2 Corinthians 5:20 & 21 “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
With these justly memorable words we come to the delayed conclusion of this entire passage. We find here that both the commission and the message are quite magnificent, and we must consider both of them in turn.
1. The Glorious Commission.
“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (v. 20). The office of the ambassador suggests some movement, dynamism, encounter and authority. The word Paul uses is in fact related to the Greek word for ‘elder’, that is, ‘presbuteros’, which literally means an old man, and so both the office of ambassador and the very word employed suggests a certain dignity and the rank which comes from a man’s seniority. The Tory party have lost another General Election by a large majority and their leader has resigned. They are a minority, struggling and leaderless. One columnist writing in the Times yesterday gave them some advice: “In choosing their next leader, Tory MPs will make a mistake if they take a second stab at finding a whiz-kid to dream up the brilliant fix which will catapult them back into the fast lane. They don’t need another promised rocket … They should look for grey hair, a proven track record, dignity, stamina, patience, and an ability to inspire affection and respect” (Matthew Paris, “Panic – then find a gent with grey hair,” Times, June 9, 2001). Think of the newsreaders on television. They are not like the breathless hosts of children’s programmes with their way-out gear. They are middle-aged or old men in suits. I have never heard anyone complaining that their image is all wrong for reading the news, or suggesting that if you asked one of the Spice Girls or the Pet Shop Boys to read the news that that would put the ratings up. The image is right. For the news one needs a figure of authority and trust to read it to the nation. So too in the case of an ambassador, he does not need entertainers in order to be heard. He does not need ‘personality’ or ‘charisma’ for men to listen to him. He is not heard for any such reasons but because behind an ambassador lies all the authority of the monarch and nation whom he is representing. He must always remember his office and lord as he speaks. He never officially speaks on behalf of himself.
The office of an ambassador was well known to Paul and the Corinthians. There would be constant communication, day by day, between the various Greek city states and for such intercourse an ambassador was employed. He spoke on behalf of the city. That was his authority for talking and behaving as he did. There was a similar office of ‘legate’ in the Roman empire.
So the apostle Paul took to himself that title ‘ambassador’ when he speaks of his work. At the end of his epistle to the Ephesians he describes himself as ‘an ambassador in chains’ (Eph. 6:20). He had been speaking for the kingdom of heaven, serving his mighty Lord, proclaiming his word, and it was on account of this that he had been arrested and put in prison. But in our text he does not say, “I, as an apostle of Christ, am the Lord’s ambassador.” He separates the office of apostle which was uniquely his and the twelve’s, from the office of ambassador and he says, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors…” He stands in solidarity with the whole body of Christ in the form of a local congregation. We as a church face the world as one of the Aberystwyth embassies of the kingdom of heaven. You would be glad of a British embassy to go to if you were in serious trouble when overseas. The embassy staff would have the knowledge and authority to assist you. The church is an embassy from God and as it confronts the world it does so as those who are conscious that they speak on behalf of Jesus Christ. A true preacher comes with an authoritative word, as the ambassador from the Court of Heaven to plead the cause of Christ with men whom God so loved that he gave his Son to save them. Notice what Paul says:
i] First, notice that we work ‘on Christ’s behalf:’ “we are therefore Christ’s ambassadors … we implore you on Christ’s behalf.” Notice the great grace of God: It was ‘on our behalf’ that God made Christ to be sin; it is now ‘on Christ’s behalf’ that God makes us ambassadors. “His concern for us was so great that it led to the cross; how much concern have we for Christ? If we loved him as much as he loved us, we should be zealous ambassadors indeed. This phrase ‘on Christ’s behalf’ could transform our ministry. There is no more powerful incentive in evangelism than ‘for the sake of his name’ (Roms. 1:5) … Has God in and through the death of Christ done all that is necessary for man’s reconciliation? Then we should spare no pains to urge upon men, persistently, earnestly, the necessity of being reconciled to God.” (John Stott, “The Preacher’s Portrait”, IVP, 1961, p.44).
