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Beyond Probation


Lee Irons

[This sermon originally appeared in Modern Reformation (March-April 1996) under the title "Raised for our Justification"]

"He was delivered over to death for our sins
and was raised to life for our justification"
(Romans 4:25)

In the 24th chapter of the gospel according to Luke, Jesus divided his ministry into two stages: the sufferings and the glory. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus were despondent. They had hoped that Jesus was the one who would deliver Israel and bring in the glory of the kingdom on earth. Instead, he ended up crucified at the hands of the very Romans from whose tyranny they had hope to be rescued. Not knowing that it was the risen Jesus who spoke with them, Jesus admonished them, reminding them that this was exactly what the Scriptures had foretold: "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" (Luke 24:25-26). The writings of Moses and the prophets were full of this message: the sufferings of the Messiah must come first, and then, and only then, will the Messiah enter into the glory of his kingly reign. There can be no glory, unless he first suffers on the cross to redeem his people from sin.

What are the sufferings of Christ? This first stage of Christ's work began with his incarnation, when the Son of God left the bliss of his Father's glory and willingly became flesh for our salvation. His birth was in humble circumstances -- his mother laid the divine baby in a feeding-trough for animals. His upbringing was unattended by the gaudy displays of wealth normally associated with the royalty of this world. He suffered as any ordinary peasant who lived in the backwaters of Galilee during the Imperial occupation. In addition to the common lot of humanity under the curse, the Messiah of Israel suffered the further ignominy of being rejected by the majority of his fellow countrymen. Even further, he was tried for blasphemy, convicted by false-witnesses, cruelly tortured by Roman soldiers, and finally executed as a criminal. But even this was not the height of his suffering. He endured excruciating abandonment by his own Father, accursed and judged by a holy God for our sins: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" And he was buried and remained under the power of death for three days.

But this is not the end of the story! After the sufferings, came the glory. Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, the light of the first day of the new creation dawned. Something deep within the fundamental fabric of the cosmos changed. The Son of God reclaimed his former glory and the world has never been, nor will it ever be, the same again. The exaltation of Christ commenced with his glorious resurrection as the Firstborn from the dead. Forty days he showed himself to his disciples with convincing proofs until he was received by the Shekinah cloud of the divine glory. He ascended into heaven, approached the Ancient of Days to receive his kingdom, took his seat at the right hand of the Father, and broke the seals of the scroll of history. He now reigns from heaven, with all authority and dominion, waiting until all his enemies are made his footstool. And he will come again to judge the living and the dead, to present to himself his Bride, the church, bodily transformed into his likeness without spot or wrinkle. The exaltation of Christ began at the resurrection and it continues eternally into the future. It is indeed a great and magnificent theme.

Now the question I want to address this morning is this: Why did Christ have to rise from the dead and enter into his glory? In one sense, the answer is obvious. Since he was the immortal Son of God it was impossible for him to be permanently conquered by death. He was the very divine life itself in human form. So he must rise again.

This is certainly part of the answer. But it only looks at the question from Christ's perspective. It is only half of the equation. Let us ask the same question from a different angle: What significance does the resurrection of Christ have for us?

There are many passages in the New Testament that answer this question. The one I want to draw your attention to this morning is in Romans 4:25: "He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification." Justification here includes but goes beyond the forgiveness of sins. It refers to our being declared righteous in God's sight on the basis of Christ's righteousness, even though we are guilty sinners who deserve God's eternal wrath in hell. The judicial sentence that we deserve to hear from God the judge is "Guilty! Take him away!" Instead, because of Christ's perfect obedience and death in our place, the sentence we receive is "Not guilty! Treat him as righteous in the sight of God!" This sentence is based on the gift of the righteousness of Christ which is credited to our account by God's sheer grace, a gift that is received by faith alone. If we accept this gift in humble faith, acknowledge our guilt before God, and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, we will be declared righteous in God's sight. We are justified.

This free gift of God by which we are declared as righteousness in his sight on the basis of Christ's righteousness this, according to Romans 4:25, is the primary benefit of Christ's resurrection. But the precise nature of the connection between the resurrection of Christ and our justification needs some explaining.

