Category Archives: the Gospel

Pastoral Q & A: Christ’s Intercession

On Ascension Day, I preached on Romans 8:34.  Afterwards, one of my parishioners asked the following question:

Why do we see the intercession of Christ as an ongoing process and not a completed act like his atonement on the cross?

To answer this we need to go back to the Scriptures and pay attention to the exact wording of two key passages that speak of Christ’s intercession.  In Romans 8:34 it says that Christ is interceding for us.  Grammatically speaking, the verb there is in the present tense.  It is describing something that is happening right now and happening continuously.  Similarly, in Hebrews 7:25 it says that Jesus “always lives to make intercession” for believers.  There you not only have the present tense (“lives”), but also an adverb to emphasize that it’s ongoing (“always”).  There is no escaping the teaching of Scripture that Christ’s intercession is a present and ongoing reality.  If the Holy Spirit had meant to say that Christ interceded but once (just as he was sacrificed and made atonement once), certainly there is a grammatical option in Greek to express that (the perfect tense or, less likely, the aorist).

So given that information, our question has to be different: why do the Scriptures teach that Christ’s intercession is present and continuous? Why does he carry on that ministry? I believe the answer to that is that he wants to constantly assure us of his love and interest in our lives. He completed his work on the cross and was raised for us — that’s in the past. But now he wants us to be confident that every minute he is carrying us on his heart. I say that on the basis of passages like John 17 (Christ’s high priestly prayer) and Hebrews 4:14-16.  In John 17, Jesus allowed his disciples to listen in to his prayer — why?  Partly to encourage them with the knowledge that he was praying for them (John 17:9).  In Hebrews 4:14-16, we read of Christ’s position as our high priest.  His sympathetic mediation is the reason why we can confidently go to throne of grace.  His continuous intercession is revealed to us so that we would be constantly encouraged by his love and continue to depend on him in faith each day.


True and False Catholicism

“Swimming the Tiber” is a popular way of saying that a Protestant has defected to Roman Catholicism (the Tiber River flows through Rome).  If you’re paying attention, periodically you hear of someone “swimming the Tiber.”  Especially if it’s someone who has been extensively trained in Reformed theology, you might be left wondering if the Reformation actually got it all wrong.  You may wonder if perhaps we have misunderstood Roman Catholic doctrine.  You might doubt whether the Reformation is something to be celebrated, or whether it should be deplored as having been unnecessary.  Should we celebrate the 500th birthday of the Reformation or mourn it?

When those sorts of doubts arise, it’s good to take a careful look at exactly what the Roman Catholic Church teaches.  It’s good to compare these teachings with the Word of God.  That’s what I’m going to do in this post.  I’ll take the modern standard of Roman Catholic doctrine as our guide.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in several languages in 1994 and is an excellent compendium of Roman Catholic teaching.  If you regularly have contact with Roman Catholics with an eye to evangelism, it would definitely be helpful to have this book in your library.  From our side, I’ll refer to the Reformed confessions alongside Scripture.  I do this because the Reformed confessions are faithful summaries of what Scripture teaches.   Good editions of the confessions have Scripture proof-texts accompanying and you can always look those up should you question whether a particular point is actually taught in the Bible.

The Most Important Issue

Let’s start with the most important issue.  In my experiences with educated Roman Catholics, this is where any discussion will lead you.  We tend to focus in on hot-button issues:  Mary, the Mass, purgatory, and the like.  However, when we get into some heavy discussion on these issues, appeals are made to authority.  The Reformed person appeals to Scripture.  But the Roman Catholic is not persuaded by appeals to Scripture.  In their minds, Scripture belongs with tradition and tradition stands on an equal footing with Scripture.  The two will never contradict each other.  Thus, in any discussion with Roman Catholics, things will always get bogged down over the question of authority.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) maintains that both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture come from the same source:  God.  There is one common source, but two distinct ways in which God’s revelation comes to the Church:

“Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit…Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit.”

Those statements come from article 81.  Then we read the following in article 82:

“As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, ‘does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone.  Both Scripture and tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.’”

Tradition is more tightly defined in the eighty-third article as what has been handed down from the apostles via oral transmission.  The apostles, in turn, received the tradition from the Lord Jesus.  The Roman Catholic Church also distinguishes between the great Tradition, which is unchangeable, and “various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time.”  The latter “can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium [body of authoritative teachers].”  In short, the Roman Catholic view can be defined as Scripture plus tradition – but both are regarded as having a divine origin and so both are equally authoritative.

