Gedanken zum Jahreswechsel: Eine Zusammenfassung unseres Glaubens

In seinem neuen Buch “Roman Catholic Theology: An Evangelical Assessment” (Crossway: Wheaton, 2014) skizziert der Theologe Gregg R. Allison eine Zusammenfassung der evangelikalen Grundüberzeugungen, entlang derer er den Vergleich mit der katholischen Theologie, dargestellt im Katechismus der Katholischen Kirche, vornimmt. Natürlich ist er sich der Bandbreite der evangelikalen Überzeugungen bewusst:

As for evangelical theology, one must understand first of all that evangelicalism is not a church or a denomination but a massive broad-tent movement that encompasses thousands of churches and ministries from many different theological persuasions: Reformed, Lutheran, and Arminian; covenantal and dispensational; Pentecostal/charismatic and non-Pentecostal/non-charismatic; proponents of infant baptism and supporters of believer’s baptism; complementarians and egalitarians; and much more. Given this amazing theological spectrum, it is not possible to define and present one evangelical theology; evangelical theologies—plural—are the reality. However, so as to avoid confusion in my evaluation of Catholic theology and practice, I will set forth and focus on a typical expression of evangelical theology—the one outlined below—while noting, where appropriate, important divergences within evangelical theology. To ward off an anticipated criticism by Catholics, this theological diversity is not a “problem” just for evangelicalism. Catholic theology itself “suffers” from the same reality as it embraces Augustinianism and semi-Augustinianism; progressive, liberation theology and conservative, Opus Dei theology; male-only priesthood proponents and supporters of women priests; inerrancy and non-inerrancy; inclusivism and exclusivism; and the like. The “problem” of theological diversity is not inherent in evangelicalism, nor is it confined therein, for it is encountered within Catholicism, despite claims to the contrary. Accordingly, I proceed with a typical expression of evangelical theology, which I’ll call “a vision of life with God and human flourishing.” (Hervorhebung von mir)

Am Ende eines Jahres ist es hilfreich, sich die Frage zu stellen: Was sind die Grundpfeiler meines Glaubens? Ich gebe den Abschnitt mit freundlicher Genehmigung des Crossway-Verlags wieder (Hervorhebungen von mir).

God eternally exists as three persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—each of whom is fully God, yet there is only one God. Eternally existing, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are characterized by dynamic, loving relationships (John 17:24–26), mutual glory giving (John 17:4–5), and purposing (e.g., 1 Pet. 1:20–21), part of which included the decision to bring into existence our visible, tangible universe. This plan was actualized as the triune God created the world and everything in it ex nihilo, or “out of nothing” (Gen. 1:1; Heb. 11:3). Light and darkness, the dry land and the seas, the sun, moon, and stars, trees and plants, the fish, birds, land animals—everything was formed (Gen. 1:2–25), seemingly in preparation for a final, special, climactic creature; indeed, this being would be more like God than any other created being. God created human beings in his image and according to his likeness (Gen. 1:26–31), which means we both reflect God and represent him in the world in which we live. As for the reflective element, we human beings display God in whose image we are created, mirroring his love, justice, truth-telling, faithfulness, mercy, power, wisdom, and the like—always imperfectly, partially, and intermixed with sin because of our fallen reality. The representational aspect consists of two functions (Gen. 1:28): procreation (“be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”), which means that most of us are or will be married and have children; and vocation (“subdue [the earth] and have dominion”) or civilization building, which means that we work in such professions as education, politics, business, health care, construction and manufacturing, the arts, and so forth (e.g., Gen. 4:17–22). We contribute to human flourishing by using our God-given human abilities. Through reflecting God (displaying glimmers of his character) and representing him (establishing a family and building civilization) we engage in the ultimate of purposes: glorifying God.

