The Gospel in Relation to our Sins
It is with a sense of the greatest relief that we turn from the sad story of man's sin and shame to contemplate the wondrous grace of God as told out in the gospel, the divine remedy for the ruin that came in by the fall. And this presentation of the good news is in two parts: it presents the gospel first as having to do with the question of our sins: and then when that is settled, as having to do with our sin; the sin-principle, sin in the flesh, the carnal mind which dominates the unsaved, unregenerated man. The first theme is fully taken up in chapters 3:21 to 5:11, and this we will now consider.
"BUT NOW"—exclaims the apostle. It marks a decided change of subject. Now that man has been fully shown up, God will be revealed. Now upon the proven unrighteousness of all mankind "the righteousness of God is manifested.” Of old He had declared, "I will bring near My righteousness.” This is in no sense a wrought-out, legal righteousness, such as man was unable to produce for God. It is a righteousness "without the law," that is, altogether apart from any principle of human obedience to a divinely-ordained code of morals. It is a righteousness of God for unrighteous men, and is in no wise dependent upon human merit or attainment.
The Righteousness of God is a term of wide import. Here it means a righteousness of God's providing—a perfect standing for guilty men for which God makes Himself responsible. If men are saved at all it must be in righteousness. But of this, man is utterly bereft. Therefore God must find a way whereby every claim of His righteous throne shall be met, and yet guilty sinners be justified from all things. His very nature demands that this must not be at the expense of righteousness but in full accord with it.
And this has been in His mind from the beginning. It is "witnessed," or borne testimony to, "by the law and the prophets.” Moses depicts it in many types of remarkable beauty. The coats of skin wherein our first parents were clothed; the sacrificial victims accepted in behalf of the offerers; the wonderful symbolism of the Tabernacle; all tell out the story of a righteousness provided by God for the unrighteous sinner who turns to Him in faith. The prophets, too, take up the same story. They predict the coming of the Just One who was to die to bring unjust men nigh to God. "Deliver me in Thy righteousness," cries David. "Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow," he prays. "He hath clothed us in the garments of salvation, in the robe of righteousness," says Isaiah, for "the chastisement of our peace was upon Him" who was "bruised for our iniquities.” "This is His name," exclaims Jeremiah, "whereby He shall be called, the Lord our Righteousness.” "I will save you from all your uncleannesses," is the promise through Ezekiel. To Daniel the angel Gabriel foretells the making of "reconciliation for iniquity" and the bringing in of "everlasting righteousness.” The so-called Minor Prophets take up the same strain, and all point forward to the Coming One through whom salvation will be secured for all who repent; Jehovah's Fellow, who will become the smitten Shepherd for man's redemption. "To Him give all the prophets witness that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins" (Acts 10:43).
The righteousness of God is a "by faith" righteousness. It is not "by works.” Faith is taking God at His word. So He has sent a message to man to be believed. It is the offer of an unimpeachable righteousness to all, but is only upon all them who believe. There is a question as to the reading here. Some editors reject "and upon all.” But there can be no question of the underlying truth. God freely offers a righteousness to all. It is the covering of all those who believe, and of them only. All need it alike, for all have sinned. There is no difference as to this. No man has come up to the standard. All have come short of the glory of God. But He is not looking for merit in man. He offers His righteousness as a free gift. So we read, "Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (ver. 24).
To be justified is to be declared righteous. It is the sentence of the judge in favor of the prisoner. It is not a state or condition of soul. We are not justified because we have become righteous in heart and life. God justifies first, then He enables the justified one to walk in practical righteousness. We are justified freely. The word means "without price!" It is the same as in John 15:25, "They hated me without a cause.” There was nothing evil in the ways or life of Jesus, for which men should hate Him. They hated Him freely. So there is no good in man for which God should justify him. He is justified freely, without a cause, when he believes in Jesus.
