“How’s Your Credit?”
16 January 2005
As this is annual meeting Sunday, part of my pastoral duty is to cast the vision. That is, I need to restate our purpose as a body in the clearest terms I can muster so as to connect the dotted lines between it and the gospel. For if we don’t see how our purpose and the gospel are related, then it is certain that our purpose needs to be modified. Now, I’ve already been about this business in the choice of Don’t Waste Your Life (Piper, 2003) as a “must read” gift to the body of believers in 2005. Our purpose (“That all may know, love and worship God.”) fits with passionate plea in that book that we make our lives count for the glory of God, for the honoring of Christ our Savior. Having nearly lost my physical life in May of 2004, I am particularly, personally constrained, every day is borrowed time, to make sure that my life counts for the kingdom--please don’t wait for a similar crisis to impress upon you the importance of living near and for the Lord! So in what follows I want to declare to you our need of a Savior, someone to establish our spiritual credit line. No man can save himself. We needed someone able to cancel our debt and to break the stronghold of sin over us! That would be Christ, and Him crucified. I will develop the analogy of this credit business to depict our spiritual necessity more plainly. We need past debt cancelled and a future credit line assured. Christ does this and more. From there I will speak to the necessity of the cross--Christ has to “break the power of cancelled sin“--and to the problem of guilt. The world’s solution to guilt is suppression, or permissiveness. Neither of these approaches work so well as the cancellation of atonement; but freedom brings its own challenges. The forgiven life is guilt-free and it is the only life worth living--that such a life is possible is the great, good news we have to share with the bewildered and the lost.
There is a hidden danger for everyone, and not just for believers, in the idea that each person is solely responsible for personal sin. Let me state it bluntly: if we are responsible for our own sin then Jesus could not have died for my sin. Further, His dying for my sin makes no sense. He could only die for His own sin--and, because we believe Him to have been sinless--His death makes no sense at all. It was pointless. Either it redeemed no one and either wasn’t necessary (due to His sin-less-ness) or we need to reject the whole notion that He was without sin. You see, it isn’t a simple idea after all--there are all kinds of unhappy implications that follow in its train. I am unwilling to let go of Christ’s sin-less-ness. I believe that His death atoned for the sins of the world. And I believe that the whole of our Christian faith hinges on the finished work of the cross. Obviously, the easiest solution to this dilemma is to reject the mistaken claim that each man is responsible for his own sin. I would also reject the ideas that salvation is a private affair and that anything I could do could attain my salvation. It is the opposite of “good news” to hear, for instance, that Adam’s sin was a personal matter, between him and God alone. This is not what scripture teaches! It is worse to hear that I must make it happen for myself through works of any sort--say, of merit, or service, or even of faith.
If only this notion of individual responsibility for sin were restricted to Islam! But, alas, it is not. There are schools of thought within Christiandom, loosely understood, that have plainly accommodated themselves to this serious error. One way, or another, they call into question the efficacy of the cross, or the finished work of redemption in Christ. If I might simplify the matter immensely, I could suggest that it has to do with your spiritual credit rating. It has to do with what you have in the bank, so to speak, that you can draw on. Do you have no ceiling, is your credit good, or are you flat out bankrupt in which case your rating is terrible.?
Let’s pursue this analogy further. As a Christian, you have received two benefits in this credit business. First, you have been officially approved. That is, with regard to your spiritual bankruptcy, your debts have been forgiven, or cancelled. That’s the approval part--theologically we call this action: justification. It relates to your past and present. You can now, regardless of your past history, draw on your spiritual account. And, second, you have been declared solvent. This relates to your present and future! Your unlimited ceiling has been instituted, cleared, authorized. Spiritually understand, your meager account has been linked to the account of somebody who is immensely more wealthy than you ever dreamed of, or hoped to be. This is your sanctification. The expenses from now on are on His tab. His righteousness, all His assets are now accessible to you; they are the resources you need to live an obedient life, a spiritual life. The righteousness of Christ has been imputed to you. So, the first step of spiritual rebirth, the forgiveness piece (being justified in Christ) is the foundation upon which you build your Christian life, your growth in holiness (sanctification)--a life funded by withdrawals from your joint account. Without the first, a declaration of approval, you could never get started on your new life. And without the second, you do not have the resources to live out your faith, to grow in truth and love and grace. Now, contrary to the idea that you have to take personal responsibility for your sin--all this has in fact been done for you. Or, better, it has been accomplished with you in mind. You are the beneficiary!
