Ask the Editor

Where do the editors of "Ministry" stand on the current discussions regarding the nature of Christ and righteousness by faith?

J.R. Spangler is editor of Ministry.


Those who carefully read my third installment dealing with righteousness by faith, which appeared in the August MINISTRY, no doubt understand my position on the relationship between justification and sanctification, but may have wondered why such a prominent diagram appeared illustrating what the article maintains is a false concept. Those who didn't read the article probably assumed that I support the ideas expressed in the diagram. Our artists did a fine job of illustrating what I no longer believe, but the error is not theirs. An editorial mistake omitted the caption that should have run with the diagram explaining the errors it teaches. To make sure a wrong concept is not left in anyone's mind, please notice the diagram used with this article.

In diagraming the truths of salvation, one runs a risk of portraying error along with truth. When using a diagram one should carefully explain that no diagram—or for that matter no verbal illustration—can be taken totally at face value. This rule applies even to Christ's parables. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus, for example, has been misused terribly through the centuries. Its deep spiritual significance has been largely missed because of this. A most pertinent comment is made in Christ's Object Lessons regarding the Master's story of the unforgiving servant. "This parable presents details which are needed for the filling out of the picture but which have no counterpart in its spiritual significance. The attention should not be diverted to them. Certain great truths are illustrated, and to these our thought should be given." —Page 244.

The diagram appearing in the August MINISTRY teaches a very grievous error without even verbalizing it. Actually, the only truth that this diagram teaches is the advancement of the Christian life in sanctification. But this kernal of truth is more than offset by the erroneous impression given that the more a person advances in the sanctified life, the less justification he needs. This error stems from understanding justification as a necessary element that comes into play only for past sins. Of course, it is true that forgiveness for any specific sinful action is ever forgiveness for a past action. But my understanding of the nature of man and of sin is that sin is both an outward deviation from the will of God and His righteousness, and an inner condition of alienation and rebellion against God. Sin is both inward and outward. This is not to say that the re generated Christian cannot overcome sin. Never! Victory over sin is not only possible but a necessity. Yet, in spite of all our victory, the imperfect, corrupt nature is still with us until that day when "this corruptible shall have put on incorruption" (1 Cor. 15:54).

This concept of "inward" and "out ward" sin, as John Wesley termed it, requires the surrendered Christian to be constantly under the umbrella of Christ's justification. This is made beautifully clear in the following statement: "The religious services, the prayers, the praise, the penitent confession of sin ascend from true believers as incense to the heavenly sanctuary, but passing through the corrupt channels of humanity, they are so defiled that unless purified by blood, they can never be of value with God. They ascend not in spotless purity, and unless the Intercessor, who is at God's right hand, presents and purifies all by His righteousness, it is not acceptable to God. All incense from earthly tabernacles must be moist with the cleansing drops of the blood of Christ. He holds before the Father the censer of His own merits, in which there is no taint of earthly corruption. He gathers into this censer the prayers, the praise, and the confessions of His people, and with these He puts His own spotless righteousness. Then, perfumed with the merits of Christ's propitiation, the incense comes up before God wholly and entirely acceptable. Then gracious answers are returned.

"Oh, that all may see that everything in obedience, in penitence, in praise and thanksgiving, must be placed upon the glowing fire of the righteousness of Christ. The fragrance of this righteousness ascends like a cloud around the mercy seat." —Selected Messages, book 1, p. 344.

These earthy natures of ours, although when converted are controlled by the Holy Spirit, are still earthy. Since both the dead in Christ and the living in Christ receive their change at the second coming of our Lord (see 1 Cor. 15), the need for total justification will last at least that long. Thus I no longer use the diagram so familiar to most of us. A chart that conveys more correctly what I believe to be the truth about Christ's imputed righteousness or justification appears on page 11 below the former diagram. However, I repeat that no chart can accurately depict all the aspects of salvation.

The precious thought of Christ constantly covering the surrendered Christian with His justification is too important to be muddled by a chart that does not make this point clear. To misunderstand this concept leads to a diminished faith and hope in the Saviour's love. It detracts from His glorious plan to save us by numbing our sense of sin. On the other hand, if Christ's covering justification is presented improperly, it can also lead to a numbing of the sense of sin by leaving the sinner with feelings of security while he wallows in the slime of sin. A correct understanding of this truth certainly leads to freedom from sin, while an incorrect understanding leads to sin's slavery.

If we believe that justification is needed only when specific acts of evil are committed and do not see that we are in constant need of Christ's imputed righteousness because of our sinful human nature, we can easily slip into the shoes of the proud Pharisee who prayed "with himself," quite satisfied that his performance was acceptable to God. This attitude has serious side effects, one of the worst of which is that it affects adversely our attitudes toward others. In the parable of the two worshipers (Luke 18:9-14), we find the Pharisee's attitude toward the publican quite nauseous. His prayer of personal supremacy over others indicates he had no understanding of his own sinful nature. Had he under stood the point under discussion in this article he and the publican would have prayed the same prayer with their arms around each other, "God be merciful to us sinners!"

