************ Sermon on Belgic Confession Article 23 ************

By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman

This sermon was preached on December 13, 2009

Belgic Confession Article 23
Isaiah 64; 2 Corinthians 5:21
"Saint and Sinner"

Why did Christ come? Why did He take on flesh? Why was He born as a human in Bethlehem? In this season of Advent it is good to remind ourselves about the why of the incarnation.

Today's article of the Belgic Confession of Faith sums up the answers to these questions with one word: justification. Christ came to justify us. Christ took on flesh to justify us. Christ was born as a human to justify us.

We continue, today, our study of the Doctrine of Salvation (Articles 20-26). We have already looked at the Doctrine of God (Articles 1-13), the Doctrine of Man (Articles 14-15), and the Doctrine of Christ (Articles 16-19). We are now dealing with what lies at the heart of Christmas.

When I look at justification, I can understand the push, today, to take Christ out of Christmas. The secular man and woman does not want to hear about justification. They don't want to be reminded of their sin and their need for a Savior. In an age of tolerance and acceptance, they certainly don't want to be told that Jesus is the only way and that all other faiths and religions accomplish nothing. Nor do they want to hear that there is nothing they can do or bring. So, they try to take Christ out of Christmas. This way they can avoid the whole issue.

I Justification
A Why did Christ come? Why did He take on flesh? Why was He born as a human in Bethlehem? "That's easy," you might say. "He came to die for my sin." "He came so I could be forgiven." Is this your answer? If it is, I have to give you a"D" minus as a grade. Because you are only half right.

Why did Christ come? Why did He take on flesh? Why was He born as a human in Bethlehem? He came to die for my sin. And, He came to give me His righteousness.

We know these two parts as justification. Justification always includes something negative and something positive. Negatively, we receive the forgiveness of sins; it is as if I have never sinned nor been a sinner. Positively, we receive the righteousness of Christ; it is as if I had been as obedient as Christ was obedient for me.

In this season of Advent, let's take a look at these two aspects of justification.

B First, at Christmas we confess the negative aspect of justification. Says the Belgic Confession in the opening words of Article 23, "We believe that our blessedness lies in the forgiveness of our sins because of Jesus Christ."

Quoting from Scripture, the Confession uses the word "blessed." What does it mean to be "blessed" according to Scripture? David says, "Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him" (Ps 32:1-2).

According to Scripture, we are "blessed" when we are forgiven. But precisely here we have a problem, a big problem. The problem is that we cannot just say "Sorry, God." There is nothing we can say, nothing we can do, nothing we can bring that can cause God to forgive us.

All of this talk of sin at Christmas is judged to be offensive. Who wants to hear, as Isaiah puts it, that "all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags" (Is 64:6)? Who wants to hear, as Isaiah puts it in our Scripture reading, that God is "angry" with our sin (Is 64:5)? And, who wants to hear that there is nothing we can do to earn forgiveness? We are sinners and God is angry with our sin and we can do nothing about this. In this season of goodwill to men and peace on earth, who wants to hear such things? Yet, this lies at the heart of Christmas.

Did you hear Isaiah's question? Isaiah thinks about sin and God's anger against that sin and asks, "How then can we be saved?" (Is 64:5). Here is the answer from the Bible according to Article 23: "because of Christ." We are saved because of the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Christ bore our sin and our guilt. He was charged with our sin (Article 20). He appeased God's wrath by offering Himself on the cross and pouring out His precious blood (Article 21). All that we have to do is place all our trust in Jesus Christ alone, then God blots out and forgives our sins (Article 22).

Because of Christmas, do you know what we can say? We can stand with the church of all times and all places and say, "I believe ... the forgiveness of sins." We can say along with David, a murderer and adulterer, "As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us" (Ps 103:12). We can say "amen" to what God says through Isaiah in chapter 43, "I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more" (Is 43:25). And, we can pray with Micah the prophet:
(Micah 7:18-19) Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. (19) You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
In Christ, we are forgiven. In Christ, we are not guilty.

Remember Paul's triumphant conclusion as he thinks about Christ in terms of Christmas and Good Friday and Easter? "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Rom 8:31). The answer: No one! "Who is he that condemns?" (Rom 8:34). The answer: No one! "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" (Rom 8:35). The answer for the third time: No one!

C Second, at Christmas we also confess the positive aspect of justification. Says the Belgic Confession in Article 23,
... in it our righteousness before God is contained, as David and Paul teach us when they declare that man blessed to whom God grants righteousness apart from works. And the same apostle says that we are justified "freely" or "by grace" through redemption in Jesus Christ.
Let me put it this way: in Christ we are righteous. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to us.

