'... clothed in righteousness divine'
Ultimate Realities 6: God's work for us and in us
- Bob Horn (1933-2005) was General Secretary of UCCF. View all resources by Bob Horn
Jesus Christ for us
The next question is: how may we come to enjoy all that Christ won on the cross?
How does the cross come into our experience? We could read the accounts of it through and still feel like a spectator; how can we take part? The next three clauses of the Basis sum up how God’s master plan for rescue becomes personal for us. These clauses face two major issues. One concerns where we stand before God - our position or status. We are guilty. We are in the dock, accused, under sentence and awaiting our fate. The stay of execution is only temporary; for after death comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27). The other concerns what we are before God - our character or state. We are sinful, self-centred, against God by disposition and choice. We are radically unlike the holy God we face.
So we need a solution that deals with both these factors - where we are (in the dock) and what we are (compulsive sinners). If we are to know God personally; we need to have our guilt dealt with. Something must be done about the charges against us: they cannot be ignored without God becoming party to our sin. And something must be done about the way we are. Our chief sin has been in constantly flouting the chief commandment (Matthew 22:37-38); we have never, for a moment loved God with all our being, but have persistently loved ourselves.
That state of affairs cannot go on; we must be changed, so that at last we begin to love, serve and rejoice in God. These are the areas covered in these three clauses:
(g) Those who believe in Christ are pardoned all their sins and accepted in God’s sight only because of the righteousness of Christ credited to them; this justification is God’s act of undeserved mercy, received solely by trust in him and not by their own efforts.
(h) The Holy Spirit alone makes the work of Christ effective to individual sinners, enabling them to turn to God from their sin and to trust in Jesus Christ.
(i) The Holy Spirit lives in all those he has regenerated. He makes them increasingly Christlike in character and behaviour and gives them power for their witness in the world.
These three clauses highlight what God has done for us (acquitting or justifying us), and what he is doing in us (by his Holy Spirit sanctifying or making us like him). We don’t use these terms in everyday conversation, but we should not be surprised if these out-of-this-world realities have their own vocabulary. Every other sphere of activity has its technical terms, from sports to computers. These two terms, ‘justify’ and ‘sanctify’, are simply the Bible’s handy ways of compressing into single words a mind-blowing event and a lifelong process.
How can we be justified?
God justifies sinners in an instant. He pardons them, acquitting them and announcing that they may go free. He absolves them of their guilt and declares them to be accepted in his sight as if they had never sinned - as if, in fact, they were his own Son. In so doing, God is acting as a judge in a court of law. And the reason he can acquit the guilty is not by turning a blind eye, but by accepting that his Son paid the death penalty that was due to them. The price is paid, so that God both is, and is demonstrated to be, just and holy; and the sinner is welcomed into God’s family; so that God is, and is shown to be, the one who justifies the ungodly who believe in Jesus (Romans 3:26).
Substitution is the basis, trust in Jesus is the key. Trust says in effect: ‘I can never gain acquittal - it is all up to him. I stand condemned. All I can do is plead: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13)’. We are justified solely by faith; faith is credited to us as righteousness - faith, not our deeds (Romans 4:5; 5:1). Faith is the recognition that I can do absolutely nothing to earn God’s favour or avert his wrath. It is not presenting ‘my faith’ to God, as an alternative to offering ‘my works’. It is not ‘something I do’. I have nothing to present I simply and humbly pray to receive and be received. My open, empty hands are before God.
When God justifies a sinner, he cancels our sinful debt and puts his righteousness to our credit. Paul begins his great treatment of justification in Romans by saying that he is proud of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation for one specific reason - that in it ‘a righteousness from God is revealed’ (Romans 1:17).
Accepted by a righteous God
The righteousness of God in himself was already revealed and known. For one thing, the whole Old Testament sacrificial system bore witness that God was unremittingly pure and righteous. It was before that righteousness that all sinners stood condemned and excluded. Justice demanded no less. But now, in the gospel, God has disclosed a way whereby condemned sinners can, on a just basis, find acceptance in God’s presence and inclusion in his people. He welcomes them as he welcomes his Son, giving them the same righteous standing before him.
Paul shows that God’s judgment followed sin and brought condemnation, but that ‘God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness’ lead to life through the one man, Jesus Christ (Romans 5:16-17). That ‘gift of righteousness’ does not mean that he gives us inward righteousness of character in this life. It means that he gives us the status of righteousness, or credits righteousness to us, because Christ the righteous one took our sin. God credits righteousness to those who believe (Romans 4:24). An old hymn, recently revived with a new tune, has these lines: ‘For God, the Just, is satisfied/To look on him [Christ] and pardon me.’
To put it another way it is as if someone to whom you are in debt sees your depressing student overdraft and pays in more than enough to see you back permanently in the black - and able to start life afresh on the basis of being in credit. Instead of looking at our abysmal record, God looks at what Christ did on the cross - he looks at him and, for his sake, pardons us. When Jesus cried, ‘it is finished’ on the cross (John 19:30), it meant that he put the ‘Paid’ or ‘Cancelled’ stamp across our debts.
