Monday, March 28, 2022

The Christ of the Covenants (Heb. 9:15)

How old is Christianity? If you were to say that Christianity is about two thousand years old, there is a real sense in which you would be absolutely right. The religion of Jesus Christ, as such, dates back to his earthly ministry, which goes back to the beginning of the first century A.D. But there would be another sense in which you would be totally wrong. For Jesus did not come to create a new religion. As he put it in the Sermon on the Mount, he did not come to do destroy the Law of Moses or the Prophets (Mt. 5:17). In other words, the religion of Christ is the religion of the Old Covenant; the religion of the New Testament and the Old Testament is the same religion.

And yet, not exactly the same in every way. For there is a New Covenant, and it has genuine newness. Where does the newness lie? What are the differences between the covenants? And then another question is, if they are different, in what ways are they the same?

I think this is important because sometimes the newness of the New Covenant can be emphasized in such a way that it makes it sound like none of its blessings were available to people living under the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant could not create new hearts, for example, but God promises in the New Covenant to do exactly that. Does that mean then that people before Christ couldn’t be regenerated? What about the forgiveness of sins? On the other hand, if these things (new heart, new status, etc.) were available before the inauguration of the New Covenant by Christ, what was that point of the New Covenant? These are important questions that we are going to have to answer if we’re going to be able to make sense of our Bibles.

What is new and what is old

These are some of the questions I want to deal with this morning. Let me start with my conclusion and then show you how the Bible gets us there, and especially in terms of the passage we are considering. My conclusion is this: there has ever only been one way of salvation presented to sinners from the beginning of time, and this salvation has ever only been received by faith in God’s promise of salvation which is brought to fruition in the person and work of Jesus Christ. So the unity of the Bible – the unity of the covenants and the unity of the testaments lies in the way of salvation through Jesus. There has ever only been one plan of salvation and one way by which sinners are saved. There was not a way for OT saints to be saved and now a new way for NT saints to be saved. There has always been one way, and that way is the grace of God through Jesus Christ. This way of salvation did not begin to be announced during the earthly ministry of Jesus; in fact it finds its origins in human history in the Garden of Eden. In that sense, we can say that Christianity is as old as the human race. It predates every other religion, whether Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism or animism or anything else. Actually, it is even older than that: for it has its ultimate origins in the eternal covenant and plan of the Trinity for the salvation of God’s people. Jesus is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

However, there are differences between old and new covenants. One difference is the way in which this one way of salvation has been progressively revealed in history. God has not revealed the fulness of the gospel all at once; he has revealed it in stages. There is a historical unfolding of God’s one plan of redemption in Christ, and one of the ways God has done this is through the progressive unfolding of this redemptive plan in covenants. These covenants begin in the Garden of Eden, with the promise of the seed of the woman who will crush the head of the serpent. In the covenant with Abraham, God reveals that this seed of the woman is the seed of Abraham who will bring blessing to the nations. In the covenant God made through Moses with the nation of Israel, we see type after type pointing to the person and work of the Messiah. In particular, we see how it must be through a substitutionary atonement that our sins are purged. In the covenant God made with King David, we learn that the Savior will be the son of David, who will rule the nations with a rod of iron. And then in the prophets, God reveals the new covenant, a covenant that we see is mediated by Christ himself. It is in the new covenant that the gospel is most fully revealed, and it is secured in the coming of the incarnate Son of God. God who spoke at various times and in many ways through the prophets has climatically and ultimately spoken to us in his Son (Heb. 1:1). And it seems that this is the reason for the progressive unfolding of God’s plan in history: he did so, so that the fulness of gospel revelation would coincide with the fulness of times in the coming of his Son to redeem us (Gal. 4:4-5).

There will therefore necessarily be differences between the covenants, differences that emerge from the historical place and purpose of each covenant in the plan of God. These covenants differ partly from the place they occupy along the timeline of redemptive history. They differ because God is not only progressively revealing promises of redemption, but he was also preparing the way in history for redemption to happen. A failure to see this is one of the chief reasons, in my opinion, why people fail to properly see where the continuity and the discontinuity between the covenants lies.

But there is another difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Remember that the Old Covenant is the Mosaic Covenant, revealed in the Law of Moses, and expounded in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy. This covenant differs from the New Covenant, not only in the amount and clarity of gospel revelation, but also in the fact that the Mosaic Covenant was a conditional covenant. It was conditioned on obedience (see Exodus 24:3). On the other hand, the New Covenant is a covenant of grace because God is the one who guarantees that its conditions will be met. “The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17).

Now that doesn’t mean that the Law was meant to give people a way to get saved by works. The apostle Paul himself discounts this. He says that the Law is not “against the promises of God . . . for if there had been a law which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law” (Gal. 3:21). In other words, the Law was never meant to be a means to gain eternal life before God. It was never posed as an alternative way to be saved. But its promised blessings, which were primarily earthly and temporal, did depend upon the obedience of the Israelites. The reason why God’s judgment came upon Israel again and again was because they didn’t obey. They failed to receive the blessings because they didn’t meet the conditions for the enjoyment of them.

So then, we might ask: why then the law (Gal. 3:19)? If the Law did not give life and if the Law by its being conditioned on human obedience was prone to be broken, what was its purpose? Why did God give the Law of Moses?

The apostle Paul answers this question to the Galatians, who had been tempted to see the Law of Moses as a way to be justified before God (cf. Gal. 5:4). He writes, “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added,” he says, “for transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made [this is a reference to Christ, see ver. 16]” (3:19). Or, as Paul puts it to the Romans, “Moreover the law entered, that the offense might abound” (Rom. 5:20). When you put these two texts together, it seems that the apostle is saying that one of the main reasons for God giving the Law was to convince us of our moral frailty, to show us our sins so that we would see that we need a Savior. As Paul put it later in Galatians 3, “But the scripture [the Law of God] hath concluded [imprisoned] all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe” (3:22). This is meant to shut us up to God’s grace in Jesus Christ: “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his [God’s] sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20).

So let me sum up: the unity of all the covenants from Adam to Christ lies in their common witness to salvation by grace in Jesus Christ, who is revealed progressively as the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, the prophet like Moses, the king who will reign in the lineage of David, the mediator of a New Covenant.

But there are differences and the difference in the covenants lies in several things, which I will summarize with the words perspicuity, place, and power. First, we can see it in the perspicuity of the covenants, or in the amount of information revealed about Jesus, from the twinkling of light in the proto-evangelion of Genesis 3 to the blaze of the glory of God’s revelation in the person and work of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. Through the covenants, God was progressively revealing the gospel.