As divine image-bearers, we are hardwired with an innate sense of God (Acts 17:22–34), witness his eternal power and divine nature through what we observe in the created order (Rom. 1:18–25), experience further testimony of his goodness as he providentially cares and provides for us (Acts 14:8–18), and possess an intuitive sense of right and wrong through our conscience (Rom. 2:12–16). Through these modes of general revelation, we know that God exists, we know something about his attributes, and we know some basic moral principles that render us accountable before him. Because of this universal revelation of God, we should worship and honor him as God, give him thanks and depend on him for our very existence, and obey the moral sense in our heart.

Tragically, all image-bearers of God have fallen into sin and live in a world that is not the way it is supposed to be. Personally, we fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23); that is, we do not worship and honor God as we should, we do not give him thanks and depend on him as we should, and we (often, not always) do not obey our moral sense of right and avoid doing what our moral sense indicates is wrong, as we should. All of this is evidence of our alienation from God. Still, our fallenness does not end here: We are also alienated from other human beings, consumed with ourselves rather than concerned about others, in competition with them, experiencing relational brokenness. Furthermore, we are alienated from ourselves, being darkened in our understanding, chasing after things that will never satisfy, even being self-deceived.

Indeed, we may not even be aware of our present condition of sinfulness: Our conscience may be calloused; we may judge ourselves morally upright by comparing ourselves to others who are worse than us; we may even engage in doing good works (this element does not necessarily mean that we are religious, but often being religious and being part of a faith community that emphasizes doing good contributes to this element), leading us to conclude that we have gained God’s favor. Deep down inside, however, we know we are not fine: we have a disturbing sense of our own hypocrisy, and though we may hope that God will look favorably on us and our good works, we suspect—rightly—that a perfectly holy and just God does not grade on the curve, and that even the most momentous of human achievements, let alone the meager efforts of most human beings, cannot avail before a perfect God. So, we are not in a good state, nor are we merely in a neutral position; rather, we are in dire straits. We come into this world weighed down with original sin, and we manifest that reality throughout life: guilty before God, pervasively corrupt in nature (our mind, emotions, will, body, motivations, purposing—everything is marred), and incapable of rectifying our guilt and reorienting our sinful nature from self-centeredness to God-centeredness, from the life of self to life with God.

In this tragic world of fallen human beings, God intervened to rescue his image-bearers. At the heart of this redemption is Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God who, through a miracle wrought by the Holy Spirit, was conceived by the Virgin Mary and became incarnate (Matt. 1:18–25; Luke 1:26–38), taking on human nature (Phil. 2:5–7). As the God-man, Jesus lived a perfect life under the law of God (Gal. 4:4), performed miracles to demonstrate his deity,9 walked in the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:16–21; Acts 10:38; e.g., Luke 4:1), announced and inaugurated the kingdom of God (Mark 1:14–15), taught the masses (e.g., Matthew 5–7), discipled a handful of men (Matt. 10:1–4), faced temptations and trials as every other real and fully human being does yet he never once sinned (Heb. 2:14–18; 4:14–16), flourished in his relationship with God (e.g., Matt. 11:25–27), enjoyed intimate personal relationships with people of all kinds (e.g., Mark 2:15–17), and rendered visible the invisible God (Col. 1:15; John 14:8–9; Heb. 1:3). Shortly before his death, Jesus was betrayed by a close friend, abandoned by his disciples, charged with and convicted of blasphemy though innocent, beaten, and finally crucified on a cross; his body was laid in a garden tomb, where it reposed for three days (e.g., Matt. 26:47–27:66).

On the third day, this once-crucified-and-buried Jesus rose from the dead through the power of God. For forty days he appeared to his disciples, after which he ascended back into heaven (Acts 1:2–3, 9–11) and sat down at the right hand of the Father, from which position he exercises all power and authority as the cosmic head of all created things (Eph. 1:19–21), directs the church or the body of which he is head (Eph. 1:22), intercedes for his followers (Heb. 7:25; Rom. 8:34), and prepares an eternal future for them (John 14:2–3). And he is poised to return again to earth, this time not as a suffering servant in shame and humiliation but as the triumphant King of kings and Lord of lords with power, might, and glory (Revelation 19).

