Grace is at the heart of the Christian faith. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than at the cross of Christ. It is grace that the Son of God took on flesh, and grace that he taught us how to live — but it is especially grace that he died on the cross in our place.
Moreover, this climactic grace shown at the cross has a specific shape — it has edges. These edges help us see what exactly happened when Jesus died. And it’s important that we see because seeing leads to worship — you can’t worship what you don’t know.
So in hopes of more clarity — fuel for worship — here are five biblical truths about what Jesus accomplished on the cross.
1. The death of Jesus was for his enemies.
God’s love is different than natural human love. God loves us when we’re utterly unlovable. When Jesus died, he died for the ungodly, for sinners, and for his enemies. Paul gets at how contrary this is to human nature when he writes, “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person, though perhaps for a good person one would dare to die, but God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7–8).
2. The death of Jesus purchased a people.
The death of Christ was effective in its purpose. And its goal was not just to purchase the possibility of salvation, but a people for his own possession. Hear Jesus’s words: “All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out… And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:36, 39).
If we say that Christ only purchased the opportunity of salvation for all men we gut biblical words such as redemption of their meaning. John Murray writes: “It is to beggar the conception of redemption as an effective securement of release by price and power to construe it as anything less than the effectual accomplishment which secures the salvation of those who are its objects. Christ did not come to put men in a redeemable position but to redeem to himself a people” (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 63).
3. The death of Jesus is on our behalf.
Jesus’s death was substitutionary. That is, he died in our place. He died the death that we deserved. He bore the punishment that was justly ours. For everyone who believes in him, Christ took the wrath of God on their behalf. Peter writes, “[Jesus] himself bore our sin in his body on the tree that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
4. The death of Jesus defines love.
Jesus’s death wasn’t just an act of love, it defines love. His substitutionary death is the ultimate example of what love means, and Jesus calls those who follow him to walk in the same kind of life-laying-down love. John writes, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16). John Piper explains: “Jesus’s death is both guilt-bearing and guidance-giving. It is a death that forgives sin and a death that models love. It is the purchase of our life from perishing and the pattern of a life of love” (What Jesus Demands from the World, 266).
5. The death of Jesus reconciles us to God.
Justification, propitiation, and redemption — all benefits of Christ’s death — have one great purpose: reconciliation. Jesus’s death enables us to have a joy-filled relationship with God, which is the highest good of the cross. Paul writes, “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Colossians 1:21–22).
Think about how this works in our relationships with other people. When we sin, not only do we hurt the person we sin against, we harm the relationship. It will never be the same until we seek forgiveness. So it is with our relationship with God. We enter this world sinful, and as a result, we’re alienated from God. Only forgiveness — forgiveness which was purchased at the cross — can heal the relationship so that we are able to enjoy fellowship with God.
In an interview I was asked, What is your advice on how believers should deal with a culture that is increasingly hostile to Christianity?
Jesus said, “No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). Followers of Jesus should expect injustice and misrepresentation. I’m grateful there are organizations working to protect the rights of Christians. But I’m concerned if we view ourselves as one more special interest group, clinging to entitlements and whining when people don’t like us. God’s people have a long history of not being liked.
Of course, this does not mean being hateful or seeking to be hated. It’s important that we represent the Gospel well, and I am all for graciousness, kindness and servant-hearted love as we speak the truth. Romans 12:18 says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
But the fact is, while the gospel is good news, it is also insulting. Many people don’t like being called sinners and told they deserve to go to hell. Peter said, “Don’t be surprised at the fiery ordeal you are suffering as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).
If our eyes are on anyone but Jesus, we’re not going to have the stamina to put up with criticism or outright hostility. Paul said, “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
Jesus is the Audience of One. We will stand before His judgment seat, no one else’s. We should long to hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” What other people think won’t matter.
(HT: Zach Nielsen)
Just as crucially, if all Scripture is breathed out by God, then there is a unity to be found across the pages of the Bible. Without minimizing the differences of genre and human authorship, we should nevertheless approach the Bible expecting theological distinctives and apparent discrepancies to be fully reconcilable.
The unity of Scripture also means we should be rid, once and for all, of this “red letter” nonsense, as if the words of Jesus are the really important verses in Scripture and carry more authority and are somehow more directly divine than other verses. An evangelical understanding of inspiration does not allow us to prize instructions in the gospel more than instructions elsewhere in Scripture. If we read about homosexuality from the pen of Paul in Romans, it has no less weight or relevance than if we read it from the lips of Jesus in Matthew. All Scripture is breathed out by God, not just the parts spoken by Jesus.
God’s gracious self-disclosure comes to us through the Word made flesh and by the inscripturated word of God. These two modes of revelation reveal to us one God, one truth, one way, and one coherent set of promises, threats, and commands to live by. We must not seek to know the Word who is divine apart from the divine words of the Bible, and we ought not read the words of the Bible without an eye to the Word incarnate. When it comes to seeing God and his truth in Christ and in Holy Scripture, one is not more reliable, more trustworthy, or more relevant than the other. Scripture, because it is the breathed-out word of God, possesses the same authority as the God-man Jesus Christ. Submission to the Scriptures is submission to God. Rebellion against the Scriptures is rebellion against God. The Bible can no more fail, falter, or err, than God himself can fail, falter, or err.
