“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 5:1
Martin Luther was a man racked by the agony of a sin-seared conscience. His spiritual struggles, his Anfechtungen, seemed to have no remedy. And so, Luther said, “I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him.”1 In the Pauline expression “the righteousness of God,” Luther heard only a terrible thunderclap of divine condemnation. It was that righteousness by which God judges the wicked, and thus also that righteousness thwarted his every attempt to find rest for his troubled soul. But then, one day, the storm clouds parted, and shining from that same expression “the righteousness of God,” Luther at last saw not the justice of God to condemn sinners but the gracious provision of God in Jesus Christ to declare sinners righteous in His sight. The words that once seemed to signal only his exclusion from the presence of God became the instruments by which God drew him into His saving embrace, silencing his troubled conscience and giving him peace. Now he saw that through the gospel he could be simul justus et peccator, both sinner and saint by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
By faith, Paul says, we are justified, and because we are counted righteous in Christ, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). The cause of the divine hostility—the guilt of our sin—has been washed away in the wounds of Jesus Christ. The wrath of God is satisfied in the cross for all who believe. “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:10). “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). “[Having] sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law,” God makes His enemies into His friends. More than that, we even “receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–7).
But the great rediscovery of the gospel at the Reformation taught us not only that we may have peace with God, but also that we might have peace from God. Justification by faith alone is a blessed gospel truth, but it is not a truth we experience. It is an objective, legal verdict passed over us in the courtroom of heaven on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ alone. One does not feel justified. It is a status, not a sense. It is a declaration made over us, not a feeling communicated to us. Yet those who have stood in the dock will tell you of the peace and joy that overwhelms them when the “not guilty” verdict is returned. Precisely because our right standing with God is not based on something in us but is wholly based on the obedience and blood of Jesus Christ, we may have the greatest confidence in it. We have peace from God to assure and comfort our hearts because Christ has established peace with God by His cross.
Sadly, it is here that Christians often go wrong. Much like Luther before his spiritual breakthrough, we too readily establish our belief in the solidity and permanence of our salvation on our subjective experience. If we do not feel peace, we assume there can be no peace. If we do not experience the intimate presence of God, we conclude that we must still be alienated from Him. But this is to rest our hope once again on something in ourselves, on some feeling or quality or sense of spiritual things. In contrast, the gospel recovered at the Reformation declares with joy that our “hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” We have an objective and immovable rock upon which to anchor our confidence before God. It is not to be looked for in the murky depths of our hearts or in the shifting sands of our effort or experience. It is found in Christ crucified, risen, and reigning. We must look to Him for peace.
To be sure, subjectivity is not sin, and the Scriptures themselves call us to self-examination. Paul’s call is to “examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (2 Cor. 13:5). The “if . . . then” syllogism that fills the first letter of the Apostle John reminds us that there are practical tests we must apply to our hearts and lives that will help us discern evidences of spiritual life. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (2:15). “If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father” (2:24). “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (3:17). One of the tools we have been given to dispel fears and settle our hearts is the discipline of self-examination. Those in whom the Holy Spirit has worked the miracle of new birth are those who bear fruit in keeping with repentance, and we are indeed to seek that fruit in our lives. Yet Robert Murray M’Cheyne was undoubtedly correct to counsel us that for every “one look at self” we should “take ten looks to Christ.”2
That is fine pastoral wisdom. If we seek our peace in our own progress in Christian obedience alone, if our gifts and graces are the only source of comfort and assurance in our lives, then we may find ourselves tempted to one of two extremes. Either we will give in to a naive self-congratulation, overestimating the progress we have made and overlooking the sin that still so easily entangles us, or we might find our peace collapsing under the pressure of guilt as we allow our sin and failure, eclipse-like, to obscure all progress and growth. M’Cheyne was right. We must take a look at self, often and carefully. We ought frequently to assess ourselves with sober honesty. But how shall we overcome the danger of false assurance based on a faulty overestimate of our own worthiness if not by looking at the pristine faultlessness of Christ in His obedience to the Father? In the bright sunshine of His perfections, the stains of sin in us are clearly revealed. How shall we answer the accusations of a conscience that sees only failure and sin if not by looking at the Righteous One whose obedience even unto death was for us and for our salvation? His all-sufficient atonement alone can silence the sting of a condemning conscience and humble the boasts of a self-reliant heart. Only by the ballast of the gospel of free grace can the ship of our Christian lives avoid listing to one side or the other. May the Lord help us all to find peace from God because we have first found peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on October 31, 2017.
- Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (Tring, England: Lion, 1978), 65. ↩︎
- Andrew A. Bonar, The Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1978), 279. ↩︎