A Promise to Live By IV (Matthew 1:21)

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Doug Van Meter - 20 January 2008

A Promise to Live By IV (Matthew 1:21)

A Promise to Live By

If we will come to properly appreciate the exclusivity of the gospel promise then I believe that we will be driven to live near the cross as never before. And like Horatius Bonar suggests, “If we will progress in holiness then we must get to the cross and dwell there.”

From Series: "A Promise to Live By"

A short series of sermons focusing on the promise of Christmas.

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Thus far in our studies of Matthew 1:21 we have been reminded that the gospel promise as recorded in this verse is glorious for several reasons. First, because it is extensive; that is, each and every one of His people will be saved from their sins. Second, it is exhaustive in that it covers every area of our lives. The salvation promised is holistic in that it is a salvation from the penalty, power, pleasures, practice and presence of sin. Third, it is expansive in that the results of “his people” being saved is that other things are “saved” as well: marriages and families, the environment, nations, churches (1 Timothy 4:16), and, in fact, the world (John 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 5:17ff). Fourth, it is explosive in that it is dynamic to the point of being able to any sinner who believes. There is no sin that is so evil that it can not be overcome by the gospel. Fifth, it is expensive in that this promise of salvation is rooted in the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus Christ. And most recently we learned that this gospel promise is great and trustworthy because it is expulsive; that is, the new life experienced through such salvation expels the sinful habits of the old life. In this study we will focus on one more reason that this is indeed the promise to live: because it is exclusive.

When the angel of the Lord told Joseph about the nature of the birth of the Lord Jesus he spoke one of the most simple sentences in all Scripture, and yet it was filled with the most profound truths. Think through this with me: “Thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.” If you don’t pause to contemplate such a sentence then you may be guilty of what a lot of Christmas-only church attendees hear. They interpret these words as merely sentimental plaudits that have something to do with people having a somewhat better life because Jesus has come into the world. But as we have seen, this statement is profound in both its content as well as in its promise.

This gospel promise is profound in that it is exclusive. Now, when we speak of exclusivity in the context of the gospel many begin to feel the hairs rising up on the back of their necks. But before jumping to an emotional response let us first consider the nature of this exclusivity. In fact, if we will come to properly appreciate the exclusivity of the gospel promise then I believe that we will be driven to live near the cross as never before. And like Horatius Bonar suggests, “If we will progress in holiness then we must get to the cross and dwell there.” May this message help us to do just that.

This Gospel Promise is Exclusively about Him

Of course this whole passage in Matthew chapter one clearly proves this. The opening genealogy points us to the genealogy of Jesus, a genealogy which proves to us that He is the rightful King of the Jews. It traces His physical birth (incarnation) properly from the line of David. He is heir to the promised throne (see 2 Samuel 7; etc). But more so this chapter also contains the divine genealogy of Jesus (see vv. 1, 18). We are clearly told that all of this has to do with God fulfilling His Messianic promise as prophesied by Isaiah. The angel of the Lord used a particular grammar to emphasise in v. 21 that “he it is who shall …” That is, this Jesus is unique. It should also be observed that the last verse of the chapter, even in the Greek text, capitalises the name of Jesus. This is unusual in Greek writing, but it makes perfect sense in this context, for Jesus Christ is indeed unique.

As we reflect upon this verse we note that it tells us a lot of good and glorious things about Jesus, but nothing good about those whom He saves. In other words, at least on the surface, all we learn is that “his people” are in desperate shape and that He is their Hero. The syllable on which we are to place the right emphasis is that He shall save His people. This promise is thus glorious because it is Christ-centred. It is in fact exclusively about Him. He is the focus of the promise; we are merely the recipients of His work.

O that we would live in light of this truth! All too often we make the gospel about us and for this very reason we can become either despondent about it or bored with it. Let me explain.

If we make the gospel about us then we tend to approach this promise with the attitude of utilitarianism. That is, we expect some things, and when we don’t get what we think should be supplied to us then we moan and complain as we lose our joy. Our inflated views of ourselves rob us of the vision of Christ and thus of the joy that should drive our lives. The gospel, properly grasped, will have the amazing effect of humbling us, and with humility comes joy. It is no coincidence that C. J. Mahaney has written two wonderful books about living a cross-centred life followed by a book on humility. The one naturally leads to the other.

Is it not true that many of our burdens are due to selfishness? We carry the heavy load of self-defence, self-preservation, self-promotion, etc., which results in our spiritual, emotional and relational backs being thrown out of joint. We fall under the heavy load. And yet Jesus comes along, redirects our focus toward Him and our load is lightened (Matthew 11:28-30). Yes, even when the trials increase.