ii] Second, notice the manner of this ambassador: “God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf.” He uses two terms to describe how the ambassador speaks. God ‘makes his appeal’ he says, that is, God is beseeching, or begging, or entreating people. It is the word used to describe us in intercessory prayer. Then there is this similar phrase, ‘we implore you’ and this word is used of the leper who came to Jesus and fell on his face and pleaded with Jesus to heal him. It is used of the father of the epileptic boy who had ‘begged’ the disciples to cast the unclean spirit out of his son. It is used of Jesus’ intercession in Gethsemane. Isn’t sin perverse that men have to be pleaded with to trust in God’s own Son? Yet what grace, that a dignified ambassador descends to entreaty. What an incomparable glimpse of the pity of God! Saul of Tarsus once thought he was serving God when he went as an ambassador of the Chief Priests to find any who were of the Way, throwing them into prison, both men or women. No pleading there: what rigour, what unyielding authority and uncompromising assurance of the rightness of his position did he display. But old things have passed away, and this new ambassador is very different. He is beseeching men to be reconciled with God. He is an ambassador in tears.
It is a crucial observation on the state of our pulpits today that this note is rarely present. It is not enough to have the best exegesis, and all of the insights provided by the history of redemption, and a well-constructed sermon with illustrations. Such sermons are rare enough, but more that that is needed. The sermon has to be an entreaty to the congregation to act in the light of the mighty works of God. The New Testament does not tell us to preach and then afterwards to make an appeal to men’s wills to take action. All the sermon is couched in an appeal to our hearers to listen and do what they hear, whether this is rebuke or correction or instruction in righteousness. We appeal to them to be doers of the word. If they are unconverted we appeal to them to receive the reconciliation. If they are reconciled we entreat them to live the Christian life. Think of the picture of the ambassador which Paul gives us: “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people” (Roms. 10:21). We are longing for men to do what God requires, entreating and beseeching them to change. There are no true ambassadors without this, and there will be no effective evangelism. The ambassador declares the great central message of his lord. He brings it to bear on the whole life of his hearers. The repercussions for every part of their life follow from the impression made on their minds at that time they were listening – not in the remembrance of it afterwards.
iii] Third, notice that it is “as though God were making his appeal through us” (v.20). The same God who spared not his Son, but counted our sins against him and Christ’s righteousness against us has become a preacher! He who has in these last days spoken to us through his Son continues to speak through his ambassadors. Of course, not in the same way that he spoke through Paul so that the apostle’s words became the infallible word of truth. Our words are never inspired like that, and it would be a a disaster for any man or woman to think that they were. That is the beginning of every cult. But Paul was conscious that as he was speaking the truth of the gospel God was speaking to sinners. As he was pleading with them to believe it, God was pleading. As he was exhorting, God was exhorting. As he was encouraging God was encouraging. As he was rebuking God was rebuking. So the assembly soon stopped thinking such things as, “I wonder what that accent is … I don’t like his tie … he is much shorter than I expected … this is a long sermon.” In fact the congregation was thinking, “I must remember this … I need to stop than sin … I am sorry I acted in that way … isn’t God great and holy … shouldn’t I repent and follow the Lord Jesus … O for grace to soften my heart… thank God for this gospel.” They began hearing the sermon thinking those ordinary horizontal thoughts, but they ended thinking of the glories of the gospel. Every preacher who stands before men has the aim of achieving that in his congregation.
“May his beauty rest upon me
As I seek the lost to win,
And may they forget the channel,
Seeing only him.” (Katie B. Wilkinson.)
The ambassador conveys the voice of his lord. So first of all you have the glorious commission to be the ambassadors of the kingdom of God in this world.
2. The Glorious Exchange
You would expect God’s ambassadors to have a mighty message to bring to the world, and you would be right: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (v.21). Here is a marvel, an extraordinary exchange is being described by the apostle Paul between the sinless Christ and us sinners. One can think of it as a massive divine ledger – the spread-sheets of heaven – with one side on which all our debts are recorded – how vast they are – while on the other side all credit is listed, and that is measureless. But the debts are all ours, while the credit is all Christ’s. So how are we going to be helped by the fact of his being righteous while we are unrighteous? Paul tells us in our text that the Son of God has taken responsibility for what was ours – he has been made accountable for our debts, and then, that he sets to our account what was his. He was made accountable by becoming what he was not, and the result is that we also become what we were not. Let us look at these two great realities:-
i] God made the Christ who had no sin to be sin for us. You notice Paul does not write that ‘Christ was made sin,’ or ‘became sin,’ as we often say. Such wording could suggest that Christ was almost forced into it in some impersonal way. In fact what the Lord did on Calvary was not even the result of a choice which he decided to make. Paul is speaking of an event in which both the Son and the Father were exceedingly active. Paul says that it was the loving holy Father who made the loving sinless Son to be sin for us. God made Christ to be sin. Paul is not saying that somehow Christ happened to be mixed up with sin. It was God himself, none less and none else, who made him sin. The Lord Jesus went to the cross, not because men turned against him, but because the hand of the Almighty was upon him. The death of Christ was according to God’s determinate counsel and foreknowledge. On Golgotha Christ died the death that sinners shall die, and that was by the appointment of the Father. It was God’s attitude to sin that brought about the atoning death of Christ. It was God’s burning longing to save men from sin that caused it.
