The main emphasis of Mark’s message—”The Doctrine of Christ's Work Accomplished and Applied
”—centered on Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sin. In his message Mark made a critical distinction in how the word ‘atonement’ is sometimes spoken about as compared to a biblical definition. Mark used an illustration from the world of politics to make his point.
From time to time we hear prominent public officials resign from office because of some scandal. And then they always have the tearful news conference the next day. And they say something like, “In the past few days I have begun to atone for my private failings.”
And we all know what they mean, some guy is trying to make it up to his wife, trying to regain her trust, her love, though he had grievously and publicly abused that trust and love.
But what I want to make sure we understand is that, strictly speaking, a person can never atone for his sins. You and I can never atone for our sins.
Do we have sins? Yes, we all have sins.
Can any one of us, the best among us, atone for our sins? No. …
We have sinned against a holy God. We can’t go back. We can’t undo our sins. Even if we could, we can’t go back and undo the decisions that led to the actions, let alone the desires that led to the decisions that led to the actions. We have done them already. No amount of good we may do now can undo those things. We have already done them. Even if we think these other things morally outweigh our transgressions from our mind. They might make us forget them. But they have been done.
So what can be done?
Friends, this is the great good news of what only Jesus could do. And this unique work had a unique result—it worked. The death of the sinless Son of God actually atoned for our sins. That death brought us healing. And there are hundreds, and maybe thousands, of people around you in this room who can give personal testimony to that.
What a glorious truth in light of our inability to atone for our sinful desires, our sinful decisions, and our sinful actions.
To download and listen to this message—or any of the conference messages—visit thisisnext.org
June 4, 2008 by Tony Reinke
Categories: God's love | Joy | Legalism
The question “Do I love God?” is often overshadowed by a bigger question—“Does God love me?” This personal doubt of God's love has haunted Christians for centuries and remains a common question today. So it was not surprising to see the Sovereign Grace (e)mailbag receive a number of requests for more information on a particular quote C.J. shared at the end of his second New Attitude message.
Over a century ago a woman posed the same question to pastor Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
I once knew a good woman who was the subject of many doubts, and when I got to the bottom of her doubt, it was this: she knew she loved Christ, but she was afraid he did not love her. “Oh!” I said, “that is a doubt that will never trouble me; never, by any possibility, because I am sure of this, that the heart is so corrupt, naturally, that love to God never did get there without God’s putting it there.” You may rest quite certain, that if you love God, it is a fruit, and not a root. It is the fruit of God’s love to you, and did not get there by the force of any goodness in you. You may conclude, with absolute certainty, that God loves you if you love God.
It was this succinct and biblically rich counsel C.J. shared in his second address at the Na conference.
Spurgeon’s entire sermon can be read online for free here. C.J.’s Na message—“God as Father: Understanding the Doctrine of Adoption”—can be downloaded here.
The audio recording of C.J.'s second and final message delivered at the New Attitude conference is now online.
God as Father: Understanding the Doctrine of Adoption in God's Word
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
(A continuation of C.J.’s interview with pastor and author Dr. Sinclair Ferguson)
C.J. Mahaney: This quote I have used numerous times in preaching. I don’t think I have ever used this quote without it affecting me. And I would anticipate this would happen even this moment. I think once readers hear the contents of this quote they will understand why:
When we think of Christ dying on the cross we are shown the lengths to which God’s love goes in order to win us back to himself. We would almost think that God loved us more than he loves his Son! We cannot measure such love by any other standard. He is saying to us: I love you this much. The cross is the heart of the gospel. It makes the gospel good news: Christ died for us. He has stood in our place before God’s judgment seat. He has borne our sins. God has done something on the cross we could never do for ourselves. But God does something to us as well as for us through the cross. He persuades us that he loves us.
And this is the phrase that I find just affects me every time: “We would almost think that God loved us more than he loves his Son.” Please, the origin of that quote. And please elaborate for us.
Sinclair Ferguson: Well, there are probably several origins when I begin to think about the different parts of that quote. I think actually the statement that most affects you was stimulated by something that Spurgeon says somewhere—“We would almost think that God loved us more than he loves his Son.” I can’t remember exactly where the quote originates, but I do remember Spurgeon is somewhere there in the stimulus. And that was because he had such a tremendous sense in his preaching about the love of God in Christ.
