Deep Is the Saving Wisdom of God
by Dr. David W. Chapman
While engaging in campus ministry in Atlanta, Georgia, I had multiple opportunities to share Christ with people who responded that they had already been introduced to him multiple times. They would announce this even though their present lives displayed scant evidence of commitment to Christ. On the other hand, when I lived in Europe, people often greeted overtures to the gospel as if I were inviting them to join an outmoded religion as dated as the medieval churches in which it was being practiced. Both responses suggest that something is wrong in common cultural perceptions of the doctrine of redemption. The first reaction contends that the gospel can be considered as “eternal fire insurance,” the reception of which is gained by a short ecstatic experience. The second reply indicates that many imagine the Christian message to be (at best) an artifact of mere historical interest. Both responses signal a lack of appreciation of the glorious intricacies of God’s redemptive purposes.
As we at Covenant Seminary equip students for further ministry, I am often aware of cultural perceptions that we face. How should we then better teach the Good News of redemption in our churches, and how can we communicate the gospel better to the world around us? There are several ways.
First, we must insist that the gospel is not a meager promise of an insured ticket into heaven. Rather, redemption truly concerns the whole story of human history. In the narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation we are caught in a vision of the very intentions of God himself. Before the creation of the world, God planned the salvation of his people (Eph. 1:4). From the curse of the fall we learn of the proto-evangelium (Gen. 3:15)—the hope that the serpent’s, even Satan’s, head will be crushed. We are engaged in a celestial battle for our very souls, and the whole creation itself awaits the assured outcome (Rom. 8:19–23). Via covenantal dealings with Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, and others, God has disclosed throughout the ages his saving purposes. The prophets of old foretold the coming of a Messiah. The Scriptures—especially Isaiah 52:13–53:12—reveal, centuries before Jesus walked this earth, that Jesus’ death and resurrection had always been the core of God’s redeeming plan. In addition, much to the amazement of God’s chosen nation Israel, God purposed to bring Gentiles into these saving designs (Eph. 3:1–13). After all-too-briefly plumbing the depths of the saving work of God in Romans chapters 1–11, Paul responded by proclaiming, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom. 11:33a ESV).
As we present the redeeming work of God to our congregations, we must convey amazement similar to that of the apostle Paul. We are part of something on a scale that is scarcely imaginable. God’s redemptive plan encompasses the whole created order. It is not outdated, humdrum news, or something to lightly engage in through an occasional emotional moment in church. No, the redemption of God rightly causes us too to cry out, “Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:34).
Second, we must take seriously the weight of sin. I suspect that most people receive the Christian message lightheartedly because they vastly underestimate how abhorrent our sin is to the one holy God. From the advent of human history, the result of sin was death (Gen. 2:16–17; 3:19; cf. Eph. 2:1–5). Cast out from Eden and alienated from fellowship with God, humankind has been at war with our Maker. We were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12b). Yet, into this predicament God himself sent propitiation for our sins (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10), imputed to us Christ’s righteousness, and spoke peaceful reconciliation with us (2 Cor. 5:18–21). If the church understates the cosmic destructiveness of sin, then the cross appears virtually unnecessary to the world around us. If all I need to atone for is a few misdeeds, then a simple lip service commitment to Christ might seem all that is required to assure eternal delight. However, if the full brunt of our sinfulness is felt—if we perceive ourselves as having actively sided against our very Maker—then we have no choice but to cast ourselves wholly on his mercy.
Third, we must contemplate the cost of God’s salvation work. The blood of sheep and goats could not cleanse for all time a sinful rebel band such as we are. Such simple sacrifices could not perfect our sinful consciences and draw us unto God (Heb. 9:9; 10:1–18). Only the sacrifice of the very Son of God himself, pinned naked to the cross of pain and shame, could deliver us from our sins. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16)—the cost of redemption was the most extreme imaginable. If we can somehow help people glimpse the depth of God’s love, then we all can come to a fuller appreciation of the wondrous mystery of the gospel.