Then, there is difference due to the place each covenant occupies in the historical unfolding of God’s redemptive plan in Christ. Beginning with the Abrahamic covenant, because of what God was doing in history to prepare the way for Christ’s incarnation, it was necessary that the physical seed of Abraham be separated from the nations. This was done by circumcision in the covenant God made with Abraham, and then in constituting his family as a distinct nation through Moses. God’s revelation was primarily to and through Israel before Christ; but since Christ has come the gospel is for the nations, and this of course has implications on how God’s plan of redemption is administered in the New Covenant.

But finally, when we look at the New and Old Covenants in particular, we see that there is another dimension to this set of differences, for the Old Covenant was a conditional covenant, whereas the New Covenant, like the Abrahamic covenant, is a covenant of promise. The former is characterized by law whereas the latter is characterized by grace. The way we can characterize this difference is in terms of Hebrews 8 and Jeremiah 31, or in the power of each covenant. The Old Covenant, depending as it did on human obedience for its blessings, was ultimately powerless. All it ended up doing was bringing down judgment. On the other hand, the New Covenant is a powerful, successful covenant, for in it God himself is bringing about the promises through Jesus his Son.

How Old Testament saints were saved

However, I don’t want to stay on the differences here. My main purpose is to highlight the continuity between the covenants, and in particular between the old and new covenants. You see it in the passage we are considering. Though our Lord is described here as “the mediator of the new testament” [or “new covenant” – the Greek word diatheke used here can mean both], nevertheless, the redemption obtained by him is said to be “for the redemption of the transgressions that were under [or, during – Gk. epi] the first testament.” The first testament? How is the mediator of the new covenant a redeemer for those under the old covenant?

To answer this question, note that the author of Hebrews has been saying that the offerings under the old covenant, the Mosaic law, were insufficient. They could not really free the conscience from the guilt of sins (Heb. 9:9; 10:1-4). However, this is exactly what the death of Jesus can do (9:14). So one might wonder what happened to people before the death of Jesus? How were they saved? Well, the author tells us: they were saved by Christ’s atonement. They couldn’t be saved by the sacrifices of the old covenant; they must be saved by Christ. In other words, the effectiveness of the death of Jesus goes forwards and backwards. It reaches forwards to those who came after he died to those who believe in him. And it reaches backwards to God’s people who lived before the physical coming of Jesus and his earthly ministry. The apostle Paul says something very similar in his epistle to the Romans. There he tells us that “God hath set forth [Christ Jesus] to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare hisrighteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25-26). Jesus died so that past sins – sins committed before he came to the earth and died – might be forgiven and sinners justified. And he died so that present sins (and, by implication, future sins) might be forgiven and sinners justified. The atonement reaches backwards and forwards.

So the first answer to the question, how were OT saints saved, is to say that they were saved by the death of Jesus Christ, just like we are today.

But then I want you to notice also how folks who lived under or during the administration of the old covenant are described in Heb. 9:15. They are described by the phrase “they which are called.” What does that mean? The only other place in Hebrews where the author says something similar is in 11:8, concerning Abraham. Here is what he says there: “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he was going.” What is significant about this verse in comparison with 9:15 is that in both places God’s call is connected to God’s promised inheritance. So I don’t doubt that, first of all, the patriarch Abraham is one of those considered in 9:15. But I think it also shows us what it means to be called.

To be called here is a reference to what theologians call the effectual call. It is called effectual because the call issued brings about the response intended. When God called Abraham, Abraham responded in faith. This is what the apostle Paul is referring to in Romans 8:30, when he says, “whom he [God] called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” This is clearly saying that everyone who is called by God will be finally saved, or glorified.

But a call to what? What was God calling the folks under the old covenant to? Look at the text: “they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.” (This is still referring to those under the Old Covenant; the verb “are called” indicates action in the past with results continuing into the present.) They were called to receive God’s saving promise. This was true with respect to Abraham. In the Abrahamic covenant, God gave Abraham promises of blessing, which the NT interprets in terms of salvation, the gift of the Holy Spirit, justification before God, and an eternal inheritance. “In thee shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). It was the promise of salvation that would come about through Jesus Christ, although he was not fully revealed at this point. Nevertheless, it could be truly called the gospel, and this is exactly what the apostle Paul says to the Galatians: “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed” (Gal. 3:8). Our Lord himself said, “Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad” (Jn. 8:56). How did Abraham see the day of Christ? He saw it in the promises which God gave to him and which he received with faith and gladness.

So when God called Abraham, he was calling him not only to wander about in the land of Canaan, but he was called to believe the gospel, which he did because when God calls a man like he did Abraham, the call creates the response. Just like today. So when Paul is talking about the conversion of the Thessalonian Christians almost two thousand years after the call of Abraham, you have something very similar: But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen to you salvation through sanctification and belief of the truth: whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:13-14). God called Abraham by the gospel in terms of the promises given to him in the Abrahamic covenant. God calls us by the gospel in terms of the promises given to us in the New Covenant.

What is God doing in the call? He is creating in us the faith to receive the promises (note how this is true both in Abraham’s case in Heb. 11:8, and in the Thessalonians’ case in 2 Thess. 2:13-14), and by doing this we come to have a personal interest in the eternal inheritance. In other words, Jesus died so that our sins might be forgiven and so that we might be able to enter into eternal life. But the way the accomplished redemption becomes applied to us personally is by the call of God through the Spirit. The Spirit applies the work of Christ to us by creating in us a new heart and calling us to faith in Jesus by the gospel.

It's interesting that when Paul develops the gospel in Romans, he says that “now” – in contrast to the time under the law (3:19-20) – “the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets” (21). In other words, there is a difference; the gospel was not manifested under the law the way it is so clearly today, although even the law and the prophets pointed to it. However, when he comes in chapter 4 to illustrate what faith in Christ looks like, where does Paul go? He goes straight to the OT, to Abraham and King David. In fact, Abraham’s faith is the exemplar for NT faith (4:17- 25). Paul ends that chapter by reminding us that Abraham’s faith was imputed to him for righteousness (which I take as another way of saying that he was justified by faith), and then he says this: “Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; but for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered for our offenses and raised again for our justification” (23-25).

So how were OT saints saved? They were saved in the same way NT saints are saved: by the redemption accomplished by the Son of God on the cross and by redemption applied by the Spirit of God in the effectual call. It is true that there are differences in the content of the promise we are called to embrace, but whether before Christ or after Christ, the promise received is a promise that points to and depends upon what Jesus did upon the cross.

