The Objective Nature of the Historic Christian Gospel
It is a tragic, if interesting, quirk of the present era that Bible things are being discussed and conclusions are being reached without any reference to the Bible.
God has worked out his plan for human redemption in history. Because of its once-for-all, never-to-be-repeated nature, history must be communicated to today's man in understandable language. The past comes to us only through testimony. Only words with plain and definite meanings can convey to our minds and hearts the exact nature of that redemption which God accomplished in space and time. Our salvation was provided by the great Christ events of the first century; but in modern times, justification by faith comes only through hearing those historic events. Since they will never be repeated, we must hear them in order to believe them. That requires an understandable communication from God, and that is what the New Testament is.
The Objective Nature of the Word of God
In the first century, there were men who were guided by the Holy Spirit to speak the gospel in words that were easy to understand and definite in meaning. Luke said that on the day the Holy Spirit came to the apostles, "they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:4). They began speaking of the wonderful works of God throughout history in order to gain the attention of the crowd (2:11-13), and then they proclaimed Christ crucified and raised. The clarity of the message was unmistakable. Luke's statement that they were pricked in their heart and the cry of the multitude, "Brethren, what shall we do?" (2:37), elicited from Peter the clear terms of pardon which saving faith required (2:38). Then stated Luke, "With many other words he testified, and exhorted them, saying, Save yourselves from this crooked generation," and three thousand Jews stepped forward for baptism (2:40-41). There was nothing in the word of the apostles that left the required response of the multitude to guesswork. They were led by plain words to believe in the resurrected Christ, and, following salvation, "They continued stedfastly in the apostles' teaching" (2:42). Later, the Roman centurion, Cornelius, was told to send to Peter, "who shall speak unto thee words whereby thou shalt be saved" (Acts 11:14). This gospel communication was not generated by human impulse or by existentialistic experience. It was communicated by the medium of understandable words.
In Paul's great effort to correct the problem of division, which intellectual pride and glorying in men caused in the church at Corinth, he explained that their salvation was not due to the golden oratory of Apollos or to the powerful presence of Peter or Paul, but it was due to knowable words of the Spirit. As Paul said, "But we [the apostles] received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is from God; that we might know the things that were freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Spirit teacheth" (1 Corinthians 2:12-13).
God has never left it for people to learn of gospel truth by subjective interpretations of their own personal experiences. Jeremiah pronounced the absolute inability of men and women to go right, even when they try, without God as their counselor, when he said, "O Jehovah, I know that the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps" (Jeremiah 10:23). The apostle Paul expressed the same truth when he wrote, "For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God, it was God's good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe" (1 Corinthians 1:21). All the wisdom of mankind combined cannot produce the knowledge of salvation's gospel; only the word of God can do that. Salvation is through believing in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, but "belief cometh of hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17). The gospel of salvation is a clear and distinct word.
While some of the acts of God throughout history could have been easily recognized for their supernatural character, without written testimony, we could know nothing of them nor could they have been properly perceived and explained as redemptive in nature. God had to tell us, for example, that the purpose of Israel as a nation in the earth was to serve his purpose in bringing the Saviour into the world. He had to interpret for us the redemptive meaning of Christ's sinless life, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. Neither these historic facts nor their redemptive meaning could be known to us today without the written word and without the clarity of the meaning of those words.
God has produced a written testimony of his redemptive historical activities in words which can be understood. He has preserved those historical space-time events and what they mean for all time to come. Through his written word, he continues to reveal his redemptive plan in modern times.
Corruptive Influences of Religious Subjectivism Upon the Word of God
The word of God has always had its enemies; they have always been about the same. From the Jews have come the legalists, who, because they understood neither law nor grace, attempted to bind the law of Moses upon saved Gentiles, thus nullifying the grace of God (Galatians 2:21). From among the Gentiles have come the religious mystics and speculators who have substituted philosophy and human wisdom for the plain meaning of God's word (Colossians 2:8-10). It is this latter method and its modern manifestation that I want to deal with in this final chapter.
Paul identified the method which our arch enemy would employ to corrupt the plain and absolute meaning of the saving words of God when he said, "But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve in his craftiness, your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity and the purity that is toward Christ" (2 Corinthians 11:3). Satan's method of corrupting modern minds is identified with his initially successful effort upon Eve. He lied to her about the word of God. God had plainly stated that they could eat freely of all the trees in the garden except for one particular tree. Of the fruit of that tree he said clearly, "in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Genesis 2:17). But Satan, intending to murder the entire human race, lied to the woman saying, "Ye shall not surely die" (Genesis 3:4). He corrupted her mind by lying to her about the word of God. By destroying her respect for the word, he destroyed her. His modern method is the same-to use men who appear to be ministers of the word, but who in reality corrupt the plain meaning of its language (2 Corinthians 11:14-15).