Fourth, we must believe that the gospel does not stop at the cross. The Good News leads us through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice and on to his glorious resurrection victory (Rom. 4:23–25; 10:9; 1 Cor. 15:3–8; Col. 2:13–14; 2 Tim. 2:8). The grave lay empty, and the Son of God is proven triumphant in his resurrection (Rom 1:4). It is that resurrection hope that grants perseverance to the world-weary soul (e.g., 1 Pet. 1:3–9). Risen in Christ, we conquer the grip of sin in this life through his strength (Rom. 6:4–11). Through Christ’s resurrection, we too shall rise to praise the risen Lord eternally (1 Pet. 1:3–5; John 11:25–26; Acts 4:2; Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:20–23; 2 Cor. 4:14). Could it be at times that our failure to engage our culture meaningfully comes in part because we do not adequately proclaim the hope of his resurrection?
Fifth, we must perceive the sovereignty of God that elects us unto salvation. We cannot lay any claim on God’s grace. Even our own adoption into the redeemed family of God results from his having chosen us from the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3–14). For those who love God, “all things work together for good for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28 ESV). Yet that call springs from God’s foreknowledge and predestination, which seeks the remaking in Christians of the divine image, once twisted in the fall and now increasingly conformed again to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29). The called are justified, love God, and will be glorified in the resurrection to come (Rom. 8:28–29). Such election grants us confidence before the Lord that nothing will separate us from his love (Rom. 8:38–39). If that confidence, wholly reliant on God’s grace, were to be truly grasped by our churches, we could not help but be caught up in amazement at God’s mercy. Such confidence that God actively calls people to himself also motivates us to evangelism because we have certainty that he can use our efforts to accomplish his sovereign ends.
Sixth, we must understand that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. One consequence of the Enlightenment was to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of the gospels and to lay on Paul the fabrication of the doctrine of salvation. Thus the European rationalist might wonder whether Jesus would have taught the same gospel that Paul taught. Yet it was Jesus himself who predicted his suffering, redeeming death, and victorious resurrection (e.g., Mark 2:20; 8:31; 9:12, 31; 10:32–34, 45; 12:7–8; 14:8, 21, 27–28 and parallels). It was Jesus who said over the bread, “This is my body,” and Jesus who spoke over the cup, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:22–24). The Christian has every right to hear the whole New Testament—from start to finish—speaking with united voice the hope of salvation and to understand Jesus himself as relating his death to the Messianic promises of the Old Testament (Ps. 22; see Matt. 27:46; cf. Isa. 52:13–53:12).
Seventh, we must affirm that redemption helps focus us into perseverance and good works. Having just written study Bible notes on the book of Hebrews, I am all the more aware of how that author beckons his fellow Christians on to endurance in this life. The Reformed tradition has rightly emphasized that the saints will persevere. We must declare the truth that salvation—which comes only by grace through faith—still issues forth into the good works that God prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:8–10; Titus 2:11–14; 3:4–8). We have become enlisted as God’s increasingly sanctified instruments for proclaiming his gospel and for renewing His creation. The person who shows no evidence of allegiance to Christ ought rightly to question whether salvation has yet come upon him or her.
Finally, we must seek to understand both the simplicity and the complexity of redemption. Sometimes it appears to me that Christians, having heard repeatedly the message of redemption, are bored with church and humdrum about the gospel. There is a profound simplicity to the gospel call that “Christ died for my sins and was raised again on the third day.” Yet that simplicity rightly expands into the great complexity of unpacking the depth of that gospel. One can spend his or her life seeking to comprehend the many ways God prepared this message through the Old Testament covenants, prophets, and sacrificial typology.
How can one fully plumb the complex biblical imagery of salvation such as regeneration, union with Christ, propitiation, redemption, justification, reconciliation, and adoption? How can we truly perceive in this life the celestial reign of the already-victorious Lamb of God who will return again to call his elect unto glory?
Perhaps, as we teach and learn anew the redeeming grace of God, we too can lead others to proclaim: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33–36 ESV).
Dr. David Chapman is associate professor of New Testament and archeology. His research interests focus on the understanding of crucifixion in ancient Judaism and early Christianity, and on enhancing appreciation of the New Testament through study of relevant Jewish and Graeco-Roman literature and archaeological investigation. This article originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Covenant magazine.