Assurance Today!

Many Christians are afflicted by doubt. I’m more and more convinced that the church helps feed this doubt by how we talk about assurance.

Assurance is almost always spoken about in terms of how you experience victorious Christian living. At least, that’s how it has seemed to me. People pull a verse or two from 1 John, and say that if you are really saved, then your life needs to show it. You should have ever-increasing good deeds and ever-decreasing sinful behavior. If that is going on, then you can possibly have some semblance of being sure you’re going to heaven (hence “assurance”).

If your life doesn’t show that clear advance, you are right to doubt, and to work on showing good fruit, so that you can possibly feel less in doubt that you really are saved.

I knew there was something missing there, but it was hard to get to. Works can certainly be faked, so it seems incongruous to use them as essential proofs. I tried bringing up cases, you know, like the thief on the cross. He didn’t have good works, but he knew he was going to heaven! Yes, I was told, a “deathbed” conversion could be true, but if he would have lived, it would have been very important for him to “show” his salvation.

On the one hand, I get the concern. If you have been regenerated, if you are united with Christ, if you have been astonished by the gospel, if you believe in Jesus, you will surely show some change, right? There is no possibility that a person who is really alive won’t bear fruit. Not of themselves; it is the fruit of the Spirit, and by being alive and connected to Jesus, that fruit comes.

But I’ve come to see that this “practical syllogism” of united-to-Christ believers bearing fruit which is assuring actually skips the main part of assurance. And not just because fruit can be hard to evaluate and sporadic. It is also, more importantly, that the main part of assurance is closer to faith and closer to the gospel than the downstream fruit-production which we tend to focus on.

Faith itself has to have a strong strand of assurance built in. That’s because our belief is in Jesus and what he has done, rather than in what we do. So faith is believing that what Jesus has done and what he has said is actually true… which is the very message that he by his work and action has secured our salvation.

Verses abound:
“God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his son” (1 John 5:11) Well, has he given it, or not?

“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 15:31). If you believe, that’s trust, then it isn’t about downstream works at all (even though they will come), it is about the nature of the agent (that’s Jesus).

I live by faith, not in my fruit, but in my Savior (Galatians 2:20). My faith is the assurance of what Jesus said is true, and this is my hope (Hebrews 11:1). Over and over the clear statement of Jesus, that he is our only hope, our rescuer, our redeemer, that his sacrifice is what counts—the main part of assurance is that he has said it, and he has done it, and he is faithful.

Jesus reveals a loving Father with a plan to rescue us, if we will trust him. I rest in that finished work, which has yet to come to sight for me. I live by trusting in his plan, revealed by Jesus, that I am adopted into his family and united with my savior forever.

Seeing little downstream effects, like joy, patience, or kindness (fruit of the Spirit, according to Galatians 5:22) is really encouraging. But those encouragements should never take the place of (or really hold a candle to) to the incredible reality that my assurance hung on a tree and shed his blood. His word is sure, his promise is true, and I can stand on Him with certainty every moment of every day.

May you find your assurance in the truth of Jesus Christ. Trust that he really has you, now and forever, as you turn from your own self-righteousness to the perfect righteousness of the Son.

(n.b. this post was inspired by our church’s morning men’s group, which is discussing Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ, a treatment of the controversy over the Marrow of Modern Divinity. Wonderful read.)

Reading Your Bible, Finding Jesus

In our Sunday studies we’ve been in the Gospel of Matthew. I’ve been struck by how vehemently Jesus speaks against the teaching of the Pharisees, and we are only halfway through.

“Don’t get any of their leaven in your dough,” Jesus essentially says in Matthew 16. And he’s talking about their teaching. Wow! These are the serious students of Scripture. They memorized the Old Testament. All the prooftexts we commonly use for studying the Bible, you know, like “thy word have I hidden in my heart that I might not sin against thee,” or “your word is a lamp unto my feet and a guide unto my path,” are verses they knew better than we do.  Even “your word will not return void” is a quotation from Scripture the Pharisees held and cherished.

If we take the position that Bible reading will change you, without further discernment, then we have to account for why that didn’t work for these Scripture-readers.

Logically, we can understand where they were at. I mean, these seriously religious people had read and understood the condition of the nation. They understood the curses of not following the law. They saw the nation exiled because of disobedience. They looked at their situation and saw their own oppression at the hands of the Romans. And they thought they knew the answer: redouble their efforts. Get serious about obedience. Don’t just avoid sin, avoid the situation that sin comes from. So… they washed their hands, they avoided any work on Saturday, they made sure they kept the instructions of the Scriptures.

