Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
[Note: this post also appeared on the New Foundation Fellowship website.]
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness...
Thus begins one of the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, and I suspect that most people can complete the sentence. While this is proclaimed throughout Christendom, seldom do you encounter any indication of how the "...for you shall be filled" portion is to come about. For the most part, it has become "one of those things that can't be done in this lifetime." There is more time and space devoted to explaining why we can't be filled with righteousness, than true instruction on the way of righteousness.
In his Moorestown Lecture #7, The New Righteousness, Lewis Benson explained how this righteousness came to be lost and what is required to regain it. He began his lecture by stating:
Fox taught that there were two major areas of loss that resulted from the eclipse of the everlasting gospel. One of these was the order and government of Christ in his church, which Fox called “gospel order.” The other great loss was the moral certainty and moral power that he called “righteousness”.
When Fox declared that “the righteousness hath been lost since the apostles’ days” (7:327), he was stating his belief that the Reformers of the 16th Century had separated salvation from righteousness. They had ascribed to Christ the power to save us from the consequences of sin, but not save us from captivity to sin. Thus he says that “there is a faith, which Christ is not the author of, and that faith giveth not the victory, nor purifieth the heart, neither do they in it please God” (8:56).
Fox believed that the primitive apostolic gospel he was preaching had the power to restore this lost righteousness, and that as people came to know Christ as their living prophet and teacher, they would be taught the principles of God’s righteousness and given power to obey. He declared that people should meet “in the name of Jesus, who is alive, and he, their living Prophet, Shepherd, and Bishop, is in the midst of them ... He is... their righteousness” (BII:442).
This brings the adherent to the everlasting gospel into conflict with modern Christendom just as it brought the early Quakers into conflict with their contemporaries. This is a vital issue and not a mere fascination with history. Like Fox and the early Quakers, we are challenged to produce evidence that our position has any basis in Scripture. Benson devotes a substantial portion of this lecture showing the Biblical basis of Fox's position on righteousness. He poses the question:
If this teaching is true, and Christ has indeed come to teach his people God’s righteousness and give them the power to obey, what is the basis of Fox’s complaint that “the righteousness hath been lost since the apostles’ days”?
Benson then outlines the positions of both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism and their approaches to the problem of righteousness. And for these groups, righteousness is a problem. He goes on to state:
Thus when Fox says that “the righteousness hath been lost,” he is commenting on the failure of both Protestant and Catholic Christianity to bear witness to Christ as the one who fulfills the law, and who brings in a new covenant wherein men and women can be led and taught by him, and so fulfill God’s call for righteousness.
This new righteousness that comes from Christ does not smother the human spirit with a tyrannical code of morals, but it brings people to know “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” As Emil Brunner says, “Because the being of man is actually based upon man’s dependence upon God [and] upon the call of God which chooses him and gives him responsibility, his freedom is only complete where he remains in this dependence. Hence ... the maximum of his dependence on God is at the same time the maximum of his freedom.” (Brunner, Man in Revolt, p. 263)
God's call for a righteous, holy people is neither an impossibility laid upon us by an unreasonable taskmaster nor is it merely a mark, a high calling, toward which we are to strive, but are never intended to attain in this life. The everlasting gospel preached by Fox and the early Friends maintains the integrity of God's righteous call and provides the way that enables mankind to answer that call.