It is good to celebrate our Christian heritage. This year heralds the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a milestone at which many Christians within this tradition will stop and celebrate their religious heritage, gratefully reflecting on the doctrinal truths affirmed by their ‘ideological’ forefathers. Indeed this jubilation is not without justification (no pun intended) as this movement impacted many generations for the better, in numerous ways.
Significantly, the Protestant Reformers reinstated the primacy of the authority of the Bible within Christian thinking and practice, advocating that only God’s Spirit-inspired word has the right to hold our moral consciences to account, above and beyond the authority of ecclesial tradition. The Reformers’ also reinstated the exclusivity of faith, as the means of laying hold of salvation, boldly reiterating the truth that a believer’s right standing before God should never rest, in part or in whole, on the merit of human works. These truths remain indispensible to right belief and practice.
But to simply reflect on this 500-year-old heritage with warm sentimental feelings whilst failing to grasp the kernel of religious reformation is to drift into territory that the Reformers actually countered–uncritical acceptance of religious tradition. The Reformers challenged Christians to think for themselves, personally drawing from God’s Word, and not simply accept the religious status quo, as it is presented to them. They boldly confronted the religious challenges of their time by bringing a fresh appreciation of God’s truth to bear on their own context.
And on the subject of context, it is worth mentioning that all theological reflection has a given context, and the context of 16th century Europe is substantively different from the context of the 21st century modern world. In the 16th century, the ‘sacred umbrella’ of the Medieval Catholicism defined religious and social culture; a culture that bound the general populations’ moral conscience with a fear-based religion. However, in the 21st century context, we encounter a secularized culture that is largely evacuated of moral imperatives, an environment in which immorality is not only freely practiced but shamelessly celebrated!
So in this radically different context, to simply reiterate 16th century Protestant emphases against ‘good works’, may actually serve to work against the Gospel. In this new context, we must be prepared to draw on the courageous zeal of the Reformers and boldly re-engage our culture with a fresh and timely application of the Gospel.
In my forthcoming book Spirit and Gospel: the Power of God for Salvation, in a small way, I seek to do just this. I suggest that Paul’s Gospel presentation in Romans is not ‘only’ focussed on how one can be justified before God, and that legal frames of reference do not define Paul’s entire presentation of the Gospel. Rather, I argue that the Apostle’s Gospel exposition in Romans is largely underwritten by a deep appreciation of the Spirit— the new modus operandi for those ‘in Christ’.
Viewed this way, we can see that the Gospel does far more than remove ‘legal’ guilt from the penitent sinner that they might have assurance of eternal life, but it actually empowers an existential deliverance from sin’s ubiquitous power and presence. Such that those embracing Christ can experience the comprehensive power of God’s saving work here and now, as well as in eternity.
As I revisited Paul’s presentation of the Gospel in Romans 1-8, I observed that he structures his message with the sequential use of powerful metaphors. Signalled by the themes of glory, creation, and the Jew/Gentile distinction, the temple metaphor shapes the argument of Romans 1 and 2 and challenges even the most devout person that ‘all’, both Jew and Gentile, fall short of God’s glory and need the saving work of Christ. Paul then follows up with a legal metaphor in Romans 3 through 5, stressing the justifying work of Christ. This justifying work not only enables a right ‘legal’ standing before God, but through the Spirit’s powerful application of God’s love, empowers and enables the removal of ‘real’ guilt, that the believer’s justification is experienced as far more than a mere ‘legal fiction’.
Then, by using the primary metaphor of slavery from Romans 6:1-8:13, the apostle reminds us that our new moral state ‘in Christ’ is no longer animated by law keeping, but is powerfully administered by God’s Spirit. Consequently, the believer is no longer a slave to the lingering power of sin, but is set free to serve in the ‘new way’ of the Spirit (Romans7:6). Finally, in the remainder of chapter 8 we are challenged to consider the powerful reality of our adoption by God, through Christ. By using this familial metaphor, Paul exhorts us to embrace a new reality, a reality in which we can actually be free from sin’s debilitating presence, both in a present provisional sense and an ultimate eternal sense.
The Gospel does not simply liberate us from the guilt of past sins, leaving us to struggle on in our own strength, either under the tutelage of God’s law or some form of contrived religion. On the contrary, through the Spirit’s powerful presence, Christ’s victory remains for us an ever present reality which proves itself a substantial bulwark against the tide of our current culture.
Whilst the ubiquitous presence of evil, administered by a modern culture evacuated of any moral imperatives, works relentlessly to undermine our Christian hope, the Gospel not only offers us the hope of eternal life but the practical means of victoriously living in a God honouring way. In the abiding presence of Christ through empowering presence of His Spirit, we embrace a comprehensive salvation: acquitted from sin’s penalty, emancipated from sin’s power, and delivered from sin’s presence. Therefore, as we face unprecedented challenges in this new era, may we never forget that the Gospel still is and will forever remain, in the fullest sense, the power of God for salvation.
Roland J Lowther is the author of Spirit and Life (Paternoster, 2016 ISBN: 9781842278833) and Spirit and Gospel (Paternoster, 2017 ISBN: 9781842278864).He is an Australian author, who has a PhD from the University of Queensland specialising on the relationship of the Holy Spirit with the Christian life.