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Christianity As A Justifying Power

( Originally Published 1916 )

THE quest for safe conduct that distinguished the centuries immediately preceding the Christian era was inspired by the desire to be in right relation with God. Underlying the quest were three different ideals of life. According to the Greek, the ideal of life was completeness. Religion was important, but there were other things, such as philosophy, culture and worldly position, equally important. The chief good was a composite of material and spiritual advantages, realised in an ideal political environment. According to the Roman, the good man was the ideal citizen, the intelligent servant of the state. According to the Jew, the good man was the just man, who lived in harmony with the law of Moses.

These ideals of life were modified by the course of events. The sifting processes of history brought them to the same level, for with the collapse of the city-state the quest for safe conduct became a task for the individual. In the period following Alexander's conquests man's religious needs were separated from his political relationships; and the outcome of the quest, whether manifested in a ritual, ethical, or legal form, was to intensify the need for a moral dynamic. In spite of racial differences the ruling passion of Paul's age was for moral direction, and the great Apostle met this demand with the conception of Christianity as the religion of power. The power of the new religion was manifest in the resurrection of Jesus and the creation of the Christian community. On the one hand the moral ideal had appeared in a Life, and on the other hand the gospel was effective in transforming character. The virtue-making power which the age wanted was operating in the domain of history. It was no longer an ideal or a theory, but a cause, manifest in a series of events.

Naturally the question would arise: How is this power communicated to the individual? At the outset the question was not acute, since most people were content with a simple and uncritical faith. The pardoning love of Christ was sufficient to set man right with God; it was enough that he could appeal to the fact of his experience—his changed life-to prove the power of the new religion.

But the question would become urgent so soon as experience required interpretation. The proclamation of the forgiveness of sins did undoubtedly give peace to the believer, but it did not effectively change his feelings about the past. The characteristic feeling of the age was that salvation had to be earned. It was the product of human effort. For centuries the race had been working at the problem, and the quest for safe conduct had been a long, laborious and, in the end, a discouraging struggle to be in right relation with God. The feeling that salvation had to be earned was as common among gentiles as among Jews, and the struggle had left its mark on the race. It was a most difficult thing indeed to attain peace with God; so acute was the feeling at the beginning of the Christian era that it tended to obscure the originality of the new religion.

The first converts to Christianity were Jews or proselytes; and although they came into the new relation with God by means of faith and repentance, still their confidence in the new religion was reinforced by a prior relation to Judaism. It was generally felt that the only way to Christ lay through the law of Moses.

But when gentiles began to press into the king-dom, particularly when the remarkable growth of the church in Antioch of Syria finally convinced men of the originality of the new religion, the troublesome question concerning terms of admission for gentiles became very acute. Were they to be admitted on the simple terms of faith and repentance, or must they first become disciples of Moses?

The matter was allowed to remain unsettled, until a serious defection among the Galatian churches made its adjustment an imperative necessity. The council of Jerusalem officially decreed that gentiles were to be admitted on the simple terms of faith and repentance. But Jewish Christians of the stricter sort did not accept this decision as final, not only because they thought it unfair to the old religion, but also because they could not rid themselves of the inherited feeling that man must do something to save himself ; and the further fact that this notion impressed the Galatians shows how deeply rooted the feeling was in the gentile mind. It seemed unreasonable and impossible to accept the blessings of Christianity on terms so simple.

The age was prepared to admit the inadequacy of the old methods of salvation; its present unrest was evidence of that, but it was still disposed to insist that a man must do something to save himself. Christianity had proclaimed peace with God through the forgiveness of sins; this was accepted provisionally, but it could not rid man of the feeling that so simple a programme should be supplemented by something else.

The feeling that the Christian programme was inadequate exposed believers to the syncretic tendency of the times. The age was sceptical of simple things, and in love with complexity. The more popular religions were composite; they had been improved by the addition of desirable elements taken from other cults : why then should Christianity prove an exception? Greek, Oriental and Jewish influences sought admission into the Christian consciousness. They were all the more dangerous because they were vague and inchoate, and in the main friendly. They did not seek to displace the new faith; they simply asked that they be added to it for the sake of a better Christianity. They sought to beguile the believer from the simplicity that was in Christ.