Again, all too often we view the gospel as something that is ho-hum because we get our eyes off of Christ. I seriously doubt that this was true of Joseph; and it must not be true of us either. We need to spend time in the Word and in reflective meditating, study and prayer so as to see the glories of Christ. As we do so then we will glory in the exclusivity of this promise and we will be motivated to live by it. As we see who He is then we will certainly take up our cross and zealously follow Him. How else can you explain the life of the apostle Paul? How else can you explain the early church?

Believers walk together in new life. We are to help one another to focus increasingly and exclusively upon Him. “We have met the enemy and it us.” So said the comic strip character Pogo. Let us realise that Jesus came to save us from our sins and thus in a very real way, He came to save us from ourselves, from our own self-destruction! As we help one another to keep our eyes on Christ Jesus then we will experience His liberating and loving power increasingly in our fellowship.

The Gospel Promise is Exclusive of Merit

This point flows logically from the first observation, but more importantly it flows directly from the text. Listen closely: “He shall save his people from their sins.” The only thing that we contribute to the equation is our sins. Now that is hardly anything that merits salvation! No, the work of His people being saved from their sins is His and His alone!

If we will truly rejoice in this promise then we must come to grips with this truth. When the biblical text tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) that this is precisely what it means. When we read, “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10), it means that there is none righteous, no, not one! When the Scriptures inform us that salvation is by grace through faith, and that even our faith (“that”) is “not of ourselves” (Ephesians 2:8-9) then we must believe this. Salvation is not of works, and the Bible could not be any clearer on this issue. We are sinners and as such we have no ability to please God apart from His saving grace. Salvation is either by grace or it is by works but it can’t be both. And it is not the latter! His people are His people by His grace; they are saved by His grace. All the emphasis in this verse is upon the merit of the One with the significant name JESUS. He alone has merit and it is by His merit alone that we stand accepted before God. And what an important and practical truth this is!

It has been well said that Christ and His gospel is often crucified between two thieves: those of legalism and antinomianism (lawlessness). That is, we often lose sight of the glory of the gospel promise as we strive to make ourselves acceptable to God by our own efforts (merits), or we lose sight of the law that the gospel satisfied and thus we live as though practical righteousness does not matter. A proper understanding however of this gospel promise will go a long way to help us to stay focused on the centre (central) cross. For our purposes, let us focus on the danger of legalism.

All too often we accept the truth that we are justified by the imputed righteousness of Christ but live like our acceptance is up to us. What we must come to grips is that “he shall save his people from their sins,” and that He does so on our best day as well as on our worst day. The doctrine of justification by faith alone is a joy-producing truth. We need to live in its promise.

To state it another way, let me just say that this gospel promise really is free. It is all through the free grace of the Triune God. There is no fine print that is footnoted at the end of that promise. Since this gospel promise is exclusive of merit we must embrace this truth if will benefit from its offer.

But at this point I want to raise a very important related point. Though this promise is exclusive of our merit it is predicated upon the merit of another, namely upon Jesus.  In other words, though this promise is exclusive of merit it is inclusive of means. And that means is primarily that of the righteousness of Jesus, the One who saves his people from their sins. He saves us exclusively based upon His righteousness. Remember, it is all about Him. Consider carefully the following text from the pen of the apostle Paul:

Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

(Romans 3:20-24)

Observe closely that “the righteousness of God,” which is given to us, is “by the faith of Jesus Christ” (v. 22). In Galatians 2:16 Paul states it similarly: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”

It is important that, at least in the KJV, the text speaks of “the faith of Jesus Christ.” Many modern translations change “the faith of Jesus Christ” to “faith in Jesus Christ.” The particular Greek word in question can be translated either as “of” or as “in,” but I am convinced that the older translation is preferable.

Whilst it is certainly true that we are justified as we have faith in Christ, we must never forget that we are justified on the basis of Christ’s faith. We are justified, as the KJV text says, by “the faith of Jesus Christ.” Faith is not merely an airy-fairy belief in God. It is not simply about affirming God’s existence. As James says, “the devils also believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). Faith is always coupled with obedience. Jesus Christ lived a life of complete obedience precisely because He had complete faith in God. His faith ensured that He never sinned, that He perfectly obeyed His Father.

When we believe on Christ, His righteousness is imputed to us. God’s standard is perfection, and thus apart from perfection we can never be accepted by Him. Since we can never attain perfection ourselves, we must surely be counted perfect by the merit of another. Christ lived a perfect life, and when we are justified we are counted perfect in Him. And since His perfection was based on His complete faith in His Father, it is evident that we are indeed justified by the faith of Christ.

This is a glorious promise to live by, for I have days when my faith is strong and other days when my faith is weak. But since my salvation is exclusive of my own merit but inclusive of the means of Christ’s merit, I can be confident that, even when my faith is weak, I am accepted by God because of the faith of Jesus Christ. I am indeed accepted in the beloved.

Salvation is not a matter of legal fiction but is rooted in the justice of God, which was satisfied in space and time through the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. When Jesus was bruised for our iniquities the Father was satisfied. And if He has been satisfied, and if He continues to be satisfied, and since He will continue to be satisfied, then so should we!