They searched the Scriptures, in other words, and found principles. They found precepts. They found rules to follow, to stay in the good graces of God. And by their obedience, by their keeping these principles, it would go well with them and they would be blessed. They understood that God had chosen them, and they were kept by their obedience.

They searched the Scriptures to find life, and thought life was in the principles… not in finding Jesus.

They located righteousness in themselves, rather than in Jesus.

This sounds much like modern-day American Christianity in some forms. Obey the principles to be blessed. Stay in the umbrella of protection and blessing by following the rules.

Yet Jesus said – watch out! Avoid their leaven. Don’t even get a drop of their teaching. It will infect the whole lump.

Do you see how surprising this is? Do you start to get a glimpse of the upside-down wonder of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

It is not a both-and. You cannot simultaneously be a Pharisee grounding righteousness in your own actions and be a Jesus-follower grounding righteousness in him. Righteousness is a gift or it is earned. If it is earned a little, it is still earned.

The radical declaration of Jesus is that the Scriptures do reveal eternal life, and it is them that bear witness of him. The Law thunders our inability. As Augustine wrote, “the utility of the law is, that it convinces man of his weakness, and compels him to apply for the medicine of grace, which is in Christ.”

The Scriptures lay out the gracious, beautiful, wonderful standard of what God requires. That standard doesn’t affirm the moral person, it crushes everyone. And to the crushed, the beauty of the perfect Savior is a balm and a wonder.

The Gospel says Jesus has done it all. He is the Lord and Savior. He’s got the power; he redeems. His salvation is more than we can imagine. We aren’t just wiped clean, we are robed in his righteousness, adopted into his family, united to him.

And so we read our Scriptures, we pore over them, because in them we find life: his name is Jesus. O that we might know him more; that we might see the depth of the love God has for us in his Son.

Bible reading will change you. If you find Jesus.

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” (John 5:39)

Friends with Jesus

Have you ever had someone manipulate you with the offer of friendship?

“If you are really my friend, then you’ll do X,” where X is something you wouldn’t do otherwise?
“If you want to be my friend, you’ll give me your dessert.”
“If you are really my friend, you’ll throw this wad of paper at the teacher.”

It sounds rather grade-schoolish, like something that would happen on the elementary school playground.

Yet… we often seem to be willing to ascribe such thinking to Jesus. If you do what he says, he’ll be your friend. C’mon, prove that you’re his friend.

That’s how people often take John 15:14. Jesus says “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” There it is! If you want to be Jesus’ friend, you better do what he says. If you don’t, he won’t be.

And from there we are off to the races, trying to prove to Jesus that we are his friend. Can you find an imperative in his teaching? Do it, because then you will be his friend.

Something is lost along the way. Something called…. context. And thereby, great damage is done to our understanding of the good news.

Let’s look at what this really means. Jesus is talking to his disciples the night before he goes to the cross. He is telling them that what they need to do is simply abide in him. Everything they do will be because they abide in him, remain connected to him, not be independent of him.

And then he says in 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Hmm. I wonder who is going to do that. Oh, right – Jesus is going to lay down his life for his friends. His friends. The disciples. They ARE his friends.

He says in 15:15, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you…” Hmm. Jesus calls them friends. And not because they shared their dessert, or did anything. Because of him choosing them, and him making known the good news of the Gospel, what he has heard from the Father, to them.

Jesus is their friend on the basis of his own action, not on the basis of their command-keeping.

Go even wider for a moment. Jesus says this to them on the night he is betrayed. And he is betrayed not only by Judas Iscariot, who is definitely not Jesus’ friend… but by Peter. Peter, his supposed friend. Peter goes out and denies that he even knows Jesus, not once but three times. The last time, Jesus looks straight at him, and Peter slinks away crying.

Well, I guess Peter isn’t Jesus friend either, if being Jesus’ friend means doing all that he commands. Doesn’t he belong in the same category as disobedient Judas?

So it is really remarkable that John’s gospel ends with Jesus appearing on the side of the lake where Peter has gone back to fishing. Jesus cooks him breakfast. Jesus restores him. Peter would live a fruitful life of response to the good news, because… Jesus never let him go.

If you are Jesus’ friend, he won’t let you go. You’re his friend if you receive the gospel. And if you are his friend, then you will do what he commands. Because he’ll get you there.