It is one thing to say love, isn’t it? It is another thing to exude that in preaching. We were talking about Dr. Lloyd-Jones earlier, and I think he says somewhere in his book on preaching that looking back, the one thing that he feels was missing was pathos. I don’t know that it was more missing in him than others. I think I can understand why he felt it was missing, because he was so committed to this notion of preaching being logic on fire. I can see, knowing what he knew about preachers in the past, he realized that there was something that they would have called an “affecting character” that maybe was more than just logic on fire. And Spurgeon certainly had this pathos in his preaching.
When you do look at the cross, there is something full of pathos, not because of sentiment (the poor man is dying on the cross), but because of theology. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. And the connectedness between John 3 and Romans 8:32: If he who did not spare his own Son but delivered him up for us all how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?
Capturing that truth in a world of the unloved—I can’t work myself up to that truth. That truth has got to break into my heart with its pathos: that he has given his own Son. And that is not just a theological construction. Therefore the heart of the atonement actually takes place not wholly outside of God but within. This is his own Son who is our Savior.
And then the logic we now have is that “if I have given my Son for you, I will stop short of nothing else for you.” Couple that with what Paul said earlier in Romans 5:8--"But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (NASB).
The cross should never be expounded simply as a demonstration of the love of God in a sense of being overwhelmed with his love, like it doesn’t matter if anything else was accomplished on the cross as long as we are overwhelmed by his love and swept along into fellowship with him, and that is the atonement. No. But while wrath is satisfied and Christ dies for our sins, it would be erroneous for us to reduce this to the kind of mathematical formulation of “this is how God has merely dealt with our sins.” No, this is also how God actually proves to us he really loves us!
So it is both the effecting of the atonement and the persuading of his love. And that really takes us back to what we were talking about earlier on, in Eden. The situation with the fall of Adam, it seems to me—among the dimensions that need to be dealt with, there is the satanic dimension: the one who has now taken over the universe needs to be crushed, and in Genesis 3:15 his head will be crushed. But in that there also needs to be an atonement for guilt, but with that atonement for guilt we need to be persuaded of what was originally true, that Satan sought to destroy. This issue of being persuaded of God’s love, not in a facile way, but through the work of the cross, goes very much along with how is it that God is going to deal with the natural legalism of my heart that says, “He will only begin to love me when I do things to please him.”
Also, I think this is a powerful reality in difficult providences. There are times when I bump into somebody unexpectedly that I will say, “This is a happy providence.” And then I will stop and think, “Would it have been an unhappy providence if I hadn’t bumped into you?” We have this tendency—especially if you are inclined to this legalism—to measure how God’s love is doing for you these days by the providences that surround your life. Our ability to read providences are a very inaccurate measure of God’s love for us.
So again, it’s back to the cross. This is where God demonstrates his love. I don’t know that Christ loves me because I am in the boat with him and the seas are calm. And therefore I don’t know that Christ doesn’t love me because I am in the boat with him and the seas are not calm. I know my heart will say to him, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?”
But with the cross I know he is saying to me, “The reason I am in the boat and the reason I am going to the cross is because I care. So my love is demonstrated towards you in this way.”
CJM: Well, I only wish everyone could be here in this room right now. I hope that what is taking place in this room is transferred to people’s hearts and that God’s love, as so eloquently just expressed by Sinclair, in and through the cross, would transform people’s hearts and make an immediate and dramatic difference. I pray that everyone reading would be persuaded that he loves us because of what took place upon the cross.
The Ferguson quote at the top is taken from Grow in Grace (Banner of Truth, 1989), pp. 56, 58.
Photo © 2008, Lukas VanDyke
(A continuation of C.J.’s interview with pastor and author Dr. Sinclair Ferguson)
Sinclair Ferguson: The struggle of our minds is to submit to Scripture, because our minds wander all over the place. I sometimes wonder why it’s so difficult for us to sit down and think about the Lord Jesus for five minutes when we can think of almost anything else in the world for five minutes. And when I think about that I think, “My, how far we have to go.” And, therefore, it is going to be very hard discipline to bring my mind and my spirit under the Word to really listen.
This was the thing that professor John Murray helped me with. The development of the humanity of the Lord Jesus has meant more to me than I think—than I have ever even tried to communicate. To think that he grew in stature—I understand that. And I can understand that he grew in wisdom, although that is a bit of a shock sometimes to Christians.
How did he grow in wisdom? He grew in wisdom by meditating on the Scriptures, not because it kind of fell on his head because he was the Son of God.
And that he grew in favor with God as well as with man—I just find that stunning. And when you get over the other side of that statement, that he grew in favor with God, then you realize I have got to see why. I read the rest of Luke’s Gospel. I have got to see why that was.