Oftentimes, the biblical or Reformed view is defined as “Sola Scriptura,” Latin for “by Scripture alone.”  Unfortunately, this often degenerates into what some have called “Solo Scriptura.”  “Solo Scriptura” is the caricature of the biblical view and it is maintained by many evangelicals.  It is the reason why one writer stated, without hyperbole:   “…Evangelicalism has created far more novel doctrines than Roman Catholicism.” [1]  With this view of Scripture, the Bible stands with me all by itself.  I will come with my private interpretation of the Bible and it is valid and authoritative for me.   This “Solo Scriptura” view is not biblical.

The biblical view is that the Bible alone is the most clear and authoritative source of revelation – the only other source being “the creation, preservation and government of the universe” (Belgic Confession, article 2).  The Bible alone is where God reveals all we need to know for our salvation.  The Bible alone has been “breathed out by God” and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).  Scripture must therefore be acknowledged as the only ultimate and infallible norm for Christians.  However, Scripture must always be interpreted in an ecclesiastical context – after all, it is the Church which has been entrusted with the Scriptures.  We may not have an individualistic approach to the Bible.  The Bible always has to be understood not only in its own context, but also in the context of the true Church.  This is why astute Bible students (including ministers) place great value upon commentaries.  Good commentaries (like those of John Calvin) give Bible students an excellent sense of how the Scriptures have been understood by those who have gone before us.

At the same time, it is very clear in our Belgic Confession (article 7) that we cannot consider “any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with the divine Scriptures.”  According to the same article, we may not place custom or tradition on the same level as God’s Word either.  This is a direct jab against the teaching of the Roman Catholics.  The reason given is biblical:  “for all men are of themselves liars, and lighter than a breath” (cf. Psalm 62:9).  So, the biblical view of the authority of Scripture acknowledges several things:  the supreme and ultimate authority of the Bible, the importance of the Church in interpreting the Bible, and the sinfulness of man has an impact on his interpretation and understanding of the Bible.

This biblical view can be truly labelled as Catholic in the good sense of the word.  This was the view held during the first three centuries of the Church.  It was the view that found acceptance by the majority of the Church through most of the Middle Ages.  Finally, this was the view that re-emerged during the Great Reformation under men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.[2]  The Roman Catholic view as it stands today actually originates around the twelfth century.  As Keith Mathison puts it, “The historical novelty [of this view] is simply not in debate among patristic and medieval scholars.”[3]  In other words, the view expressed in CCC may be Roman, but it is certainly not Catholic.

The Doctrine of Man

We spent a lot of time on that question of authority because it is so critically important.  It lies at the root of most of the other doctrinal problems in the Roman Catholic Church.   We could touch on many other issues, but let’s stay where the fire is hottest.  Let’s briefly examine what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about man.  The Roman Catholic Church holds to a position called “Semi-Pelagianism.”  Pelagius, a fifth-century British monk, taught that man is not conceived and born in sin.  Man is born essentially good and he learns evil by imitation.  Augustine of Hippo opposed Pelagius and insisted on man’s corruption.  Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church adamantly maintains that Pelagius was wrong.  They maintain a doctrine called “Original Sin” and assert that “original sin is transmitted with human nature by propagation, not by imitation.” (CCC, art.419)

Though the Roman Catholic Church holds to original sin, it is defined in a special way:

“Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants.  It is a deprivation of the original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted; it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called ‘concupiscence.’  Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back toward God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.”  (CCC, art.405)

Take note of the view of human nature here:  it “has not been totally corrupted,” it is wounded, inclined to sin.  This is a more pessimistic view than Pelagius, but more optimistic than the biblical view of man as dead in sins and trespasses (cf. Eph. 2:1).  For this reason, we rightly label this doctrine semi-Pelagianism.  Under this doctrine, man is given a significant role in his own salvation.  He is weakened, but once he is baptized, original sin disappears, though its effects may still be seen.  At the end of the day, man retains some good within him.  With a little push from God’s grace, man can help to save himself.

The true Catholic view is quite a bit different.  In article 15 of the Belgic Confession, the truth of Scripture is summarized like this:

“We believe that by the disobedience of Adam original sin has spread throughout the whole human race.  It is a corruption of the entire nature of man and a hereditary evil which infects even infants in their mother’s womb…It is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source.”

