On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg. These were dark, dark days; the gospel had been shackled by the superstitions and idolatries of the Roman Catholic Church and consigned to her dungeon where its light was hidden from the world. But Luther’s action that day would initiate its emancipation by sparking the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers rescued the gospel from Rome’s dungeon and brought it to the hilltops from where its light could again emanate as a beacon of salvation for all to see. To remember this day in the history of Christ’s church, brothers from various Reformed denominations have contributed articles on each of the five solas of the Reformation: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. Together they form the five-fold light of the gospel that overcomes the darkness.
– Daniel Ragusa
Rooting for the Underdog; Longing for a Champion
There are many who believe the Bible to be a boring book. Even Christians sometimes fall into the trap of treating its pages as a mere tool to extract and teach the propositions of orthodoxy. But the Bible is so much more than that! It is quite literally “inspired,” that is, breathed out by our sovereign and holy God into history. As such it reflects his character and is marked by a high literary quality with compelling narratives, moving poetry and tightly reasoned arguments, all of which are brought together into one story of creation, fall, redemption and consummation. Geerhardus Vos puts it this way, “The Bible is not a dogmatic handbook, but a historical book full of dramatic interest.”
Our world seems addicted to fantasy literature at present. The story of an underwhelming hero overcoming all odds resonates with the human psyche in a way that omnipotence doesn’t. I was recently reminded when watching “Batman vs Superman” of the distrust so many of us naturally have for those who hold almighty power. We prefer the underdog. It makes for a better story.
Well for those who like literature, the Bible far outstrips any other work in its magnificence. It is particularly striking due to the fact that unlike every other fantastical narrative, it is the truth. We read of the formation of the earth; mountains raised and rivers cut, flowers blooming and trees bearing fruit in their seasons. A new race is formed out of dust. We read of talking animals; heroes and villains; stories of love, betrayal, sacrifice and murder; immense building programs and wealth; city-building which far outstrips Minecraft. The protagonists contend with dragons, demons and the Devil himself. Faith is tested and purified; the sick are healed; the lame walk; people are raised from the dead; someone even gets taken up into heaven on a chariot! Young men and women grow in knowledge, understanding and wisdom, and perform heroic acts in the service of their King and God. Nations rise and fall, and the good guy wins in the end, saving his people from destruction. All his enemies are placed under his feet and eternal peace is won.
Now if this is the fabric of our real history, it’s no wonder that humanity is drawn to the underdog; that they crave the destruction of evil; that they realise their need for a champion to fight their battles for them. The Marvel universe, DC Comics and the entire Star Wars franchise (not to mention many more!) are built around this premise.
But there is a problem with earthly heroes. Both superheroes and supervillains war with their own nature; in every villain there is a bit of good and in every hero there is a bit of evil. Think of Harvey Dent (before he became Two-Face), the pride of Iron-man, the rage of the Hulk, the self-doubt of Gideon, the womanizing of Solomon. As these broken champions have shown, the Bible’s resounding lesson is that they aren’t ultimately capable. Although they are simply a result of the human imagination, the vast array of heroes in the comic book universe could easily be slipped into the back of the book of Judges as additional short term solutions which leave increasingly bitter tastes in the mouth.
Only a perfected hero is able to save an imperfect people (read the letter to the Hebrews); only someone who is incorruptible is capable of being the shining light for humanity. And to add to the problem, it is generally suspected that a hero who triumphs in the traditional methods isn’t going to achieve the desired ends. They might be perfect, but nobody else is. Another villain will always rise up again to replace the previous one—the weak peasants will never truly gain the strength they need to fight for themselves, and evil and good will continue their perpetual war.
Christ, Our Only Champion
So who is the champion we need? Solus Christus (“by Christ alone”)!—that is, none other than the Son of God come to earth. Born of a virgin; fully God and fully man; like us in every way but without sin; sympathetic to our weaknesses but never succumbing to them. Someone who does not only defeat his enemies, but saves them from themselves. Someone who secures our inheritance in his own strength and restores our relationship with the One who we have wronged (John 14:6). Salvation can be achieved through no one else than Christ Jesus our Lord (Acts 4:12).