Paul anticipates such questions as these in his various letters. With the Corinthians he insists that Christianity is not a philosophy but the religion of power. With the Colossians he maintains the great truth that Christ is the fulness of God, and that Christians are complete in Him. Christianity was sufficient for all human needs, and was not obliged to seek assistance from outside sources.

In spite of this, the feeling that man must do something to save himself made it difficult to accept a religion of grace. Men would reason : How can so great an issue as the soul's salvation stand upon faith and repentance? Salvation had come by the hearing of the gospel; faith had communicated pardoning love and peace with God; moreover it had imparted a dynamic character to experience, but the old inherited feeling would not down : Can any religion save without strenuous human effort?

This question, so characteristic of the times, made a further interpretation of Christianity an immediate necessity. It did not in the beginning call for a systematic statement of Christian truth, but it did require an explanation of the functional significance of the Christian dynamic in human experience.

A function is a mode of action through which a power fulfils its purpose. The demand for further light on Christian experience was legitimate and Paul met it by teaching doctrines. Doc-trines are descriptions of function; they explain how Christian power operates in individual experience.

In the Roman letter Paul declares that the gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation, because therein is revealed a righteousness of God.' Righteousness is a very important word and is used in two senses : as a description either of the character of God, or of a status given to man by God. In the first sense it belongs to a cognitive series; in the second sense to a causal series.

The gospel is power because it reveals a status which God gives to man through the redemptive work of Christ. Righteousness does not refer to man's conduct in this sense, but to his position in the sight of the Most High God. It is a graciously bestowed privilege whereby man is enabled to hold himself free from the claims of his past. This function of gospel power is called justification.

Justification is God's righting act, His adjusting power. It is the divine way of settling once and for all the question raised by the quest for safe conduct. That quest was for a right relation with God, and the gospel bestows this relation through justifying faith. The gospel reveals the fact that God has given man a status before Him which past experience cannot invalidate. Behind pardoning love is justifying grace. Justification is the function of the Christian dynamic which deals chiefly with man's past. Prof. William James has reminded us that there are three kinds of functions : productive, releasing, and transmissive. We may apply these differences to the conception of justification. Justification is the productive function of the atoning work of Christ, by which we mean that the status given the sinner before God is caused by the atonement. Faith is the releasing function of justification, by which we mean that faith releases the power of justification in individual experience. Peace is the transmissive function of faith, by which we mean that peace with God is communicated through faith in the righting power of God.

The conception of justification is here viewed, not as one of a series of interdependent propositions, but as a link in a chain of redemptive causes. This beyond question was Paul's method of approach to the problems raised by the growing experience of the church. The believer wished to know the implications of experience, chiefly, how did the Christian dynamic function in relation to the past? Could it suspend the inherited feeling that man must do something to save himself ? Had the believer set out on a new quest, or had he arrived at the goal of his hopes? Pardoning love had undoubtedly given a kind of peace, but was it real or fictitious? Was it based on fiat or historic performance? If the resurrection of Jesus proved the dynamic character of the new religion, what was its specific evidence of justifying power? Paul's answer to this important question was that behind the pardoning love of Christ which the gospel proclaimed stood the justifying grace of God, and behind justifying grace stood the great historic act of the atonement.

A clear conception of what is meant by the atonement of Christ is necessary if we are to understand what is meant by justification. Now there are theories and theories. Some theories exist for the sake of philosophic system; and other theories because they are needed to understand the function of power. A theory of the atonement necessary to comprehend justification is of this latter kind. Just as a theory of electricity is required to understand the functional habits of electricity, so is a theory of the atoning work of Christ required for a knowledge of its functional significance. Justification is the function of Christ's sacrificial death which has to do with one of the vital problems of human history: how can a man attain right status before God? Justification is God's righting act and is squarely based on the historic death of the Saviour; a theory of the atonement is therefore a prime necessity, if we are to comprehend justification.

There are but two logical views of the atone-ment: one is known as the moral influence theory, the other as the theory of vicarious substitution.