A word of warning! It is possible to assume the posture of the publican and still be in the Pharisee's shoes. "The lips may express a poverty of soul that the heart does not acknowledge. While speaking to God of poverty of spirit, the heart may be swelling with the conceit of its own superior humility and exalted righteousness. In one way only can a true knowledge of self be obtained. We must behold Christ. It is ignorance of Him that makes men so uplifted in their own righteousness. When we contemplate His purity and excellence, we shall see our own weakness and poverty and defects as they really are. We shall see ourselves lost and hopeless, clad in garments of self-righteousness, like every other sinner. We shall see that if we are ever saved, it will not be through our own goodness, but through God's infinite grace." —Christ's Object Lessons, p. 159.

Some who read the story of the two worshipers apply the publican's experience only to the commencement of the Christian life. This interpretation stems from an understanding of justification that applies it only to past experience, or at best, that sees it as coming into play only periodically when we fall into sin. Yet we are told: "At every advance step in Christian experience our repentance will deepen." —Ibid., p. 160. "Men who have lived nearest to God, men who would sacrifice life itself rather than commit a wrong act, men whom God had honored with divine light and power, have confessed the sinfulness of their own nature. They have put no confidence in the flesh, have claimed no righteousness of their own, but have trusted wholly in the righteousness of Christ. So will it be with all who behold Christ." —Ibid.

With the apostle John, we cannot fathom such incomprehensible affection for us on the part of our Redeemer. With him, we can only say, "Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God" (1 John 3:1). Behold the amazing love of our Saviour—a love that cannot be bought by the gifts of our most precious possessions, a love that seeks us while we are still in rebellion, a love that persists though we fail and fall a thousand times! It is this love, this astonishing, incredulous, overpowering love, that transforms the vilest sinner who responds into a faithful, obedient son or daughter of God. This love trans formed Zacchaeus, Paul, Peter, James, and John. But this same love failed to touch Judas, because he failed to respond. Judas walked in the haughty, self-sufficient steps of the Pharisee. He looked to his own good deeds and prayed "with himself.'' He caught no glimpse of his filthy-rag condition. He saw not the righteousness of Jesus. He felt not the Saviour's transforming love. I repeat that justification is to cover us from birth until death, as shown in the second diagram on page 11. As long as the heart continues to beat, self-renunciation is needed.

In my own experience, I have found it important to understand that I am still a sinner, even though I may not be aware of any particular disobedient action. Perhaps I should say that I recognize my basic sinful nature, even though I may be obedient to all known commands of the Lord. More than once I have prostrated myself before the Lord and confessed my sinfulness. But in so doing, I have been plagued with the impurity of my motives even in confession. How often I have cried out to the Lord to cleanse from ego-centered motivation my confession of sin. How often I have found myself asking forgiveness for a sin committed against another only to realize I was embarrassed over what that person must have thought of me rather than feeling the horribleness of my sin against my Lord. With Paul I have exclaimed, and still do exclaim, "O wretched man that I am!" (Rom. 7:24). The term "wretched" can be traced, according to the Greek scholar A. T. Robertson, to words meaning to "bear" and "callus." These sin-scarred minds of ours are so insensitive to our true condition.

It is significant that the only other use of this word "wretched" in the New Testament is found in the Laodicean message. Here the Lord emphatically describes the condition of His people during earth's last hours. They are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. These adjectives all center on the hub of ignorance of our true condition. The Laodicean message concerns itself with the subject of righteousness by faith, as we find when we study it care fully. It is almost inconceivable that a person who is wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked could be unaware of his condition. This is one of the major points of Jesus' illustration about the Pharisee and the publican. The Pharisee was a self-proclaimed tithe-paying health reformer who fasted twice a week. Jesus could, no doubt, have spent an hour or more describing this man's works of self-righteousness. But the point is that the Pharisee did not know his own real condition.

The Laodicean disease is truly a most serious one. The five adjectives describing our state constitute an awful condition to be in. But as awful as this situation is, it is not the most serious part of our problem. After all, Christ has a remedy for our poverty, wretchedness, nakedness, miserableness, and blindness. But He has no remedy for the part of our disease described as "thou knowest not." This unconcerned ignorance is the fatal aspect of the Laodicean disease. Our total insensitivity to our condition is far more ludicrous than would be a man with both wrists cut and life's blood rapidly flowing away, who, while the doctor does everything possible to save his life, shouts out, "I am so thankful nothing is wrong with me! I am in excellent shape, doctor. You are wasting your time on me." Preposterous, isn't it? But it is no more ridiculous than for us in the obvious filth of our sinful, human nature to insist that the words "poor," "wretched," "miserable," "blind," and "naked" do not apply to us.

Our only hope is to look to the One who has promised eyesalve as healing for our spiritual blindness, gold for our spiritual poverty, and the white raiment of His own spotless righteousness for the nakedness of our sinful condition. And the more we look to Him, the more we will sense the truth of His description of us—the more we will sense the worthlessness of any covering other than His glorious righteousness. In looking to Him, our souls will no longer be under the opiate of blindness. We will gain clear insights into the nature, ground, means, and effect of Christ's justifying righteousness. Above all, we will under stand our desperate need of the continual covering of justification for the past, present, and future.

"All hail the power of Jesus' name!

Let angels prostrate fall;

Bring forth the royal diadem,

And crown Him, crown Him, crown Him,

Crown Him Lord of all!

"Ye seed of Israel's chosen race,

Ye ransomed of the fall,

Hail Him who saves you by His grace

And crown Him, crown Him, crown Him,

Crown Him Lord of all!"


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J.R. Spangler is editor of Ministry.

October 1978

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