No False Comfort

March 12, 2010

I am wanting to do some writing on justification (in my spare time).  This is the first of several, hopefully.  We’ll see how it goes.

Hebrews 4:15 tells us that we have in Jesus a sympathetic high priest, not one who was untouched by our weaknesses, but rather one who was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.

I have to admit that for years I had a nagging complaint in the back of my mind about this passage.  I knew it was supposed to bring comfort to me, but I couldn’t help seeing it as a false comfort.  I mean, what good does His sympathy really do me in the big picture?  There has to be some kind of difference between us and Christ, right? Because we all sin and He did not; and whatever the ontological difference that accounts for this fact, it would be like a finger on the scale, wouldn’t it?  How can I really see Jesus’ example or sympathy in any useful way pertaining to my salvation, given the finger on the scale?  How can Jesus’ sinless life ever be of any comfort to me, when I know I can never in this life attain to sinlessness?  And how can God not know this?  It seemed like I was being patronized.  That was my secret, nagging complaint.

But that was before I left anabaptist thought for reformed thought.  And here’s why that shift in thinking makes all the difference.  As an anabaptist, I saw Jesus’ sinless life as merely an example, and believed that if I followed His example, perhaps I too could be justified.  I believed my righteousness came only by my adherence to the law.  “The man who does these commandments shall live by them” (Romans 10:5).  So when I would read Hebrew 4:15, I would understand it this way:  “Jesus walked a mile in your shoes and He did fine, so no excuses.  Jesus obeyed the commandments and lived by them, and so can you.”  I knew that somewhere in that passage was something that was supposed to bring me comfort, but the only hint of comfort I was able to identify was that Jesus could sympathize with me, as if to say “God still expects sinlessness from you, but ever since the incarnation, the Godhead now knows how hard it is.”  Well woopty-doo.  Not much comfort there.  Not much relief from overburdening guilt.   Not much hope for sinful man.   Is that the gospel? ’cause I don’t see any real good news anywhere.

But the reformed view of scripture is not like this.  The reformers recognized that although Jesus’ sinless life does serve as an example for all Christians, the fact of His sinlessness plays a much more significant role in God’s justification of man, and the reformation placed much needed emphasis on this role.  Whereas anabaptist thought seeks righteousness by imitation of Jesus’ sinlessness, reformed thought sees righteousness as belonging to God alone.  Righteousness does not inhere in man, and it never can, which is why the gospel is exactly that — good news.  The glory of the gospel — the gospelness of the gospel —  resides precisely in the fact that God’s people are saved by Jesus’ righteousness being accounted as though it were ours.  So in one view I am justified when, by my works, my life mimics Christ’s righteousness; in the other view, I am justified when, by faith, Jesus’ righteousness becomes my righteousness.

Seen in the latter way, Hebrews 4:15 no longer seems like a poor attempt at patronization, a sorry sympathy, a false comfort.  No, rather, it appears as a glorious, unspeakably wonderful gift!  Christ’s perfect obedience to the law is the righteousness by which all the faithful stand before God justified.  Praise be to God, who has borne my transgressions, to whom my sin has been accounted, and whose righteousness has been accounted to me!

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