Could it really be true that everything, simply everything, is about Jesus? That life is about his strength, his sacrifice, his righteousness? What does that birth in your heart?

Welcome to Christianity. Where the truth is that you are his friend, his family, only because of what Jesus has done. Believe it, live in it, rejoice. Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Jesus, Paul, and Me

For a long time I thought there was a bit of a tension between Jesus and Paul. I mean, I knew it didn’t make sense—after all, Paul met with Jesus on the Damascus road, Paul was the apostle sent by Jesus to the Gentiles—but there seemed to be a different emphasis in messaging. Paul writes about how everyone is a sinner, there aren’t any righteous people and we are saved by grace alone. Jesus, though, told people to be better. He even said we should be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect.

That last statement is directly from Jesus’ most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount (see, it even gets capitals!). And when I was younger I read it as a call to action. Jesus says not murdering isn’t enough; you need to not even be angry at your brother. Adultery? Of course that’s wrong, but even looking at an attractive person with lust is something to avoid. And don’t get me started on the wonderful, idealistic call to love enemies, go the extra mile, never judge, and give so that even your own hands don’t know you did it.

I suppose that’s how I took them, as ideals. And so that’s what the Kingdom of heaven became, an idealistic place, a place without reality, really, but rather a sort of an ideal held up for us (humanity) to work toward.

I repent of that. I’ve changed my mind. Probably better (and more hopeful) to say that I’ve grown.

I am convinced that there is a real, actual kingdom of God. The place where he rules and reigns. The place where he is. And to be in that kingdom means that you are a person who belongs there. Who exhibits what the kingdom is about. And Jesus really laid it out for us, so that we would see not only the kingdom, but also ourselves.

And therefore I see Jesus and Paul talking about the same thing. Because when I consider that the kingdom isn’t an ideal but a reality, I realize that I don’t belong. I realize that you don’t either. And I realize Jesus is doing what Paul is doing: there aren’t any righteous people. We need to be saved by grace alone.

See, I continue to struggle with lust. Not the in-your-face-adultery kind, but the longing for things that God doesn’t long for. He and I don’t see eye to eye on gut-level things, and that means I’m wrong. I’m twisted. I get frustrated (and yes, that’s just another word for angry) at my brother. I definitely know when I make a sacrificial gift, and I give myself lots of back-pats. I don’t want to love my enemy, I usually want to bring them to justice (as defined by me). I see other’s faults, not even recognizing the tree branch sticking out of my own eyes.

Maybe I’m being a little hard on myself. But maybe I’m not being hard enough. What I am convinced of is that Jesus’ presentation of the kingdom includes the reality that I will not make it. The summary of ‘be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’ doesn’t push me to greater heights of sanctification. It pushes me to my knees. I puts me on my belly.

I’m with Isaiah, who famously said “Woe is me! For I am lost. I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King…”

My eyes have seen the King. Glorious in mercy. Awesome in perfection. True and righteous all the way through. And His kingdom reflects his holy perfection.

And when I see my unworthiness, I see that there is just one message. That we are unworthy, unclean, unrighteous, unable. And yet God, in his great mercy, while we were dead, made us alive in Christ. Jesus loved us in this midst of this state that we are in… and by what he did, we are united to him, given righteousness, made to belong, adopted, put in the family, sealed with the Spirit, kept for heaven, admitted into the holy Kingdom where God rules.

We need to grow in wonder. That Jesus says how happy are the spiritually bankrupt, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. How Jesus came for sinners. How Jesus heals the sick, makes the blind see, cures the leper, conquers the demons, raises the dead.

Come, see what it means that God has a heart for mercy, not sacrifice.


Longing for the Kingdom

I’m really excited to see the reality of the kingdom of heaven. I know that for many, the kingdom has begun, and that’s true – Jesus has come, and he’s finished his work.

But that’s all entwined in faith. I’m really eager for faith not to be needed anymore. For us to see, to experience in vivid technicolor, the reality of the kingdom of heaven.

I think too often we focus on us getting there (admittedly important) rather than on what it will be like. That’s why I so appreciate Jesus as he starts the Sermon on the Mount. He gives this really amazing description of what the kingdom is. And it stokes my longing.

He turns to different unnamed, impersonal groups. And he calls them blessed. Because of what the kingdom is like. And as we hear about these groups, we start to understand… he’s revealing what the kingdom of heaven is. Not in terms of gold pavement or translucent buildings. But in terms of qualities. And it is fantastic.

