In September ’74 Gerald Ford granted his predecessor, Richard Nixon, a full pardon. As president it was his prerogative no matter what others thought. No one was more relieved than Mr. Nixon. Anyone in his shoes would feel the same. One day we’re dreading going to court to face the consequences of our bad behavior and then suddenly all charges are dropped and we’re free to walk. That unexpected act of mercy would surely change our lives drastically. A pardon from God is a gazillion times more impactful. When Christ suffered and died on the cross mankind was granted a full pardon for its crimes against God. All one has to do in order to stroll out of death row a free man or woman is surrender to the King of kings. Unconditional acquittal is given to all who come to Christ. Not only do they have their criminal history purged from the books, they become justified as in “just-as-if-I’d-never-sinned.” That means our iniquities are not just forgiven, they’re forgotten by the God who knows everything about us! The great I AM accepts us into His holy realm like we’d lived perfect lives since birth! Needless to say, we Christians serve an incredibly gracious Heavenly Father. In my last essay I explained God Himself paid the ultimate price for our sins and shed His own blood to save us from ourselves. To call what He gave us a pardon doesn’t do it justice. It was much more than a spiritual get-out-of-jail free card.
Our eternal future is wholly dependent on the blood of Jesus because it alone cleanses us from the otherwise indelible stains of sin. How was He qualified to do that? Because of His pristine righteousness. As mentioned earlier, Christ’s sacrifice allowed us to receive the gift of justification. Romans 3:22-24 states “For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” In other words, no matter how good and decent we think we are, we can never clean up our acts enough to plead “innocent” in God’s courtroom. As a professional rock musician in the 60s/70s I worked in a lot of filthy nightclubs but I also got to perform in some spiffy joints, too. However, when the lights came on at the end of the night those “classy” rooms were just as messy as the dives. In the darkness the place looked spotless but that’s because you couldn’t see the cigarette burns and beer stains in the carpet. The point is that, spiritually speaking, we can present a neat and tidy front to those around us but when the revealing light of God’s Word shines into us all the dirt and dust bunnies become obvious. That illumination is what awaits each of us when one day we’ll appear before the Supreme Judge after our earthly life has ended. You won’t have a slick lawyer. You’ll represent yourself. God will ask, “Have you loved me with all your heart, mind and soul?” Humbled in His presence you’ll have to respond with, “Not really.” God will then ask, “Have you loved others as you loved yourself?” Your honest answer will be, “Not nearly enough.” The next query posed will be, “Do you admit you’re a sinner and that My Son died for your sins?” If you can truly reply with, “Yes, Your Honor, I do” God will announce, “Then your sentence has been eternally commuted. Jesus paid your debt on the cross. You’re exonerated from all past sinful deeds and thoughts. Welcome home.”
Justification is another word that’s lost its original definition over the centuries. When used these days it usually connotes coming up with a plausible excuse for something we’ve done or said, as in “They fired me without notice so I was justified in stealing a laptop on my way out the door.” But in the spiritual sense it means being brought into right relation with Father God who created us. Paul wrote in Romans 5 that it represents having “…peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Speaking of Paul, there’s no better example of somebody becoming justified without deserving it. While working as a thug for the Pharisees he was jogging towards Damascus to rough up a cluster of Christians when none other than our Lord Himself blocked the road, set him down and got his undivided attention. Saul (his moniker at the time) was beyond incredulous because he’d been 100% positive the Messiah was a figment of a bunch of ignorant and gullible yokels’ imagination. Yet here Jesus was – in person! Saul probably thought, “I’m toast” but the exact opposite happened. Christ told him, “Straighten up, bucko, you’re in my army now.” The apostle formerly known as Saul never got over that encounter. Frederick Buechner wrote, “As far as Paul was concerned, he was the last man in the world for God to have called this way, but God had, thereby revealing Himself to be a God who was willing to do business with you even if you were in the process of mopping up Christians at the time. Paul also discovered that all the Brownie points he had been trying to rack up as a super-Pharisee had been pointless. God did business with you not because of who you were but because of who He was.” Buechner added, “God wants you on His side. There’s nothing you have to do or be. It’s on the house. It goes with the territory. God has ‘justified you,’ lined you up. To feel this somehow in your bones is the first step on the way to being saved.”
