THE MATERIAL PRINCIPLE OF

EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY

A Study By

Gary Ray Branscome


"But now the righteousness of God without the law is revealed… For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth. // If they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” (Romans 3:21 and 10:4, Isaiah 8:20)


    we interpret the Bible in the light of what it says about our justification. For example: When we come to the words, “the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God,” we read those words with the understanding that it is the forgiveness we have in Christ, not works, that makes us righteous (1Corinthians 6:9, 1John 1:7). Furthermore, because the Bible clearly tells us that we are “justified by faith,” we are not reading our own ideas into the text when we interpret Scripture in that way, but are allowing Scripture to interpret itself.

[Note: Since Scripture was written to bring us to faith in Christ, that is the way God intended for it to be interpreted. John 5:39, John 20:31, John 19:35, 1John 5:11-13, Romans 15:4, 2Timothy 1:10-11, 2Timothy 3:15, Ephesians 2:8-9.]

LAW AND GOSPEL


    Once we understand what it means to be justified by faith, it becomes obvious that the law was never intended to make us righteous, but was instead intended to show us our sin and need for a Savior (Romans 3:10-20 and 5:20). True righteousness comes to us through faith in Christ. That knowledge is known in theology as THE PROPER RELATIONSHIP OF LAW TO GOSPEL, and is clearly taught in the third chapter of Romans.

Romans 3:19-22- Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law: so that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore no flesh will ever be justified in God’s sight by the deeds of the law: because the knowledge of sin comes by the law. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all and upon all who believe.
 
    Of course, those who are under the delusion of works righteousness continue to assume that the law is what makes people righteous, even though the Bible says otherwise (Romans 3:19-20). In some cases they know, and even profess to believe that, the law can never make us righteous, and that we receive God’s gift of righteousness through faith in Christ alone. However, they fail to bring their thinking into agreement with God’s Word.
    It is bad enough when those who have never heard the gospel think that their own works will make them righteous. It is even worse when those who profess to believe in Christ seek righteousness through the law. Therefore, it is important to stress the fact that, once we come to faith in Christ, God’s law no longer condemns us (even though we may still use the law to condemn our own shortcomings). For unless we sin willfully (as David did in the matter of Uriah), no sin is ever imputed to us. [1Kings 15:5, Hebrews 10:26, Romans 4:1-8, 1Corinthians 11:31, Romans 7:17.]

    As we come to more fully understand the proper relationship of law to gospel, we find that it involves everything that the Bible teaches. One aspect of it has to do with interpreting Scripture in the light of what the Bible says about justification by faith. Another aspect of it has to do with applying that truth to various situations that arise. When Martin Luther first realized that all of Scripture was either law or gospel, he went through the entire Bible, analyzing each passage in order to determine which statements were law and which were gospel. For example: The statement, “Jesus wept” is gospel because it reveals God's love for us, while the story of Saul's visit to the witch of Endor is law because it condemns sin (John 11:35, 1 Samuel 28). The story of Absalom's rebellion against David is also law, because it too condemns sin. However, in David's tears over the death of Absalom we find a glimpse of the gospel, for David’s tears are a type of Christ's tears over Jerusalem (2 Samuel 13-19). Those tears reveal the love of God, even for those who reject gospel and harden themselves in unrepentence (2Samuel 19:1-4, Luke 19:41).

SATANIC DELUSION


    Because we are “justified by faith alone without the deeds of the law,” Satan will do all that he can to keep us from coming to faith (Romans 3:28, 2 Corinthians 4:4). And, that often involves using our own flesh, especially sexual desire, to blind us to the truth of the gospel. In some cases, he may seek to harden us in unrepentance by leading us to rationalize sexual immorality (once someone has rationalized adultery they usually find it hard to feel guilt, shame, or sorrow over that sin or any other sin). Nevertheless, he can just as easily use the law to harden us, by leading us to use the threats of the law as a motivation for keeping the law. In fact, those who are struggling to resist sexual desire often fall into that trap. Such people want to be motivated by a fear of God’s wrath, and, for that reason, wind up thinking of God as a harsh judge, rather than a merciful Father. At the same time, they imagine that He is pleased with them because they resist the flesh. However, even though God wants us to resist the flesh, He is not pleased by such self-deception (John 1:47, Galatians 1:6-9, Jeremiah 17:5). Those under that delusion not only turn God into a harsh judge, but also close the door to God’s mercy by refusing to acknowledge their own sin. And, without God’s mercy Satan has them in his grasp.

