When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: “I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means! For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God. Where He is, there I shall be also!”
— Martin Luther, "Letter to Jerome Weller", in Letters of Spiritual Counsel, ed. and trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), p86-87
We live in a world obsessed with image and appearance. We spend hours cultivating how we’re seen by others: by choosing the right outfit, editing our profiles, dieting to lose weight or hitting the gym to gain muscle.
We work hard to fit into a certain subculture, or we’re proud of always rocking the trend. Whether we’re hipsters or hicks, mavericks or “Mature & Sensible”, we almost certainly think about how we’re perceived. (My personal predilections include comedy t-shirts and mock-Converse plimsolls.)
Within the church, we can do a similar thing, only it’s more insidious. We think Christians are supposed to be growing in godliness, so when we keep struggling in the same areas, we stop mentioning them for fear of embarrassment. We push our sins under the carpet in order to fit in. We want the approval of our brothers and sisters, and so we stay silent.
However, whilst fooling those around us might be possible, God cannot be deceived. He tells Samuel:
The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7)
Those around us might think us the height of godliness, but God’s assessment looks far deeper, into the ugly depths of our hearts. Jesus tells us that it’s from our hearts that evil comes (Mark 7:21-22), and Jeremiah tells us that our hearts are “deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9).
Imagine your darkest secrets being shown to the world. Lustful thoughts akin to visual rape. Bitterness and unforgiveness festering, intensifying. Hatred masked by hugs and kisses. Betrayal. Greed. Pride. All exposed, impossible to hide. It’s a horrifying thought – and yet the reality is that God sees all these things. Those around us look at our polished personas, but God sees the real deal.
We can clean up our act, try harder, present a positive face to the world, but our sinful hearts will always betray us. Isaiah 64:6 says that our “righteous acts are like filthy rags” – not just insubstantial, but dirty themselves. In the eyes of God, we’ve nothing to hide behind.
Except… the Lord himself provides a hiding place, a covering for our sin and shame. Earlier, Isaiah wrote the following:
I delight greatly in the Lord;
my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10)
The Lord himself clothes us with a robe of his righteousness. Our own righteousness is but rags, but he gives us his own to wear. Our sin is covered, our shame removed. Our Father looks at us, clothed with the righteousness of Christ, and accepts us without question. Those lustful thoughts? Covered. That long-held bitterness? Dealt with. Our greed? Gone. Our pride? Paid for.
Knowing this frees us from the pressure to keep up appearances. We’re all accepted on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, not our own – so we can be real about our struggles. We can start to build relationships of real openness and intimacy, striving for holiness together without fear of condemnation. Knowing our identity in Christ means we don’t have to worry about how others perceive us. Our loving Father, the one whose opinion really counts, has already given his verdict:
“You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.”
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)
Christians are those who are united to Christ. This is true in the past, present and future.
Past: “For you died”. Christians have died with Christ. In him, we have passed through the death we rightly deserve. Our sin has been dealt with once for all. “You have been raised”. Dead to ourselves, alive in Christ. New birth, new life.
Present: “Hidden with Christ”. When God looks at you, what does he see? His beloved child. “Seated at the right hand of God”. Christ is seated on the throne of the universe, and we’re there with him!
Future: “Will appear with him”. When Christ returns, we will be with him, and it will be glorious.
It’s no surprise that Paul calls us to “set [our] hearts and minds on things above”. These are amazing realities to be celebrated, rejoiced in, dwelt on, sung about. What joy to spend time warming our hearts with such wonderful truths!
However… we forget. We’re leaky. These things seep out of our minds as this world preaches an alternative message. “This life is all there is – so live for the moment. Do what feels good. Make the most of it.” This world seems so solid, its pleasures so tangible, and God begins to feel distant. “Heavenly realities? More like away with the fairies.”
With all these lies ringing in our ears, we need others to help us lift our sights to see what is real. Those of deep, strong faith to give courage to the struggling. Preachers who present Christ again, that our hearts might be captured afresh. Soaking ourselves in Scripture, individually and corporately. The world is constantly fighting for our attention; let’s help each other fight back.
So Paul writes later in Colossians:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)
The word of Christ: the good news of Jesus. His death and resurrection, and our union with him.
Dwelling richly: always going deeper. Taking truths to heart, not filing them away. Longing to know more of Jesus.
Teach and admonish: lovingly speaking good news to each other, letting God’s word convict, correct and encourage.
Singing: both expressing and exciting our emotions of gratitude through singing Scriptural certainties to each other and to the Lord.
Tomorrow, as millions gather across the globe with brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s point each other to these heavenly realities. We died with him. We were raised with him. We will appear with him. Glory!
Where are the young men and women of this generation who will hold their lives cheap and be faithful even unto death? Where are those who will lose their lives for Christ’s sake – flinging them away for love of him? Where are those who will live dangerously and be reckless in his service? Where are his lovers – those who love him and the souls of men more than their own reputations or comfort or very life?
Where are the men who say ‘no’ to self, who take up Christ’s cross to bear it after him, who are willing to be nailed to it in college or office, home or mission field, who are willing, if need be, to bleed, to suffer and to die on it?
We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (2 Corinthians 4:10-12)
The apostle Paul wrote 2 Corinthians to a church under the sway of a group of influential leaders, the so-called “super-apostles”. These men were highly impressive: skilled orators who preached a message of success, not suffering. In contrast, Paul looked weak and pathetic, and the Corinthian Christians were drifting away from the gospel as a result.