We can sum up justification like this. When God justifies it means more than bare acquittal. As Handley Moule wrote: ‘We need the voice which says, not merely, “you may go; you are let off your penalty”; but “you may come; you are welcomed into my love”.’ Justification deals with past, present and future - with all our sins for the duration of eternity.
It includes pardon, for God forgives and covers the past. Our account is settled. God cancels our debt and puts his righteousness down to our name. We have no past record to answer for when God has justified.
Justification covers the present, for it gives peace with and access to God and leads to adoption into God’s family (Romans 5:1; Galatians 4:5-6). God gives us his authority to call ourselves his children now (John 1:12; 1 John 3:2).
It also covers the future. It assures us that when all our life is exposed at the day of judgment, God’s verdict of ‘Justified’ will still stand. It brings us the last day’s verdict now. It gives us immunity at the bar of God because of Christ. It promises that, having been joint heirs with him, we shall then inherit the full riches of glory (Romans 8:17). Christ paid the penalty for our sins and that penalty will never be due a second time, from us. What he did is unrepeatable, irreversible, enough.
This has unbelievable repercussions for our actual security in God; and our sense of security, of being unconditionally and totally accepted, will grow as we appreciate these truths of justification.
The Holy Spirit in us
Because we are dead in sins (Ephesians 2:1), we would never, if left to ourselves, naturally want to trust God. We depend on the Holy Spirit to help us to see our state and need before God, and then to lead us to turn from our sin and put our whole trust in Jesus. We can often get into a mindset of self-pity or remorse, when circumstances seem to pile up on us. It takes the Holy Spirit to turn us from that self-focus to see that our major problem is that of offending God.
‘To turn to God’ is much more than feeling sorry for ourselves, and very different from simply regretting the consequences of our sins; and ‘trust in Jesus’ is much more than trying to get a better and more fulfilling deal for ourselves. The Holy Spirit is given to bring us to be God-centred in the way we view our sin and why we want to be rid of it. This is the same miraculous work of the Spirit that Peter reported when the gospel made a new breakthrough: ‘God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life’ (Acts 11:18). And so to us as well. That is the Spirit’s gift and grace.
What needs to be done from that point on is for us to be changed. John tells us that ‘now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known’ (1 John 3:2). So we are to become more and more like what we are - the children of God. This is the lifelong process of growth, of sanctification. In this process we work together with God to leave our sinful mind and ways behind and to be taken up increasingly with his will and ways.
In every Christian
The Holy Spirit lives in every believer to produce that change. It is only the Spirit who can bring a person to new birth (John 3:6) and to trust in Jesus; and the same Sprit indwells all those he brings to Christ (Romans 8:9). No less a person than ‘the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you’ (Romans 8:11). He does not wait until we are perfect or fully surrendered before he takes up residence; if he did, no Christian would have the Spirit. He indwells believers from the very outset of their Christian experience, not because we are good enough, but because we are Christ’s and in order to change us. He may be an uncomfortable guest, for sometimes we would rather go along with our sins than with him. But he will not quit on us, and he will complete in the end the good work God has begun (Philippians 1:6). We need to keep on making him welcome, keep on being filled up again and again (Ephesians 5:18), knowing that we are leaky vessels, as D. L. Moody said.
He may sometimes bring us to a crisis in our experience, as some people come to adolescent or mid-life crises. But we will never reach a point in this life where we have ‘arrived’. There is no experience on offer from the Holy Spirit which will remove the need constantly to press on for more (Philippians 3:12). A key word in the New Testament is ‘renewing’. We are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Romans 12:2) and are being renewed in knowledge in the image of our Creator (Colossians 3:10). He is continually refreshing, remoulding, redirecting us - and a lifelong work is not done overnight.
Chiefly the Spirit is working to bring us to be increasingly like Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). So what is it to be Christlike? Christlikeness sometimes sounds rather removed from life, rather like haloes and stained-glass windows, a state of being unsullied by the world, a detached sanctity out of contact with others.
Now Christ, self-evidently, is pure and righteous, untainted by sin, with no deceit in his mouth. That said, the most staggering fact about Jesus is that he came down from heaven and he went out to sinners. Christlikeness means following him in such ways. Christ became the friend of tax collectors and sinners (Luke 15:1-2); he spoke of leaving the ninety-nine and going for the one that was lost. Paul said that he was following the example of Christ when he wrote: ‘I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved’ (1 Corinthians 10:33).
Character and service
Christlikeness includes growing to become conformed to his image in our character (Romans 8:29), but is radically different from simply cultivating our own spirituality. It was the Pharisees in their righteousness enclaves who were the furthest removed from likeness to Jesus. So the Spirit works to take us out of our comfort zones and into friendship with people where they are, out there in contact with the culture around us. Jesus left where he was and came to where we are. If we are becoming like Christ, we will do the same. This is why clause (i) says that it is the Spirit who ‘gives them power for their witness in the world’.