Is healing in the atonement? Well, yes and no!
Here in 1 Peter 2:24-25 the apostle is very clearly alluding to Isaiah 53:4-5. There the prophet declared:
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”
In order to understand what Peter had in mind in quoting this OT passage, I need to address a very controversial question: Is there healing in the atonement?
Some believe that just as God the Father made Jesus to be “sin” for us on the cross he also made him to be “sick” for us on the cross. Word of Faith advocate Gloria Copeland once wrote: “Jesus bore your sicknesses and carried your diseases at the same time and in the same manner (emphasis mine) that he bore your sins.” Another author put it this way:
“When Jesus stood bearing the lashes from the Roman soldiers, all our physical pain and sicknesses were being heaped upon him. . . It is as if one lash was for cancer, another for bone disease, another for heart disease, and so on. Everything that causes physical pain was laid on Jesus as the nails were driven into His hands and feet” (Colin Urquhart).
What is being said is that Christ bore our sicknesses in the very same way that he bore our sins. Another once wrote that “Christ endured vicariously our diseases as well as our iniquities.”
We know what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that God “made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf.” He was declaring that the guilt of our sins was imputed to Christ and that it was because of that guilt that he was punished in our place. But what can it possibly mean to say God made him “to be sick” on our behalf?
There is no guilt in disease or sickness. Having diabetes or a head cold is not sinful. The Bible tells us to pray “forgive us our trespasses” and urges us “to confess our sins,” but nowhere does it say that we should pray “forgive us our arthritis” or “Lord, I confess that I have the flu.” Sickness is not sin. The Bible never issues the command, “Thou shalt not commit cancer,” or “Flee the flu.” Nevertheless, many insist that Jesus “bore the penalty for our sins and sicknesses.” But if sickness is not a sin, how can it incur a penalty?
Of course, ultimately all sickness is a result of sin, but only in the sense that Adam’s fall introduced corruption and death into the human race. But that does not mean that every time we get sick it is because of some specific sin we have committed. It does mean that had Adam not sinned, there would be no sickness. Sickness is the effect of sin (just like tornadoes, weeds, and sadness). But that is altogether different from saying that sickness is sin. We do not repent for having kidney stones, nor do we come under conviction for catching the measles. I didn’t rebuke my older daughter for coming down with the chicken pox, and I certainly didn’t ask my younger daughter to ask for forgiveness when she caught it from her older sister.
Jesus was not punished for our diseases. Rather, he endured the wrath of God that was provoked by our willful disobedience of the truth.
So what does it mean in Isaiah 53 and in 1 Peter 2 when it says that he bore our sicknesses and carried our pains and that by his stripes or wounds we are healed?
As I’ve already said, Christ “bore our sins” in the sense that he bore the wrath of God of which our sins were the cause.
In the case of Isaiah 53 and 1 Peter 2 we are being told that he carried our pains, not in the sense of personally experiencing stomach viruses and ulcers and earaches and gallstones as he hung on Calvary’s tree, but by enduring the wrath of God against that willful human wickedness which is ultimately the reason there are such things as pain and infirmity. By his death at his first coming he has laid the foundation for the ultimate over-throw and annihilation of all physical disease, which will occur with the resurrection of the body at his second coming. Thus it is theologically misleading to say that Jesus bore our sicknesses in the same way he bore our sins. Rather he paid the price of our sins in order that one day, when he returns to glorify his people, he may wholly do away with all of our sicknesses.
May we conclude that there is healing in the atonement? Of course! Were it not for Jesus making atonement for sin, we would have no hope of healing in any form, either now or later. The redemptive suffering of Jesus at Calvary is the foundation and source of every blessing, whether spiritual or physical.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there is healing through the atonement rather than in the atonement, insofar as the atoning death of Jesus is the basis for God healing us. In this way we avoid suggesting that because of Jesus’ death we are guaranteed healing in this life.
To ask, “Is there healing in the atonement?” is like asking, “Is there forgiveness of sins in the atonement?” or, “Is there fellowship with God in the atonement?” There is even a sense in which we may say that the Holy Spirit is in the atonement! We are told in John 14:16-17,26; 15:26; and especially 16:7-15, that the Holy Spirit’s present ministry is a result of the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus.
Everything we receive from God finds its ultimate source in what Christ did for us on the cross. Therefore, the question is not whether our bodies receive healing because of the atonement of Christ, but when. We are forgiven of our sins now because of Christ’s atoning death, but we await the consummation of our deliverance from the presence of sin when Christ returns. We experience fellowship with God now because of Christ’s atoning death, but we await the consummation of that blessed relationship when Christ returns. We profit immensely now from the Spirit’s work in our hearts, but who would dare suggest that what the Holy Spirit is doing in this age is all that he will ever do? There is a glorious harvest reserved in heaven for us of which the present ministry of the Holy Spirit is merely the first fruits!