C.J. Mahaney: Ok, so how did he grow in favor with God (Luke 2:52)?
SF: How long have we got?
CJM: As long as it takes you to explain it.
SF: When I think about the Lord Jesus, I’m thinking about the way in which here he is—at twelve years old—asking questions. And I think he was asking questions. I think he wanted to know the answers. And as he explored the answers, they were obviously startled by his insight. I think the reason for that was because in a twelve-year-old-boy kind of way, like some of our youngsters, he can come out with very direct questions that after years of managing to manipulate themselves around people and avoid the important questions—they just get straight to the heart of the matter.
I assume by twelve he had memorized a lot of the Scriptures, and now as he grows, the level of obedience to which he is being called, the tests are getting harder. And as he advances through each of these tests, the Father responds like any father who goes along to watch his children play in a competition or something.
I could imagine a boy running down the touchline with a football and scoring and the father, if he is a Christian, doing it very quietly, but just saying, “That’s my boy. I have always loved you. And I always knew you had talent. But now I see it.” Or a child overcomes a huge obstacle and the father’s heart just leaps. Or in a marriage relationship, the day you got married you thought, “It is not possible for man to love woman more than I love this woman!” And now you look back and think, “I have so many more reasons to love her.”
And so the relationship between the Son and the Father in the Son’s incarnate and humiliated days is a relationship.
With respect to his having taken our flesh, in that flesh the relationship grows and the tests become harder. And the test in Gethsemane is unspeakably hard for him. Because it seems to me that what is happening there is he is being called to do what his humanity can never want. He has been called to give himself to the abandonment of the One who has favored him all his life.
I really do see that as the ultimate reverse of Eden. In Eden God is saying to Adam, “Do this just because I am God, not because you can read off this tree, ‘Do not touch.’” And I personally don’t think that tree was really any different. I don’t think the fruit was poisonous. I don’t think you could have walked past it and said, “It is obvious that we shouldn’t eat it.” That would not so much have been a test as an instinctive response. But I think it’s in its sameness to the others that God says, “For my sake, trust me. Don’t eat from it.”
And yet we are told—and I find this fascinating, that in Genesis 2 we are told about all the trees, that they were attractive and delicious. And in 3 we are told that this tree was also attractive and delicious, so that the only thing that stops me is because God has said, “Don’t eat.” I am going to trust him.
And here is Jesus in a position where, for Adam, every natural instinct is to take the fruit of the tree, but God has said don’t do it. And Adam should have not taken it because God said it. And here, for Jesus, his natural instinct is to say, “Please, not the cross, not the cross.” But the reason he does it is because “the cup that my Father gives me to drink, will I not drink of it?” (John 18:11) I mean, it’s unspeakable, really.
CJM: It is, indeed. [weeping]
SF: I think we all will be weeping in a moment, C.J.
It’s just, you know, that you can’t see this truth by thinking about yourself. So that’s what lies behind this “smuggling character into the work of grace.”
When we sit round like this and start talking about it, we begin to realize the depth of this truth. When we are preaching we are kind of trying to hit the ball down the middle of the fairway. But in a way it is easier to communicate this, I think, when we are just sitting around like this, as friends talking, than when we have got the multidimensional distractions of a preaching situation.
Photo © 2008, Lukas VanDyke
(A continuation of C.J.’s interview with pastor and author Dr. Sinclair Ferguson)
C.J. Mahaney: We are continuing this wonderful, memorable time with Sinclair Ferguson. And here is the second quote and we eagerly anticipate, Sinclair, your response.
The glory of the gospel is that God has declared Christians to be rightly related to him in spite of their sin. But our greatest temptation and mistake is to try to smuggle character into his work of grace. How easily we fall into the trap of assuming that we can only remain justified so long as there are grounds in our character for justification. But Paul’s teaching is that nothing we do ever contributes to our justification.
So if you would comment in particular on that great temptation and mistake, which is, I think, a daily tendency and temptation: to try to “smuggle character into his work of grace.”
Sinclair Ferguson: I guess, C.J., what lies behind this, the thought is that at the end of the day what Satan did in the Garden of Eden was to introduce the notion of legalism into the nature of the relationship that Adam and Eve had with God. And although there is a dialogue in which Eve is defensive in Genesis 3, what Satan asks is, “Has God put you in this garden and said, ‘You are not to eat of any of the trees of this garden?’”
And I think you can see in the narrative from that point onward she struggles with the answer. “Well, now there is this one tree.” But there is no recognition that he has showered upon us these great things, these other trees.
