The Relevance of History

A great deal is being said today about the necessity of relevance. It is alleged that Christianity as it was understood by Christians in the first century is not relevant to modern man, that modern man, conditioned as he is by the scientific world-view, cannot accept the framework in which the New Testament is cast and that the gospel that will challenge him and meet him where he is conceptually and practically is one bereft of this framework and greatly modified in its message and demand. 1t is not to be denied that the gospel proclaimed must be relevant, that it must be presented to men where they are, and meet their needs in the situations in which they find themselves. But one thing must be said. It is only by the proclamation of the whole counsel of God, particularly regarding sin, misery, and judgment, that men will discover where they are and begin to assess their need. Much of the plea for relevance proceeds on the premise that what men assess as their need, and demand for the satisfaction of this need is that to which the gospel is to be adjusted. The result is that the solution proposed and the message proclaimed are accommodations to humanly conceived and articulated demands. There is the basic fallacy that men, apart from the conviction conditioned and created by law and gospel, are able to know what their real situation and need are. It is God’s judgment respecting sin and misery that must be brought to bear upon men where they are and where they find themselves. When this priority is not observed, then all presumed relevance is a distortion of the gospel and in our day such distortion as denies the central elements of New Testament Christianity.

The gospel is the glad tidings of salvation and, while salvation is always to something that far transcends anything that our human situation could dictate, it is also salvation, first of all, from sin in its guilt, condemnation, corruption, and misery. Have we sufficiently pondered the great lesson of our Lord’s promise that when the Spirit of truth would come he would convict the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment? In a gathering of this sort I am not bringing an indictment against the theoretical beliefs of any in this assembly. But I am asking the question with some concern and urgency: have we really grasped the implications of the word of our Lord just referred to? Theoretically we grant that all preaching of the gospel must be by the commission and endowment of the Holy Spirit. But the order Christ observed is not revoked. When he the Spirit of truth is come, he will convict the world of sin.

The gospel in our day, as in any day, is the gospel that comes into a world of sin and misery.

Theologically speaking at least, the most influential movements within protestantism deny the historical character of what is recorded for us in Genesis 3. And we risk reputation for scholarship and hope of being worthy of theological respect if we maintain the historical authenticity of this chapter. Genesis 3 is myth or legend, not history but story, portraying what happens to all men, but not a once-for-all series of events with abiding implications by virtue of the relations that Adam as the first man sustained to all men. Adam is every man. We are all Adam. We all sin as Adam sinned.

This might appear to be an effective way of maintaining, notwithstanding the denial of the historicity of Genesis 3, the fact that all have sinned. To unsuspecting evangelicals it becomes an appealing apologetic for the universality of sinfulness. But a little examination will show the fallacy.

1. It is not true that all sinned as Adam. There is a radical difference between Adam and posterity. We all come to be as sinners. Adam and Eve did not. If we are all Adam, then two positions basic to the Bible’s view of man are denied, the imputation to us of Adam’s sin and the doctrine of original sin. The beginning of our sinfulness was not by voluntary defection and transgression as ill the case of Adam but by divinely constituted solidarity with Adam in his sin. And original sin means that we are by nature dead in trespasses and sins not by acquisition as in the case of Adam and Eve.

We are dealing with the gospel in our day and dealing with sin as that in relation to which alone the gospel has meaning. The whole question of Adam and of the record in Genesis 3 is basic. If we adopt the dialectical approach and interpretation, then we have failed to assess the human situation in sin to which the gospel is addressed. There is a fundamental error in our construction of the existential and, deflected by this error, we cannot bring the gospel in the marvel of its grace to bear upon the real truth of sin in its gravity and depth. In reality it is the failure of relevance. For as the preachers of the gospel encounter the sinfulness of men, whether it be in the squalor and wretchedness of what we call the slums or in the facade of complacency of the opulent suburbs, the only explanation of the tangle of iniquity and the web of misery is the doctrine of original sin which Genesis 3, in the context of the biblical interpretation alone provides. “The judgment was from one unto condemnation” (Rom. 5:16).