In other words, it is a serious mistake for us to think that every blessing Christ secured through his redemptive suffering will be ours now in its consummate form. All such blessings shall indeed be ours, let there be no mistake about that. But let us not expect, far less demand, that we now experience fully those blessings which God has clearly reserved for heaven in the age to come.
Life for the believer in this present age is a life of tension between the already and the not yet. We already have so very, very much. But we have not yet experienced it all. There is much yet to come. One of the “not yets” in Christian experience is the complete redemption and glorification of the body (see Phil. 3:20-21). Yes, we believe God heals today and that any healing that occurs is because of what Christ has accomplished in his death and resurrection, and yes, we will pray fervently for healing of the body in the present. But that doesn’t mean that because of what Christ accomplished then that we will always experience complete healing now.
We must also remember that frequently in Scripture the sinful condition of the soul is portrayed as analogous to a body suffering from various wounds. Forgiveness and restoration are therefore described in terms of a bodily healing. By his atoning death the great Physician has truly “healed” our hearts. We were continually straying like sheep, but by the redemptive grace of Jesus we have been enabled to return to the shepherd and guardian of our souls (1 Pet. 2:25). Thus the context of 1 Peter 2:24 clearly tells us that it is primarily spiritual healing from the disease of sin, not physical restoration of the body, that the apostle has in mind.
The sickness was that of having strayed from God. The disease was that of having departed from him. The healing provided by Christ, therefore, is bringing us back to God and restoring our relationship with him.
This is clearly the case in our passage when we take note of the word “for” with which v. 25 begins. The word “for” or “because” indicates that the “healing” in v. 24 is from the punishment we deserved for the wandering in v. 25.
The kingdom of God is, in essence, God’s redemptive reign. Yet it can be easy to overlook this prominent theme in the life of Jesus, and tempting to assume rather than investigate the importance of the kingdom for Jesus. When we miss the significance of the kingdom to Jesus, however, we can miss the significance of the kingdom for biblical theology and ethics.
So how important was the kingdom of God to Jesus? What was his relationship to the in-breaking of the eschatological kingdom? Let’s examine ten ways Jesus related to the kingdom.
1. Jesus inaugurates the kingdom. With the coming of Christ, the kingdom begins not in the coronation of a mighty king but in the birth of a crying baby. Yet as Jesus’ ministry begins in Mark, he announces, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). What Israel had long awaited, Christ had now inaugurated.
2. Jesus is the kingdom. Where the king is, there is the kingdom. This is precisely why Jesus says to the Pharisees, “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). As Graeme Goldsworthy teaches, Jesus embodies the kingdom motif of God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule. Jesus is both the faithful ruler and the righteous citizen of the kingdom.
3. Jesus purposes the kingdom. Jesus reveals that his purpose is to proclaim the kingdom. Jesus described his mission saying that he “must preach the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43).
4. Jesus declares the kingdom. Through his words, Jesus explains the kingdom and invites people to enter into it. Luke summarizes Jesus’ ministry as “proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1). The declaration of the kingdom often came through the parables of Jesus that illustrated what it was and how it worked.
5. Jesus demonstrates the kingdom. Through his works, Jesus shows the power of the kingdom and his authority over the prince of darkness. As Jesus explains, “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). Jesus not only declares the kingdom in his words but also demonstrates the kingdom in his works.
6. Jesus deploys the kingdom. Jesus sends his followers out as ambassadors of the kingdom to herald its arrival. This deployment happens in Luke 10 as Jesus sends out the 72, instructing them to say, “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9). In the great commission, king Jesus issues his discipleship battle plan to the church because he possesses “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18). Jesus sends his soldiers to the front lines to engage the kingdom of darkness.
7. Jesus transforms the kingdom. Israel’s messianic hopes focused on the coming of a military conqueror who would rescue them from their geo-political enemies. That is why they sought to make Jesus king (John 6:15). But Jesus reorients their vision by declaring, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Jesus transforms the kingdom, showing it is holistic in its nature, redemptive in its mission, and cosmic in its scope.
8. Jesus purchases the kingdom. Through his victorious death and resurrection, Jesus redeems the kingdom. As he satisfies the wrath of God poured out for those who rebel against his rule, Jesus defeats Satan, sin, and death (Col 2:14-15). He overcomes the world, the flesh, and the Devil by destroying the power of the kingdom of darkness. By purchasing a kingdom people at the cross, Jesus proves himself to be the rightful ruler of the restored kingdom.
9. Jesus concludes with the kingdom. In his final words to his people, Jesus concludes his earthly ministry by clarifying the kingdom. Just before his ascension, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Even at the conclusion of his earthly ministry, Jesus resolved confusion about the kingdom. So the kingdom was key to the start of Jesus’ earthly ministry and its culmination.
10. Jesus returns the kingdom. In the second coming of Christ, Jesus returns as a triumphant warrior king. As he returns to achieve final victory, the name scribed on his body is “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev 19:16). At last, he places all his enemies under his feet as he launches a new creation kingdom that fully reflects his righteous reign. He consummates the conquest that began with his birth.
If the kingdom of God was central to Jesus’ life and ministry, then it remains crucial to our theology and ethics today.
