Cultural Optimism and the Unnecessary Cross

The cross of Christ is an offense because it exposes both man’s depravity and his helplessness to save himself. If man can make the cross appear less offensive, less condemnatory, less humiliating, less absolute in its antithesis-establishing significance, he will obscure the sharpness of its message: “Choose today whom you will serve; you cannot serve two masters. Think not that I am come to send peace, but a sword.”

Evident in many of the cultural products of man laws, books, sermons, treaties, constitutions, creeds one may see the heart-commitment of the human worshipper and worker. For he worships and serves the Lord Jehovah in Christ the King or one of a thousand idols, all of which may be summed up in Self-Humanism. The Christian’s duty is to discern the spirits: do they belong to the Light or the darkness, to the Truth or the lie, to Christ or the antichrist? Culture—the home, the farm, industry, statecraft, the ministry, medicine, education, literature, art, physical recreation -all must be restored to Christ the Victor by his subjects in obedience and homage. For by his death and resurrection he has established His Kingdom and crushed the power of the deathly Prince of this World.

In “Christ of the Present Time II” (December 1966 Reformed Journal), Dr. Lewis Smedes of Calvin College speaks of the role of Christ in human history as reconciliation: “In a real sense, He wills to be subservient to men. His job as Lord is to carryon and complete the work that God sent Him to do, the reconciliation of men through the way of the cross” (p. 6). But what Dr. Smedes means by reconciliation and the cross confuses and enfeebles the Gospel of Christ as Savior, the Redeemer of repentant sinners.

Notice how he carefully limits the Biblical meaning of reconciliation: “As Jesus laid the groundwork for reconciliation by breaking down the wall of hostility between men at the cross, the Spirit carries on the service of reconciliation by leading men across the strewn bricks…The wall between men has been broken, and people led by the Spirit have already crossed over to each other” (p. 7).

The essence of Biblical reconciliation, however, is not the affiliation of man with man, but rather the reconciliation of sin-sorry man to his sovereign God through Christ, the crucified and risen Savior. Once, it seemed, we were not ashamed or afraid to declare the good news that Christ has come to this world to die and rise triumphant so that sinners who repent may have eternal life.

But now hear Dr. Smedes’ version of the Gospel: “The good news is that Christ has entered human history to stay, that a new order M life and hope has been created, and that He is on the move.” Fine phrases, perhaps, but where is salvation from sin?

No, Christ is not primarily Savior and Redeemer from sin for Smedes, but, rather, the Reconciler—and only a social reconciler at that. Only twice in his article does he mention sin, and then, both times, it is the sin of the church: “a group of sinful men” (p. 7) and “The church commits the terrible sin of pretension” (p. 8)—and this “pretension” is our adherence to such Scriptural truths as hell and the crucial doctrine of repentance (gift of the Holy Spirit), instead of Smedes’ superficial social-reconciliation program.

Another essay, “Behold the Man” (also December 1966 Reformed Journal), by Prof. John Beversluis of Grand Valley College, is a defense of the same prominent anthropocentric position from an apparently invulnerable turret, a confession of Christ’s deity: “Accustomed as we are to thinking of Him as the Savior and Mediator…”; but soon he begins his attack, which explodes in a culminating salvo of Barthian vagueness and universalism.

Observe his strategy: “We may of course admit as a matter of ‘theology’ that in Jesus Christ we are delivered from sin. The troublesome fact is, however, that the personality of the deliverer, as commonly represented, is just not the sort to which we are ordinarily drawn [of course not, for “there is no beauty that we should desire him.” M.M.]. His attractiveness seems often to be due not to His goodness, but to His sheer redemptive power.-The paradoxical situation then arises in which we are obliged to seek out a person whose only attractiveness lies not in what He is, but in what He can do for us, namely, give us salvation” ( pp.3–4).



Are we called to personify and psychoanalyze Christ our Lord? He is, wonderfully, first of all, my Savior and King, and I love him both for and as that, not for his physical features, not for his table manners or pulpit mannerisms, not for his moods (none of which had the least taint of sin), but because he is, indeed, my Deliverer, my Redeemer from the guilt and corruption of sin.

The reader’s first clear warning that he is entering the muddle of Barthianism comes through the following passage, which obscures that fundamental Biblical distinction between the creature, man, and the Creator, God: “Manhood is taken up into Godhead. Man is in Jesus Christ given back to God by an act of self-surrender just as within the eternal world of the Godhead begotten deity is continually given back to begetting deity.” And then, as a bit of topping, Mr. Beversluis adds the familiar Barthian formula: “Jesus Christ is God loving men and man loving God.”

