Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Great Tension of the Christian Life

Ecclesiastes 7:20
“Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” 

The Christian life is lived in a constant tension. We are both made righteous through faith by God in Jesus Christ, anointed with the Spirit of God for sanctification, and yet we continue to sin. Although we have been regenerated (born again) by the Holy Spirit, the old man of flesh, still beckons us back to the life we once lived in blindness to the great mercies of the Lord. 

Ecclesiastes 7:20 is highly realistic, and also obvious. We can never be perfect in this life. Although we are called by God to put off the old man and to count ourselves as dead to sin and alive to Christ and to cleanse out the leaven in us, we often fail and are torn and sad about the sin we continue to commit. We long for the day when we will be perfected and glorified. Even the Spirit of God in us is groaning for the renewal of our bodies! We see evidence of the great grace of God, but we also see our old man. 
What are we to do with the sin we still commit? The Bible tells us to confess our sins to God. In Psalm 32:5, King David writes, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgression to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” In verse two of the same Psalm, David writes: “Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”
David is not saying that God will “count no iniquity” towards us if we have no deceit in the sense of being perfect (i.e. if we are not liars or thieves or adulterers). He is saying, rather, that the blessed man is one who is not deceitful to himself or to God about the sin that continues to manifest itself in our lives. David fully exposes himself before a loving king, understanding the vileness and stupidity of the sin he still commits. He understands that God sees all things (that he is omnipresent). David understands that to not confess his sin to God would be deceitful indeed, for in reality, not confessing our sin is the same as saying to God that we no longer commit sin, that there is no longer a problem.

The gospel of Jesus Christ frees us from unrealistic views of ourselves. Instead of trying our best to look perfect before the eyes of our neighbors and friends and family, we are free to look at ourselves in the most realistic way: As saints who still sin. God knew we would struggle! If he knew this and still loved us by sending his Son, then we no longer have to put on a show for others to protect our sorry dignities. The gospel frees us to lay everything bare before God. Christ is our new and only true dignity! And we must confess our sins: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).

God’s righteous judgment on the world would be terrible for us without a relief from God’s holy anger. Without the terrible cost that Jesus paid as he drank the dregs of God’s wrath for us on the cross, all would be lost. No man can stand before God and live. If God would count iniquities, who could stand before him? In verse 7 of Psalm 32, David writes, “You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.” Indeed, Christ is the sinner’s hiding place! Because of his steadfast love for you, you no longer have to hide from God as Adam did in the garden. You can come into the Holy of Holies, to God’s throne, boldly and humbly, and confess that you are a saint who continues to sin, in constant need of God’s refreshing grace. Confess your sins to God today, and be glad in the Lord that you can be counted righteous (while even yet a sinner) because of Christ. Be glad that God justifies the wicked. Be glad that he will cast your sins as far as the East is from the West. Relish in the fact that if your heart condemns you, God is greater than your heart and knows all things! Treasure this God, who says that if you do sin, you have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous! 

Assurance From Our Good Works? Mmhmm!

Do we gain assurance from our works?

If you’re Reformed, that answer should be a resounding yes! But it is perhaps not what we would quite expect. Lord’s Day 32, Q. and A. 86 of the Heidelberg Catechism states, “And we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits.”

And so, though it might feel quite an anti-protestant thing to say, the fruits that spring up in a believer’s life are an assurance to him of his salvation. Notice, I did not say they are the salvation. They are simply an assurance.

1 John 2:3 says, “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.

There are two types of knowledge spoken of in this verse. The first “know” is one of assurance. By this we can be sure. We can know truly.

The second “know” is one of relationship. We could paraphrase the verse this way: “By this we can be sure that we have come into a relationship with him.” And the answer John gives for us being sure that we are in a relationship with Jesus Christ is if we keep his commandments.

Don’t misunderstand. John is not talking about perfectionism. Just read the first chapter of 1 John if you think he is. John is neither saying that we are saved by good works, for “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

And that is precisely the key. Christ’s love for us causes us to love, and so the assurance found in our love stems from the fact that Christ loved us. 

False faith is the one that does not love. True faith is the one that grasps the promises found in Jesus Christ (forgiveness of sins, adoption, favor, redemption, righteousness etc.), and that true faith works through love, as Galatians 5:6 says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”

You see, if your faith works through love, you can be confident that you belong to Christ. One of the things that shows us someone has a false faith is if there is no love.

Prior to understanding what true Christianity was about, I only wanted to debate and argue the truths of Scripture, but not truly glory in them. There was little relishing in that the fact that these truths truly meant something, for myself and for others. 

Do you have a desire to see others come to Christ? Do you desire that God’s truth be accepted and loved by many people? Or would you just rather have it that you be right and others be wrong? Are you only desiring to win an argument? Or is your desire that other people come and understand the amazing works that God has done? This is perhaps the difference. True faith bursts forth in loving action, whereas false faith does not.

It was Jesus who said in Matthew 7:17-18, “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.

Has there been good fruit in your life? Have you shown a desire to worship? Have you shown a love for others coming to knowledge of the truth?

Often people are wary (especially Lutherans!) of saying that we can have assurance from our works. But ask yourself, would we be doing good works were it not for Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf?

We are not boasting in ourselves when we say that we can have assurance from good works. For these works come from the power of Christ at work in us through the Spirit that he sent after going to the Father. No, we never boast in ourselves. But believers should see Christ working through them, and should as Paul said, “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [them], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).

You see? As God works in us, pushes us, grows us in grace, we WORK. But we do so with a reverent spirit towards God, understanding the one who has bestowed us with his grace. And what amazing grace that is! Grace that purchased us when we were sinners. Grace that gave us pure vestments, the rich robes of Christ's righteousness.

