6. CHRISTIANITY THE ABSOLUTE RELIGION.
The Christian religion is the absolute religion, inasmuch as it is absolutely perfect, neither requiring, nor being capable of, improvement or development. It is God-given and therefore precisely as God would have it to accomplish its beneficent purpose of saving sinners. When we ascribe to the Christian religion perfection or absoluteness, we do not mean to say that it is a “logically complete whole” ( ein logisch vollkommenes Ganzes) or a logically complete and perfect system, in which there are no missing links of thought. The Christian’s knowledge, the apostle says, and he includes his own, is but fragmentary. 1 Cor. 13, 12: “Now I know in part.” What Christianity knows of divine wisdom through revelation is only a part of the unsearchable knowledge of God.
Again, the Christian religion is not perfect, or absolute, in the sense of constituting the best system of morality, although that, of course, is true. The moral theology of Holy Scripture is indeed perfect, for it centers in, and aims at, perfect love of God and the neighbor, Matt. 22, 37-40. Both its demand and its goal are perfect love, Matt. 5, 48 : “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” But this perfect morality does not constitute the essence of the Christian religion; it is rather the effect, or fruit, of the Christian faith, which the Holy Spirit implants in the human heart through the means of grace, or, as we may say briefly, it is the result of Christianity, not Christianity itself, 1 John 4, 9-21; Rom. 12, 1.
Nevertheless the Christian religion is absolute, that is, altogether perfect and unsurpassable. There are two reasons for this. In the first place, the Christian religion is not a moral code, teaching men how they may reconcile God by good works, but it is divine faith in the amazing fact that God through Christ “reconciled the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them,” 2 Cor. 5, 19. In that sense the Christian religion is absolute, that is, perfect and unsurpassable; for through the Gospel of Christ it offers to sinful mankind a perfect and incomparable reconciliation, effected through the vicarious atonement of the Son of God, the divine Redeemer of the world, who for us and in our stead satisfied the demands of divine justice (active obedience) and paid the penalty of sin (passive obedience), Gal. 4, 4. 5; 3, 13; Is. 53; 2 Cor. 5, 21. Every sinner who believes this reconciliation,or forgiveness of sin, is justified, or declared righteous, by grace, without the deeds of the Law, Acts 26, 18; Luke 24, 46. 47; Rom. 10, 17; 1 Cor. 2, 4. 5; Rom. 3, 28; 5, 1. That is the glorious gift which Christianity freely offers to all sinners. It announces to lost mankind that God by grace imputes to sinful man, who in himself is ungodly and condemned, the perfect righteousness of Christ through faith or that He covers the unrighteousness of the penitent believer with the perfect righteousness of His divine Son, Jesus Christ. Rom. 4, 5 : “To him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” 1 John 2, 2: “He [Christ] is the Propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” That is the wonderful absoluteness, or perfection, of the Christian religion: it proffers perfect reconciliation and salvation by grace and puts the believer into perfect and complete possession of God’s choicest gifts- His divine grace, His complete pardon, His peace, which passes all understanding, in short, spiritual and eternal life. Thus Christianity fully accomplishes what religion should accomplish, it reunites sinful mankind with the holy God and restores to him all that he has lost through sin. Col. 2, 10-14: “And ye are complete” (perfect), “in Him,” etc.
It goes without saying that the Christian religion is absolute, or perfect, only if it is preserved in its purity, that is to say, if its character as a religion of grace and faith is fully maintained, or if its central doctrine of justification by grace, through faith in the vicarious atonement of Christ, is retained unadulterated. If this chief doctrine of the Christian religion is perverted or removed, then Christianity becomes dechristianized, a neopagan religion, unworthy of the name it bears, and incapable of saving sinners. Thus Romanism, which teaches justification through “infused grace” (gratia infusa) and consequently by “good works” (Council of Trent, Sess. VI, Cans. 11.12. 20), paganizes Christianity in its central teaching, and the result is that the sinner fails to obtain divine pardon and, besides, is burdened with the curse of uncertainty (monstrum incertitudinis) as to his state of grace. Gal. 5, 4: “Christ is become of no effect unto you whosoever of you are justified by the Law; ye are fallen from grace.”
Similarly the doctrine of justification by grace, through faith in Christ, is corrupted by the rationalistic Protestant theologians of today, who reject the Scriptural doctrine of Christ’s vicarious atonement and in its place inculcate their own erroneous “theories of atonement.” They, too, deny the central Gospel truth that men are justified by faith alone, and through their man made theories of atonement they paganize the Christian religion. (The Moral Example Theory: Christ’s death should induce men to repent, reform and mend their conduct. The Governmental Theory: Christ died simply to show erring man that sin is displeasing in God’s sight, since God’s government of the world necessitates such manifestation of wrath against sin. The Declaratory Theory: Christ died to show how much God loves man, etc.) The central article of Christianity is likewise denied and perverted by all Pelagians, Arminians, and synergists, who maintain that man’s salvation depends, at least in part, on his good conduct and works. ‘The Christian religion, if so perverted, is deprived of its very essence and is therefore no longer absolute, or perfect, since in its paganized form it is unable to save sinners.
