B.C. Askins

The Man With the Golden Gun

Archive for the tag “justification”

Union with Christ in the New Testament: A Provocative Exegesis of Matthew 25:31-46

[Caveat lector: Necessarily, this post will be an overly brief and superficial treatment of the immense subjects under discussion. As always, questions and comments are not only welcome, but strongly encouraged.]

The Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide) has been a matter for drawing swords and shedding ink (at least) ever since the days of the Reformation. Witness a Baptist preacher and an Anglican bishop crossing quills over the matter just a few years ago (helpful summary here). My two cents: Piper had the loudest volume and Wright the largest volume – pick which volume you prefer.

The unfortunate fallout from these centuries of justification debates is that sola fide has become the functional center of certain streams of thought within the broadly Reformed tradition, leading some to see it as the central point of Pauline theology as well. It is not. Union with Christ is. Fortunately, this error of emphasis is being corrected in many recent volumes and conferences. Justification is grounded in union with Christ.

In contrast, the Kingdom of God is central to the theology of Christ in the Gospels. So Paul’s theology centers on Union with Christ and Christ’s theology centers on the Kingdom of God. I would like to suggest that these two theological centers converge in Matthew 25:31-46, “The Final Judgment.” Jesus’ doctrine of the Kingdom culminates most clearly in this passage, while Paul’s doctrine of Union with Christ is clearly present in seed form, as we shall see.

If I am correct in my interpretation, then there will be relevant implications from my exegesis for discussions regarding the relationship between Pauline and Jacobean doctrines of justification, the relationship between justification and sanctification, and the role of love in the judgment of God (among many others).

Here is the text in Greek and English:

31Οταν δὲ ἔλθῃ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐν τῇ δόξῃ αὐτοῦ καὶ πάντες οἱ ἄγγελοι μετ’ αὐτοῦ, τότε καθίσειἐπὶ θρόνου δόξης αὐτοῦ: 32καὶ συναχθήσονται ἔμπροσθεν αὐτοῦ πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, καὶ ἀφορίσει αὐτοὺςἀπ’ ἀλλήλων, ὥσπερ ποιμὴν ἀφορίζει τὰ πρόβατα ἀπὸ τῶν ἐρίφων, 33καὶ στήσει τὰ μὲν πρόβατα ἐκδεξιῶν αὐτοῦ τὰ δὲ ἐρίφια ἐξ εὐωνύμων. 34τότε ἐρεῖ βασιλεὺς τοῖς ἐκ δεξιῶν αὐτοῦ, Δεῦτε, οἱεὐλογημένοι τοῦ πατρός μου, κληρονομήσατε τὴν ἡτοιμασμένην ὑμῖν βασιλείαν ἀπὸ καταβολῆςκόσμου: 35ἐπείνασα γὰρ καὶ ἐδώκατέ μοι φαγεῖν, ἐδίψησα καὶ ἐποτίσατέ με, ξένος ἤμην καὶσυνηγάγετέ με, 36γυμνὸς καὶ περιεβάλετέ με, ἠσθένησα καὶ ἐπεσκέψασθέ με, ἐν φυλακῇ ἤμην καὶἤλθατε πρός με. 37τότε ἀποκριθήσονται αὐτῷ οἱ δίκαιοι λέγοντες, Κύριε, πότε σε εἴδομεν πεινῶντακαὶ ἐθρέψαμεν, διψῶντα καὶ ἐποτίσαμεν; 38πότε δέ σε εἴδομεν ξένον καὶ συνηγάγομεν, γυμνὸν καὶπεριεβάλομεν; 39πότε δέ σε εἴδομεν ἀσθενοῦντα ἐν φυλακῇ καὶ ἤλθομεν πρός σε; 40καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς βασιλεὺς ἐρεῖ αὐτοῖς, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐφ’ ὅσον ἐποιήσατε ἑνὶ τούτων τῶν ἀδελφῶν μου τῶνἐλαχίστων, ἐμοὶ ἐποιήσατε. 41Τότε ἐρεῖ καὶ τοῖς ἐξ εὐωνύμων, Πορεύεσθε ἀπ’ ἐμοῦ [οἱ] κατηραμένοιεἰς τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον τὸ ἡτοιμασμένον τῷ διαβόλῳ καὶ τοῖς ἀγγέλοις αὐτοῦ: 42ἐπείνασα γὰρ καὶ οὐκἐδώκατέ μοι φαγεῖν, ἐδίψησα καὶ οὐκ ἐποτίσατέ με, 43ξένος ἤμην καὶ οὐ συνηγάγετέ με, γυμνὸς καὶοὐ περιεβάλετέ με, ἀσθενὴς καὶ ἐν φυλακῇ καὶ οὐκ ἐπεσκέψασθέ με. 44τότε ἀποκριθήσονται καὶ αὐτοὶλέγοντες, Κύριε, πότε σε εἴδομεν πεινῶντα διψῶντα ξένον γυμνὸν ἀσθενῆ ἐν φυλακῇ καὶ οὐδιηκονήσαμέν σοι; 45τότε ἀποκριθήσεται αὐτοῖς λέγων, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐφ’ ὅσον οὐκ ἐποιήσατε ἑνὶτούτων τῶν ἐλαχίστων, οὐδὲ ἐμοὶ ἐποιήσατε. 46καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον, οἱ δὲδίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Now, I am far from an expert in the history of the interpretation of this passage; however, it might be useful to think of modern commentators as tending to fall into one of two broad categories when interpreting the passage: liberal and conservative. Oversimplifying the matter somewhat for brevity’s sake, we can say that liberal theologians have tended to emphasize the social justice matters which Christ emphasizes in the passage: good works of love are what will matter at the final judgment. Care for the poor is at the heart of the gospel (cf. liberation theology). This has some similarities with some Roman Catholic interpretations of the passage as implying that meritorious works can earn salvation, (cf. Robert Bellarmine). Further, many would point out that there is nothing at all mentioned about justification by faith.