[Note: Once someone has become ensnared in this vicious circle of self-deception they cannot be honest about their sin without losing their motivation, for if they really believed that all of their works accomplish nothing, they would stop trying. Matthew 15:14 and 23:16, Luke 6:39-42, John 1:47.]

    People who are under this delusion often have a contempt for the gospel, for having convinced themselves that they are righteous, they tend to regard the doctrine of Justification by Faith as little more than an excuse to sin (2Timothy 3:6, Matthew 13:19). Nevertheless, in spite of all their outward show they do not really have a repentant heart, for if they really believed that they could get to heaven without keeping the law they would commit all the sexual sins they could. In fact, some lose their motivation and wind up using the gospel as an excuse to do just that, thereby proving that they count “the blood of the covenant… an unholy thing” (Hebrews 10:29). Therefore, even though such people appear to be knowledgeable about the law, they really need to be convicted of their sin, for they will not be open to the gospel until they are willing to acknowledge their sin and need of a Savior (Matthew 7:6). Worse yet, they often react to the gospel by accusing those who preach it of promoting immorality (Romans 3:8). What they fail to see is that if they were really righteous, their flesh would not be yearning to do evil in the first place (Jeremiah 17:9, James 1:14-15, 1 Corinthians 15:52).

    Because the delusion of works righteousness is very strong, those who have been held in the grip of it often continue to look to the law for motivation even after they come to faith in Christ. Although the Holy Spirit has convinced them that salvation is by grace, they still try to please God, or gain His favor, by their works. In short, they are double-minded. On one hand they profess to believe that grace is God’s unmerited favor, on the other they try to merit it. One minute they will sing “Only Trust Him” and the next minute they will sing “Trust and Obey.” In other words, they have learned the language of faith but have not yet learned to think in accord with it (Romans 10:4, 2 Peter 3:16, Romans 12:6, Isaiah 8:20).

    Even though the Apostle Paul carefully explains why the law cannot make us righteous, those who want to be motivated by the law are continually trying to find some way around his words. Therefore, as soon as they learn that James said, “by works a man is justified and not by faith only,” they assume that the words of James negate what Paul said (Romans 3:28, James 2:24). In their blindness they then feel free to ignore Paul’s warnings against trusting in works. However, a careful examination of what James said makes it clear that Paul and James were talking about two different things. When Paul spoke of faith he was referring to faith in Christ. In contrast, the words, “You believe that there is one God; you do well: the devils also believe and tremble,” make it clear that the faith James regarded as “dead” was not faith in Christ at all. Likewise, when Paul spoke of works he was referring to works of righteousness, or obedience to the law. In contrast, the words, “Was not Rahab the Harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way,” make it perfectly clear that the works James had in mind were not works of obedience, or righteousness, but what we would call the fruits of faith (James 2:19, 20, 25). Therefore, James was not saying that we need works of righteousness in addition to faith. Instead he was saying that if a person truly has faith in Christ it will make a difference in their life.

WALKING BY FAITH


    To walk by faith is to conduct ourselves in a way that is in accord with the fact that we are justified by faith. In other words, if we really believe that our faith is accounted to us for righteousness, we will not be trying to make ourselves righteous (Galatians 3:6-8). That does not mean that we try to do evil! On the contrary, we came to Jesus in the first place because we were sorry for our sins. Because we love Jesus we want to be honest law-abiding citizens, responsible parents, and trustworthy employees. We want to be faithful to our spouse, to do what is right, to be loving, helpful, kind and forgiving. However, our motivation in doing such things is the love of God, not the delusion that our works bring God’s favor, or make us righteous (2Timothy 1:7, Isaiah 64:6). Nevertheless, I have said this to some people only to have them recoil in horror, not because I am advocating wickedness, but because they want to believe that they are required to keep the law, so that they can be motivated by the law (Romans 7:6). In fact, as long as a person thinks that the law will make them righteous (even if they admit that they fall short) they will see freedom from the law as freedom to be unrighteous. For that reason, it is only as we come to understand that the law does not make us even a little bit righteous, that we can see that freedom from the law is the freedom to be righteous (Romans 3:10, 20, Isaiah 64:6). In other words, if the law keeps us from being righteous by continually condemning everything we do, then the only way we can be righteous is to be freed from the law. And, the blood of Christ frees us from the law by cleansing us of all condemnation, thus making us righteous apart from the law (1John 1:7, Romans 3:21 and 7:4).

