Alexander Whyte, an eminent Scottish minister in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, wrote of Christians who lived as if sanctification were by vinegar. I was reminded of this when preparing recently to preach on Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. As Luke concludes his account of this eunuch’s conversion, he tells us, ‘he went on his way rejoicing.’ The gospel of God’s great grace in Christ had not only brought him into a right, restored relationship with God, it had filled his heart with joy.
It can hardly be denied that some Christians live as if sanctification were by vinegar. There is little evident joy in their lives. Their response (as I once, sadly, said to a friend at university) is that their joy lies deep in their hearts. But is the believer’s joy to be buried so deeply in his/her heart that its presence never breaks the surface and radiates on their face and in their general demeanour? Surely not.
The deep seriousness of the Christian life is not an excuse for living as if sanctification were by vinegar. The expectation of God’s Word is that the child of God will ‘rejoice in the Lord always’. The Psalmist summons us to ‘make a joyful noise to the Lord.’ Peter even tells us that the suffering Christians to whom he was writing were ‘filled with joy unspeakable and full of glory.’ You will understand, of course, that I am not saying that believers will walk about with a constant grin on their faces – that would be both un-natural and ridiculous. There is a deep and solemn seriousness about the Christian life. We are called to bear witness to the saving Lordship of our Jesus Christ in a world that denies and defies him. We stand, under God, between men and women and a lost eternity. While we are a ‘fragrance of life’ to some, we are also a ‘fragrance of death’ to others (2 Cor. 2:15-16). And yet, this deeply solemn fact is not to mute, far less eclipse, the joy that is ours in Christ.
Consider for a moment our many reasons for ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory.’ We are saved sinners. God in his grace has rescued us from the coming wrath. We are justified sinners. In Christ we have an eternally secure relationship with God. We are God’s own adopted children. We once were ‘children of wrath,’ but now we are the sons of God’s love. Once we were facing the nightmare prospect of hell, excluded forever from the presence of the Lord. Now, because of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are heading for the city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. The Triune God is our God and we are his people. Nothing can separate us from his love to us in Christ Jesus. Of all people in this universe we are the most privileged and blessed. We can even say with Paul, ‘having nothing yet possessing everything,’ because all things are ours in Christ (1 Cor. 3:22-23).
It is because all this is true of us that the words of the hymn-writer resonate within us as we sing: ‘He makes the saddest heart to sing’. Yes, our joy is deep; but it is no less to be evident. People need to see that the gospel of redeeming grace is a delight to us. They need to see that Jesus makes a difference to how we live and how we look! I know that the Lord has made us all different. There is a joyful spontaneity among our African brothers and sisters that is not native to the ‘slightly less’ effervescent Englishman, or even Scotsman. But are we not guilty of taking refuge in national characteristics, when the real reason why we lack evident joy is that we are not as thrilled with the Saviour and his grace as we should be? Surely even the dourest Scotsman who comes to saving faith cannot but smile and rejoice in the great mercy that has raised him from a dung heap and set him among princes?
Paul summons us to ‘rejoice in the Lord always.’ And in case we miss the force of his summons he says, ‘and again I say rejoice.’ Take time, make time, to meditate on the inestimable blessings that are yours in Christ. ‘Count your blessings; name them one by one.’ Above all, glory in the God of your salvation. Your meditating may well bring forth tears, but they will be joyful, thankful tears. When I was a student, some Christians I knew wore a badge with the words, ‘Smile, God Loves You.’ I thought the badge was silly (and probably it was). But if Christians cannot smile at the wonder of God’s love for them, something is seriously wrong. Sanctification is never by vinegar – it is always by loving-kindness and tender mercy, even in the sorest of ordained providences. Jesus does make the saddest heart to sing.
Ian Hamilton is Pastor of Cambridge Presbyterian Church.
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