Martin Luther’s theology always had a pastoral side. He understood, for example, that believers face fierce temptations. The believer needs to fight Satan with the Word of God, as Jesus did when he was tempted. Luther had suffered and feared God’s judgment. He thought about our facing God’s judgment, and the constant attack of the accuser, when it comes time to die. According to the reformer, what passages of Scripture are most important at such a time? The texts that speak of Christ as the gift of God’s love to us:
- Isaiah 53:6, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
- Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’”.
- 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
- John 1:29, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
Each of these statements describes Jesus’ death in our place, as the sacrifice offered for the guilt of our sins. He suffered and died for us. This is the heart of the good news: God gave his Son for our sins. We are not liable for them.
It is interesting though, that Luther directs our faith to the cross, to what Jesus did there in our place, rather than to the moment of our conversion, or even to the righteousness that God’s counts as ours when we believe. No doubt Luther would not draw a dark line between them, and neither should we, because Jesus’ death really saves his people.
In the death of his Son, God provided everything for our full and final salvation. It is common in theology to discuss the work of Christ, “the accomplishment of redemption” as a different idea than “the application of redemption.” The difference is important, because Jesus’ death and resurrection can never be repeated. Clearly, Jesus can never die again. And we must believe to be saved. This is something we must do. Salvation is not automatic, as Paul said to the jailer in Philippi: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31).
But Luther’s pastoral insight was precisely correct: Jesus’ death for us cannot fail to bring us to eternal life. The cross is our assurance. As Herman Bavinck put it, “If Jesus is truly the Savior, he must also really save his people, not potentially but really and in fact, completely and eternally.” This is one of the strongest points of Reformed theology. Scripture everywhere joins together Jesus’ atoning death and the full benefits of eternal life. Notice some of the passages where the apostles see together Jesus’ death and the actual reception of the benefits of salvation:
In Galatians 3:13-14, Paul says that Jesus’ bearing the curse insured that we would receive the promised Holy Spirit. His redeeming us and our being “in him” are united.
In Romans 5:9-11, Paul identifies “justification” and Jesus’ “blood.” “… having been justified by his blood,” he writes. But Paul himself teaches that we must believe in Christ, personally, in our lifetime, in order to be justified (Romans 5:1). The blood does not justify unless God gives us faith in it. How do these fit together? Jesus’ death insured that in our lives, in God’s time, he would give us the gift of faith, and we would be justified. Later in Romans, he joins them together, again, in God’s loving purpose (Romans 8:28-32).
He writes much the same in Ephesians 1:7, “in him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” Again, Jesus’ blood-shedding insured full forgiveness because it insured that we would believe.
What about a holy life? Like faith, holiness requires the renewing work of the Holy Spirit in us, causing us to die to sin. Was that outcome secured by Jesus’ death? Yes. To Titus, Paul writes, “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). He gave himself for us and he purifies our lives. There is no light between the two.
In 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, he says, “And he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” John Frame writes,
Here Paul says that Jesus died for all. But he also says that the ‘all’ receive new hearts so that they no longer live to themselves, but for Christ. Even in this ‘all’ text, the atonement is efficacious: when Christ dies for someone, that person is fully saved. He receives a new heart and a new life. Clearly, not everyone in the world receives a new heart and a new life; so, not everyone in the world is included in
that term ‘all.’” (Salvation Belongs to the Lord, 154).
The same is true in Romans 6:1-11. Peter too, unites Jesus’ death and our sanctification: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24).
Why do the apostles fuse Jesus’ once-for-all death and our justification and sanctification? Because God included these saving blessings in the love that planned Jesus’ atonement. They are the fruit of the atonement. The death of Christ for us, and the work of the Spirit in us, are related parts of God’s single purpose to save his elect.
This brings us back to assurance. Would the Father deliver up his only Son to death, and then fail to save any for whom he suffered? Never! He loves his Son too much for that. If salvation could have come any other way, it would have. But the fact that God “delivered him up” as a sacrifice requires that he accepts that sacrifice for each of the elect. Christ, by his death, did not simply remove certain obstacles, and so make salvation possible for all, but certain for none. He secured salvation in the complete and fullest sense, including renewal, preservation, and glory. This is why the cross assures us of God’s love. We have forgiveness of sins according to the riches of his grace.
Satan is not honest. When he tempts, he often obscures the good in our lives so we can’t see it. It seems there is no hope in circumstances, either. Where’s the hope? God gave his Son. He will not forsake the blood of his Beloved. It was much too precious to go to waste. So when we face the accusations of the devil, you and I, let’s remember these words: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, as it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’ so that … we might receive the promised Holy Spirit by faith.”