Monday, January 20, 2014

The Gospel - Or, A Brief Explanation of the Heart of the Reformed Faith

This article is a pamphlet I wrote up a number of years ago (around January or February of 2002, to be more precise, though it's been modified a bit along the way since then) to be used as a tract explaining the heart of the gospel.

As its title suggests, this booklet is meant to be a concise, but thorough, introduction to the heart of the Reformed Christian faith. It is not meant to be an exhaustive guide to Reformed theology, but to explain what is at the very center of the Reformed way of looking at the universe. It does not deal with many doctrines that are a part of Reformed teaching, such as the nature of Scripture, the Church, the sacraments, worship, church government, and others. While these teachings are essential to Reformed theology, this booklet tries to get down to the bare skeleton of what Reformed Christianity is all about, dividing the discussion into four basic topics: 1. God is God and We Are Not. 2. We Were Created to Glorify God. 3. We Are Dead in Sin. 4. We Are Saved by Grace Alone.

We believe the Reformed Faith to be the most consistently biblical form of Christianity. This does not mean that all those who call themselves non-Reformed Christians are false Christians. All those who hold to the basic worldview presented here are true Christians, even if they are inconsistent in their articulation of some of the specifics. However, it is important for us to have as accurate an articulation of God and his ways as possible so that we can know him and live for him better, since this is the purpose of our existence.

God Is God and We Are Not

The Reformed Christian Faith begins and ends with God. We believe that there is only one God, and that he is the creator of all things. He is the ultimate explanation for all of reality. We believe this God to be self-existent, meaning that he was not created by anything or anyone. He looks up to no one, answers to no one, and is dependent upon no one. His will, rooted in his unchangeable nature, is the ultimate law. All things that exist are what they are because God made them that way, and all beauty and value they have comes from the fact that they to a greater or lesser degree reflect God. All creatures find the source of their duty in what God wants them to be and do. All of human history and the history of the whole universe, from the general course to the most specific details, occur in fulfillment of God’s designs. We believe that God is infinite, that is, unlimited and unhindered by anything or anyone. He is a being of limitless worth, limitless power, and limitless goodness. Because his power is infinite, he cannot be defeated. Nothing can stop him from doing all that he desires to do. And because of his infinite goodness, all that he wants to do is good. There is and there can be no trace of evil in him at all. He alone is worthy of worship, of being valued without qualifications or limits. And knowing and worshipping him is the only thing that can ultimately and completely satisfy the human soul, for to know him and delight in him is to experience limitless life, to possess a treasure of infinite value.

Reformed Christians believe that God exists and manifests himself in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (sometimes called the Holy Ghost). Each of these three persons is fully God. The Son has been begotten by the Father from all eternity, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Son is the Word of the Father, his exact image, so that the Father is fully revealed in the Son and to know the Son is to know the Father. From all eternity, the Father has loved the Son and valued him infinitely, seeing his own glory fully manifested in him, and the Son has loved and valued the Father as the fullness and source of glory of whom he is begotten. Flowing from the Father and the Son and their relationship is a third person in whom God is fully manifested, the Holy Spirit.

We believe that nothing can compare with God. Everything in all the creation that God has made registers no worth at all on the scale when weighed against God’s infinite glory. Human beings, too, are nothing and have no worth whatsoever in comparison with God. We are not divine, and we have no capacity to attain divinity. We are mere creatures who have no potential for reaching anywhere near the infinite perfection and glory of God. We are utterly and completely dependent upon God for all that we are, while God is dependent upon nothing at all. We are dependent upon God for our very being: We came into existence by the power of God and his power is the only thing keeping us from going out of existence at every moment. We are dependent upon God for all that we become in life, since everything that happens to us, the entire course our lives take both in time and in eternity, is determined by the will of God. We are frail and impermanent beings, capable of being altered by circumstances, of failing, and eventually of dying. Our power is limited: we pride ourselves on our strength and yet the slightest change in the weather can kill us. We are limited in knowledge and wisdom: we make mistakes and act foolishly. And perhaps most tellingly of all, our goodness is limited: We are obviously capable of sin, of rebellion against God and cruelty toward each other. For all of these reasons, we are not to be relied upon or worshipped. God alone is worthy of worship!

We Were Created to Glorify God

We believe that the purpose of all of creation, and specifically of human beings, is to glorify God. From all eternity, God has delighted in his own perfections, displayed in the person of his Son, and this delight caused him to desire to see his glory manifested by creative expression, similar to the way an artist’s personality finds expression through his works of art. Stage one in this displaying of God’s glory came in the creation of the universe. Where there was nothing before, God, through the Son, created all things, including human beings. Creation displays God’s glory and beauty; as the Psalmist says, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1a). Man, being made in the image of God, especially displays God’s glory, being able to image God in personal characteristics such as knowledge, will, love, goodness, etc., as well as in more natural characteristics that humans share with the rest of the physical creation. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were placed in the garden of Eden to care for God’s creation and, most importantly, to live and to have children who would live in close fellowship with God, loving him with their whole hearts, thus imaging the Son’s character and reflecting God’s glory back to him. They would delight in God and God would delight in them. However, the creation of the world and of man is at the beginning of the story, not the end. God’s plan was not complete. After the creation, according to his eternal purpose, God allowed man to fall into sin, thus marring God’s image in him. Through God’s subsequent renovation of man and the rest of creation, God would complete his revelation of himself and fill the whole universe, and especially the heart of man, with the full display of his glory.