Oversimplifying again, conservatives have responded to this passage by limiting its scope to those within the church, because Jesus refers to “the least” as his “brothers” in vs. 40 – meaning that good works performed for those in the household of faith will be what matters at the final judgment, not broader social justice issues. Protestants have responded that these good works are the product of faith and not the basis for salvation. Love is the fruit of faith, so while the final judgment will be according to works, those works must be grounded in faith in Christ or they are just self-righteousness (cf. John Calvin in response to Bellarmine).

I tend to agree with both sides when they disagree with each other and disagree with both when they agree with themselves. In other words, I think they’re both wrong.

Exegetical Notes

These are the final words of the final pericope in the final discourse of Matthew’s Gospel. It is fitting that its subject should be the final judgment. This passage is the poetic and dramatic climax of the teachings of Christ in the first Gospel.

The setting and events depicted in the passage are conventional of judgment scenes in Jewish literature, strongly echoing Daniel 7 (among others). The King sits upon a judgment throne; angels are present; people are gathered, separated into two groups and the righteous are rewarded while the wicked are punished. There are twin conversations which correspond with the two groups and their respective judgments.

The structural significance of the sentence conjunctions in this passage have been entirely overlooked by commentators. (For more on this matter generally, see Stephanie Black, Sentence Conjunctions in the Gospel of Matthew.) There is an introductory Οταν (“When”) followed by the twin conversations, which use three τότε (“then”) and a concluding καὶ (“and”) sentence. The paragraph structure is (1) introductory paragraph, (2) dialogue with the righteous, (3) dialogue with the wicked, and (4) conclusion. It looks like this:

(1) Οταν (“when”)…
(2) τότε (“then”)…
τότε (“then”)…

καὶ (“and”)…

(3) τότε (“then”)…
τότε (“then”)…
τότε (“then”)…

(4) καὶ (“and”)…

The conjunctions above first serve the obvious grammatical purpose of conjoining two clauses. There is also an obvious parallelism in the structuring of the two dialogues. However, once we consider the structure of the discourse from above the sentence level (in a discourse analysis) we can see beyond the twin mistakes made in the stereotypical liberal/conservative, Catholic/Protestant interpretations mentioned above.

Filling in the text further:

(1) When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him…
(2) Then  the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

(3) Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’
Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

(4) And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Structurally and poetically, the climactic central point of the text is found in the shocking identification of the King with “the least” in vs. 40: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” It is the identification of the King with “the least” which is central to this passage, not the good works or lack of good works among those being judged. Both the liberal/conservative and Catholic/Protestant readings hang on two different sides of the same error by reading the text as though the distinguishing characteristics are in those being judged, rather than in the Judge’s shocking self-identification with “the least.”

As mentioned above, these are the final words of Christ in the final discourse of Matthew’s Gospel and shortly after proclaiming them, the King will be hungry and no one will feed him, thirsty and he will have only vinegar to drink, a stranger unwelcome among his own people, stripped naked to be beaten, sickened by blood loss and infection, and he will be alone in prison until his crucifixion, at which time he will even be forsaken by the Father so that “the least” would never be forsaken by Him. The shadow of the cross looms large upon this final discourse before the crucifixion, just as the love displayed there will be magnified at the final judgment.

Paul’s doctrine of Union with Christ simply makes explicit the subtle doctrinal realities already woven into the the narrative-discourse fabric of the Gospels. The final judgment will be based upon the love we show to the King, who identifies himself with us, becoming “the least” in order to save “the least.” For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:5)

(For a sermon I preached recently on this text, click here.)

Tullian Tchividjian, Rick Phillips and Total Depravity

So the evangelical blogospheric dust-up last week between Tullian Tchividjian (TGC) and Rick Phillips (Ref21) over the relationship between justification and sanctification in the Christian life appears to have settled somewhat. Tullian wrote an article responding to the question “Are Christians Totally Depraved?” His answer, in short: Yes – in a sense.

Rick Phillips criticized Tullian’s article in his own blog post, “Thank God that Christians Are Not Totally Depraved.” Tullian responded with a post which was largely an exercise in missing the point, quoting extensively from various Reformed confessions while turning the discussion away from the question of depravity and to an argument about the relationship between justification and sanctification. Phillips responded with a comparatively irenic post, attempting to clarify his own and Tchividjian’s positions. Meanwhile, the TGC combox brought the usual heat rather than light, with Tullian’s fanboys and girls rallying around their hero.

Several have commented that the issue seems like two sides of the same coin, arguing about differences of emphasis (rather than substance) in relating justification and sanctification. Phillips rounded out this discussion by posting on common misconceptions in that regard.