The direction of the Belgic Confession seems clear enough.  However, in the seventeenth century, the followers of Jacob Arminius tried to weaken the interpretation of the Belgic Confession.  The Synod of Dort in 1618-19 answered with its Canons that make very clear that man is pervasively depraved.  The Canons of Dort, following Scripture, state without reservation that all men are not merely wounded, but “dead in sin, and slaves of sin.  And without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they neither will nor can return to God, reform their depraved nature, or prepare themselves for its reformation.” (CoD, 3/4.3).  This view is the truly Catholic one, for it encapsulates the doctrine of the apostles (cf. Col. 2:13) that has been maintained by true believers around the world (including Augustine, Calvin and others) for centuries.   This view alone gives all the glory for man’s salvation to God.

Worship

The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church concerning the place of Mary, the saints, the Mass and other sacraments, and the use of images are especially objectionable to Bible-believing Christians.  All of these teachings can be lumped together under the general heading of worship.  It has often been noted that worship was one of the central issues in the Great Reformation of the sixteenth century.  It only makes sense, then, that we ask what the Roman Catholic Church believes about worship.

We can do this by looking at how the Catechism of the Catholic Church deals with the first and second commandments.  The RCC traditionally puts the first and second commandments together and calls them the first commandment.  Yet, the Catechism does divide the explanation.  What we call the first commandment is explained as forbidding the honor of other gods as well as a prohibition against superstition and irreligion.  What we call the second commandment is first explained as prohibiting the “representation of God by the hand of man.” (art. 2129).  However, the doors are quickly opened with the following articles:

2130  Nevertheless, already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word:  so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim.

2131  Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787) justified against the iconoclasts the veneration of icons – of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints.  By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new ‘economy’ of images.”

What is striking about the Roman Catholic understanding of the second commandment is that there is no recognition that this commandment originally pertained to the worship of God through graven images.  This is exactly where the Roman Catholic Church goes wrong in its understanding of worship.  In art. 2132 of CCC, it is stated plainly:

“Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate.  The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.”

In other words, the Roman Catholic Church worships God through these images.  Roman Catholics will say the same about their “veneration” of Mary and the other saints:  we are worshipping God through them and thus the “veneration” is no idolatry.   This is nothing less than a violation of the second commandment.

This was recognized during the Reformation.  The Heidelberg Catechism states that we may not have images “in order to worship them or to serve God through them” (QA 97).  Further, this Reformed Catechism also asserts that the second commandment gives us a basic principle for our worship:  we are not “to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.” (QA 96)  The same principle is found with the Belgic Confession in article 7, “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length,” and then also in article 32, “Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”  This is the application of Sola Scriptura to our worship.

The Roman Catholic Church follows a different route when it comes to worship:  we may add to or take away from the worship of God as we please.  Thus, the RCC has an elaborate ritual for baptism that obscures the simplicity of the sacrament as found in Scripture:  sprinkling or immersion with plain water.  Following their unscriptural worship principle, the RCC adds images and countless other innovations.  The whole procedure and doctrine of the mass, though it often uses the words of Scripture, not only twists those very words, but also adds or takes away from the teaching of our Lord Jesus.

Other Examples

Numerous books have been written documenting the differences between the teaching of the Papacy and the teaching of Scripture.  This article could quickly turn into one of those books!  Before we finish off, here are two more examples of the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church contrasted with the teaching of Scripture as summarized in our Confessions:

Regarding justification, Rome teaches:

“Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men.  Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith.” (art. 1992)

But the Bible teaches:

“Therefore we rightly say with Paul that we are justified by faith apart from observing the law (Rom. 3:28).  Meanwhile, strictly speaking, we do not mean that faith as such justifies us, for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ our righteousness;  He imputes to us all his merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.”  (Belgic Confession, art.22)

Note the difference between an infused justification (“conferred in Baptism”) and an imputed justification that is by faith alone.

Regarding the extent of Christ’s atonement, Rome teaches:

“The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception:  ‘There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer.”  (art.605)

But Scripture teaches us:

“For this was the most free counsel of God the Father, that the life-giving and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect…This means:  God willed that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which He confirmed the new covenant) should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and tongue all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and were given to Him by the Father.”  (Canons of Dort, chapter 2.8)

Here the difference is between a universal atonement, and an efficacious atonement restricted to God’s elect.  Only the latter is the teaching of Jesus, the only head of the church (e.g. John 10:15).

