Category Archives: the Gospel

That Time I Accidentally Preached at a Prosperity-Gospel Church

My policy has usually been to preach anywhere if given the opportunity.  Why wouldn’t you bring the gospel anywhere you can?  Still, I’m not sure if I would have accepted the invitation to preach at this church if I’d known ahead of time what kind of church it was.  I do have some limits.  But there I was and God made it work out in a surprising, almost funny, way.

It was 2008.  The church I was serving in Canada had a couple of members who were working at an orphanage in Mexico.  The elders had me go down there for a visit to see how these members were doing and provide some teaching/encouragement.  Also, a neighbouring congregation was interested in doing mission work in Mexico and they asked to scout out this particular city for opportunities to do Reformed church-planting.  This wasn’t going to be a holiday at the beach – the city in question is in the dead-centre of Mexico, about as far away from a beach as you can possibly get.

Before leaving, I’d been told by one of the members that I might have the opportunity to preach at a church or two in Mexico.  So I made sure that I took some sermon notes with me – just in case.  Pastors often have their favourite sermons – we call them “sugar sticks.”  Without thinking much about it, I just took one of my sugar sticks with me.

Towards the end of my stay in Mexico, sure enough, I was invited to preach at a church.  It was just a small congregation located in one of the poorest suburbs of this city.  As we pulled up to the building, it was hard to tell that it was even a church building.  Actually, it wasn’t.  It was just someone’s house and the church worshipped in a room at the back.  The “house” was just a rough brick structure.  By the time we arrived, the sun had gone down and a few electric light bulbs dimly lit the space.  In the worship space, the walls were painted a gaudy pink and a large yellow poster dominated the front wall.  At the center of the poster was a cross with the word “Cristo” running across the horizontal beam.  At this point, I thought this was just your run-of-the-mill Mexican evangelical church.

After everyone was seated in the white plastic chairs, the pastor took his place behind the pulpit.  Actually, if memory serves me correctly, he was the junior pastor, the son of the senior pastor.  The pulpit was just a little lectern sitting on top of a table with a pink and yellow table-cloth (nicely matching the walls).  That evening, the gringo contingent was not only me, but also a group from Manitoba volunteering at the orphanage.  To ensure that all of us could understand, there was a translator who could do both Spanish-English and vice-versa.  She’d also translate my preaching into Spanish.

The service started off with some singing in Spanish.  There was no band, no musical instruments at all, so the singing was done a cappella.  That’s how you know this was a super-poor church.  After the singing, the pastor started speaking.  Through the translator, we found out that there was about to be a collection.  This is where it became obvious.  The pastor said something like, “Do you want to know why you’re poor?  Do you want to know why you live in this neighbourhood and we have to worship like this?  It’s because you don’t have enough faith.  You have to sow the seed of faith.  You can do that now with the offering.  If you give five pesos, God will give you ten pesos.  If you give fifty pesos, God will give you one hundred pesos.  You have to give in faith and then God will reward you.”  Then I knew what kind of church this was.  Even though it was in a poor neighbourhood, this was a prosperity-gospel church.

What is the prosperity-gospel?  Though it started in the United States, it’s a global phenomenon.   I’ve encountered it everywhere.  It’s most well-known representatives are people like Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, and Kenneth Copeland.  They teach that the good news of the Bible is that God wants to make us prosper here on this earth.  They teach that Jesus Christ is all about our prosperity here and now.  If you suffer, it’s because you don’t have enough faith.  If you trust God enough, you can name whatever blessing you want, and he’ll give it to you.  This is a total perversion of the biblical gospel.

And there I was in a prosperity-gospel church in Mexico.  The offering concluded and then Pastor Wes from Canada was invited to come up and share his message.  I hadn’t planned on what I’d preach.  I didn’t select the message ahead of time thinking that this would be appropriate for this particular church.  But there I was and I asked everyone to open their Bibles to the text for my sermon:  Psalm 73.

Psalm 73 has Asaph in a bind.  He sees a problem that confounds him:  the wicked prosper, while the righteous believer suffers.  He can’t make sense of it and it threatens to undo his faith.  After finally coming to the temple and seeing the sacrificial system in action with all its blood and death, he’s reminded that the wages of sin is ultimately death.  The wicked may prosper here, the righteous may suffer, but God is just.  The suffering believer can trust in him.  You can read my sermon notes on this passage here.

