Three Ancient Prophecies About the Birth of Jesus

By / Nov 30

Perhaps no other person in history has received more attention than Jesus of Nazareth. Scholars and historians are eager to uncover the mysteries of his life, death, and resurrection. More incredible than the volumes written on the life of Jesus after his birth, though, is what was written about him before he was born. Jesus claimed the Hebrew Scriptures were about him, going so far as to say that Moses himself wrote with him in mind (Luke 24:44; John 5:46)!

The writings about Jesus that came prior to his birth are known as prophecies. Sometimes people think of prophecies as vague, Nostradamus-type predictions about future events. But biblical prophecies are anything but vague, detailing everything from the place and manner of Jesus’ birth to the way he would die. These prophecies (often made thousands of years before Christ’s birth) demonstrate that the Bible isn’t merely the work of historians and poets. The Apostle Peter wrote, 

And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

2 Pet 1:19-21

The biblical writers could describe future events in detail because they were carried along by the Holy Spirit, who knows the beginning from the end. It’s this heavenly knowledge passed onto the prophets and revealed in Scripture that confirms there is no God like the God of the Bible (see Isa 46:9-10). As Christmas approaches, here are three prophecies about Jesus’ birth for you to meditate on:

1. The place of his birth.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. 

Micah 5:2; cf. Matt 2:1

700 years before Jesus’ birth, the prophet Micah spoke of a ruler who would come out of the town of Bethlehem, and whose coming forth would be from of old, even “from ancient days.” The last phrase there could be translated, “from the days of eternity.” Here Micah foresaw that this eternally existing one would be born in podunk Bethlehem. 

Why Bethlehem? In Hebrew, Bethlehem means “bread house.” Bethlehem is where the bread comes from! Jesus identified himself as the bread of life (John 6:35). He alone can satisfy our deepest spiritual longings.  

2. The manner of his birth.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 

Isa 7:14; cf. Matt 1:23

Like the prophet Micah, Isaiah’s ministry took place hundreds of years before Christ, and he foresaw that the Messiah’s birth would be miraculous. A virgin would conceive and bear a son who would be called Immanuel, which means “God with us.” As with the Micah prophecy, this highlights the divine status of the one who would be born. 

But why was he born of a virgin? The virgin birth highlights that salvation is wholly a work of God. In the Old Testament, God often raised up mighty heroes to deliver his people in miraculous ways. Some of the greatest Old Testament savior types were born to mothers who had difficulty conceiving. Sara was barren before she conceived Isaac (Gen 11:29-30); Rebekah was barren before she conceived Jacob (Gen 25:21-26); Rachel was barren before she bore Joseph (Gen 30:22-24); Samson’s mother was barren before she bore him (Judg 13:2-3); and Hannah was barren before she conceived Samuel (1 Sam 1:1-2). God worked against the odds to demonstrate his power and glory. It’s only fitting that the greatest savior of all would be born against all odds, to a virgin! The impossibility of the virgin birth showcases the divine manner of Jesus’ entrance into the world, and paves the way for the expectation that he would be the ultimate deliverer of God’s people.

The virgin birth is very important for another reason, too. Because Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:18), he could assume humanity in its totality, and still be without sin. The virgin birth ensured that Jesus would be our perfect representative (Heb 4:15), sharing our humanity, but not our guilt.

3. The purpose of his birth. 

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. 

Gen 3:15; cf. Col 2:15

Writing thousands of years before Jesus’ birth, Moses recorded this ancient prophecy about the offspring of a woman who would crush Satan’s head. While this prophecy reveals to us why Jesus came, it also foreshadows the manner of his death. His heel would be bruised, a promise that Christ’s victory would come through Christ’s sufferings. Jesus was born to restore humanity, and he was crucified to redeem humanity. 

From the earliest chapters of the Bible, prophecies of the Savior’s birth move the narrative forward. Each book of the Old Testament is like a river bringing us down to the manger in Bethlehem. There, we find the promised seed who would deliver humanity by conquering sin and Satan. As we remember the birth of Christ this Christmas, let’s reflect on the entire life of our Lord, marveling at the prophetic testimony and rejoicing in the greatest gift of all: Jesus.

Editor’s note: We’ve created a Christmas devotional to help guide you into what this season is all about. Each day contains a prophecy about Christ and its fulfillment for you to read and meditate on. Sign up here to receive your digital copy.