As I already mentioned, the Confession quotes Scripture when it uses the word "blessed." What does it mean to be "blessed" according to Scripture? We've already looked at the forgiveness spoken of by the psalmist. But what do the beatitudes say? They say the "blessed" are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted because of righteousness (Mt 5:3-12). What do these all have in common? These are the traits of Christ!

We are "blessed" when we are like Christ. But precisely here we have a problem. Because we, in and of ourselves, cannot be like Christ. Remember what Isaiah says? "All our righteous acts are like filthy rags" (Is 64:6). Even the very best we do is imperfect and stained with sin. But what does God do? He justifies us. In Christ. Because of Christ. Through Christ. Meaning what? Meaning He credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ. Meaning I am "blessed" because I am declared to be like Christ.

Notice, my blessedness does not lie in my own works. My blessedness does not lie in my faith. My blessedness does not lie in my cooperation with God's grace. My blessedness lies totally in Jesus Christ.

This is the other offense of Christ at Christmas. In this season of goodwill to men and peace on earth and neighbors being kind towards one another, we have nothing to offer. Nothing to clothe ourselves with. No righteousness. No good works. No perfections. We stand naked and bare and exposed. Unless we are clothed with Christ! Who wants to hear this at Christmas?

Our blessedness is founded on the truth that every single acceptable, good, holy, and righteous work that Christ did during His life has been imputed to us. Think about this. We continually sin in thought, word, and deed. By way of contrast, every thought Jesus ever had was holy; every Word He ever spoke was good; every deed He ever did was righteous. So, imputed to our account is Christ's entire life of obedience to God and His law. Imputed to our account is every single moment Christ loved God with His whole heart and soul and mind and strength. Imputed to our account is Christ's love for neighbor in thought, word, and deed. All of this is credited to our account as if we ourselves had done the work.

Christ is our righteousness. This is our message at Christmas. Paul writes, "in him we ... become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21). How righteous are we? Since Christ's merit is infinite, we have an infinite holiness, an infinite righteousness, and an infinite goodness before God. Despite our sin, despite our doubt, despite our failures in the Christian life, in Christ we are righteous.

Do you see why I entitle this sermon "Saint and Sinner"? We all know the sinner part: guilty, no righteousness of our own. But then along comes God and, in Christ, He justifies us: declares not guilty, declares to be righteous. "Saint and Sinner." That is the message of the church at Christmas.

II Benefits
A What are the benefits of justification? What does justification result in? The Belgic Confession of Faith sees three benefits.

First, the doctrine of justification leads to praise for God. The Confession says, "And therefore we cling to this foundation, which is firm forever, giving all glory to God ..." Of course we praise and glorify God. We praise and glorify God because it is God Who justifies. It is God Who declares us to be not guilty because of Christ. It is God Who declares us to be righteous because of Christ. So, we sing with the Christmas' angels: "Glory to God in the highest" (Lk 2:14). And, we pray with the psalmist, "Not to us, O LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory" (Ps 115:1). And, with the great multitude in heaven that no one could count, we cry out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb" (Rev 7:10).

B Second, the result of justification is "humbling ourselves." Justification leads to humility, true humility. How can we be proud or arrogant when we know we are sinners? How can we be proud or arrogant when we know we cannot earn forgiveness? How can we be proud or arrogant when we know our righteous deeds are but filthy rags? Furthermore, salvation is all of God. It is God Who justifies. Not us. Never us. So, how can we be proud or arrogant when we know it is all up to Christ? Says the Confession,
... recognizing ourselves as we are; not claiming a thing for ourselves or our merits and leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified, which is ours when we believe in him.

C Third, justification makes us "confident." Not self-confidence. Not cockiness. Not boastfulness. For, then, "we would be swallowed up." Rather, we have confidence in Christ. We boast in Christ and Him crucified. Unlike Adam, who trembled and hid when God came looking for him, we are free from "the fear, dread, and terror of God's approach." Because of Christ, there is nothing to fear.

We show this confidence, don't we, when we dare to approach the Lord's Table? We don't come as though we had any righteousness in ourselves; we come as those who are righteous in Christ. And, many is the aged saint who shows this same confidence as they sense the approach of death; they know they do not rely on the works of their hands but on Christ.

Why did Christ come? Why did He take on flesh? Why was He born as a human in Bethlehem?

To justify us. Or, to put it more simply, so that sinners can be declared saints.
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