What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in[a] him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
Romans 1:32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Guilt. I sin, I know I sin, and I know I deserve to die for my sin. The crushing weight of guilt and shame is more than I can endure.
Man has been trying to remove his burden of guilt ever since God drove him out of the garden. He has tried hiding it with fig leaves, raging at it in murder, and burying it beneath a self righteous exterior. Nothing works. The guilt continues to hound him.
The Christianity I had been raised with, had indeed devoted the early part of my adult life to, could not address the overwhelming sense of guilt and shame that burdened me daily. I am a sinner. I sin every day. And I know I deserve to die for this. Yet even so I cannot stop sinning. No matter what I try, I continue to succumb to the temptation. If God loves me, then why won’t He take the temptations away? If He loves me, then why won’t He stop me from sinning?
I recall how even as a child I would sometimes lay awake in my bed at night, imagining the horrors of what would happen if I were to die in my sleep. I was certain even at that age that I would wake up to find myself in hell.
Years later, after I reached adulthood, I tried the various religious methods that promise to alleviate my sense of guilt. I tried the “let go and let God” method. This method promised to be a virtual guarantee. Whenever a temptation arose, I was to say under my breath, “Lord Jesus take over.” This was supposed to be the means by which the Spirit would then energize me to overcome the temptation. It never worked. Quite the opposite, in fact. The only thing it did was increase the feelings of guilt and shame. After all, if the Lord Jesus was not “taking over”, I thought, then it had to be because I was too evil even for Him.
I tried the positive self talk method. Don’t tell yourself you’re sinner. That’s a lie. Jesus died for you. You’re God’s beloved now. Right. And can a leopard change its spots? It didn’t work. Lies cannot satisfy the demand of a guilty conscience. And if Jesus has died for everyone, then why is everyone still trying to not feel guilty?
I tried ignoring the guilt and instead burying myself in social outreach programs. We give you this bag of groceries to show you that God loves you, no strings attached. We wash your car to show you Jesus wants to have a relationship with you. We give you this can of cola to . . . blah, blah, blah. Right. And if God really loved me, then He’d do something about these feelings of guilt and shame.
I tried New Age and Humanism. They just turned out to be sloppy philosophical versions of the other tricks I had already tried.
In despair, I eventually tried drowning the feelings of shame and guilt with alcohol and drugs. This didn’t work either. In fact, things just got worse. Shame spiraled down into depression before depression turned to anger and self abuse. Alcohol and drugs have a way of convincing the abuser that he deserves the abuse.
Sometime in my thirties the Lord was finally pleased to reveal His gospel to me. A friend and now brother in Christ had spent a few weeks poring over the gospel with me by email. At the same time I had been studying the epistle to the Hebrews. One afternoon, after I had spoken with my friend, I opened my Bible to resume my study of Hebrews. I turned to chapter 10 and began to read. Two minutes later, all the lights in my head came on.
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? 3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
5 Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;
6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
7 Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”
8 When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9 then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. 10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,
16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds,”
17 then he adds,
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
There it was in front of me. The answer for the guilt and shame I had lived with over the course of my adult life. I had read the chapter at least three dozen times, but had never seen it like this before. Here I was now though, seeing it for what seemed like the first time.
If there is anything we could do to make ourselves acceptable to God, then we would only need to do that thing one time, because having sufficed to make us acceptable to God once, that thing would have sufficed to make us acceptable to God forever.
My much praying, my repeated Bible studying, my church attendance, my many repeated attempts to resist temptation, none of these things could make me acceptable to God. The proof of this was that they had to keep being repeated.
There is only one thing that makes a person acceptable to God. It was a thing which He Himself performed, and it is a thing which He shall never again repeat. It was the sacrificial death of His own Son.
I realized right there and then that the gospel is not about a transformation inside me. The gospel is not a renovation project. Rather, it’s a relocation project. God transfers His people from one kingdom to another.
In other words, the gospel is the good news about a change in federal headships. In Matthew 7, Jesus tells us that no good tree produces evil fruit, and no bad tree produces good fruit. He was not telling us that everyone is a tree. He was instead telling us that there are only two trees – one that is righteous and one that is unrighteous.