An Open Letter to the Parent Who Has Lost a Child

By / Sep 13

Dear Parent, 

As a parent whose child died four and a half years ago, I want to offer you two hopeful words about that wound in your heart that will never fully heal on this side of eternity. 

In the year after my son, Cam, suddenly died, anguish and sorrow cut my heart with an intensity I never knew was possible. I can remember my heart hurting so badly that, at times, breathing was physically painful. Basic functions like getting out of my car or standing up from the couch seemed overwhelming. 

As I grieved his absence, an emotional sadness ruled my inner life. I lived with a persistent fear that this pain would never subside. How could a pain this immense ever go away? How could I work through a fraction of the damage that this emotional atomic bomb had levied? I feared that I was trapped in misery for the rest of my life. 

God Is a Healer

Nine months after Cam’s death, my wife, Lauren, and I went to a respite retreat, which David and Nancy Guthrie host for grieving parents who have lost children. Nancy said something to us parents that was simple and powerful. 

Nancy said, “God is a healer.”

I intellectually accepted this doctrinal truth. I knew the Hebrew name of God, Jehovah-Rapha, the God Who Heals. However, there was something palpably comforting about hearing this truth from a woman who had lost two children nearly fifteen years before my own loss. Nancy expressed this truth as a functioning, healthy person. She was not “damaged goods” or ruined. Certainly, this mother continues to bear a wound in her heart that will never fully go away in this life, but her words opened the possibility to me that God could, in fact, heal my sad estate. In time, I could make some progress.

My first word of hope to you: Nancy is right. God is a healer. If you trust the Lord, cry the tears, and process the grief, God will move you forward. You will make progress. You will look back at where you are now and be able to see with gratitude that God has healed your heart in some measure. This promise can give you hope. 

The all-consuming sorrow that dominated my days in the first year no longer rules my life. It comes situationally—on anniversaries, during transitions, in unexpected moments. It’s always there below the surface, but God has healed me to the point that I have a functional life, a life in which my focal mission is not just making it through the day and surviving the immense grief. 

God Blesses You with a Wound

The second word of hope: God will not completely heal you in this life. 

As crazy as this may sound, a day will come when your fears will change. You may worry that the pain will go away and you will struggle to remember your child. 

Three months after Cam passed away, I met a man named Martin, who had heard that I had lost my son. He introduced himself and told me that he had a daughter die eighteen years ago. 

As he told me the story of Mary Katherine’s sudden death while standing on the double-yellow line of a quiet neighborhood street, he started to cry. Martin explained, “I’m so grateful for these tears. You see, God will prevent this small part of your heart from ever healing. When those moments come when you re-encounter the pain and you cry as I am now, you are so blessed to see how much you still love your child. That unhealed part of your wound is a gift from God.”

Martin is right. The enduring wound that latently resides in your heart and emerges from time to time is a blessing. 

In Christ’s economy, we see and experience love through wounds. After Jesus rose from the dead, he took on a glorified body as the first to enjoy the resurrection of the dead. He had a fully redeemed body, but he retained the ultimate sign of his love for humanity: the wounds in his hands. 

When Thomas needed verification that the mysterious man before him was, indeed, Jesus the Christ, what did Jesus tell Thomas to do? 

“Touch my wound.”

This wound tells us about the deep love that the Father had for his lost people. It tells us about the pain that the Son endured to bring sinners into fellowship with the holy God. It tells us that God grieved a child, too. 

In Revelation 5, the apostle John sees the triumphant Lamb who has taken away the sins of the world. How does he describe this Lamb who is standing in victory? It appeared “as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6). The glorious son of God bore the evidence of his wounds. 

In time, the wound—which may be crippling you today—will begin to heal by God’s grace. You will progress and emerge from the crippling early grief. However, this wound, which likely stands as your enemy today, will become your blessing down the road. 

It will be the wound that you present in your heart to your child to demonstrate just how much you still deeply love him or her. When you haven’t seen your child for decades, that remaining wound will make you feel connected to him or her because it reminds you of just how much you still love your precious child. 

Your wound will become your friend.


Content adapted from Therefore I Have Hope by Cameron Cole. This article first appeared on

Christ the Victim

By / Aug 26

Joseph was told by an angel to name his son Jesus, because he would save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).

