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Volume 8, Issue 3: Thema

To Glad to be True

Douglas Jones

Of the early Puritans, C.S. Lewis remarked, "Whatever they were, they were not sour, gloomy, or severe; Nor did their enemies bring any such charge against them.... For [Thomas] More, a Protestant was one `Dronke of the new must, of lewd lightnes of minde and vayne gladnesse of harte'.... Protestantism was not too grim but too glad to be true."[1] Too glad to be true.

How things have changed. In our day, evangelicals almost yearn to be described as "sour, gloomy, and severe" as we grovel in our self-centered pietism and political campaigns for external morality. Can you imagine what a different world we would live in if Christians were characterized, not as those calling for Federal prohibitions on this and that, but for the right to party? What if we were known by our enemies not for our shallow sentimentalism but as that community most exuberantly living life to the fullest, full of eating, drinking, and merriment (Eccl. 8:15)? Perhaps then we could be slandered like the Lord for being gluttons, winebibbers, and friends of sinners (Matt. 11:19).
The exuberance characteristic of the early Protestants wasn't the thin fanaticism of a Finney revival but the life-changing shock of unexpected liberation, the joy tied to the deepest recesses of justification in Christ. We see this "shocking joy" highlighted in several of Christ's parables about the kingdom. The parables of the discovery of hidden treasure (Matt. 13:44) and beautiful pearls (Matt. 13:45) reveal that overwhelming joy that accompanies entrance into Christ's kingdom, as do the parables of the lost-but-found sheep and coin (Lk. 15:4-10). The father of the prodigal son is so shocked and overjoyed with the return of his wayward son that he throws a giant party of eating, drinking, and dancing (Lk. 15:11ff.).
The Lord also describes His kingdom as a giant wedding feast for a king's son. When those invited by the king refuse to come, he commands his servants to go into the lanes of the city and bring in the "poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind" (Lk. 14:21). What joy to be moved from the humiliation of the streets to exaltation at the king's feast, from outcast to guest. That's the joy that should characterize and overwhelm Christian living.
Scripture often portrays us outside of Christ as outcast, indebted, imprisoned, and blind. And Christ comes as the family redeemer to rescue us, heal us, and translate us into His kingdom.

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Lk. 4:18).

Few of us can truly imagine the overwhelming joy of receiving our sight back from darkness or the intoxication of being freed from crushing debts. What else can one do to worship God at such a time than to shout and dance and party until you bow in tears of gratitude. Anything less must be near blasphemy.
In one of the most glorious summaries of the biblical teaching about our liberation in Christ, the Westminster Confession of Faith, 20:1, declares:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin, from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation....

Oh, the unspeakable glories of liberation. "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!" (Rev. 5:11). Too glad to be true.

Imputed Perfection
But something is also terribly different about our redemption -- something that makes our liberation even more unbelievable and overwhelming. Christ didn't accomplish our liberation by meeting some lesser human standard for our release. He had to satisfy the perfect and holy demands of the Father. Redemption is a matter of satisfying perfect justice, nothing less. We all are or were high-handed rebels against God, and we rightly deserved our blindness, slavery, and death. Nothing less than perfection could bring us back into His holy presence: "O Lord my God, ... You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look upon wickedness" (Hab. 1:13). No wickedness and imperfection could stand before the holiness of the one true God (Ps. 130:3) -- "be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5:48).

Perfection. Perfection. Perfection. Nothing else will suffice. And so our joyful expressions slide from our faces, as we glance at our corrupt lives. Perfection is forever beyond our grasp, and so what hope can we have in ourselves? None. We have to trust in the perfection of another, the perfect righteousness of Christ.
We can summarize this teaching as follows:
(1) God is holy, and, therefore, cannot clear or acquit the guilty (Ex. 34:7; Nah. 1:3), against whom He is full of wrath (Rom. 1:18). And sin must be condemned and punished by death (Rom. 6:23; Lev. 5:17; Ez. 18:4; Heb. 9:22).
(2) In the act of justification, God declares us not guilty and truly lifts our death sentence (Rom. 5:1, 9, 18; 8:1; cf. Deut. 25:1) and accepts us as perfectly righteous, but not because of any righteousness or faith in us (Rom. 3:28; Eph. 2:8; Tit. 3:4).
(3) This declaration of our perfect guiltlessness and perfect righteousness is justly based upon a real covenantal union and transfer. Christ as our covenantal head redeems us by taking our death sentence, i.e., having the guilt of our sins imputed to Him (Gal. 3:13; Is. 53:5ff; Jn. 3:17-18; Rom. 8:1; 2 Cor. 5:19) and by having the perfect righteousness of His obedience imputed to us (1 Cor. 1:30; Phil. 3: 9; Rom. 4:6,7; 5:17-19; cf. Heb. 9:14, 19).
(4) We come into covenantal unity with Christ by means of faith (Gal. 3:26-28; Eph. 1:4), but neither that faith nor our regeneration nor our subsequent growth in holiness can possibly stand as the basis of the requirement of perfect righteousness before God.
Notice how central perfection is to this wonderful work. Without a perfect righteousness, we cannot be at peace with God or even come near His holy presence. Any imperfection means death.
And it's this overwhelming gift of a perfect standing before God -- though we continue our Spirit-led inward fight against sin -- that made up the exuberant joy of the early Protestants. Just when the demand for perfection appears to scatter all our hope, Christ our Redeemer, unites us to Himself, takes our guilt and punishment and gives us perfect righteousness and eternal life. It's not surprising that the early Protestants could be characterized as ""Dronke of the new must, of lewd lightnes of minde and vayne gladnesse of harte." Too glad to be true.