Well, as you can imagine, afterwards the pastor wasn’t just a little awkward with me.  He tried to be gracious, but my sermon had undermined what he said before the offering.  I didn’t have to mention the prosperity-gospel.  I didn’t have to mention the pastor’s error.  I didn’t plan on that ahead of time and I didn’t.  I just preached what I’d prepared and God’s Word spoke for itself.  There’s a lovely word that describes what happened:  serendipity.  It was pure serendipity.  Often that word is used for a “pleasant chance happening.”  But this wasn’t by chance!  God had it all marvelously planned out ahead of time.

Now I wish I could end the story by telling you that my sermon was the turning point for this little church being led down the garden path.  Truth is, I don’t know.  I often think about those poor people in that church.  They weren’t just physically poor — they were getting stones for bread from their pastors.  I pray that they heard something different from the Bible that night that made them think.  Maybe the pastor had second thoughts too.  Two things I know for sure:  first, God is providentially in control of all things; second, if change is ever going to happen with people deceived by the prosperity “gospel,” it’ll happen through the Word of God.


Protestant Denials of Solus Christus

Most of us would not be surprised that Roman Catholicism denies Solus Christus. However, you may be surprised to learn there are Protestants who also deny it. I found this out first-hand on a visit to Hobart, the Tasmanian state capital. My wife and I went to take in the famous Salamanca Market. We went our separate ways for a little while and I ended up in St. David’s Park next to the market.

I was reading a plaque on a statue in the center of this lovely park when a man suddenly approached me. He said, “Excuse me, I was wondering if you had met my friend. His name is Jesus.” I was a bit taken by surprise. Nevertheless, I was only too happy to tell him Jesus was my friend too and I know him well. I said, “Oh, sure, of course I know Jesus. He’s my Saviour. He’s my only hope for eternal life. Everything I need before God I have in Jesus Christ.” Now I thought this would have met with a good reaction from the stranger. I thought he would shake my hand and realize he did not have to share the gospel with me and go on to someone else. But it did not turn out like that.

You see, he then asked me, “So do you speak in tongues and have other spiritual gifts?” I replied, “No, I don’t speak in tongues, but I have something far better.” “What’s that?” he asked. I said, “I have the Bible, 66 books, a complete revelation from God. I don’t need speaking in tongues when I have the Bible.” Then he sniffed, “Well, you can’t be a Christian if you don’t speak in tongues. You’re not going to heaven.” That is the first time anyone has ever told me that!

We entered into an intense discussion there in the park. Eventually, the first man brought his co-religionists into the discussion because he was having a hard time answering my questions. I asked them directly what the basis was for their believing they were saved and going to heaven. It was Jesus plus the fact they had spiritual gifts and spoke in tongues. It was math all over again: Jesus plus. I asked them if they had ever heard about the Reformation. No, they did not know anything about that. So I told them how the Roman Catholic Church had added to the work of Jesus. The Reformation was about getting back to Christ alone as our Saviour and Mediator. It was about that because that is what the Bible teaches. I gave them a couple of examples. But, no, they were insistent that it had to be Jesus plus speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts. If you did not speak in tongues, you were not going to heaven. Eventually they gave up and walked away. As they walked away, they reminded me once more that I was lost. According to them, I was lost because I held to Jesus Christ alone as my Saviour. As I went my way back to find my wife, I was incredulous about what I had just heard.

Who were these people? They were part of an extreme Pentecostal church. They are not alone. This type of Pentecostalism can be found all over the world. It was my first time encountering it in person, but I have heard about it before.

Please do not misunderstand. This is not true of all Pentecostals. I have met many Pentecostals over the years who clearly confess salvation is in Jesus Christ alone. They would say the only basis for their hope of heaven is the Saviour. They would say that their only way of being heard by God when they pray is through Christ. While they are wrong on other points, we can rejoice that many Pentecostals are not denying Solus Christus. Yet there are these extreme Pentecostals who do. If you encounter them, what do you say? How do you respond?

If there is one thing I noticed in that encounter, it was that these people did not know their Bibles very well. They had a few Bible verses at hand to promote their view. But they did not have much depth in their Bible knowledge. If we are going to interact with such people, we need to know our Bibles. We need to be able to point out what Scripture says, especially on important doctrines like Christ alone. But just as with our Roman Catholic neighbours, we have to encourage extreme Pentecostals to begin reading the Bible for themselves. I have several friends who were once Pentecostal pastors and some of them were on the extreme side of Pentecostalism. God graciously brought them to the Reformed faith. I asked them how they got away from it. The answer always has to do with the Word. Somehow God uses the Bible to get people free of these wrong ideas where Christ is not central and exclusive. It bears repeating: the only way Reformation happens is through the Word of God being proclaimed, read, and studied. We have to call people back to the Scriptures where Christ stands alone as the Saviour.

