The Heart of the Gospel (and Sola Scriptura Too)

The most recent WHI is (another) not-to-miss episode. Shane has conducted more NRB interviews. Some of them are what we’ve come to expect but some are surprising. You should hear them. Along the way the fellows made three terrific points. 1. The heart of the gospel is not about us. The heart of the gospel is Christ for us (Christus pro nobis). This was the essence of Paul’s message: that Christ came for us, to do for us what we could not and would not do. He obeyed. He was crucified. He was raised. He is ascended. He is returning.  The medieval church turned the gospel into a message about what Christ is doing in us, by grace, in sanctification, and about what we must do to do our part in order to benefit: cooperate with grace. The good news is that we have no part, not in this story. We’re recipient. We’re beggars; we’re not contributors to the story.  A second point they made this week is that, though it is a great sin to corrupt the gospel and it is apostasy to deny the gospel, we are not saved because we formulate the gospel rightly or because we understand the gospel better intellectually. We are justified by Christ’s righteousness for us and imputed to us and received through faith alone. There are some (perhaps many) who probably cannot formulate the gospel properly who, nevertheless, are trusting in Christ’s finished work for us—even if they give the wrong answers on a pop quiz. As Warfield said, On our knees, we’re all Calvinists. This is no excuse for being sloppy. Paul wasn’t kidding when said, (paraphrasing) “even if I or an angel comes to you to preach another gospel (not that there really is another gospel as he says elsewhere) don’t you believe them.” Paul was a stickler about getting the gospel right and getting it out. We don’t have to choose between them. We must have a true gospel to preach promiscuously (according to the Synod of Dort, 2nd Head of Doctrine).

Finally, in passing, Mike made a terrific point about sola Scriptura from Paul’s language in Galatians about the logical priority of the objective gospel message relative to Paul or even angels. Rome says that the church forms the canon. In Galatians, however, Paul has it that the gospel forms the messenger! If Rome were right, Paul should have said, “Well, if I come back to you with a different gospel, that’s okay because I’m an apostle and I have magisterial authority. I, as a vicar of  Christ on the earth, can change the gospel.” No. What Paul actually said is that the gospel is what it is. It cannot be changed. The gospel norms the apostle. The gospel norms (theoretical) angelic preachers. The gospel message is fixed, certain, and immutable. You must trust Christ and you can also trust that the gospel is what it is because it comes from Christ himself and its center is Christ for us.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. It is an amazing thing that our human pride wants to take some credit for our salvation. We have a hard time accepting the good news of the Gospel. It keeps raising its ugly head and has caused problems in the Church since the reformation. The Catholics and Anabaptists went ballistic against the Reformers and nearly destroyed them after Luther died. Only by the grace of God and the rise of the Calvinists and the second Martin did the reformation continue on for a bit longer. The wiles and craftiness of the enemy are subtle and apppeals to our human flesh and ego. Our only defense against this is strict adherence to the Gospel that Paul wrote to us about and how the reformers interpreted this Gospel in their confessions and catechisms. Thank God this is making inroads back into Church’s again today. It will not be without a huge fight against the purveyors of the human gospel who think they know better than God. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To Him be glory forever Amen. (Romans 11:34-36)

  2. Scott,

    I want to raise an objection to one thing you said:

    The good news is that we have no part, not in this story.

    I understand the desire to give God all the glory. But the problem with the idea that “we have no part, not in this story” is that it removes any reason for our being here in this life, once we come to faith. It makes the period between regeneration and glorification, needless and pointless. I talked about this in my “Monocausalism and Temporal Nihilism” post back in February.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

    • Bryan,

      In De gratia et libero arbitrio someone raised the question, (paraphrasing), “If it’s all of grace, what place is there for merit?” Bernard answered, in effect, “We all know that there must be a place for merit so…” and off he went.

      This is the fundamental problem you raise. Your post here (I’ve not read your blog post) assumes an a priori I do not: “We all know that in order for God to be just” or “We know that in order for human life to have significance” (it doesn’t really matter which it is) x must be the case.

      Then you impute to me an a priori from which you assume I must be deducing my conclusion. I am not. It’s true that I am committed to soli Deo gloria and unapologetically do but I do not begin with that a priori. It’s the consequence of the process of beginning with the perspicuous Word of God.

      One of the great breakthroughs of the Reformation was that it was able to challenge the stifling a priori that had dominated W. theology since at least the 9th century: “We all know how things have to be” namely, “We all know that God can only say what he says about us because it corresponds to an intrinsic reality within us, i.e. he can only declare us righteous if we are actually intrinsically righteous and we can only be so by grace and cooperation with grace.”

      For reasons that defy description in a combox the Protestants were able to see this assumption for what it was: a rationalist a priori that placed both God’s Word and the gospel in a Babylonian Captivity of sorts.

      The key that unlocks the chains of captivity is the perspicuity of Scripture. I realize that it is unfashionable in our subjectivist (late modern or most modern) age to assert and affirm the perspicuity of any text, let alone that of holy Scripture, but it must be done. Yes, Scripture must be read by people, in a time and in a place, in a community. Amen! But Scripture is not just any text! It is the Word of God and it is not bound by this time or that time or this place or that place.

      The great (late) modernist error is that we make Scripture the victim instead of the actor. This error is not new. It was one of the great errors of the medieval church as she over-reacted to the Cathars and it is one of the greatest errors of Trent.

      Scripture is not passive. Scripture does not wait for us to unlock it. Scripture is not formed by the church and it isn’t formed by our reception of it. Scripture is the actor. Scripture forms us and the church. Scripture is the creative, justifying, and regenerating Word of God.

      This is the pattern throughout the history of creation and redemption. God speaks into nothing and creation appears. Neither God nor the Word, who was in the beginning, through whom all things came into being, without whom nothing came into being that has come into being, needs us to bring creation and created reality into being.

      So it is with redemption and righteousness. Just as Yahweh speaks and by his powerful, saving Word redeems Israel from Pharaoh’s clutches, so the Word in all ages comes with its own power. That power is the Spirit of God who hovered over the face of the deep, who overshadowed the Israel of God, who hovers over the people of God today, who leads us as he led them through the wilderness as a pillar of fire and cloud. The powerful, creative, renewing Spirit acts on the readers and hearers and speakers of God’s Word. That same Spirit makes God’s Word clear in its essential doctrines of creation and redemption.

      This is why I continue to confess the perspicuity of Scripture. This is why I continue to assert and affirm the Reformation solas, beginning with sola scriptura. This is ultimately an affirmation of our humanity because it is an affirmation of our createdness, our status as image bearers who are constituted to hear and understand the Word. The Spirit must open our eyes and illumine our minds and hearts, but as he breathed life into Adam, so he is more than capable and willing to breathe life into the readers and hearers of Scripture now.

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