The moral influence theory originated in the fertile brain of Abelard in the twelfth century; and although it has been changed from time to time to suit the popular mood, it is substantially the same now as then. "It views the death of Christ rather under the category of revelation than of atonement, as part of His prophetical rather than His priestly office. It is the great manifestation of the divine love, the pledge to men of God's eternal readiness to forgive the re-turning sinner. The divine justice needs no other satisfaction than the repentance and reformation of the sinner."

There is some truth in this view. The preaching of God's love has a powerful influence on sinful natures, and is calculated to arouse feelings of regret and penitence. The simple story of the cross has mightily moved the ages ; and if human nature raised no deeper questions, that is if man could hold his religion apart from his thoughts, and view his past and present performances apart from the criticism of conscience, it is possible he might con-tent himself with such a view.

But the experience of the Apostolic church shows that a man cannot be content with an uninterpreted faith. We are obliged to reckon with a growing intelligence. We have already noticed how the moral sense will turn round upon inherited traditions and make demands which they are not always prepared to grant; and the need which led to the formulation of a doctrine of the atonement in the Apostolic church was aroused by the gospel offer. The gospel offered peace with God on terms of faith and repentance; in fact at the outset it resembled in many ways a moral influence. But so soon as the new experience carne under the scrutiny of a growing intelligence, the question was at once asked: Is this proclamation of peace and pardon a reality, or a fiction? Is it preceptive only, or dynamic?

Growing Christians were compelled to ask the meaning of Christ's death, and it is an interesting thing to observe that a moral influence theory of the atonement never seems to have occurred to them. It was impossible for those who had been seeking salvation by the various strenuous ways revealed in the quest for safe conduct, and who had so keenly felt the need of a moral dynamic, to base their faith in adjustment with God on an influence, however beautiful or appealing.

Influence is not power. An influence may suggest an ideal or indicate ways and means, but it cannot create. Let us admit that the gospel did assure the sinner of God's pardon, if he would return, the main question is still unanswered : How are you going to get him to return? Where was the power that could move him towards the divine ideal? The old struggles for peace had convinced man of his moral immobility. He had ideals and theories abundant, but was deficient in power, and what is more important, he knew it. "To will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good, I find not. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from this dead body?" Such thoughts are not confined to Scripture; they may be found in other forms in the writings of Lucretius, Cicero, Virgil, Seneca or Marcus Aurelius. Is it conceivable that men who acutely felt the need of a virtue-making power, and who passionately craved the advent of a strong Personality to adjust the age to its spiritual relationships, could have been content with a theory of that adjustment, which while it presented an ideal of such purity as to strike terror into sensitive minds, still resolved its saving power into a vague and sentimental influence?

It is a safe thing to say that Paul's age would not have been interested in a moral influence theory of the atonement, first because it could throw no light whatever on its present experience, and secondly because it had no doctrine of justification by faith. What the thoughtful man wanted was not assurance of God's love : he had that; but he wished to go behind the love and understand its sanctions and historic roots. He wanted to know what position the love of Christ gave him in the face of the holiness of God? What was his status before the Great White Throne? A theory which invited him to be content with surface impressions largely emotional in character could have no meaning for him. The view cannot function in experience at its deepest level, because it has no justifying power. It interests but does not grip. It stirs sentiments but fails to move the conscience.

The moral influence theory of the atonement is popular because it allows considerable room for pride, and does not offend man's natural impulses. Superficially it attracts, but when it confronts the realism of deep experience it loses all meaning, because it appeals to the ćsthetic rather than to the moral nature. It presents Jesus in a very amiable light, but "had Jesus been such an amiable preacher of human world-wisdom," says Paulsen, "His contemporaries would most likely not have considered it necessary to nail Him to a cross; the amiable, proper and charming people who live and let live, who understand the art of combining religion with culture, who incline towards easy-going congeniality, and enjoy the pleasures of the social cup, have never been regarded as dangerous and nailed to crosses. If the Christianity of early times had been what the interpreters of later ages have now and then made it, the deadly enmity which it aroused in the world would be absolutely inconceivable."