Romans 3:24 states believers are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” It’s kinda misleading to call it a pardon. Ford pardoned Nixon but everybody knew he was still guilty of lying through his teeth. It just meant he didn’t have to do prison time. But when a sinner like myself becomes born again and forgiven my sins disappear. I can’t be convicted or condemned because there’s absolutely no evidence I ever screwed up! Because of Jesus I’m not simply pardoned but justified. Christ carried my sins up on the cross and suffered their inevitable effects in my place. God now pronounces me righteous as His own Son! Now, that’s a genuine miracle because logic tells us it’s impossible for God to do that and remain “just.” The wage of sin hasn’t changed one iota. It’s still death. Always will be. But the immaculate righteousness of Christ supersedes all human reasoning, objections or aspersions because He and The Father are one. Jesus lived an unblemished, ideal life and His flawless character supports every facet of His claim to deity.
The question arises: So how does Christ’s righteousness get transferred to us? In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul wrote, “God made the one who did not know sin [Jesus] to be sin for us, so that in him [Jesus] we would become the righteousness of God.” God took my trespasses and put them all on Christ’s shoulders. Don’t ask me how. He could do that because He’s God and we ain’t. God the Son of Man died in my place so I’ll never experience the agony of eternal death my sins merit. As if that weren’t enough, Christ bestows upon those who choose to believe in Him “the righteousness of God.” Stop for a moment and try to digest that info. Me? I’m staggered by it.
In legal terms, because of your trust in Him, God has moved the righteousness of His Son into your account. Therefore when He holds your life up to the penetrating light of His Law He scans a clean slate. No selfishness, no pride, no resentments, no meanness, no evil or sin whatsoever. Is God blind? Not at all. Our Savior’s blood erased them from existence. They’re gone. Thus no matter how hard God looks you over, all He sees is the righteousness of Jesus. Now, any believer worth their salt will confess that, despite being saved, they still sin. So are they holy or not? The answer is “yes and no.” Do they have the legal status of a sinner in the court of the Almighty? No. They’ve been justified. Can they still commit sins and will they? Yes. They’re not perfect – yet. Often they’ll obey their own will instead of God’s. But character isn’t the issue here. Their legal standing is. And legally they and all Christians are declared “not guilty.” Does that mean we can skip out of the courtroom and do whatever we want? Yes, we can. But if our rebirth as a new creation is genuine there’s no way we could want to displease our merciful Judge. Our urges have changed as much as our hearts because, as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:14, “For the love of Christ controls us…”
Billy Graham wrote something quite eye-opening. He asked us to imagine what the modern media would do with a news flash that read, “MURDERERS PARDONED – GO TO LIVE WITH JUDGE!” To say they’d have a field day with the story is putting it mildly. Graham surmised the official report would read as follows: “It was a tragic scene when Joe and Flo stood before the Judge and had the list of charges against them read. However, the Judge transferred all of the guilt to Jesus Christ, who died on a cross for Joe and Flo. After Joe and Flo were pardoned the Judge invited them to come and live with Him forever.” Sounds like fiction, right? To one who has yet to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior that whole scenario seems like some kind of satirical comedy skit. But to those of us who’ve come to know the amazing grace and love of the Supreme Judge and have seen Him work wonders in our lives we’re not surprised at all. He forgives us and grants us a new lease on life every day. The key to understanding all this “divine mercy” stuff is by becoming God’s adopted child. When we do that He treats us like we’re the only kid He’s got. By becoming clothed in the righteousness of Jesus we gain a full-access pass to His glorious kingdom and we can “…confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help” (Hebrews 4:16). If all this is still confusing allow me to present another illustration:
Picture in your head the one you love most on this earth. Now imagine something tragic happened to them and the person responsible appears in God’s courtroom. You’re there in the chamber to make sure justice is served. How would you feel if God the Great Judge looked over at you and said, “I’m pardoning this guilty man because I love all my children equally and, besides, he was just having a very rough day.” No doubt you’d respond with unbridled outrage, yelling “Say what? I object!” And you’d have every right. You see, God is, indeed, love, but He’s also the God of inerrant justice, absolute truth and infallible righteousness. So a verdict like that one would run contrary to everything He’s taught us to believe about Him in His Holy Word. We know that’s not happening. So what if, instead, he looks you in the eye from His seat on the bench and says, “You have every right to want this man to suffer for what he did. I said the penalty for sin is death and I meant it. However, I love this man I created and I’m pretty sure he’s really sorry, so here’s what I’m gonna do. There’s an unrepentant serial killer in a cell down the hall. He’s incorrigible and he’s headed straight for the hot seat. I assure you, he’ll have no qualms about taking this man’s place.” You’d blow your top and scream, “Say what? That’s not justice!” You’d vehemently argue that, even though the disgusting creep sitting in stir may be a hate-filled monster and all, he had nothing to do with what happened to your loved one. That deal wouldn’t be acceptable and you’d defiantly let His Majesty know it.
