I am taking the youth staff through Paul Zahl’s Who Will Deliver Us? (Wipf and Stock, 1983). Its a great book, honest and vivid and courageous in applying the gospel to our deepest emotional struggles. The great strength of the book, as I see it, is that Zahl takes classic atonement theology and translates it into modern psychological categories of experience. He argues in chapter 1 that a deep-seated fear of ultimate judgment stands underneath our feelings of stress, depression, and anger, and that we tend to respond to deep fear with either escape, open resistance, or appeasement. In chapter 2 he explores the universal human need for atonement as a response to this fear, looking at both religious and secular expressions of this need. In chapter 3, which I read today in preparation for our staff meeting tomorrow, he presents Christ’s death on the cross as the answer to this human need for atonement in light of our deep, inner fear of judgment and condemnation. I found this chapter a refreshing reminder of the infinite value of the death of Christ for me, each moment afresh. Here’s a good sample quote:
“What is the present value of the death of Christ? How can something that happened long ago meet the judgment that afflicts us now? We have proposed that the problem of being human is essentially a factor of fear. We live our lives under judgment. Whether it is for wrongdoing in a conscious mode or the pervasive, irrational, multiform fear that we are worthless and no good, we live our lives under judgment…. I believe in the atonement of Jesus Christ because it disarms the law and frees me from the fear of judgment. This judgment would use as evidence against me not only the deliberate sins and conscious moral failures of which I feel most painfully aware, but also the compulsive patterns and imprisoning proclivities the origin of which I scarcely know except they feel like the flesh of my flesh. I have often felt judgment not as the condemnation of things about me I can help, but condemnation of my very self and character…. I believe in the atonement. The law is powerless: Christ’s death has disarmed it. ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!'” (38-43).
Many pastors (who are not Calvinists at all) like to say to people who are still legalists: some of you didn’t know the motives and how reconciliation worked, but you were already reconciled.
The elect have already been judged at the cross; everybody else will be judged, since all will be judged. But not all who were judged at the cross have been “baptized into that death” yet by God’s legal imputation. Since this is so, we should NOT talk to people assuming that they are Christians even though they don’t know the gospel yet.
To those who are still ignorant of the gospel, we don’t talk only about gratitude and freedom. Yes, we tell them that those for whom Christ died are thankful and free and pleasing to God. But we also tell them: if you don’t know the gospel and believe it yet, then you should be shut up to nothing but legal fear.
If Christ did not die for you, you should be afraid. Being afraid won’t save you. But legal fear is the reasonable response to not knowing the gospel. Because not knowing the gospel means knowing that you are not yet justified.
I do not want to preach terror to Christians. But we must not assume that people are Christians.
Do we address the people in church as if we are all elect, who have been believing some form of the gospel all along? “Close as in horseshoes”? Or do we say: some or all of you may need to be reconciled. Nobody is born reconciled. Let’s not presume. Let’s not beg the question.
Jerry Bridges, p34, Transforming Grace—“if you are trusting TO ANY DEGREE in your own morality, or if you believe that God will somehow recognize any of your good works as a reason for your salvation, you need to seriously consider if you are truly a Christian.”