The theory is popular because it has no sting in it. It repeats the Socratic error that knowledge is power, that sin is a mistake, and that no man "errs of his own free will." But Paul's age knew better. It was acutely aware of perversity: "I see the good and approve it," said Ovid, "but deliberately do the wrong." Men could not believe in a love, however good, unless it was based on historic performances; they could not accept peace with God on a declaration of forgiveness, because they felt the force of the inherited tendency to do something, and were willing to receive salvation by faith alone, only when assured that behind pardoning love was justifying grace, and behind justifying grace was the great historic deed of the atonement.

And there is nothing amiable about the New Testament doctrine of the atonement. It frankly sets forth the death of Christ as the only possible way of reconciliation with God. It leaves no room for pride, has little patience with half-and-half measures, and revamps no lost illusions. It was a reproach in Apostolic times and it is a reproach now; but what does this matter if it be true? What did it matter to men of Paul's age what view the gospel took of human nature, if it gave an undisputed status before God? This tremendous doctrine put the Jew and gentile on the same level. All had sinned and come short of the glory of God, but nevertheless the gospel opened the way for a real communion with the living God. It was the "new and living way" to the throne of the heavenly grace.

The New Testament doctrine of the atonement is set forth in these words : "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God, being justified freely by his grace through redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past." "It is impossible," says Sanday, "to get rid from this passage of the double idea of sacrifice, and of a sacrifice which is propitiatory. And further, when we ask, who is propitiated? the answer can only be God. Nor is it possible to separate this propitiation from the death of the Son."

The truth is, according to New Testament teaching, let it be plainly and frankly said, that Christ took the place of the sinner on the cross, died in his stead, and His death resulted in a propitiation of God. Without a real propitiation there can be no such thing as justification. "It plainly lies with the Deity," says Mr. Westcott, "to dictate the terms and conditions on which He will admit man within His covenant."

The death of Christ is conceived as a propitiation of God ; as having an effect upon the Divine relation to man. How shall this change be understood? Obviously most of the difficulties with this doctrine come from a loose definition of the idea of reconciliation. There are ways of illustrating the doctrine as inconsistent with the moral sense as they are with Scripture. But I think we can speak of it in a simple way, without doing violence to anything essential. Plainly there is a deep mystery in the atoning work of Christ; how the reconciling work was ultimately accomplished we cannot say, since it belongs to the mystery of the Divine nature; but the New Testament makes some things clear.

The word "reconciliation" is used in two senses in Scripture: either as a change of nature, or as a change of relation. The atonement of Christ did not change God's nature, but it did change His relation to man as a sinner.

The atonement did not change God's attitude towards man. God does not love us because Christ died for us; but Christ died for us because God loved us. The atonement is the perfect revelation of divine love : "God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners Christ died for us."

The atonement did not change God's attitude towards sin. If the law of Moses condemned sin, the death of Christ so far from setting it aside, rather increased the divine condemnation. It was the perfection of condemnation: "God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh."

But the atonement did change God's relation to the sinner. It enabled Him to be just, and yet to become the justifier of the unjust. "For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." As such the atonement is God's consistent method of removing the barrier between man and Himself; consistent at once with God's holy nature, and man's fundamental moral necessities.

But the significance of the atonement is not limited to a proclamation of Divine love; its specific object is to provide for justification. Grace provides a righting power ; it puts behind the offer of pardoning love an assured status before God. From this point of view justification is the productive function of the atonement; it describes the legitimate operation of atoning power within the sphere of human experience. Pardon is not suspended in an ineffective region of sentiment, but rooted and grounded in an historic deed. Justification is God's righting act, the final adjustment of the human spirit to the demands of its eternal relationships; it is God's act of reconciliation, effective unto; the saving of souls because it derives its power from the atoning work of His Son.

