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Lecture XIII: The True Christian Life

(Art. 15)

The Law of God we confesse and acknawledge maist just, maist equall, maist halie, and maist perfite, commaunding thir thingis, quhilk being wrocht in perfectioun, were abill to give life, and abill to bring man to eternall felicitie. Bot our nature is sa corrupt, sa weake, and sa unperfite, that we ar never abill to fulfill the warkes of the Law in perfectioun. Zea, gif we say we have na sinne, evin after we ar regenerate, we deceive our selves, and the veritie of God is not in us. And therefore, it behovis us to apprehend Christ Jesus with his justice and satisfaction, quha is the end and accomplishment of the Law, be quhome we ar set at this liberty, that the curse and malediction of God fall not upon us, albeit we fulfill not the same in al pointes. For God the Father beholding us, in the body of his Sonne Christ Jesus, acceptis our imperfite obedience, as it were perfite, and covers our warks, quhilk ar defyled with mony spots, with the justice of his Sonne. We do not meane that we ar so set at liberty, that we awe na obedience to the Law (for that before wee have plainly confessed), bot this we affirme, that na man in eird (Christ Jesus onlie except) hes given, gives, or sall give in worke, that obedience to the Law, quhilk the Law requiris. Bot when we have done all things, we must falle down and unfeinedly confesse, that we are unprofitable servands. And therefore, quhosoever boastis themselves of the merits of their awin works, or put their trust in the works of Supererogation, boast themselves in that quhilk is nocht, and put their trust in damnable Idolatry.


We have spoken in the last lecture but one of the real Christian life. It consists in daily thankfulness and repentance, as the reiteration of faith in Jesus Christ, which is the work of the Holy Spirit. And we have spoken in our last lecture of the Ordinance governing the Christian life. It, too, consists in faith in Jesus Christ, in so far as such faith leads us of necessity to love for God and man. Our enquiry is now directed to the true Christian life. The heading of Article 15 of the Scottish Confession makes very clear what the problem is, which is raised and has to be answered here. It runs “Of the perfectioun of the Law and the imperfectioun of man,” or as the Latin version of the Confession puts it, “The Law is perfect in every respect, but men are imperfect.” What does this imply? Once this is established it raises the question of the true Christian life. “True” according to the usage of Scripture is that which is real and which corresponds to the claim contained in its concept, that is, what is based on itself and authentic. Is there a true Christian life? Is there genuine and authentic thankfulness and repentance? Is there a fulfilling of the Law? Is it a fact that there are men who obey God? If the Law is perfect, while man is imperfect, then this question has to be faced. We have to bear in mind that we are not dealing with any kind of law or other, capable of imperfect as well as perfect fulfilment. We all consider ourselves acquainted with a moral law of some sort or other, and know that our fulfilment of it is never more than approximate and therefore imperfect. But the very approximation, which we believe we have attained, does none the less console us for our imperfection. In spite of this imperfection we would scarcely allow ourselves to be persuaded that our moral life was for that reason unreal and unreliable. We do strive for perfection—who would not?—we all do it—and our true moral life consists in that very fact. But the true Christian life cannot so easily be rendered compatible with our imperfection, even though we were to strive to attain the perfection of its ordinance. The reason for this is that the ordinance governing the Christian life is the Divine Law. But this law makes an unconditional demand upon us. What is our position then? Either we are thankful or we are not. Either we are penitent or we are not. Either we love God and our neighbour or we hate them both. Either we are obedient or we are not. There is no possibility here of a third, middle course, consisting in some sort of approximation, in which we might find our consolation. In this fact consists the perfection of the Divine Law. Question 62 of the Heidelberg Catechism on this point reads “The righteousness which can stand before the judgement seat of God must be perfect throughout and wholly conformable to the Divine Law.” Imperfection here means disobedience and thus unrighteousness. But man is imperfect. That statement, if meant in a moral sense, is a commonplace that has never cost any of us a single moment's sleep. It does not trouble us. We can put up with it. But if meant in a Christian sense, it is a judgement which would inevitably destroy us, because it calls in question and indeed denies that our Christian life is true and thereby denies our salvation. God's Law enjoins thankfulness, penitence and love to God and one's neighbour. Man with all his outward and inward achievements, with his thoughts and feelings as well as his deeds, stands in the presence of that Law as one who is unthankful and impenitent, and who, since he does not love God or his neighbour, must hate them; or who is there who could stand at any time before God's Law in any other guise? Whoever would make such a claim, could only have some other law in mind, and not the Divine Law. Thus man stands there as a transgressor of the Law, and his life, considered as a Christian life, is not genuine or reliable, and therefore not true. Thus it is not a Christian life at all.

What is the true Christian life, which, since it can only be discerned from its ordinance, from the Divine Law governing the Christian life, cannot at any rate be discovered in our life as such, in our outward and inward achievements, but is in fact called in question, or indeed denied in this life of ours?

