It is unnecessary to point out that all the great religions hold the view that the essence of man and the essence of God are one and the same.
—Colin Wilson, The Occult: A History (1971)
The dominant tenet of Hebrew thought is the absolute transcendence of God.
—Thorkild Jacobsen, Before Philosophy (1946)
Creation and Ethics
The biblical doctrine of creation means that God transcends created reality. Creation does not share His essence. It is not an extension of His being. Nowhere does the divine essence blur or squeeze or fuse itself into a created thing. Even in the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, the human and divine remain distinct. Christ exists “in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” (Formula of Chalcedon). He is “one altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person” (Athanasian Creed).
The transcendence of God involves His aseity, sovereignty, and Lordship. God is independent of His creation (aseity): He needs nothing from it—not sacrifices or worship or fellowship (Ps. 50:7-13; Acts 17:25). The Triune God of Scripture is self-existent and self-contained. But the universe, being His creation, is absolutely dependent upon God. It exists by His will and for His pleasure (Rev. 4:11). He upholds and sustains it. And therefore God is the Lord and final Lawgiver for all of created reality.
More particularly, God is the Lord and Lawgiver for all men and nations. Men, individually and collectively, ought to obey God because He is their Creator, Sustainer, and Judge. And it is exactly this conclusion that has led every other religion of the ancient and modern world to reject the doctrine of creation and to substitute for it a belief in the continuity of being.
The Continuity of Being
For polytheism, the universe created the gods. That is, they rose out of an eternally existing chaos. For pantheism, the universe itself is divine … there is no personal God. In both cases, the divine and the world are of the same stuff. The differences between the two, if they are not in fact illusory, are merely matters of degree or development. The gods are higher on the cosmic scale of Being than man but not fundamentally different. For man, too, is of the stuff of the universe and so actually or potentially divine.
This belief in the continuity or unity of being opens the door to a belief in magic. “As above, so below” is the traditional mantra. Or, “The macrocosm is the microcosm.” That is, the cosmos is reflected in all its parts … the galaxy in the star system, the star system in the planet, the planet in the man, and the man in the cell. The movements of the cosmos echo down the ladder of Being to reveal themselves in tea leaves, Tarot cards, crystals, or the entrails of birds. It’s all there for the magician to read if he’s good enough.
But put the other way around, the proper rite or incantation can be the little gear that turns the greater gear. Earthly ritual can sway the universe. Man can command the gods. Man can be God.
Creation and Covenant
The doctrine of creation, however, leads directly to the reality of covenant. Man is a creature, he is God’s image and necessarily stands in relationship to God as servant to Master. He is inescapably a covenant keeper or a covenant breaker. Either he walks in fellowship with God and keeps His commandments, or he rebels against God and tries to assert his own autonomy. There are no other options.
Since the Fall, all men are by nature covenant breakers. But God has extended a new covenant to men in and through Jesus Christ. Jesus kept the covenant law in all its detail, obeying in the place of sinners. On the cross, He bore the punishment due covenant breakers. Then He came back from the dead in resurrection power as legal proof of His victory over sin. Now He is in the business of changing guilty covenant breakers into forgiven covenant keepers. He works this change through the preaching of the gospel. This is all sovereign grace. Man’s efforts merit nothing.
God communicates His grace to men through the preaching of the gospel and seals it through the sacraments of baptism and holy communion. But the grace isn’t in the sounds of the preacher’s voice or in the waters of baptism or in the bread and wine of communion. These are only the physical means or mechanisms by which God communicates to us the gospel message. We must understand and believe that message. And God is sovereign in this process. He works faith in men’s hearts as He pleases. He grants regeneration as He wills (John 3:8; Jas. 1:18).
There have been many within the Church who have thought otherwise. They have perhaps too closely identified the grace of God with the action itself or the physical elements. They have believed that the properly ordained man enacting the properly performed rite can dispense grace automatically. Feel the water; feel grace. Drink the wine; drink grace. Now this is magic. Man’s salvation has become a matter of ritual rather than covenant. Rite and form have pushed out ethics. Metaphysical control has trumped evangelical justification.
Justification by Faith
Basic to the Protestant Reformation was the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) summarize the doctrine with these words: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (A. 33). The justification that God promises is legal and covenantal. It is based on Christ’s righteousness, His obedience to the covenant law, and on His death as a penal Substitute. This gracious justification doesn’t change the sinner’s heart or nature … it changes his legal standing before God. God justifies the ungodly and declares them His friends (Rom. 4:5). He forgives sinners. Then He makes them saints.
God blesses covenant keepers. Not that covenant obedience forces God’s hand or manipulates His favor in any way. Rather, covenant life is where God graciously manifests Himself and where He delights in His people. Or to put the matter more clearly, God meets His people in Jesus Christ, and Christ Himself is our righteous, peace, and joy. These are gifts no magic can ever bring.
Last month was Halloween. In the American mind it is a day sometimes synonymous with witchcraft and magic. But the name is actually a contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve,” the evening before All Saints’ Day. It was on such a day—October 31st, 1517—that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg and visibly launched the Protestant Reformation. Magic, sacramentalism, and justification by faith—an odd juxtaposition. God has a sense of humor.
For Further Reading:
Henri Frankfort, Thorkild Jacobsen, et al., Before Philosophy, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1967).
Gary North, “The Basic Implications of Six-Day Creation” in The Dominion Covenant: Genesis (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1982).
Gary North, Unholy Spirits, Occultism and New Age Humanism (Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1986).
Benjamin B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984).