All Have Sinned
‘All have sinned’, Paul reminds us (Rom. 6:23). Because of our fall in Adam, we are all coming short of the glory of God; there is never a moment in our lives when we meet God’s demands for perfect obedience to his law. While we remain in a state of nature, our sin leaves us condemned to a lost eternity. And if we see the seriousness of our sin before God, we will have to ask, ‘How should man be just with God?’ (Job 9:2).
At the same time we must recognise that we are under the power of sin and are very seriously polluted. If we see the seriousness of the pollution, we will also ask:’Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?’ (Job 14:4). Our answer must be the same as Job’s: ‘Not one’ – while we consider the matter on the human level. Only God can cleanse away human filthiness. It requires infinite wisdom and infinite power.
But the glorious fact is that God in his infinite wisdom and power has made provision for both the guilt and the power of human sin to be put away effectively. Zechariah prophesied: ‘There shall be a fountain opened . . . for sin and for uncleanness’ (13:1). And with the coming of Christ, that fountain has indeed been opened for the whole world.
He came to die for sinners – in other words, in their place, as their substitute. They deserved to die; he died instead. They could not deserve any spiritual blessing; in particular, they could not deserve to get to heaven; but Christ merited heaven and all other spiritual blessings for them. Not least among these other blessings is the gift of the Holy Spirit to cleanse the hearts and lives of sinners.
However, the doctrine of substitution is increasingly opposed today. A recent book on the subject notes that ‘an increasing number of theologians and church leaders are calling it into question’. The book asserts that
the most disturbing thing is that most of the recent critics of penal substitution regard themselves as Evangelicals, and claim to be committed to the authority of Scripture. Moreover, whereas criticism of penal substitution was once confined largely to academic books and journals, it has now found its way into popular Christian books and magazines, creating confusion and alarm among Christians.1
Yet, whatever commitment to the authority of Scripture these critics may claim, such plain statements as Paul’s, ‘Christ died for the ungodly’, cannot be understood except as teaching that Christ took the place of the ungodly and died instead of them. If theologians or church leaders, or even ordinary individuals in the pew, toss away the doctrine of substitution, they are ruling out every possibility of having their guilt and pollution washed away. They may claim still to see a fountain which cleanses from sin, but it has no source; no water flows from it; and, solemnly, those who imagine that they come to it still need to be washed from their sins.
No sinner can come to God directly. It is as if there is an unbridgeable abyss, of infinite depth, between us and God. But the Scriptures reveal God’s provision for sinners, so that they may be brought from where they are – on a slippery slope leading down to a lost eternity – into the presence of God. Christ, the sinner’s substitute, is the provision; through him, as Mediator, sinners may approach God. The sinner is to believe these truths – summed up, for instance, in the words: ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16). In the light of this revelation, the sinner is to come to God; he is to come looking to Christ – trusting in him – as the one appointed by God to be the sinner’s substitute.
The sinner thus coming to God will pray. And he has every encouragement to do so. On the basis of what Christ has done as high priest, he is to ‘come boldly unto the throne of grace, that [he] may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need’ (Heb. 4:16). And what greater time of need can there be than when a sinner is under conviction of sin? There is further encouragement in the fact that God has time and again shown his willingness to answer the prayer of needy sinners. Look, for instance, at David’s acknowledgement: ‘Lord, thou hast heard the desire of the humble [or needy ones]: thou wilt prepare their heart, thou wilt cause thine ear to hear’ (Psa. 10:17). And the Lord shows the same gracious willingness to hear prayer today – whatever the particular need the sinner is experiencing.
In what spirit is a sinner to come to God? There is an answer in the Saviour’s parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14). Matthew Henry comments that, in contrast with the Pharisee,
the publican kept at a distance under a sense of his unworthiness to draw near to God . . . Hereby he owned that God might justly behold him afar off and send him into a state of eternal distance from him, and that it was a great favour that God was pleased to admit him thus nigh . . . He did lift his heart to God in the heavens, in holy desires, but through prevailing shame and humiliation, he did not lift up his eyes in holy confidence and courage. His iniquities are gone over his head as a heavy burden, so that he is not able to look up (Psa. 40:12).
‘His prayer was short’, Henry continues.
Fear and shame hindered him from saying much; sighs and groans swallowed up his words; but what he said was to the purpose: ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’. And blessed be God that we have this prayer upon record as an answered prayer, and that we are sure that he who prayed it went to his house justified; and so shall we, if we pray it, as he did, through Jesus Christ.
Henry assumes that behind the publican’s prayer lay the thoughts: ‘The God of infinite mercy be merciful to me, for if he be not, I am for ever undone, for ever miserable. God be merciful to me, for I have been cruel to myself.’
All this took place at the temple, where sacrifice was offered to God day by day. Human sin was thus being acknowledged before God. So was the way he had appointed for sinners to return – through the offering of a substitute. While the Pharisee felt no need of a sacrifice, the publican clearly felt his need. Even if he had offered no sacrifice, he had every right to believe that the morning sacrifice that day had been offered for him in common with every other Israelite; from where he stood he was probably able to see the smoke ascending to heaven from the sacrifice on the altar. Henry remarks: ‘The Pharisee had insisted upon the merit of his fastings and tithes; but the good publican disclaimed all thought of merit and fled to mercy as his city of refuge’, and he did so on the basis of sacrifice, God’s merciful provision, offered for sinners. So sinners today are to go to God on the basis of the one effective sacrifice, offered by Christ Jesus at Calvary.
J C Ryle wished the reader of his comments on this parable to leave it
with the sense of the great encouragement it affords to all who feel their sins and cry to God for mercy in Christ’s name. Their sins may have been many and great; their prayers may seem weak, faltering, unconnected and poor; but let them remember the publican and take courage. That same Jesus who commended his prayer is sitting at the right hand of God to receive sinners. Then let them hope and pray on.2
But let them pray on in the knowledge that God has provided a substitute in Christ Jesus. Only by looking to him, who offered up himself as a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, can sinners approach God. The doctrine of substitution is not merely a matter for theoretical discussion, although it is indeed important to believe what is right. But this doctrine is most certainly of practical importance; it is the one foundation for the salvation of sinners. On the basis of Christ and his perfect sacrifice, sinners are to go to God for salvation. There is no other remedy for the guilt or the pollution of sin.
- Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (IVP, 2007), pp 22, 25.
- Expository Thoughts on Luke, Volume 2 (Banner of Truth, 1986), p 263.
Rev Kenneth D Macleod is pastor of a Free Presbyterian Church on the Isle of Harris, Scotland. He edits The Free Presbyterian Magazine, from the September 2008 issue of which this Editorial is taken, with kind permission.
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