The Scottish Confession is put to the test and we with it, if an answer is to be given to this. On this question as to the true Christian life a decision has to be made. We are so to speak on a razor's edge. What is our life? Is Jesus Christ our Life? This should clearly be so, if the Christian life is the point at issue and the subject of the enquiry. But when we do not think, or do not think seriously, that it is the Christian life, about which enquiry is being made, and that Jesus Christ is our life, when this is to us merely a pious phrase, good enough for hymns and edifying addresses and prayers, but of no practical importance as an answer to the question about our true life—when we really are seeking and finding our life in ourselves, in the attitudes we take up, in sentiments which we make our own and in actions which we can perform—what then? We are faced with a dilemma. Either we recognise that there is no Christian life for us, and so no life of obedience to God, thereby signing our death warrants, so that we may thereafter give ourselves over to frivolity and despair, or—what is still worse—we bury our heads in the sand like an ostrich, i.e. we persuade ourselves that the law to which we are subject is in no sense the perfect and majestic Law of God, but simply the moral law, which we feel ourselves quite able to satisfy to a certain extent. And under its rule we have rest, or at least we can forget that the life we live without peace with God is a lost one.

The Scottish Confession pre-supposes that Jesus Christ is our life, and we also, in accordance with all we have so far learnt from it, will likewise have to pre-suppose this—and do so in no rhetorical sense but in all seriousness and in reality. This is the same as to say faith in Jesus Christ is our life. We live precisely in so far as we believe, and allow God in Jesus Christ to be our Lord. And that once more is the same as to say that we live precisely in so far as God lives in Jesus Christ and is our Lord and permits and commands us to live in Him. Not before Him or behind Him, below Him or above Him or beside Him, but in Him. For to be before Him, behind, below, above or beside Him is not life, because it is not reconciliation or fellowship between God and man. But these are in Him and therefore in Him is our life. He Himself is our life. If that holds good, then the question regarding the true Christian life appears in a different light. In that case it is not imperfect and thus disobedient man, who faces the perfect Law of God, which is the inviolable ordinance of this life. Our life as our own, whether we admit it or not, would only come under the power of the judgement, which would ultimately destroy it. But where we with our life, as our own, would have had to stand, there Jesus Christ stands, and He is our life. Thus the question about our true life is also directed to Him. And this, according to the Scottish Confession, is the real question about the true Christian life. For this reason the answer also will turn out to be different from what it would have been, had we stood before the Divine Law with our life as our own, with our sentiments and actions, and had to justify ourselves before that law. We saw in the previous lecture that Jesus Christ Himself, as true God and true man is the Divine Law to which we are subject. We must now go further. He, as true God and true man, is also the fulfilment of the Law. Where is thankfulness to be found, or penitence, or love to God and man in accordance with the requirements of the Ten Commandments? In our life as our own we shall look in vain for true obedience to these requirements. But we shall not look in vain to Jesus Christ, His suffering and obedience, for the fulfilment of the Law and the doing of the will of God. And now His life is our life. Now He has done what He has done, in our place and for our sake. So now we have done—in Him—what He has done, and so the Divine acknowledgement of His obedience benefits us directly. In Him the Christian life is true—and in Him alone—but in Him as our own Christian life, our thankfulness is true and our penitence, our love to God and man is true, and our service of God is true. It is true, because, and so far as, it is faith in Jesus Christ.


The enquiry into the true Christian life finds its answer, once we believe that it is answered in Jesus Christ. But the question is capable of rising again and returning in a foolish form. The Scottish Confession has rightly considered it necessary to answer the question as put in this foolish form also. Does not our Christian life, the question runs, always remain our own life as such and apart from faith, apart from Jesus Christ? We have heard of the conflict in which it really is engaged. Are we not perhaps, since we are certain of our true Christian life in Jesus Christ, discharged from this conflict and from our duty of obedience? Once our relation to God has been set in order by faith in Jesus Christ, does there not perhaps exist apart from faith a sphere of life, or even many such spheres in which our action is subject to chance, or indeed to the moral law or to other laws as well (perhaps to those of biology, aesthetics, economics or politics)? These would be spheres of life in which we, while recognising and acknowledging the imperfection of this world, could yet remain satisfied with our honest endeavour after perfection of many kinds. Is the truth that our true Christian life is our life in Jesus Christ not after all a particular, a “religious” truth, which certainly assures us of Heaven, but alongside of which there exists a whole universe of truth about life from a quite different source? Does our life in Jesus Christ not immediately exempt us from the necessity of being subject to the Divine Law in our own life also, as it is enacted in this world, in the form of our personal ways of thought and action? To this foolish question the Scottish Confession gives the prompt and clear answer that all that is quite out of the question; Jesus Christ, He and He alone, is the true Christian life, and that does not mean the beginning of a new emancipation, but the end of all emancipation. It does not mean that we are exempted from the Law, but that we are now for the first time really and completely subjected to it, precisely by the fact that we recognise its fulfilment in Jesus Christ and in Him alone. Our life as such, our human life in its total extent, our ways of thought and of action, our outward and inward achievements, could not have a more intensive and complete claim made upon them than is made by our believing in Jesus Christ and by His being thus our life. How could all this be anything other than a circle which, whether it be narrow or wide, has this and this only as its centre? How could chance or morality or any other arbitrary factor set up its own special law here? How could it be possible for us to rest satisfied with our own imperfections? How could there be room there for any other truth about life? Because Jesus Christ in His obedience and suffering takes our place, in order to make amends for the evil that we do, we with our whole life, as ours, become and remain bound to Him as to the Divine Law. It is not a matter of our fulfilling the Law with this life of ours. But it is equally not a matter of this life of ours being withdrawn from the Law or of our being permitted at any part of it, under any condition or at any time, to have any other desire than to show gratitude and penitence and to love God and our neighbour. Our true action is the action of Jesus Christ, but it is required of us as our action. What if we should object that as our action it will always be insincere, superficial and imperfect? The answer to that would be that all criticism of this nature, whether justified or unjustified, is far out-distanced by the acknowledgement which our obedience, as faith in Jesus Christ, has already found with God, whatever the nature of this obedience may be. It is just through this acknowledgement that we are translated into the realm of obedience and sustained in it, be the nature of this obedience what it may, regardless of the results of our self-criticism. As Martin Niemoeller wrote in a letter from prison, “We have not to ask how far we are to rely upon ourselves, but we are asked whether we rely on God's Word as being God's Word, and as doing what it says.” By relying on God's Word as being God's Word and doing what it says, we are and continue to be summoned, set in motion, impelled to gratitude and repentance and to love for God and man, under all conditions and without intermission. Provision for our sanctification here in time is made by our justification before God having taken place once and for all in Jesus Christ, and by our having the right to believe in it.