What happened to Christ? Paul says that he was made to be sin by God. What does that mean? It certainly must mean that Christ was treated as guilty sinners will be treated by God, that he was bearing the penal consequences of sin, its curse and its hell. God caused him to be regarded and treated by both man and by God himself as though he were a guilty sinner. That is what we see when we survey the cross. He bore the judgment that we shall bear if we remain in our sins. God was in Christ on Golgotha and he becoming reprobate for us. All that sin could mean for us God accounted to him.
You consider what a sinner will become in the place of woe. There is no goodness or grace whatsoever in hell, and there the sinner will be saturated by sin utterly and completely so that he becomes like the demons themselves, totally identified with sin. On the cross that was actually what happened to the blessed loving Jesus, the Holy One of God, of whom God says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” He … was made … sin. In no place in hell is sin absent, and it spreads continuously through every part of its inhabitants with nothing to hinder its progress within or without. Think of a plant which becomes petrified as water running through limestone drips on it day after day. The plant hardens and gradually loses its vegetative characteristics and it becomes a rock. The plant is finally deprived of all its biological life and becomes calcified. In the place of a plant there is nothing but a piece of stone and you can just trace in it the pattern of what was once a plant but now is utterly fossilised. It will be like that with the sinner. Sin comes upon him throughout his life, but is restrained by the common grace of God. No such restraints exist in hell, and after his death sin envelops him, and assimilates him. In the pit he is almost an object of petrification, as the life of God is utterly extinguished, like a once living plant is dead and lost in a strata of rock. There is no difference between that man in hell and a lump of sin.
But Paul cries here these awful words – that seem to us almost unbearable – that God made his blessed Son Christ to be such sin. We can describe it in a number of ways. He drank the very essence of sin in the cup the Father gave him, and he swallowed it to the dregs. He sank like a stone into the sea of sin. All its waves and billows went over his head. He loosed himself from all his sensitive resistance to it. He was swallowed up by it, going into the blackest depths of hell. There was no sin of whose guilt he was not brought into the acutest contact. There was nothing too gruesome or too foul for him to assimilate. He did not cry, “No! That sin is too vile!” He was also made that particular sin. God made him David’s adultery, and Noah’s drunkenness and incest, and Peter’s cursing and denials, and the Corinthian who took his father’s wife. He descended so deep into those depths that when he cried to God there was no echo from the heights of heaven. He was not there to experience sin but to counteract it and destroy it. How hideous it was not even the angels could know. You cannot measure that sin by the sum total of the sins of all the people of God. You cannot say, “There are ten million Christians, and each has ten million sins and so he was made ten million times ten million sins on the cross.” It was not ‘sins’ he was made but ‘sin’, and it is that identification of himself and sin on which Jesus was focused in life and death. Nothing which is part and parcel of sin was he exempt from on the cross.
As you grow as a Christian you become increasingly aware of how sin has affected every part of you:
“And they who fain would serve Thee best,
Are conscious most of wrong within,” (Henry Twells)
Your mind and intellect and thoughts, your decision-making process, your feelings and affections, your will, your memory, your conscience, your desires and longings, your words, your work, your dreams, your ambitions, your energy, your humour, your grief, your relationships – every part has been affected by sin. There is not one area of your life of which you can say, “This is a sin-free zone.” When God passed his judgment on mankind saying that their wickedness was great, and, “every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually,” then you would say, “Yes. That is exactly right!” Indeed it is that that necessitates a deliverance which comes from completely outside of ourselves, from Almighty God and not in anything man can devise. Our only hope is the coming of Jesus into this world, and when he took on this great mission of delivering us from sin he dared not escape anything that was part and parcel of the essence of sin if he were to be our comprehensive Saviour. We know that we are under divine condemnation not for certain specific sins – our lust or our pride or our anger – or all of them put together – or for specific consciously committed sins. It is for sin itself that the whole world lies guilty before God. And there is no comfort, and no acquittal, and no freedom for our souls in anything but in this truth alone, that God made his sinless Son ‘sin’ for us. That our Saviour, our Refuge, our Rock of Ages, this mighty colossus, the Lord Sabaoth’s son took the very principle and power of sin upon him into the heart of the judgment of a sin-hating God where sin was once and for all dealt with, and that by this wonderful miracle we believers have been accounted as delivered from sin. What a message for the worst sinner in the world.