This is "by grace.” Grace is not only unmerited favor. Grace is favor against merit. It is the goodness of God, not alone to men who have done and can do nothing to deserve it, but it is favor shown to men who have deserved the very opposite. "Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”
"Sovereign grace, o'er sin abounding;
Ransomed souls the tidings swell,
'Tis a deep that knows no sounding;
Who its length and breadth can tell?
On its glories
Let my soul forever dwell.”
In order thus to show grace in righteousness to admittedly guilty sinners God must have a just and satisfactory basis. Sin cannot be overlooked. It must be atoned for. This has been effectuated "through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Redemption is a buying back. Man's life is forfeited because of his iniquitous ways. He is sold under judgment. Christ the Holy One—God and Man in one glorious Person upon whom the violated law had no claim—took the guilty rebel's place, paid the utmost penalty, thus redeeming the believing sinner from the wrath and curse to which he had sold himself.
"He bore on the tree, the sentence for me,
And now both the Surety and sinner are free.”
And He who died lives again and is Himself the abiding propitiation—literally, the mercy-seat, the place where God can meet with man through Christ's atoning blood—available to faith. The apostle clearly alludes to the blood-sprinkled mercy-seat on the ark of the covenant of old. Within the ark were the tables of the law. Above were the cherubim, "justice and judgment" the habitation of God's throne. They are ready, as it were, to leap from that throne to execute God's righteous wrath against the violators of His law. But sprinkled upon the mercy-seat is the blood that typifies the sacrifice of the cross. Justice and judgment ask no more. "Mercy rejoiceth against judgment," for God Himself has found a ransom.
Till the Lord Jesus suffered for sins, the Just for the unjust, to bring us to God, the sin-question was not really settled. "It was not possible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.” Old Testament saints therefore were all saved "on credit," as we say. Now that Christ has died the account is closed, and God declares His righteousness in pretermitting sins down through the past ages when men turned to Him in faith. It is not our past sins He refers to in verse 25. It is the sins of believers in the ages before the cross. And now God declares at this time—since the work is done—His righteousness, for He has shown how He can be just and yet justify ungodly sinners who believe in Jesus. This leaves no room for boasting on man's part, rather for shame and contrition in view of what our sins cost the Saviour, and of joyful praise as we contemplate the grace that wrought so wondrously on our behalf. Human merit is barred out in the very nature of the case. Salvation is through grace by faith. "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” This then embraces lawless Gentiles as well as law-breaking Jews. The same evangel is for all. He who is the Creator of all has passed none by. He will justify the circumcised, not by ritual, but by faith, and the uncircumcised Gentile through faith likewise.
Does this invalidate or ignore the law? Not at all. The law condemned the breaker of it and demanded vengeance. This Christ has borne, so the majesty of the law is upheld, yet sinners are saved.
"On Christ Almighty vengeance fell
That would have sunk a world to hell;
He bore it for a chosen race,
And thus became a Hiding-place.”
In chapter four the apostle proceeds to show, by means of Abraham and David, how all this is witnessed by the law and the prophets. Abraham is taken from the Pentateuch, the books of the law; David from the Psalms, which are linked with the Prophets.
What then do we see in Abraham? Was he justified before God by his works? If so, he had this to boast in, that he had righteously deserved the divine approval. But what does the Scripture say? In Gen. 15:6 we are told that "Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” This is the very principle the apostle has been pressing and explaining so clearly.
To earn salvation by works would be to put God in man's debt. He would owe it to the successful worker to save him. This is the very opposite of grace, which is mercy shown "to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly.” It is his faith that is counted for righteousness. To this then Abraham bears testimony. And David too is heard singing the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness without works, when he cries in Psalm 32: "Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.” In the psalm the Hebrew word for "covered" means "atoned for.” This is the gospel. Atonement has been made. Therefore God does not impute sin to the believer in His Son, but imputes righteousness instead.