While it appears accurate to see both Phillips and Tchividjian as orthodox in their views of justification, sanctification, and the relationship between the two, the heart of the disagreement is regarding total depravity, not justification and sanctification.

Bottom line: Tullian misused the term “total depravity” when he applied it to Christians. He says Christians are totally depraved “in a sense,” that sense being half of the standard theological definition of total depravity. And “half-totally depraved” is a confusing concept.

A definition of total depravity incorporates (at least): (1) the radical corruption of every human faculty by sin and (2) a complete inability to not sin (non posse non peccare; cf. Berkhof p. 246-7, Reymond p. 450f., Grudem p. 497f., Shedd p. 601-2). Tullian stipulates that he is using the term only to refer to the first half of the definition – but this is a confusing misuse of the term. While it may carry rhetorical force in illustrating his point regarding the pervasive nature of sin even in the life of a Christian, it is ultimately a confusing rather than clarifying way of teaching the doctrine of indwelling sin in the life of a believer.

Sermon Manuscript: Romans 2:6 (Part 10)

(This is a section of a manuscript of the first prepared sermon I ever preached, which was in 2009 at the Evangelical Church of Fairport.)

Romans 2:6, “He will render to each one according to his works…”

So, if it is indeed the case that we are justified by faith apart from works of the law, how can we then be judged according to our works as our text so clearly states?

The first key in understanding the role of works in judgment and justification is that Christ’s death in our behalf removes our guilt, but not our responsibility. We remain perpetually responsible for our actions, even though the shame and penalty for those actions have been absorbed by another.

So, will the sins of believers be made public on the last day? There are theologians and commentators who argue that since the sins of Christians are covered by the blood of Christ, they cannot be a subject of discussion at the judgment. Although the Bible teaches that believers have the guilt and penalty of their sins removed and are clothed with Jesus’ perfect righteousness and thus are not in danger of being cast into hell, Scripture does teach very clearly that all Christians will have to give an account on that day. The reasons for this assertion are manifold.

First, one cannot avoid the biblical passages that speak of the judgment as an event that includes both the saved and the unsaved (e.g., Eccl. 12:14; Mt. 13:30, 36-43, 47-50; 25:31-34, 41; Ac. 17:30-31; Rev. 20:12-13).

Second, the evaluation of a believer’s works on the day of judgment is explicitly taught in the epistles and is used by Paul to urge believers to greater diligence in doing good: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil..” (2 Cor. 5:10) “For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” (1 Cor. 4:4-5). “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Cor. 3:12-15). “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God… So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Rom. 14:10,12). An account cannot be given, however, except by a careful disclosure of one’s entire conduct, and thus the imperfections and failures of the faithful will of necessity also be made public.

Third, passages which warn believers that “God will judge the secrets of men” (Rom. 2:16); that men will give an account on the day of judgment “for every careless word” they speak (Mt. 12:36) cannot (given the context and audience) be restricted to unsaved sinners. Statements made by Jesus and the apostles, which are intended to spur Christians on to greater obedience, lose all their force if they do not apply to believers!

This view of the judgment raises a number of objections. First, if Jesus paid for all our sins why would He bring them up again on that day? Would this not bring shame upon the saints? Is not such shame incompatible with the joy of that day, when sinning will be no more? One must keep in mind that the sins evaluated are forgiven sins. A passage of Scripture that teaches that genuine believers will not experience shame at Christ’s coming is 1 John 2:28. “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.”

“Believers do not turn in shame from Christ for they know that their sins have been forgiven. They are free from shame. But those who have pretended to be Christians cannot stand in the revealing light of his coming. They cannot hide their shame.” (Simon J. Kistemaker) They are brought up not to shame the believer but to magnify God’s grace and determine a suitable reward. Further, all saints who appear before the Son of God in their glorified bodies will be happy to confess all their sins to Christ. Being perfected in sanctification, Christians on that day will not feel shame but rather will experience the sweetest type of spiritual joy. They will evaluate their own works not from a standpoint of selfishness, ego or self-glorification, but from the standpoint of having the mind of Christ. Thus, even the most faithful of saints will throw their crowns at the pierced feet of the Savior (Rev. 4:10).

Second, doesn’t the Bible say that the sins of believers are covered (Ps. 32:1), washed away (Ps. 51:2), cast into the depth of the sea (Mic. 7:19), taken from us as far as east is from west (Ps. 103:12), never to be remembered by God (Isa. 43:25)? Indeed, it does say these things. However, these statements must be understood within the full context of Scripture. A reading of the Bible reveals that not only are the sins of believers such as Moses, Abraham, David and Peter remembered by God, but they are recorded in Scripture and published before all for eternity (Isa. 40:8). When the Bible speaks about God removing and forgetting sin it means that the guilt and penalty of our sins have been removed. God no longer holds the sin against the sinner for Christ has paid the price. The passages regarding God forgetting sin must be applied to guilt and punishment for it is impossible for them to mean that an omniscient being forgets our sins.