ii] God made us the righteousness of God in Christ. The wonder is not over because the transaction is not yet complete. He became sin with our sin, so that we might become righteous with his righteousness. Christ took our place, and we take his. We sinned – but Christ suffered. He obeyed – but we sinners are made righteous. God has refused to impute our sins to us (v.19) but rather to Christ, but God chooses to impute Christ’s righteousness to us. John Bunyan understood the gospel when he finally realised that his righteousness was in heaven. It was the righteousness of Christ. Paul is not talking of righteousness of conduct and character that suddenly and immediately becomes ours. He is talking of a righteous standing that we have before God when he counts Christ’s righteousness against us. Be sure that you have that!
When the Puritan George Burder was visiting Warwick to preach in one of the churches the magistrates found out that there was a preacher in town and they summoned him to the jail to read the Bible and pray with three men who were being hung. Two were burglars and one had been forging counterfeit coins. The ropes were put around their necks and they were left standing on ladders. The forger made his last speech and he said, “I never killed anyone, and I never hurt anybody. I hope the Lord will have mercy upon me.” This alarmed George Burder very much, to hear a man on the brink of death talking like a Pharisee about his own good works. So he shouted out to this forger before they kicked the ladder away, “Please sir, don’t trust in your own righteousness. Look to Christ.” Those were the last words that that man ever heard.
That is the only safe prospect in which to live or die, to be looking unto Jesus. Then we will say in wonder, “Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, I am your sin. You took on what was mine; yet set on me what was yours. You became what you were not, that I might become what I was not.” This is what the prophet Isaiah was speaking about when he rejoiced that God had clothed him “with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness” (Isa. 61:10). Let us consider Peter Jeffery’s illustration:-
“A man comes home from work and tells his wife the good news that he had had promotion. To celebrate he is going to take his wife to the most expensive restaurant in town, a place they have never been before. ‘We cannot go there,’ she says, ‘I’ve nothing to wear.’ He fumes, thinking of her bulging wardrobe upstairs and all the cheques he has written for the dress shops. ‘No!’ she says. ‘I know that I have plenty of clothes, but nothing good enough for that place. If we are going there, I want to be presentable.’ Are you presentable for God? Do you think that your morality and religion are good enough?
“If you are not a Christian, let me tell you something about Christians. There was a time when none of us was a Christian. We walked around in the robe of our own self-righteousness. We were proud of it – ‘my efforts, my goodness, my achievements.’ I was as good as anyone. Who could tell me that I was a sinner and not good enough for God? The robe of self-righteousness fitted well and we loved it, until God showed us the perfect, sinless purity of Jesus, and then we felt a bit tatty. Then, to make matters worse, God said that our best efforts were like filthy rags to him, and we felt dirty, guilty and vile. The Bible calls this conviction of sin. We did not understand it at first, but oh, how we felt it.
“What could we do? The obvious thing was to get another robe, another covering. We tried the garment of morality, and we stopped swearing and drinking and things like that. It worked all right for a while, until God showed us the real demands of his holy law. Then, like the robe of self-righteousness, it became threadbare and useless. So we tried the robe of religion. We went to church more often, put more money in the collection and became very religious. That too was all right for a while, until God showed us the cross, with his Son dying, bearing the punishment and guilt of sinners. Religion then became pathetic compared to that. Conviction of sin came back and we really had no idea of how to cope with it. Then God said, ‘I will deal with your sin and give you a garment of salvation and a robe of righteousness.’