Phillip Bethancourt is executive vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and assistant professor of Christian theology at Southern Seminary.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…” Colossians 3:16
People sometimes say to me, “Pastor, I’ve been in church my whole life and I know how important being in the Word is, but I’m really struggling. Where do I start?” Or they’ll say, “I’m a Christian, but I’m really struggling to know the love of God. Can you help me?”
A great place to start
“May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s patience…” 2 Thessalonians 2:5
A great place to start is with a passage of Scripture like the one above. Here are three simple observations from this one verse: 1. I need love and patience when I’m tired of the battle, 2. God can give me the love and patience I need, and 3. I can ask God to give me what I do not have.
You can do a simple meditation like this for yourself as you read a few verses of the Bible every day. I encourage you to do this. Read a few verses. Then pick one, and write out two or three sentences to restate and apply what it says. Even children can do this!
Write out the verse. Then write out, in your own words, what the verse says and how it helps you. Get a hardback notebook. As you begin this practice, 20 years from now it will be your joy to look back on what God has taught you.
Is it in you?
“The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”Hebrews 4:12
Don’t just read the Bible and rush on. Take what God is saying into your life. Do this for a few minutes every day, or at least start by doing this a few times a week. It’s important to develop the habit of being in the Word. As you do this, you’ll get better at it, and you’ll begin to see God’s Word bearing fruit in your life.
If you’re in the habit of reading devotionals, that’s good, but if you’ve been doing that for many years, it may be time for you to move beyond feeding your soul on other people’s thoughts. Try feeding your soul on the Word of God directly. Ask God to help you. Get a friend to encourage you. A year from now, you will be amazed at how much you’ve grown.
You can receive our daily devotional booklet by mail by visiting UnlockingtheBible.org/LifeKEYS and subscribing to the LifeKEYS Daily Bible Devotional Booklet. You can also follow Colin Smith and Unlocking the Bible on Facebook and Twitter.
This LifeKey based on the message “The Love of God and the Patience of Christ,” by Pastor Colin S. Smith, February 20, 2011, from the series “Staying the Course When You’re Tired of the Battle.”
Colin currently serves as Senior Pastor of the The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois. He is committed to preaching the Bible in a way that nourishes the soul by directing attention to Jesus Christ.
Human beings were built with limits. God didn’t design you to be a superhero.
You and I were created to live dependent lives, never surviving on the basis of our own strength, wisdom and control. From the moment of our first breath, we were limited, weak, and fragile beings.
If you’re a parent, or an older brother or sister, you know this to be true. Think about how long your newborn child or sibling would have lasted if you left them alone. I was shocked when we had our first child – there was never a moment when we could leave him alone, except during sleep, and even then we were only a few feet away.
As we grow older, we think that we become more independent. We get married, have children of our own, buy our first house, and make significant life decisions. Sure, a 40-year married adult can feed and dress himself much better than a 4-month old infant, but I’m afraid that we don’t fully accept our limitations.
I want to reinforce the point that you’re not a superhero. “Sure, Paul, I obviously can’t fly or make myself invisible,” you might say. But I want you to consider eight limits of your humanity:
Think about the benefits of controlling time. I could pause time in a moment of difficulty, thinking about my next word or decision before speaking or acting. Or, I could rewind time and right the wrongs of my own life, or stop crimes against humanity before they happen.
I don’t know about you, but I would love to be in more than one place at a time. Imagine how productive I could be! I could write my next book while speaking at a conference while shopping for dinner.
I wish that I knew everything about anything. I would be a walking encyclopedia, able to solve any problem that might complicate my day. I wouldn’t ever have to worry about being stumped.
If I was filled with wisdom, I could give people the proper advice, sifting through the clutter of information and directing them on the path to success. I would be the world’s best counselor.
I would love to be able to control the weather- the Tripp family would never have a rainy beach day! Or think about the time I could save if I controlled the traffic lights!
I wish I could get people to do things my way. Right now, Philadelphia roads are riddled with potholes because of the winter storms. If I was all-powerful, the city government would be out there immediately until every hole was filled! Or maybe if I’m feeling an extra zeal for justice, I could combine my wisdom with power and solve world hunger while fighting political corruption.
I not only wish that I knew everything – I wish I could do anything. There would never be a physical task that I would be unable to accomplish. I could cook the best meal, repair any car, and paint the best art, all while doing it better than anyone else on the planet.
Sometimes I wish that God had given me every spiritual gift available. I could be the most creative writer, the most sophisticated thinker, the most efficient administrator, and the most gifted preacher – all at the same time!
I ALREADY KNEW THAT…
So what’s the point? This Article is a bit nonsensical, because you already know that you can’t control the weather, pause time, or solve any dilemma that pops up. But let me ask you to be honest for a moment – if I were to poll the people you live with, would they tell me that you live like you’re a superhero?
What happens when someone violates your schedule? Do you act as if know everything, stepping in to comment when someone makes a verbal mistake? Are you a controlling person? And are you, at times, arrogant enough to think that there is no one out there that can give you advice and counsel?
You see, when you admit your limits, you’re a humble and restful person. You’re humble enough to admit weakness, always open to learning. And you’re restful, because you know that control is in the hands of God – and not yours.