So, how do we live in light of the knowledge that we are justified by faith but will be judged according to our works? Scripture abounds with admonitions and examples in this regard, but I will choose one which I think is both easily overlooked and remarkably vivid when correctly understood. Ps. 23:4-5a says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Picture two armies arrayed for battle, facing each other several hundred yards apart. A scene right out of Braveheart or The Patriot or Glory. The captains of the armies traditionally meet on the battlefield to discuss the possibility of a truce, the rules of engagement, the expectations of the battle. When our Lord declares us justified he prepares a victory feast for us in the presence of the world, the flesh and the devil rather than a negotiation table. The enemy arrives to negotiate the terms of battle and finds that we are already celebrating victory! In justification we are declared victorious and begin to enjoy the spoils of victory before the battle has been waged. It is completely counterintuitive. “You are victorious! Now go fight the battle! Fight like a champion! Be what you are in Christ!” This is one of the keys to understanding gospel-centered Spirit-empowered faith-driven obedience to God: be what you are in Christ. God has declared you righteous, sinner, now live righteously. You need fear no evil, not your own sins, not the sins of others, nothing. Everything you do is permanent and you are responsible for everything you do, but everything which Christ has done is just as permanent and has been credited to you and your guilt to Him. We are declared justified, though the final judgment has not yet taken place. Court is not yet in session, but a verdict has been rendered and all of the charges have been “dismissed with prejudice.” We are declared to be what we will become, what God will make us. He will complete the good work he began in you, working in you to will and to do according to his good pleasure. The law is then no longer a curse to us which we cannot obey, but a promise of all that we are and are becoming and will be in Christ. “You will not kill. You will not steal. You will not lie. You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” Now go and live in the fearless, risk-taking, self-sacrificing love of your Savior; go live in the freedom of the righteousness of Christ given to you, so that you won’t be ashamed on the day of judgment. Freely you have received, now freely give.

Sermon Manuscript: Romans 2:6 (Part 9)

(This is a section of a manuscript of the first prepared sermon I ever preached, which was in 2009 at the Evangelical Church of Fairport.)

Romans 2:6, “He will render to each one according to his works…”

Now, I don’t want to get too sidetracked, but I do want the glorious immensity of this doctrine of God justifying and sanctifying sinners, of declaring sinners righteous in Christ and making sinners righteous by Christ, to be magnified in your heart and mind before you leave here tonight. So think closely for a moment about the idea of creation ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. God created the world out of nothing. If this is not the mystery of all mysteries, it is certainly a strong candidate for that position. He doesn’t create the world out of himself and he doesn’t create it out of pre-existing material, it’s not a soup or pottery. He makes everything out of nothing and everything was good.

And yet, in regenerating, justifying and sanctifying rebel sinners God is, in fact, doing a greater work than making the good creation out of nothing, if that can be imagined. He is creating good out of evil. We expect good to come from good and evil to come from evil. But where only evil exists, God brings out good. He does not make evil good or confuse good with evil in the process. This is, in fact, the mystery of all mysteries, the paradox at the center of God’s revelation. The creation of Adam was a declaration of God’s almighty power. But the new creation of humanity in the second Adam, Jesus Christ, through election, redemption, regeneration, justification and sanctification unto glorification is a still greater testimony to God’s incomparable perfections.

Worship him! Love him! Be in awe of the God who not only creates all things good, but when we have broken it he makes all things new! He miraculously brings good out of evil, and he so graciously intertwines the good of those who love him with his own glory, such that the one will never be sacrificed at the expense of the other. In Christ we can know that our own good is as sure to come from the depths of our greatest suffering as we can be that God is working out the purpose for everything, his own glorification. We can be assured that our final good on judgment day is as certain as God glorifying himself; and God is in his very nature glorious. In this way we are guaranteed to become the righteousness of God.

But that’s a whole other sermon unto itself.

Sermon Manuscript: Romans 2:6 (Part 8)

(This is a section of a manuscript of the first prepared sermon I ever preached, which was in 2009 at the Evangelical Church of Fairport.)

Romans 2:6, “He will render to each one according to his works…”

So, having demonstrated the errors of justification by legalism or lawlessness we return to the question: can permanent, everlasting guilt be removed? Not easily. In fact, with man this is impossible. However, with God all things are possible.

Proverbs 17:15 says that “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.” So how does God justify the wicked (Rom. 4:5) and condemn Christ the righteous (Is. 53:6) without being an abomination to Himself? How does God impute evil to a sinless man, let criminals go free, even graciously rewarding them, and still be just and righteous? How can the cross on which Christ died ever be considered justice, rather than an abomination?

The answer lies in the implications of the following statement: Christ was completely God and completely human, perfectly sinless. Theologians commonly make the distinction between Christ’s active obedience (His life lived in perfect righteousness, fully obeying the commands of God in all things at all times) and His passive obedience (submitting Himself to the shame and agony of death on a cross at the hands of wicked men). It is commonly recognized that in the totality of Christ’s obedience is the foundation of the complete righteousness imputed to sinners.

Christ’s active obedience necessarily entails obeying the two greatest commandments of God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Mt. 22:37-40)

It is my argument that, given a world full of sinners and the law of love quoted above, the death of a perfectly obedient man given the God-like opportunity to accept the judgment of “his neighbors” would be a case of consequent absolute necessity. In other words, if the history of the world is full of sinners (and it is) and the penalty for sin is death (and it is) and the two greatest commandments are to love God and people (and they are), then the substitutionary death of Christ must occur if He is to remain truly perfect, sinless (and he is).