This work of redemption, and how it becomes actualized in the lives of sinful people, is communicated through another means of divine revelation: special revelation, especially Scripture. This written Word of God is characterized by the following attributes: It is inspired, or breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:19–21); that is, the Holy Spirit superintended the writers of the Bible in such a way that, preserving their personalities, writing styles, theological emphases, and grammatical abilities, they wrote exactly what God wanted them to write. Because this Word is God-breathed, it is wholly true (inerrant) in all it affirms (John 17:17), whether it addresses the person and work of Jesus Christ, the existence and nature of angels, the creation of the universe, the history of the Jewish people, the eternal destiny of both the righteous and the wicked, and so forth. Because it is God-breathed, Scripture is authoritative; that is, it is to be believed and obeyed (Rom. 6:17), just as God himself is to be believed and obeyed. It is effective, igniting faith (Rom. 10:17), exposing sin (Heb. 4:12–13), exhibiting the proper path on which to walk, saving hardened sinners, transforming and remaking ruined lives, always accomplishing the purpose for which God gives it (Isa. 55:10–11). Scripture is sufficient, containing everything people need to know in order to be saved and to live in a way that fully pleases God (Ps. 19:7–11; 2 Tim. 3:16–17). It is necessary, that is, needed for fallen human beings to understand the way of salvation, to know God’s will, and to acquire wisdom for godly living (Matt. 4:4; 1 Pet. 2:1–3). Indeed, without Scripture, the church would not exist or be able to exist. Scripture is clear, written in such a way that ordinary human beings who possess the normal acquired ability to understand written/oral communication can read Scripture with understanding or, if they are unable to read, can hear Scripture read and comprehend it (Deut. 29:29). Finally, Scripture consists of sixty-six books—thirty-nine in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New Testament. These books compose the biblical canon, or proper list of writings that God wanted included in his inspired (God-breathed), truthful (inerrant), authoritative, effective (powerful), sufficient, necessary, and clear Word.

From this divine revelation of Scripture, fallen human beings come to know about and understand the gospel, which is the work of salvation that God accomplished in Christ and its actualization in human lives. As for the accomplishment of salvation, the focal point of the gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:1–4). By means of his atoning sacrifice, Jesus Christ paid the penalty for sin as a substitute for sinners; that is, Christ died in our place, for us (Eph. 5:2). His death overcomes four desperate consequences of human sin: as an expiation, it removes the liability to suffer death and eternal punishment due to guilt before God (Heb. 10:5–18); as a propitiation, it assuages the furious wrath of a righteously angry God (Rom. 3:23–26); as reconciliation, it removes the enmity between God and human beings by means of the mediation of Christ, restoring friendship between formerly opposing parties (2 Cor. 5:17–21); and as redemption, it frees sinful human beings enslaved under sin from such bondage through the payment of a purchase price or ransom, the blood of Christ (1 Pet. 1:18–21). Through this atonement as expiation/propitiation/reconciliation/redemption, Christ accomplished salvation for sinful human beings. The satisfactory nature of this sacrifice was confirmed when the Father raised his Son from the dead, for the resurrection signified that Christ had accomplished everything necessary for salvation (Rom. 1:4; 4:24–25). Additionally, through his death and resurrection, Jesus defeated Satan (Heb. 2:14–18) and triumphed over all created things (Eph. 1:19–21; Col. 2:15), a cosmic victory that will be fully manifested at the end of this age, when he comes again in conquering power and glory.

As for the actualization of this divine plan of salvation, the focal point of the gospel is on God’s gracious work that is apart from any and all human effort and merit. This multifaceted application consists of the following mighty acts of God:

Election, or the sovereign, gracious, and eternal choosing of some people to be rescued from their sins and experience salvation, not conditional on anything they are or do but because of the good pleasure of God to save some of his image-bearers out of the hellish nightmare into which all have fallen. This divine decision is inscrutable and mysterious, personal and not random or fickle, gracious and unconditional, not dependent on human personality, religious inclinations, works, or any other such matters (Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1:9).10 Though an eternal and hidden choice, election becomes actualized through a series of mighty acts of God that take place in space and time, and from this application the divine choice can be known (1 Thess. 1:4–5).