In times past in Egypt, the Passover lamb had borne people’s sins, but now Jesus came into the world to become the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). In our time, some would have us confess Jesus as Savior, but they suggest that he saved us by doing something other than taking our sin away. Or if they admit that sin needs to be taken away, then they say that Jesus does this by training us not to sin. In either case, we are left with something other than biblical salvation.

No plan of salvation that leaves out Christ’s payment for sin is a biblical plan of salvation. Yet I find that those who fight for this doctrine (may they always be given the honor that is their due) are often so focused on the truths under contention that they forget to flesh them out with other biblical truths. In the heat of battle, it is forgotten that we must not only contend for that part of the truth that is being attacked, but we must also tell the whole truth, even the part that might not be objected to. It might put the controversial statements in a new light. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement needs to be fleshed out with the doctrine of Christ’s deity, his two natures, and the Lord’s Supper if people are to see just how glorious a teaching is at stake.

Purchased with God’s Own Blood

The doctrine of substitutionary atonement teaches us that Christ saved us by paying for our sins; that is, he died in our place. As the Scriptures say, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Christ, who being sinless did not need to die, laid down his life for the sake of those who were condemned to death. The resurrection shows that God accepted the payment as complete. Christ was raised for our justification. It is what Luther called the great exchange. When we are united to Christ, God looks at us as if we had done our time. Eternal hell is our sentence, and we show up in God’s presence as if we had done the unthinkable and made full payment. Of course, we did not. Christ did it for us, but we receive the benefit.

Yet, many pastors have preached the cross in such a way that the most stunning element of the picture is missing, or at least hidden. At a specific point in human history, the almighty Second Person of the Trinity, the Lord of Glory, stooped down and took on a human nature. For our sake, he was condemned to death and suffered the wrath of God. This is a stranger, more glorious picture than we derive from the other ways of stating things that technically tell us of the same event. 

When Jesus cried “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” the reality behind this cry staggers the imagination. God was forsaken by God. What we formerly knew of the Father in infinite holiness turning his back on his Son who had become sin for us remains true. But now we see God’s action in the bearing of his punishment. God, who is too holy to look upon sin, is at the same time God who so identifies with us that he suffers the abandonment of the holy God. If you have ever felt removed from God, you must realize that God knows what that is like.

It is important that this point be emphasized. There are too many people in the world who have heard of the crucified one spoken of as God’s Son, who never knew that he was God. What kind of thoughts about God does the cross kindle in such people? Are they overtaken by the wonder of divine mercy? Not really. While they may be thankful to Jesus that he was willing to take their place, they wonder about the character of God. He sounds like a harsh judge who is just happy that someone paid. It is not that he takes pleasure in setting people free, but that he is not particular about whom he punishes. If we do not know who Jesus is, we do not know to whom we should be grateful. When we learn that God willingly became the victim of his own rejection so that we could belong to him, all is different.

One of the worst fears that lurks in the back of our minds is that God’s punishment is unlimited by empathy. We fear that we are dealing with one whose attributes react like chemical formulas. Who wants to get crushed in the gears of an eternal principle? Who can be moved by an atonement reduced to a mathematical equation? Add perfect justice to perfect power and you get perfect hell. An infinite man can pay for all the sins of finite people, assuming he is innocent. Justice will be satisfied equally either way, by way of satisfaction or by way of retribution. It all makes sense on a chalkboard, but our human sensibilities balk, especially when we are speaking of something other than war criminals or child molesters. Sure, some people may deserve to pay for their crimes, but just how much wrath do they deserve?

God's Justice

God’s involvement in redemption changes the nature of the problem. He is not sitting in a laboratory dispassionately concocting a perfect justice to threaten humanity, while resting in the knowledge that his perfect goodness cannot be questioned. To be sure, God could have done this, and we would be in no position of moral superiority to question it. But that would have been a hopeless situation for us. God’s justice would to us be merely a formal invitation. Lurking doubts as to the justice of God would be silenced by prudence. Our self-protectiveness would tell us, “Don’t complain about the problem unless you want it to be a problem for you.”

God’s solution is better. It has all of the advantages of satisfying perfect justice as demanded by his attributes, but it goes further; there is divine involvement. God has entered into the mess he allowed and taken the brunt of the pain. What this says is that one who knew perfect goodness himself was willing to undergo trouble for the sake of the world he created. When we question the goodness of existence by asking if it is worth it to go through life in a fallen world, and then wonder if God’s decision to allow these conditions was based on his being removed from it all, the cross reminds us to think better things of God. He decided that it was worth creating and redeeming such a world in spite of what it would cost him in suffering.

