Guest Column – The importance of Christian arithmetic

Peter Jensen Peter Jensen is a retired Australian Anglican bishop, theologian and academic. From 1985 to 2001, he was Principal of Moore Theological College.
01 November, 2006 3 min read

I think it was Dr Jim Packer who taught me the importance of Christian arithmetic. It is quite simple – to add is to subtract.

When something is perfect for its purpose, to add to it is to subtract from it and even to destroy its usefulness. It is, of course, the same point that is made by the great ‘alones’ of Reformation theology – Christ alone; the Bible alone; faith alone; grace alone; to the glory of God alone.
The danger for many Christians is not that we will attack or forget Christ, but that we will not be satisfied with Christ – we will seek to add to Christ. In so doing we will take away from his glory and his power in our lives. We diminish Christ by adding to him.

Who should we please?

Think how this could be done. If we say that Christ is a way of salvation and add other saviours to the list, we detract from Christ. More subtly, if we add good works to Christ, as though his work on the cross was insufficient, we diminish him. One temptation is to add religious observance to Christ.
The difficulty with the ‘alones’ of the Reformation is that they involve us in being negative. In order to be truly positive about Christ we have to say ‘No!’ to all rivals to Christ, of whatever sort.
As in many areas of life, our ‘Yes!’ is only as good as our ‘No!’ If we want to please everyone and never dissent or negate, our positive remarks become basically worthless – we are in danger of pleasing other people rather than the Lord.
Indeed, the Christian life begins with a great negation as we repent of our sins and turn to Christ. It is the greatest negation in order to make the greatest affirmation. How strange it is that we may compromise that basic step.

Attitudes to authority

One of the most important things in modern church life is to be vigilant about this in our attitude to authority, and especially the authority of the Bible. There are many calls to add to Scripture. But to do so is to diminish Scripture.
Take the fascination with experience which we see in much modern Christianity. I have come across Christians who love the Bible but constantly add to it ‘impressions’ or ‘voices’ which they think communicate God’s immediate will to them in everyday life.
They say that such ‘leading’ is not contrary to Scripture. But what they do not realise is that in thinking that God communicates in this way, they are already compromising the sole authority of Scripture in their lives. It is only natural that such ‘special communications’ become more interesting, more ‘relevant’, and more exciting than the Bible itself.
In giving us the Bible the Lord has given us all the same starting point. It is a public revelation addressed not to some special Christians but to us all. It does not elevate the person with ‘spiritual experiences’ above the rest of us. That is why our typical evangelical meetings centre on Scripture rather than testimony.

Real experience

Don’t misunderstand me. Christian experience is real and it is important to share it with others. But to constitute experience as the word of God to be put alongside Scripture is a fundamental error – which leads to many other errors. Experience has to be understood through Scripture, not as an independent source of revelation alongside it.
The Epistle to the Colossians is one of the biblical resources that guard us against this temptation. I always rejoice in Colossians 2:3 which speaks of Christ, ‘in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’. In the final analysis, even the most humble believer in Christ has more wisdom and knowledge about the way this universe is run than the most distinguished academic.
As Colossians warns us, however, we are continually tempted to supplement the wisdom and knowledge we have in Christ with spiritual insights from elsewhere. Strangely, religion is the chief culprit. The temptations will often come dressed in a Christianised garb that appeals to the unwary.
We become tired with the humdrum work of listening to God’s word in the Bible and struggling against sin. So we seek a better way, one that will provide a sense of instant accomplishment and reward. The way of ‘religion’ sounds good at first but it ends as a way of bondage. It is not the way of faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.

The joy of true assurance

What makes us vulnerable to such a mood? The single most important factor is lack of assurance – and that goes back to our understanding of justification by faith. Whenever we include good works as a means of justification in our religious life, we are robbed of the assurance of salvation.
This must be so – for any examination of our achievements reveals our failures. The more we examine what we have actually done (especially if we use the law of God to conduct the examination) the more we recognise that even our best efforts are flawed and sinful. There can be no assurance there for an honest person.
Only by trusting Christ and his redeeming work do we come to the joy of true assurance. And that depends on our grasp of Christian arithmetic. When we add to Christ, we diminish him; when we add to faith, we ruin it. To add is to subtract

Peter Jensen is a retired Australian Anglican bishop, theologian and academic. From 1985 to 2001, he was Principal of Moore Theological College.
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