In the preceding chapter, we saw a modern manifestation of this method to corrupt men's minds against the word. Modern liberalism has attempted to cloud the plain meaning of God's word by telling us that it is not historically trustworthy, that it is filled with mythical stories, and that we are too far removed from what actually happened to know anything for sure about the true nature and life of Christ. The effect has been telling. Suspicion covers the Bible in the minds of many who have never thought it necessary to investigate for themselves.
The present wave of religious subjectivism produces the same alienation from the authority of the word by seeking to find another, sometimes mystical or occultic, meaning in the Scriptures-other than its apparent and plain meaning. Subjectivism seeks to bring us to faith in Christ by appealing to modern religious experiences apart from knowledge of the Scripture rather than by appealing to the historic testimony for the resurrection. This modern method bypasses the New Testament by claiming guidance from the Holy Spirit. As proof, the Lord's statement to the apostles is quoted: "Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he shall guide you into all the truth" (John 16:13). It seems to make no difference that in the context Jesus is stating that this particular gift of the Spirit was promised to the apostles who were to share the word with us by preaching (1 Peter 1:12) and by the written word (Ephesians 3:3-4; 1 Peter 5:12).
It is a tragic, if interesting, quirk of the present religious era that Bible things are being discussed and conclusions are being reached without any reference to the Bible. It appears as if people are pooling their Bible ignorance in the name of Jesus and calling it Christianity! Evidence for the living Christ, we are told, is supposed to be found in the joyful feelings of the heart. This is expressed in the church hymn:
He lives! He lives!
You ask me how I know he lives:
He lives within my heart.
However, it is a practical impossibility to know whether or not Jesus presently living by an appeal to the swelling emotions of the human heart. The feeling of joy in Christianity is the result of faith, not proof of the thing believed. The only way known to man to confirm the living Christ today is by an appeal to the historical testimony of the apostles. The testimony of the Holy Spirit to the living Lord is not in the feelings which he produces, but in the written word which he revealed and had written.
REDEMPTION REVEALED IN WORDS
Both the purpose and methodology of the Holy Spirit in modern times is the same as it was in the first century: to bring men to faith in the crucified and risen Jesus by the means of the plain and definitive words which he gave to the apostles. The Spirit's work is not mystical. He does not leave it to men to wonder whether he is guiding them. His work of revelation and redemption, both then and now, is accomplished through the medium of the words which he imparted to the apostles and prophets in the first century. Our faith in Christ today and all of our instructions in the Christian system are due to that apostolic word which has been preserved in written form.
Let's consider that methodology for our own time.
The Promised Work of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles
Jesus prepared the apostles for their work of preaching when he told them that the Holy Spirit would guide them in their testimony. He said, "He shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you," and, "when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he shall guide you into all the truth: for he shall not speak from himself; but what things soever he shall hear, these shall he speak" (John 14:26; 16:13). This promise was made only to the apostles, not to us today. If it was a promise for the church today, we would not need a New Testament. Remember that Jesus' prayer, which he prayed for us today, was for those who believe on him through the apostles' word (John 17:20). Their word was declared by Christ to be the basis of our present-day faith in him. The apostles received the word from the Holy Spirit, who then gave it to us (1 Corinthians 2:10-13; 11:23). Our faith today is due to the testimony which the Holy Spirit gave to those apostles.
The Completed Work of the Holy Spirit Upon the Apostles
The claim of the apostles was that the Holy Spirit did the work which Jesus promised when he revealed the mystery of God's eternal purpose. Paul wrote that God's eternal redemptive purpose for humanity was a mystery until apostolic times. He tells us that this wisdom of God, foreordained before the worlds for our glorification, was hidden from the minds of men until it was revealed to the apostles by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:7; Ephesians 1:9-11; 3:10-11) and was written in plain words which could be read and understood. Paul laid it down with clarity that, "by revelation was made known unto me the mystery, as I wrote before in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ; which in other generations was not made known unto the sons of men, as it hath now been revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit" (Ephesians 3:3-5). The apostles received the revelation of the gospel from the Holy Spirit and wrote it for us in words which can be understood. This is how the Spirit produces faith and salvation today, by the written words he gave to the apostles. As Paul said, "Belief cometh of hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ' (Romans 10:17). Our belief today is produced by the words of the apostles-the same word which produced the same faith in the first century.