We cannot quantify suffering, but it is probably best to assume that Christ’s decision to endure the cross was more than equivalent to a man choosing to suffer all the suffering that has ever taken place in the world. Find someone in history whose miserable circumstances cause you to doubt whether creation was worth it and ponder this: God the Son willingly underwent far worse. Not for the sake of being stoic, but “for the joy set before him.” He knew his love for us to be sufficient to motivate his own acceptance of suffering. For us, we are to suffer less of it, and what we receive at the end is ours not by merit but by gift.

At the Lamb’s High Feast

Our High Priest knows what it is like to be forsaken by God and does not wish his children to suffer this forsakenness. This sense of separation—of the Son from the Father as he hung on the cross, of Christ from his body as he lay in the tomb—is something Christ suffered so we would not have to. He assures us of this not only through an announcement but through a meal.

When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s body and blood are offered for the forgiveness of our sins. We partake of his separation bodily so that we don’t have to experience separation from our bodies for eternity. The wages of sin is death. Christ’s body and blood are sacrificed so that at the resurrection we might be reunited with our bodies. Christ was betrayed by men and then rejected by the Father so that we might be accepted by the Father and reconciled to our fellow man. In the ancient church, the Lord’s Supper was known as the “medicine of immortality.” The body and blood of Christ of which we partake are the body and blood that have already borne the wrath of God. We can look at them as a vaccine. When we partake of the spent wrath of God, we become immune to the living wrath he bears toward sin.

The children of Israel escaped the plague of the firstborn of Egypt by painting blood on the doorposts of their houses. In one Communion hymn, this is linked to what happens when we receive the body and blood of Christ:

Where the paschal blood is poured
Death’s dread angel sheaths the sword
Israel’s hosts triumphant go
Through the waves that drown the foe, Alleluia!

As the church, we are the Israel of God. Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. His blood is poured into our mouths at Communion—the doorway, as it were, to our bodies. When God comes in judgment, he will see the blood on the doorpost and pass over us. Triumphantly, we will enter his eternal kingdom.

To be sure, Communion will not avail if we do not receive it in faith. Eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table are not a way of receiving salvation at odds with hearing the gospel and believing. Luther called the sacraments the visible Word. Unlike the audible word, which is received by the hearing of faith, this word of gospel is received by the eating of faith.

That God saves is the theme of the Bible. Substitutionary atonement is an important doctrine, not just because we need a substitute. It is important because in it we learn that God is our substitute. The story comes together here. We will be much better able to contend for the story when we know how it hangs together. We will be much more motivated to contend for the story when we realize what has been done for us and by whom. Jesus is God in the flesh saving his people from their sins. That is the gospel. Anything less is not good news. But our High Priest has not left us with less.

Adapted from Rick Ritchie “Christ the Victim, Christ the Priest,” Modern Reformation, March/April 2018. Used by permission.  

The Hardest Words to Pray

By / Aug 22

When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. (John 17:1–5)

Although Jesus is praying for himself, he is not doing so in a self-centered way. His opening words revolve around two closely-connected matters that relate not only to him but also to his Father. They are “the hour” and “the glory.” He knows that the “hour” has come and that his Father does, too, and that they both are well-aware of its importance in terms of “the glory” to be revealed.

Time and again during his earthly life, Jesus had been aware that this hour had not come. Twice he resisted family pressure on the matter (2:4; 7:1–8), and twice he was protected from the evil intention of his foes because of that fact (7:30; 8:20). But two harbingers of it had just crossed his path, and each was a portent of death and glory to him. On the one hand, some Greek-speaking Jews had come to the Passover from Galilee and wanted to see him—a foretaste of the Gentile harvest (12:20–33) that would result from his death. On the other hand, the traitor Judas Iscariot had left the Upper Room to bring it about (13:31). Both events convinced him of the imminence of the hour, and he spoke accordingly to his disciples. It was at one and the same time the hour of glory and of “the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53). It coincided with “the cup” of the cross (Mark 14:35) on the way to the crown. So he said, “Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him” (13:31). “The hour” is therefore fraught with great significance and consequences—on earth and in heaven, for the world and for hell.