Let me expand this point one step further. As we face up to the human situation, as we are truly existential, there is but one indictment that adequately measures up to what we find in our contact with humanity. And, as we search our own hearts and honestly scrutinize our lives, there is but one indictment that we can bring. It is that of total depravity. I cannot untangle the iniquity of my own heart and I cannot rationalize it. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). And as I turn to the grosser or more refined manifestations of iniquity in the church and in the world, there is but one verdict that describes it. “The mind of the flesh is enmity against God” (Rom. 8:7). This verdict must indeed be applied in the concrete, to the endless forms in which iniquity manifests itself. But the verdict of Scripture cannot be stated in truer or more relevant terms. If we think we have to qualify in order to make it more acceptable or intelligible to the modern mind, then we are trifling with God’s verdict and with the form of sound words exemplifying the principle of verbal inspiration, “not in words taught of human wisdom, but in words taught of the Spirit” (I Cor. 2:13). We are abdicating our vocation as messengers of the evangel unless the gospel we preach is one directed to depravity defined in these precise terms.

If the gospel is, first of all, one of salvation from sin in its guilt, defilement, misery, and power, it must have its centre provision for sin in just these terms. And if the gospel is to meet us where we are, not in terms of our conception but in terms of God’s judgment, it must be a gospel of God’s doing, of God’s action, of God’s action with reference to his own judgment upon sin. Once I, a sinner, have accepted God’s verdict, once God’s Word has found me where I am and conviction has come to correspond with reality, it is useless to tell me that I must be crucified to the world and the world crucified to me, however much this demand may be enforced by the example of Jesus of Nazareth. I say it is useless because it is not anything that I do in the realm of my experience, not even what I do in the moment of the noblest and most critical decision that meets my situation in sin. Nothing less than the message of what God has done, of what God did definitively with reference to his judgment upon my sin, can bring one ray of light and hope into my guilt, condemnation, alienation, curse, servitude, and misery.

It is here that we are in contact with the fatal denial of the gospel in current protestantism. What I have in mind now, in respect of the gospel, is the significance of the historical and the undermining of the same in the theology of the present. If the only message that meets the need created by our sin is the message of what God has done in reference to his own judgment upon sin, then it must be what God has done in the realm that is as truly, as strictly, as critically historical as is our sinful situation and the judgment of God upon it. Here, brethren, is the glory and the grandeur of the gospel.

Let us think for a few moments of the incarnation. This doctrine is that the eternal Son of God, preexistent from eternity, came into this world and became man. He who was above history, the Creator of history, became subject to history and to its conditions, not by ceasing to be what he was but by becoming what he was not, by being begotten of the Holy Spirit and conceived of the virgin at a definite point in time. If we possessed all the data this point could be fixed in the calendar as precisely as any other event. It was a once-for-all event, an event not above history but in history, not repeatable and not retractable. The uniqueness is bound up with its historical factuality. This advises us that history has profound significance in the accomplishment of God’s redemptive will. “When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son” (Gal. 4:4). In this historicity is already beginning to break upon our horizon the character of the gospel. History is invested with profound significance in redemptive accomplishment. The grand mystery of godliness is itself the harbinger of light and hope.



Let us now think for a few moments of the cross of Christ. It is impossible to eliminate from the witness of the New Testament the note of finality attached to the cross of Christ. Whether it he the testimony of our Lord that he came to give his life a ransom, that he should suffer and rise from the dead the third day, or that of Paul that Christ died for our sins, that he reconciled us to God by his blood, or of John that he redeemed us to God by his blood, or of Peter that he bore our sins in his own body upon the tree, it all points to that which comes to its most explicit expression in the Epistle to the Hebrews that Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many, that once in the consummation of the ages hath he been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself, that having made purgation of sins he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high. It is this event, certified as event by its once-for-allness, certified as a finished event by the sequel of diametrically different character, certified as an historically dated event by the fact that the whole of redemptive history moves to this climax as something belonging to the fulness of time, the consummating time, an event interpreted for us as God reconciling the world to himself, as redeeming us by Jesus’ blood, as the making of purgation for sins, as propitiation for our sins and, therefore, interpreted as God’s definitive action with reference to his own judgment upon sin, it is this event in the message of proclamation that meets me and you and all men to whom it comes in the situation which God’s verdict pronounces to be ours. No other message has relevance to the human crisis in that which defines it most basically and existentially. This event is relevant and its proclamation the sound of the jubilee trumpet precisely because the great event proclaimed was something that God did in history as concrete and datable as that in which we find ourselves. And it is because Christ vicariously bore sin and condemnation and wrought for our redemption what was unique, without parallel and incapable of parallel, unrepeated and unrepeatable, that we may as ambassadors on behalf of Christ and as of God beseech men to be reconciled to God, an exhortation which in reality means “accept the message of God’s once-far-all reconciling action and enter into the status which God’s action has constituted and established.”