If Christ is to remain perfectly good He must choose to become evil; if He is to be completely sinless He must choose to become sin; if He is to remain completely obedient to God He must embody disobedience. If permanent, everlasting guilt is to be removed then it must be the case that “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21)

You see, in order for Christ to continue to love God with all His heart, soul and mind He must (among other things) live in such a way as to display that God is just, that no sin will go unpunished and no truly good act will go unrewarded. Christ was “put forward as a (sacrifice) by his blood… to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” (Rom. 3:25) God had mercifully chosen to largely “overlook” the sins of men from the time of Adam to Christ, being patient and not exacting the punishment deserved from men for their disobedience. This, however, could open the door for questions regarding whether or not God is just (not that He could be charged with being too harsh, mind you, but for being too lax in His judgments). In order for Christ to obey the two greatest commandments, He had to choose to become evil out of love for God (by choosing to accept in Himself the evils committed by all of humanity throughout history), so that God might be just in delivering his wrath upon Christ, who had become the evil of all humanity.

Christ chooses to become evil, to have our sin counted as his own, in an act of loving obedience to the two greatest commandments.

For Christ to choose to become evil, to choose the cross, was the only way for God to be just in punishing a perfectly sinless man, and Christ remains perfectly sinless in choosing to become evil because becoming evil for the purpose of proving God’s justice was done out of love for God and people, obedience to the two greatest commandments. He necessarily chose to become sin in order to remain sinless. The absolute only way for Christ to perfectly obey the two greatest commandments in a sinful world was for Him to become the sinful world and for God to punish Him for it in death. Because of this loving act of obedience, God puts all things in subjection under His feet (1 Cor. 15:27) and He purchases the chosen people for whom He laid down His life, receiving their punishment and displaying the greatest love (Jn. 15:13).

And all of this was done according to God’s eternal plan, in order that His righteousness might be shown, “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:26)
So how can permanent guilt be removed? How can God be both just and the justifier of sinners? Christ, in order to remain perfectly sinless, becomes sin and receives the just wrath of God for being evil (which was severe physical, emotional and spiritual punishment culminating in death), while the reward of His obedience is graciously given to those for whom he died, and Christ is raised again to life because of His perfect sinlessness. He pays the penalty for sin and overcomes the power of sin, proven by His resurrection. Death could not keep him, since he owed nothing and he could not be held. It’s not wrong for God to impute sin to Christ, for Christ had chosen to become sinful out of love for God and man; and it’s not wrong for God to impute Christ’s righteousness to us, since he will make us the righteousness of God. In this way we are declared righteous in Christ and we begin to progressively be made righteous by Christ.

Our justification and our sanctification are both in the gospel, in union with Christ; not by works of the law and not by adjustments of the law. Justification and sanctification are both inseparably in Christ. Just as he can’t be divided into parts (or merely be our Savior and not our Lord), we cannot have justification without sanctification. “We are justified not without works, yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness.” (Calvin, Inst. 3.16.1) We are justified by faith alone, but not a faith that is alone. Faith = Justification + Works.

Indeed, the only thing we provide in our salvation is the sin which makes it necessary. Charles Spurgeon says that we receive this justification with “the empty hand of faith.” It’s true in a sense that the hand of faith is an empty hand, in that it brings nothing of value, but I do not think that is a fully accurate description of the biblical testimony on this matter. It’s not as if we haven’t already received much from the hands of God for which we are already responsible. He has given us life and relationships and opportunities and resources and we have wasted them all. These hands we bring to him are not merely empty. We come to him with the broken hands of faith. We’ve broken them abusing ourselves and others and we’ve wasted them seeking our own glory and we are completely responsible but we run to him as children to a father, helpless, broken. “Daddy, I broke it. Daddy, I wasted it. Will you help me?” At first we think we turn to run to him, but when we become aware of ourselves, of reality, we realize that that we are too broken to do so and it was He who ran to us first. That he comes to us and justifies us, not because of anything we ever did, but in spite of everything we have ever done.

Sermon Manuscript: Romans 2:6 (Part 7)

(This is a section of a manuscript of the first prepared sermon I ever preached, which was in 2009 at the Evangelical Church of Fairport.)

Romans 2:6, “He will render to each one according to his works…”

In fact, the statement “nobody’s perfect” exemplifies the basis for another, opposite theory of justification commonly held today. I naively used to think that when people said “nobody’s perfect” that this was a kind of tacit acknowledgement of the biblical doctrine of original sin, that everyone is sinful by nature and choice. However, as I began to ask deeper questions and listen more intently to what people were saying I realized I was completely wrong. “Nobody’s perfect” is used to justify nearly any infidelity, even when recognized as wrong, by an appeal to the universal failures of others. In fact, if you confront someone about a specific instance of wrongdoing “nobody’s perfect” is often used very basically as a “you too” deflection (tu quoque), but it is still more complicated than that.

When confronted with our own guilt the tendency is to “squirm” or deflect, to seek to justify ourselves. This self-justification, oddly enough, often comes through an appeal to universal imperfection: “yeah, well, nobody’s perfect.” “Nobody’s perfect” becomes the justification for our own sinfulness, rather than the grace of Christ. “Nobody’s perfect” becomes the practical basis for doing whatever we like as though we are in fact perfect, since our wrongs aren’t any wronger than anyone else’s. “Nobody’s perfect” is not a tacit acceptance of Original Sin, it is a practical way of shifting responsibility so that we no longer consider ourselves guilty when staring in the face of our own guilt. If “nobody’s perfect” then, simply by adjusting our ethical standard to match the level of our ethical failure, then it is as if everybody is perfect, which is sheer relativism. “Nobody’s perfect” really means “nobody can judge me.” If everyone is guilty, then nobody is guilty; or so the logic goes. It’s not an admission of guilt.