Let me encourage you here – there’s only one Superhero in the Bible. His name is Jesus Christ. Every other man and woman documented in Scripture was a failure. Rest and peace is found when you abandon control and admit your limits.
A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. James 3:18
Two things should be happening in every gospel-centered church every Sunday. One, the gospel should be preached. Two, the gospel should be experienced.
What I mean by the second, experiencing the gospel, is a social environment that feels like the grace of God. It is an obvious alternative to what we experience throughout the week. Every day we swim in an ocean of harsh criticisms, merciless comparisons and never measuring up, soaking us in sadness while also telling us to keep faking happiness. This is the “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” wisdom of the world (James 3:15). It doesn’t work.
Then Sunday comes, and we step into church, where the victory of Jesus redefines everything, even to the furthest reaches of the universe. In any church with a confidence that big, the vibe will be obviously different from the world. Every Sunday in that kind of church we will be rediscovering the mercy of God, our union with Christ, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the amazing promises of the gospel. As that good news lands on us afresh and the joy of it all breaks upon our hearts — that’s what the new creation feels like right now. It is the Lord himself enveloping us in his new community, surrounding us “with shouts of deliverance” (Psalm 32:7).
If all a church does is preach gospel doctrine, without also cultivating a gospel culture, the impact will be diminished. However “biblical” the message might be, it will not seem plausible or satisfying. The doctrine will seem theoretical, and the church will seem hypocritical. But when the gospel is clear in any church at both levels simultaneously, both the gracious theological message and the humane relational culture, there is power. It is the wisdom that comes down from above (James 3:15). It works.
J. Gresham Machen:
We ought never to set present communion with Christ, as so many are doing, in opposition to the gospel; we ought never to say that we are interested in what Christ does for us now, but are not so much interested in what He did long ago.
Do you know what soon happens when men talk that way? They soon lose all contact with the real Christ; their religion would really remain essentially the same if Jesus never lived.
That danger should be avoided by the Christian man with all his might and main. God has given us an anchor for our souls; He has anchored himself to us by the message of the Cross. Let us never cast that anchor off; let us never weaken our connection with the events upon which our faith is based.
Such dependence upon the past will never prevent us from having present communion with Christ. Unlike the communion of the mystics it will be communion not with the imaginings of our own hearts, but with the real Saviour Jesus Christ.
The gospel of redemption through the Cross and resurrection of Christ is not a barrier between us and Christ, but it is the blessed tie by which He has bound us for ever to Him.
- J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith? (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 153-54
(HT: Of First Importance)
Many are asking, “What is the church?” Pastor Jeff Vanderstelt believes we’re asking the wrong question, because the Bible uses that word to describe a group of people, not a gathering or event. So we really should be asking, “Who?” not what.
His answer? “The church is the regenerate people of God saved by the power of God for the purposes of God in this world.” This means we don’t stop being the church when we walk out of the building on Sunday morning. Instead, everything we do, we do as the blood-bought church of God, for the fame of Jesus, everywhere.
In less than three minutes, Vanderstelt unpacks how seeing the church through these eyes will change you — how you understand yourself and how you live Monday through Saturday.
Charles H. Spurgeon:
The church is not perfect, but woe to the man who finds pleasure in pointing out her imperfections!
Christ loved his church, and let us do the same.
I have no doubt that the Lord can see more fault in his church than I can; and I have equal confidence that he sees no fault at all. Because he covers her faults with his own love—that love which covers a multitude of sins; and he removes all her defilement with that precious blood which washes away all the transgressions of his people.
(HT: Trevin Wax)
“. . . so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.” Colossians 1:10
We should not be afraid of this clear biblical teaching. It does not counteract the gospel in our lives; it is the sweet fruit of the gospel in our lives.
The good news of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from all our works, is thrilling. The message of forgiveness, acceptance, adoption, all by radical divine grace — I never get tired of hearing it and preaching it. It is oxygen to me. Every day. I hope it means that to you too.
But this grace is also a power that transforms. It both reassures us and changes us. Both/and. How else can we account for the New Testament?
“Try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” Ephesians 5:10
“We ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.” 1 Thessalonians 4:1
“Whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” 1 John 3:22
This is not legalism. The One whose mercy flows freely to the undeserving is not a machine. He is not a mechanical Grace Dispenser. He is a person. His smile is not an all-approving grin. He has moral sensitivities. We please him, and we displease him, moment by moment. Within the gospel framework of his grace, inside the relationship of his fatherly acceptance, he is fully capable of confronting us. Not rejecting us, not casting us off, but correcting us. Because he’s a good Father.
I’ll take it further. The One who is for us (Romans 8:31) can also bluntly say, “I have something against you” (Revelation 2:4, 14, 20). The One who will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5) is also quite capable of saying to us, “We need to have a serious talk. It’s time for you to make some changes. If you will listen and follow, I will continue to use you. If you turn away, I will set you aside.” All he wants to take from us is “what is dishonorable” (2 Timothy 2:21) anyway – the things in ourselves we can’t approve of either. What’s so bad about that?