Walk with me; let your heart long. Because the kingdom, it comes, surely as Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This incredible kingdom will be given, not earned. It is for the spiritually bankrupt, which means that no currency will buy your way in. It is a space-time manifestation of the grace of God.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The kingdom is a place of comfort. If you grieve, if this is what afflicts you, you are fortunate. Comfort comes.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The kingdom of heaven, established on earth, will not be won with power. If you are powerless, rejoice. You are blessed. You won’t need power to be in this incredible kingdom. The power of another suffices.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” I love this. The kingdom comes; righteousness will abound. If you hunger for it, you are fortunate, because the kingdom is a place of rightness.

I could go on. It is a place of purity, total transparency; a place of peace, so much so that those who are about peace are called sons of God; a place where wrongs are made right, where justice prevails.

I am so prone to make everything about me. So Jesus’ words of blessing are easily warped by me and others to be a list of ethical demands to enter the kingdom. I don’t think they are, though. I think they are a beautiful picture of what our kingdom is. A portrait of a reality that is coming.

I say “our kingdom” because I hope if you’re reading this that you have the righteousness that matters. Because Jesus suddenly changes pronouns in the beatitudes. The last beatitude (Matt. 5:11) is suddenly about the disciples. And about Jesus. He says how fortunate, not when you are persecuted for your righteousness… but when you are persecuted for Jesus’ sake. That’s because the kingdom of heaven is a place where Jesus is our righteousness.

Faith will become sight. But it is by faith we get there. Faith not in our achievement. Faith in Jesus, in all that he has done for us. In all that he has promised.

He’s good for it. And it is beautiful. I can’t wait.

I Want Good Works

I was talking to a friend today, one who does not yet know Jesus, and is searching. He said he likes to do good. When he does, he feels the positive energy, the rightness, and he can see how that energy pushes him in good ways. His activity in life is toward increasing this positive feedback loop. He might even call this salvation.

This approach is headed in the wrong direction. Christianity is aimed directly at our failure at this feedback loop. We don’t slowly respond to positive energy. We fail. We don’t do what’s right, we have to trust in Christ. There’s no merit in our work because we constantly fail at doing good. Our best deeds are tainted. So we are forced to trust in another, in the imputation of a perfect righteousness and the grant of a right and title to the heavenly inheritance entirely separate from our good deeds (full disclosure: I paraphrased the latter part of this sentence from John Owen). Yes, I am talking about the work of Jesus, which was very meritorious. For me and for you, if we trust him.

Your works do not save you. Contrary to some evangelical thinking, they don’t get you into heaven. They don’t even provide sure assurance. You can fake works, like you can lie with your mouth. I mean, isn’t that kind of the point of Matthew 7, where people say they’ve done mighty works in Jesus name, and he says he never knew them?

But this aversion to meritorious work leads some to question whether we should want good works at all. Perhaps this is sometimes a result of the inherent dangers of slipping back into comparison and merit; after all, we do long for ourselves to be lifted up, for our good side to be seen, and for our own selves (or, if you are a parent, for our children or grandchildren) to be viewed as accomplished and successful.

So is there no place to long for good works?

Short answer: yes.

Longer answer: yes, yes, YES!

You do realize, believer, that you are now a child of God. And that you have the Holy Spirit. And Jesus intercedes for you all the time. And so you are used, by God, for his purposes and in his body. That doesn’t just mean to avoid sinful stuff (which you should, it is bad for you). It also means that you bear fruit. You do good works. Really good, because it is Christ in you doing it. The Bible points to responses to the gospel, a working out of what has become your identity. Loving one another. Laying down your life for one another. Lifting each other up. Talking with people about Jesus.

Our assurance is in Jesus’ promises. But seeing our response to the gospel worked out in our own lives is encouraging and helpful. Our fruit, our good works, are simply a response to Jesus’ work. I think we are encouraged to respond and to rejoice in good, non-meritorious works. Think Ephesians 2:10 or Titus 3:14.

Let me bring up an oft-mentioned Gospel-response (good work!) in the Pauline epistles: unity. You bear the fruit of unity. That means that even though your neighbor in the pew doesn’t have it all together, doesn’t act in ways that you like and smells faintly of garlic (or worse), you consider yourself one in Christ with them. Even when you don’t doctrinally totally agree, and even though they sing off-key and raise their hands, you see your essential connection to them. You are in one body, one family in Jesus. That heart attitude is a direct response to the gospel. It will lead to actions that you wouldn’t take otherwise. You might actually talk to them and have them into your home and pray for them. Welcome to good works, friend.