So what if God turned to you and, with a sigh says, “The bottom line is this: I do love this person who hurt you so badly. But he’s sincerely repented of his sin and humbled himself before me, begging for clemency. Therefore I’ll not condemn him. What would you have me do?” In a fit of unrestrained indignation you shout up at God, “Since you’re so enamored with this horrible scumbag, I dare you to put your money where your mouth is. YOU suffer and die for him!” God nods slowly and says, “Okay. I will. I love him that much.” Imagine how relieved the guy on trial would be! Well, here’s the kicker – You’re the one on trial. Your sins are as ugly as capital murder. Your iniquity cut into someone else’s heart like a knife. You’re the guilty party and you know your sins deserve to be deemed nothing less than unforgivable. But because God incarnate, Jesus Christ, bore the corporal punishment for your crimes, grace spares you from the harsh sentence the Judge would otherwise have certainly handed down. The atonement for your sin became a reality that dark Friday on a wooden cross outside of Jerusalem.
It’s easy to see divine judgment has climbed to the top of the charts of Christianity’s most offensive doctrines today. The whole idea of God’s wrath, the final judgment and a place called hell is repugnant to many. In one poll over 80% of Americans agreed with the statement, “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any church or synagogue.” Our modern culture has no problem with God as long as He consists exclusively of pure Love and supports us no matter how we live, act and think. To say this disturbs me is an understatement because I used to hold that progressive, “open theology” viewpoint. It wasn’t until doing things “my way” almost destroyed my marriage that I finally changed my self-centered tune and started doing things “God’s way.” Even primitive man savvied there was a transcendent moral order outside the self – an unchanging ethical ingredient to the cosmos they existed in. If you violated it there were consequences to your actions as predictable as grabbing a smoldering coal with your bare hands. Wisdom was gained by learning to live by God’s rules and in developing wholesome traits like humility, compassion, courage, discretion and loyalty. But 21st century men and women have turned that all around. Timothy Keller wrote, “Ultimate reality is seen not so much as a supernatural order but as the natural world, and that is malleable. Instead of trying to shape our desires to fit reality, we now seek to control and shape reality to fit our desires. The ancients looked at an anxious person and prescribed spiritual character change. Modernity talks instead about stress-management techniques.”
What appears to be going down more and more lately is folks taking the determination of what’s right and wrong out of the hands of the Creator and assuming that responsibility themselves. They’ve become so prideful, so conceited they opine they can reshape the metaphysical realm to their liking. To them, if God exists at all He no longer cares what we do down here. Furthermore, it seems to them that if they deem, say, marriage between two homosexuals fine and dandy, and then later on down the line God Almighty punishes them for intentionally breaking His ordained Laws, then He’s an unloving, unreasonable and unfair bigot. Millions of people now believe so deeply in “personal rights” the very idea of a Judgment Day is preposterous to them. History clearly shows when a society starts ignoring God everything eventually declines into chaos. Every time. Without fail. Therefore it’s imperative Christians proclaim without compromise that what the Bible teaches is the transcultural, immutable truth. In doing so believers should expect that bold statement to contradict popular trends and offend the secular masses. They’ll respond with hatred, vindictiveness and hypocritical intolerance. That’s how the world reacted when the disciples started going out and spreading the Good News abroad 2,000 years ago. To think things have changed is folly on a believer’s part because an unrepentant sinner, as does Satan, finds everything about Jesus and God’s Holy Word to be obnoxious and loathsome. Prepare to be spit upon and reviled. But take heart. Jesus assured us, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them” (Matthew 5:10).