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October 22nd, 2017

In Christ Alone

Satan doesn’t mind if you believe, as long as you’re not stuck on Christ Alone.

Colossians 1:15-20

 

Christ-plus

This month, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we are naming the five “solas” that summarize Reformation thinking. Sola means “alone.” We have looked at Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) and Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone). Next week, on Reformation Sunday, we will combine Sola Fide (Faith alone) and Sola Gratia (Grace alone). Today: Solus Christus (Christ alone).

Every era finds a way to flirt with Christ-plus instead of Christ alone. In our generation of pluralism, Christ-plus looks like extreme tolerance for any religion or idea. Only intolerance is not tolerated. Many people inside and outside the church are okay with believing in Christ as long as we are not exclusive.

Christ-plus in our day can also take other forms. The world was created by Christ plus evolution. We find physical healing in Christ plus medicine. We trust Christ plus the stock market for our financial future. For healthy relationships, we pray to Christ and find a therapist. Salvation comes by trusting Christ and doing good works. Don’t tune me out yet when I say we need Solus Christus. I’ll come back to this theme.

In the sixteenth century, science and therapy and medicine were not yet rivals to the extent they are today. Still, it was Christ-plus that provoked the pioneers of the Reformation:  Christ plus the Church, plus the saints, plus the sacraments.

In the first century, when the Apostle Paul wrote the book of Colossians, it was Christ plus pagan idols, Christ plus the Jewish rituals, or Christ plus the Secret Society. In every age, the devil loves to endorse and promote Christ-plus. Satan doesn’t mind if you believe, as long as you’re not stuck on Christ Alone.

Supreme in the beginning and the end

We owe the loftiest expressions of Christology (the doctrine of Christ) to the Apostle Paul, although Peter, John, and the writer of Hebrews are quite articulate as well. The gospel writers, especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are quite restrained in their presentation of Jesus’ glory. Don’t get me wrong, their description of the events in Jesus’ life certainly present his uniqueness and hint at his deity, but for the most part the Gospels simply narrate the stories and let you make your own conclusion.

To me, that only adds to the credibility of these accounts we have of what Jesus actually did and said. Most scholars believe most of Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels. It would have been very tempting for Matthew, Mark, and Luke to project back on to the stories of Jesus the soaring language of Paul in his prison letters – Ephesians 1, Philippians 2, or Colossians 1. Instead, the gospels are like prequels that give you the backstory. Paul spares no words in honoring Christ Alone.

Paul’s letters address specific situations, but at times it’s hard to tell what the situation was. Colossae, a Roman city in southwestern Turkey, wasn’t important in the first century – not to the Romans and apparently not even to Paul. His strategy was to start churches in major urban centers from which the Gospel could then spread out.

Paul’s coworker Epaphras had founded the church (1:7-8) and reported to Paul on its progress. He also apparently informed Paul that others had infiltrated the church with ideas inconsistent with Paul’s teaching about Jesus. Maybe people weren’t listening to Epaphras. Paul’s in prison so he can’t visit the church personally. He writes his responses in this letter.

It’s hard to determine exactly what these false teachers were saying, but one or more of the following may have crept in –

  • Some of us are in on mysteries that go way beyond what Paul says (1:26)[1]. You need to come to our secret meetings.
  • If you’re going to follow Jesus, you’re going to have to declare yourself a Jew, because he was Jewish. Get yourself circumcised (2:11).
  • Jesus is special but not unique. You should worship him, but also worship angels (2:18).
  • Jesus saves you, but you still have to keep some important rules. Don’t touch that! Don’t eat this! Don’t get close to that! (2:20)
  • There’s truth in all religions. You don’t have to be hung up only on the Jesus way. He was just another of the many ways God connects to us (1:19-20).

The letter to the Colossians is Paul’s response, especially 1:15-20. What Paul writes here is more poem than letter, more song than lecture. Paul has either borrowed an early Christian hymn or written one himself to insert in the letter. I don’t know of any Bible version that does a better job mimicking the poetic parts of the Bible than The Message by Eugene Peterson. Close your eyes and let what Paul says in Colossians 1:15-20 fill your soul even as it reframes your mind.

We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen.
We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created.

For everything, absolutely everything,
above and below,
visible and invisible,
rank after rank after rank of angels
—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him.

He was there before any of it came into existence
and holds it all together right up to this moment.

And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together,
like a head does a body.

He was supreme in the beginning and
—leading the resurrection parade
—he is supreme in the end.

From beginning to end he’s there,
towering far above everything, everyone.

So spacious is he, so roomy,
that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding.

Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—
people and things,
animals and atoms—
get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies,
all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.

The key ideas are –

  • Christ Alone created and directs all things, especially his church.
  • Christ Alone crushed our greatest enemy, death, setting in motion the final restoration of all things.
  • Christ Alone deserves first place in everything.

Amen, and Hallelujah!

He alone is set before us

One would think that such a majestic description of Jesus would settle once and for all – at least in the church – that Jesus Christ has no rivals. But as I said, through the centuries the devil has always found a way to turn Christ Alone into Christ-plus. In the sixteenth century, one church held all the power, both religious and political, and the resulting distortions of truth had diluted the gospel to the point that it was barely recognizable as the gospel of Jesus and of Paul.

I do not mean to disparage the Catholic church around the corner or the church that Pope Francis leads from Rome today. The Catholic church itself has been reforming its own teachings and practices since the sixteenth century. Although there are still significant areas of disagreement with my theology or that of most Protestants, the gap is much narrower now than it was at the time of the reformation.

The church had abused its spiritual power over illiterate people to fill them with all kinds of superstitious ideas about buying forgiveness for sins and putting their trust in saints who rivaled Jesus and holding over believers the threat of punishment in the afterlife unless they participated in rituals and gave their offerings. It was Christ-plus, perhaps worse than what Paul had addressed in Colossae.

