Christianity without Christ
by Charles Hodge (1823-1886)
Originally published in the Princeton Review, April 1876 (Vol. 5, Issue 18).
The doctrine which makes benevolence, the desire or purpose to promote the happiness not of our fellow-men merely, but of being in general, or all beings, logically, and often actually, results essentially in the same thing. All religion, all moral excellence consists in benevolence, Our only obligation is so to act as to promote the greatest good. This is the motive and the end of obedience. According to the New Testament, the motive to obedience is the love of Christ, the rule of obedience is the will of Christ, and its end the glory of Christ. Every Christian is benevolent; but his benevolence does not make him a Christian; his Christianity makes him benevolent. Throughout all ages the men who have labored most and suffered most for the good of others, have been Christians — men animated and controlled by Christ's love to them, and by their love to Christ. It is evident that the spiritual life — the inward religious state — of the man to whom it is Christ to live, is very different from that of the man who lives for the happiness of the universe. A man might thus live if there were no Christ.
Another form of religion in which Christ fails to occupy his proper position, is that which assumes God to be merely a moral governor, of infinite power and benevolence. Being infinitely benevolent, he desires the well being of his kingdom. To forgive sin without some suitable manifestation of his disapprobation of sin, would be inconsistent with a wise benevolence. Christ makes that manifestation in his sufferings and death. Then he retires; henceforth we have nothing to do with him; we have to deal with God on the principles of natural religion; we must submit to his authority, obey his commandments, and expect to be rewarded, not merely according to, but for, our works. Christ merits nothing for us, we are not to look to him for sanctification, or any other blessing. All he has done, or does, is to make it consistent with the benevolence of God to forgive sin. Forgiveness of sin, therefore, is the only benefit which God bestows on us on account of Christ.
This theory changes everything. Men me rebellious subjects. It is now consistent in God to forgive them. He calls on them to submit, to lay down their arms, then he is free to deal with them as though they had never sinned. They must merit, not forgiveness — for that is granted on account of what Christ has done — but the reward promised to obedience; justification is simply pardon. Conversion is that change which takes place in a man when he ceases to be selfish, and becomes benevolent; ceases making his own happiness the end of his life, and determines to seek the happiness of the universe. The essence of faith is love, i.e., benevolence. It is hard to see, according to this theory, in what sense Christ is our prophet, priest, and king; how He is our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; what is meant by our being in him as the branch is in the vine; or, what our Lord meant when He said, "without me, ye can do nothing;" what was in Paul's mind when he said, it is Christ for me to live, "it is not I that live, but Christ liveth in me," and so on to the end. This is a different kind of religion from that which we find in the Bible and in the experience of the church. As the religion (in the subjective sense of the word) is different, so is the preaching different, and so are the modes of dealing with sinners, and of promoting reformation among men. Some go so far as to hold, that there can be morality without religion; men are exhorted to be moral bemuse it is right, because it will promote their own welfare, and make them respected and useful. They we to become morally good by a process of moral culture, by suppressing evil feelings and cherishing such as are good ones, by abstaining from what is wrong and doing what is right.
Others take the higher ground of theism, or of natural religion, and bring in considerations drawn from our relation to God as an infinitely perfect being, our creator and preserver and father, who has rightful authority over us, who has prescribed the rule of duty, and who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.
All this is true and good in its place. But it is like persuading the blind to see and the deaf to hew. This is not the gospel. Christ is the only Saviour from sin, the only source of holiness, or of spiritual life. The first step in salvation from sin is our reconciliation to God. The reconciliation is effected by the expiation made by the death of Christ (Rom. 5:10). It is his blood, and his blood alone, that cleanses from sin. As long as men arc under the law, they bring forth fruit unto death; it is only when freed from the law, freed from its inexorable demand of perfect obedience and from its awful penalty, that they bring forth fruit unto God (Rom. 7:4-6). Christ delivered us from the law as demanding perfect obedience, by being made under the law, and fulfilling all righteousness for us; and he redeems us from the curse of the law, by being made a curse for us — dying the just for the unjust, and bearing our sins in his own body on the tree. Being thus reconciled unto God by his death, we are saved by his life. He sends the Holy Spirit to impart to us spiritual life, and transforms us more and more into his own image. The Spirit reveals to us the glory of Christ and his infinite love. He makes us feel not only that we owe everything to him, but that he himself is everything to us — our present joy and our everlasting portion — our all in all. Thus every other motive to obedience is absorbed and sublimated into love to Christ and zeal for his glory. His people become like him, and as he went about doing good, so do they. All this of course, is folly to the Greek. God, however, has determined by the foolishness of preaching to save them who believe. Pulmonary consumption is more destructive of human life than the plague. So Christianity without Christ, in all its forms, the phthisis of the church, is more to be dreaded than skepticism, whether scientific or philosophical. The only remedy is preaching Christ, as did the apostles.
Two important facts are to be home in mind. First, the inward religious life of men, as well as their character. and conduct, am determined by their doctrinal opinions. Even the Edinburgh Review, years ago, said, "The character of an age is determined by the theology of that age." Therefore, any system of doctrine which assigns to Christ a lower position than that which he occupies in the New Testament, must, in a like degree, lower the standard of Christianity — that is, the religious life of those calling themselves Christians. Second, nevertheless, it is equally true that men are more governed by their practical than by their speculative convictions. The idealist does not feel and act on his belief that the external world has no real existence. In like manner, the religious life of men is often determined more by the plain teaching of the Scriptures and by the common faith of the church than by their theological theories. Hence, men have often more of Christ in their religion than in their theology. It is, however, of the last importance to remember, that sound doctrine is, under God, our only security for true religion and pure morals. If we forsake the truth, God forsakes us.