How are we saved?

All this of course has implications for us. If there has only ever been one way of salvation – by grace through faith in Christ (Eph. 2:8) – then that means there is only one way for you and me. And that is the way of the Bible from beginning to end. We are saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and the way we come to have a personal interest in it is by faith in Christ, which God calls us to by a work of sovereign and efficacious grace.

When it comes to talk about being saved, there is often a lot of talk about what we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do. This is misguided. Now there is a response demanded of us: we are to repent of our sins and to believe the gospel. But we must be careful that we don’t end up treating the gospel like a new law and thinking that we are the ones who have to make ourselves worthy for God. The whole point of this verse is to help us to see that Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant and he is that because he is able fully to purge our consciences from dead works to serve the living and true God (Heb. 9:14). He is the one who brings about the blessings of gospel for us and to us. So we are meant to look to him, to focus on him, to love him, to embrace him. We are to see his sufficiency to save, his worthiness and glory and loveliness. If we really see that, we will want to follow him and obey him. We won’t want to live in sin. We will mourn our failings and repent of our rebellion. But if we start with ourselves, and we focus on ourselves, we will end up in despair. The solution to self-despair is not to put forth a greater effort to fix ourselves, but to repose ourselves entirely upon Christ. May the Holy Spirit enable each of us to do that this very day!

Monday, March 14, 2022

The Redemption Accomplished by Christ (Hebrews 9:11-14)

When God made man, he put him in a perfect world in a perfect garden. Everything was good and very good. But God, in asserting his rightful sovereignty over mankind, put just and good limits upon him – in particular, he commanded Adam that he must not eat of a certain tree in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And if Adam chose to act like God in deciding for himself what was good and what was evil by eating of that tree, then God said that Adam would certainly die. We all know the story: Adam decided to act like God and as a result he died. He immediately died spiritually – he was cut off from fellowship with God, shown in the shame and the hiding when God came to confront him – and he began to die physically. And so we read, “And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died” (Gen. 5:5).

As a result of Adam’s sin, death has come into this world. Here is how the apostle Paul put it to the Romans: “Wherefore, as by one man [Adam] sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12). This world, which when God created it was vibrant with life, with men and women who had the potential to live forever, is now characterized by human death. We see it all around us. We are seeing it in the awful deaths piling up in Ukraine as Russian forces become more and more brutal and less careful about civilian casualties. But we are surrounded by it no matter where we live. Death is part and parcel of the world we inhabit.

But we see death in other ways as well. The evil that destroys the soul and minds and families and robs children of their innocence is a form of death. It is spiritual death, and it is just as much a consequence of the evil that Adam brought into this world as is physical death. Paul describes it in Ephesians: “And you . . . were dead in trespasses and sins; wherein in times past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: among whom we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Eph. 2:1-3). As a result, death is not just something we are marching toward; death is a part of everything that we do.

The author of Hebrews understood this. In verse 14, he talks about “dead works.” What constitutes “dead works”? Well, since the blood of Christ purges our conscience from dead works (9:14), and we are to repent of dead works (6:1), dead works are sinful works. But why are they considered “dead”? P. E. Hughes (following John Owen) suggests that works are dead when they (1) proceed from people who are spiritually dead in sins, (2) are accompanied by sinful (dead) fruit, and (3) end in eternal death. Everything that we do, apart from the saving grace of God in Christ, is a dead work in some sense. That doesn’t mean that everything we do is explicitly sinful, nor does it mean that lost folks can’t do just and beautiful things. But what it means is this: so long as we, on account of sin, are not in a saving relationship with God, everything we do can have no lasting significance or value or benefit for us. All our works are dead works because by them we are doing things that can have no eternal or spiritual value. Even “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD” (Prov. 15:8; 21:27), and “the plowing of the wicked is sin” (Prov. 21:4).

There is another indication of this in the text. In verse 13, our author refers to “the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean” that “sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh.” He is referring to the ceremony described in Numbers 19, in which a heifer was killed outside the camp and its body completely burned. As it was burning, cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet yarn was put into the fire, and the ashes would then be collected and used along with water to cleanse someone who had become ceremonially defiled (unable to enter the tabernacle and worship God there) through contact with a dead body. For those who were thus defiled by death, water mixed with these special ashes would be sprinkled on the defiled person and they would be cleansed and allowed again to participate in the worship of God in the tabernacle.

We too have been defiled by death. We are not only going to die, but we carry with us “the body of this death” (Rom. 7:23). We can’t get away from it. And like the ancient Israelite who had been defiled through contact with a corpse, we also are defiled, unable to enter into the Holiest of all because of sin and death.

Death is a signal that this world is not the way it’s supposed to be. No one looks at death and thinks, “Well, we’re all just part of the circle of life and so I guess it’s okay.” No one gets up and sings the theme song to “The Lion King” when a loved one dies. Instead, we weep and groan and lament. I think this is one reason why the belief that this world is just the way it is and there is no explanation for it falls flat. We all intuitively know that sin and death are intruders, and we are not okay with injustice and evilbecause that’s not the way this world is supposed to be. Atheism can’t account for that universal intuition, apart from saying that for the sake of survival evolution has programmed us psychologically to believe something that is not really true. I, along with many others, do not find that explanation convincing at all. (Maybe evolution programmed us to believe that atheism is true when it’s not?)

Now we do try to drown this out. We do it by keeping ourselves frenetically busy with work or by keeping our noses in our phones and our eyes glued to the computer or the television screen. We don’t allow ourselves to think about it. I heard a preacher years ago say that we’re like a herd of cattle in a field. One day, the farmer comes out, puts a rope around the neck of a cow, and leads her off to be slaughtered. The other cows look up for a few brief moments but then go back to grazing as if nothing has happened. We do the same thing; we don’t allow death to inconvenience us too much.

But, like it or not, it is a reality. And the question is, how are we going to face it? Now there are a lot of people who respond by saying that you just have to face the reality that beyond death is nothing. And you need to live your life in light of the reality that when you die that’s it. They would say that there is no hope; there is only despair. But I want to argue this morning that this is exactly the opposite course that you should take. Death is an undeniable reality, yes; but there is also another reality, the reality of the redemption obtained and secured by Jesus Christ. And in these verses before us, we are being encouraged neither to despair nor to look to ourselves to deliver ourselves from the specter of death, but to look to Jesus Christ and to the superiority of his redemption as our only hope in life and death. In other words, to properly respond to the reality of death, we need to consider the Jesus Christ and his redemption as the object of our faith and the superiority of his redemption in giving us the confidence of our faith.