But what is glory? And what does it mean to glorify? The word glory is common in both testaments and is familiar to Christians. But what does it mean? A. M. Ramsey has indicated that the word contains “the greatest themes of Christian Theology,” bringing together “in a remarkable way the unity of the doctrines of Creation, the Incarnation, the Cross, the Spirit, the Church and the world-to-come.”[1]

By way of a working definition, it can be said that “glory” refers to “something or someone revealed in some way or other.” It has associations in the Old Testament with “weight” and in the New Testament with “light,” so it is connected with honor and splendor. Whenever the word occurs in the Bible, the questions to be considered in order to appreciate it are: Who or what is being revealed, how or by what means is that done, and (sometimes) why? It is used of the created and governed universe (Ps. 19:1–6), the prestige of nations (Isa. 16:13), the transient dignity of man (Isa. 40:7), and the permanent majesty of the Lord (Isa. 40:5).

But there is another revelation of God that no one can see that exceeds them all in its fullness and finality. It is in the “Word made flesh,” the full actualization of the Shekinah of the tabernacle, the incarnation of “grace and truth” (1:14–18). This means that Jesus is the full and final disclosure of all that God is (see also 2 Cor. 4:6; Heb. 1:3), and he will be so even in the new heavens and the new earth, which will be lit up by the glory of God shining in “the Lamb, its lamp” (Rev. 21:23).

So what does this amount to with reference to his request? Jesus (the man) prays that through all the shame and horror of Gethsemane to Golgotha, the Father will reveal him magnificently in his true messianic divinity. As his ever-true incarnate Son who could not and would not think, speak, or act independently of him (see 5:19), Jesus declares that he is determined to reveal the Father as the only true God by accomplishing what he has been sent to do on earth—and in his mind and spirit, it is as good as done. On that basis, all that Jesus asks for in relation to himself is that the Father will be true to him, attesting him as his “Christ” to all the elect, and exalting him, now incarnate, to his immediate presence by way of resurrection and ascension.

Adapted from Hywel Jones “The High Priestly Prayer,” Modern Reformation, July/August 2019. Used by permission.


  1. ^ A. M. Ramsey, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1949), 5.

Your Ambition Might be Satanic

By / Aug 21

If you were to ask people in the church to describe demonic practices, you aren’t likely to hear the word “ambition” listed. Sure, maybe witchcraft, and Ouija boards, idolatry, and pornography, but ambition is a good thing, right? Our culture values hard work, and for many Americans busyness has become a status symbol. This was argued in a 2017 article out of the Journal of Consumer Research:

In contemporary American culture, complaining about being busy and working all the time has become an increasingly widespread phenomenon. On Twitter, celebrities publicly complain about “having no life” or “being in desperate need of a vacation.” A New York Times social commentator suggests that a common response to the question “How are you?” is “Busy!” An analysis of holiday letters indicates that references to “crazy schedules” have dramatically increased since the 1960s. To explain this phenomenon, we uncover an alternative kind of conspicuous consumption that operates by shifting the focus from the preciousness and scarcity of goods to the preciousness and scarcity of individuals. Our investigation reveals that positive status inferences in response to long hours of work and lack of leisure time are mediated by the perceptions that busy individuals possess desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition), leading them to be viewed as scarce and in demand.[1] 

Who doesn’t want to be in demand? Thus we adore ambition and the ambitious. It’s here that the Bible gives us a serious word of caution. Not all ambition is good. In fact, there are some kinds of ambition that are really evil. There is such a thing as satanic ambition.

James wrote, 

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exists, there will be disorder and every vile practice. (Js. 3:13-16)

The first thing to note about this kind of ambition is that it is selfish. The word used by James connotes “a feeling of resentfulness based upon jealousy and implying rivalry.”[2] It is a self-centered ambition, leading a man or woman to compare themselves to others, and driving them to be better than everyone else. If someone is superior to them in some respect, they’re likely to be jealous of that person and resent them. This ungodly ambition seeks the glory of self rather than of God and keeps people from God’s kingdom (Gal. 5:19-21; 2 Cor. 12:20; Rom. 2:8-9). 

Perhaps the most terrifying thing about demonic ambition is that it can even be the cause of externally-good works. Paul told the Philippians, “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment” (Phil 1:15-17). Recall that the same religious leaders who Jesus said would one day cry, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” (Mt. 7:22), were also said to have done everything they did for the praise of men (Mt. 23:5). Demonic ambition exalts self while looking down at others, and it resents anyone or anything that takes the attention off of it. This was one of the obvious downfalls of the Pharisees when Jesus walked among them (Mt. 27:18). 