Peter echoes the promise of Jesus that the Holy Spirit would teach the apostles all things when he wrote that "his divine power [the Holy Spirit] hath granted unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that called us" (2 Peter 1:3). And the apostle John, having delivered all those things to the church, wrote to remind them that because of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles, they knew all things (1 John 2:20), and added, "I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it" (2:21). A few verses down he wrote, "let that abide in you which ye heard from the beginning. If that which ye heard from the beginning abide in you, ye also shall abide in the Son, and in the Father." What they had heard from the beginning was the word of the gospel; it was the same things Paul and Peter wrote that the Holy Spirit had revealed to them. They all were saying the same thing-that because of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles, who now can hear and believe in Christ, and that faith which their word produced is to be preserved and honored above all other words.
In Peter's first letter, he claimed that Jesus' promise that the HolySpirit would come to the apostles and guide them into all gospel truth had been fulfilled (1 Peter 1:12). He closed his letter by saying, "I have written unto you briefly, exhorting, and testifying that this is the true grace of God: stand ye fast therein" (1 Peter 5:12). Peter said the Spirit revealed it, that he wrote it, and we are to stand fast in it. That is how the Holy Spirit directs us today-by his written word. Paul stated it clearly, "If any man thinketh himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him take knowledge of the things which I write unto you, that they are the commandment of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 14:37). When Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica to "hold the traditions which ye were taught, whether by word, or by epistle of ours" (2 Thessalonians 2:15), he was saying that the written word-his epistle-was the authority in Christianity. When the resurrected Lord used the apostle John to write letters to the seven churches of Asia, he used a formula to close out each letter, saying, "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches" (Revelation 2 and 3). The Holy Spirit spoke through those letters. While he directed John to address each letter to the particular needs of each of the different churches, they were exhorted to hear what was in each one of the letters as though each one had been addressed to all the churches. "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith," that is, in those letters. That is how the Holy Spirit communicated then, and that is how he communicates today-in those same letters which we call the New Testament.
The Apostles Had a Word Ministry
Jesus commissioned his apostles to go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation (Mark 16:15). He gave them a ministry that required them to speak words. When the Holy Spirit came to them, he enabled them to fulfill that commission. Paul spoke of this ministry which the Spirit brought to them when he said, "But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave unto us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not reckoning unto them their trespasses, and having committed unto us the word of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). First he stated that God gave them the ministry of reconciliation. The point is that God gave the apostles a word ministry-a ministry of words to speak which would bring men to faith in Christ and therefore to a reconciliation with God.
The Work of the Holy Spirit in Current Times
Does the Holy Spirit operate in our current times? If so, how does he work to bring men to Christ? How does he direct the affairs of his people? How does he change the lives of men? As a final consideration, I want to answer these questions under the following heads:
1. How the Holy Spirit saves today
"Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). Paul wrote that God "saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5). These clear statements reveal that the Spirit is engaged in bringing about a spiritual new birth. But Paul also wrote to the Corinthians that he was their spiritual father, in that he had brought them to Christ, as he said, "in Christ Jesus I begat you through the gospel" (1 Corinthians 4:15). How, then, is the spiritual renewing process brought about-by the Holy Spirit, as earlier stated, or by the gospel? Actually, it is not an either/or matter. We are saved by faith in Christ. Faith comes by the word of Christ which the Holy Spirit revealed to the apostles. They preached the word and it produced saving faith. Spiritual renewal is a process:
Peter wrote that Christians had "been begotten again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the word of God, which liveth and abideth" (1 Peter 1:23). James wrote the same thing when he said that God had "of his own will brought us forth by the word of truth" (James 1:18). The rebirth in all these references is attributed to the Holy Spirit, to the gospel, and to the word of God. The clear and distinctive pronouncement of the Spirit himself is that he saves us through the agency of his word.