Conviction of sin is the mighty work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8–11) convincing unbelievers of their sin (specifically, their unbelief in Jesus), self-righteousness (their futile attempts to please God and merit salvation through engaging in good works, attending church, and the like apart from divine grace), and faulty judgment (assessing people by mere appearance and worldly standards). Through this convicting work of the Spirit, unbelievers stand exposed and guilty before God, sensing their need for salvation.

Effective calling is the mighty act by which God draws to himself his people, a summons that will certainly result in their embrace of salvation (Rom. 8:29–30). This calling is noncoercive yet sure, and it comes through the communication of the gospel message (2 Thess. 2:13–14).

Regeneration is the mighty work by which the Holy Spirit causes people dead in sin to be born again (John 3:1–8; Titus 3:5). Where once there was nothing but unresponsiveness to the things of God, new spiritual life exists; people are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17), changed in their very being so as to be children of God (John 1:12).

Justification is the mighty act by which God declares sinful people to be not guilty but righteous instead, being forgiven of their sins and having the righteousness of Christ accredited to them. Justification is grounded on the grace of God as accomplished by the atoning death of Christ, by which God justly announces that the penalty for sin has been paid and thus sinful people are not guilty (Rom. 3:25). Because of the divine demand for perfect righteousness, the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, achieved through his obedience in life and in death, is credited to sinful people. This declarative act is not based on any inherent goodness or any personally achieved righteousness of fallen human beings (Rom. 3:19–22), and it does not make them actually righteous; rather, the righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to their account. This gracious, mighty act of God is appropriated by faith (Gal. 2:15–16), and sinful people are justified completely, such that they will never face the condemnation of God (Rom. 8:1).

Adoption is the mighty work by which God brings sinful people into his family and embraces them as his children (Eph. 1:5).

Union with Christ is the multifaceted mighty act that includes believers being in Christ (Rom. 6:1–11), or identified with his death, resurrection, and ascension; Christ being in his followers (Gal. 2:20); and all believers being one in Christ (John 17:21–23).

All of these mighty acts of God—conviction of sin, effective calling, regeneration, justification, adoption, and union with Christ—are actualized at the beginning of God’s gracious work of salvation. The human response to this multifaceted action is conversion, which entails hearing and understanding the gospel message, repentance from sin (turning from it, renouncing it, and purposing not to live anymore in sin; Luke 24:46–47; Acts 17:30), and faith (believing that Christ died for one’s sins, trusting in his work for salvation, and forsaking all human effort and relying on Christ and Christ alone; Eph. 2:8–9; Rom. 10:9). Repentance and faith are not a human work, nor are they a merely human response. As evangelical virtues, they are tied to the evangel, or gospel, and are thus prompted by grace (Acts 18:27) and urged by the messengers of the gospel (1 Cor. 3:5; 2 Cor. 5:17–21). But they are the proper and necessary human response to the gospel. Indeed, without genuine repentance and faith, there can be no salvation.

Yet, salvation is much more than an individual matter, for the mighty works of God that rescue fallen human beings also lead redeemed people into the church. The particular mighty act involved is the baptism with the Spirit: Jesus baptizes (John 1:33) new believers with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:15–17), thus incorporating them into his body, the church (1 Cor. 12:13). Christians are joined with both the universal church and a local church.