The Object of Faith: Christ and his redemption

We are called to believe in Jesus Christ as the one who saves us from death. He is the one to whom the law and the prophets pointed. He is the one who is the fulfillment of the sacrificial system of the Mosaic Law. What was only typified and pointed to in the Old Covenant is realized and embodied in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Hence, in verse 11, we read that Christ has “come an high priest of good things to come.” The law pointed to good things: things like remission of sin, although it couldn’t actually bring it by itself. It pointed to access to the presence of God, even as it barred the people of Israel from it. What the author of Hebrews is saying is that Jesus has come and actually procured those things for us. He ministers, not in an earthly tabernacle, but “by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building” – he ministers for his people in heaven, in the very presence of God, for them and to bring them into God’s presence with exceeding joy (cf. Jude 24).

However, it is important that we see how he has done this. Jesus did not come in order to become a new Moses or to give us a new law. He didn’t come to merely “show us the way.” He came to do something that no one else can do: he came to save us from our sins (Mt. 1:21) by bringing about “eternal redemption” (12). Now I want you to hear that carefully. Eternal redemption. In other words, Jesus came to save us from death, for the fact that his redemption is eternal means that whatever else this redemption does, it at least gives us eternal life. How else could it be called eternal redemption? What Adam introduced Jesus has come to destroy: “For if by one man’s offense [Adam’s] death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17). I love the way John Stott explains the significance of what Paul says there: “What Christ has done for us is not just to exchange death’s kingdom for the much more gentle kingdom of life, while leaving us in the position of subjects. Instead, he delivers us from the rule of death so radically as to enable us to change places with it and rule over it, or reign in life.”i

It bears repeating: he has saved us from death by securing redemption for us: “neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (12). All this talk about redemption and blood is significant because it means that our Lord is dealing with the fundamental problem behind death. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Sin requires a payment to be made in order for us to be freed from its claims upon us, and Jesus Christ made that payment. By making that payment, he delivered us from the claims of death upon us.

But how did he make this payment? What was the cost to Jesus? Our author, and the rest of the New Testament – indeed, the whole Bible – makes it very clear. The price was the blood of Christ. The blood of animals could never redeem us, so Christ came and shed his own blood for us (12, 14). In other words, what we have here is redemption in terms of a substitutionary sacrifice. We have sinned against God. We are therefore justly exposed to God’s judgment and that means we must die: spiritually, physically, eternally. Jesus came into this world to take our place and to suffer the consequences of sin for us. We deserved to die and so our Lord suffered death in our place.

It is important for us to see that. A lot of people throughout the ages have wanted to interpret what happened on the cross any way other than as a substitutionary sacrifice. And so people will say that Jesus died on the cross as a martyr. Or they will say that Jesus died on the cross as an example for us to imitate in terms of moral courage or in terms of love for others. I’m not saying that any of those things are false. But what I’m saying is that neither martyrdom nor example get at the heart of what happened at the cross. The heart of the blood-shedding of Jesus, his death, is that he died to atone for the sins of others. He died to purge our sins.

It follows that the result of his death is the forgiveness of sins. The apostle Paul makes this connection with redemption explicitly both in his letter to the Ephesians and to the Colossians. “In whom [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7; cf. Col. 1:14). This is obvious if Christ died as an offering (cf. ver. 14) for sin. The result of a sin offering was the forgiveness of the sin for which the offering was made. Even so, Christ has obtained eternal redemption for us, final and complete forgiveness of sins. And having purged our conscience from the guilt of our sins, we are no longer captives to death. Those who belong to Christ are now in possession of eternal life through Christ who is the resurrection and the life.

The Confidence of Faith: the superiority of Christ’s redemption

It is not just that we are pointed to the fact that Christ died and obtained eternal redemption for us. The author of Hebrews wants us to see how superior Christ’s sacrifice is to the Levitical sacrifices. Whereas the latter could only sanctify “to the purifying of the flesh” (13), the blood of Christ is able to actually “purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (cf. 10:1-3). This emphasis comes out in the words “how much more.” If the Mosaic offerings could accomplish ceremonial cleansing, how much more can Christ’s death accomplish real eternal redemption which gives us the forgiveness of sins.

The point here is not just to increase our knowledge about Christ and the redemption he came to accomplish but also to increase our confidence in Christ and the redemption he came to accomplish. There are four ways our author does this in verses 11-14.

We can have confidence in the redemption accomplished by Christ because it was achieved through the blood of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Who stood in our place? Not merely another man. No mere man can atone for the sins of others. I can die for someone else, but I can never stand in their place before God. But the blood of the God-man has infinite value and is able to cleanse away the guilt of all the sins of all for whom he died. “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). Because he is truly man, he is able to stand in the place of other men; because he is God, he is able to fully bear the infinite weight of the wrath of God which is justly against our sins.

Here we see again why it is so important to embrace both the full divinity of Christ and the full humanity of Christ. Take away either and you no longer have someone who is able to bear away our sins and save us from death.

We can have confidence in the redemption accomplished by Christ because it was achieved “through the eternal Spirit” (14). Now this is not an expression that occurs anywhere else in the New Testament. Some take this to be a reference to the divine nature of Christ. Others take this to be a reference to the third Person in the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Personally, I incline to the latter interpretation. But either way, this means that what happened on the cross was the work of God. Jesus did not go to the cross, and he didn’t endure the contradiction of sinners against himself, because he was forced to do so. It was his hour and God’s will. It was planned by God and carried out by God. Our Lord himself said, “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received from my Father” (Jn. 10:17-18). Twice in the book of Acts we learn that God ordained the events of the cross: “For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod,and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done” (Acts 4:27-28; cf. 2:23-24). The redemption accomplished on the cross was no mere work of a man. It was the work of God himself. We can have great confidence therefore in the redemption accomplished by Christ for the cleansing of our sin and guilt.