On these and so many other points, the Roman Catholic Church has departed from the teaching of Scripture.  We may say without hesitation that the RCC represents the spirit of Antichrist.  In fact, the Westminster Confession is not off the mark when it implies that the Roman Catholic Church is a synagogue of Satan (25.5).  And certainly we may agree that the Pope is not in any sense the head of the church of Jesus Christ, “but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God.” (25.6).

Through the Apostles’ Creed, we continue to confess that we believe a Catholic Church.  Through the course of our brief examination, we have seen that there is a true Catholicism and a false Catholicism.  There is a church chosen to everlasting life which experiences the unity of true faith – a true faith built upon submission to God’s Word alone.  This is the true Catholic Church.  There is also a church that “assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.” (BC art.29).  This is the false Catholic Church – the Roman Catholic Church.  We are the true Catholics and we should not be ashamed to say so.  Moreover, we should also be eager to bring the true gospel to those enslaved to the many soul-endangering errors of Rome.

[1]  The Shape of Sola Scriptura, Keith Mathison, Moscow: Canon Press, 2001, p.280.

[2] Ibid..

[3] Ibid., p.211.


Really Part of the Family

Do you remember the first time you met someone who’d been adopted?  I do.  We were living in the Canadian Arctic and there was this family in the church we were attending.  Like my Dad, the father in the family was an RCMP officer.  They lived in our neighbourhood and we spent a lot of time together.  They had a son and he was a little bit younger than me — he had been adopted.  Had I not been told, I never would have guessed.  They treated him exactly like one of their own.  I was fascinated by this concept of a mother and father taking a child that, biologically speaking was unrelated, and adopting him for their own.

Flash forward some years later and now I have a niece who was born in China.  She spent the first couple years of her life in an orphanage, abandoned by her birth parents.  My sister and brother-in-law adopted her.  She’s now really part of their family.  My sister and brother-in-law are the only mother and father that she’s ever known and will know.  Her older brothers love her dearly.  It’s a beautiful thing.  Even though I haven’t yet met her, I feel like she’s just as much a beloved part of our clan as anyone else.

Adoption amongst human beings can be impressively beautiful, but even more beautiful is divine adoption.  Even more amazing is how a holy God who was once our judge and our enemy becomes our Father through Jesus Christ.  Adoption brings us into this close family relationship with the King of the cosmos.  That is astounding if you pause to reflect on it.  And we should reflect on it often.  Reflecting on it leads us to praise and wonder.  Reflecting on it leads us to marvel at grace and this leads us to love the one who first so greatly loved us.

I can think of no better concise definition than that given by the Westminster Shorter Catechism in QA 34:

What is adoption?

Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges of the sons of God.

Adoption is an essential part of the Christian’s experience of salvation.  If you are saved by God’s grace, you’re adopted into his family.  The two can’t be separated.  All those who have been declared righteous by God (justified) are also adopted.  Everyone who has been justified is brought from the court room to the family room.  More, just as with justification, the only basis for our adoption is the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

What is the instrument through which we receive this benefit?  Faith.  Galatians 3:26, “…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”  While we are promised adoption in the covenant of grace, we only receive what is promised by placing our trust in Jesus Christ.  You cannot be adopted into God’s family apart from faith in Jesus Christ.

Once you are adopted into God’s family through Christ, your adoption is irreversible.  God writes your adoption certificate with indelible ink on indestructible paper.  When God is your Father, he is your Father forever.  Nothing and no one can ever take that away.  Your place is secure.  You don’t wake up each morning and have to wonder whether you’re still in the family.  Once adopted, you are securely in that loving relationship.

From God’s side, this glorious truth of adoption results in several outcomes.  Chief among them is the new way God relates to us.  He is our Father, not our Judge.  As a Father, he dearly loves us as his children — “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1).  What “kind of love” is this?  It’s a love where we have the care of a Father.  He pities us, he protects us, and he provides for us.  Moreover, if we should stray from him, like any good earthly father, our heavenly Father disciplines us for our good (Heb. 12:6-10).  As our Father in Christ, he also invites us to free and open access to his throne of grace.  Our Father is a great and awesome King, but yet his children are welcome to approach him boldly — no need to dread!  Romans 8:15 encourages us, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father!'”  Finally, from God’s side, he promises that we will receive his rich inheritance.  We are the heirs of the Father’s kingdom, to the new creation.  It’s all promised to his children and his children will receive it with joy!