“We came rather fearfully, but there was no need to fear because we found a God of amazing grace and deep love. He took us to his wardrobe of sovereign grace and brought out this most beautiful garment. We saw the price tag – purchased by the blood of Jesus. Amazingly it had our name on it already. The Holy Spirit fitted it and there was no need for alteration. The fit was perfect.
“Do you want this garment? Romans 3:22 tells us, ‘This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.’ The only thing that can make us acceptable to God is that our righteousness be as good as God’s – and God gives us this in the Lord Jesus Christ. When we come in repentance and faith to Jesus, God credits us with the righteousness of his Son. His righteousness becomes ours and we are acceptable to God in Christ” (Peter Jeffery, “Windows of Truth” Banner of Truth, 1992, pp. 22-24).
“Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress:
Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.
This spotless robe the same appears,
When ruined nature sinks in years!
No age can change its glorious hue;
The robe of Christ is ever new.”
Think again of Genesis 3 (I tell you that Christians are often in Genesis 3, John 3 and Romans 3) and how Adam and Eve realised soon after their sin that the fig leaves with which they tried to cover their shame were woefully inadequate. The gospel is revealed in Genesis 3:21 where Moses tells us that God clothed our first parents. They lacked something they couldn’t provide for themselves; and God gave Adam and Eve what they needed to stand in his favourable presence. That divine clothing was the beginning of the gospel which was preached to believers in the Old Testament. How much more do we know that gospel who have seen the incarnate Son of God live and die, and have read the apostles’ words explaining why he came? God has arrayed us in the robe of his righteousness. You think of those great words of God spoken in Ezekiel where the Lord says, “the splendour I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ez. 16:14).
Ezekiel compares the salvation of a sinner to the discovery of an abandoned new-born baby in a field, kicking about, crying, starving and unwashed, the prey of vultures and foxes. That helplessness is the state in which we once were. We had nothing at all. No name, no clothes, no one to protect and feed us. Nobody wanted us. We were abandoned in the vast universe. We could do nothing but cry in our helplessness and fear, and then the Lord came along. It was not by chance. “Then I passed by and … said to you, ‘Live!'” (Ez. 16:6). “I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness” (Ez. 16:8). “I entered into a covenant with you … and you became mine” (Ez. 16:8). “I bathed you with water” (Ez. 16:9). “I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. I adorned you with jewellery … and a beautiful crown on your head. So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth” (Ez. 16:10-13). “You became very beautiful … and your fame spread abroad among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendour I have given you made your beauty perfect” (Ez.16:14). That is the picture of the perfection with which we are clothed by God as soon as we believe in him who is the Lord our righteousness.
Think of the sheep farmers in the Ystwyth and Rheidol valleys east of us. Sometimes a lamb will die, while another sheep will have had triplets. It is hard for an ewe to look after three lambs, so the farmer will skin the dead lamb and make a coat or a covering of the skin for one of the lamb triplets and give it to the ewe who has lost a lamb. The mother sheep will get the smell of her own lamb from the coat and accept or adopt that lamb as her own. Once she has fed or looked after the adopted lamb for several days it becomes her very own offspring. When we put our trust in Christ God covers us with the coat of Christ’s righteousness. Our heavenly Father accepts us as his own children caring for us, nourishing and nurturing us for ever for Jesus’ sake.
I think you can scarcely believe it, that you and I shall one day stand in our Redeemer’s beauty, all fair, no spot, without blemish, without wrinkle, white and clean, in fine linen, in garments of needlework, like Jesus. Will you know me in that day? Will you know yourself? But remember this, when now you come into his presence to officially address him, or when you run like a child to him and say “Abba Father,” in all your daily life, night and day, these are the robes you are wearing, that is, God sees you dressed in Christ’s righteousness, and washed in his blood. There will be a glorifying righteousness of men in the world to come, and there is a justifying righteousness here in this world. God looks at believing sinners on earth as in heaven only in Christ. He cannot look at them in any other way. This is why he sent his Son to the womb of Mary. Think of John the Baptist’s hesitation in baptising Jesus at the commencement of his ministry, but the Lord saying to John, “It is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). That is why Jesus was born under the law, for a life of human obedience on his long walk from Bethlehem to Calvary without a stumble. He came to provide us with an undefiled righteousness. He loved God with all his being and he loved his neighbour as himself every moment of the journey. Paul refers to him here as the Christ “who had no sin.” This world has witnessed a man as holy as God is holy, as pure as God is pure, perfect as God is perfect, sinless as God is sinless. The searching eye of God was always upon him, but could not once find any absence of heavenly love in any thought, or word, or deed. One, born of a woman, has passed through human life without once straying from the path of God. When he stood before God, he held in his hands a full and unbroken obedience, accomplished and complete in the minutest of details. In that robe he walked our world every day of his life, and when he had finished his walk, as Elijah left his mantle to Elisha, the Saviour left his robe for us to wear. That robe is the active obedience of Christ.
