Wednesday, March 3, 2010

J. Gresham Machen's Hope in Death and the Imputation of Christ's Righteousness

The following were J. Gresham Machen's last words: "I'm so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it."

These words reflect the existential import of the profound truth that Christ's life of sinlessness and perfect obedience to the Father earned for His elect the privilege of the imputation unto them of the merits thereof, thereby gaining their acceptance before the Father who demands no other than perfect obedience to His law as the ground for this acceptance.

It would not be unreasonable to assert that any claim of "perfectionism" in the present Christian life is a blasphemous affront to this truth.

"Why did Machen find so much satisfaction in clinging to this promise on his deathbed?

First, it is quite easy for us to believe that God is lenient. We conceive of him as Santa Claus: 'He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.' But who would think of jolly 'ol St. Nick punishing people for their sins? And yet, that is what the Bible insists God will do at the end of history. The same Jesus who emptied himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross, will return to judge the living and the dead. It will be a trial of strict justice and nothing short of perfect righteousness will be required of each of us. Either it will be our own, or borrowed from the host, but God will not be lenient on that dreadful day.

Second, it is quite easy for us to believe that God's grace makes up for what we lack. We even hear justification defined as 'just-as-if-I'd-never-sinned.' But surely this would not be sufficient for our salvation. God not only requires an absence of sin, but a positive possession of the righteousness his nature requires of us. 'It is finished,' our suffering Savior cried out, not only concerning this final trial, but as the capstone to the whole life that he so willingly lived to God for us. While his passive obedience on the cross canceled our sins, it is his active obedience throughout his life that provides the ground upon which God can declare us righteous. This perfect obedience does not merely make up what we lack, but satisfies God's just wrath against even the imperfection of our best works as believers. The Father 'so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son,' so it is not as if the Father is a harsh, demanding taskmaster who must be persuaded by the Son to have mercy. Rather, it is the Father himself who sends the Son to save the world by his voluntary obedience in life and death.

Finally, it is good to know--especially when facing the next world--that for every time we have failed to conform to God's will in thought, word, and deed, by actively sinning or failing to conform to his revealed will, his Son has fulfilled the obedience that we owe. By never once giving in to the lust, pride, sloth, greed, selfishness, and malice that are so often allowed space in our overcrowded hearts, Jesus Christ becomes our Savior not only in his atoning death but throughout his life. In this way, every day of his life was as necessary for our salvation as that dark afternoon on Golgotha. He was the only 'fully surrendered, victorious, sold-out,' Christian who ever lived! Our surrender is halfhearted and partial; our victories seem always to be sullied by pride. Even if we could live the 'higher life,' could God not smell our smugness? Wouldn't our best works be sabotaged by our own depravity? These good works would be corrupt enough to condemn us on the last day, so what we require is the obedience of someone else to stand in for us. It is not only Christ's atoning death, but his saving life during the thirty-three years of his conformity to the Father's will that shelters us from God's just sentence. 'This is why,' wrote Charles Hodge, 'the believer, when arrayed in this righteousness, need fear neither death nor hell. This is the reason why Paul challenges the universe to lay anything to the charge of God's elect.'

May we proclaim this hope while we have breath, and then may it find its way to the center of our vision when God calls us home. For it is the only reason we will hear those welcome words, 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant.'" (Dr. Michael S. Horton, A Dying Man's Consolation (The Active Passive Obedience of Christ), Modern Reformation, March/April 1996.)

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