We can place this view of justification into the categories of Antinomianism or Lawlessness and the category of Relativism. It is a form of self-justification which looks outside of us to the common guilt of others as the basis for our justification. It seeks to lower the standard, since if everybody breaks the law, then the law must be wrong. If you want to see a great example of this kind of relativistic, lawless self-justification, watch the documentary “Bigger Stronger Faster.” The premise is a film about the use of performance enhancing drugs in American culture, particularly in sports; but it becomes an interesting exercise in self-justification and rationalization. Well, worth the rental.

As I said, Legalism and Lawlessness are the “two thieves” between which the Gospel is “crucified.” Legalism and Moralism look inside of us for a righteousness that isn’t there while Lawlessness and Relativism look outside of ourselves in order to declare our own comparative righteousness based on the fact of universal guilt. This is just spiritual alchemy. No amount of special pleading will turn your own guilt or your neighbor’s guilt into righteousness when God judges the secrets of men. No amount of self-deception will remove your guilt.

Now, keep clear in your mind that there are Christianized forms of Legalism and Moralism, which give lip-service to the idea of being justified by faith in Christ, while still practically looking inside one’s self for the righteousness of doctrinal orthodoxy or church attendance or adherence to extra-biblical standards of goodness as the basis for God’s favor. “Run, John, run. The law commands, but gives me neither feet nor hands. Yet sweeter news the gospel brings. It bids me fly and gives me wing.”
And there are also Christianized forms of Lawlessness and Relativism which give lip-service to the idea of seeking an “alien righteousness” outside of ourselves in Christ, but uses the idea of that righteousness as the basis for continuing to love sin, to worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator. “Free from the law, Oh blessed condition. I can sin as I please and still have remission.” I don’t think it’s too harsh to say that someone who views being rescued from a burning building as a good reason to rush back into the building is stupid. Lawlessness is stupid.

Here’s a quick check for believers: Do you tend to justify yourself? When your co-workers or parents or spouse or friends confront you about a mistake or a failure or a sin, do you look for ways to excuse yourself or do you live a life of repentance, as if your justification for all of your life is entirely outside of yourself in Christ alone? If in even the simple, basic interactions of daily life you seek to justify yourself, what evidence is there in you that would lead anyone to conclude that you have been justified in Christ alone? Live and breathe and laugh and weep and suffer and die as if you can only ever be justified in Christ alone. And when confronted with your failures, don’t justify yourself; repent and be justified in Christ.

Sermon Manuscript: Romans 2:6 (Part 6)

(This is a section of a manuscript of the first prepared sermon I ever preached, which was in 2009 at the Evangelical Church of Fairport.)

Romans 2:6, “He will render to each one according to his works…”

So can permanent, everlasting guilt be removed? The answer to this question is something into which angels long to look.

Some turn to the statements of the immediate context of our text for the answer, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (Rom. 2:13) “Those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.’ (Rom. 2:7)

“They who pervert this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works, deserve most fully to be laughed at even by children.” –John Calvin, Commentary on Romans 2

Every philosophy of life, every worldview, no matter how mismatched and cobbled together or sophisticated and self-consistent, has a theory of salvation, which contains a doctrine of justification, a way that humanity can respond to the prescribed problems of the human condition, of dealing with guilt. The President tells us that we can be saved from the apocalyptic judgment of global warming by minimizing our carbon footprint and recycling (among other things). The Buddha told us that we can be freed from the wheel of reincarnation by attaining self-awakening through the Noble 8-Fold Path of having the right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration which lead to attaining right knowledge and right liberation. These different worldviews contain different doctrines of justification, different ways for dealing with human guilt and failure. Essentially, one answer offered is that we can make up for our guilt by believing and doing the right things. Justification = Faith + Works.

June 28, 2009 marks the completion of the Anno Paulino or the Pauline Year, which the Pope instituted in honor of the 2000th anniversary of the apostle’s birth. In the papal decree Urbis et Orbis it states: “The gift of Indulgences which the Roman Pontiff offers to the universal Church, truly smoothes the way to attaining a supreme degree of inner purification which, while honoring the Blessed Apostle Paul, exalts the supernatural life in the hearts of the faithful and gently encourages them to do good deeds… Each and every truly repentant individual member of the Christian faithful, duly absolved through the Sacrament of Reconciliation and restored with Holy Communion, who devoutly makes a pilgrimage to the Papal Basilica of St. Paul on the Ostian Way and who prays for the Supreme Pontiff’s intentions, will be granted the Plenary Indulgence from temporal punishment for his/her sins, once sacramental forgiveness and pardon for any shortcomings has been obtained. The Christian faithful may benefit from the Plenary Indulgence both for themselves and for the deceased, as many times as they fulfill the required conditions but without prejudice to the norm stipulating that the Plenary Indulgence may be obtained only once a day.”

Best known for his rich proclamation of free grace and severe condemnation of any church that would preach a different gospel, Paul’s birth being celebrated with indulgences is the irony of the century.