Jesus Christ is the second Adam. He is the head of a new race of people; a people made righteous by the imputation of His righteousness to them. He is the tree of life, and all who are “in Him” are His good fruit.
The first Adam is the head of an old race of people; a corrupted people made unrighteous by the imputation of his guilt to them. He is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and all who are “in him” are his evil fruit.
The good news is God keeps books. He’s a bookkeeper, an accountant. This is how He justifies. He does not justify by performing some mystical thing inside a person that results in better performance. No, He justifies by doing something outside of the person. And what He does is credit Christ’s obedience to their account. He reckons Christ’s righteousness to them.
This solves the guilt. It completely removes it in one fell swoop, because the righteousness is no longer dependent on my performance. I am still getting bad results in my behavior, and yet I’m no longer crushed with overwhelming guilt because of it.
Put that on hold.
Opposite this good news is the theory of two natures. This theory hypothesizes that all men have one nature that was corrupted by sin at the fall. However, upon conversion through the gospel, the Holy Spirit creates a new nature for the man. Though still possessing his sin nature, he now also has a righteous nature. For the rest of his life then, these two natures will duke it out for supremacy inside him while he learns to submit to his new nature and resist his old sin nature.
This is not good news. This is terrible news. It’s terrible news for several reasons. First, it debases the cross of Christ. With the no nature good news, the cross is what God imputes to my account. The object of my faith then, the thing which assures me that I am indeed righteous, is the sacrifice of Christ itself.
In the two natures bad news though, the cross merely serves to prepare man to receive a new nature so that he can now combat sin in his life. It’s not the cross that serves to assure me that I am righteous. Instead, it’s the experience of overcoming sin in my life that assures me, because this is what proves I have been justified.
In the no nature good news, guilt was once and for all dealt with in a single blow. With the two natures bad news though, guilt is something that still rides me every time I fail to obey my spiritual nature. I’m left wondering, am I really saved? Have I really been regenerated? Am I really righteous?
Much like the two natures theory, the new nature theory also grounds righteousness upon something that occurs inside me. Rather than hypothesizing two natures though, this theory instead proffers that our sin nature gets replaced with a new, sinless nature. Even worse, this new sinless nature is then the grounds for God imputing Christ’s righteousness to men. The men who teach this nonsense sneer at the idea that God would reckon an unrighteous person righteous by merely imputing righteousness to their account, because as they put it, this would be mere “legal fiction”. They instead insist that we must be made inwardly righteous in some mystical way before God can then impute us righteous. Just like the two natures theory, this one nature nonsense twists the gospel into a message about renovation rather than a transfer.
Both theories are false. Both theories are a false gospel. Both theories fail to see that the good news is not a message about righteousness grounded on personal transformation. Rather, the good news is a message about righteousness grounded upon a single event that occurred outside of us two-thousand years ago at place called Golgotha.
In the third chapter of his epistle to the Galatians, the apostle Paul urges his readers to recall the message he had preached to them. It was before your very eyes Jesus Christ was portrayed as crucified, he says. Notice that. He does not say it was before your eyes you received a new nature, or it was before your eyes the Spirit made you to sin less.
Of course, some legalist is going to read this and then falsely charge me with Antinomianism. They will accuse me of saying sin all you want with impunity, because after all, Jesus already paid for it.
I did not say this. I did not say sin all you want with impunity. God disciplines His people. His people have been instructed to resist evil and to do good, but this does not mean they will succeed, nor does it mean they will become less sinful. I have said it before and I will say it again; if I am becoming less sinful, then I am also growing less needful of the cross.
You stopped drinking? Good for you. AA has the same effect.
You stopped holding on to unforgiveness? Good for you. Psychological counseling has the same effect.
You stopped abusing drugs? Good for you. Recovery has the same effect.
If not drinking, smoking, and doing drugs is evidence of justification, then everyone who undergoes counseling and AA has been justified. This is certainly not the case.
The reformers summarized the gospel like this; we are justified, not by something God does in us, but rather by something God does outside of us. If this is true, then the object of our faith cannot be something done inside of me. It must instead be the something that God did outside of me. Unfortunately for many in the reformed community today, people are by faith laying hold not of the cross, but rather themselves.