Ken's Pastoral Letter for April
My first Holy Week as a probationer minister is not yet fully underway as I write to you. Ahead of us we have a busy week of eight services including a Maundy Thursday online service and culminating in another online service on Easter Sunday. Six live services make up the complement.
As I reflect upon this upcoming and busy round of activity, constituting the most intense Easter celebrations that I have yet known, I am conscious that I am likely to be more than a little relieved next week when it is all over! Such a concentrated period of physical, mental and spiritual activity would naturally cause one to feel the need for a change of pace afterwards. But should such an intensive focus upon the detail and the meaning of our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection likewise lead to a desire for a change of subject matter after Holy Week? I think not; and certainly I hope not. For the death and resurrection of Christ are central to our faith as Christians; the one making little sense without the other, as both are required for our salvation and for our assurance of eternal life.
It is the resurrection that makes a gospel message out of the death of Christ and which together with it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). How so? And does it really matter whether Jesus physically rose from death? Surely we men and women of science today cannot accept such a claim. People do not rise from death. Survive it against all the odds yes. Be revived maybe, resuscitated yes, but resurrected? That is a step too far isn’t it?
If we accept, as the majority of Christians do, that Jesus’ death was much more than the tragic consequences of humanity’s rejection of the ‘Light that had come into the world’ (John 3:19); if we believe that He died as the sin bearer for all people (1 Peter 2:24), in order to make a way back to God for us (1Peter 3:18), then we need to ask ourselves what guarantee do we have that this sacrifice for sins was finally and fully acceptable to God? What assurance do we have that our past has truly been dealt with through faith in Jesus Christ – that our sins have been forgiven? Or are we, as the Apostle Paul puts it, still in our sins? (1 Corinthians 15:17). If, says Paul, ‘it is only for this life that we have hope in Christ’ (1 Corinthians 15:19) i.e. that He did not rise from death, then such hope is illusory and quite useless to us, and ‘we are to be pitied more than all men’ for placing our faith in a vain imagination with no power to change lives or to give assurance beyond death.
Notice, if you will, that the resurrection isn’t a problem for the New Testament writers. They expend no effort in trying to prove it. For them it is an incontrovertible fact. The resurrected Jesus appeared to the apostles on several occasions, and not to them alone, leaving them in no doubt that He had risen from death as He had said He would (Mark 8:31). These NT writers then are not concerned with arguing whether or not Jesus rose but of witnessing to the fact that He did. This undeniable fact, for them, turned them from frightened and defeated followers into bold and victorious leaders of a faith, which like the earthquakes that accompanied the death and resurrection of Christ similarly impacted the lives of everyone they proclaimed it to: “These men who have turned the world upside down have now come here” said the Jews of Paul and his companions in Thessalonica (Acts 17:6).
This faith still turns lives upside down today, winning people back from addictive and self-destructive patterns of behaviour and freeing them through their own ‘personal earthquakes of the heart’; allowing them to live changed lives for the glory of God. So, proving the resurrection was not important, and even if the disciples could have done so it would still have remained for them to respond to it as a fact; to react to its meaning, and surely this they did as they fearlessly carried their proclamation to the ends of the earth!
Jesus, in His own words, described His death as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28) and Paul tells us that it was a means of reconciliation between God and humankind (2Corinthians 5:19). Paul describes its effect as a propitiation (Romans 3:25) – a satisfaction for sin – and further as a disarming of principalities and powers (Colossians 2:15). These powers being understood as spiritual forces of evil and death.
Paul tells us in Romans 4:25 that we are justified through the resurrection of Christ, and later in 6:5 that being united with Christ in His death means also being united with Him in His resurrection; namely that His death deals with our sins and His resurrection deals with our present and future standing before God. In His death we are forgiven and in His resurrection we are accepted as righteous in God’s sight on account of the righteous and sinless life of His Son, this being imputed or credited to us (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Justified defendants leave the court room free of punishment and exonerated because their innocence has been established. By contrast our guilt has been established but in legal terms Christ has satisfied justice by Himself taking our punishment. Not only has He taken our punishment but He has conferred upon us His standing before God. This great exchange – the just for the unjust (1 Peter 3:18) wherein He who knew no sin became sin for us in order that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21) is the glory of the Gospel of Grace.
But how could we believe this if Christ had not been raised? If death defeated Him so that he had been found dead in the tomb on the third day then none of this would be true. Like every other great religious figure his tomb could be visited and venerated and his legacy passed on but the world would have gone on much as before.
‘But now Christ is risen from the dead’ (1 Corinthians 15:20) and so it is true that we are reconciled to God; that the sacrifice for sins was enough to satisfy the justice of a Holy God; that the power of death has been disarmed so that now we need have no fear of it if we are united with Christ, since to be united with Him in His death is to be also united with Him in His resurrection (Romans 6:5). This means that our justification is as solid as His. We are declared as sinless in the eyes of God as He is! There is still the working out of our sanctification here in this life of course but our glorification is assured (Romans 8:30). Charles Wesley wrote:
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him (his death and the forgiveness of my sins which He paid for – and His life and all of its shining righteousness that I could never hold a candle to, but is now how God sees me) is mine!
Alive in him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ, my own.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne puts it similarly:
‘When I stand before the throne
Dressed in glory not my own’
When I see Thee as thou art,
Love Thee with un-sinning heart
Then O Lord shall I fully know –
Not till then how much I owe.
The penultimate word goes to an old minister of the Church of Scotland from last century whom I was privileged to correspond with for a number of years:
‘…..it is not wrong to regard the death of Christ as the supreme example of sacrificial love; but his death is much more than that……the death of Christ is no mere display of love in action. It is the putting away of the sins which set up a barrier to the very possibility of love between God and man. It is not only an exhibition but a removal……..it is one thing to show sinners what they ought to do, and quite another to do it for them when they are helpless to do anything for themselves. We need not only pictures but power……this we have in the death of Christ….