(an excerpt from chapter 2 of my book Solus Christus, available here)


Ries Jansen — A War Criminal Converted

Ries (Marinus) Jansen

The following story comes from a collection compiled and translated by Gilbert Zekveld.  He was a dairy farmer from Lindsay, Ontario.  In his later retirement years, this godly widower spent most of his time translating edifying literature from Dutch into English.  I was privileged to know him as a friend and helped him with a bit of editing.  This story comes from “A Collection of True Life Stories,” most of which were taken from a Dutch book, Honingdroppels (Drops of Honey).  It’s a story of God’s grace for a wicked man, a Nazi collaborator whom many Dutch at one time feared and yes, even hated.

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The name of Ries [Marinus] Jansen was well-known in the Veluwe [a forested region in the middle of the Netherlands] during the winter of 1944-1945.  It was a name that inspired hate.  He was a hunter of men par excellence.

He was wounded in a shoot-out with the underground in Rotterdam.  However, he recovered and continued his lurid business on the Veluwe.

After the liberation of the Netherlands, he faced judgment in a criminal court.  His misdeeds were so heinous that he received the death sentence.  A subsequent request for pardon was refused.

One of his victims was a leader of the underground in the Alblasserwaard polder [in the province of South Holland].  When the mother of that victim read about Jansen’s sentence, she sent him a Bible and admonished him in a letter to seek refuge with the Lord.  What compassion when a mother whose son fell into the hands of that man can do such a thing.  It was an act richly blessed by the Lord.

Ries Jansen repented, not to escape punishment, but to be a witness of God’s love before the firing squad.  He repented to be a witness for the God who took this murderer home.

A certain Mr. Bomhof was an evangelist from Enschede and he was called upon to assist Ries Jansen in his final hours.  He tells the rest of the story:

“Sir, there is a telephone call for you from Arnhem.”  It was the director of the chapel.  He reported that Jansen would be executed next Friday, because his request for pardon was refused.  However, the man wanted to speak with me.

I did not sleep much that night.  The next day was difficult for me too.  Apart from two letters from the condemned man, he was absolutely unknown to me.  And what do you say to a man who only has one more day to live?  It did not appeal to me in any way.  But I had long known the words:  in the hour what you need to speak will be given to you.

After a while, I met Jansen in the waiting room.  He was small and now skinny, but still muscular and had dark hair.  His white face betrayed four years of waiting with no hope of respite.  But his step was sure and he looked me steadfastly in the eye.  He did not in any way look like a man about to be executed.

His hands rested on the table folded.  He looked me deep in the eye and I reciprocated.  Then I took both his hands, pulled towards me and said, “Early tomorrow you will travel to great glory.  I envy you.  Think of it, tomorrow you will be home with Jesus.”

Then he became glad also, and with a happy face he said, “Yes, sir, I also long much for the time they will lead me to the post.  Then, even though I am so unworthy, then I may see him.  I experienced that he forgave all my sins, that is now the faith I live by.  I have already made my peace with the post.  Jesus made it well.”

But then he wept and said, “O, my sins make such a terrible separation between God and my soul.  My guilt is great, but I know that the Lord goes a way of justice with me.  The punishment is just, I deserve all of it.”  It became silent for a while.  Then he sighed and said, “Sir…”

I interrupted and said, “Call me brother, for we are one in Jesus.”

“Brother,” he continued, grateful, “but there is one more heavy load that burdens me.  I did not do a thing for Jesus, nothing…” and again he wept — “I go to him with empty hands.”  I told him, “Brother, take courage.  You don’t come with empty hands.  Your first letter was a great blessing in the place where I live.  Remember the thief on the cross.  After almost two thousand years he still speaks.  He has been a blessing to many.”

Then, suddenly, he was very happy.  His face literally shone.  The truth of the Bible verse, “Death, where is your sting?  Hell, where is your victory?” was sitting across from me on the other side of the table.  I had never before seen such a victory in the face of death.

When his wife arrived, he was composed.  He stood calmly.  He said, “My wife, be strong.  I am not afraid.  I am ready.  There is no more pain for me.  Yes, you will remain behind with the child, but the Lord will be with you.”

That afternoon we spoke some more.  His warm meal was getting cold.  I told him not to let his food get cold.  He ate like a hungry man.  Suddenly he said, “But did you eat?  Come on, let us share.”