The interpretation that the cross of Christ is something exemplified, verified, and repeated when we are crucified to the world and the world crucified to us is a complete perversion of the gospel and of the Pauline text (Gal. 6:14) in particular. It is true that through the cross of Christ we become crucified to the world hut only when the cross of Christ is perceived to he that once-for-all act of redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation in which God has definitively dealt with his own judgment upon sin and executed judgment upon the God of this world. It is by the constraint of this marvel of God’s grace proclaimed to us in the message of reconciliation that we are crucified to the world. Just as the epitome of the world is self-righteousness, it is in the supreme manifestation of grace in Christ’s cross that self-righteousness receives its death blow.

Permit me to go a little further in delineating the significance of history in gospel accomplishment and message. The fiat, unequivocal denial of the resurrection of Christ rests upon an assumption that is fundamentally sound. It is that resurrection, if there had been such, means bodily, physical reanimation, that the corpse of Jesus laid in the tomb revived, rose from the tomb, and was reunited with the spirit that had departed in the event of death. This is the only conception of resurrection that measures up to the New Testament definition. It is much less misleading to deny the fact and possibility than to maintain a view of resurrection that denies its bodily, physical character.

What the gospel demands is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead on the third day, on the first day of the week. Here again the historical is as integral as in the incarnation and the cross of Christ. In the witness of Jesus himself both before his crucifixion and after his resurrection and in the witness of the apostles the conjunction of the death and resurrection proclaims the great lesson not simply of historic continuity between Christ crucified and the apostolic message (kerugma) but between Jesus crucified and the risen Saviour and this continuity as the only ground of the conjunction in the apostolic proclamation. It is this lesson that is so eloquently inscribed on Peter’s climax on the day of Pentecost: “This one being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God ye through the hand of lawless men have crucified and slain, whom God raised up, having loosed the pangs of death, inasmuch as it was not possible that he should be holden of it…. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that this same Jesus whom ye have crucified God hath made both Lord and Christ” ( Acts 2:23, 24, 36). It is the stupendous fact of the identity of the crucified Jesus and the exalted Lord.

What is it that makes the gospel the message of power? How is it that the Kingdom of God is power? How is it that the gospel comes into the guilt and degradation and misery of our sinful situation and raises men and women from the mire ·and sets their feet upon a rock, from the dunghill and makes them princes and princesses in the city of God? It is not because the early church made the crucified Jesus the Christ of the “kerugma.” It is because the fact of the resurrection constituted the apostolic message. It is because the apostles and others were the witnesses of the exceeding greatness of the power of God when he raised up Jesus from the dead and set him at his own right hand that the apostles proclaimed Jesus as Lord.

Allow me to bring this to the focus of its relevance as a historic fact. It is precisely because the resurrection of Jesus from the dead took place in all the concreteness of datable, calendar history, in history that is as concrete, factual, and phenomenal as the situation in which we men find ourselves in the desperation of our sin, and misery, and death that it is the power of God to us. The resurrection must be history to be relevant to us. God came into our history and wrought with the exceeding greatness of his power, and, because Jesus now lives in the realm constituted by this resurrection power, lives in the glory his resurrection inaugurated and the ascension completed, that proclamation is not in word only but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power and faith rests not upon the wisdom of men but on the power of God.