Let's begin by making sure we understand the meaning of the verse itself. Paul's basic point is not difficult to understand. In his death, Christ was judicially "handed over" on account of our sins. Our sins were the judicial basis of his death. He was condemned because of our transgressions. But in his resurrection, the judicial relationship changes. His resurrection becomes the judicial basis of our justification. By being raised from the dead, Christ was vindicated, acquitted, freed of all charges. He was declared to be righteous and accepted as such in the court of heaven. But ultimately this was for our justification. Our sins caused Christ's death. But Christ's life causes us to be freed of the guilt of our sin. My translation: "He was delivered to death because of our sins and was raised to life for the sake of our justification."

Paul wants to highlight the "marvelous exchange" of our sins for Christ's righteousness. Accordingly, Romans 4:25 teaches that if our sins killed Christ then his resurrection lets us go free. He received the rap that we might receive the blessing. Our sins (which should have resulted in our judgment) caused him to be handed over to die, and his resurrection (which we might imagine he deserved to enjoy solely for himself) caused us to be declared righteous in God's sight. It is the idea of substitution. If Christ's death was substitutionary, then his resurrection was as well. Just as we can say that Christ was condemned in our place, we can equally say that he was justified in our place.

At first this may sound somewhat off-base. "If you say Jesus was justified, you're saying he was a sinner in need of forgiveness. Only sinners need to be justified, right?" Wrong! It is imperative that we expand our definition of "justification" beyond merely the forgiveness of sins. Following Paul's own example (Rom. 5:12-21), we will therefore take a little detour back to the garden of Eden in order to make sense of this odd-sounding claim. Even before the entrance of sin into the world Adam needed to be justified, that is, he needed a judicial declaration granting him the right to eternal life. Consider Adam as he was before the fall, innocent and without sin. He did not yet possess eternal life. True, he had not yet incurred the punishment that God had threatened ("In the day that you eat of the tree you will surely die"). He was not yet mortal in the sense that we are mortal, i.e., destined to die. But on the other hand, he was not immortal either. He could die and this is clearly demonstrated by the fact that he did. And if he could die, then he did not have eternal life.

But although he did not actually possess eternal life as he was created, God offered him a way of obtaining it. According to Genesis 1-3, God entered into a covenant with Adam in order to give him the possibility of gaining the right to eternal life. "The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience" (Westminster Confession VII.2). In other words, Adam was put under a probation or a test. If he had kept the condition (perfect obedience to God), he would have obtained eternal life a higher kind of life than the life he had by virtue of his creation, a life that can never be forfeited. This aspect of the pre-fall arrangement usually goes unnoticed. The negative side is obvious: if Adam sins, he must die. But there was a positive side as well. The tree of life was a pledge of the reward of eternal life that God offered Adam on condition that he passed his probation (Gen. 2:9; 3:22-24; Rev. 2:7; 22:2, 14, 19).

This is the broader biblical picture of justification. Justification presupposes the existence of a covenant of works. It is impossible to conceive of someone being justified unless there is a covenantal arrangement that makes this possible. Imagine what it would be like and of course this is purely hypothetical and imaginary but imagine what it would be like if God had not entered into a covenant with Adam but had simply required perpetual obedience with no promise of eternal life. Only two options would lie before him. Either he could disobey God and fall into judgment (death). Or he could just continue to obey. But at any point he would be capable of falling. He could remain in this state of integrity indefinitely. But that would be all. Even after millions of years, he would still be "on probation." He could never have a confirmed relationship with God, a non-forfeitable life. No "secure horizons" for Adam! Just the endless potential for falling.

But a covenant makes justification possible. On such an arrangement, if the human party successfully passes the period of probation or testing, then he will be justified, that is, his relationship with God will be advanced to a level of permanent security. He will be granted a non-forfeitable right to eternal life. In fact, it will be an inalienable right that is, it is a right which the possessor cannot surrender even if he theoretically wanted to. Justification is God's judicial recognition that the covenant of works has been fulfilled and that therefore the right to eternal life has been obtained.

On this definition of justification, it is legitimate to say that Christ was justified. For as the Last Adam he entered into a covenant of works on our behalf (Rom. 5:12-21; I Cor. 15:22, 45). The first Adam miserably failed. But the Last Adam gloriously triumphs! The first Adam broke the covenant, thus bringing death. But the Last Adam keeps the covenant, thus bringing life and that more abundantly! On these two Adams the entire gospel hangs.