Selfish ambition is from the spirit of the anti-Christ and is contrary to the kind of attitude God calls us to have as Christians. Paul said, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). The opposite of demonic wisdom that seeks the glory of self is the wisdom and mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5-8). God the Word had all status but came as a servant and counted sinners as more significant than himself by suffering for their salvation on the cross. The antidote to the deadly poison of selfish ambition is to set our minds on Christ and to see ourselves as the sinners which he came to save. We are not competing with each other or with Jesus for glory; we are weak beggars who have been served by the Lord and who in turn must count others as more significant than ourselves.

God has given you Jesus, and he wants to give you the wisdom that doesn’t lust for praise or power. It is a wisdom that is “pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (Js. 3:17). Rather than resent the success of others, this wisdom rejoices with them in their blessings. Like Jesus, this wisdom is a free gift, given liberally by God to all who ask in faith (Js. 1:5-8). If you’ve been driven by satanic ambition, remember that Jesus came to save the selfishly ambitious. Stop trying to garner adoration for yourself and give glory to God by surrendering to the one who had all glory yet emptied himself to serve you. May God protect us from every evil work, and through Christ help us to love him to the degree with which we once loved our sin and ourselves. 



The Crucial Difference Between Law and Gospel for the Christian Life

By / Jul 26

What are you driven by? It was a Saturday and I flipped on the TV for an extraordinarily long time. The whole day was exercise equipment, how to become real-estate rich with no money down, and Suze Orman gave me her steps to financial security. As much as we all make sport of this sort of thing, it attracts us. That’s because we are “wired” for law: tell me what to do and I’ll get it done. That is not just the American spirit, but it is human nature. God’s law is inborn, in our conscience, part of our moral makeup.

The law can direct us, but it cannot drive us, except to either despair or self-righteousness. Christians are not purpose-driven but promise-driven. Purposes are all about law. The fact that purposes are about law does not make them wrong. We need purposes! All of this is fine as long as we realize that they are law, not gospel: commands and promises are both necessary, but they do different things. Church shouldn’t be a place where the old self is revived for another week, but where it is killed and buried and the new self is created in the likeness of Christ.

The church father Augustine defined sin as being “curved in” on ourselves. While imperatives (including purposes) tend by themselves to make us more “curved in” on ourselves (either self-confidence or self-despair), only God’s promise can drive us out of ourselves and our own programs for acceptance before ourselves, other people, and God. While the Christian life according to scripture is purpose-directed, it is promise-driven. Both of our passages-Genesis 15 and Romans 4-bring this point home powerfully.

Wrestling with the Promise (Genesis 15)

Even after his military victory and the remarkable event of being offered bread and wine with a blessing from Melchizedek, Abram’s greatest problem is that he has no heir, no one to carry on the calling that God has given him. His world, as he sees it anyway, is bleak. “After these things, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great'” (Gen. 15:1). Abram and Sarai had been called out of the barrenness of moon-worship in the city of Ur by God’s powerful Word, which created faith in the promise (12:1). Notice in this opening address, it is sheer promise. God simply declares, “I am your shield. Your reward shall be great.” 

Yet Abram wonders, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezar of Damascus? … You have given me no son, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir” (vv. 2-3). The empirical facts of the case-what Abram sees, appear to be overwhelming evidence against the testimony of the promise. Nevertheless, God counters again with the promise, offering the innumerable stars as a sign of the teeming offspring who will come from his loins. “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (vv. 5-6). Abram’s response is not one of blind optimism or positive thinking. Abram finds himself believing.

Faith does not create; it receives. It does not make the invisible visible or the future present or hope reality. It receives that which is already given. Grace precedes faith. Further, there is no way around the forensic or legal character of this Hebrew verb, “declared.” It is chashav, referring to a courtroom judgment, not a process. There Abram stood, wicked and helpless, and yet at the same time-by virtue solely of the promise declared to him, received by faith, was declared righteous. 

The preaching of the promise created justifying faith and this sign and seal now confirms and ratifies it. Out of his confession of faith, Abram now continues his pilgrimage not on the basis of his physical vigor or Sarai’s fertility, but on the sole basis of the Word. Sarai’s infertile womb is the canvas upon which God will paint a new creation. And they both get renamed. The promise gives them a new identity.