Together we finished the meal of potatoes and beans.  Then we discussed Romans 8, his favourite Bible chapter.  “Yes,” he said, “the Bible from which you read was given me by a mother whose son I arrested.  When she read in the paper that I was sentenced to death, she bought a Bible and a hymnal.  She wrote and admonished me to take refuge in Jesus.  Her act brought me to Jesus’ feet.”  He presented this Bible (with an inscription) and the hymnal to his little daughter.

Later in the afternoon, his family were all there.  There were fifteen people meeting with him in the visitors room.  He asked me then to accompany him to the execution post.  It was no more a place of terror for us.  Together we meditated on Hebrews 12:1-15.  The family made a tearful farewell.  He accompanied them to the door.  Then he called out, “Wife, family, look back once more.  Look at me.  See how calm I am.  Remember this.  Listen!  My hope is in the Lord Jesus.  He is my all.  I go with him tomorrow morning to the place I will be executed.  There he will receive me into his everlasting arms.  Farewell wife, farewell family, look to Jesus.  Until we meet…at home!”

Then we continued our discussion on that blessed passage of Romans 8.  The hours passed by without our noticing.  However, at 1:00 AM, he was very tired.  I saw it and ask him if he wanted to rest.  He did.  That’s how we parted.

At 3:30 AM, there was a knock at the door which woke me up.  Jansen did not sleep, but he was visibly rested.  He spoke with his brother, who was also a Nazi collaborator.  His brother had come from the mines to say his farewell.  Ries admonished him to repent and the brother wept when we left.

The rest of the time we discussed Psalm 23, where it deals with the valley of the shadow of death and where it speaks of not fearing any evil, and God’s nearness in all this.

Peace was visible in this man’s heart.  But around 6:00 AM this peace retreated into the background.  A little later he called out, “O, that post, that post, that post!”

I said, “Brother, you must learn another lesson.  That post is the devil.  He shows you that post.  Don’t look at it, but in faith look only to Jesus.”  And with my arm pointing up to the sky, I said, “Jesus’ sacrificial death is all my hope and rest.”

In the meantime, my soul was at prayer.  Thanks be to God, the brightness of heaven could once again be seen on his face.  A moment later, he called out, “O brother, the post is gone.  Jesus’ sacrificial death is my hope and all my rest.  There is victory, victory in the blood of the Lamb.”  Everyone cried, but me.  I could not cry, for my soul was jubilant.

In the dawn we  prayed together.  After the “Amen,” I asked him to pray.  He prayed in silence.  When I asked him to do it out loud, he hesitated for a moment because he was not used to that.  But after a moment, he prayed.  I heard him pray for his parents, his wife, his child, his family, the prison warden, the guards and himself.  Finally he asked the Lord to receive him into his open arms.

They called us.  We saw many authorities in the hallway.  The guards came to shake hands with Jansen.  In a closed jeep we sat down, facing each other, flanked by four police officers.

The jeep stopped at an open spot in the forest.  Silence reigned all around.  A fog hung between the trees.  After we walked around the jeep, we saw twenty young men with red berets, military police.  They stood there in a semi-circle.

Altogether I counted forty people present.  Together we went to the post.  He was very calm.  A police officer tied a thin rope around his waist.  We stood there, hand in hand, and I said, “Brother, until we meet in glory with Jesus.”

I then stepped backward, looked at him, and stopped beside the firing squad.  He looked up to heaven and his arm pointed upward.  Slowly, for everyone to hear, he called out, “Jezus, uw verzoenend sterven, blijft het rustpunt van mijn hart” (“Jesus, thy propitiating death is the resting place of my heart”).

They blindfolded him.

His hand pointed forward and he said, “Men, you are all my friends.  You are not my enemies, but my friends.”  He thanked me for the support I gave him in his last hours.  Again he pointed to heaven and everyone heard his jubilant cry, “Lord Jesus, through the blindfold I see you, nailed to the cross for my sins.”  And still louder, he cried out triumphantly, “Yes, Lord Jesus, I come!”

Shots were heard, echoing through the forest.  The angels carried him into paradise.

The Inspector of Police was beside me.  He said, “I’m amazed about what that man said.  I don’t know him like this.  He was always as hard as a stone.  Did he really mean what he said?  I used to know him.  He was terrible.  What he was, and now this.  I don’t understand.”  I said, “Did you not hear his last words?  No one is a comedian in the face of death.  I have his last letter here.  Do you want to hear it?”  I read the letter to him.  He answered, “Sir, I say nothing.  My mouth is closed.”