But there is an important difference between the two Adams. Because of the introduction of sin into the world, the probationary phase of the Last Adam's work included something that the first Adam never had to do, namely, satisfy the wrath of God for the broken covenant of works. In submitting to the covenant of works on our behalf the Last Adam must submit to the judgment that justly fell upon us all for the first Adam's rebellion. His probation involves his whole life of obedience to the Father, beginning with his humbling himself in his incarnation. But it reaches its climactic expression in his "obedience unto death even death upon a cross" (Phil. 2:5-8).

Another difference is that the Last Adam who is not only true man but true God received a greater reward than the first Adam. Because of his covenant faithfulness, God highly exalted him by raising him from the dead and seating him upon the throne of universal dominion. God the Father gave his Son the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:9-11). Christ therefore receives divine worship and authority, something Adam would never have achieved even if he had passed the probationary test. Thus, unlike the first Adam, the probationary phase of the Last Adam is a cursed humiliation, and his confirmation a divine exaltation.

Yet in spite of these differences, the basic pattern remains the same. For both Adam and Christ, successful completion of the probationary test is followed by confirmation in righteousness. And for both, the basis of confirmation is meritorious obedience. This is brought out in Phil. 2:5-11. Christ's humiliation (vv. 5-8) is followed by his exaltation (vv. 9-11), and the judicial link connecting the two is found in the key word "therefore." Christ fully obeyed the Father's will, becoming obedient unto death. Therefore, God highly exalted him. On the meritorious ground of his obedience unto death, even death on a cross, God transcendently, gloriously, and cosmically vindicated the law-fulfilling Last Adam. It is impossible to conceive of a Christ who has fulfilled the covenant of works but who remains in the grave unjustified. If the servant of the covenant (Christ) has fully met its stipulations and requirements, then the Lord of the covenant (God the Father) is bound to honor its terms terms to which in eternity he had bound himself in immutable self-commitment (John 17:4-5). Thanks be to God that Christ fulfilled the terms, thus winning his reward!

We began this morning by considering the sufferings of Christ and the glory that followed. We than asked the question: What significance does the resurrection of Christ have for us? Why did he suffer and then enter his glory? Was it only for himself? Was only to prove that he is the divine Son of God? Our study has led to the conclusion that Christ's resurrection glory was, as Paul states in Romans 4:25, for us, for our justification.

The death and resurrection of Jesus was a judicial event, indeed it was the greatest judicial event of cosmic history. God the Father entered the courtroom of the universe in heaven. He sat down upon his throne of judgment. All the heavenly angels stilled their voices. The courtroom became hushed with anticipation. Opened were the books of all the deeds of all men and women. All the sins of all the elect were scanned, condemned, and applied to Jesus. The Ancient of Days exercised all royal and judicial power. The gavel of condemnation was lifted up. The crushing blow came down upon the head of the innocent Jesus who bore our sins upon the cross. The sun and moon hid their faces. The earth shook in horror. The condemned and dead Jesus was taken down from the cross and buried.

Marvel of marvels, three days later, on the first day of the week, another gavel, the gavel of acquittal was taken up by the judge. This time death itself was crushed by the blow. Jesus was raised from the dead. The cosmic sentence of righteousness rang out throughout the universe, from the highest heavens to the lowest parts of the earth. Everyone who now turns to Jesus Christ and confesses him and believe in him, is legally incorporated into him and made to share in his justification. Christ, is the second Adam, the second Probationer. Jesus fulfills that role as our representative. And by virtue of union with this exalted and justified Head, we have a full and free justification. In Christ, our probation is over! In Christ, we are regarded as those who have fully kept the covenant! In Christ, who is our life, eternal life cannot be lost or forfeited by sin! "Secure horizons" for us who by grace have been transferred out of the first Adam into the Last!

Your judicial standing before God your justification doesn't depend on how well you are doing in being an obedient Christian. In other words, your justification doesn't depend on your sanctification. It depends completely on the fact that Jesus has sufficiently obeyed God fully in your place.

Many Christians have the mistaken idea that they have been accepted into the program, but they're still on probation. No, Paul says, you are beyond probation, because Jesus has passed the probationary test on your behalf as the second Adam.

No wonder Paul wrote with exuberant joy, "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:1). The resurrection of Christ constitutes the bestowal of the objective reality of peace with God. Peace, for we know that the covenant of works is complete. Peace, for we have received confirmation in righteousness. Peace, because in Christ we are now on the other side of the probation, eternally at peace with God in the confidence of a confirmed relationship that can never, never be ruptured by sin. The message of the resurrection is the judicial declaration that you who believe in Jesus Christ are "beyond probation."