Biblically, we can place these varied but similar perspectives in one of two categories: in its narrower and more stringent form we can categorize it as Legalism, that we are justified by our obedience to a strict code of belief and ethics. In its more general, liberal form we can call it Moralism, which does not require strict adherence to a law of some sort, but general adherence to moral principles of one kind or another. Moralism is just Legalism’s lazy little brother.

The problems for the Legalist and the Moralist are two-fold. The first problem is that obedience to law and morality in one instance does not remove the permanent guilt for disobedience in any other instance. There is no justification for stealing a candy bar earned by offering to mow your neighbor’s lawn. That idea is just sheer nonsense. The idea that there is a balance on one side of which are weighed your good deeds and the other of which weighs your failures is wrong because it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of guilt and responsibility. Doing good in one instance cannot negate doing evil in another instance, even if it mitigates the consequences of evil, since everything you do is permanent.

The second problem is that fulfilling your duty to obey the law does not earn you any rewards, and obeying God’s law is our duty. Luke 17:7-10, “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” Since there is no merit in performing one’s duty and only guilt is incurred by failing to do so, the scale of good would be empty and the scale of evil would be full. Let’s be perfectly clear that there is no justification in that.

Legalism and Moralism are forms of self-justification which rely on a goodness, a righteousness inside of ourselves where only guilt and sin exist. It is self-delusional to look to the source of a problem in the hope of finding the solution to that problem. “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” (Mt. 7:18) Permanent guilt is not removed by obeying the law, unless it is obeyed perfectly. And it has become an almost cliché truism to recognize that “nobody’s perfect.”

Sermon Manuscript: Romans 2:6 (Part 5)

(This is a section of a manuscript of the first prepared sermon I ever preached, which was in 2009 at the Evangelical Church of Fairport.)

Romans 2:6, “He will render to each one according to his works…”

The final judgment resolves the many injustices that occur in this world that have not been rectified on earth. There are wicked people who live and die in the lap of luxury. There are murderers, rapists and thieves who are never caught, exposed and punished for their crimes. There are dictators who oppress the poor, torture and murder innocent people, and yet live in palaces and die at a ripe old age. There are many people who have been severely wronged and have not experienced vindication, closure or justice in this life. There are millions of God’s children who have been slandered, beaten, imprisoned and even murdered for their faith. Will a righteous and holy God allow such inequities to go unpunished? Will the God of perfect justice allow injustice to continue interminably in His universe? Will the Lord allow evil people to get away with their sins and crimes? God’s holy nature requires that all injustices be resolved. God displays His perfect justice by publicly exposing all sins and crimes, by publicly declaring the guilt of the offending parties and by publicly meting out the sentence of condemnation. There is a day of perfect justice and closure because God’s nature demands it. There are no ethical loose ends in Christ’s kingdom.

Every mother and every father of every little boy and every little girl kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery will finally witness the perfect wrath of Almighty God poured out in full fury on all those guilty of such wickedness, from the civil magistrate who fails, out of laziness, incompetence or bribery in his duties to enforce the law and protect the most helpless, to those who buy and sell and trade in the rape of the most innocent among us. Every mouth will be stopped and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, in heaven and on earth and, yes, even under the earth on that great and terrible day of the Lord’s judgment.

And you and I will be judged according to how we have responded or not responded to such tragedies. “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to (Christ).’” (Mt. 25:44-45) Oh Lord forgive us for endlessly quibbling over the logical order of the divine decrees or drawing lines of division among ourselves over the difference between a “universally sufficient atonement which is particular in scope” and a “universally accomplished atonement which is particular in its application” while our children and our neighbor’s children are used like Kleenex and thrown away, while there are still places on this planet where the glorious name of Christ has never been heard. Oh Lord forgive us… and help us to obey.

Everything you do is permanent and you are responsible for everything you do. There must be and there will be a day when God will judge the world and bring an end to all rebellion against Himself forever. Hell is eternal because everything you do is permanent and you are responsible for everything you do. Just because you are no longer ashamed by the guilt of your past sins doesn’t remove your guilt for committing them. The passage of time doesn’t remove guilt. The punishment in hell is varied in severity, since “that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” (Lk 12:47-48). But the punishment received according to the works you have done will continue so long as your guilt remains. And your guilt is permanent. “Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Rom. 2:5) Hell is everlasting because your guilt is everlasting.

So can permanent, everlasting guilt be removed? The answer to this question is something into which angels long to look.

Sermon Manuscript: Romans 2:6 (Part 4)

(This is a section of a manuscript of the first prepared sermon I ever preached, which was in 2009 at the Evangelical Church of Fairport.)

Romans 2:6, “He will render to each one according to his works…”

It is also true that some of the most selflessly loving acts are performed in secret. All the sacrifices, good deeds and secret works done on behalf of Christ will receive a reward. The greatest deeds that God delights in are those that are done by his servants when they have shut the door and are alone with him; when they have no other motive but to please him; when they intentionally avoid publicity, choosing the final praise of God over the immediate praise of men; when the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. It would be an injustice if such deeds were left out at the final judgment. This fact should be a great incentive for kingdom work. We strive for righteousness and make our bodies living sacrifices not to receive the praise of men but to hear the words of our precious Savior, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Mt. 25:34). The wise and diligent Christian lays up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Mt. 6:20). The fervent believer runs the race so that he may obtain a prize (1 Cor. 9:24). The faithful servant will receive an imperishable crown (1 Cor. 9:25). What is done for Christ will last forever. “Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward.” (2 Jn. 8). Be diligent. Run the race. Fight the good fight, for your labors in Christ are never in vain. You will receive a reward that can never perish or be taken away when our king returns.