We will probably not feel our need of the Spirit’s power too much if we stay in our Christian circles, insulated from those outside. But if we are following Christ and going out to others, to be exposed to their apathy or opposition, to their objections and prejudices, then we will need his power. And it is when we are out there that it is promised to us. It is witnesses who go out who will receive his power (Acts 1:8), not those who stay behind. And by his power God will give us all we need for witness to Christ
Witness to the facts
We need to understand what ‘witness’ meant to the first Christians, for ‘witness’ then had a slightly different meaning. We tend to take it as telling others ‘what a difference Christ has made in my life’. There is certainly a place for that. But in Acts, witness was much more a case of telling their hearers what a difference Christ had made to the world. The disciples basically pointed to the facts. Peter did not so much say ‘He’s my Lord’; they could have dismissed that as the comment of a religious freak. Rather, his witness was to the fact that ‘he is the Lord’. ‘God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2:36). In other words, he is the Lord of all the universe, of all that is, the one to whom all must bow, the cosmic Christ, a figure you can’t avoid, however hard you try. So there was an objective strand - and therefore a strong confidence - in all their witness, as there must be in all true witness today.
Those are the central truths highlighted about what God has done for us and what he is doing in us. These truths explain how grace comes to us, the undeserved and unsought favour of God, and how we can be sure of our acceptance with God. They point out that our relationship depends on Christ’s righteousness, not ours; on his settling our debts to God, on his answering for us before God’s justice. They explain how we become Christians, as on our knees we thank God the Holy Spirit for having moved us to turn to God to confess our sins and to put our trust in the powerful Saviour. They map out for us the rest of our Christian journey; when we see him, we will be like him (1 John 3:2), but until then we have the resident Holy Spirit to pilot us through and to renew in us the image of God that was so defaced by our sin.
All this is liberating beyond our wildest dreams. If you have ever wrestled inwardly with God about the state of your heart and life, you will be elated to sing such words as these:
Before the throne of God above
I have a strong, a perfect plea:
For God, the Just, is satisfied
To look on him [Christ] and pardon me.
The Bible’s teaching about our sanctification comes as a huge relief. For one thing, it is so realistic. Those who are justified are still sinners, still liable to doubt and defeat. These truths assure us both that we are accepted, despite being sinners, and that God has put into action his plan to change us. He knows what a job he has taken on and his Spirit in us will keep working with his unfailing energy and will. Nothing about us will deter him or surprise him.
No short cuts
For another thing, this teaching delivers us from thinking that there are any short cuts. Life has very few short cuts of any kind - and most of those that we are offered will short-change us. By God’s intention, learning and growing are processes. The Bible’s basic pictures are of birth, growth, learning and maturing. Such pictures liberate us from any notions of quick ‘solutions’.
No crisis experience after conversion will instantly solve all our problems and turn us into perfect followers. What is important is to seek to grow day by day, to go on being filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18) and to love God with all our being.
God will give us experiences - a second, a third, a fourth, or a hundred and fourth. Life is experiences with God, each day.
The New Testament certainly views our first experience of Christ as revolutionary. What could be more life-changing than the experience of trusting Christ, of being justified, of having eternity settled? It is this that commits us to the whole-life pilgrimage of growing to be like Christ. Growth is generally steady and unspectacular, and the Bible does not encourage us to pin our hopes on any ‘get there in one spurt’ encounter. So this teaching frees us from spiritual culs-de-sac and disappointments, to get on with growing into Christ. As we grow, we will be looking to see that our experiences lead to the fruit of character.
Do,do,do ... or done
This teaching protects us from the creeping danger of self-righteousness and spiritual pride. It saves us from thinking that we are or have to be good enough for God. And it sends us out with the revolutionary message of God’s free grace. All other religions, whether primitive or modern, sophisticated or philosophical, western or eastern, have one nature in common - they put the initiative with us. They may say to would-be adherents: ‘Do! Do what is required - the pilgrimages or the rituals or the good deeds or the sacrifice. It is up to what you do whether you make it to acceptance or heaven.’ Or they may say to the more mystical enquirer ‘Engage in meditation or prayers or yoga. It is up to you whether you make it to nirvana or reincarnation or whatever you believe in.’
Christianity alone says not ‘Do’, but ‘Done’. There is one only who has ever perfectly done all that a human being should. Because of this he could bear the sin of others. Done! God has done it. We can’t make it. But God is able to receive all who trust him, because he has done all that we couldn’t do.
This is the message with which God sends us out, together with the news that he sets about changing those he accepts, so that they can begin to enjoy him and do what pleases him.
1. Students are often in debt. How does that experience help us to understand justification - God crediting us with righteousness?
2. Justification is God’s verdict of the last judgment brought forward to now. How should that affect our security and our motivation?
3. Reflect on what the Bible shows us about Christ. In what areas do we need to grow more like him?
4. Where would we be before God without the Holy Spirit?
5. What is the primary work of the Spirit in believers?
6. What are the implications of the Bible’s view of sanctification for our lifelong discipleship?
Ultimate Realities 5: Human Need and God's Rescue