The plot of Scripture is thick, but not dense; it is complicated, but also simple. Someone once quipped that it “is a stream in which the elephant may swim and the lamb may wade.” Everything in Scripture tells us about Christ in one way or another—many helpful books have been written to help us see this. All the heroes in the Old Testament with their shortcomings and failures point forward to the need for a greater champion. All of them were insufficient to provide more than a brief interlude. Death, pain and betrayal return to God’s people promptly upon their death or even during their lifetime.
David and Goliath
Perhaps one of the most significant examples we see of this is in the story of David and Goliath. For forty days Goliath came and defied the ranks of Israel. He called for a man that they might fight together. Yet ironically, not one of the Israelites would stand up and present themselves as a man, until David. This young, nameless shepherd takes the field alone against the enemy of God’s people and blasphemer of God (1 Sam. 17). As he picks up five smooth stones and walks towards a hulking goliath of a man, his people stand quivering on the side-line. The earthly king they craved is, like them, also hiding from the danger.
But as powerful as the enemy champion appears to be, in the narrative he is ironically considered to be less than a man. David turns Goliath’s scornful challenge (“send me a man!”) on its head. He compares the Philistine to animals, saying to Saul, “Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them” (17:36). In God’s sovereignty, Goliath draws even more attention to this in the narrative: “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” (17:43). The contest commences and Goliath is quickly slain by David with a single stone so “that all this assembly [and all future readers] may know that the LORD saves not with sword and spear” (17:47).
Now there have been some powerful sermons from this text recently. In contrast to many popular preachers who double-dare their listeners to be a David, the emphasis of the passage is that you are a member of God’s people cowering on the side-line. You need a champion to save you; you have proven unable to contribute at all to your salvation.
Christ, A Greater Champion than David
But there is also another powerful truth about this story, which the light of New Testament revelation illumines for us. Paul writes, “You were alienated from God and were enemies in your mind because of your evil behavior” (Col. 1:21 NKJV). And yet, “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:10).
But Christ is not a champion like David. God does not win by sword and spear, nor does he destroy all his enemies. Instead, our true Champion (not the one we chose but the One who chose us) took us, his enemies, and adopted us into his family; we who were the enemies of God are now heirs according to the promise.
Interestingly, when Jesus came to earth, people continually looked down on him, emphasizing his unlikely beginnings. Nathaniel considered him an unlikely candidate, saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). In his hometown he was an outcast—in response Jesus noted that “a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his household” (Matt. 13:57). Even John the Baptist questioned whether he was truly the long promised hero (Luke 7:18-20). And Israel had expectations of a messianic military general who would drive away the Romans.
But Christ was a champion of a different sort. He rode into the capital city on a donkey (John 12:12-15); he won the battle as a lamb led to be slaughtered (Rev. 5:5-10). He wasn’t going to destroy the meager militaries of man, but he came to defeat the spiritual superpowers of sin, sickness, and Satan.
Christ won his victory not with a sword or a spear or a sling; rather, he won by laying down his life on a cross and shedding his blood for those whom his Father had given to him.
Even though Goliath and the Philistines were routed, they came back later. Even though David proved to be a better king than Saul, he participated in polygamy, adultery, murder, cowardice and he failed to discipline his children. His failures led once again to the collapse and exile of his people.
In God’s sovereign plan, the historical truths of Scripture bear out the striking truth of the gospel: the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords has come and he has won the most important victory. The kingdom of Jesus will never fall because of an imperfect king. No other champion is capable of providing such everlasting peace.
In Christ alone do we gain salvation, for Christ alone is the champion of his people and there is no other. Christ alone can be trusted to maintain this victory and provide a happily ever after in union and communion with the Triune God.
For Further Study
- Lane Tipton, “Christology in Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4: An Exercise in Biblio-Systematic Theology” in Resurrection and Eschatology: Theology in Service of the Church. Also listen to his address from our 2016 Theology Conference on Colossians 1:15, as well as the Sunday school class he led on Hebrews 1:1-4.
- On the all-encompassing and sufficient nature of the knowledge of Jesus Christ see Daniel Ragusa’s article, “Knowing Nothing Except Jesus Christ (Part 1): Reductionistic or Cosmic?”
- Sinclair Ferguson, In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centered Life.
- Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “The Excellency of Christ.”
- Rod Rosenbladt, Christ Alone.
- As solus Christus is challenged by the sacramental system of Rome see Martin Luther’s treatise The Babylonian Captivity of the Church and book IV of John Calvin’s Institutes.