We Are Dead in Sin

As long as Adam and Eve lived in obedient fellowship with God, God took delight in them and granted them the fullness of joy in the enjoyment of himself. One of the primary ways their loving obedience was manifested was through their obeying God’s command not to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree provided a test of their commitment to God. However, our first parents’ obedient fellowship did not last forever. Being tempted by Satan, Adam and Eve rebelled against God and ate from the forbidden tree. In disobeying God, they followed Satan’s suggestion that they could become “like gods.” They came to see themselves as the authors of right and wrong, the creators of their own realities. They came to believe that they could produce their own happiness from themselves in their own way apart from God and in opposition to him, making themselves the centers of their own universes. Thus, they failed the test and became rebels and traitors against the one true God, who alone is to be ultimately relied upon and worshipped. Having lost their true love for God, they also ceased to love each other, made in God’s image, as they ought, and began using each other and the rest of creation for their own ends. Because of their rebellion and wickedness, God’s wrath burned against them, and he sentenced them to eternal separation from himself - a fitting punishment, since they had chosen separation from him - and to complete, infinite, and eternal misery under the punishment of his wrath in the fires of hell.

Being the children of Adam and Eve, and thus sharing in their curse, we are born into this world with corrupt, rebellious hearts and have turned away from God, attempting to produce our own happiness by our own means. And we, too, have the wrath of God and the sentence of eternal separation and punishment from God hanging over our heads. Like Adam and Eve, we have all failed the test of our obedience. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves from our miserable fate, because our rebellion is not merely skin deep but goes to the very center of our hearts. If a person makes a wrong choice, he can sometimes be given a second chance to show that he can do better, that he will ultimately choose to do the right thing if given enough help. We, however, have all already made our ultimate choice. There is no point for a second chance. Our deepest motivations are flawed, and we cannot simply make ourselves new people with new motives by an act of will. Our records bear clear and irreversible witness to the fact that we are not the kind of people who love God with our whole hearts. We may do outwardly good things; we may have some good natural affections; we may appear to love God and others to a point. But at the deepest level, any apparent love or good that we have or do is subservient to the ultimate pursuit of the various idols we have created for ourselves and is therefore ultimately displeasing to God. As soon as God’s goals and our idolatrous goals come into conflict, God’s goals inevitably go out the window. Left to ourselves, we are doomed.

It may seem from all of this that God’s purpose to glorify himself through his creation has been frustrated. But it is not so. Our rebellion did not take God by surprise, but was ordained by him in order to accomplish his purpose. How God is doing this is the subject of the next section.

We Are Saved by Grace Alone

The final stage of God’s displaying of his glory occurred (and is occurring) in the redemption of the fallen creation and of fallen man. God the Son came into the world and took on a human nature, becoming a human being while still remaining God. That human being was Jesus Christ. Christ lived a life of perfect obedience to his Father, culminating in his offering himself as a sacrifice to pay for our sin. Christ suffered and died on the cross, paying the full penalty for our sin under the infinite wrath of God. Three days later, the Father honored his obedience by raising him from the dead and exalting him to his right hand, restoring him to the rightful position which he deserved as God’s Son, where he intercedes for us. By his suffering and obedience, Christ removed the debt of our guilt from us and obliterated it, and merited for us righteousness by which we might be worthy of being fully accepted as beloved children of God. By Christ’s uniting himself to us, we, who have no worthiness of our own but are nothing but wicked traitors against God, have his payment of our sin and perfect righteousness credited to our account, and it is by this payment and this righteousness alone that we are worthy of receiving the reward of being loved by God forever as his eternal children. We contribute nothing from ourselves to our worthiness of this infinite honor, but rest only in Christ’s worthiness. All the credit goes to him.

If we are saved by Christ’s righteousness and none of our own, does this mean that our character and how we live our lives no longer matter? As the Apostle Paul put it, “May it never be” (Romans 6:2)! When God credits Christ’s righteousness to our account, he also applies Christ inwardly. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ’s righteousness is applied to our hearts, causing a change in our innermost being. God removes our hearts of stone and gives us hearts of flesh. We are totally renovated, and our innermost motives and values are totally changed. Instead of continuing to hate God as rebels, we come to love him with all of our hearts. We come to see him as our chief treasure and to seek him above all else. We come to rely on him and on his saving work in Christ alone as the sole source of all things pertaining to our salvation from sin and our attainment of eternal life, including the very faith that relies on him alone. We come to hate our sin and to repent from it and turn to righteousness, living in obedience to God’s commandments. Instead of being wicked and corrupt in God’s sight, we become holy and pleasing, conformed to the image of his eternal Son who is living in us. We come to have fellowship with our Father, loving him and delighting in him and being loved and delighted in by him.