Now Scripture testifies that the final judgment is a public event. Jesus will return in glory surrounded by the host of heaven. As the judge he will summon all mankind (Mt. 25:32) and the dead will arise at His call (Jn 5:28-29), coming forth from their graves and even the oceans will give up the dead within them (Rev. 20:13). God has ordained the final day to be public for several reasons.
First, its public nature will glorify Christ. Our Lord who was publicly humiliated, condemned as a criminal and crucified will be publicly exalted and vindicated before the whole human race. Every mouth will be stopped and every knee will bow before Him.

Second, God has decreed that the secrets of men whether good or evil will be exposed in a very public manner. Every sinner will hear the story of his wicked life published to his everlasting shame. The public nature of the event is obviously intended to magnify the guilt, shame and dread of the occasion.

Third, the public nature of the event is also a vindication of the saints. Not only will God’s people witness the exposure and condemnation of their enemies and persecutors; the persecutors of faithful Christians, the skeptics and mockers of the truth, will witness the gracious exaltation of believers for the fruits of faith, the good works done in the body. It is a day when the tables are turned, when the humble shall be exalted, the meek shall inherit the earth and the wicked, the proud, and the boastful shall be abased. All who laughed at the truth will be publicly cast into hell.

Human history has a terminus point, a time of reckoning. God permitted a long age of rebellion. For thousands of years God has showed patience and longsuffering to a wicked world. He has blessed the wicked with sunshine, rain, food and delights of every kind (beautiful beaches, lovely sunsets, family, friends, sex, a good night’s sleep, great food, fun vacations, laughter and pleasure). But a day is coming when all rebellion will be crushed. For the unrepentant this life is the closest thing to heaven they will ever experience. There has been a long day for sinning; therefore, God has ordained a special day for judgment. The definitive victory over evil that Christ achieved at the cross becomes a perfected reality on that day when the sheep are forever separated from the goats. “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Rom. 2:4-5)

Sermon Manuscript: Romans 2:6 (Part 3)

(This is a section of a manuscript of the first prepared sermon I ever preached, which was in 2009 at the Evangelical Church of Fairport.)

Romans 2:6, “He will render to each one according to his works…”

Tonight, I will respond briefly to the objections of believer and unbeliever by attempting to bring the full weight of the Scripture to bear upon the concepts of judgment and justification. Then we will look at three different, but common, formulations of justification: two of them are false and one is true. Which of them you believe is something for which you are permanently responsible.

So Christopher Hitchens accuses God of being a cosmic voyeur and that the idea that God will judge us for our thoughts is, to him, repulsive. Like many of the assertions of the so-called “New Atheists,” this barely deserves a response. It’s not an argument, so it can’t really be refuted. If he and I were to have a discussion or debate on the matter, and he were to raise this objection I might simply reply, “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, dude.” Hitchens, like many atheists, gets thing precisely backwards, assuming that he is the judge and God is the one on trial. Nothing could be further out of touch with reality. However, his assertion does raise the question, why does God judge even the secrets of men? After all, no court on earth does such a thing.

The answer is a simple one. Our distinction between public and private sins does not exist for God. He is everywhere present and all-knowing. Every instant he is everywhere, seeing and evaluating everything. We live every moment of our lives as though performed on a stage before him. “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account” (Heb. 4:13). As I said, everything you do is permanent and you are responsible for everything you do.

God will judge men’s thoughts – ” Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” (1 Cor. 4:5); He will judge men’s words – ” I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Mt. 12:36-37); and he will judge men’s deeds – “And then will (Christ) declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Mt. 7:23). “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’” (Mt. 25:41-43).

The secret things will be judged because perfect justice demands it. Some of the most heinously wicked acts in all of history have been done in secret. All sins will be laid bare. Secret offenses will be brought into judgment. This includes the hidden motives of every action; for we may do that which is right from a wrong motive, and so the deed may be evil in the sight of God, though it seems right in the sight of others. The secret things are of the very essence of our actions. Whether or not an action is good or bad very much depends on the motives behind it. It may seem good, but the motive may tarnish it; and so, if God did not judge the secret part of the action he would not judge righteously.

Think what it will be to have your motives all brought to light, to have it proven that you were godly for the sake of gain, that you were generous as a mere exhibition, or zealous simply for the love of praise, that you spoke carefully in public to maintain a good reputation, but that all the while everything was done for self, and self only. Indeed, on that day God will reveal all secrets, even secrets that were secrets to the sinners themselves, for there is sin in us which we have never seen, and iniquity in us which we have never yet discovered. We have managed for our own comfort’s sake to blind our eyes somewhat, and we take care to look away from the things about ourselves which it is inconvenient to see; but we shall be compelled to see everything in that day, when the Lord judges the secrets of men. The deeds of the night. The sins hidden behind closed doors. Even sins hidden from husband or wife. If a professing Christian is living in dishonesty, untruthfulness, fornication, adultery, uncleanness or idolatry it will all be made known on that day. For “the sins of some men are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later (or trail behind them NIV).” (1 Tim. 5:24). All hypocrisy will come to an end on that day. Hypocrites will have an eternity to ponder their foolishness and shame.

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