Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Of Hymns and Confessions...

 There is a voice of consensus that speaks from the Reformed churches of the 16th and 17th centuries concerning the doctrines of the Christian faith, but none more than that of the indispensable centrality of Jesus Christ's life and death as the basis for the believer's reconciliation to God and the ground of the believer's life lived now.  You find it inferred and invoked in many of Thomas Cranmer's collects and prayers in the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer-
    -For the precious death and merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord...
    -by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood...
    -by the merits of his most precious death and passion...
You encounter it in the Reformed confessions such as in the Westminster Confession of Faith, 
Ch. 8:5-
     The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience, and sacrifice of himself, which he, through the
    eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and
    purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven,
    for all those whom the Father hath given unto him.
And how wonderful that one also encounters this precious truth in many hymns of worship that have been penned over the centuries as I did this Sunday morning in our church's worship.  I was gladdened and edified as we sang these 6th century words from the hymn, Praise the Savior Now and Ever by Venantius Fortunatus (530-609)-
   Praise the Savior now and ever;
   Praise Him, all beneath the skies;
   Prostrate lying, suff’ring, dying
   On the cross, a sacrifice.
   Vict’ry gaining, life obtaining,
   Now in glory He doth rise.

   Man’s work faileth, Christ’s availeth;
   He is all our righteousness;
   He, our Savior, has forever
   Set us free from dire distress.
   Through His merit we inherit
   Light and peace and happiness.

   Sin’s bonds severed, we’re delivered,
   Christ has bruised the serpent’s head;
   Death no longer is the stronger,
   Hell itself is captive led.
   Christ has risen from death’s prison,
   O’er the tomb He light has shed.

   For His favor, praise forever,

   Unto God the Father sing;
   Praise the Savior, praise Him ever,
   Son of God, our Lord and King.
   Praise the Spirit, through Christ’s merit,
   He doth us salvation bring.

How beautifully written, the path for believers to the heavenly inheritance is through the merit of Jesus Christ, the Son of God come in the flesh - the merit of his perfect life lived before the Law of God... and the merit of Christ's full and perfect  satisfaction for sins in His death on the cross.  It is the Righteous One, the Lamb of God by and through whom the ungodly are justified, sanctified, and glorified; not by any works of our own righteousness.  This seems pretty well understood when speaking of justification, being declared or imputed righteous by God on the basis of Jesus' obedience as a man and his death for our sins.  
The hymn reads:  Through His merit we inherit.  But do we add anything in this life that contributes to the merit of that inheritance?  What of our practical living unto the Lord - walking worthily of Him who has called as holy ones to be conformed to His righteous image?  Commonly called our sanctification, this path likewise is walked only through the merit of our blessed Lord and Savior:  Praise the Spirit, through Christ’s merit, He doth us salvation bring.  

The WCF Chapter 13 - Of Sanctification:
I. They who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened, in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.
II. This sanctification is throughout in the whole man, yet imperfect in this life: there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.

Given the "remnants of corruption" within our holiest works, and even though through faith they be acceptable and pleasing to God, yet in and of themselves these works fall short of the perfect obedience that the Law demands.  Thus the words:  They... are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them.  Ours is to obey; an obedience, though imperfect, born of gratitude as the reasonable service or duty we owe in light of the abundant grace bestowed on us in Christ.  To what purpose?  The making of ourselves gradually more holy by our grace-assisted works offered?  No.  God needs neither our works of righteousness (Christ the Perfect Man has fully supplied them already) nor are we able to truly offer such righteous works, as they fall short.  Yet through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection and His Word and Spirit dwelling within we are being changed, yet not of ourselves.  As the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:
   -But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness
    and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written:  "Let him who boast, boast in the Lord"  (30-31).

That all the glory would go to God in all we say and do.  He has done it!

So the sojourn here is that of not looking to ourselves and the commands of God with the Spirit's help as the means of sanctification and something we must fulfill in order to inherit.  Rather, as the writer of Hebrews says,
    Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every
   encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race
   that is set before us,
   fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him 
  endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
This follows fast on Hebrews 11 and the cloud of witnesses who gave testimony, through their suffering, godly living and even death, to the one true and faithful God... and all by faith - a faith that looks away from self (and our subjective measure of keeping law) to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.  Yet one asks, shouldn't we seek to live obediently to God's commands?  Yes, but by a faith that dependently and gratefully puts its whole trust in God's fulfilled promises and mercy in Christ; that looks to Jesus who, by His obedient life lived and sacrificial death on the cross, bearing the full penalty of all our sin, has become both our justification and sanctification:

   Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
   For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.
   For  what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son
   in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh,
   so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the
   flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)
-And it is the Word and the Spirit that point us to the all-sufficiency of Christ Jesus, Redeemer and Sanctifier.

At the evening service later on Sunday as the church gathered, a stanza in another hymn spoke to my heart that drove home this reassuring truth of God's full provision for us in Christ.  From O Love of God, How Strong and True by Horatius Bonar:
   We read thee best in Him Who came
   To bear for us the cross of shame;
   Sent by the Father from on high,

   Our life to live, our death to die. 

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