So don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to respond to the gospel with love. Don’t be afraid to get excited about what Jesus has done for you – and what it means for the daily living that you do. There is no merit to your work, Jesus is everything. But that doesn’t mean you do nothing. That means you get to respond. Not with a checklist, but with a heart that is alive. And a spirit that is willing.

Consider this encouragement. Yep, that’s right. Encouragement, in the gospel, to love and good deeds.

Just remember: your identity is sure, no matter what. If work sounds too meritorious to your ear, use fruit instead. But realize you’re talking about stuff you do. Which comes out of who you are. In response to the gospel. Because of all Jesus has done for you. And have a blast. Love someone today. You get to!

Dead Ends and the Hope We Need

Pursue God. Live only for his glory. Make the right decisions. Don’t sin. Choose the right friends. Be efficient with your time. Serve God. You will personally stand before the judgment seat and you will answer for how you counted your days

What do you think? Is this the Christian life?

If it is, then what happens if you don’t? What happens if you went to the movies instead of reading your Bible? If you went out on inline skates instead of praying? If you “wasted” time listening to the Beatles?

What happens when you make a wrong decision? When you experience a distant spouse or an estranged child because of your sin?

The problem with a formulation of Christianity which focuses primarily and repeatedly on you is that it is no different from the world. The world says “be efficient.” The world says “choose the right friends.” The world even says “do good.” If you are good enough and try hard enough then you will satisfy whatever cosmic scales might be out there.

The main difference between Christianity and the world is not in the definition of moral behavior. The world has morals. The world doesn’t approve of rape, or murder, or overeating. We might have higher standards in areas, but it isn’t the fundamental difference, is it?

The problem is that the self-focus of the initial paragraph above misses entirely the point of the Gospel. The Gospel is not “in light of what God has done, get better.” The Gospel is not “choose wisely, or else.” The Gospel is certainly not “in light of eternity, make sure every one of your moments is used in the most efficient way.”

If you do forumalte Christian living this way, then your acceptance becomes about your works. Jesus is relegated to an authority figure, someone to please, someone who judges, someone who stands back and looks at your struggles and decides whether or not to be happy with you. He’s empowered you, perhaps, but that empowerment is static. He’s now waiting to see what you will do.

I don’t know this Jesus.

Before you hoist me on the nearest stake, let me qualify. Jesus has judged and will judge the world. He came to save the world, and the world will be judged in righteousness by him, because they reject him. In essence, they insist that their efficiency and good choices, relative to others, be judged. And like the Pharisee in Luke 18, they will not go away justified. They are trying to be righteous in themselves.

And we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Yet I still have to insist that my righteousness is found in Christ, and when my life plays out, it will be seen through the lens not of my moral choices but of my union with Jesus. This is the essence of the Gospel.

1 John 4:15 says that whoever confesses Jesus is the son of God, God abides in him. And so we have come to know, through Jesus, the love God has for us. So through trusting Jesus, God abides in us. It is in this way that love is perfected with us (through faith in Jesus!), so that we have “confidence for the day of judgment” (that’s the conclusion of 1 John 4:17).

Our confidence for the judgment is the same as our confidence in our everyday life: Jesus Christ has come, and he lived a perfect life and died for me and was raised… and I have the sure promise by trusting Jesus that I will be raised with him.

My life becomes about that mystery – Christ in me, the hope of glory – rippling through everything. I am not striving for crowns; I have been given crowns. I toss them at the feet of my savior, who has done it all. My works are responses to such a great salvation. My fruit is an outgrowth of being connected to the true vine. So it really isn’t “my” work or “my” fruit at all. It is the Spirit’s, done in me.

Can you see what bare behavioral resolutions miss? Even Christian ones? They miss that we are clothed now and forever by the righteousness of Jesus, that our consciences have been cleansed now and forever by his blood. Please don’t get back on the treadmill, and don’t let others – in confusion – push you back there.