    While the world may regard those who seek righteousness by the law as holy. In the eyes of God they are just as unrepentant as someone who is a whoremonger and proud of it (Luke 18:9, Galatians 5:4). However, because the delusion of works righteousness is deeply rooted in the human heart, the religions of this world are all works oriented (Jeremiah 17:9, 1Corinthians 2:14). For that reason, we need to emphasize the fact that it is not sin but unbelief that damns, and that those who trust in the law to bring them God’s favor are not trusting in Christ (Galatians 5:4). Remember, the thief on the cross was saved, as was the publican, while the Pharisees (who were very strict in their observance of the law) were not (Luke 23:43, Acts 26:5, Matthew 21:31). Furthermore, we need to make it clear that true repentance consists of both contrition [i.e. sorrow for sin] and faith in Christ. Contrition alone is not enough! Judas was sorry for his sin, but his repentance was incomplete because it never led him to look to Christ for mercy. In short, we only walk by faith when we have a contrite heart, trust in Christ, and can say, like Paul, “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwells no good thing” (Romans 7:18, Isaiah 64:6, Luke 18:9).

THE STANDARD OF FAITH


“let us prophesy according to the standard of faith”
(Romans 12:6 interpreted by Isaiah 8:20)

    Once we understand how we are justified, it is important for us to bring our thoughts and words into agreement with that justification (2Corinthians 10:5, Romans 12:2). This involves interpreting the words of Scripture in the light of what is says about our inability to please God by our works, and the fact that true righteousness comes only through faith in Christ (Romans 3:10-28). It also involves learning to express ourselves in a way that is not easily misunderstood. For example: There is no problem with the statement, “God’s law requires obedience,” as long as it is understood that no one is able to do what the law requires. However, the words, “We must obey,” could easily hinder the work of the Gospel because they imply that we must “obey” to be saved (Galatians 5:4, 2Timothy 1:13, Romans 3:10-20).

    As we learn to interpret God’s Word in the light of what it says about justification by faith, it becomes clear that many passages will be understood one way by those who look to works for righteousness, and in another way by those who look to grace. Consider the following examples:

    Those who trust in works assume that the “strait gate” spoken of in Matthew 7:13-14, is the way of works righteousness (Matthew 7:13-14). In contrast, those who understand what it means to be justified by faith can see that the “strait gate” is the way of faith (Romans 3:20, Acts 4:12).

    When those who trust in works read that, “David did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord,” they assume that David’s works are being spoken of (1Kings 15:5). In contrast, those who understand what it means to be justified by faith realize that because there are “none righteous,” David could only be counted as doing right as long as his sins were not imputed (Galatians 3:6, Romans 4:6-8,13).

    When those who trust in works read that, “Whoever will eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” they assume that works determine who is worthy and who is not (1Corinthians 11:27). In contrast, those who understand what it means to be justified by faith should understand that if works cannot make us righteous they cannot possibly make us worthy (Romans 3:19-20). Therefore, the only people who are worthy are those repent and look to Christ for forgiveness (Romans 10:4, Galatians 3:6).

    When those who trust in works read that God told Abraham, “In your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because you have obeyed my voice,” they assume that Abraham’s “obedience” somehow earned that blessing (Genesis 22:18). In contrast, those who understand that we are justified by faith know that it was Abraham’s faith, not his works, that was imputed to him as obedience (Galatians 3:6). His willingness to sacrifice his son was only counted as obedience because he acted in faith, believing that his descendant was going to die as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, and that God would raise Him from the dead (compare Genesis 22:5 with Hebrews 11:19).

    Those who trust in works generally assume that “the fear of God” is what should motivate them to keep the law. In contrast, those who understand what the Bible says about justification by faith (and the fact that the law cannot make us righteous) should be able to see that those who seek righteousness by the law cannot truly fear God. If they did they would stop excusing their sins when they slip up, and would instead acknowledge those sins, seek God’s mercy, and trust God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ (Proverbs 28:13).

    When those who trust in works read that, “God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he who fears Him, and does what is right, is accepted with Him,” they assume those who are accepted are accepted on the basis of their works (Acts 10:34-35). In contrast, those who know that only those who trust in Christ are righteous in the sight of God, can see that those who fear God and do “what is right” are not those who try to make themselves righteous, but those who acknowledge their sin and trust in Christ (Romans 10:1-4). In other words, because no sin is imputed to those who trust in Christ, everyone who trusts in Christ is acceptable to God, no matter what their national background is (Luke 18:13, Romans 4:1-8, Romans 3:21-22, Romans 9:30-10:4).

