On the courthouse steps

As Reformed Christians, we’re excited about what God has done for us in His courtroom. And we should be. It’s unbelievable. “That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me”? The righteous for the unrighteous? Constituted righteous by one Man’s obedience? Utterly amazing.

I believe there exists in our circles, however, a kind of preoccupation with the divine courtroom that is terribly unhealthy. I refer to the preoccupation of some of God’s people with the question: am I really forgiven? (It takes varying forms, actually: is God really for me? does He really love me? am I really His child? did Jesus really die for me? etc.) Now, this is not the same thing as a believing soul’s continual hunger for, and delight in, the gospel; the normal Christian life is one lived “by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” What I have in mind is something else: a settled unsettledness about the eternal state of one’s soul; a regular revisiting of the courtroom verdict, not with joy but with anxiety; a feeling that if one doesn’t feel a certain measure of angst, of desperateness, in approaching the issue of justification, one is near to compromising (and is certainly at least devaluing) the article of the standing church; or more insidious still, belief that talk of anything beyond the courtroom is a step away from the gospel.

I know Christians who are spending their entire lives on the courthouse steps, looking over their shoulder, wondering if they can really trust the pardoning verdict, or even if it actually occurred. They desperately need to hear it again and again, not because they believe it, but because they don’t. They stubbornly refuse to move off the courthouse precincts into the home and family room of God, to claim Him as their Father (and to know He rejoices in this), to eat His bread and wine, to celebrate His gifts and His unfailing love. Indeed, they seem to find pious reassurance in the fact that they are unsure, that they don’t trust the Almighty too much. Their doubts and fears are their insurance against dreaded presumption.

There are preachers – Reformed preachers – whose ministry feeds this kind of spiritual sickness. For them, conversion is the driving theme of every sermon: are you right with God? are you in Christ? where will you spend eternity? It doesn’t seem to occur to them that it could be biblically normative for God’s children to regard the question of their eternal state as settled in Christ (this is, after all, the point of the gospel); or that the summons to faithfulness might be better grounded in assurance than in uncertainty; or that a secure, conclusive answer to the courtroom question might open the way for some other highly important considerations (from God’s point of view) in the living room.

There is a kind of preoccupation with the question of God’s love that calls His love into question – that in fact impugns His character as Father and makes Him appear hard, even loveless. There is a fine but important line between faith’s normal struggles in this world, and a spirit of wicked unbelief that is really a subtle form of pride: I believe my own doubts (and Satan’s whisperings) more than the Word of God who cannot lie.

Take Jesus’ statement, “I am the Bread of Life.” For some Reformed saints, eating the Bread is simply a matter of life and death. Fine. It is that; no question about it. But I don’t eat my dinner simply because I will die if I don’t, true though that may be. I eat it because it is good, because it is nourishing, because (dare I say) I like it. It doesn’t simply stave off death; and in fact if I am really healthy, I don’t think about death while I am eating; I have other things to think about. There is more to the Bread of Life – there is more to life – than not dying. There is more to the good news in Christ than bare forgiveness of sins, a favorable courtroom verdict, as fundamental as this is. To change the metaphor, an engine doth not an automobile make: yes, our lives are lived by faith in what Christ accomplished for us in His death and resurrection, but believing we live. The car goes somewhere! We live in covenant with the Lord our God, we and our seed; and precisely because His salvation is sure, beyond question, we live with Him faithfully and well.

To put all this yet another way (I’m on a roll, you see), there is more than one way to undermine confidence in God’s courtroom verdict: one can doubt it, question it, or deny it; or one can make it the be-all and end-all of life with God, as if to think about anything else will render it null and void. But the way to truly enjoy God’s verdict is to skip down the courthouse steps and take up residence in His family room, to enter into the familial life He intended when He announced the verdict. In a certain glorious sense, we ought to take the Judge’s verdict for granted (which is to say, trust it), and get busy living with our Father. Don’t stop with justification; go on to embrace the whole salvation of God.

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