Watch out for out-of-context proofs. “It is up to you,” goes the misguided argument. “You have been enabled. After all, you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.” Yet that verse, Philippians 4:13, isn’t speaking of you being now empowered to never sin again, or to choose the right friends, or to somehow be superwoman. That verse is speaking of maintaining hope in Christ in all situations. “I have learned to be content in all things,” says Paul in the preceding verse. Hunger, riches, every situation or circumstance no longer breeds discontent in him, because Jesus Christ is his everything. He’s not focusing on himself, that’s the ticket. He’s resting in Jesus.

Can’t you envision Paul enjoying Jesus while he feasts? And while he sits in a jail cell? Or in our modern context, while he’s out snowboarding or in a classroom, while praying or while kicking it on the beach? What he’s getting at is that in every situation he rests in Jesus.

But… can’t I want to be better? Of course you can… and will. And the pathway to better is not a self-focus but an increasing love of and gratitude toward Jesus. He doesn’t dole out shame; he took it on himself. He doesn’t say “show me you love me” but “I loved you even though you sin.” That savior draws you toward true love, for others and for him. May you rest in his arms, and trust in his love.

He’s the only hope we have. It is a good thing that he is the only hope we need.

God With Us

Remember Joseph? When we’re introduced to him, he’s the favorite of his father, the young man with the many-colored coat and the grandiose dreams. His brothers hate him and, in lieu of killing him, sell him into slavery in Egypt.

Genesis 39 details the downward spiral of his surroundings. He starts off as a slave in the house of Egypt’s chief of security, is falsely accused by the man’s wife, and ends up in prison, where he will spend several years.

From beloved son to slave; from slave to prisoner. Yet when we read the account, we never lose hope for Joseph. One reason is that we know the story. We know he’s going to be exalted, we know that good things are coming.

More important to our confidence is the text itself. In chapter 39, when Joseph starts off as a slave, we’re simply told something by the narrator. “And the Lord was with Joseph” (Genesis 39:2). He prospers, other people see that the Lord is with him. And then when he’s in prison, there’s another statement. You can probably guess what it is. “And the Lord was with Joseph, and showed him steadfast love” (Genesis 39:21).

It was easy to see when Joseph was being blessed. Certainly the Lord was with him as he ruled Egypt. But even in his lows, we are painstakingly put on notice that God was with Joseph. And that “God-withness” is not only in regards to Joseph. That’s the main message for Joseph’s Dad, Jacob, in chapter 46. “I will go with you,” God says to Jacob.

Hmm. This seems really important. Assurance and hope and settled favor accompanies the reality of God being with certain people. Our lives have hope, our direction is sure, if God is with us.

How do we make sure we get this? How do we make sure that God is with us and stays with us?

Matthew’s Gospel helps. In chapter 1, we are told that there is a savior coming. Quoting Isaiah, we’re told that his name shall be called Immanuel, which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). That’s who Jesus Christ is. God with us.

Jesus Christ, the very Word of God, the one who came to redeem and save, the one who died on a cross and shed his blood for our sin, the one who declares us righteous and makes us holy. Him. If he is with you, your life is assured and hopeful. Not because of your circumstances. Because of him. He is God with you.

Well, you might say, that sounds like a stretch. It doesn’t seem like Jesus is actually with me. Not now. And I’d be tempted to agree with you, if it were only the name of Jesus that we were talking about. But consider not just the beginning of Matthew. Consider also the very last words of Jesus in the Gospel.

We know it as the great commission, that statement to go into all the world and make disciples. Jesus said that to his disciples just before he ascended into heaven, alive, to sit at the right hand of God the Father and make intercession for us.

Here’s the last words he said (Matthew 28:21):

“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

So believe it. The truth that marked Joseph in every circumstance, the truth that assured his life, that meant all would be ok, was that God was with him. And in Christ, we have the same connection. We have the assurance from God himself that he is with us always. In highs and lows. Independent of our good or bad choices. By faith alone.

If God is for us, who can be against us?

On Atonement

It is really common for us to say, “our sin separates us from God.” It’s a loose quotation of Isaiah 59:2. What’s generally said is that mankind has a sin problem, and that sin keeps people away from God.

That’s true, as far as it goes. Separation brings up the holy/unholy dynamic, and points out that God is entirely holy, and we have no business being in the same space that he is in. Sin and God don’t go in the same room.

Here’s the problem, though, in terms of how we often think about it: generic ‘sin’ is not what now keeps us from God. Your immoral behavior no longer keeps you from God. Your unrighteous anger no longer keeps you from God. Those are not good things, not moral things, not behaviors that you should cultivate or ignore or not want to improve in. But to say that it separates you from God is to miss the point of the Bible.

