Therefore, Christ our Lord is the base and foundation for the spiritual edifice. Outside of Him there is no hope of salvation. But in Christ there is no loss or condemnation to be feared. He is the cornerstone, the rock, the entrance, the life, and the truth. This Jesus Christ alone was preached by the apostles and their disciples, whom the minister should imitate. Accordingly, Paul scorned the righteousness which he had from the law, and had no desire for it (Phil. 3). Together with all the apostles, he had taken Christ alone as his solid foundation, for which we give the following further examples, though the whole of Scripture would serve the purpose. “According to the grace of God which is given to me, I have laid the foundation, etc. Other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3). “You are citizens with the saints and of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2). “If you have tasted that the Lord is gracious, to whom you have come as to the living stone” (1 Peter 2). “This Jesus is the elect and precious cornerstone” (Isa. 28; Ps. 118).1
One of the meanest and oft-repeated caricatures of early Reformed theology (i.e., Reformed theology in the 1520s–50s) is that it was not genuinely Protestant, that it marginalized the doctrine of justification in favor of the doctrine of predestination, that was moralist (that it was unduly interested in controlling behavior), and that it was not centered upon or oriented around Christ. So far in this series we have seen this not to be true of the articles of the Synod of Bern from 1532 (see the resources below).
In chapter 4, over against Rome, Synod confessed that Christ, not the Pope, is the foundation of the church. Remember that in 1532, the Reformation was only about 11 years old. It was only in 1521 that Luther said to the powers of this age, the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, that his conscience was bound by the Word of God. The Reformation was still a new enterprise and very much in jeopardy. The empire and the Roman communion sought to stem its influence everywhere.
It is interesting that Synod confessed the uniqueness of Christ for salvation. Universalism was not a major challenge in the early 16th century, certainly not the way it is today, and yet the Scriptural witness of this truth is so clear that the Swiss Reformed in Bern had to confess it. There were those in the visible church, especially in the Roman congregations, who thought that they were saved not by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone but by virtue of their outward membership in the visible church. They thought that they had been initially justified in baptism and that they would be finally saved by grace and cooperation with grace. In the Roman system Christ is necessary but not sufficient. In the Reformed confession, Christ is necessary and sufficient. His person and work are enough. We saved in him, in communion with the church, but not by communion with the church. Rome had turned the communion of the saints into an instrument of salvation. Further, this confession means that we are not universalists. We opposed universalism in principle before it was a major problem and we oppose it now that it is a major challenge. Christ is the “way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). There is “no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Christ—not our cooperation with grace nor our future sanctification—is the hope of our salvation. In Christ we have confidence. In Christ, i.e., by the gracious union wrought by the Spirit, through faith alone, the Christian has confidence, not apprehension because Christ is our righteousness. Notice how Synod drives home this point: He is “cornerstone,” the “rock,” the “entrance,” “the life and the truth” (an unmistakable allusion to John 14:16). Synod pushes us away from looking at ourselves to look outside of ourselves (extra nos), specifically to look to Christ for our confidence. This is the Christ preached by the Apostles and this is the Christ that Reformed ministers ought to be preaching now. Synod says so: “whom ministers should imitate.”
Paul turned away from himself, his law-keeping, his cooperation with grace (the rabbis of his day had a system of grace and cooperation with grace, which Paul denounced as works righteousness) and turned to Christ as the foundation. In Philippians 3 Paul warns the congregation to watch out for the “dogs,” the “evildoers,” whom he identifies as those who would “mutilate the flesh” (Phil 3:2). These are the Judaizing Christians who tried to persuade the congregations to abandon the apostolic gospel of free favor with God through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone. He mocked them as dogs because they routinely described their enemies, the Gentiles, as dogs and unclean. Paul says that no, it is the Judaizers who are the dogs here, because they seek to corrupt the gospel. Paul renounced confidence in his “flesh,” in his genealogy, his circumcision, his law keeping, and his former persecution of the church. If anyone could have presented himself to God on the basis of the things the Judaizers think to be important, it would have been Paul but he renounced it all (3:8) as “rubbish.” He renounced his own law keeping (3:9). Rather, he would only be found “in Christ,” with what Luther would later call an “alien” righteousness, i.e., a righteousness that was proper to Christ, that belongs to Christ, but that is imputed to believers sola gratia. The righteousness by which he planned to stand before God is “by faith” (3:9). In context, it is clear that it is faith alone by which the believer lays hold of Christ’s righteousness. Our conformity to Christ comes by way of union with Christ (3:10) and that conformity is gradual and imperfect in this life (3:12–16).
Synod also cites and quotes 1 Corinthians 3:11: “For no man can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” Synod cites and quotes Ephesians 2:20. Christ is the chief cornerstone of the foundation of the prophets and apostles. Jesus is the elect and precious cornerstone (Isa 28:16; Ps 118:22). Synod was echoing 1 Peter 2:6–7.
In Reformed theology, from its very beginnings, we have seen Christ as the center of the promises of God in the history of redemption and the focus of the gospel promises to us sinners. In him we see God revealed. He is God’s Word to us. There is a good deal of ostensibly Reformed teaching which, judged by this and other Reformed confessions, is not Reformed at all because Christ is accidental to it. In too much ostensible (would be) Reformed teaching, Christ simply does not matter. His incarnation does not affect those theologies a whit. At best he is a facilitator, one who makes salvation possible but he has been rendered (God forbid) all but irrelevant. My practical theology professor, Derke Bergsma, used to remind us that if a rabbi or imam could preach our sermon, then it was not a Christian sermon. I do not think that was original with Derke but it is very true, and true to the Synod of Bern.
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1. James T. Dennison Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: 1523–1693, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008–2014), 235.