What to do? Paul could have pointed to his religious pedigree, his theological training, all the churches that he’d planted. Instead, Paul tells the Corinthians that they’ve got him exactly right. Paul writes later that he will “boast of the things that show [his] weakness” (2 Corinthians 11:30). Here he says that he is being “given over to death”, carrying around “the death of Jesus” in his body. He is weak – no, in fact he is dead; completely powerless.
How is that meant to convince the Corinthians to trust him? What is Paul doing here?
Let’s go back to the beginning. When the human race rebelled, death entered the world. In this world, everything dies – and when Jesus took on our nature, he wasn’t an exception to this rule. As Jesus died, he bore the full wrath of the Father against our sin. He died, as everything in this creation must.
Then he rose again into resurrection life, bringing us through with him. In Jesus’ death, the old creation died. As he rose, he ushered in a new creation which we belong to by faith.
Christians are those who are united to Christ. As such, we follow in his footsteps. In this world, there is a pattern that everyone follows – even Jesus. The pattern is death – and through death, to resurrection life.
Paul “[carries] around in [his] body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed”. Paul enters into death, following in his Saviour’s footsteps, because it is through death that new life comes. By giving ourselves over even to death, we model the pattern of our suffering saviour – and in doing so, our perseverance points to the resurrection life of the one sustaining us. Our suffering, and our endurance through it, points others to Jesus, so that they might be born again into resurrection life.
How do we endure, though? I’m a weak jar of clay (2 Cor 4:7). By myself I’ve no hope.
So isn’t it great news that the one who calls us to endure suffering, even death, has himself endured through suffering and death? Our Lord and Brother Jesus goes before us, and now by his Spirit he goes with us. He knows our struggles and sufferings intimately, sympathising with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15), and has promised to never let anyone snatch us out of his hand (John 10:27-28). Those the Father calls will be brought through to glory (Romans 8:30). We endure by his power, not our own (2 Cor 4:7).
When our endurance is down to him, it’s no longer impossible: it’s inevitable.
It’s the darkest day of the year today, so what better thing to do than reflect on the Light coming into the world?
O come, o come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!
One day, when Christ returns, we’ll be fully set free from the slavery of sin. No more struggles, no more failure. No more alienation or loneliness. One day Christ will come to take us home. We will be with him, and he with us.
O come, O Rod of Jesse, free,
Your own from Satan’s tyranny.
From depths of hell your people save;
Bring them in victory through the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!
Jesus went through death in order to save us, defeating death through rising again. But to save his people, he brings them through the grave, following after him. Like our King, we will experience suffering, darkness and eventually death. But death does not have the final word.
O come, our Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by your drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!
Emmanuel means “God with us”. By his Spirit, he is with us now. When he returns, all will be made right again. Eternal day will dawn, and death’s dark shadows finally banished. Rejoice, Christians! Emmanuel shall come to you. And so we cry out with our brothers and sisters down the ages: O come, o come, Emmanuel!
Who can comprehend the riches of the glory of this grace? Christ, that rich and pious Husband, takes as a wife a needy and impious harlot, redeeming her from all her evils and supplying her with all His good things. It is impossible now that her sins should destroy her, since they have been laid upon Christ and swallowed up in Him, and since she has in her Husband Christ a righteousness which she may claim as her own, and which she can set up with confidence against all her sins, against death and hell, saying, “If I have sinned, my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned; all mine is His, and all His is mine,” as it is written, “My beloved is mine, and I am His”.
On this day in 1555, two men were executed in the centre of Oxford. Their crime: believing that our salvation rests on the finished work of Christ, not on anything we do ourselves. Their punishment: to be burnt at the stake.
Amongst their dying words, these ones of Latimer’s are the most famous:
Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as (I trust) shall never be put out.
Latimer was vindicated: to this day, their Protestant faith has survived in the UK, lasting through persecution, civil war, opposition from outside, and false teaching from within. The faith that gave them courage to face an excruciating death is still alive today.
How often do we fall into believing those old, old lies: that our good works are what save us, not Christ?
When we sin, do we run to Jesus for forgiveness, or do we feel the need to earn it first? It’s so easy to think that we need to do something good to outweigh the bad before he’ll listen to us again. Easy, but deadly.
When we see someone else mess up, do we respond with grace, or do we feel good about ourselves because we didn’t fail? You know the kind of thoughts: “God must be more pleased with me; after all, I’m not as bad as that.”
No! The Protestant martyrs died defending the truth that nothing we do can make us acceptable to God. Whether we’ve had a fantastic day of walking in Christian freedom, or a shocking day feeling enslaved to sin, we would still be as far away from God as ever, if he had not come close to us. Jesus, King of the universe, stepped down, down even to death, in order to bring us up with him to his Father. He takes our sin, and gives us his perfect obedience. In him, we are as loved by the Father as he has been since eternity past.
How can we still think a quiet time is going to earn us extra credit? That it’ll make up for our daily rejection of Jesus? That we can somehow add to the perfect obedience of Christ?
The old, old lies are still around, too. But be of good comfort; God’s grace is the same as it ever was. Are you burdened with guilt? Run to Jesus, and he will forgive you. Are you proud of your holiness? Look to Jesus, and let him humble you. Do you feel distant from God? Come to Jesus, and let him bring you near.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Keep the candle burning.