The Bible’s main point is the presentation of the Gospel. Jesus Christ has come, and he lived a sinless life, and he sacrificed himself as the perfect lamb, and he shed his innocent blood. When he died on Calvary, the curtain of separation that kept the holy space of God from the rest of the unholy world was ripped right in two. Dead people came to life. Unclean people roamed Jerusalem and did not defile it.

Atonement happened.

The proclamation of the Bible is that Jesus Christ has paid for sin. His sacrifice was enough for all sin; his sacrifice was once for all. And his sacrifice is applied for those who believe: as he was famously recorded in John 3:16, God gave his only begotten son so that “whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

It is now a particular sin that keeps you from God, that separates you. It is the sin of rejecting the Son. Of unbelief. Stealing from the corner store or basic immorality is still sin – it just isn’t sin that makes you unholy. What Jesus makes holy is holy, even though people who believe in him still stumble in many ways.

The atonement points to another way into the holy space of God, into the presence of the Almighty. It is the way Jesus made by his own sacrifice. My efforts to create a way for myself by keeping some code or being better than the next person are doomed. The way has been made. God’s plan has come to fruition. Jesus Christ came for us. The atonement is true.

May this lead us to the emphasis of the Bible: believe in the Son. As we do we will link behavior to the gospel, we will respond to the holiness and righteousness and adoption that has been accomplished for us with lives that more and more reflect the truth that we believe: Jesus has really paid it all.

And it also means this: that (of course!) Christians still sin. And their sin does not separate them from God. That’s the point of Romans 8:1, that “there is therefore now no condemnation in Christ Jesus.” Paul is talking about his post-Christian sin! If sin kept us from God now, then we would never be in his presence (hmm… or possibly flicker in and out?).

So rejoice. Take heart. Jesus really did pay it all. Hug a sinner today. And tell them about the atonement.

A Cleansed Conscience? Really?

It is hard to believe the Gospel because it is hard to understand how it could possibly work.

“Believe in Jesus” sounds like something overly simple; it does not sound like it would “do” anything to simply trust him, to put faith in what an old book says he has done for you and for me.

So… how does it work out practically?

One very important glimpse into the daily-living working out of the Gospel is found in Hebrews 9. The whole chapter is worth considering at length, but let’s just focus in on vv. 13-14:

For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

Interesting. The point being made is that faith in Jesus Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice does something to us. What does he do? He cleanses our consciences.

Specifically, he cleanses our consciences from dead works. This is a huge practical glimpse into the gospel. Because all of us know that we do wrong. We think wrong thoughts. We do wrong deeds. Even our best works have threads of imperfection in them.

If you honestly look at your life, you know that you should be better. The Law points out that you should be better. And so our conscience condemns us. All your efforts to atone, all your gifts and promises to God, don’t do the trick. Your conscience, that inner judge of right and wrong, knows that you aren’t worthy to be in the same room as God.

But in the Gospel… something amazing happens. By faith in Jesus… your conscience can be washed. No guilt. Not because your moral compass has been tossed, oh no. Sin is sin. But by looking to Jesus, and trusting in what he has done.

Angry at your brother? Yes, your conscience, it calls sin what it is: sin. And you can declare, “I am clean, Jesus’ blood has cleansed me.” Immorality? Yes, your conscience, it calls sin what it is: sin. And your conscience does not condemn, because you trust in the blood of Jesus.

Do you see? Your conscience has been purified from dead works. Those are works that you’d otherwise do to try and cleanse that selfsame conscience. Self-atonement, acts of contrition. Like animals sacrificed to atone for sin. Yech. Dead end.

Conscience purified to serve the living God. Because if you trust in Jesus… you are free to not worry about you, but to respond by laying down your life. Not to make yourself pure—rather because you are pure.

The working of the Gospel in the life of the believer is the realization of a cleansed conscience by the finished work of Christ who gave his very blood for you. Not that you in your work keep yourself clean, but that Jesus cleansed you.

So guilt is good if it drives you to the cross. Where you get rid of that guilt forever.

And guilt is bad if it is your conscience condemning you in Christ. Christ paid everything. Are you saying his payment was not enough?

What God has made clean, don’t call common.
God has made you clean. Forever. By the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus.

Press into him. Put your trust in him. Dwell on what he has done. Respond in a life that is pure by the blood of the sanctified lamb.