The question as to the true Christian life is answered, once we believe that its answer lies in Jesus Christ. But it is capable of rising again and returning in yet another foolish form. The Scottish Confession has rightly provided an explicit answer to this formulation of the question as well. Is not our life, the question runs, when lived in faith and as in Jesus Christ none the less our own? Is it not formed by our ways of thought and action and by definite thoughts, words and works which are our own and which are good in themselves? Could it not then, to some extent, become and be in and of itself a true Christian life, obedience and fulfilment of the Law, and so be in a certain sense independent of Jesus Christ? Could there not exist a Christian sphere in human life, it may be that of Christian worship or even that of an entire Christian culture, or at least that of specifically Christian customs and morality, in which man, though certainly not without the Grace of God, could yet in a real sense deserve well of God and of God's cause on earth? Might not man, therefore, have the right to look upon such a sphere of life with the confidence of having done his duty and perhaps even more than his duty here, and therefore with the confidence of standing before God justified and commended not only in Jesus Christ but also in this work of his own and to this extent in himself? This position, too, is promptly and clearly rejected by the Scottish Confession. A Christianity which is separate and independent, i.e. distinct from the righteousness of Christ, it calls idolatry. The Confession cites the saying of Jesus “When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants” (Luke 17, 10). In those days it was against Roman Catholicism that this answer was directed. But we must not overlook the fact that to-day it can be applied to a great extent to the theory and practice of the Evangelical churches as well.1 But after all that has been said, there can be no doubt that we too must adopt this answer of the Confession for ourselves. The fact is that Jesus Christ and He alone is and remains the true Christian life. Through Him we are summoned to obedience and set in motion, and that does not mean the beginning of a new self-righteousness but the end of all self-righteousness. It does not mean that we are invited to have a new confidence in ourselves, but to put our entire confidence in Jesus Christ alone. It is solely in this confidence in Him that we shall be able to render the obedience required of us. By trusting in ourselves we could only become disobedient. It is just when we are obedient and when, according to God's true judgement, we have done “those things which are commanded us,” that we shall hold fast to this one fact, that this judgement of God is grace and therefore unmerited judgement, not based on our fulfilling of the Law nor on the sincerity, depth and perfection of our outward and inward achievements, nor on any particular “Christian character” in them. We may be right or wrong about such self-esteem. But it is out-distanced, just as we saw was the case with our self-criticism. It is outdistanced by the imperfection and hence the unrighteousness in which we stand before God, as soon as we consider ourselves apart from Jesus Christ, even when our works are our best, our hearts at their noblest and our achievements most brilliant. If we wish to see our righteousness before God, our true Christian life, its true glory and its true merits, then we must not consider ourselves apart from Jesus Christ but in Him and in Him alone. If we wish to know a foundation on which we can stand and stand firmly with confidence, we must know that our sins are forgiven us in Him. We place no confidence then, not even a secondary, supplementary confidence, in the worth and value of what we have achieved in the human sphere. The more serious and the greater this achievement is, and it may be great and serious, the more shall we “set our hopes in grace alone” (1 Peter 1, 13), and we shall not doubt, but hope just as certainly that that achievement could not be greater or more serious, nor the true Christian life shine brighter than where the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ is acknowledged without reserve as the first and last word about the true Christian life.

The Confession is opposed, and rightly so, to all talk about the goodness of the Christian life.