But here is what I’m wondering. Is the only message we’ll hear and receive the word of justification and acceptance and affirmation? What if our Savior wants to get up in our faces about things in us that displease him? Will we dismiss that message as legalism? We can turn it into legalism. If we respond to the rebukes of Scripture as occasions for self-invented virtue, discounting the finished work of Christ on the cross, then it is legalism. But that is not what the Bible is saying. The Bible is alerting us to the heart of our Father, a heart that is wounded by our sins and follies, a heart that is pleased with our humility and obedience. He feels the one, he feels the other. This is part of the New Covenant message to God’s blood-bought people. Will we receive it?
I remember my dad mentioning a close friend of his who was in spiritual trouble. My dad said something like, “I wonder if he has so offended the Lord that the Lord has turned his face away.” Only God knows what was really going on in that man’s experience. But my dad’s intuition may have been right. Our Judge who justifies us is also our Father who disciplines us (Hebrews 12:3-11).
If your theology includes the message of justification by faith alone, I hope you never back off from that. I hope you keep that message central. But I also hope your theology includes another message – the grace of obedience fully pleasing to the Father.
The prophets searched. Angels longed to see. And the disciples didn’t understand. But Moses, the prophets, and all the Old Testament Scriptures had spoken about it — that Jesus would come, suffer, and then be glorified. God began to tell a story in the Old Testament, the ending of which the audience eagerly anticipated. But the Old Testament audience was left hanging. The plot was laid out but the climax was delayed. The unfinished story begged an ending.
In Christ, God has provided the climax to the Old Testament story. Jesus did not arrive unannounced; his coming was declared in advance in the Old Testament, not just in explicit prophecies of the Messiah but by means of the stories of all of the events, characters, and circumstances in the Old Testament. God was telling a larger, overarching, unified story. From the account of creation in Genesis to the final stories of the return from exile, God progressively unfolded his plan of salvation. And the Old Testament account of that plan always pointed in some way to Christ.
— Tremper Longman III & J. Alan Grovesforeword in George M. Schwab, Hope in the Midst of a Hostile World(Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2006), x
(HT: Of First Importance)
In 2012, sociologist Robert Woodberry published the astonishing fruit of a decade of research into the effect of missionaries on the health of nations. The January/February 2014 issue of Christianity Today tells the story of what he found in an article called “The World the Missionaries Made.”
There is a lesson implicit in these findings that I would like to draw out for the sake of the eternal fruitfulness of missions as well as her power to transform cultures.
Titled “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” Woodberry’s article in the American Political Science Review, defends this thesis: “The work of missionaries . . . turns out to be the single largest factor in insuring the health of nations” (36). This was a discovery that he says landed on him like “atomic bomb” (38).
A Sweeping Claim
To be more specific, Woodberry’s research supported this sweeping claim:
Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations. (39)
He concedes that “there were and are racist missionaries . . . and missionaries who do self-centered things.” But adds: “If that were the average effect, we would expect that the places where missionaries had influence to be worse, than places where missionaries weren’t allowed or were restricted in action. We find exactly the opposite on all kinds of outcomes” (40).
An Atomic Nuance
Then comes the all-important observation which, inexplicably, Woodberry calls a “nuance” to his conclusion. I would call it a thunderbolt. He observed, “There is one important nuance to all this: The positive effect of missionaries on democracy applies only to ‘conversionary protestants.’ Protestant clergy financed by the state, as well as Catholic missionaries prior to the 1960s, had no comparable effect in areas where they worked” (40). Now that’s an atomic bomb.
I could not find in the Christianity Today article or Woodberry’s original article an explicit definition of “conversionary Protestant.” But these missionaries are contrasted with Roman Catholics and missionaries from state churches. I take it, then, that “conversionary Protestant” missionaries are those who believe that to be saved from sin and judgment one must convert from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ.
Thus Woodberry points out that, even though missionaries have often opposed unjust and destructive practices like opium addiction, and slavery, and land confiscation, nevertheless “most missionaries didn’t set out to be political activists. . . [but] came to colonial reform through the back door.” That is, “all these positive outcomes were somewhat unintended” (41).
A Significant Implication
What is the implication of saying that, as a result of “conversionary” missionary focus, social reforms came “through the back door” and were “somewhat unintended”?
The implication is that the way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the “conversion” of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. Or to put it another way, missionaries (and pastors and churches) will lose their culturally transforming power if they make cultural transformation their energizing focus.
Tree First, Then Fruit
There is a biblical reason for this. The only acts of love and justice that count with God are the fruit of conversion. If repentance toward God and faith in Jesus does not precede our good works, then the works themselves are part of man’s rebellion, not part of his worship.
Thus John the Baptist says, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). That’s the transformation that counts with God: First repentance, then the fruit of repentance. And Jesus says, “Make the tree good and its fruit good” (Matthew 12:33). First a new tree, then good fruit.
There are two kinds of mind: “the mind of the flesh” and “the mind of the Spirit.” “The mind of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7). Therefore, behavior change without the conversion of this “mind” is part of man’s insubordination, and is not pleasing to God. But “the mind of the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6) and bears “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22).