The Fulfillment of the Promise (Romans 4:13-25)

Paul brings Abraham to the witness stand as an example to us, not chiefly as someone whose holiness we can emulate (have you read the story?), but primarily as someone for whom the promise worked even though he didn’t.

Paul is contrasting law-logic with promise-logic. The law is not the problem, but we are, and the law simply points that out. We know the law by nature; nobody has to teach at least its rudimentary principles to us (Rom. 1 and 2). When we turn to our common sense, reason, experience, or what we see in order to determine our relationship to God, it is always the law that has the last word. Law-logic is entirely appropriate for those created in God’s image, designed and equipped to reflect God’s righteousness in every way, but it says nothing about how law-breakers can be saved from its judgment.

In Romans 3:21-26, Paul announces that law-logic can only announce the righteousness that God is and which therefore condemns us who have failed to conform to it. Then we arrive at chapter 4. The question that throws law and promise into a sharp contrast is this: How does one obtain the inheritance of the heavenly rest?  “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works” (vv. 5-6).

If we read Romans 4 in the light of Paul’s argument in Romans 10, the contrast is even clearer: law-logic ascends to bring Christ down or up from the grave, while gospel-logic receives Christ as he descends to us in the preaching of the gospel. Because the law is innate (in creation) and the gospel is a surprising announcement (after the fall), climbing, ascending, attaining, doing whatever “ten steps” or following whatever “fifteen principles” is natural to us. It is not natural for us, like Abraham, to simply receive a promise, the hearing of which creates faith (Rom. 10:17). But God is never closer to us, says Paul, than when Christ is being preached to us (v. 8). God doesn’t just give us more good advice and exhortation, but the most amazing news in the world: “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (v. 5).

It is important to recognize that God’s promises are not simply a pledge of a future reality, but bring about that reality in the present. We see this clearly in the way Paul talks about the law doing certain things and the promise doing certain things. In verse 14 of our passage he says, “For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect, because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression.” The promise (or gospel) preached creates faith, just as the law actually brought about our condemnation. The law not only warns us of God’s coming wrath, it “brings about wrath,” just as the judge’s act of sentencing a criminal actually effects the criminal’s condemnation. Throughout Scripture we are taught that God’s Word is effectual: it brings about whatever God speaks, whether in creation, providence, or redemption. God’s speech is “active and living,” Scripture says. 

This is why Paul returns again to the example of Abraham and Sarah as the construction site of a new creation, produced by the promise. Here is the logic: “For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all of his descendants,” both Jew and Gentile (v 16). He adds, “As it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’-in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (v. 17).

Just as God spoke the world into existence without any contribution from the creation itself, God speaks a new world of salvation into being. And just as Abraham is declared righteous by this proclamation then and there, Paul observes, he was declared then and there “father of many nations” despite all appearances to the contrary. “Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’ according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be'” (v. 18). God’s saying makes it so. Salvation comes, then, not by doing certain things but by hearing certain things and embracing them by faith, which is itself created by the Spirit through the preaching of the promise. Not all parts of the Word give life, as Paul says later in chapter 7 (v. 10): “And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death.” If Paul were not a transgressor, the law would pronounce him just, but as it is, it can only bring death. The promise, by contrast, brings life-out of nothing.

Conclusion: What Really Drives You?

In the concluding verses of this remarkable chapter (vv. 23-25, and the first verse of chapter 5), Paul writes,

Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not only for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

Faith is defiance. Abraham’s faith defied every possibility that he saw, in favor of the “impossible” word that he heard. This is why “faith comes by hearing … that is, the word of faith which we preach” (Rom. 10:17). To trust in God is to distrust every other promise-maker. The world makes a lot of promises: “Try this product and you’ll be ….” Constantly buying into new fads or makeovers as so many fig leaves to hide the seriousness of our condition, we hand ourselves over to marketers who persuade us that we can attain salvation, however, we define that. Even the church can become a place where people get the idea that they exist merely to usher in the kingdom by serving on committees and being involved in a thousand programs. We have a lot of purposes, a lot of goals-some of them noble. Eventually, we will become burned out on good advice. What we need is good news.

Adapted from Michael Horton, "The Promise-Driven Life" Modern Reformation, Nov/Dec 2005. Used by permission.