I was reared in the notion that what Satan was doing there was questioning the authority of God’s word (which he does). But more important, in that context, he was really questioning the character of the God by saying, “Don’t you see he really isn’t generous?”
Satan is saying God is like a father who takes his child into some phenomenally wonderful children’s department store the week before Christmas, shows him everything, and says to him with a cynical laugh, “And none of this is going to be yours this Christmas.”
It is the distortion. I am no psychiatrist, but I think at the human level that inevitably produces a child who will either willfully rebel or find himself always feeling he has got to do something to earn his father’s love.
It may be speculative to ask what it is the deepest thing in Satan’s heart against God. But I think there clearly is that jealously to demean his character. And the demeaning of the character of God, I think, injects into all that lies behind what we call legalism.
Geerhardus Vos has some amazing one-liners in the midst of all that kind of very dense language...
CJM: Is he known for his one-liners? I have not heard him characterized as a one-line kind of guy.
SF: There is a great book produced by P&R of quotes from Geerhardus Vos [A Geerhardus Vos Anthology]. It’s great because Vos is so heavy and thick that sometimes it’s difficult to read and you lose the good things.
Anyway, Vos says that the heart of legalism is when we separate the law of God from the person of God. And what we have got then are bare imperatives that don’t have an indicative that will sustain them.
God himself in his grace, love, kindness, and generosity was the indicative that would have sustained the imperative of “Don’t eat the fruit of this tree.” And I see that distortion of God’s character, and the notion of legalism that seeks to earn what now as fallen creatures we can never earn, and blinds us to his a priori love for us in Christ.
Satan is cast out in terms of his dominion over our lives from the beginning of our Christian lives, yet we are still living in a world and with a memory and as a being for whom, I think, that battle against legalism is a lifelong reality.
And this gets back to the quiet time. I have met a lot of very fervent Christians who, if they haven’t had their quiet time, feel things will go wrong in the day. They turn the gospel on its head.
There are imperatives that flow out of the indicatives of God’s grace, but it is so easy for us, I think, to just fall back into that old trap—as Owen would have said—mix the rubbish of our own qualifications into the foundation of our Christian life, which is absolutely, purely, completely, totally the unmerited (and de-merited) favor of God.
And I think it’s interesting in the history of the Christian church. One of my areas of special concentration has been in the seventeenth century and the antinomian controversies in the seventeenth century. Reading the men who were involved on the antinomian side, I was fascinated by the fact that they all said basically they had been legalists. One of the things I began to notice was that everybody who I ever read who was known as antinomian in the technical sense, this had become their way of dealing with legalism.
They were godly men and their theology could be a bit slippery. But reading what they wrote, it really kind of impressed upon me that Paul does not deal with legalism by saying, “Now what you need is three grains of antinomianism, and that will dissolve your legalism.” No. He always said, “It is the grace of God in Jesus Christ that will dissolve both legalism and antinomianism.” I saw the way Paul keeps dragging people back to the same basic principles in the gospel.
It kind of underlined to me: If he is doing that, then actually whatever spiritual sickness may be presented—if I can use like a medical analogy—the good spiritual diagnostician is going to see that the fact that you are hurting here doesn’t mean that the source of the problem is here.
And that, of course, was a helpful thing for me to think about both theologically and pastorally.
One thing that dawned on me was I had met people, as you do in certain branches of the Reformed church, for whom assurance is a great problem. And they get fixated on assurance and they want to talk about assurance. And I realize: Well, but, the resolution of assurance doesn’t lie in the doctrine of assurance. It lies in the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. And so, you know, we have got to struggle with this person who is becoming obsessed with the pain of not having assurance. You have got to drag them out of that and say, “No, really, the source of this is to be found in something even more fundamental than that.”
And so that takes us back to our golf conversation. I have noticed listening to others (and in a minor way) from my own experience that when you hit your best golf shots, you are not actually thinking. It flows out of an instinct. And you are “in the zone” as they say. And that is true of all sports, isn’t it? You see a basketball player in slow motion. When you see what they are actually doing, you realize there is no way they could think through all that’s going on.
I sometimes say you have got to be “thunked” about the Christian life. It has got to get into you, to be part of you. Otherwise you are saying, “Oh, there goes a little antinomianism. I’ve got to balance there. There goes my legalism, got to balance that.” No, it’s more and more the penetration of the gospel of grace and the person of Christ.
The Ferguson quote at the top originates from Know Your Christian Life (IVP, 1981), p. 73.
Photo © 2008, Lukas VanDyke