Jesus came to die for our sins. He wasn’t working out some difficulties that He had with the Father, or, worse, within Himself. He was salvation itself. He needed no salvation. Again, from the Islamic point of view, I am given to understand that Christ was rescued from crucifixion--it never happened--so He was someone to be saved, not the Son of God sent to save. Jesus took upon Himself sin. He did not become a sinner--you have to be born of the flesh to do that. Jesus was not only innocent, He was never guilty. Being God, Jesus was pure, holy, the righteousness of God which is imputed to us by faith in Him.
I want to conclude by addressing the related matters of sin and guilt. Sin creates guilt, a form of spiritual indebtedness. This thought is embedded in our familiar “the Lord’s prayer“--where we pray “forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors.” We have heard various versions: debts, trespasses, sins--all pointing at the same spiritual reality. We inhabit a God ordained world of obligation and of dependency that is moral interdependence which is breached, torn, or broken by sin. Sin cannot be reduced to a matter of personal infraction, or even to collective, or accumulative infractions. Sin is somehow bigger than all that, it is huge, oppressive, overpowering--a spiritual captivity from which we yearn and yet fear to be released. So some lie, others deny, others try drugs and escapism. While still others deflect their own sinfulness onto others through blame shifting and projection. What we all know is that the guilt that sin creates is pervasive, inescapable so much so that it leads to both despair and hopelessness. That sad condition of despair and hopelessness itself creates a bondage to sin, guilt is the adhesive. The point is that many people feel that there’s no forgiveness for them, that they are simply powerless to escape the grip of sin. These emotionally charged self statements show the weakness of the position that tells us we are responsible for our own sin--and, by way of extension, salvation. People know experientially that they cannot conquer sin--not only can they not save themselves, they can’t even accomplish the lesser challenge of quitting their particular and habitual sin.
In order to escape our real, not just perceived bondage to sin, we need a Deliverer, someone greater than Moses, a Savior. Jesus came as that great old hymn put it, “To break the power of cancelled sin, To set the captive free.” The experience of the Exodus is instructive us. Just as the people refused to go up and occupy the Promised Land which God was prepared to give to them--they were fearful, faithless and rebellious--just so, people released from captivity to sin resist their costly liberty. They see “giants” of obstruction where there are none. They imagine perils that don’t exist and they turn on those who would lead them forward into freedom--preferring the known, the bondage of their past, to the terror of the future of forgiven, debt-free living. Too many find it easier to live angry than to forgive and be forgiven. But, the great good news is this: some do wake up. Some realize that life is wasted by unnecessarily living in sin, in bondage to despair and hopelessness. Yes, unnecessarily wasted. Why? Because the life worth living is a life lived for the glory of God. It lifts us out of our selfish, petty and inconsequential concerns and unites us to real purpose for living. Making much of God, making much of Christ are so much better than making much of self. That is why our purpose at EWBC is to help all to know, love and worship God. . .to enjoy God forever. . .for in His Presence there are pleasures forever more.
 As I understand it, Islam espouses the view that each man is responsible for his own sin. Now, while I am for personal accountability, I am absolutely convinced that the notion (that each man is responsible for his own sin) is a ship wrecking shoal upon which many, caught unaware, have foundered. I believe that such a perspective sharply delineates the limits of ecumenism, properly understood. Ecumenism relates to in-house sharing and worship--the house being Christianity broadly understood. Services held with other faiths cannot be ecumenical; rather they are inter-faith events at which one can only worship by exercising private discretion such as praying with interpretation--knowing that the God I am addressing is not being addressed by everyone else present. Incidentally, Islam is not alone in this view of individual responsibility--certain philosophies and other religions assume the same thing such as Christian humanism, Unitarianism etc.
 You see one of the great hindrances to accepting the gospel is that according to their prophet the atoning work of the cross was unnecessary. Even the idea of God having a Son appears to be distasteful to the Islamic mind--it compromises for them God’s divinity, especially His transcendence. The problem here is nothing new--many heresies have been spawned by the misguided attempts of men to “protect” God from Himself. Let me add quickly that the supposed dilemma of God having a Son is abolished when we affirm, according to Scripture, that Christ is the only Begotten--begotten and not made! Jesus was not conceived as other humans are--it was entirely the work of the Holy Spirit upon a willing vessel, Mary. In our culture of “tolerance” and in our rush to accommodate all other religions, we are tempted to abandon the truth of our faith. This is not loving because it robs those who need redemption of the very thing they need.