But how is assurance of status to be gained? How is the righting power of God communicated to man? Paul's answer is by faith. Faith is the releasing function of justification. But some one may say : Grant the truth of your theory, is it necessary for a believer to have a theory of the atonement, in order to have peace with God? May he not be content with a simple and uncritical faith in Jesus Christ? The answer is yes and no. It is perfectly true that many do get along without theories of religious truth ; their faith appears to require little or no theology; still this does not indicate the superiority of this type of Christian. A faith without doctrines is a colourless faith, and may at any time become unstable. Even if it be capable of sustaining itself in the face of opposition, it has no power for propagating itself, simply because it has no ideas. Ideas are the hooks of faith which stick into other minds and take hold there often in spite of op-position. If one is willing to remain a babe in Christ, and depend on a favourable environment for successful resistance of the friction of this world, he may get along without theoretical explanations of religion. But it ought to be said that objections to religious doctrine often rise from mental indolence or from a superficial experience. And if one is to be a mature Christian, sustaining himself in the face of opposition, and propagating his faith in his own generation, he must think out the functional implications of his experience ; he must go down to the roots and grapple with religion's inspiring problems, and the reason for this is a very practical one.

Any scheme of religion a thoughtful man accepts must reckon with the conscience. Now the conscience knows nothing of mercy, and makes short work of proclamations based on pardon alone. When conscience sleeps it is content with a moral influence, but when conscience awakes it will demand a dynamic atoning deed. To forgive a sin does not remove its wrongfulness. The question of right or wrong is in charge of the conscience. Now the target of pardoning love is the heart, the emotional nature; but the target of justification is the conscience, the moral nature.

Paul's age demanded a religion that could deal with conscience. It would listen to preaching that began with pardoning love, but it would permanently yield to a religion only when it could satisfy the implications of the moral nature. A conviction of sin is necessary to an adequate comprehension of Divine love; and it was a conviction of the sinfulness of sin that made Paul's age go behind pardoning love to the deed of justification. The gentile felt the need of deliverance from the power of evil. The feeling could not suggest a remedy, but it was powerful enough to inspire a desire for a deliverer, a Saviour. In the meantime, however, it left man without excuse. It filled him with fear and dread and unrest. He saw punishments in his calamities and dreaded what might happen after death. The age was conscious of the need of a tremendous righting power which could adjust it to its eternal relationships. And if this feeling of need was common to gentiles it was equally so with the Jew. For the Jew had the law of God, and in spite of his professed security, he was keenly aware of the inadequacy of his way of life. Paul tells us how he felt about it in the seventh chapter of Romans. The law had revealed the sinfulness of sin both in its positive and negative aspects. "All had sinned and come short of the glory of God." And if a Jew felt thus before his law how much more keenly would he feel it in the presence of the White Purity which had come into the world and condemned the ideal religious figure of the age in the words: "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven." 11 The law confronted man with a debt he could not pay, it threatened him with a penalty he could not bear, and set him a task he could not essay. No assurance of Divine forgiveness could rid him of the feeling that he must do something to save himself, except on the assumption that behind that assurance was an historic righting power. The age was sick of preceptive moralities, and wanted power, and the only thing that could square it with conscience was a real justification, grounded on historic performance. It ought to be easy to comprehend this.

But it may be asked : Can a man have peace with God upon the assurance of pardoning love alone? The answer is provisionally yes, permanently no. Suppose you borrow money from a man and he deposits your note in a bank for collection. The note falls due and you cannot pay it, so you go to the creditor and confess the debt, admit that in spite of honest efforts you are unable to meet it, and throw yourself on his mercy. He forgives the debt and assures you of his friend-ship. Undoubtedly this relieves your mind for the time being, but bow about the bank? Your plea will not be valid there so long as it holds your note. The mere fact of the pardon of the debt will not prevent a renewal of uneasiness, so you return to the friendly creditor, and he goes with you to the bank, takes up the note and destroys it in your presence. Your status with the bank is at once altered. Your peace is secured because the visible obligation has been destroyed. You are forever free from the debt. Why? Because the destruction of the note was a deed, while the pardon of the debt was a word only. The word of pardon was not effective until the obligation had been cancelled.

Now the conscience is a bank, and it holds man's notes for past transgressions. These notes are sins. They are debts contracted in the past, but they hold over man's head the obligation to reckon with them in the future. Mere pardon will not finally bestow peace of mind. What man needs is the destruction of the obligation. He wants a power to go with him before the conscience, and make an end of the whole sad business. It was the function of the Mosaic law to establish the fact of debt, it is the business of the conscience to enforce its collection, but it is the function of justifying grace to cancel all obligations and give the debtor a status before God which the con-science cannot dispute. Justification not only re-moves the barrier between man and God, but also between man and his conscience. Bunyan in the allegory of the Holy War has beautifully illustrated this truth, when Emmanuel on the reconquest of Mansoul deprives conscience of his position as recorder, and makes him an under-secretary of love. Justifying grace transforms conscience into a servant, and sets the believer free.