In the second place, the Christian religion is absolute, that is, perfect and unsurpassable, because its source and norm is not the fallible word of erring men, but the infallible Word of the inerrant God, as this is set forth in Holy Scripture, John 10, 35; 2 Tim. 3, 15-17; 1 Pet. 1, 10-12; Eph. 2, 20. Since Holy Scripture is divinely inspired, it is the absolute divine truth, John 17, 17; and the Christian religion, which is drawn from this absolute truth, is the only true religion, whereas all other religions, falsely so called, are in fact not religions at all. This fact must be given great emphasis today; for at present unionistic and syncretistic tendencies are very strong even in Christian circles, and norms outside of, and contrary to, Holy Scripture are so readily adopted. Holy Scripture is the only norm of faith, and only that is true religion which is true Scripture teaching.
This truth we stoutly affirm not only against Modernism, which rejects Holy Scripture altogether, but also against modern rationalizing theology, which establishes as norms, besides Holy Scripture, such things as “Christian consciousness,” “Christian conviction,” “Christian experience,” etc., and no less against Romanism, which declares tradition to be a source and rule of faith. In short, all who desire to maintain the Christian religion as the absolute religion must adhere to both the doctrine of justification by grace, through faith in the vicarious atonement of Christ, and to the doctrine that Holy Scripture, as the inspired, inerrant Word of God, is the only source and standard of faith. The Christian religion is absolute only if it is presented and taught as God Himself has given it to us in His Word.
The Christian religion was given to sinful mankind immediately after the Fall and was then, as it is now, the only absolute religion because it alone offered to, und bestowed upon, men salvation from sin through faith in the divinely appointed Redeemer of the world, Gen. 3, 15; Acts 10, 43.
Throughout the Old Testament the Gospel of Christ was proclaimed no less than in the New Testament, John 5, 39; 8, 56; Acts 10, 43, although in the New Testament the preaching of the Gospel is clearer and more complete than in the Old Testament. When Holy Scripture speaks of the abrogation of the Old and the institution of the New Testament, this does not refer to the preaching of the Gospel, which is the essence of Christianity, but to the Mosaic covenant of the Law, which has been abolished by the coming of Christ, Jer. 31,. 31-34; Heb. 8, 6-13; Gal. 3, 17 ff.; Col. 2, 16. Thus, while in the Old Testament divine revelation was progressive in the sense that the message of Christ’s coming and redemption was announced ever more clearly and fully, the religion which God gave to Adam and Eve after the Fall was from the very beginning absolute, that is, perfect and complete, because it was adequate to accomplish the salvation of sinners. The claim that the Old Testament presents to us essentially different religions, such as the patriarchal, the Mosaic, the prophetic, etc., is unfounded and contradicts the incontestable statements of Holy Scripture, Acts 15, 10. 11; Rom. 4, 3-6; Heb. 11. Christ was always the only Savior of all sinners, and no one has ever been saved except through faith in Him. Acts 4,12: “Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.”
In view of the fact that the Christian religion is the only true religion, it is incorrect to speak of it as “the highest religion” or “the most perfect religion” or “the climax of all religions,” etc. Such superlatives express only a difference in degree, whereas the difference between Christianity and all other religions so called is one of kind. Christianity is a God-made religion; all others are man-made. For this reason it is objectionable also to say that Christianity offers to man “the highest satisfaction.” As a matter of fact, Christianity alone offers satisfaction to sinful men, since it alone conveys and seals to them the grace of God, forgiveness of sins, and life eternal. The character of absoluteness belongs only to the religion of Jesus Christ.
When the question is considered as to what constitutes the essential difference between the Old and the New Testament, we must seek the difference not in the religion itself, but in the accidental feature of greater clearness and fullness. Essentially the two are the same. The doctrinal content does not differ; for in both we find the same Moral Law, and the same Gospel message, that sinners are saved alone by God’s grace in His Son, our Savior. This is attested by Christ Himself, who not only declared the Old Testament to be the divine truth, John 5, 45-47; 10, 35; 5, 39, but also affirmed that He is the Christ of the Old Testament, Luke 24, 25-27. Our divine Lord became incarnate not to teach a new religion, but to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies concerning Himself and by His holy suffering and death to secure the salvation promised by the prophets, Matt. 5, 17-19; Rom. 3, 28-31; Col. 2, 10-14. As Christ, so also the apostles, especially St. Paul, declared the Old Testament Scriptures to be able to make believers wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus, 2 Tim. 3, 15-17. Likewise St. Paul expressly teaches that the doctrine of justification by grace, through faith, is not a new doctrine, but the doctrine proclaimed by the prophets in the Old Testament and believed by all Old Testament believers, Rom. 3, 21. 22; chap. 4. From all this it is obvious that the religion of the Old Testament is essentially the Christian religion, which by its very nature is perfect and unsurpassable, or the absolute religion of God.