The response of faith
Jesus' death on the cross was not an afterthought on God's part. It was the plan and purpose of God from the very beginning. It was anticipated in the books of Moses, in the Psalms and in the Prophets. The Lord Jesus asserted as much in his conversation with his disciples on the evening of the day of his resurrection (Luke 24:44).
As we have seen, the Old Testament anticipated the cross in two ways: through promises and types. Both are found in the garden of Eden. There God made the first promise of redemption (Genesis 3:21). From that beginning, we find a steady stream of both promises and types in the Old Testament, and that stream continued to roll along, ever deepening and widening in its flow, until it finally culminated in Christ's death on Calvary's cross.
Those promises and types clearly indicated that the death of Christ was to be no ordinary death, that through that death Christ would take the place of sinners and bear the penalty of God's wrath - the penalty they themselves so richly deserved. In taking their place and bearing God's wrath against them, Christ would free them from that wrath. God's justice only demands that sin be paid for once. If Christ pays for it there is no penalty left for the sinner to pay.
Paul picks up this stream of thought with that word 'propitiation'. That word means God's wrath against the sinner has been averted, or turned away. And, as we have noted, it can only be diverted from the sinner by a substitute coming between the sinner and God to receive, or absorb, it.
A matter of crucial importance
Now we come to a matter of crucial importance. We can put it in the form of this question: how does the death of Christ come to count for the individual?
Some are not troubled about this matter at all. As far as they are concerned, nothing is more needless and silly than to ask how the death of Christ is applied to the individual because, they argue, it already applies to every individual. One preacher of this persuasion went so far to put it like this: 'In the end everybody will be saved. I have hope even for the devil.'
What shall we say to this argument? Does the Bible allow us to be universalists? Does it teach that the death of Christ automatically counts for all?
On page after page, the biblical authors plainly give the same answer. The saving work of Christ does not count for all, but for those whom the Father gave him before the world began. These are the ones whom the Holy Spirit regenerates and effectually draws to him. And these are the ones who by faith receive the finished work of Christ. In fact, this answer is so plain in Scripture that we finally have to say that those who fail to see it do so, not because it is not there, but rather because they do not want it to be there.
In the verses before us, the apostle Paul is exceedingly straightforward about the matter. He says the saving work of Christ only applies to those who receive it by faith. Eight times in these verses he uses the word 'faith' (Romans 3 verses 22,25,26,27,28,30,31).
We should note that this emphasis comes hard on the heels of a section in which Paul hammers on the universality of sin.
The words 'none' and 'all' and the phrase 'no, not one' come in trip-hammer fashion and leave no room at all for maneuver. All are 'under sin' (Romans 3:9).
From the grim picture of universal sin, Paul proceeds to the happy news that God has provided salvation for sinners in and through his Son, Jesus Christ. But he does not now use the same universal language he used in describing man's sinful condition. His language is now strikingly particular. Salvation does not apply to 'all', but rather to 'all who believe' (Romans 3 verse 22). It is for 'the one who has faith in Jesus' (verse 26). The very nature of Christ's death, substitution for the sinner, defines it s scope - those whom the Father gave him.
If Paul intended to teach a universal salvation, he would surely have done so in conjunction with his teaching on the universality of sin, but he did not do so. When dealing with sin, he stressed universality. When dealing with salvation, he stressed particularity. While the death of Christ is sufficient for all, it is efficient for the people given to Christ by the Father before the foundation of the world. And they receive the benefit of his death by faith. Paul emphatically says those who have this faith are the ones for whom the death of Christ avails. Those who do not have this faith are the ones for whom the death of Christ does not avail. In doing so, he is essentially repeating what the apostle John records in his Gospel: 'He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him' (John 3:36).
Faith, then, is the means by which we receive the benefits secured by the Lord Jesus dying on the cross. It is urgent, therefore, for us to understand this matter of faith.
When we come to this subject, we must immediately be on guard against two kinds of dangers. One is to make faith less than it should be; the other is to make faith more than it should be.
Making faith less than it should be
Stopping short of true commitment
Let's look at how can we make faith less than it should be. Biblical faith consists of hearing the message of the gospel, believing that message to be true, and committing ourselves to that message.
We might say faith has an ear that enables it to hear the gospel. It also has a mind to consent to the truth of that message. And it has a hand actually to receive the message. We make faith less than biblical faith when we stop short of that final stage of actually committing ourselves to the gospel message.
In other words, we can have the knowledge of the gospel, that is, know what the gospel alleges and affirms. But that is not biblical faith. It is only intellectual apprehension of facts.
We can go even further and believe the gospel is true. We can hear what the Bible says about our sinful condition, about God's holiness and judgement to come and about God's plan of salvation in Christ. We can hear it all and nod in agreement. We can say, 'Yes, I know I'm a sinner who is bound for judgement. Yes, I know Christ is the Son of God, and that he, and he alone, is the Saviour. Yes, I know that on the cross he did everything necessary for my sins to be forgiven.'
We can say all this from the heart, firmly believing it is all true as we say it, and still not have true faith.
