The Unsettling Gospel of God
I am reformed. That means that Luther and Calvin are “my homeboys” (as the t-shirts famously say). This also means that I believe that grace must be the foundational element that describes all of God’s interactions with man. It is the reformed person’s emphasis on grace that lays such a strong emphasis on man’s passivity in salvation. The salvation of mankind is God’s work through and through. The only things that man brings to the table in the scenario is sin and death.
One of the results of the Reformation is to see this reality throughout the scriptures. To see the soil of all scripture being infused with grace is a very positive move. Yet the sons of the reformation (that’s me and others like me) often make the mistake of only seeing the doctrine of justification by faith alone in the Bible...and nothing else.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve listened to a podcast from a reformed pastor give the same sermon (i.e. - justification by faith alone) 20 times in a row while preaching through the same book of the Bible (verse by verse). Now, some may respond that it is not a bad thing to preach such a wonderful doctrine over and over again and, in some ways, I might agree with you. However, it seems to me that the Bible pushes against such a wooden approach to things.
In fact, Paul, the apostle so famous for the doctrine, spends plenty of time writing about other things. Yes, Paul is often working towards or out of the doctrine, but he often dares to speak of other things too. The reason I bring all this up is because I think we reformed types miss some of the richer things scripture has for us because we insist that all scriptures must be teaching justification by faith alone when that isn’t necessarily the case.
This is often true when it comes to the way that we perceive broader portions of scripture. Because reformed doctrine is often so technical (again, not a bad thing, I’m reformed and I like things to be precise) it can meet difficulties in its attempts to paint with broader strokes. For example, what is the book of Matthew about? For many reformed types, the answer would be, “it’s about God forgiving our sins.” While this is certainly true it has also missed out on much of what Matthew is actually about!
As you might expect if you visit here often, I’m going to make a reference to Peter Leithart now. In the following quotation, Leithart sums up what the book of Matthew is all about. You’ll notice that the technical doctrine of justification by faith is nowhere to be found. However, the concepts of justification by faith (God’s loving forgiveness in the face of man’s rebellion) are replete throughout:
Yahweh comes in flesh; Israel’s Father comes as Israel’s Son, and He is rejected yet again. He is rejected more thoroughly than ever. Persecuting prophets is bad; killing God Himself is worse. But the resurrection shows that Israel’s God will not let Israel have the final word. He will not let Israel’s rejection stand. He keeps coming back, even after Israel thinks they have killed HIm. Israel does her worst: Yahweh comes as man, and Israel kills Him. If this were not a gospel, it would be a horror story, because this God cannot be stopped, cannot buried. He comes back, and back again, even from the grave. This is great good news, the unsettling gospel of God. Matthew’s gospel reveals that God is Love, and Matthew’s gospel shows us what kind of love God is: He is relentless, faithful, persistent Love. (pg. 131)
By allowing the Gospel of Matthew to tell the story it wants to tell (rather than telling the story of a doctrine) Leithart brings out so much helpful truth. Again, nothing that Leithart is getting at here is opposed to the Doctrines of Grace or the Five Solas of the Reformation. However, unlike many modern theologians and pastors, Leithart does read the Bible through a specific doctrinal lens. Rather, he allows the Bible to interpret itself in many places which allows for a deeper understanding of the text which, in the long run, will allow for a deeper and more complex understanding of doctrines like justification by faith alone.
Food for thought.