Some people came and shook hands with me.  It made a deep impression on everyone who was there.  May the Lord give his blessing to all who read this story.

 


Essential Latin for Reformed Christians: “Simul iustus et peccator”

Today’s bit of Latin lingo is often linked to Luther.  Martin Luther often gets the credit for noticing the biblical teaching that each Christian is “at the same time just and a sinner” (simul iustus et peccator).  Certainly he was not the last theologian to insist on this — countless others after him, both Lutheran and Reformed, have said the same.  It cannot be labelled one of Luther’s idiosyncrasies.

To understand the meaning of this seemingly contradictory statement, one has to grasp the doctrine of justification in general, and the meaning of imputation in particular.  Without those well in hand (or mind), human nature will invariably lead one to extreme views.  Typically, because we overestimate our own condition even as Christians, the view will almost always be imbalanced towards the iustus side of things.  So let’s review justification and imputation to avoid imbalances and extremes.

Justification is God’s declaration that a person is right with him on account of what Christ has done in his perfect life and death on the cross.  It is a judicial declaration — which means that the Judge issues it from his bench.  His declaration is more than acquittal and forgiveness, as wonderful as those are.  More, the declaration includes positive righteousness.  Because of Christ all our wrong-doing is pardoned, and also because of Christ, God’s requirement for perfect law-keeping in the present and future is fully met.  Justification is a one-time event, not a process to be repeated — once justified, always justified.  As a result of this one-time judicial declaration, the person justified is adopted into God’s family.  We go from the courtroom to the family room.  We no longer relate to God as a Judge, but as our heavenly Father.

So what is imputation and how does it fit into the doctrine of justification?  Imputation is often described as crediting or accounting.  Our English word “imputation” translates the Greek logizomai.  You find that word used in the original of Romans 4:3, “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.”  While the word logizomai is not used, the idea of imputation is also found in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”   At the cross Jesus was made to be sin — though he was of himself innocent, he became the thing against which God has infinite wrath:  sin.  How did this happen?  Through imputation.  Our sin was imputed to him (credited) to such a degree that the Holy Spirit says he was “made to be sin.”  And remember:  all the while, in himself he was perfectly righteous.  Now notice that there is a double-imputation in 2 Corinthians 5:21.  All our sin was imputed to Christ, but his righteousness is imputed to us.  I like to call this “the sweet swap.”  God credited our sin to Jesus, and God credited Jesus’s righteousness to us.  The righteousness of the Redeemer is imputed to us (credited) to such a degree that the Holy Spirit says we become what God loves, “the righteousness of God.”  But just like the imputation of our sin didn’t change Jesus into a sinner in himself, so also the imputation of Christ’s righteousness doesn’t change us into perfectly righteous people in ourselves while we live on this earth.

Imputation is at the basis of our justification.  We are justified, declared righteous, because our sin was imputed to Christ and he bore it for us at the cross as our substitute.  We are declared righteous because all of his perfect obedience and righteousness is credited to us by God.  In his eyes, it is as if we had lived the perfect God-pleasing life ourselves.  The key words there are “as if.”  Just as it was as if Christ was a sinner (when he was not), so it is also as if we ourselves had fulfilled all the righteous requirements of God’s law (when we haven’t and don’t).

Consequently, each Christian is both righteous and a sinner.  Each Christian is righteous — this is our status before God.  We have been declared just in his eyes and are now his beloved children.  This status is precious and to be highly treasured.  Yet it is presently a status which comes to us via imputation.  As a result, the reality is that we continue to be sinners when it comes to our sanctification.  Even as that “new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17 — right before the “sweet swap”!), we sin against our Father, and if you sin, you are a sinner.  This is what righteous Paul acknowledges in 1 Timothy 1:15 when he says Christ “came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”  Notice the present tense there.  At that moment, Paul was a justified sinner, not a condemned sinner, but a sinner just the same.  So it is with all Christians.

Let me put it as simply as I can: Christians are both saints and sinners.  We’re saints by virtue of the status declared in our justification (on the basis of imputation).  We’re sinners because of the struggle that still exists in our sanctification. The former encourages us, the latter humbles us.  Biblical, Reformed theology has always acknowledged this truth.