True faith carries us on to the next level, which is actually to commit ourselves to the truth of this message, to rest ourselves entirely upon it as the only hope for our salvation. Jim Elliff illustrates biblical faith in this way:
Suppose that my watch had stopped running; so I asked you to give me the name of the best watch repairman in the city. You highly recommended one particular man whom you and others consider the expert in watch repair. I believe you and make the trip into the city to locate his shop.
The shop is a quaint old place having been in operation for over fifty years. I find many certificates of commendation on the walls, all of which make me more of a believer. With watch still on my wrist, I press it up against the thick glass between the expert and me. I ask 'Can you fix this kind of watch?' Without hesitancy, the repairman replies, 'Why, certainly, I know everything about them and have all the parts in stock.'
We stand there looking at each other awkwardly for a few unpleasant moments until the man asks me, 'Are you going to give me the watch?' 'No!' I blurt out. 'No sir, not at all. My father gave me this watch and I am not about to give it to you. I know what you "experts" do with watches like this. You take out the insides and replace them with inferior workmanship. No sir, you'll not have my watch!'
The surprised watchman then makes a profound observation: 'Well, if you don't give it to me, I can't fix it.'
To get a broken watch repaired, one has to give it in abandoned trust to the watch-repairer. In like manner the one who wants to have his broken soul repaired must give it to Christ in abandoned trust.
Divorcing faith from works
Another way in which many make faith less than it should be is to suggest that it is possible to have it and not be concerned about living for the Lord Jesus Christ. While it is faith alone that saves, saving faith is never alone. It always leads to good works. We cannot work for our salvation, but if we have been saved we will certainly manifest it in good works.
John Flavel provides insight on this matter by anticipating this objection: 'But if Christ wrought so hard, we may sit still. If he finished the work, nothing remains for us to do.'
Flavel answers that objection in this way: 'Nothing of that work which Christ did, remains for you to do. It is your commendation and duty to leave all that to Christ: but there is other work for you to do...You must work as well as Christ, though not the same ends Christ did. He wrought hard to satisfy the law, by fulfilling all righteousness. He wrought all his life long, to work out a righteousness to justify you before God. This work falls to no hand but Christ's: but you must work, to obey the commands of Christ into whose right ye are come by redemption: you must work to testify your thankfulness to Christ, for the work finished for you: you must work to glorify God by your obedience: let your light so shine before men. For these, and divers other such ends and reasons, your life must be a working life. God preserve all his people from the gross and vile opinions of Antinomian libertines, who cry up grace and decry obedience' (italics are his).
Making faith more than it should be
The second danger we must guard against is to make faith more than it should be. We do this when we make faith a good work that we perform in order to secure salvation.
The whole purpose of God in salvation is not only to provide a way of forgiveness for sinners but to do so in a way that brings honour and glory to himself. Since God is perfection in every way, it is only right for him to seek glory for himself.
Now how does he glorify himself in this business of salvation? He does so by removing all grounds for any to boast. This is the reason salvation cannot be achieved by good works. If it could, there would indeed be something for us to boast about. We could talk about how we had lived such good lives that we earned heaven.
Paul makes this point very clear. He says God has devised salvation in such a way that boasting is 'excluded' (Romans 3 verse 27). There is no room for it at all. How is it excluded? Paul's answer is 'by the law of faith' (Romans 3 verse 27).
Faith by its very nature leaves no credit for us. It is not a work that we do to earn our salvation. If it were, there would be something for us to boast about. We would be able to say, 'We are saved because we had enough insight to believe and others did not.'
John R.W. Stott puts it in this way: 'It is vital to affirm that there is nothing meritorious about faith, and that, when we say that salvation is "by faith, not by works", we are not substituting one kind of merit ("faith") for another ("works").
Why is it that we can take no credit for our faith? One reason is that we do not produce it. It is given to us. The apostle Paul says, 'For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast' (Ephesians 2:8-9).
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul says their ability to believe in Christ had been 'granted' to them (Philippians 1:29). Faith is not something the people of God work up in themselves. It is produced by the Holy Spirit when he regenerates the unbeliever and draws him or her to Christ.
Another reason why we can take no credit for faith is that it is of such a nature that it will not allow us to do so. True faith does not look to itself. It looks to Christ, and to him alone, as the only hope of salvation. We are not saved by faith in faith, but rather by faith in Christ.
This is biblical faith. It looks away from itself and rests entirely on the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. If Christ finished the work of salvation, what can we do except receive it? A finished work demands faith plus nothing. Flavel again beautifully makes the point: 'If he have finished the work what need of our additions? And if not, to what purpose are they? Can we finish that which Christ himself could not? But we would fain be sharing with him in this honour, which he will never endure. Did he finish the work by himself, and will he ever divide the glory and praise of it with us? No, no, Christ is no half Saviour. Oh it is an hard thing to bring these proud hearts to live upon Christ for righteousness: we would fain add our penny to make up Christ's sum. But if you would have it so...you and your penny must perish together.'
JOURNEY TO THE CROSS, by Roger Ellsworth, Copyright 1997, EVANGELICAL PRESS.