The universal church is the fellowship of both the deceased believers who are presently in heaven and the living believers from all over the world. This universal church (at least its living members) is manifested (by Christ, its head, and the Spirit) and manifests itself (through Christians associating themselves with one another) in local churches. These communities are led by qualified and publicly recognized pastors or elders who have the responsibilities of teaching sound doctrine (1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9), governing (1 Tim. 3:4–5), praying (especially for the sick; James 5:13–18), and shepherding (protecting their flock and leading through exemplary lifestyles; 1 Pet. 5:2–3). These assemblies are also served by deacons (1 Tim. 3:8–13), qualified and publicly recognized members who serve Jesus Christ in the many church ministries. Local churches regularly gather to worship God, proclaim his Word through the reading and preaching of Scripture, celebrate the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, engage non-Christians with the gospel, exercise spiritual gifts, disciple their members, care for people through prayer and giving, exercise church discipline, and stand both for and against the world by helping the poor and marginalized through holistic ministries. Local churches also are strongly connected and cooperate with one another for high-impact ministries in their cities.

Two other mighty works of God accompany these acts and continue throughout the rest of life. Sanctification is the cooperative work of God and Christians (Phil. 2:12–13) by which ongoing transformation into ever-increasing Christlikeness takes place, particularly through the working of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 5:16–23). Unlike the other divine works, which are monergistic (due to “one” [Gk. mono] who “works” [Gk. ergon], that is, God alone), sanctification is a synergistic (“working [Gk. ergon] together [Gk. sun]”) process, with God working in ways that are proper to his divine agency (e.g., convicting of sin, empowering by the Spirit, willing and working to accomplish his good pleasure) and Christians working in ways that are proper to their human agency (e.g., reading Scripture, praying, mortifying sin, yielding to the Spirit).

Perseverance is the mighty act by which God powerfully protects Christians through their ongoing exercise of faith so as to bring them securely into possession of the fullness of their salvation when Christ returns (1 Pet. 1:5). Because the preserving power of God is foundational for this process; because saving faith, by definition, perseveres fully throughout life (1 John 2:18–19); and because Scripture is replete with affirmations and promises of the resolute will of God to save completely all those in whom he has initiated his redemptive work (e.g., Rom. 8:28–35; Phil. 1:6), Christians enjoy the privilege of the assurance of their salvation.

As Christians journey through life, they await several more mighty acts of God on both a personal and a cosmic level. Personally, as they age, suffer, become sick, and draw inexorably toward death, they anticipate with joy, and without becoming overwrought by fear, their homecoming. Homecoming is the mighty act of God at the end of life by which Christians slough off their body and go to be with the Lord. They pass immediately from this earthly life into the presence of God, though as disembodied beings (2 Cor. 5:1–10). Accordingly, they wait eagerly for the next mighty act of God, their glorification, which is the completion of their salvation when Christ returns (Phil. 3:20–21). Glorification features the resurrection of the body; disembodied Christians receive their glorified body—imperishable, glorious, powerful, and completely dominated by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 15:42–44).

Cosmically, the consummation of this present age will begin with the return of Jesus Christ. Descending from heaven, accompanied by his faithful people, the King of kings and Lord of lords will crush his enemies and manifest himself as the triumphant, sovereign Ruler (Revelation 19). Depending on their eschatology (view of the future), Christians believe either that the sovereign Ruler will exercise his reign for a thousand years—the millennium (Rev. 20:1–6)—on earth before inaugurating the new heaven and new earth, or that immediately after his triumphant return he will establish the new heaven and new earth. Accompanying these cosmic events are other future mighty acts of God: the final judgment (Acts 17:30–31), in which God will evaluate the works of all people (2 Cor. 5:10) and express either his remunerative justice through rewarding good deeds, or his retributive justice through the condemnation of evil deeds, leading to the eternal punishment of the wicked (Matt. 25:46). The ultimate mighty work of God will be the removal of this present heaven and earth and all it contains (2 Pet. 3:10) and the establishment of a new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21–22) in which there will be no more sin, no more suffering and disease, no more death, but in which redeemed human beings, fully renewed in the image of God, will dwell forever as worshipers of the Lord.

Quotation from Roman Catholic Theology copyright © 2014 by Gregg Allison. Published by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.