Recreating the Human Soul
That fruit — that transformed life — is “the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11). That is, it comes through conversion to Jesus. It is the result of a new creation miracle: “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10). Transformation comes through individual new creation.
This new creation of the human soul comes by the Spirit through faith in Jesus — that is, through conversion. And one fundamental achievement of that conversion is deliverance from the wrath of God. “Jesus delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). Paul says to the converted believers of Thessalonica, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9). “Having now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9).
Change the World by Focusing on Christ
The point is this: Conversion to faith in Christ by the Spirit through faith accomplishes two things — rescue from the wrath of God, and transformation of life. This is ultimately why Robert Woodberry found what he found. “Conversionary Protestants” changed the world, because they didn’t focus first on changing the world, but on faith in Christ.
This means that the missionaries that will do the most good for eternity and for time — for eternal salvation and temporal transformation — are the missionaries who focus on converting the nations to faith in Christ. And then on that basis, and from that root, teach them to bear the fruit of all that Jesus commanded us (Matthew 28:20).
Evangelical churches typically recite these words when taking communion—or the Lord’s Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Whether your theology of communion leans toward the Calvinistic “spiritual presence” or Zwingli’s memorial view, or you find yourself floating back and forth between the two, I would guess we all desire a heightened sense of what God holds out to us in these dynamic symbols.
In 1 Corinthians 11:24-25 (see also Luke 22:17-20) Paul recounts the instructions Jesus gave the disciples when inaugurating the new-covenant meal. Jesus says as we grind the broken bread (his body) in our teeth and as the bitter taste of the wine (his blood) lingers on our throats, we remember Christ’s death.
More Than Recalling
So what does it mean to remember? Does it simply suggest we shouldn’t let thoughts slip out of your mind? Does it mean we reminisce on the sufferings of Jesus so I feel really thankful or really awful? For many Christians, to remember is an ambiguous mental activity. But in the Bible, a call to remember—especially when tied to a covenant sign or ceremony—is a vibrant, powerful, and participatory concept where we recalibrate our lives according to what’s being remembered. According to Herman Ridderbos in his outline of Paul’s theology, “It is not merely a subjective recalling to mind, but an active manifestation of the continuing and actual significance of the death of Christ.”
Michael Horton layers our understanding of “remembrance” with the Jewish context. “In our Western (Greek) intellectual heritage, ‘remembering’ means ‘recollecting’: recalling to mind something that is no longer a present reality. Nothing could be further from a Jewish conception. For example, in the Jewish liturgy, ‘remembering’ means participating here and now in certain defining events in the past and also in the future.”
Here are two brief examples where the Old Testament “remembers” in an active way of bringing past realities into present-day living.
After the flood, God tells Noah the rainbow is the covenant sign that he will not cover the whole earth in judgment with water again. Each time the sign of the rainbow appears the covenant is remembered. “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth’” (Gen. 9:16-17). The covenantal sign of the rainbow reassures us of God’s promises that still apply today.
The preeminent picture of redemption in the Old Testament is the exodus of Israel from Egypt, memorialized in the Passover meal. Every year the Israelites would again participate in this meal to remember who—or whose—they were. It’s not dry history to be learned but dynamic history to be lived. They participate in the meal because they are partakers in the reality of this redemption as Israelites. “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statue forever, you shall keep it as a feast” (Exodus 12:14).
The Puritan John Flavel distinguished between two types of remembering. The first is speculative and transient, and the second is affectionate and permanent. “A speculative remembrance is only to call to mind the history of such a person and his sufferings: that Christ was once put to death in the flesh. An affectionate remembrance is when we so call Christ and his death to our minds as to feel the powerful impressions thereof upon our hearts.”
When the Lord’s Supper is served believers experience an affectionate remembrance because the gospel is recalled and reapplied. We remember the grace purchased at Christ’s death is the same grace we need when we come to the table.
Even as a new husband I know the importance of remembering my wedding anniversary. It wouldn’t quite cut it if on that day I did nothing special for my wife and only mentally acknowledged our anniversary. She wouldn’t say, “How thoughtful! I’m glad you didn’t forget.” You don’t remember your anniversary by stating the facts. She would rightly expect that the concept of remembering our anniversary involves a layer of activity, such as me writing a note or taking her on a date. We remember our covenantal promise as I pursue, cherish, and love her afresh like I vowed on our wedding day.
One of the things encouraging me is the current resurgence of understanding the ongoing application of the gospel. Christians today regularly hear that the gospel is believed once for salvation but is reapplied daily. The gospel rhythm isn’t one-and-done but rinse and repeat. This growing awareness of what it means “to preach the gospel to ourselves daily” or to “apply the gospel” might give us some insight as to how we look to Christ and again receive his grace as we eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord’s Supper.
Every time we take communion the gospel is proclaimed, and we believe and embrace it again—in other words, we remember. My hope is that Christians come to the Lord’s Table with eagerness and expectancy, believing this is not a dull religious ceremony but a spiritual gospel experience.
Christmas is about the incarnation of Jesus. Strip away the season’s hustle and bustle, the trees, the cookies, the extra pounds, and what remains is a humble birth story and a simultaneously stunning reality — the incarnation of the eternal Son of God.