One of the ways in which the temper of our day shows the antithesis of unbelief is the hopeless nihilism of its prospect. Death casts the pall of impenetrable darkness over the minds of men. Through fear of death they are all their lifetime subject to bondage. They do not have hope. The enigma of death makes life a pilgrimage into meaningless destiny. When Paul brings one of the sections of the epistle to the Romans to a conclusion he says: “But the God of hope fin you with all joy and peace in believing, to the end that you may abound in hope in the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). The temper is one of total contrast. Joy, peace, hope. No, not merely. It is abounding joy, peace, and hope. Why? It is Jesus’ resurrection that has transformed the whole complexion of life, of perspective, of outlook, of destiny. It is again eloquent of the unbreakable conjunction of Jesus’ death and resurrection that the epistle to the Hebrews should read that Jesus partook of blood and flesh “in order that through death he might bring to nought him that had the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver them who by fear of death were all their lifetime suhject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14, 15) and Peter should write: “Blessed be the, God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, according to his abundant mercy, hath begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (I Peter 1:3).

The promise has been fulfilled: “O death I will be thy plagues. O grave I will be thy destruction” (Hos. 13:14). Christ is the first that should rise from the dead. He is the first-fruits. And it is the event of the first Lord’s day in its historic and factual concreteness that alone can be relevant for us in the reality of death and in the consummating event that will abolish it. “Then will be brought to pass the saying that is written, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. O death where is thy victory? O death where is thy sting?’” (I Cor. 15:54,55). And this hope we may have “as the anchor of the soul both sure and stedfast and which entereth within the veil, whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:19,20).

Finally, permit me to relate this subject of the historical to that which lies close to our interest, the authority and finality of Holy Scripture. The Scripture is a collection of books completed nearly nineteen centuries ago and written over a period of some fifteen hundred years. Why should such a collection have the authority of finality? I have attempled to bring to the forefront the centrality of the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again of Jesus as the Son of God. It is what is pivotal in this complex of events that grounds and vindicates the finality of Scripture. Familiarity is too liable to obscure the significance of what occurred some two thousand years ago. Something astounding occurred, something without precedent, without parallel, without repetition. It was one unique, incomparable event. It was the coming of the Son of God in human flesh into this world of sin and death. Our minds stagger when we think of the marvel of this condescension and conjunction, the God-man combining all the attributes of deity ansi all the attributes of humanity in one person and, as the God-man, condescending to the lowest depths of humiliation conceivable. The whole history of redemptive revelation prior to his coming was the prologue. The focal point of Old Testament revelation was messianic prophecy. Old Testament Scripture is the inscripturated deposit of the revelation given in anticipation of Christ’s coming and New Testament Scripture is the deposit of that revelation of which Christ himself is the embodiment. There is no antithesis between Christ as the personal ‘Word and the whole of Scripture as the inscripturated Word. It is by virtue of what Christ supremely and astoundingly was and is that Scripture possesses its finality and authority. And it is because Scripture is the deposit of God’s revealed will that we can have any knowledge of or access to Christ in his identity as the Word made flesh.

This is why Scripture possesses its finality and authority. The whole of Scripture is related to the incomparable events of the coming into the world of the Son of God, of the revelation that he is, of the work he accomplished, and of the redemption he wrought. Since there is no repetition of that complex of events, since the heavens must receive the exalted Christ until the times of the restitution of all things, the Scripture partakes of the finality that is correspondent with the finality of this complex of events, in a word, the finality of Christ himself. Now once in the consummation of the ages has Christ been manifested. So now once in the same consummation of the ages has revelation taken its complete and final form until Christ will come again and revelation will be resumed in the manifestation of his glory.

Recently REFORMED FELLOWSHIP INC. held its annual meetings. At that time we were especially privileged to hear Prof. John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary, well known to our readers and presently en route to his home in Scotland upon his retirement from the classroom. With his customary clarity and incisiveness he demonstrates the antithesis between faith and unbelief and urges that only the Biblical message, rooted in God’s self-revelation in history, can truly meet the needs of men today.