We can have confidence in the redemption accomplished by Christ because it was achieved “without spot to God” (14). In the OT, only those animals that were without blemish could be used as offerings. This was a picture of Christ, who was without sin (cf. 7:26). Of course, as God he is perfectly holy in his divine nature. But the reference here is to his humanity. He was fully God, yes; but he was also fully man, born of a woman and made under the law (Gal. 4:4). He was subjected to the temptations of the devil and of the world, all the while “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3) – that is, he had to endure all that while in the weakness of human frailty. And though it is perfectly true to say that in a real sense he could never have sinned, and that in fact he never sinned, yet it is also true to say that it was not easy for him. He had to learn obedience by the things which he suffered (Heb. 5:8). And yet when he came to the cross, he came perfectly holy, without having ever sinned or done a single thing that displeased his Father. The one who stands in our place is perfectly righteous. And this is so important because on the cross our Lord was not doing something to make it possible for us to please God with an imperfect righteousness. He was dying so that we could have his righteousness, the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 3:21-22). What greater reason could we have to be confident than to be able to stand before God, dressed in the robes of the righteousness of the Son of God?

We can have confidence in the redemption accomplished by Christ because he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, thus showing that the Father had accepted the sacrifice of his Son. “He entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (12). He entered into the Holy of holies – into the reality to which the tabernacle pointed, into heaven itself now to appear in the presence of God for us. And he did this once; he did not have to keep repeating it, because he had finally and fully accomplished what he had set out to do.

Once again, we come to the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Our whole religion hinges on it. Why do I believe there is life after death? Well, a big reason is because Jesus rose from the dead and promised to bring his people with him to heaven. To Martha he said, “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” (Jn. 11:25-26). To which I say: Yes!

Now some folks will come back and say that the claim that Jesus rose from the dead is an extraordinary claim that demands extraordinary evidence, and they don’t see this extraordinary evidence and so they see no need to believe it. I think this is a cheap way to wiggle out an excuse not to believe the evidence that is there: the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances of Christ to the disciples (including at one point to over 500 people), the emergence of the early church in the very place where these claims were made, and so on. I think when people say this is an “extraordinary claim” they are smuggling in their own unproven assumptions: like the assumption that we live in a closed system where miracles can’t happen. They have stacked the deck. They ask for scientific evidence, but they have so defined science that it can’t even discover a miracle if it slapped it in the face. No, the best evidence for the empty tomb and the appearances of Christ to the disciples and the emergence of the early church is the fact that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. And having risen from the dead, we have every reason to be confident in the redeeming power of his blood.

We can have confidence in the redemption accomplished by Christ because it actually achieves cleansing and conversion: “how much more shall the blood of Christ . . . purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” My friend, here is the bottom line: we do not preach a religion, the value of which merely lies in its ability to psychologically manipulate you into a state of inner tranquility. That’s therapy, not the Christian faith. Rather, we preach a person, Jesus Christ, who is actually able to give you real forgiveness of sins and who is actually able to free you from the power of sin and give you the ability to live for God when once you lived for yourself.

We all have committed real sins and we have to deal with real guilt and real shame. There are ways of getting around this, like searing your conscience, telling yourself there is no God, or that you are just a victim, and the fault of your sins lies with others. But if you really want to get rid of your guilt, you are going to have to deal with God. However God is holy, and he will not forgive the guilty. He is of purer eyes than to behold sin and he cannot look upon iniquity. The idea that God could just forgive sin and look the other way is ridiculous: in that case, he would neither be just nor holy. The only way you can ever have real confidence before God is if your sins have been purged. But that is exactly what Christ did on the cross. He purges our conscience from dead works, he deals with us on the level of the guilt of our sins because he has obtained eternal redemption for us.

But not only that. He not only cleanses us; he also converts us. His blood also enables us “to serve the living God.” This is just as much a result of Christ’s atoning work as is forgiveness. There are those who think they are praising God’s grace by claiming that people can be saved whose lives are never changed. But that is to separate what God has joined together. That is not to take the whole Christ. Listen: the work of redemption not only gives us the forgiveness of sins so that we can approach God with boldness and confidence, but it also gives us a new nature so that we will want to serve him and live for him. The grace of Christ really does free us from sin’s bondage. He can take the drug addict and free him from the iron grip of addiction. He can take the alcoholic and free him from the power of drink. He can take the man who feels enslaved to porn and give him new freedom. He can take the man who is completely self- absorbed and make him into a sacrificial husband and loving father. Now I’m not saying he makes it easy. I’m not saying it’s automatic. I’m not saying that we become freed this side of heaven from bodies and minds that are defined by the fact that we live in a broken and sinful world. But, my friend, the reality is that those who are redeemed by Christ have died to sin so that “sin shall not have dominion over you, for ye are not under the law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). The unregenerate man is lying there on the floor and the flesh has its foot on his neck. He cannot move! But when Jesus comes, he frees us from its dominion, and now we are able to put our foot upon the neck of our lusts. Do you believe that? I sometimes wonder if we do. But isn’t that what this text is saying? “How much more shall the blood of Christ ... purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”

What are we supposed to do with this? Remember that the author of Hebrews was writing this because some of his audience had lost sight of the superiority of Jesus and his work and were drifting off into other things. So he was writing this epistle to turn their eyes to Jesus. That’s what I want and hope to accomplish through the power of the Holy Spirit this morning. I’m not preaching this merely to remind you of correct doctrine. I’m hoping that you will too see the superiority of Jesus, that he has what no oneelse has, that he has a complete and perfect redemption. He can do what no one else can do: he can deliver us from death. We’ve sinned and sin demands a payment. Christ had made the payment by dying for all who trust in him.

Where are you this morning? Do you feel dirty and defiled from sin? Does your conscience rise against you and condemn you? Christ is able to cleanse your conscience from your sins, dead works that they are. Do you feel helpless and unable to lift a finger against the power of the sins in your life? Do you feel enslaved to sin? Christ is able to break those chains and take those who were the slaves of sin and Satan and make them joyful servants of the living God. Isn’t that an amazing contrast? To go from producing dead works to serving the living God! What a transformation!

All this is in Christ. Look to him and trust in him! Embrace him as your Lord and Savior, for the Bible says that all who put their trust in him will never be put to shame.

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John Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World (IVP, 1994), p. 156.

Monday, March 7, 2022

How to Think Biblically about Justice


The task I have been given is to answer the question: How do we think about social justice issues in light of the reality that redemption has not yet been brought to completion?  As Christians, we want to be able to think about these issues Biblically.  And make no mistake about it: the Bible has plenty to say about justice.  Here are a few examples, and this doesn’t exhaust the texts to which we could point:

The Bible gives us God’s expectation for us concerning justice:  He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?  (Micah 6:8)

The Bible gives us God’s commendation of a man (Abraham) who did justice:  For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him. (Gen. 18:19)

The Bible gives us God’s command to do justice: Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. (Ps. 82:3). And though this verse is particularly addressed to rulers, I think we can agree that it applies to all who are in a position to help and defend those who cannot help or defend themselves. 