Luther called the 32nd Psalm "a Pauline Psalm.” It teaches in no uncertain way the same glorious doctrine of justification apart from human merit. The non-imputation of sin is equivalent to the imputation of righteousness. Augustine of Hippo had these words painted on a placard, and placed at the foot of his bed where his dying eyes could rest upon them. To myriads more they have brought peace and gladness in the knowledge of transgression forgiven and sin atoned for, as the Hebrew word in the Old Testament translated "covered" really means.
This blessedness was not—is not—for a chosen few only, but is freely offered to all. Faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness when he was on Gentile ground before the covenant sign of circumcision was placed upon his flesh. It was really a seal of what was already true, as in the case of Christian baptism; because he was justified he was commanded to be circumcised. In the centuries since the Jews had come to regard the sign as of more importance than the faith. People ever exalt the visible at the expense of the invisible.
Abraham is called "the father of circumcision," for through him the ordinance began. But he is father not only to them who are of the circumcision literally, but to all who have no confidence in the flesh, who have judged it as weak and unprofitable, and who, like him, trust in the living God.
The promise that he should be heir of the world was not given to him "through the law," that is, it was not a reward of merit, something he had earned by obedience. It was on the ground of sovereign grace. Hence his righteousness, like ours if we believe, was a "by-faith righteousness.” The heirs of the promise are those who accept it in the same faith, otherwise it would be utterly invalidated. It was an unconditional promise.
The law promised blessing upon obedience and denounced judgment on disobedience. None have kept it. Therefore, "The law worketh wrath.” It cursed. It could not bless. It intensified sin by giving it the specific character of transgression, making it the wilful violation of known law. It could not be the means of earning what was freely given.
The promise of blessing through the Seed—which is Christ—is of faith that it might be by grace. And so it is "sure" to all the seed, that is, to all who have faith. All such are "of the faith of Abraham.” He is thus the father of us all, who believe in Jesus. And so the word is fulfilled which said, "I have made thee a father of many nations.” This comes in parenthetically. The words, "Before Him whom he believed," properly follow the words, "The father of us all.” That is to say, Abraham, though not literally our father by natural generation, is the father of all who believe, in the sight of God. The same faith characterizes them all.
God is the God of resurrection. He works when nature is powerless. He so wrought in the case of Abraham and Sarah, both beyond the time when they could naturally be the parents of a child. He so wrought when He raised up Christ, the true Seed, first by bringing Him into the world contrary to nature, of a virgin mother; and second by bringing Him up from the dead. Abraham believed in the God of resurrection, and staggered not at the divine promise though fulfilment seemed impossible. God delights to do impossibilities! What He promises He performs. Fully persuaded of this, Abraham believed God and it was imputed to him for righteousness. In the same way we are called upon to believe on Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead—He who was, in infinite grace, delivered up to death to make atonement for our offences, and who, upon the completion of His work to God's satisfaction, was raised again for our justification. His resurrection is the proof that God is satisfied. The divine justice has been appeased. The holiness of God has been vindicated. The law has been established. And so the believing sinner is declared justified from all things. Such is the testimony of chapter 4.
In the first eleven verses of chapter 5 we have a marvelous summing up, concluding this phase of the subject. "Therefore," that is, in view of all that has been so clearly established, "being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Some would render it, "Let us have peace.” But this is to weaken the force of the entire argument. Peace, as used here, is not a state of mind or heart. It is a prevailing condition between two who were once alienated.
Sin had disturbed the relations of Creator and creature. A breach had come in which man could not mend. But peace has been made by the blood of Christ's cross. There is no longer a barrier. Peace with God is now the abiding state into which every believer enters. The sin-question is settled. If two nations be at war there is no peace. If peace is made there is no war. "There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.” "But Christ has made peace," yea, "He is our peace.” We believe it, and we have peace with God.
We might say, "Let us enjoy peace with God.” But, "Let us have peace with God," is absurd on the face of it. We have the peace. It is a settled thing. He made it, not we.