This incarnation, God himself becoming human, is a glorious fact that is too often neglected, or forgotten, amidst all the gifts, get-togethers, pageants, and presents. Therefore, we would do well to think deeply about the incarnation, especially on this day.
Here are five biblical truths of the incarnation.
1. The Incarnation Was Not the Divine Son’s Beginning
The virgin conception and birth in Bethlehem does not mark the beginning of the Son of God. Rather, it marks the eternal Son entering physically into our world and becoming one of us. John Murray writes, “The doctrine of the incarnation is vitiated if it is conceived of as the beginning to be of the person of Christ. The incarnation means that he who never began to be in his specific identity as Son of God, began to be what he eternally was not” (quoted in John Frame, Systematic Theology, 883).
2. The Incarnation Shows Jesus’s Humility
Jesus is no typical king. Jesus didn’t come to be served. Instead, Jesus came to serve (Mark 10:45). His humility was on full display from the beginning to the end, from Bethlehem to Golgotha. Paul glories in the humility of Christ when he writes that, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6–8).
3. The Incarnation Fulfills Prophecy
The incarnation wasn’t random or accidental. It was predicted in the Old Testament and in accordance with God’s eternal plan. Perhaps the clearest text predicting the Messiah would be both human and God is Isaiah 9:6: “To us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
In this verse, Isaiah sees a son that is to be born, and yet he is no ordinary son. His extraordinary names — Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace — point to his deity. And taken together — the son being born and his names — point to him being the God-man, Jesus Christ.
4. The Incarnation Is Mysterious
The Scriptures do not give us answers to all of our questions. Some things remain mysterious. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God,” Moses wrote, “but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
Answering how it could be that one person could be both fully God and fully man is not a question that the Scriptures focus on. The early church fathers preserved this mystery at the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) when they wrote that Jesus is “recognized in two natures [God and man], without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ.”
5. The Incarnation Is Necessary for Salvation
The incarnation of Jesus does not save by itself, but it is an essential link in God’s plan of redemption. John Murray explains: “[T]he blood of Jesus is blood that has the requisite efficacy and virtue only by reason of the fact that he who is the Son, the effulgence of the Father’s glory and the express image of his substance, became himself also partaker of flesh and blood and thus was able by one sacrifice to perfect all those who are sanctified” (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 14).
And the author to the Hebrews likewise writes that Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).
The incarnation displays the greatness of God. Our God is the eternal God who was born in a stable, not a distant, withdrawn God; our God is a humble, giving God, not a selfish, grabbing God; our God is a purposeful, planning God, not a random, reactionary God; our God is a God who is far above us and whose ways are not our ways, not a God we can put in a box and control; and our God is a God who redeems us by his blood, not a God who leaves us in our sin. Our God is great indeed!
At Christmas we remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The fact that He was born is amazing. However, why He came is the most amazing thing about Christmas. Here are 10 specific reasons Jesus came from the Bible.
1. Jesus came to do the will of the Father (John 6:38).
In John 6:38, Jesus says, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”
2. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
In Luke 19:10, Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
3. Jesus came to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
In 1 Timothy 1:15 Paul says, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
4. Jesus came not to call the righteous, but sinners (Luke 5:31-32).
In Luke 5:31-32, Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
5. Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8).
1 John 3:8 says, “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
6. Jesus came to kill death (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Hebrews 2:14-15 says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
7. Jesus came to bring light to a dark world (John 12:46).
In John 12:46, Jesus says, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.”
8. Jesus came to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37).
In John 18:37, Pilate asked Jesus, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
9. Jesus came to fulfil the law and the prophets (Matt 5:17).
In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
10. Jesus came to give us abundant life (John 10:10).
In John 10:10, Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
2 particular responses to these truths:
1. Thank God for the coming of Jesus.
Utilize this season to think about and thank God for all that Jesus accomplished in His coming.
2. Spread this good news to others.
Tell others why Jesus came. Everyone in our culture knows that Jesus came, but not many are thinking about why He came. Talk to people about why Jesus came.
“‘Immanuel, God with us.’ It is hell’s terror. Satan trembles at the sound of it. . . . Let him come to you suddenly, and do you but whisper that word, ‘God with us,’ back he falls, confounded and confused. . . . ‘God with us’ is the laborer’s strength. How could he preach the gospel, how could he bend his knees in prayer, how could the missionary go into foreign lands, how could the martyr stand at the stake, how could the confessor own his Master, how could men labor if that one word were taken away? . . . ‘God with us’ is eternity’s sonnet, heaven’s hallelujah, the shout of the glorified, the song of the redeemed, the chorus of the angels, the everlasting oratorio of the great orchestra of the sky. . . .
Feast, Christians, feast; you have a right to feast. . . . But in your feasting, think of the Man in Bethlehem. Let him have a place in your hearts, give him the glory, think of the virgin who conceived him, but think most of all of the Man born, the Child given.
I finish by again saying, A happy Christmas to you all!”
C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of the Old Testament (London, n.d.), III:430.
(HT: Ray Ortlund)
The Nativity Story – “Come and Worship” - Bebo Norman