The Bible gives us God’s evaluation of justice-doers: To do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.  (Prov. 21:3)

Clearly, God cares about justice, and what God cares about, we should care about.  But we should care about it in the way God cares about it.

So this is what we want to address.  In particular, what I want to do is to give you a framework within which to think about these things.  I cannot address every issue – in fact, I don’t have the expertise or experience to sort out all the issues surrounding the debates over things like reparations and racial reconciliation.  But there are a number of solutions out there parading as justice which in fact are very different from the Biblical view, and we want to be able to spot those and to discern what is genuinely wrong about them.  We also want to have a positive view of Biblical justice.  In other words, I want us to have Biblical discernment as we think about the constellation of issues surrounding the social justice debates.  So we’re going to be looking at the big picture here, which I hope will help you as you delve into the details of the debates.

How should we do this?  Any solution that is authentically Biblical is going to have to tie into the Bible’s overarching themes, and that is how I want to approach this topic.  That is, I want us to look at justice along the arc of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.  

Creation

In talking about creation, we are assuming a couple of things at least.  First, we are assuming that there is a God, the God who created all things and upholds all things by the word of his power.  This universe is guided and directed; it is not undirected matter in motion.  We are not philosophical materialists.  If we are going to be Biblical, we must at least affirm the opening statement of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Second, we are assuming that the creation has meaning, objective meaning, and purpose, and that this meaning and purpose is not created by us but is revealed to us.

But that of course begs the questions: what Creator and what meaning?  We must therefore confess God as he has revealed himself to us in the world and in the Word.  The God who created all things reveals himself to us as “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice goodness, and truth” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 4).  Especially in terms of what we are speaking to, we must affirm that “He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he” (Deut. 32:4).

God is a God of justice, and he has revealed what that standard of justice is in his Law, written in the hearts of all men, testified to by conscience, and above all, by Scripture.  It is God’s law, not man’s law, that must decide for a Christian what is justice and what is not.

But what meaning has he given to us?  At the very beginning, we are told that God made man – male and female – in his image (Gen. 1:26-28).  There is a lot of debate about what exactly this means, but it does at least imply that all men and women are endowed, as the Founding Fathers of our nation put it, by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and all men are to be treated equally and with dignity.  You don’t trash God’s image.  And when you look at your fellow man, whether he is African American or Indian American, Asian or Caucasian, Hispanic or Native American, rich or poor, famous or unknown, you are looking at an image-bearer of God Almighty.  This is the ground of justice on a horizontal level – the fact that all men are created in the image of God.

Incidentally, I think it warrants saying that getting upset over the term “social justice” is really a waste of time, because all justice is social justice.  All justice is about maintaining right relationships between man and God and between man and man.  If anything is wrong with the phrase, it is that it is a bit redundant, like talking about wet water or hot heat.  But there is nothing wrong with the term itself.  In fact, it might be helpful in forcing us to see the fundamental nature of justice in terms of social relationships.

The implication of being made in God’s image is brought out in our Lord’s summary of God’s law: “Jesus said unto him, Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt. 22:37-40).  Note the priority.  Love God above everything else.  Hallow his name.  Let his kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Then love your neighbor as yourself.  Sometimes justice is defined as “giving someone what is due to them.”  But we must be careful that we define “what is due” in Biblical parameters.  Biblically, it fundamentally means loving your neighbor as yourself.

How do you define “neighbor”?  We do it in light of our Lord’s words in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:29-37).  Your neighbor is anyone within your social sphere of influence, whether they are well known by you or not, whether you like them or not, whether you agree with them or not.  They are image-bearers, and you have a responsibility to them.  In other words, as Christians, we care about our communities and feel the responsibility of caring for those around us precisely because we are called to love our neighbors – our fellow image-bearers – as ourselves.  And we care about equity – giving to other what is due to them – because we are called to love our neighbors – our fellow image-bearers – as ourselves.  All this, we must reiterate, arises from the foundation of the Biblical doctrine of creation.

Fall

But this is not the whole story.  We are told in Genesis 3 that man fell from his state of uprightness into a state of rebellion and sin.  He fell from relating correctly with God and his fellow man to relating in self-serving and wicked ways; we now take advantage of those around us instead of serving them and loving them as ourselves.  In fact, we must go further.  According to Romans 5 and Ephesians 2, all mankind are implicated in Adam’s first sin.  He is our federal head and representative and what he did has affected the whole human race.  We are now born in a state of condemnation and sin, dead in sins, and under the wrath of God.  We are not born into this world with a blank slate, and we are not simply the product of societal influences.  We are hostile to God and unable to keep his law and love our neighbor as we ought.

Now, we must also say that the Bible affirms that the image of God is not completely gone (cf. Jam. 3:9).  It is marred, perhaps beyond recognition, but the fall has not erased those creation mandates of love to God and love to neighbor, of a responsibility toward our community and an urgency for equity.  But it does mean that the fundamental problem – the fundamental justice issue – is the issue and problem of human sin, of personal sin.  The injustice in this world cannot be seen purely in terms of environment or class struggle or education.  It is a problem of the human heart, and as long as the human heart is a sinful heart, there will be injustice in the world. 

Our fall in Adam and its consequences in original and actual sin is crucial in thinking about justice.  First of all, the Bible teaches us that sin is a primarily a personal thing.  The apostle Paul put it this way, “But let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another.  For every man shall bear his own burden” (Gal. 6:4-5).  The burden under consideration is the burden resulting from living in a fallen world with fallen hearts.  That we will bear our own burden is a testament to the fact that we are all ultimately responsible for the sins that we commit, for the choices that we make, for the burdens that we create.  As Paul put it in another place, “But why dost thou judge thy brother? Or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.  For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.  So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:10-12).  Every human being bears personal responsibility for their actions before God.  It bears underlining this fact, for this is the thing missing in virtually every secular theory of justice.

This needs to be balanced, however, by two further considerations.  First, though we are accountable for our sins, we are not always responsible for all the outcomes of our choices.  The Bible makes it abundantly clear that poverty, as one example, is not always an outcome an individual is personally responsible for (though it certainly sometimes is).  There are factors in this world that we cannot control.  A person’s health may deteriorate or the people around us may become unstable and unreliable, and a person can through no fault of their own end up with nothing.  If you don’t believe me, sit down with Job and let him explain it to you.