"'Tis everlasting peace,
Sure as Jehovah's name;
'Tis stable as His steadfast throne,
Forevermore the same.
"My love is ofttimes low,
My joy still ebbs and flows,
But peace with Him remains the same,
No change Jehovah knows.
"I change; He changes not,
My Christ can never die;
This blood-sealed friendship changes not,
His truth, not mine, the tie.”
"The peace of God" is another thing, as in Phil. 4: 6, 7. That is experimental. It is the abiding portion of all who learn to cast every care on Him who is the great Burden-bearer.
To see this distinction and to really grasp it in faith is of prime importance. Until the soul realizes that the peace made by the blood of His cross is eternal and undisturbed, even though one's experience may be very different owing to personal failure or lack of appropriating faith, there will be no certainty of one's ultimate salvation.
But knowing this peace to be based, not on my frames or feelings, but on accomplished redemption, I have conscious access by faith into this grace wherein I stand. I stand in grace; not in my own merit. I was saved by grace. I go on in grace. I shall be glorified in grace. Salvation from first to last is altogether of God, and therefore altogether of grace.
"Grace is the sweetest sound
That ever reached our ears:
When conscience charged and justice frowned,
'Twas grace removed our fears.
"Grace is a mine of wealth
Laid open to the poor,
Grace is the sov'reign spring of health,
'Tis life for evermore.
"Of grace then, let us sing,
A joyful wondrous theme;
Who grace has brought shall glory bring,
And we shall reign with Him.”
This is the golden sceptre held out by the King of GIory to all who venture to approach in faith.
Note it is access and standing that are before us in this 2nd verse of the 5th chapter of our epistle. Access is based on standing, not on state. The terms are to be carefully distinguished. In Philippians we read much about "your state.” Paul was greatly concerned about that. He never had a fear about the standing of the children of God. That is eternally settled.
Standing refers to the new place in which I am put by grace as justified before the throne of God and in Christ risen, forever beyond the reach of judgment. State is condition of soul. It is experience. Standing never varies. State is fluctuating, and depends on the measure in which I walk with God. My standing is always perfect because it is measured by Christ's acceptance. I am accepted in Him. "As He is, so are we in this world.” But my state will be good or bad as I walk in the Spirit or walk after the flesh.
My standing gives me title to enter consciously as a purged worshiper into the Holiest and to boldly approach the throne of grace in prayer. Of old God sternly said, "Stand afar off and worship.” Access was not known under the legal covenant. God was hidden; the veil was not yet rent. Now all is different, and we are urged to "draw nigh with true hearts in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.”
"And now we draw near to the throne of grace,
For His blood and the Priest are there;
And we joyfully seek God's holy face
With our censer of praise and prayer.
The burning mount and the mystic veil
With our terrors and guilt are gone;
Our conscience has peace that can never fail,
'Tis the Lamb on high on the throne.”
Thus we do indeed rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. It is hope—not as uncertainty—but hope that is sure and certain, because based on the finished work of the Christ of God and a seated Priest on the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens. The glory is assured for all who are justified by faith, and so have peace with God.
But ere we reach the glory we must tread the sands of the wilderness. This is the place of testing. Here we learn the infinite resources of our wonderful God. So we are enabled to glory in tribulations, contrary though these may be to all that the natural man rejoices in. Tribulation is the divinely appointed flail to separate the wheat from the chaff. In suffering and sorrow we learn our own nothingness and the greatness of the power that has undertaken to carry us through. These are lessons we could never learn in heaven.
"The touch that heals the broken heart
Is never felt above;
His angels know His blessedness,
His wayworn saints His love."
Thus "tribulation worketh patience" if we accept it as from our loving Lord Himself, knowing it is for our blessing. Out of patient endurance springs fragrant Christian experience, as the soul learns how wonderfully Christ can sustain in every circumstance. And experience blossoms into hope, weaning the heart from the things of earth and occupying them with the heavenly scene to which we are hastening.
