Any evangelical–indeed, any Christian–would probably say that the key issue of human life is that of a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Those who are familiar with the scriptures and know what is described with regard to the nature of the fall of the human race in Genesis three and have come to grips with the texts that plumb the true depths of that fall and the ramifications for every human being born after Adam and Eve, would probably not hesitate to say that man became at that point totally depraved.
Total depravity, of course, does not mean that man has become as bad as he can possibly be, but that every part of us is infected with a deep infection and that we cannot solve our own problem with regard to that infection. This realism moves the evangelical to affirm, therefore, that the eternal Logos assumed to himself a particular human nature and had as his work to be our prophet, priest, and king and to solve our basic problem in our stead or in our place. The word that most evangelicals would use for that is a biblical word…salvation.
And so, in one way, our subject is a very very simple one: How am I to be saved? And in a way, the answer to the question is as simple: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved! Or, to use a couple of texts which Luther and Calvin cited in their debates with great frequency, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law…” (Rom. 3:28) and, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).
Now the basic motifs are as follows: (1) The reformers really believed that the popular (and, by the mid-sixteenth century, official) Roman Catholic position was a self-salvation. By “Roman Catholic” I don’t mean what’s going on necessarily at St. John’s by the gas station today. Rather, it is to the medieval position which I refer, the Roman Catholic theology that was represented in the Council of Trent.
(2) When God gives orders and tells us what will happen if we fail to obey those orders perfectly, it is in the category of what the reformers, following the biblical text, called “law.” When God promises freely, providing for us because of Christ’s righteousness the status he demands of us, this is in the category of “gospel.” It is good news from start to finish. The Bible includes both, and the reformers were agreed that the scriptures clearly taught (contrary to many forms of dispensationalism) that the Law (whether Old or New Testament commands) was not set aside for the believer. Nevertheless, they insisted that nothing in this category of “Law” could be a means of justification or acceptance before a holy God.
The Law comes, not to reform the sinner, nor to show him or her the “narrow way” to life, but to crush the sinner’s hopes of escaping God’s wrath through self-effort or even cooperation. All of our righteousness must come from someone else–someone who fulfilled the Law’s demands. Once we have been stripped of our “filthy rags” of righteousness (Is.64:6), our “fig leaves” through which we try in vain to hide our guilt and shame, only then can we be clothed with Christ’s righteousness. First comes the Law to proclaim judgment and death, then the Gospel to proclaim justification and life. One of the clearest presentations of this motif is found in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians.
For many in the German “Higher Life” movement, and those in the stream of Wesley generally, the motif is Law-Gospel-Law. B. B. Warfield, the great dean of “Old Princeton” Reformed theologians, was one of the clearest early critics of this trend, which has now culminated in the vast literature of “victorious living” versions of the Christian life. Warfield argued that, at the bottom of it all, the Higher Life movement was nothing more than a revival of prominent Wesleyan-Arminian features. Warfield also stated that he was fairly convinced that the Arminians had another God. That’s a deep shot. Is it justified? To answer that, let us go back for a moment to the Reformation debate.
In the sixteenth century the issue of law and grace was more clearly dealt with than at almost any other time since the apostles. The lines were cut cleanly, and as the great Yale historian, Roland Bainton, has written, “This was the only issue of the century.” Anybody who is studying the sixteenth century primarily through the issue of economics is going to miss the whole point of the century. It is impossible to understand the sixteenth century if you start with the categories of Marxism and revolution, or anything else.