Ours is not an age renowned for thinking deeply about theology, or anything else for that matter.  This is surely part of the reason some Christians object to simul iustus et peccator.  While insisting that Christians are not “sinners” in any sense, they are (usually) inadvertently undermining imputation and the very basis of their justification.  Not only that, they are also contradicting the clear testimony of Scripture regarding the real struggle with sin that Christians experience in this age (Romans 7:21-25 & Galatians 5:17).  Do some research and you will discover that the origins of the denial of simul iustus et peccator in Protestantism are not with those orthodox in their theology.  For example, it was the Pelagian and rabidly anti-Reformed revivalist Charles Finney who opined that this formula was an error which had “slain more souls, I fear, than all the universalism that ever cursed the world.”  Finney viciously repudiated biblical imputation and justification, and so had a reason to hold this opinion.

A few years ago, after encountering the denial of this teaching in our Reformed churches, I wrote a series of articles for Clarion entitled “Are Christians Sinners or Not?”  In that series, I looked at the biblical basis for simul iustus et peccator, how it’s expressed in our Reformed confessions, the importance of maintaining it, and the historical and theological background to denials of it.  You can find that series of articles here.


Quotable Church History: “…so thankful for active obedience of Christ”

This is the tenth (and last) in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was an epic battle for the gospel going on in North America.  When I say, “the gospel,” I really do mean the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ alone.  Theological liberalism was assaulting churches that had once stood firm for the biblical faith, churches such as the Presbyterian Church in the USA.  Among other things, liberalism was denying the inerrancy of the Scriptures, miracles such as the virginal conception and physical resurrection of Christ, and the need for penal substitutionary atonement.  God raised up powerful prophetic voices to protest.  Amongst them towered J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937).

Machen is best known for his 1923 book Christianity & Liberalism.  Machen deftly argued that liberalism was not biblical Christianity — the book is still relevant for our day, only the names have changed.  At one time a professor of New Testament at the storied Princeton Seminary, Machen ran afoul of the powers that be and became a leading figure in the establishment of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  His continuing battle against liberalism also led to his being defrocked in the Presbyterian Church in 1935.  The following year, Machen was at the fore of forming a new church:  the Presbyterian Church of America.  This church would later become known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

In late 1936, Machen was 55 years old.  He had long been an avid walker and mountain climber, but that winter saw him in poor health.  Despite a nasty cough and cold, Machen headed west to North Dakota to speak for some churches during the Christmas break at Westminster Seminary .  His health rapidly deteriorated over the course of his time of his time on the prairies.  Before long, he was in the hospital in Bismarck with pneumonia.  On January 1, 1937, Machen was slipping in and out of consciousness.  During one of his lucid moments, he dictated a brief telegram to his friend Prof. John Murray back at Westminster.  The telegram was brief:  “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ.  No hope without it.”  Those were his final recorded words — he died around 7:30 PM on New Year’s Day, 1937.

Christianity & Liberalism may be top of the heap in Machen’s literary legacy, but his final telegram definitely contains his most quoted words.  They bear a closer look.  What did Machen mean by “the active obedience of Christ” and why was it so encouraging to him?  Sinful human beings have a two-fold problem.  First, because of our sin we have an infinite debt to God’s justice that we cannot repay.  Second, even if our debt were paid, we would still be confronted with the ongoing demand of God’s law for our consistent obedience going forward.  Jesus Christ addresses both.  With his suffering God’s wrath in our place, he has paid our infinite debt.  In theology, we call that his passive (suffering) obedience.  With his 33 years of perfect law-keeping, Christ has also obtained for us perfect obedience to God’s law.  We call that his active obedience.  His righteous life is imputed or credited to us — as the Belgic Confession puts it in article 23, “…his obedience is ours when we believe in him.”

Romans 5:19 speaks directly of this gospel truth:  “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”  The Holy Spirit points to two men.  One, Adam, was disobedient and his guilt-laden failure has been imputed to his descendants.  The other, Jesus Christ, was obedient, and his righteous accomplishments have been imputed to believers for their justification.  When we have Christ as our Saviour, we not only have forgiveness of all our sins, but also positive righteousness in the eyes of God.  On the basis of both, God declares that we are right with him.  He views us as forgiven AND perfectly obedient.

This gospel teaching was fresh in Machen’s mind as he was dying because a couple of weeks earlier he had done a radio broadcast on it.  Prior to that, he had been discussing it with John Murray at the seminary.  As he knew he was dying, he looked, not to his imperfect life of following Christ, but to Christ’s perfect life lived for him.  Machen found comfort in knowing he would appear before God’s throne clothed in the righteousness of Jesus.  His account was not only cleared of all debt, but filled to overflowing with the imputed merits of Christ.  You can see why Machen finished with “No hope without it.”  We can even flip it around:  “The active obedience of Christ:  much hope with it!”