Second, the fact that sin a primarily a personal thing doesn’t erase the reality of corporate responsibility.  If you believe in Adam’s fall and the doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin to the human race, then it is impossible to escape the reality of corporate responsibility: in fact, it is the only adequate explanation for the way things are!  But beyond Adam’s sin there are multiple examples of this in the Bible: Achan’s family perishes for his sin, the Amalekites are struck down by King Saul because of the way their ancestors treated Israel generations before, Israel in King David’s day endures famine because of an injustice committed by King Saul in his day, and on and on.  We don’t exist on our own.  Though we are individuals, we are individuals in families and tribes and nations and societies.  We are on a team in some way and the mistakes of one member of the team affects everyone and can often implicate everyone.  

Of course there are limitations to this.  Kevin DeYoung notes, for example, that the apostle Peter accuses his audience in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost with murdering Jesus, although many of them may have had personally little to do with it in a direct sense.  But you don’t hear this accusation repeated later on or in Jewish synagogues in other parts of the Roman Empire as the gospel spread out.[1]  We can and should explore where the limitations are with respect to national and/or generational sin – sins like racism or abortion – but it is a question that needs to be asked because corporate responsibility is not a secular invention; it is a Biblical category.

That being said, we must recognize that if Ezekiel 18 says anything, it is that personal sin takes ultimate priority over the sins of the fathers.[2]  In particular, you can’t and shouldn’t hold an individual responsible for the sins of others in which they have not participated in some way (although we often bear the consequences of the sins of others).  The fact that in Ezekiel 18 this principle is illustrated by the relationship of a father and son should make us very careful in attributing blame to others because of the sins of their fathers or their group.

To sum up, injustice in the world is a matter of sin, sin against God above all and sin against man.  It is a failure to love God with all our hearts and our neighbor as ourselves.  Injustice can have corporate dimensions, but it is primarily a matter of personal responsibility.  One more thing to underline in discussions of justice is that this is a universal phenomenon.  “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  No one is innocent.  There are no people groups which are better than others in that sense.  Jew and Gentile, black and white, rich and poor: we are all guilty before God and stand under his judgment.  As Paul puts it in Eph. 2:3, we are all “children of wrath, even as others.”

Redemption

But thank God, fall is not the end of the story, either – though it could have been.  Fall is met by God with redemption.  Redemption is the Trinitarian task of restoring what sin broke in the fall.  “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”  The image of God was marred, but in redemption, God is restoring that image (cf. Eph. 4:24).  As a result of Adam’s fall, we are born dead in trespasses and in sin, but in redemption God is bringing us to life again in Christ.  As a result of the fall, sin has entered into the world with injustice inevitably in its wake, but in redemption, God is chasing sin out of the world along with all the injustice, and one day the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.

God has not then left all humanity to perish in their sin, but before the foundation of the world he chose a people for himself to love and bless.  He will save these people, the elect, by Christ his Son, who came to fulfill God’s broken law in their place and to satisfy God’s justice on their behalf.  This redemption is applied by the Holy Spirit in regeneration, conversion, sanctification, and glorification (Rom. 8:29-30).  It is cosmic in its scope (Eph. 1:10), presaged in the appearance of the kingdom in Christ’s earthly ministry in Palestine.  

This redemption is primarily vertical (restoring our broken relationship with God) with horizontal implications (restoring our broken fellowship with our fellow man).  See Eph. 2:11-22.  As God restores us so that we love him, we will also love our neighbor.

Redemption, though it is a work of the Holy Trinity – the Father initiating the work of redemption in election, the Son accomplishing the work of redemption on the cross, and the Holy Spirit applying the work of redemption in regeneration, conversion, sanctification, and glorification – it is done within the context of the church.  It is the church for which Christ died (Eph. 5:25).  As God undoes the fall, the church should reflect this reality and pursue its implications in every domain of life.  In other words, the church should reflect God’s passion for justice in the way we love those in the church as well as those outside the church.  

It is often said that the church’s primary mission is to preach the gospel.  That is absolutely true.  But the response to the gospel – though it is not to be identified with it – is just as necessary.  And repentance is a part of a proper response to the gospel.  Moreover, repentance is not only vertical; it is also horizontal.  John the Baptist’s response to those who asked him what they should do shows this.  If we are not repenting of mistreating our neighbor, then we have not truly repented of our sins toward God.  We cannot hate our brother and love God, says the apostle John (1 Jn. 4:20).  We cannot curse those in whom the image of God resides, says the apostle James (Jam. 3:9-10).   We cannot look at the injustice in the world and turn a blind eye; we must labor to get it out of our own hearts, then out of our churches, and then out of the world.

In other words, there is a place in the mission of every Christian and church to advocate for the poor and marginalized, for those who have been sinned against and mistreated and abused.  We don’t do this as a way to redeem ourselves, but we do it because we have been redeemed and we want to reflect back to the world the heart of the God who has redeemed us – and since God is a God who cares about justice, we too care about justice and work for justice in the world.

But we do so, if we do so Biblically, in an atmosphere of grace.  The world not only misses the reality of sin; it also misses the reality of grace.  Redemption can’t happen apart from grace and therefore working for justice is never going to happen apart from grace.  Grace heals the wounds which injustice created and makes possible reconciliation so that justice can have a future among us.  And we who are justified by grace apart from works should be the first to extend grace to those who have sinned against us, who should be the first to be willing to be reconciled with those who have hurt us.  There is a reality check for us in the Lord’s Prayer in this respect: as we ask God to forgive us, we confess that we forgive those who sin against us.

Grace is often pitted against repentance and restoration, but this is not the way the Bible speaks of repentance and grace.  In fact, in Acts 11 we read that God granted the Gentiles repentance unto life (ver. 18); the implication there is that repentance is a gift of God’s grace.  It is the grace of God that not only gives us the opportunity to repent but which also creates in us a heart of repentance.

In the same way, the Christian view of justice does not pit repentance and grace against one another.  One makes way for the other, and our lives ought to reflect that.  We should work to repent of the ways we have sinned against others, and to extend grace to those who have sinned against us.  We should work to see the priorities of God’s kingdom extended in the world around us, but this not only means pursuing justice; it equally means showing grace and receiving grace.  We would do well to remember that in the debates surrounding justice in our day.

Consummation

Redemption has a goal: the restoration of all things in Christ.  But that goal has not yet been accomplished, and it will not be until Christ comes again in the glory of his kingdom.  Though glorification is absolutely sure, it also awaits the future to take place.  It is at this point that I am more directly addressing the question that I was assigned.  But we cannot of course do this adequately apart from the backdrop of creation, fall, and redemption.  

