Previous article in this series: July, 2021, p. 424.
Most recently in this series I have expounded the biblical concept of the righteousness of Christ which is imputed to us in justification. As our representative head, Jesus came under the law, was rendered guilty in our place, and suffered all the punishment that the law threatens for our transgressions. He suffered all the punishment we deserve for our sins. On our behalf He also rendered in full all the obedience that the law demands for the satisfaction of God’s justice. He provided all the obedience necessary for us to be received back into the favor of God. How tremendously significant then is the righteousness of Christ with respect to our suffering and obedience in God’s covenant.
The significance of Christ’s righteousness with respect to our suffering in this life is not that His suffering the payment of God’s wrath for us exempts us from all suffering. Paul expressly states that Christ left suffering behind for His church (Col. 1:24) and that we must through much tribulation enter the kingdom of heaven (Acts 14:22). The church always passes through fires (Is. 43:2); therefore, when a fiery trial comes we should never be perplexed as though some strange thing has happened unto us (I Pet. 4:12). In addition to all the calamities common to our race—plague, pestilence, famine, and earthquake—“all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (II Tim. 3:12). God lays upon our back a cross of tribulation as we follow Jesus. We must and we do suffer.
The significance of Christ’s suffering on our behalf as the sin-bearer is that He made the once-for-all payment for our sins so that when God sovereignly brings suffering into our life it is never visited upon us as payment for sin. The inspired apostle Peter teaches, “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust that He might bring us to God….” Once! “Once” means once for all, having perpetual validity and never needing repetition. Christ suffered once for our sins, hence we cannot be made to suffer for them a second time. The just God never visits penal judgments upon His people requiring them to atone for their sins. He chastens, He scourges, and He corrects. He lays His heavy hand upon us and makes us suffer in order to strengthen our faith and our life of consecration; nevertheless, not one millisecond of that suffering is payment for sin. By our good works of bearing up in our suffering, loving God, loving our neighbor, submitting to God, and confessing God’s goodness, we do not and we cannot and we must not attempt to make any atonement for any of our past or present transgressions. God will never lay an atoning cross upon us.
While in the midst of suffering, the unbelieving, impenitent sinner who rejects admonitions and stubbornly persists in sin possesses no assurance that Christ died for him but must tremble before the everlasting wrath of God. He must know that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31), and he must hear the call to repentance, “Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning. And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, and slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil” (Joel 2:12-13). If you are such an impenitent sinner, turn from your evil ways! Our prayer of love for impenitent sinners is that God the Spirit will accompany the call to turn and through that call effectually soften their hearts that are hard as flint so that they turn in sincere repentance.
However, there must be no terror in the heart of the penitent believer in the day of adversity. When troubles round him swell and fears and dangers throng, when loved ones are suddenly taken in death, when disease ravages his flesh and his agonizing thorn leaves him writhing upon his bed, when foes scorn him, when Satan buffets him, when his own son rises up and calls him accursed, when floods or fires destroy his dwelling place, then in his suffering he flees by faith to the Rock that is higher than he. The Rock is made of three words (in the Greek of John 19:30, one word—tetelestai) IT IS FINISHED! All the wages for the sins of the believer have been paid by Jesus Christ the Righteous in His sufferings. Upon the Rock the child of God confidently sings, “Upon the bed of suffering, Jehovah will sustain, and in his sickness God will soothe the weariness and pain” (Psalter 113, stanza 3). In his deepest agony he confesses with certainty, “God is not against me. God is not punishing me for my sins. In this too, God loves me and is for me.” When he comes to the very end of his life and the grave begins to open its mouth for him, he does not fear some mythical, dancing flames of a purgatory, the real flames of hell, or the face of a Divine Creditor who will bark, “Pay that thou owest!” The gospel rings in his heart, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus…” (Rom. 8:1).