Dr J. Gresham Machen had seen this truth in a new freshness. He had been preaching about it just after Christmas on the radio in Philadelphia in 1936, and John Murray had been helping him prepare a sermon on the imputed righteousness of Christ in a series of messages on basic Christianity broadcast each week, and his heart had been touched afresh by the wonder of free justification. Then the following week Dr Machen had gone by train to freezing North Dakota, where the temperature was 20 below zero, to help a man battling for the gospel in his divided church by addressing a number of public meetings on the issue of modernism and Christianity. It was there in the remote Dakotas the 55 year old Machen caught pleurisy. He grew steadily worse and was hospitalised. Even while battling with pain his mind was centred on Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and he mailed a number of cheques to pay magazine printing bills. Then, what was to be his last act, he sent a telegram to Professor John Murray. It said simply, “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” He died an hour or so later, at 7.30 p.m. January 1, 1937. Machen was not like that condemned forger thinking of his own obedience as death came breathing down his neck. Machen’s hopes were in the righteousness of Christ’s active obedience. No hope without it.
What are my greatest needs? That my sin and guilt be removed and I become righteous. I must come away from the distant city and the pigs. I must return to my father. He will run to meet me and kiss me and clothe me with the best robe. Some of you remember one of our former members was a student at the university almost forty years ago. He had heard the gospel from a visiting theological student in a north Wales church, and at college he would listen to the Christian students talking together. He especially enjoyed their company, but he was uncertain whether he himself was someone who knew God. One day after listening to some of them Wyn went from spectating that fellowship to his room under great conviction where he kneeled down and prayed these words, “O God make me a righteous man.” That was his prayer. That was his chief longing, and God heard him.
“There is a city bright,
Closed are its gates to sin,
Naught that defileth,
Can ever enter in.”
The great answer to that dilemma is to be arrayed in the garment of righteousness.
“Till in the snowy dress,
Of thy redeemed I stand;
Faultless and stainless,
Safe in that happy land.” (Mary Anne S. Deck)
Are you clothed in that snowy dress? Have you seen that your righteousness is in heaven, and God freely imputes it to those who trust in Jesus. I ask you again, what is the great need of man? Righteousness. What is revealed in the gospel? The righteousness of God. What is gained by man through Christ’s redemption? Righteousness. What is the subject of gospel preaching? The blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. What is the purpose of gospel preaching? To declare to the world that henceforth there is a way by which men may attain righteousness. What redounds most to the glory of God? That he be revealed to us as the one who is just yet the justifier of those who believe in Jesus. To all of them he imputes the righteousness of Christ and declares them to be justified.
Surely there will be no great awakenings of the Christian faith without this truth again being proclaimed, understood and loved. There was a time when Jonathan Edwards was preaching this truth in the face of much opposition, but he courageously gave himself to this theme and would not desist. His congregation must grasp it and learn to love it. This is what happened. He says, “At that time, while I was greatly reproached for defending this doctrine in the pulpit, and just upon my suffering a very open abuse for it, God’s work wonderfully broke forth among us, and souls began to flock to Christ, as the Saviour in whose righteousness alone they hoped to be justified. So that this was the doctrine on which this work, in its beginning, was founded, as it evidently was in the whole progress of it” (Jonathan Edwards’ “Thoughts on the Revival in New England”).
What truth is more designed to make the tongue of the dumb to sing and the lame to leap like a deer? Think of it – there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus. None whatsoever. There is no minor offence. There is nothing at all for which to condemn those whose sins have been imputed to Christ whose righteousness has been imputed to them. If every particle of dust floating in a sunbeam spoke against them; if every grain of sand on the beach railed against them; if every star in the night sky spoke of the sins they had seen them commit; if every atom were a Satan, a fierce accuser; if every raindrop were a destroyer and told of this sin and of that sin. There is no condemnation to those whose sins have been laid to the charge of Christ Jesus and condemned once and for all in him, whose blessed righteousness clothes them as a snowy garment. “He that believeth is not condemned,” said the Lord Jesus. There is nothing for which to find a person in Christ worthy of condemnation. He is complete in the Christ who of God is made unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption.
