and “the good Shepherd.” Indeed, his disciples accorded to him the worship that was reserved only for God when, following the resurrection, they declared, “My Lord and my God.” Jesus has unique authority because of who he is.

When the church confessed “Jesus is Lord,” it was affirming its conviction that God was uniquely present in Jesus. In using the title of “Lord” for Jesus, the church was expressing its conviction that Jesus was God, because the title of “Lord” was reserved to describe God only. This is subsequently the experience and testimony of the early church where the Apostle Paul, writing to the Church at Colossae, calls Jesus “the image of the invisible God.” It is the confession of every Christian that “Jesus Christ is Lord” and so it is the confession that he is God.

Solo Christo expresses the uniqueness of the accomplishment of Jesus Christ by asserting that Jesus is our substitute in life and in death. His life was sinless. From its beginning to its end, he fulfilled everything that was required by God from men and women. In bringing this perfect obedience, Jesus did so in our place. His identification with us is displayed at his baptism, where in the face of the hesitancy of John the Baptist Jesus explained that, “It was necessary for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). He had no personal need to be baptized, yet in this act he identified himself with those whom he had come to save. Jesus did all that was necessary for men and women to be acceptable to God, which is why the Apostle Paul could say, “By one man’s obedience many shall be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19).

Jesus was also our substitute in death. He died the death we should have died and did so in our place. In this sense we see that the death of Christ was a sacrifice. The just judgment of God against the sin of sinners was death. Jesus himself understood that he had come to be the substitute for chosen sinners. He described his own life as being given as “a ransom for many” (Mark10:45). The gospel writer Matthew understands this to be so. When he records Jesus miraculously healing people at the house of Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt. 8:17), he understands that this was a direct fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows. Yet we considered him stricken smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed. We all like sheep have gone astray and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:4-6). As our representative, he stood in our place, and the punishment due to us was meted out to him.

The death of Christ was not only an experience of intense physical agony, though it was certainly that, but it was also a deep spiritual pain, for it was the experience of punishment for sins that were “laid on him.” He experienced the rejection of God as sin bearer. That death was a sacrifice. In dying he absorbed the full wrath of God against sin and sinners. In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul explains it as “a propitiation“; Christ carrying our identities on the cross was a sacrifice for our sins. He bore the legal penalty of our guilt. The demands of the just law of God the Judge were fulfilled in Christ.

It is by Christ’s substitution for us, and especially in his death, that we see the love of God made clear as Christ secures our salvation and the law of God upheld in that his death pays for the sins. His sacrifice, because it was the sacrifice of the Son of God and because it was substitutionary and penal, is final, sufficient, and complete.

Solo Christo announces the effectiveness of the work of Christ for it answers the question of how the life and death of Christ can substitute for me. It does this by affirming the reality of imputation whereby our sins are imputed to him and his righteousness is imputed to us. The Apostle Paul expresses this when, writing to the Corinthians, he says, “God made him sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Though he was innocent of all sin, God treated Jesus as if he were a sinner. He was legally declared sinful and held liable for the record of sinners, and received the punishment of death. At the same time, God treats sinners as if we were righteous. Indeed, we are legally declared righteous and treated as perfect. Thus it may be said of Christians that they are at the same time sinful and yet righteous, and as Paul announced, “Now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

This brings to the Christian a present freedom from the condemnation of the law, and a hope for the future, for the Christ who was crucified was also “raised for our justification.” Raised from the dead, Jesus ascended to the Father; Christ is our advocate, applying now the benefits of his death to our account. His death has accomplished our salvation, and his resurrection has ensured the effective application of that sacrifice. His continual intercession ensures that all for whom he died will, by the agency of the Holy Spirit, and through the means of the gift of faith, come to trust in Christ.

These blessings are secured because Jesus, having accomplished his work, stands before the Father as our representative and mediator. The law that once condemned us now is our ally in that it announces that full and final satisfaction has been made for sin. Indeed, so intimate is the nature of the Christian’s relationship, to Christ that it is described as being that of an adopted child.