Do not try to pay. Do not subject yourself to pain and torture as a way to appease the wrath of God, soothe your guilty conscience, remove your sense of shame, and attempt to feel the nearness of God. There is for the sinner no healing and no sense of the peace of God in the works of self-harm—personal berating, starving, cutting, burning, overworking, or withdrawal from friendships and fellowship. Healing is found in Christ alone, and knowing God’s acceptance and approval of you in Him.
The significance of Christ’s righteousness with respect to our obedience is not that His perfect fulfillment of the law of God exempts us from the obligation to obey the law. We must obey the law of God, the substance of which is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” The law is holy, just, and good (Rom. 7: 12) and to the believer its commandments are not grievous (I John 5:3). So far is it from being true that the obedience of Christ on our behalf dissolves our obligation to keep the law, that His work actually strengthens the obligation and desire of justified believers to keep the law. Now, out of their inmost heart of profoundly deep gratitude for Christ’s infinite sacrifice and God’s infinite redeeming love, justified believers delight in obeying their covenant God. Any zealous defense of sovereign grace that casts aside the moral law of God and makes it inoperative in the life of the justified believer arises out of a zeal that is not according to knowledge.
The significance of Christ’s obedience for us is that it constitutes our righteousness before God now and forever. With that righteousness we have a right to all the blessings of salvation including life eternal. When God showers blessings upon us by opening up the storehouses of Christ’s treasury in heaven, He does not bless us because we first gave Him obedience as the key that unlocks those blessings for us. God freely showers blessings upon us for the sake of Jesus Christ the Righteous. God does not pardon us because we obey Him, but because Christ obeyed Him. God does not bow down His ear, hear, and answer us because we earn it by our obedience, but because Christ earned it by His obedience. God does not receive us into His presence and fellowship because we live in good works of obedience, but because Christ our Mediator lived the perfect life of obedience. Not even our faith, important and necessary as it is, makes us worthy of the presence and blessings of God. Only the righteousness of the obedient Christ opens up for us a way unto God.
You are mistaken and are living a life of bondage and fear (pride too) if you think that by all your obedient striving to keep God’s law you can earn communion with God, or you can obtain a ticket to enter heaven, or you now have the solid ground on which to be confident that God will hear and answer your prayers. You are toiling like a bondservant if you cast your weary body upon your bed at night and dare not turn to God in prayer because you failed in so many respects to carry out the obedience that He required of you and that you purposed in your heart. If you dare not pray because you so shamefully transgressed His law, you are living a performance-based life in which you wrongly suppose that God’s hearing of you depends upon your obedience and not Christ’s. You are a child in the house of God, not a slave. Go to God by faith in Christ, pour out your heart and confess your sins before Him. He will hear you, pardon you, and bless you. Of course the Father will not cast out but receive His children who come to Him in Christ, for He is the One by whose sovereign drawing they came.
It is a daily struggle for every believer to attain to the high mark of the glory of God in all his thoughts, words, and deeds. No matter how diligently we strive to obey every precept of God each day in our station and calling, we fall short over and over again. We simply do not do what we are called to do or even what we set out to do, and our conscience does not fail to remind us that we have fallen short. We cannot argue against the conclusion of any adversary, “You are not worthy of God’s ear, presence, love and favor.” There is unspeakable relief and freedom in the knowledge of Christ’s perfect, “active” obedience, and that our peace with God is never based on our performance but Christ’s. Enjoying the presence and gifts of God, we are motivated to a holy life of obedience to the law and willing to suffer reproach for Christ in order that God’s name might be magnified for the power of His effectual grace working in us.
With this article I bring to a conclusion my treatment of the relation between justification and our good works. My intent was to continue the series “As to Our Good Works” by taking up the subject “Relating Good Works and Sanctification.” However, my appointment as editor requires that I depart from this rubric and discontinue my series. Some of what I had hoped to include in this rubric will be incorporated into my editorials, in which I plan, Lord willing, to address some of the fundamental doctrinal issues treated by our PRC synods after 2018.
Now let us give all diligence and add to our faith many virtues that we be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (II Pet. 1:5-8).