Finally, as the reader is half-dopey with the narcotic of neo-orthodoxy, the writer puts the sweet poison of universalism on the tongue of our Savior himself: “‘It is finished,’ He said. ‘Into Thy hands I commend my Spirit.’ That is to say [and here Beversluis gets in his no-justice, all-mercy teaching about the nature of God -M.M.]’ ‘Into Thy hands I place a restored and redeemed human nature. What the first Adam could not do 1 have done. Henceforth for my sake look upon the sons of Adam not in judgment but in mercy, for they know not what they do’” (p. 5).

Nowadays—if we speak of God as alive at all we speak only of his tenderness, pity, and love. No one would be so crass and cruel as to accuse him of righteousness, holiness, justice, and certainly not wrath—even though Psalm 5:5 says, “Thou hatest all workers of iniquity.” From letters that I have received recently, I must conclude, sadly, that Dr. Smedes has tossed an attractive tidbit to certain “speculators” in the Christian Reformed ministry by reducing hell to a mere “possibility.” In fact, some are already defending that heresy to their church members. One correspondent expresses our fears for God’s people with tragic simplicity: “The poor sheep.”

Dr. Leonard Greenway, speaking for those who still accept the Bible for what it plainly teaches, asks in his “Letter” (December 1966 Reformed Journal), “In what sense are we permitted to speak of ‘a human hope’ for an ‘empty hell,’ when the Bible teaches that such a place of retribution is not only a ‘possibility’ but an actuality?” (p. 23)

Flitting glibly and illogically from one specials excuse to another, Dr. Smedes answers that hell is not a Scriptural doctrine: “Man is not asked to believe in hell”; hell “is not related as a matter-of-fact actuality”; and “There is no man I can think of whom I know with absolute certainty to be in hell” (p. 23).

Amazing! Why we hardly need the Bible any more for our theology. And we can now ignore the testimony of Christ himself concerning Judas Iscariot: “Those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (John 17:12).

The Church of Christ needs responsible, Biblical pastoral guidance. Many laymen and ministers in the Christian Reformed Church are praying for a return to a clear, faithful, and fearless presentation of God’s Word in all our churches. But we also need the unsophisticated, uncompromising written witness of godly men, soldiers of Christ, aroused to test and oppose the spirits of our time, for “Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist” (I John 4:2–3).

The genius of the antichrist today seems to ferment in a refined, intellectual atmosphere. Prof. H. Pietersrna of Toronto introduces the subject “Predestination” in the December 1966 Reformed Journal, and we hope that his fear of a fatalistic interpretation will not urge him to deviant, unreformed, and unbiblical extremes; but this sentence in his justification for choosing the topic is not reassuring: “There is ample reason for a new formulation of the doctrine of predestination in the light of recent theological advances in this matter.”

That sentence made me think of the refined, intellectual pose: new “light”? “recent theological advances”? Harry Blamires comments on these matters in his book The Christian Mind:

We look for the Christian mind in those places where it ought to be forcefully, even harshly evident, and we find not a rock but a bog. From the cosy clerical studies…the secularist voices, thinly disguised, drone on. “A number of modern theologians are of the opinion that…More and more thinkers in the Churches are coming round to the view that…Up-to-date scholarship is beginning to hold that…” Who would think that Christian theology is a solid, objective body of knowledge, in its essentials fixed and unchangeable? It is made to appear like a collection of capricious conjectures or majority opinions which change with the punctuations of intellectual fashion…These delusions spring from the erosion of objectivity. All in different ways testify to human abdication at the rational level. They are in tune with the growing assumption that all questions of belief, morality, and value, are matters of opinion as capricious and individual as one’s personal taste in socks or radio comedians.

May we sinning Christians confess our sin to our Savior; may we pray eagerly for the coming of Christ as our Lord and King; may we hold resolutely to the truths of his inspired, infallible, inerrant Word; and may we work and pray with love and faith for the salvation of others, so that all God’s chosen may be gathered to him, his kingdom may come, and his will be done to the glory of his name in earth and heaven.

And “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God that God in all things may be glorified through jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever” (1 Peter 4:11), “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness: hut unto us which are saved it is the power of Cod. For it is written, 1 will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent…But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both jews and Creeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (I Cor. 1:18–19:23–24).