There are also outcomes on our side of this relationship.  We love and worship this God who has freely adopted us as his children.  We love to be in his presence in public worship.  We look forward to eternity in his blessed presence in heaven.  While we still live here, we call on God as our Father.  Our Saviour Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven” to impress on us the nature of our relationship with the Triune God.  This is going to be reflected in our prayers.  We regularly confess our sins to our Father, look to him for fatherly forgiveness through Jesus Christ.  In prayer we also express our dependence on our Father.  Without him, we have nothing and are nothing.  Finally, in this adoptive relationship, we aim to obey the will of our Father because we know this pleases him.  We want to please him — children who stand in awe of their earthly fathers and love them want to please them.  Similarly, God’s children through Christ aim to please him with their lives.  We do that by striving to imitate our Father.  I always wanted to be like my Dad.  Dad was a pilot, I wanted to be a pilot.  The same happens with the true adopted children of God.  They want to follow in their Father’s footsteps.

I love the Christian doctrine of adoption!  It gives such comfort and assurance to be reminded that we have this intimate relationship with the mighty God who created the universe and holds it in his hands.  Along with all other Christians, I am his beloved son, really part of his family.  What a position to be in!  Nothing can ever take that away from me.  It’s a gospel truth that’s locked up and secure in Jesus the only Saviour.


Sometimes I Still Don’t Get It

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I blew it the other day.  I had an amazing opportunity to share the gospel with people who might not otherwise hear and I messed it up.  Almost a week later and I’m still kicking myself for a bush league mistake.  Before I confess the nature of my goof-up, let me give some back story here.

When I was a university student many moons ago, we had an evangelistic effort at the University of Alberta called the Areopagus Project (named after the place Paul addressed the Athenians in Acts 17).  Part of the Areopagus Project involved a literature table in a high-traffic location on campus.  One day a week, we had students taking turns at manning this table.  We handed out Bibles, but also tracts and other Christian literature.  Being an aspiring writer, I decided to have a run at writing a couple of tracts myself.

Around the same time, the Internet was this brand new thing, and on the Internet there was this Reformed e-mail discussion list called “Ref-net.”  I was one of the early contributors.  It started off as a thing amongst CanRC university students, but eventually morphed to include all sorts of other people.  The Ref-net was a good place to throw ideas out there and get some feedback.  I took the tracts I had written and posted them to the Ref-net and asked for input.  I’ll always be grateful for something Angelina wrote.  She said that we have to be careful with our Christian jargon.  There are a lot of terms that we use as Christians and we take for granted the meaning of these terms.   We expect that an unbeliever is going to right away understand all our biblical and theological vocabulary.  Angelina gave me some concrete suggestions for improving these tracts in that regard — terms that I needed to explain if I was going to use them or, better yet, use words that an average unbeliever will immediately grasp.  I took the lesson to heart.

I also tried to take the lesson to the mission field.  When I became a missionary in 2000, I kept Angelina’s advice in mind.  Whenever I taught and preached, I always tried to remember that I was speaking to people who were not only limited in their English comprehension (as speakers of English as a second language), but also rather biblically illiterate.  I always had to be conscientious of my audience and try to keep things as simple as possible.  Even today as a pastor in a regular church, I don’t expect that every one is going to always immediately remember the meaning of words like justification, sanctification, or propitiation.  Explain, explain, explain.  Try not to take anything for granted.  You could have someone in the pews who’s listening, really listening, for the first time.  It could be a visitor, but it could also be a young member who’s finally starting to listen, or maybe even an older member who otherwise daydreams.  Lay it out for them.

So there I was last week at a funeral facing a large audience made up mostly of folks who rarely, if ever, walk through the doors of a church.  I was asked to preach on Psalm 23.  This psalm presents incredible evangelistic potential and I tried to work with that.  It’s not hard to preach Christ from Psalm 23.  As I was preaching, I had a well-placed source in the audience who couldn’t help but pay attention to some of the reactions around her.  I spoke repeatedly about how David was saying this and saying that.  Audience members were heard to say to one another, “Why is he talking about David?  It’s Bryan’s funeral.  He keeps saying the wrong name!”  Face palm.  That’s my face.  My palm.  My bad.  I failed to say anything about the author of the Psalm as background — I just assumed that everyone knew that King David from the Old Testament wrote Psalm 23.  It wasn’t in the program with the Bible reading either.  That name “David” just dropped out of the sky and it confused and distracted listeners.  I over-estimated the biblical literacy of my audience and it presented somewhat of an obstacle to my presentation of the gospel message.