What you must do is to entrust yourself into the safety and security of the name of Jesus. Those who trust in him will never be put to shame. You are not asked to believe the impossible. You are not asked to go against your nature to believe. You must ask God to change your nature so that you may believe. You are not asked to produce great faith in Christ. The strength of faith required to deliver us from condemnation and put us in Christ is nowhere stated. You are simply told to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you are promised that then you will be saved. Faith does nothing. It looks away from one’s own life and achievements and finds its whole acceptance in what another has done. The feeblest faith in Christ is sufficient. It is not the excellence of the faith that saves us but the excellence of the one we believe in. His perfection not only covers all the deficiencies of our lives, but all the imperfection of our faith.
What was asked of the believers in the Old Testament? They were asked to put their hand on the head of the lamb before it was sacrificed. That was their identification with the substitute. Sometimes those hands were very feeble. They were arthritic. They could hardly pick up a spoon. They trembled with nervousness, and with old age, and with Parkinson’s. The feebleness of that trembling touch did not alter the character of the sacrifice. It did not make the blood less effective to pardon and cleanse. It did not make the worshipper less acceptable. The burnt-offering was still the burnt offering. The feeblest touch acknowledged that they were sinners and their only hope lay in the blood shed. So it is with us. It is sinners whom Jesus seeks, and sinners whom he calls, and sinners he receives. Not the righteous. He will make them righteous. Let them come and say in obedience,
“My faith would lay her hand
On that dear head of thine,
While like a penitent I stand,
And there confess my sin.” (Isaac Watts).
All his grace and mercy will answer them. Think of two houses next to one another in Egypt. In one is a family of trembling faith utterly uncertain of whether their first born is going to survive that night. Next door is a family full of faith totally assured that the Passover blood sprinkled on the door will deliver them from death. They enjoy the roast lamb and bitter herbs and unleaven bread, while the family next door can scarcely swallow more than a few mouthfuls That night both of them did what God had told them all to do, but one family tossed and turned, longing for the first light of dawn, waiting to see if their child would still be alive. Next door the other family snored and dreamed and slept deeply through the hours of darkness. The next morning both the first born in each home were alive. They were spared, not because both families had great faith, for they didn’t. Only one had assurance, but they were both spared because both fathers did what God told them to do. They acted in faith. So it is with you. God tells you what you must do. He has imputed sin to Christ and the righteousness of Christ to believing sinners. He tells you now to trust in Jesus. Look to him. Believe upon him, and he promises a full pardon and the beautiful robe of Christ’s righteousness to cover you for ever. Why won’t you receive it? To them who will receive this righteousness he gives the right to be called the children of God, even to them who believe on his name.
If I said to you that tomorrow I was going to take you to the best dress shop in town and purchase for you the dress of your choice whatever the cost, what would be your response? If I were to say that tomorrow I was going to pay off whatever remained of your mortgage, what would be your response? If I took you to a big garage and said, “You choose any car and I will pay for it,” what would be your response? I am sincere. Would you refuse my offer? If I said I intended to buy for you a comprehensive health insurance and maintain the payments until you died, would you refuse my generous offer? How incredible it is that men will gratefully take anything the world offers them, though such things will last only until death, while rejecting what God promises he will do.
Here is the righteousness of Christ. It will remain enduringly spotless for ever. Will you not take it? Why refuse? What benefit can possibly come to you from refusing? Be clothed in this glorious garment. What could you desire more? Here is Christ’s worthiness, for our unworthiness – his sinlessness, for our sinfulness – his purity, for our impurity – his beauty, for our deformity – his sincerity, for our guile – his truth, for our falsehoods – his meekness, for our pride – his constancy, for our backsliding – his love, for our hate. In a word, his fulness, for our emptiness – his glory, for our shame – his one righteousness, for our evident unrighteousness. How happy the boy or girl, the man or woman, who hides himself in this righteousness. Be reconciled to God. End the alienation in God’s way. We beseech you in Christ’s name receive the righteousness of God in his free justification today.
10 June 2001 GEOFF THOMAS