How can we be confident that all of our sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven? For starters, by not being confused about justification and sanctification. That’s what this special “flu-length” episode is all about. Enjoy!
Devotional Text: Genesis 18:22-33
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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Saturday, February 3, and this is Devotional Podcast number 11. It’s a very special flu edition of the podcast, which means it’s an extra long version. In fact, you might even say it’s a sermon-sized podcast. Lucky you! Yes, I intended to record this for Friday, per my usual schedule—but I have been wiped out with the flu since Thursday. Anyway, while my temperature is down and the headache has subsided and ibuprofen works its wonders, here we go…
You’re listening to Keith Green and a song called “Make My Life a Prayer to You,” written by his wife and frequent collaborator, Melody. This comes from Green’s 1978 album, No Compromise, which could easily be a motto for his entire ministry. He is famous for not compromising—even going so far as to give his records away for free to anyone who couldn’t afford them.
I like the line in the song, “I guess I’ll have to trust and just believe what you say.” So honest! Isn’t that the hard part of being a Christian—that it actually takes faith to believe what Jesus said. If you’re a Christian, you sometimes say, “I guess I’ll have to!”
After today’s podcast, I hope you’ll trust and believe what Jesus says about forgiveness and grace.
Years ago, I was reading theologian Phillip Cary’s excellent commentary on Jonah. In the book’s introduction, he wrote something that literally changed the way I read the Old Testament—which is to say, it changed my life. He wrote:
First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.
Did you hear that? Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.
This was exactly opposite what I’d learned in the liberal mainline Protestant seminary I attended. I’ve blogged about this before. It’s not that I didn’t learn a lot of useful things in seminary—I did! But I was spiritually unprepared for it. I was unprepared for the spiritual warfare—by which I mean attacks by a literal Satan—that inevitably accompany one’s decision to uproot one’s life and family, to leave a relatively prosperous career, to go to an expensive school, and to devote oneself to serving the Lord as a pastor. I was a sitting duck for the devil! And it didn’t help that few if any of my professors in seminary even believed in the devil!
Regardless, it was all for the good. I was tested. I failed miserably. But emerged on the other side a much better person for it. Thank God!
Anyway, we were taught in seminary that the Old Testament—which of course shouldn’t even be called the Old Testament, because that sounds pejorative, but rather, it should be called the “Hebrew Bible”… We should call it the “Hebrew Bible” because, by doing so, we recognize that this is a book that doesn’t even belong to us Christians. At best, when we read the Hebrew Bible, we are eavesdropping on someone else’s scripture. We certainly shouldn’t read Jesus into the Old Testament. He doesn’t belong there! It’s disrespectful to our Jewish friends. Or so the propaganda said…
I hope that sounds as ridiculous to you as it does to me now.
Of course Cary is right: the whole Bible, including every book of the Old Testament, is about Jesus… Jesus and the New Testament authors certainly thought so. I shouldn’t have needed someone like Cary to tell me this, but there you are…
My point is, I can now find Jesus on nearly every page of the Old Testament!
Take Genesis 18, for instance. After the Lord warns Abraham of the impending destruction of Sodom, Abraham intercedes on behalf of the citizens of Sodom. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
From there, Abraham—very cautiously—asks God if he will destroy the city if there are only 45 righteous within it. And then 40. And then 35. Until he negotiates God down to ten. Even for the sake of only ten righteous people, God says, he will not destroy the city.
Abraham doesn’t dare go further, but the principle is clear: God would not destroy Sodom, even if there were only one righteous person who lived there. So let’s say that Sodom had a population of 10,000, if there were one righteous person, God would spare the lives of the 9,999 unrighteous people who were in the town.
Think about that…
The principle isn’t, “God will destroy the guilty and spare the innocent.” No, the principle is: God will spare the innocent along with the guilty… so long as the guilty happen to live near the innocent. Do you see? If God wanted, after all, he could have destroyed the 9,999 and spared the one. That would be easy enough for God to do. But no: God would save the lives of the 9,999 if there were only one righteous person in town. The problem for Sodom, of course, is that there isn’t even one righteous person.
How could there be?
As Paul writes in Romans 3,
None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
Or Psalm 130:3: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”
It’s clear that we are all guilty before God. We are all unrighteous sinners. We all deserve God’s judgment and wrath. If we want to be saved from it, what do we need? We need the same thing that Sodom needed! We need a righteous person to live near us!
But here’s the good news! That’s exactly what we have… in Jesus Christ! He alone is the one righteous person for whose sake God will spare the lives of us sinners!