To be sure, there is a working out of a false faith. People try as hard as they can to please God, and look fantastic both morally and outwardly. Just think of the rich young ruler.

But the fact of the matter is, true faith works from the knowledge that God is already pleased with us in Jesus Christ. True faith says, “How can I please my Lord who bought me with his precious blood?” True faith receives Jesus Christ, rests in him because Christ made him right with God, and then runs to please his master.

As 1 Peter 1:8 states, there is a very real possibility that we can become “ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We dare not abuse the free grace of our Lord in a cheap manner. The grace of God is certainly free, but it is never cheap. Rather, true faith soaks, saturates, and plunges itself in the restoring grace of God and runs forth in works of obedience. For true faith believes that “his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:2).

It is not the amount of works you see in your life, however. Have you seen any longing in your life for spiritual things? Have you found in yourself a desire to please your Lord? Have you seen the Spirit work in your life so that others around you know that you are, in fact, different? Have you loved another person and wanted them to understand the indescribable gift of Jesus Christ? Have you wanted them to believe in him and be free from all of their sin and misery? Have you desired that people understand the truths which the Bible speaks of? Do you yourself love the Lord and want to serve him, even if they are meager and half-hearted efforts?

Then take heart. The Bible says that you can take assurance from the good fruit that you see in your life. The good fruit of a true desire to follow after Christ, a hungering for his gospel, and a hungering after others tasting that same sweetness of which you have partaken. A hungering to love the Lord who bought you. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

No Works = No Salvation

As a Reformed Christian I heartily believe that I am made right with God “by faith alone” (Sola Fide) and “in Christ alone” (Sola Christus). This means that I am made right with God NOT by my obedience to his law. I’m made right with God NOT by my own efforts or pursuit of holiness. This is because, since Adam fell in the Garden of Eden, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Eccl. 7:20). Except for Christ.

Because “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” we must be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). So we Reformed types call being made right with God the doctrine of Justification. A simple way to remember what Justification means is that in Christ God looks at me “just as if I’d never sinned.” This is a fairly simplistic explanation, but it does the trick.

Justification comes as a gift of God’s grace.

But works fit in somewhere, right?


Not in our being made right before God. When we talk about Justification, the only works we can talk about are the works of Christ, because he is the only one who was truly righteous, blameless, and perfect before his Father. Not us. Christ. Not you. Him.

But there is more to salvation than simply being made right with God. There is also the work of the Spirit, applying Christ’s power in our lives in order to sanctify us. It is here that we can talk about works. You see, over the broad spectrum of salvation, works are necessary.

But necessary in what sense?

As the ground of salvation? No, for we have already covered that the ground of salvation is only through Justification.

It seems to me that Paul gives a very specific reason about why we are to obey God. It is because we have been united to Christ in his death. And we have been united to Christ in his resurrection.

Paul explains this all in Romans. “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).

Christ died to make us right with God (Justification), and he died in order that our body of sin might be brought to nothing (Sanctification).

How can our body of sin be brought to nothing? Through a vital union with Christ and his death (in his death, we died) and resurrection (in his resurrection, we also were raised). This was all for the point that “we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

So works show the evidence of the Spirit’s work of applying Christ’s benefits to us.

I think perhaps it is easier to believe that Christ died for our justification, whereas believing in the Spirit’s work of daily sanctifying us is a bit harder.

But just as we must believe that we are justified by Christ alone, we must also believe in the power of the Spirit’s work in our lives for sanctification! “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). Did you see that? It’s because we are under GRACE!

We see that a sermon on sanctification can be just as Christ-centered as a sermon on Justification, for it is through Christ that we are both justified and sanctified. Remember, Paul said that sin WILL HAVE NO DOMINION OVER YOU. Do you believe that?

The fact is that God DOES make demands of us. We are now “slaves of righteousness leading to sanctification” (Romans 6:19).

We have been made Sons and Daughters of the Great King. As Christians made right in the sight of God through Christ, we can’t forget that God takes a claim over our entire lives. This is why Peter writes, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who calls you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:14-15).

What a thing it is to be called a child of God! The need for Peter to write these commands shows that we are NOT perfect yet. In fact, “we are his WORKMANSHIP, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).  The fact that we are God’s chiseling block means that he’s still sanctifying us.

But Peter’s words hardly imply that there is no hope for deeper and deeper growth in holiness (which his command implies!). I often hear Christians talk about how sinful they are. And with no doubt this is very true. We are all very sinful still. But Sanctification is not about basking in how bad we are. You are not more sanctified because you always talk about how terrible you are.

I hear Christians say, “I can’t be kind.” “I can’t stop.” I can’t be more loving.” “I’m not this.” “I’m not that.”

And I fear this severely undercuts our trust in God’s provision to make us holy. It undercuts the New Covenant that God promised in the Old Testament, which dealt with the forgiveness of sins (Jeremiah 31:34) and God giving us new hearts (Ezekiel 36:26). You CAN count yourself as dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6:11)! Because in Christ, you are! Do you believe that?

Justification doesn’t lead to moral sloppiness if we really understand it. It’s actually the grounding of a life that pleases God, and makes us ready and willing to serve him. Justification logically precedes sanctification. We can’t begin to serve God until we have been made right with God. But both justification and sanctification are under the umbrella of our salvation.

So are works necessary for salvation? Yes. Because we have the Spirit. Because we have been united with Christ in his death, and in his resurrection, so that we would walk in newness of life. Works flow from the good root of faith.

If it is God’s will that we be sanctified, and if God’s Spirit, the very Spirit who rose Christ from the dead dwells in us, then certainly we DO HAVE THE POWER to fight against sin, and to show forth the fruits of the Spirit.

We CAN walk in a manner that is pleasing to God.

1 Thessalonians 4:1-8
“As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable,  not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God;  and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.