Regeneration Isn't Enough
No wonder modern evangelicalism has lost its potency and joy. By eclipsing the ancient doctrine of justification by a perfect righteousness, one has no hope and can be but "sour, gloomy, and severe."

In our day, most of popular evangelicalism has little realization of the wonders of justification by perfect righteousness. Without any covenantal moorings and by seeking to avoid speaking of God as angry with sinners, modern evangelicals have little left to say about justification except to focus on one's faith, one's very personal, individualistic relationship with Christ.
What so often happens is that evangelicals make one's faith and regeneration the ground, the basis, for justification before God. That's why we see such an emphasis on working up warm feelies and pumped-up sincerity. By trying to make faith do the work of Christ's imputed righteousness, they have to make faith work extra hard, to say the least.
It's no surprise, then, that evangelicals can be tempted into legalism. They know they need perfection, but their faith is imperfect, so they must bind themselves into human rules that rob their freedom in Christ. They replace Christ's perfection and the eternal "law of liberty" (Js. 1:25), with imperfect regeneration and human bondage (Col. 2:20). Regeneration alone just doesn't stand up before the throne of God. Regeneration doesn't produce a perfect righteousness but only a growing righteousness. To put it another way, if we could separate regeneration and justification, then regeneration by itself couldn't get us into the presence of God. It lacks perfection.
Roman Catholicism is very much like modern evangelicalism. They both fail to grasp the fundamentally covenantal nature of justification. But more importantly, they both fail to grasp the divine requirement of perfect righteousness.[2]
Roman Catholic expositor, Frank Sheed, explains that "When we come to die there is only one question that matters -- have we sanctifying grace in our souls?"[3] This spiritual substance of sanctifying grace is dispensed via Rome's sacraments. At baptism, the beginning of justification, one receives perfect righteousness, but from this perfect state of sanctifying grace one can completely lose it all by committing mortal sin, that very serious sin, in which

we break union of our will with God's and lose the supernatural life. There are lesser sins called "venial," which because they are less serious or less deliberate, do not involve a rejection of God; they leave us with sanctifying grace still in our souls but they do weaken the nature in which grace is infused.... [4]

Nonetheless, those with sanctifying grace are in a state of peace and union with God, or as the new Roman catechism explains, justification by sanctifying grace "reconciles us to God,"[5] and "introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life."[6]
Notice the denial of perfection in this process. First, the mortal/venial distinction reduces the need for perfection by excluding the vast majority of sins from deserving death (but cf. Rom. 6:23; Ez. 18:20; Dt. 27:26; Jas. 2:10; Mt. 12:36; Lev. 5:17ff). Second, notice that the state of having sanctifying grace -- almost immediately after baptism -- is always a state of imperfection, even for the most faithful. And in that view, God willingly rewards imperfect confession and penance with more sanctifying grace.
As Sheed explains above, sanctifying grace and venial sins can exist together in the faithful. And yet, Rome maintains that sanctifying grace places one in intimate communion and peace with the holy Trinity. Even Rome's pool of grace can't help all the initiated to persevere successfully to the end. Thus, for Rome, God doesn't demand perfect holiness for communion with Him. He can bear to be at peace with sin. And with such imperfection, we are supposed to be able to boldly stand before His throne (Heb. 10:19)? What robbery.
No wonder the early Protestants were overjoyed in the liberation of imputed righteousness, that perfect righteousness that removes any place for boasting. An imperfect basis for justification with God can bring only hopelessness, but God's lifting of our death sentence and accounting us as righteous make us want to serve Christ with every aspect of our being, to honor Him by living exuberant lives of gratitude and submission, to sit at His wedding feast and eat, drink, and enjoy life to the fullest! Not too grim but too glad to be true.

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