Solo Christo enshrines the understanding of the uniqueness of the Christian life, for it expresses the continuing need of the Christian for the transformation and renewal of life. Solo Christo is not only doctrine, it is also the means by which we live our life in this world. Some Christians believe that “the gospel” is only for nonbelievers, and that once an individual has become a Christian then the means of growing as a Christian are to be found in following commands of the law. This leads only to discouragement and legalism. Christ is alive as is his gospel (Rom. 1:16) and continues its work in us. It makes us always humble, because our debt to Christ can never be repaid. It makes us grateful because it can never be deserved, and it makes us dependent, because the righteousness with which we are able to stand before God is always “an alien righteousness” belonging to Christ and imputed to us. Our repentance is both from our sin and our righteousness, because any righteousness we have in ourselves falls short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).

Solo Christo captures the uniqueness of the challenge of Jesus Christ, for it leaves no room for the possibility that one might be saved apart from Jesus Christ. It does not allow for the existence of other saviors. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me’ (John 14:6). Peter preached that “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “Christ alone” mediates the blessings of redemption. Christ, alone, justifies. Christ, alone, adopts us into the family of God. Christ, alone, sanctifies.

This challenges us when we are tempted to trust in techniques of success that blur the uniqueness of Christ. Deeply committed Christians often appear to want to coerce or manipulate “decisions for Christ” in a desire to build the kingdom or “save” people they love. A current debate amongst some mission agencies born out of their frustration with scant fruit for much effort involves asking how far we go in identifying with cultures in order to “win” them for Christ. Some are suggesting that endangered converts may privately be followers of Christ, and yet remain “Muslim.” Some press the debate further and suggest that Christian missionaries should become Muslim in order to further the cause of Christ. The debate is framed in terms of a number of letters representing gradations of integration with their culture. “C1” is used to describe traditional church, which is foreign to the Islamic community, both in culture and language, until you reach “C6,” which describes secret Christian believers who may be active in the religious life of the Muslim community. The debate is real and involves complex issues and deeply committed Christians who look for “kingdom” results. One denominational mission’s agency is reported to “require” their missionaries to become C6 Christians!

We, too, are challenged when we seek to speak the gospel to the postmodern world in which we live. Whatever “postmodern” means, and there is no lack of literature seeking to define the term, it manifests itself in an intense antiauthoritarianism. It rejects all external norms and standards for the definition of moral values or the direction of life. Instead postmodern people replace the meta-narrative with a set of “micro-narratives” to live by, ultimately making self the sole arbiter of truth. Allied with this is the relativism that refuses any claim to absolute truth, asserting that we alone give value and provide meaning. Indeed, our generation regards as intolerant those who claim access to an absolute truth, believing that there can be no criteria to tell another that they are wrong. To do so is seen to be the ultimate in prejudice. In this way, belief and truth have been disassociated, and all beliefs are regarded as equally valid because the conviction the individual determines has become the criteria for determining the value of belief. Our postmodern world is also seen to be characterized by the reality of a pluralism that demands the acceptance that all religions and none, and all beliefs must be equally dealt with as having equal validity.

Christianity was birthed facing such challenges. The Roman Empire was probably more pluralistic than modern America, comprising a large number of conquered nations with their various religions. Yet it was in such a setting that the Christian faith grew and spread. So while the modern world with its insistence upon diversity and pluralism may come as a surprise and sometimes a shock to many Christians, it offers no new challenge to the Christian faith.

Human nature has not changed. It was always the case that “self” has sought to be enthroned as the final arbiter of truth and value. Even in our post-Christian world, which does a great deal to suppress the consciousness of God and his law, modern people are all too well aware of societal disorder and personal “dis-peace,” and these continue to nag and annoy even the most committed secularist. The result is that often either nonreligious means of atonement are sought, or escapist means are attempted. Neither of these options disguise the fact that peace, joy, and a sense of purpose are elusive apart from God, and there is a significant problem in knowing God. In fact, he cannot be known savingly apart from his own self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The answer now as always is to announce the gospel, and accept no substitutes for it.

All religion is ultimately the attempt of godless and unrighteous people to justify themselves. As Barth has so eloquently reminded us, “all religion was sacrificed on Golgotha and the religious gods died on Good Friday.” The Christian must first of all know the gospel and be convinced of its truth and efficacy as we face the world.

The gospel is infinitely deep and not easily comprehended, and it does its renewing work in us as we understand it in truth. The gospel confronts prejudice, brings life to our worship, forgiveness to tortured souls, and eternal life where death and despair were regnant. It makes our Christian fellowship real and evangelism effective and authentic. The gospel itself is enshrined and encapsulated in Solo Christo.

Wednesday, May 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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