    When those who trust in works learn that James said, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” they assume that James is talking about works of “obedience” (James 2:21). In contrast, those who understand what it means to be justified by faith can see that the words, “Was not Rahab the Harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way,” make it perfectly clear that the works James had in mind were not works of obedience, or righteousness, but what we would call the fruits of faith (James 2:25). Since a harlot could hardly be called "obedient," it should be obvious that James was not saying that we need “obedience” in addition to faith, but was instead saying that if we truly have faith in Christ it will make a difference in our life.

    When those who trust in works read that, “the law entered that offense [sin] might abound,” they are baffled, for they assume that the purpose of the law is to reduce sin (Romans 5:20). In contrast, those who understand what it means to be justified by faith can see the law came so that men would be more aware of their sin (Galatians 3:24, Romans 7:7).

    When those who trust in works read the words, “Don’t you know that in a race all of the runners run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize,” they assume that the prize is a reward given to us because of our works (1 Corinthians 9:24). However, those who understand that the law cannot make us righteous know that we do not get the prize because of our works. On the contrary, all that God has promised to us comes to us through faith in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). Therefore, those who “run in such a way as to get the prize” are those who trust in Christ. And, the point of Paul’s statement is not that we should look to works to bring God’s blessing (prize), but that we get rid of everything in our lives that hinders faith in Christ. Or as he put it when writing to the Hebrews, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin that so easily entangles us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1)

    When those who trust in works read the words, “Whosoever is born of God does not commit sin,” they assume that works are what makes a person sinless (1John 3:9). In contrast, those who understand what it means to be justified by faith are able to see a parallel between those words and the words, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” In other words, when we believe God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ [i.e. are born again] our faith is accounted to us for sinlessness (Galatians 3:6). Or, to put it another way, no sin is imputed to those who trust in Christ (Romans 4:6-8, Hebrews 10:26, 1 Kings 15:5).

    When those who trust in works read the words, “whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight,” they assume that our works determine if we are keeping God’s commandments or not (1John 3:22). In contrast, those who understand what it means to be justified by faith realize that if there are “none righteous,” and “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” then the only way to keep God’s commandments is to admit our sin and be justified through faith in Christ (Romans 3:10, Isaiah 64:6, Galatians 3:6). In fact that is what Paul was trying to tell us when he said “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one who believes” (Romans 10:4).

    When those who trust in works read the words, “all who are in the graves will hear his voice, And will come forth; those who have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and those who have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation,” they assume that works determine who has done good and who has done evil (John 5:28). In contrast, those who understand what it means to be justified by faith realize that if there are “none righteous,” and “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” then the only people who are not condemned for the evil they have done are those to whom God does not impute sin, namely those who trust in Christ (Romans 4:1-8). As it is written, there is “no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 5:1).

    When those who trust in works read the words, “when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of glory that will never fade away,” they assume that the “crown of glory” is a reward earned by our works (1Peter 5:4). In contrast, those who understand what it means to be justified by faith realize that if works cannot make us righteous, works cannot make us worthy of any crown. Therefore, when Paul speaks of the end of a life of faith as a crown, he is telling us that heaven is so glorious that simply getting there is will more than make up for anything we go through. Or as he put it in Romans 8:18, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

    Finally, while those who trust in works tend to think of conversion as a decision to start living by the law, once we come to faith in Christ, we can see that true conversion consists of coming to faith in Christ. Moreover, the Bible makes it perfectly clear that our faith is totally a gift of God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). Left to ourselves, we could not and would not believe (1Corinthians 12:3). Once we come to faith our sins are forgiven, we rise spiritually from being dead in trespasses and sins to new life in Christ, and all the riches of heaven are ours (Ephesians 2:1,6, 1 Corinthians 5:21).


CONCLUSION


    Because the Bible was written to testify of Christ, it is only understood correctly when it is understood in the light of what it says about Christ and how we are justified through faith in His finished work. Moreover, since we are saved by what Christ did, not by what we do, and since that salvation is a gift of God’s grace that we receive through faith alone, all of the glory for our salvation belongs to God alone (Isaiah 42:8).

 
“CHRIST ALONE”

“GRACE ALONE”

“FAITH ALONE”

“ALL GLORY TO GOD ALONE”