All we need is to “live near him.” How do we do that? Through faith in Christ! Not only are we “near” him, we become one with him. Romans 6:5: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” In fact, this union with Christ is such a present reality, that Paul can later tell us, in Ephesians, that God has “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
And you might say, “I don’t feel as if I’m ‘seated with Christ’ in the heavenly places. I feel like an average, everyday sinner, who struggles mightily to be faithful to Christ.” But see… this is why it’s critical to understand that what God did for us on the cross—through the atonement—which literally means “at-one-ment”—he did objectively. It doesn’t depend on how we feel about it!
What we should feel is overwhelming and undying gratitude that God rescued sinners like us—who have done nothing to deserve it; who can do nothing to deserve it.
Listen: We Christians often have a mistaken view of what it means to be justified. That is, what it means to have all of our sins forgiven and be declared “not guilty” before God. We often think that the moment we are justified, the slate has been wiped clean by God’s grace alone, through no effort of our own, through no meritorious works of our own. We believe, rightly, that we can do nothing to contribute to our justification—that God has done everything. And praise God for it!
But then comes sanctification. And here’s where we get messed up. Sanctification is the very biblical doctrine of becoming holy through the power fo the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is changing us within, making us, over time, holier people. We Methodists especially emphasize sanctification. We talk about it often—perhaps more than we should.
Because unless we’re very careful, the message that we risk communicating is that sanctification is the role that we play in salvation; it’s the kind of self-improvement that God needs to see before he’ll truly forgive us; it’s the stuff that we have to do in order to be saved. God has done his part; now we better do ours!
If you are a Methodist, or you’ve been around them long enough, don’t tell me that thought hasn’t crossed your mind!
But we forget that even sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit. We forget that sanctification is made possible only through faith in atoning work of Christ on the cross! We like to quote Philippians 2:12: “[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” There it is “work out”—that’s all about what we do; that’s work!
But we ignore the very next verse: “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God works in us and through us, but he also enables us to will to please God. In other words, according to Paul, even the desire to please God comes from where? From God!
And even as I say this, some of you are thinking, “Yes, but… you are preaching cheap grace”—that overused and misappropriated term from Bonhoeffer. But I’m not preaching cheap grace; I’m preaching free grace. If grace is cheap, it already costs too much. If it’s cheap, you and I cannot afford it, and we will be damned!
The good news is, we don’t have to afford it. Christ has paid it all on our behalf.
Now… don’t misunderstand… you have heard me preach—loudly—that good works are necessary for salvation. Read the Letter of James. But they are necessary in this sense only: they will necessarily follow from the inward transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit when we believe in Jesus as our Savior and Lord. They will inevitably follow once we’ve been born again. Jesus makes this point in the Sermon on the Mount when he talks about healthy trees and diseased trees in Matthew 7:17-18:
So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.
Good fruit, in other words, is a sign of a healthy tree. Good fruit plays no role whatsoever in making a tree healthy. The healthy tree has to come first. Right? So to make the point plain: We have to be justified and born again first… and the thoughts, words, and deeds commensurate with this changed life will naturally result.
If our lives fail to demonstrate this change, however falteringly, then that may be a sign that we are not justified.
But with that qualification, I think I can safely say that good works play no role in saving us. Think of the thief on the cross in Luke 23:39-43. Jesus said that would be with him in Paradise—in a matter of probably hours. Because, like Jesus, the thief was literally dying on a cross. What could he possibly do—between the moment his sins were forgiven until he died—that would demonstrate good works? And you might say, “Yes, but he could have had good thoughts… and these thoughts would have been necessary for salvation.”
O.K., but Jesus doesn’t say that: without attaching any conditions to the man’s thoughts or behaviors over the next few hours of his life, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” He does not qualify this forgiveness by saying, “so long as you think good thoughts between now and when you die. So long as you avoid sinning in any spectacular ways!”
No… the man’s behavior plays no role in his being saved. But Jesus knows the man’s heart; he knows his faith is genuine; that’s all that matters. That’s the sole basis on which he will be with Christ in Paradise.
And this gets us back to the topic of my last podcast… the theme of sin and guilt in the life of the Christian. I know you already believe you’re a sinner, otherwise you wouldn’t feel guilty right now. The question is, do you believe in Jesus—do you believe that he has done all that is necessary through his atoning death and resurrection to reconcile you with God? Are you turning to him in faith right now, confessing that you’re a sinner who needs his grace?
If so, then you can be confident that you are saved. Period. It is something that he has done—objectively—for you. It doesn’t depend on you.
Believe that. Be confident, not in yourself, not in your own ability to resist sin and do good works, but in Christ’s ability to save you through faith.
Believe that and take comfort. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:29-30. Amen.
1. Phillip Cary, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.
2. Ephesians 2:6 ESV