I hear the Savior say,
“Thy strength indeed is small;
Child of weakness, watch and pray,
Find in Me thine all in all.”
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.
As I look at you today, late in the year 2017, I see many of you struggling in the faith, weak and weary, and it makes me wonder, “Is Christ enough?” Is Christ enough to save you? Is Christ enough to free you? Is Christ enough to deal with your sins? To satisfy God’s justice? To satisfy us? Is Christ enough?
Is Christ enough when you’ve let down your wife and your kids again? Is Christ enough when you’ve lost your temper? Is Christ enough when you close that computer browser after failing once again in the battle against lust? Is Christ enough when you are just so tired and feel that you can’t go on? Is Christ enough when someone has hurt you and you don’t know if you can forgive?
Sometimes the church doesn’t help. I know this. Yes, we proclaim that Christ is enough, but then we create a church culture in which we grade one another and ourselves on our performance and our pursuits, if not at times even our perfection. And I know that some of you leave church more weary and more burdened and feeling more condemned than when you came. We build a church culture in which our work for God so eclipses God’s work for us, that the message of the gospel is practically minimized and obscured, and we begin to form the secret conviction (though we would never say this) that Christ is not enough.
As I have done this series, five truths from the reformation to stand on, I’ve been investigating the controversy that split the church 500 years ago. And today we come to our 4th “Alone” phrase, “In Christ Alone.” The more I study the reformation and understand the practice and theology of the Catholic church, the more I am convinced that this is a truth that needs to be not only understood, but embraced, and set in our hearts at the deepest convictional level: that my salvation is found in Christ alone. That there is rest for my soul, because Jesus paid it all. Because he is enough.
Christ is the Sufficient Saviour and the Sole Mediator
In order to understand how the issue was framed at the time of the reformation, it is helpful to understand what the Catholic church taught (and still teaches) about the nature of salvation. I’ve tried very hard to be fair in this series and not just use this as an occasion to bash Catholics, but this is a key point to understand, so that we can take care that we do not do the same things.
The Catholic church teaches that Christ’s sacrifice was enough to bring us into a state of grace and deal with the eternal guilt of our sin, but that in order to stay in that state of grace and be fitted for heaven, we need to purify ourselves through a system of making confession to a priest and doing penance saying prescribed prayers and taking the mass and receiving forgiveness and giving to the church, and if you die before making your confession, then you go to a place called purgatory until your soul is purified by fire, or others do enough good works in your name, like donating to the church or performing prayers on your behalf.
This entire system was mediated through the priesthood of the church. The priests would hear your confession and remit (forgive) your sins. The priests would write certificates of indulgences declaring how many years of purgatory your donation to the church would merit. It is even said that when the priest performs the Eucharist (what we refer to as the Lord’s supper).
The practical outcome of this system is that, though Christ is acknowledged as saviour, the focus of the life of the church is directed toward our own works mediated through the Church. The people were kept in bondage even as the church grew rich in corruption.
And so you can see how revolutionary was this simple truth: in Christ Alone. The reformers wrestled with the corruption they saw in the church and began to despise all these practices that set the focus of the Christian life on our miserable performance rather than on the joyful proclamation Christ’s work. And thus the Reformers maintained that Christ is both the Sufficient Saviour and Exclusive Mediator Let me define those terms:
“Sufficiency” means that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, is entirely in itself all that is necessary to right our relationship with God, to satisfy the justice of God, and to secure eternal life on our behalf.