We must not think that by the holiness and good works that come to us through the rebirth of our hearts we have in any way or in any degree paid God back for his grace or contributed something to our own salvation. None of our holiness comes from ourselves, but all is a fruit of Christ’s righteousness applied to us by the Holy Spirit and is therefore a sheer gift. As Paul put it, we “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in [us] both to will and to do for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12b-13). Our holiness is not ultimately our work or a condition we fulfill from ourselves to gain God’s grace; rather, it is God’s work and therefore we rely on him for it and give him all the credit. We must choose to repent, believe in and trust ourselves to Christ, and seek to live in obedience to God’s commandments if we expect to receive eternal life. But we must recognize that our good will is not from ourselves but is a work and gift of God in Christ, a fruit of God’s grace. We only choose the right because we are caused to choose it by God’s grace. Without grace, we can choose only sin. With grace, we can choose only to live a life of faith, repentance, and obedience. We truly choose the right voluntarily, but grace causes our choices by inclining our hearts to want to choose the right so that we inevitably do so. Thus, grace causes all of our good works. Not only this, but even those whom God has caused to choose righteousness choose it only imperfectly in this life; there is always a struggle against the old sinful nature. God’s grace has not yet completed its task. Yet we keep moving ahead, looking forward to the day when God will complete the work he has begun and bring us to perfection.

If Christ has brought such a complete salvation, why are only some people saved? Obviously, it is because some people have turned from their sins and come to Christ and some haven’t. But we must not leave the issue there. Left to ourselves, we would never come to Christ. Left to ourselves, we are rebels at the very core of our being. We hate God as God and we are in love with our sins. As we saw above, it is the Spirit applying Christ to our hearts that gives us new hearts and thus causes us to choose to turn to Christ. Turning to Christ is not a condition we fulfill from ourselves in order to gain Christ; rather, it is something that happens due to God’s saving work in us. Well then, again, why are some saved and some not? This brings us back to the very foundation of our salvation, the unconditional election of God. None of us deserves grace. All of us have sinned and made ourselves unworthy of God’s acceptance and justly deserving of his eternal wrath. But God chose a people for himself out of the world to whom he would give saving grace. As the apostle says, “For those he foreknew [i. e. intended a special relationship with beforehand - see Jeremiah 1:5; Matthew 7:23; Romans 11:2, 28], he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those he called he also justified, and those he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30). And elsewhere, “And we were dead in our trespasses and sins . . . even as the rest, but . . . God made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:1-4). God chose who would be saved and who would not, whom he would give converting grace to and whom he would leave in his/her sin. Those who are saved come to him, moved by his grace; the rest of the human race God leaves to themselves, allowing them to go the way of their own choosing as sinners by nature and thus reject Christ and suffer the infinite punishment of divine justice forever. God did not choose his elect because of any good in them that made them better than the others, for all are by nature “children of wrath”. He did not base his decision on anything we would choose or do, because in ourselves we can choose and do nothing but sin. But God wanted it made clear that no one deserves salvation; all could have been left as those he passed by are left. This highlights the fact that our salvation from its very foundation in God’s purpose is due not to our own merit but to the free grace of God. We contribute nothing from ourselves, but are receivers of all.

In the salvation of his chosen people, God is fulfilling his purpose for the creation of the world. By revealing his power and character in contrast to and in response to man’s weakness and wickedness, showing his justice in the punishment of wicked men, and overcoming the failure and wickedness of his chosen ones through his effective salvation, God is revealing the fullness of his glory to his creatures, especially to those he has made his own eternal children. By God’s grace and through his power, the redeemed people of God are enabled to gaze on the fullness of God’s revealed glory and are being changed into the image of God’s Son. Although our conformity to the image of God will not be complete until after this life is over, and the fulfillment of all God’s promises to us awaits our resurrection and glorification, which will occur when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead and to set up his eternal kingdom, substantial progress has been and is being made. When God’s work is completed, we who are God’s people will be so filled with the vision of God that we will become perfectly conformed to the image of the Son, delighting in God our Father to the full satisfaction of our souls and to the full glorification of his name as we share in and reflect God’s glory to all eternity. Then God’s purposes will be fully accomplished, and God will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).

An Invitation

Now that you have heard the truth about who God is, who man is, the sinful condition of man, and how salvation comes, the next question is, What will you do with these truths? Or, to put it more accurately, what will you do with Christ? It is Christ who is calling to you through the message, exhorting you to come to faith and repentance--to own God as God, own yourself to be the sinful, rebellious creature that you are, turn away from your rebellion and submit your life to God’s will and purposes, and trust in Christ alone for all things necessary for salvation and eternal life, including the very will to turn to him. Will you come to Christ in faith and repentance, or will you reject the truth and continue in your rebellion? If you do not come to Christ, you have only yourself to blame and must face the reality of God’s wrath forever. If you do come to Christ, you have only God to thank and you will spend eternity in grateful and delightful praise to him for his marvelous grace and glory, enjoying and glorifying him forever!

Soli Deo Gloria!

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