By C. Baxter Kruger
Two centuries ago, a Scottish barrister named Thomas Erskine wrote a book titled The Unconditional Freeness of the Gospel. It remains one of the most important books I have ever read. In this book Erskine solved a critical and practical theological problem for me, and I hope for you.
According to Erskine, the gospel is the good news that God has forgiven the human race. Forgiveness is to be proclaimed as an accomplished fact. It is universal. It is finished. It includes the whole race of humanity. And it is unconditional. Many, of course, believe this to be the plain truth of the gospel. I know I do. Yet there are many others who are deeply troubled by such an unconditional message. Why then is the New Testament so full of the call to faith and repentance? If we are all forgiven forever, what difference does it make if we believe the gospel or not? And what does such a free declaration mean for living the Christian life?
What troubled Erskine was that the gospel had been so watered down to avoid these pitfalls that it had become an ambiguous message in which forgiveness was made dependent upon us, whether through faith or works. If we repent and if we believe, then and only then will God forgive us. Erskine knew that if our forgiveness depends on us or on what we do or believe in any way, then we will never find healing for our broken souls.
"I think that much of the theoretical difficulty on this matter has arisen from the habit of considering heaven merely as a reward, and hell merely as a punishment — and pardon as the deliverance from hell, and the introduction into heaven" (p. 8). Erskine is here making a critical distinction between forgiveness and heaven.
For Erskine, heaven is the life we experience as our broken souls are bathed with the Father’s love. Hell is the life, so to speak, we experience when we don’t know the Father’s love at all. "Christianity may be considered as a divinely revealed system of medical treatment for diseased spirits. Heaven is the name for health in the soul, and hell is the name for disease; and the design of Christianity is to produce heaven, and to destroy hell" (p. 9).
For Erskine, people who have not heard that they are forgiven — and believed it to be the truth — are not whole, healthy, spiritually flourishing people. They are riddled with fear, not peace; self-centeredness, not love; hopelessness, not assurance. Their soul is profoundly diseased. They are miserable, sad and broken.
The gospel — the news of our unconditional forgiveness by God — is spiritual medicine for our devastated souls. For it shouts to us that we are loved forever, accepted and embraced by the Father himself. "Pardon, then, is not heaven — any more than a medicine is health. Pardon is proclaimed freely and universally — it is perfectly gratuitous — it is unconditional and unlimited — but heaven is limited to those who are sanctified by the belief of the pardon" (p. 11). Believing in our Father’s love and forgiveness is to take the spiritual medicine that heals our pain-riddled souls. Refusing to believe in our Father’s love never changes the fact that we are loved and forgiven; but it leaves our souls unhealed.
Dr. C. Baxter Kruger is the Director of Perichoresis Ministries and the President of Mediator Lures, which manufactures specialty fishing lures. For more information visit www.perichoresis.org. Thomas Erskine's book is available for free through Google Books.