There are two aspects to the consummation: one positive and one negative.  The positive aspect is encompassed in the renewal of the heavens and the earth and in the resurrection of the just who will inhabit the new world in the age to come and enjoy eternal and ever-increasing blessedness.  The negative aspect is encompassed in the future judgment of the wicked, the “everlasting punishment” that our Lord warns us about in Mt. 25:46.  However, both of these realities are future, and there are two things about the not-yet aspect of the consummation that needs to be considered as we think about the injustice around us.

First, the not-yet aspect of eternal felicity means that we cannot create utopia here; that is impossible, and history bears this observation out.  Every attempt to do this always ends up, not with utopia, but with concentration camps. The reality is that not everyone is going to agree with your definition of what utopia looks like.  But you can’t have utopia unless everyone goes along with you!  And so for those who won’t agree, you have to use force to compel them to come in, and that usually ends in gulags and prisons.  Any social justice scheme which expects to create a utopia here therefore must be suspect.

Nevertheless, it also means that, since the goal of all things is a new heaven and new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13), we should seek to approximate this goal as much as possible in the world in which we live, while recognizing that it is neither possible nor even desirable to fully eradicate all injustice in this age.  But the church should be the first place where this starts.  If we cannot pursue justice in and through our churches, how can we expect justice to flow down like rivers?  In other words, we should not let the future of the consummation become an excuse to presently do nothing.  

I think the miracles of our Lord are instructive here.  When you think about it, though our Lord’s miracles did address themselves to the hurt and the inequities created by the fall, they could not have been for the purpose of creating a utopia on earth.  They weren’t meant to bring a sudden conclusion to the hurt that sin had brought into this world, for in terms of their global impact, relatively few people were healed during our Lord’s earthly ministry.  However, they did have a purpose, and the apostle John lets us in on it: “And many other signs [miracles] truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (Jn. 20:30-31).  In other words, the miracles of Christ were meant to point people to Jesus (hence, they were called “signs”).  In a similar way, the Christian is meant to hold up the light of Christ in this world; to be a witness to the power of the gospel and the beauty of grace.  The church is meant to be a place where the powers of the age to come are being played out, and that means, at least in part, that the church is meant to be a place where justice is celebrated and pursued through the power of God’s grace in us.

Second, the not-yet aspect of eternal judgment helps us to keep a pursuit of justice from becoming about revenge.  We are not giving up on justice when we obey our Lord’s words: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath, for it is written, Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord.   Therefore, if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink, for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head.  Be not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:19-21).

So, what does the redemptive arc of Scripture tell us?  It tells us that we are to pursue justice, and this means first of all loving God with all our hearts.  It means loving our neighbor as ourselves.  It means recognizing the true scope of sin and its impact in every human heart and every human institution.  It means pursuing justice in light of gospel realities, and in particular, in the power of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

The Contours of Biblical Justice

In light of the above parameters, we can say the following things about a Christian view of social justice.

First, Biblical justice is defined, not by utilitarian factors or majority rule or what makes most people happy or in terms of political and economic power, but by God’s transcendent moral law which is revealed to the conscience and most clearly in Scripture.  And this law is summarized in every age by, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Second, the command to love your neighbor as yourself implies the necessity of pursuing equity in human affairs as well as recognizing the dignity and essential equality of every human being.  It also implies a commitment beyond self-interest to the needs of the community of the people around us.  Hence, a pursuit of Biblical justice brings with it a commitment to advocate for the welfare of those who are less fortunate than we are: for the widow and the fatherless, and for those who cannot defend themselves.

Third, Biblical justice cannot be ultimately achieved apart from dealing with human sin and recognizing that human sinfulness is universal, inherent, and has both individual and corporate factors – although the factor of individual responsibility takes precedence over the factor of corporate responsibility.  Though we recognize that injustice can become enshrined in the laws of men and in man-made systems and economies and should be dealt with on that level, the teaching of Scripture tells us that injustice will not be rooted out if we are not willing to fundamentally deal with it on the level of the human heart.  This means that Biblical justice should be seen most clearly in the church in the lives of people who have been reconciled to God and to each other because Christ satisfied the demands of Divine justice in their place.

So when we are confronted with other views of justice, we not only need to ask what it involves in terms of our responsibilities to others, but also what does it say about the foundations of human equity and dignity?  What you will find is that many of them have no such foundation because they are based on things like “common sense” and appeals to the emotions (even though they falsely claim to be based on reason).  The danger with that is that what may be common sense to one generation is not necessarily so to the next.  Another question to ask is, What does it say about human nature?  Again, most secular views assume that human nature comes into this world a tabula rosa, and/or basically good, and therefore locates problems of injustice entirely in things outside us, like the environment or economic and political systems.  The resulting solutions they present are therefore naive and incomplete at best. Finally, ask the question whether or not the theory preserves the Biblical balance between individual and corporate responsibility.  Many views are either/or, when the Bible embraces both.

As we end, let’s come back to where we started.  Why should we care about justice?  We should care about it because God cares about it.  Justice, when it is pursued Biblically, is a beautiful thing.  One day, when our Lord returns and establishes justice and judgment over all the earth, we will see it to be so.  Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

 

Some Recommended Reading

This is obviously not an extensive reading list by any stretch of the imagination.  But this is where I started, and perhaps you might find it a helpful place to start, too.  The first two are online collections of articles and the last four are books.  Just a note: all sources (with the possible exception of MacIntyre) are well within the evangelical Christian orbit of thinking, so if you want to read outside this orbit, you will need to look elsewhere.

1.     Kevin DeYoung, Thinking Theologically About Racial Tensions.  This is a collection of articles DeYoung has written on race and justice originally for his blog.

 https://heritagegvl.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Thinking-Theologically-About-Racial-Tensions.pdf

2.     Tim Keller has several helpful articles on race and justice which you can find here:

 https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/tim-keller-on-race-and-justice/

3.     Thaddeus Williams, Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice (Zondervan, 2020).

4.     George Yancey, Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility (IVP, 2006).

5.     Mark Vroegop, Weep With Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation (Crossway, 2020).

6.     Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, 1988).



[1] See https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/thinking-theologically-about-racial-tensions-sin-and-guilt/  He summarizes by saying, To sum up: the Bible has a category for corporate responsibility. Culpability for sins committed can extend to a large group if virtually everyone in the group was active in the sin or if we bear the same spiritual resemblance to the perpetrators of the past. Furthermore, the sins of others can be imputed to us if there is a natural, moral/political, or voluntary union.”

[2] Verse 20 is especially to the point here: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.  The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.”

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