“Exclusivity” means that a right standing with God, the satisfaction of God’s justice, and the hope of eternal life are found only in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
Now, there are many place in scripture to which we could turn (the reformers loved the books of Romans and Galatians). But I think that there is no other scripture that so sets forth the sufficiency and exclusivity of the work of Christ as the book of Hebrews. This is the entire argument of the book of Hebrews - that Christ alone has done all that is necessary not only to save us eternally but also to purify us completely, and that he alone is the sole mediator of the new covenant. Now we went through the entire book of Hebrews together not too long ago, but I’d direct you to a few passages:
Heb. 9:11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
Remember, the argument being made in the book of Hebrews is that under the old, jewish system God instituted through Moses, the work of the priests were never done. they would go into the temple day after day, bringing sacrifices to God in order to atone for their sins and the sins of the people. The scripture refers to this system as the shadow that was to prepare us and point us to Christ, the true High Priest, who would enter not into the temple, but into God’s presence in the heavenly realms, through the offering of himself as a perfect sacrifice for sin. As Hebrews goes on to say:
13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
Notice the argument here, if the work of these lesser priests with lesser offerings were able to purify sin and sanctify, how much more is the perfect offering made by the perfect priest able to completely purify us. And remember verse 12, this sacrifice was made once for all. Hebrews goes on to emphasize the importance of this:
Heb. 10:11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
No other work can add to it, it needs not be repeated. It is truly all sufficient not only to save and to purify, but to perfect for all time those who are being sanctified. We are perfected, and therefore we approach God freely through his work alone, confident that his work is all-sufficient and with full assurance of faith. Christ our mediator has opened up a new and immediate access to the Father, and we simply follow him in.
Heb. 10:19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
Hebrews gives absolutely no impression that we should erect another priesthood between the work of Christ and the people. The entire point of the book is that Christ alone has done it all and his work is sufficient, and when his priestly work was finished, there is no need for any other priestly mediators, for we have all been given access to the throne of grace and are called to come near to God in full assurance of faith.
Does that mean there is no role for the church? Absolutely not. There is a role.
23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Our first role is that we proclaim the work of Christ, we do not perform the work of Christ. All that we do when we gather is to hear God’s good news through the word and through the Lord’s supper calling us once again to trust in Christ’s work on our behalf.
I want to speak a word on confession. For this is at the heart of the issue. The system that the Catholic church set up that so obscures Christ is an attempt to answer the question of what do we do when we sin after coming to Christ. Does Christ only forgive the sins that I confess? And if that’s so, does it mean that every time I sin I am in danger of hell?
First, I want to distinguish between repentance unto salvation, and confession of sins, because though they are related they are distinguishable. No one comes to Christ without becoming aware of their sinful nature and hopeless state before a holy and just God. Thus when the spirt opens our hearts to receive the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus, there is a confession of sorts that is made - “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”. In that moment, when we genuinely come to God in faith an repentance, when we receive the gift of salvation,God’s wrath is turned away from us, for Christ has satisfied justice in himself on our behalf. We are no longer guilty before God our judge, for in Christ all of our sins are forgiven and no longer judicially held against us. And so this repentance looks like confession, yet it is very different than what we are talking about when we say that Christians are to confess their sins.
When we sin as a Christian we suffer relational effects of sin. To put it another way, when we sin as a Christian, it is not as if we are guilty before a judge, but that we have dishonoured our father. It is still serious, but its serious in a different way. If I break the law, the judge will punish me as a criminal, if I break my father’s heart, the breakdown of the relationship is itself the punishment. God doesn’t send the Christian away condemned, but may discipline the Christian, as a loving father disciplines his son. You lose the joy of your salvation, and may even face severe consequences. So yes, Christian, confess your sins, that you might be healed and renewed in Christ. Draw near to the throne of grace, for our high priest has already entered in and we have ready access to the Father through the son.
There may be times when it is helpful to confess you sins to others, so long as you keep in mind that we are here to proclaim the finished work of Christ, and not perform the work of Christ for you.
Second, we gather to encourage one another in Christ. for immediately as we are instructed to follow Christ in, we are then directed to stir up love in the church by meeting with one another and encouraging one another, pointing one another to the finished work of Christ and proclaiming the gospel to one another that all might freely enter in. But please note - all this ministry of the church begins from a position of access to God through the sufficient and exclusive work of Christ.
This is why as a Christian, the Christmas season so helps to refocus me - to remind me, daily reminders, that Christ has come into this world, a child born, a son given, to take the government upon his own shoulders, to bear the weight and penalty of sin, and to be the everlasting father, prince of peace. Would you rest and worship him today?