The Biblical word which describes this experience is "peace." Peace is the transmissive function of faith. It is the precise assurance of a status before God, based on the historic deed of the cross, which conscience cannot dispute. It is not easy to break with the past. As poisonous exhalations rise from a marsh and endanger health, so do thoughts of past transgressions threaten the health of the soul. It is very difficult to throw off the inherited tendency that one must do something to be saved. Persistence of this feeling means bondage. It enslaves the mind and wastes the energy of the will in fruitless works. The ancient world had learned the bitter lesson; the more passionately it sought peace, the more acutely conscious was it of the futility of human effort. It was not in man's power to save himself, but he could not abandon the quest. Paul put the question for the old world in the words: "O wretched man that I am : who shall deliver me from this dead body?" He saw and approved the good, but power to perform that which was right he found not. It was not in ritual, it was not in ethical speculations, and it was not in legal obedience of a revealed law. The service of the law was the most burdensome of all because it found sin in a state of suspended animation, and left it acutely alive as an evil power within the soul. But the glorious gospel proclaimed deliverance. Christ was the end of the law for righteousness unto every one that believed. In Christ the law was abolished and a new righteousness was revealed, a God given status which none could dispute. The quest of the ages ended at the foot of the Cross, because the atonement made justification a reality, and faith in Christ released the power of God in the individual soul and the issue was the enjoyment of peace that passed all understanding.

This was a wonderful revelation, because it meant the end of dead works and fruitless quests to serve the living God in the freedom of the spirit. To comprehend justification by faith will determine whether our religious experience is to be founded on a stable peace or on a new kind of bondage. I remember an incident of my child-hood. An exposition was held in our town, and I went to it in a rather unconventional fashion. I entered it not by the door, but over the fence in a surreptitious manner. But although it was filled with many diverting things I could not enjoy them, because I was continually haunted by fear of detection. I was on the inside, but I had no right to be there; and my pleasure was turned into bondage. The joy that I had anticipated was turned into trembling unto me. Some time after I went again, but this time in company with my father. We came by way of the door and entered by ticket, and I gave myself unreservedly to the enjoyment of the exposition. Many people enter the treasure house of God without being sure of their rights there. They are always looking back, they are in fear of detection ; the conscience like a policeman walks in the midst of the treasures of grace, and they are afraid for their souls. Their religion is a new kind of bondage. The old shadow of Puritanism still falls athwart our modern lives. Our religion is sour, unattractive, and funereal. The reason for this is found in an undisciplined conscience, and the cure for it is a fresh appreciation of justifying grace. Justifying grace gives us peace with God and peace with ourselves. Peace becomes our man of war, and guards the heart against all unhealthy tendencies and all unspiritual experiences. Justification makes conscience the servant of love, and frees the spirit to serve the living God.

It is impossible to overestimate the eagerness with which earnest spirits received the Pauline conception of justifying faith. The peace of God, like a great river, made glad the city of Mansoul, and by cleansing it of the poisonous influences of the past, made it a temple of the Holy Ghost. Wherever the doctrine was preached men seemed to hear again the great voice of Jesus calling: "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Breaking with an evil past and assured of the love and protection of God, they were enabled to work out their salvation and make their calling and election sure. The atoning work of Christ enabled the believer to pass through the portals of pardoning love into the Throne Room of the Almighty, confident that none could question his right to be there.

In this manner, Paul answered the first of the questions raised by the growing experience of the church. But the new freedom developed questions concerning moral progress. Some were inclined to believe that faith in Christ relieved them of moral effort; while others were disposed to doubt their salvation so long as sin remained in their mortal bodies. Such questions made a further elaboration of doctrine essential, and opened the way for a consideration of the function of the Christian dynamic in the growing life of the church.

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