Normally I try to keep these things in mind, but this time around I dropped the ball.  Now you might say that it’s not a big deal, that the Holy Spirit can still work through a jar of clay even with a less-than-perfect message.  Yes, I believe that too and it does give me comfort.  And have I ever preached anything else besides a less-than-perfect message?  No, even my best sermons are stained with sin and plagued by weakness.  Yet I still want to be as effective a gospel communicator as I can.  After all, souls are in the balance.  I feel the weight of eternity on me every time I preach.  As I looked at all the faces in front of me last week, I remembered that they are all either going to heaven or hell — forever.  It’s ultimately in God’s hands, but I want to be his instrument so that they can know Christ and eternal life in him.  Because he is worthy, I want to honour him with a full-on effort where no one can walk away and say that they didn’t get it.  They might not believe, but they should still be able to know exactly what they’re rejecting.  Responding to the message is their responsibility.  Giving a clear message to which they have to respond is mine.  Should God give me another chance, I’m going to try and remember Angelina’s advice.

 


He Came to Save Sinners — A Meditation on 1 Tim. 1:15

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If you were somewhere with some unbelievers and they were to ask you for a brief summary of what you believe, what would you say?   A great answer would be what we have here in 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  If you’re looking for the briefest summary of the gospel, it’s hard to beat these words.

From the first words of verse 15, it would seem that it has served as a summary of the faith since the time of the apostles.  Paul writes that it is a trustworthy saying.  By calling it a “saying,” he indicates that this was a common expression amongst Christians.  Perhaps they used it to encourage one another and perhaps they used it to witness to unbelievers – probably both.  Whatever the case may have been, the expression was well-known to Paul and Timothy and other early Christians.  Moreover, it was a trustworthy or reliable saying and worthy of full acceptance.  You know how sometimes there can be sayings that are not so reliable.  There can even be sayings that circulate amongst Christians that we think are biblical, but really aren’t.  For instance, “God helps those who help themselves.”  It’s not in the Bible and it doesn’t express a biblical truth.  God helps the helpless – that’s the truth.  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” is also the truth, a fully reliable saying that everyone should sign on to.

There is a lot packed into this little saying.  If you were to give this brief summary of your faith, you could certainly use it as a springboard to explain all the important elements of the gospel.  For example, the one who came into the world is “Christ Jesus.”  Who is this person?  You could explain that he is the eternal Son of God.  He is the second person of the Holy Trinity.  He is true God.  He is the Messiah – Christ means “Messiah,” and Messiah means that he is the anointed one of God – anointed to be a prophet, priest, and king.  He is the Messiah that was promised in the Old Testament.  In the fullness of time, at just the right moment, he came into the world.

How did he come into the world?  There you get to the story of Christ’s conception and birth.  He took on our human flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary through the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit.  He came into the world as one of us, a human being in every respect, yet without sin.

And who sent him into the world?  Scripture is clear that the Father sent him out of love for his creatures.  The Father sent him in faithfulness to his promises to Adam and Eve, to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and others.  And when the Father sent him, the Son willingly agreed to go.  The Son of God didn’t have to be bribed or forced.  Instead, he gladly came into the world, even though he knew the cost involved.  He gladly came because of his love for fallen creatures like us.

This saying also answers the question of why he came into the world.  It does that with the three simple words, “to save sinners.”  Again, there’s much compacted into these words.  We can tease it out and see the full weight of what’s being said here.  “To save sinners,” but to save them from what or whom?  Sinners need to be saved from the guilt of sin, from the heavy burden of a guilty conscience.  Sinners need to be saved from the slavery of sin, from the chains that keep you doing the foolishness that will destroy you.  But most of all, sinners need to be saved from the eternal consequences of sin.  Sin arouses the wrath of God against the sinner.  God is holy and he does not turn a blind eye when people rebel against him and slap him in the face.  He is the King of the universe, and when people sin they are committing treason against this King.  The problem is that he does not tolerate it.  It justly provokes him to wrath.  Sinners need to be saved from the expression of God’s justice in an eternal, conscious torment in hell.