And so God sent the reformers. The most well-known names are Martin Luther in Germany, Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, Switzerland, and John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland. The 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth came in 2009, and I wrote many sermons and blogs about his life and influence in June and July of that year, including several reflections on the biography by Herman J. Selderhuis, which is well worth reading. Calvin may be one of the most misunderstood figures of history.

He was born in France, where Catholicism was still firmly entrenched long after the Protestants had gained a foothold in Germany and Switzerland. We don’t know the exact date of what he would later call his “sudden conversion,” but we do know he had to leave France in 1534 because of intense persecution of Protestants.

Within two years Calvin published a short book of six chapters that laid out the basic principles of Protestant faith, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. He would revise and enlarge and revise and enlarge this book through the years until the final edition was 80 chapters! The book propelled him to fame, and he planned to continue studying and writing as a scholar in Strasburg, Germany. Due to a war, however, he detoured through Geneva, where the leading minister urged 27-year-old Calvin to remain in the city and hold daily Bible studies on Paul’s letters. During those two years Calvin wrote a manual for church discipline which argued that the city government should not interfere with church affairs. He was expelled from Geneva.

Four years later, however, the Geneva city council begged Calvin to come back, and he remained there almost 25 years until his premature death at age 55, probably from workaholism. Along the way Calvin and others instituted an integrated system of church and civil government that was designed to teach and enforce Christian truth and behavior. John Knox from Scotland visited and said Calvin’s Geneva was “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles.” Thus, the Presbyterian church is our closest cousin.

Not everyone agreed with Knox – not then or since. The system was strict, too strict. There’s a sense in which Calvin’s Christ-plus was Christ-plus control – managing personal behavior through punishment by Consistory and council for those who disobeyed. Calvin coined the term “Consistory,” which we still use at Corinth, which included pastors, teachers, deacons, and elders – twelve of them assigned to various city districts. They were to oversee behavior in their section – including mandatory church attendance, no dancing, card playing, or singing pop music, and more. Calvin’s legacy on the modern church is visible in many ways – church prayer meetings, monthly communion, marriage counseling, Confirmation, and more. Some argue that John Calvin is the father of modern democracy.

Calvin’s most important legacy was his thorough system of Christian thinking in the Institutes. He put all Scripture and theology into an organized outline, with an answer for every objection. Calvin has the reputation, at least partly earned, for arrogance, but he believed the root sin is arrogance and the root virtue is humility.

Nevertheless, Calvin’s system was designed to promote humility. If God determines everything, and we nothing, then we can never take credit for anything – even and especially our salvation. We could never have come to Christ on our own. It is only because of what God did in and through Jesus that we have not only eternal life, but any and every blessing we enjoy. That’s why Calvin’s message was a message of Christ Alone to his world of Christ-plus.

In his commentary on Romans, Calvin wrote, “The whole gospel is included in Christ, so that if any removes one step from Christ, he withdraws himself from the gospel. For since he is the living and express image of the Father, it is no wonder, that he alone is set before us as one to whom our whole faith is to be directed and in whom it is to center.”

Twenty-first century response

We return to our own day. Maybe we’re not drawn to pagan idols, like the Colossians were, or to indulgences or superstitions, like medieval Catholics, but we still are tempted to Christ-plus. Our temptations come from our supposedly advanced culture, where we know more about history and science and medicine and religion and psychology.

None of these things is wrong by itself. I visit the doctor myself (along with the chiropractor, the dentist, the pharmacist). I recommend therapy for individuals and families. I watch TV and surf the internet. But there’s a wide gap between seeing these more modern advances as rivals of Christ and seeing them as gifts of Christ. In the latter case, the focus is still on Christ. He gives us physicians and therapists and advances in science and behavior. The way I know whether I’m trusting Christ is my response when things don’t turn out as I think they should.

Christ-plus is, in the end, Christ-plus ME. If I think Jesus needs my help to control the situation control people, it’s not Christ alone. The most serious undermining of Solus Christus in our or any day is that other religions have equal claim to truth. This we supposedly know because there are good people in those faiths. Sometimes they are better, a lot better, than Christians.

Yet we still preach Christ Alone. You may say, “Pastor Bob, are you absolutely sure that no one can be saved unless he or she embraces Christ in this life? Are you sure that sincere Jews and Muslims and Buddhists will go to hell forever?” My answer to that is that you just asked a question above my pay grade. I’m not responsible for eternal destinies. That’s God’s job, and I will trust him to do the right thing.

I will tell you what I am sure of – that it’s my responsibility to share Christ Alone as the hope of the world as long as I have breath and opportunity. Why am I so confident in Solus Christus as opposed to every other religious figure and system? Ten reasons. Go ahead and compare every other faith. Only Christ

  1. is eternally God,
  2. was born of a virgin,
  3. lived a sinless life,
  4. claimed the powers and prerogatives of deity,
  5. was crucified for the sins of all humanity,
  6. rose again from the dead with 500 witnesses, many of whom died as martyrs,
  7. ascended visibly to heaven where he sits at the right hand of God,
  8. will come again to judge the living and the dead,
  9. is still building his universal church, stronger than ever, and
  10. is still changing lives and giving hope.

It’s astounding how many Christians say they believe all of that, but don’t believe Christ Alone can save. The facts of Jesus’ life are well attested in early Christian documents, and this witness has stood the test of time.

As C. S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, if Jesus wasn’t God, he was

either a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.

Solus Christus. Amen.

 

[1] The Colossians references in these points refer to places in the letter where Paul seems to be correcting the wrong ideas that had been reported to him by Epaphras.

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