2. How the Holy Spirit leads his people today
"But I say, Walk by the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh… .But if ye are led by the Spirit, ye are not under the law" (Galatians 5:16,18); "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God" (Romans 8:14). With no more instruction than these few statements, it might seem that the Christian has a special conversational acquaintance with the Holy Spirit by which he is personally guided. This position is not without adherents. But the Spirit leads the children of God in their Christian life as objectively as he led them to faith in Christ. Paul said, "We through the Spirit by faith wait for the hope of Righteousness" (Galatians 5:5). What Christians do by the Spirit, they do by faith. And I would remind you once again that faith comes by hearing the word of Christ. This agrees with Paul's statement that "we walk by faith" (2 Corinthians 5:7). Now, as in the first century, the Holy Spirit leads men by his word into faith in Jesus Christ and into a fruitful Christian life. The process can be expressed this way:
This is what Jesus commissioned the apostles to do: "teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you" (Matthew 28:20). When we know what God wants us to do through the word of the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to know those who are being led by the Spirit. In this way, we can identify the children of God. As John said, "In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God" (1 John 3:10).
This comment on the Spirit's objective guidance for the children of God does not touch upon the subject of the providential guidance of the children of God. The two must not be confused. God's providential control of the affairs of people and nations to bring about his own desired ends cannot be determined subjectively. Whether God has employed the ministration of angels (Hebrews 1:14) to accomplish his purpose, or some other means, cannot be determined by any personal experience. We are taught in the Scriptures to believe that God is at work in the earth, that he answers our supplications for the sick (James 5:14-18), that he gives grace to his people to assist them in time of trial (Hebrews 4:14-16), that he hears our prayer for the lost (Romans 10:1-3), and that he extends his great might over the nations of the earth in behalf of his church to accomplish her task of world evangelism (1 Timothy 2:1-5; Ephesians 3:20-21). But no Christian could ever prove that God answered his prayer by either the Holy Spirit's activity or by angels or by some other means. Our knowledge of God's present space-time activity comes only from his own revelation of that fact in the Scriptures. We could not know it otherwise.
3. How the Holy Spirit bears his fruit today
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). We must not be so naive as to equate every good feeling with what the Holy Spirit has done. The Bible has many warnings against false doctrines. History tells us that people have believed false doctrines, mistaking them for truth, and have rejoiced in the belief that they were saved. But the Holy Spirit did not produce that joy-false doctrine did.
It is in the revelation of the good news of Christ crucified and raised that the Holy Spirit produces his fruit of joy in those that believe and accept salvation. The other fruits of the Spirit are also produced by the Spirit's word, like faithfulness: since faith is the product of the word of God, the standard of Christian faithfulness can be discerned by a knowledge of that word. Thus the process can be expressed in the following:
Fruit of the Spirit
It is through the written word of God that the Holy Spirit saves us, guides us, and bears his fruit.
MAN'S RESPONSE TO AN OBJECTIVE FAITH
We can think of the Spirit-apostles-word-faith-salvation process another way: we can think if it as salvation by education. Inherent in the great commission which Jesus gave to his apostles was an educational process, "Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). The apostles went forth making disciples by teaching the gospel of Christ. But men and women must respond by listening and learning. During his ministry, Jesus referred to this same process. He said, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me" (Matthew 11:28-29). Note that the "come unto me… and learn of me" educational process is present in this great invitation. At another time, Jesus explained the process by which all men would be enabled to come to him, "No man can come to me, except the Father that sent me draw him: and I will raise him up in the last day. It is written in the prophets, And they shall all be taught of God. Every one that hath heard from the Father, and hath learned, cometh unto me" (John 6:44-45). Belief in Christ is the result of educating people to the historic facts of the space-time gospel. When the gospel is taught and people learn it, they can answer his invitation and come to him by faith.
The entire thrust of this book has been to present the historical nature of the evidence for the Christian religion in order to provide modern men and women with an objective faith, that they might respond to that invitation to salvation. While religious subjectivism says, in essence, "I know because of what I feel," the objective Christian system says, "I feel because of what I know." When we know because of his understandable word what God has done for us in history, when we know what he promised to faithful believers, when we know what he requires of us, and then do it, we will know of our saved relationship; and the joyous feeling that comes from knowing that our eternal destiny has been sealed by the living Lord will naturally flood our hearts and souls. This is beautifully illustrated in the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, who learned of Christ through Philip the evangelist, was brought to belief and baptism and then"went on his way rejoicing" (Acts 8:26-39). He was taught of God, he learned of Christ, and responded by faith. Then knowing that he was saved, he rejoiced in his salvation. This joy and rejoicing will continue to be the result of man's response to an objective faith.
Christianity offers to all people at all times a confirmation by historical evidence that Jesus Christ is the resurrected son of God and provides us with an objective avenue of response to his offer of salvation. Today's man who desires to have knowledge of who he is and where he is going can find his answer in the totally reliable pages of the New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.