Thus "hope maketh not ashamed, for the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us." This is the first mention of the Spirit's work in the epistle. We read of the Spirit of Holiness in chapter one in connection with Christ's work and resurrection, but not a syllable about the Spirit's work in the believer till the soul enters into peace through the apprehension of the finished work of Christ. This is all-important. I am not saved by what goes on within myself. I am saved by what the Lord Jesus did for me. But the Spirit seals me when I believe the gospel, and by His indwelling the love of God is shed abroad within my heart.
"Soon as my all I ventured
On the atoning blood,
The Holy Spirit entered,
For I was born of God."
It is a great mistake to rely upon my own recognition of the Spirit's work within me as the ground of my assurance. Assurance is by the word of the truth of the gospel. But upon believing, I receive the Spirit. Of this the 8th chapter largely treats. This gives corroborative evidence. “We know that we have passed from death unto life because we love the brethren."
Verses 6 to 11 constitute a separate section. In this portion we have the summing up of all that has gone before, ere the apostle goes on in the next division to take up the second phase of the gospel—in relation to our SIN.
We were helpless, without strength, when God in grace gave His Son, who died for ungodly sinners in whom no merit could be found.
This is not like man. Few indeed could be found who would voluntarily die for an upright man, a righteous man, known and acknowledged to be such—much less for a wicked man. Some indeed might be willing to die for a good man, a kindly, benevolent man who has won their hearts by his gracious demeanor. But God has "commended His own love [see Greek] toward us, in that while we were yet sinners [neither righteous nor good], Christ died for us," thus becoming the Substitute for guilty rebels. If love gave Him up to the death of the cross while we were so lost and vile, we may know beyond any doubt that since we have been justified by His blood He will never allow us to come into judgment: "We shall be saved from wrath through Him.”
This has been called the chapter of "the five much mores," and of these we have the first one in the 9th verse. "Much more then," he exclaims, since now, cleared of every charge by the blood of the Son of God, we are forever beyond the reach of the divine vengeance against sin.
The second use of this term is in the 10th verse: "For if when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” How blind are they who read into this a reference to the earthly life of our blessed Lord. That life—pure and holy as it was—could never have saved one poor sinner. It was by His death He made atonement for our sins. Even the love of God told out so fully in the ways of Jesus only drew out the envenomed hate of the human heart. It is His death that destroys the enmity—when I realize He died for me I am reconciled to God. The hatred was all on my side—there was no need for God to be reconciled to me—but I needed reconciliation, and I have found it in His death. Now since it is already an accomplished fact I may know for a certainty I "shall be saved by His life.” He says, "Because I live ye shall live also.” It is, of course, His resurrection life that is in view. "Wherefore He is able to save evermore them that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them" (Heb. 7: 25, marginal reading). A living Christ at God's right hand is my pledge of eternal redemption. He lives to plead our cause, to deliver through all the trials of the way, and to bring us safely home to the Father's house at last. We are bound up in the same bundle of life as Himself, though this properly is the subject of the last part of the chapter and has to do with the second phase of salvation.
Secure for time and eternity we "joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the reconciliation" (ver. 11, see margin). It is not we who received the atonement, but God. We needed to make an atonement for our sins, but were unable to do so. Christ has made it for us by offering up Himself without spot unto God. Thus it is God who has accepted the atonement, and we, who once were "enemies" and "alienated in our minds by wicked works," have received the reconciliation. The enmity is gone. We are at peace with God, and we joy in Him who has become our everlasting portion.
This is the glorious end—for the present—to which the Holy Spirit has been leading us. Our salvation is full and complete. Our sins are gone. We are justified freely by His grace. We have peace with God and we look forward with joyous certainty to an eternity of bliss with Him who has redeemed us.
The other three "much mores" occur in the next section, where the question of the two Headships is thoroughly gone into. We shall notice them in order when we come to them.