Who are these sinners who need to be saved from all that?  The answer is simple:  all of us.  All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  No one is exempt.  We all need Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is the one who came to save sinners.  How did he do it?  First of all, God demands perfect obedience from all human beings.  He expects every single human being to perfectly keep every single part of his law.  Jesus Christ came into the world to do that for those who believe in him.  As we look to him in faith, his perfect obedience is credited to us.  The gospel announces that Christ Jesus came into the world to live the obedient life that you could not live for yourself.

He also died the death you were supposed to die.  He suffered and died in your place.  In his suffering and especially on the cross, he bore the wrath of God against your sin so that you would be forgiven.  When he was on that cross, you were with him.  You were on his heart.  He offered up the sacrifice which turned away the wrath of God from you and returned his favour.

We have the guarantee of that in Christ’s resurrection.  When Jesus rose from the dead, that was God’s way of saying, “The sacrifice for these sinners has been received and approved.”  It was God’s sign to us that sin and death had been definitely conquered.  A risen Saviour promises us that his mission to save sinners was truly accomplished.

The saying provides a simple summary of the gospel.  It would be easy to memorize this and keep it in your back pocket, so to speak:  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  But then Paul adds something about himself, “of whom I am the foremost.”  There are some who stumble over these words.  People will say, “Paul, how can you say that?  How can you say that you are the chief of sinners, the worst of sinners?  Don’t you have Jesus Christ as your Saviour?  You’re righteous in him.”  That would be one approach.  Another approach would be more in line with the dominant thinking around us today, “Paul, you have low self-esteem.  You shouldn’t think so low about yourself.  Stop being so negative about yourself and start looking at the positives.”  However, you cannot get around these words.  They are in the Word of God.  They were written by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  These words come from God and God has a purpose in these words.  So we must be very careful not to discount these words and throw them away as being merely the words of an apostle suffering from either bad theology or a bad self-image.

What does God want to say to us here?  We need to look at the context.  In the immediate context of verse 15, Paul writes about his past life.  He had been a blasphemer, persecutor and insolent or bold opponent of the gospel.  His past involved much sin against the Lord.  Paul looks back at that with regret.  He knows how huge a debt he’s been forgiven, how much grace he’s been shown.  So there’s that.

However, if we look at the broader context of Scripture, we also see Paul as a Christian who was quite aware of the darkness which still lingered in his own heart.  It was Paul the apostle who wrote Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  When he wrote that, he used the present tense, “Wretched man that I am!”  That parallels 1 Timothy 1:15, “of whom I am the foremost.”  That’s also present tense.  While he was a sinner in the past before Christ saved him, he continues to be a sinner in the present.  Yes, he is justified by faith in Jesus Christ through grace alone.  In God’s sight, he has been declared righteous.  Yet, his life still involves this struggle with sin each day.  He is both justified and a sinner.

Here’s the point:  Paul writes this letter to Timothy as someone who has been a Christian now for several years, probably for about 30 years.  The life of a Christian involves growth and part of that growth is a growing awareness of your sin.  You grow in holiness, but also grow in becoming more sensitive to your remaining sinfulness.  As you mature as a Christian, you became ever more aware of your need for Jesus Christ.  That’s where Paul is writing from.  He’s writing from the position of someone who’s been growing in his faith.  He doesn’t need to look at others and their sin.  He knows that the remnants of his old nature are there and they’re horrifically ugly.  From where he stands, he can’t see any comparison with others because he knows the great need he himself has.  God wants all of us to be moving to that point.  He wants all of us to be saying, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and I’m the one who needs him most because I know my own wickedness.  I see it more than anyone else.”

Now when we share the gospel with unbelievers, they might lash out at us and call us self-righteous.  They’ll assume that we think we’ve got it all together and we’re talking down at them from a position of righteousness.  We have to disarm them right away.  Maybe even beat them to the punch.  You have to say, “Do I think I’m better than you because I’m a Christian?  No, in fact, if you were to look into my heart, like I look into my heart, you would know that I’m not.  I’m a sinner too, a terrible sinner.  Friend, I need Jesus Christ and so do you.  Listen, I’m just a beggar telling other beggars where to find bread.”

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”  — it is indeed a trustworthy saying and deserving of full acceptance by us and others.  Let’s believe this today as we worship and always.  Let’s also go out into the world with the only good news that can reconcile sinners to God.