Let us, in light of this truth be careful that we never treat Christ’s work lightly. As we approach the Lord’s Table let us be careful to do so mindful of His work. It is a serious thing to disregard the means of grace which is pictured by the communal means of grace.

Again, we want to learn from this that this promise is rich precisely because of the price that was paid to secure it for us. There is no doubt that if we took the time, and made the commitment, to think seriously about the doctrine regarding the gospel that we would love it more and be more passionate about it. Perhaps we need to pull the plug on our TVs or reduce our recreational activities or retrain our reading appetites and begin to work hard to come to grips with the promise of the gospel. As we seek to plumb its depths we will find ourselves growing deeper in our affection for our Saviour and as we do so we will experience more and more of His power in saving us from our sins.

The Gospel Promise is Exclusive in its Effect

One of the most controversial (and often one of the most caricatured) doctrines of grace is that which is commonly called “limited atonement.” Just like the phrase “total depravity,” this truth has been assaulted for centuries. One of the problems of course is that of the term itself. As I will seek to demonstrate in one other message in this series, there is nothing at all limited when it comes to Christ’s atonement; in fact, this gospel promise is excessive. Yes, where sin abounded, grace did much more abound! There is no limit to the atoning work of Christ. Perhaps some of the terms often used to define Calvinism need to be changed. I would recommend “radical depravity” in place of “total depravity” and “particular redemption” for “limited atonement.” And yet I agree with R. C. Sproul: What in the world is a RUPIP? All humour aside we must come to grips with the promise of Matthew 1:21, which tells us in no uncertain terms that Jesus shall save His people from their sins. Who are these people? Are all people (each and every) constituents of “his people?” Furthermore, does it really matter? Are we endeavouring to enter into an area from which we should stay away? Is this not one of those “mysteries of God” that we should be content to leave alone?

Well, the fact of the matter is that, since this gospel promise is what guides our life, I believe that it is both principally and practically important that we grasp, specifically, which people it is that shall be saved from their sins. So in this final point let us explore this issue.

Let me begin by reviewing what we know so far. We know that the the gospel is exclusively about Jesus Christ and that our participation is exclusive of any merit on our part. The only merit that is important in this promise is that of the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ; the One who saves us from our sins. Thus we would all agree that our salvation through Jesus is uncaused by anything in us. It is purely by God’s free grace.

But we also know something else: We know that, while we have been saved (and are being saved), not all will be saved. Jesus, our Saviour, told His disciples that few will enter the kingdom and that many are called but only a few are chosen. He made it very clear that the majority of the first century Jews would be eternally lost. He said words like, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5), and, “He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already” (John 3:18). He also told the story of the rich man who was in hell (Luke 16:19-31) and warned His fellow-Jews to fear Him who is able to throw both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28). In other words, Jesus clearly taught that not all would be saved. Furthermore, the book of Revelation quite clearly shows us that there is a lake of fire in which unbelievers will be cast one day. The Bible nowhere teaches universalism. Rather it teaches that some will be saved from their sins and some will not.

Thus we are faced with the question, why? Rather, what is it that makes the difference between those who are saved from their sins and those who are not? In other words, how is it that some are “his people” and others are not?

Let me answer that with a true and important obvious answer. The difference is, His people are those who believe on Him, and thus those who don’t believe on Him are thus obviously not His people. After all, the way that His people are saved from their sins is by faith alone. So far so good. We would all agree on this. But now we must ask the next logical question: Why do some believe while others do not? This is the rub. Answer this one and the doctrines of grace fall into place.

Now we must be very careful here. If the only factor is that one believes and another does not then we need to dig deeper and ask why it is that one believes and another does not. If this is purely a matter of the uncaused choice of individual sinner then we can no longer say that the gospel is exclusively about Jesus and neither can we say that the gospel is exclusive of (human) merit. For the fact of the matter is that when a sinner places faith in Jesus, this faith is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9). Since this is the case we know that the reason one believes is because of God’s work. Thus “his people” are those who have been enabled by grace to believe.

Further, if faith is totally up to man then I humbly submit that this would be extremely unfair. Consider the case of one born in Johannesburg and one born in Somaliland? Who would have the most likely opportunity to believe? No, divine election in fact is the fairest of them all.

Now in light of this we need to ask the question, for whom did Christ die? Was it for all without exception or was His death exclusively for His people?

First, there are Scriptures which seem to indicate that Christ died for the sins of the whole world. The fact is that these verses may indeed be interpreted to teach a “particular redemption,” but for argument’s sake I will grant that, in one very real sense, Christ did die for the world. That is, clearly Jesus’ atonement was sufficient for each and every one in the world. His death was sufficient for all without exception.

But, when it comes to the effective purpose of Christ’s death—when we speak of His particular atonement—it is clear from Scripture (and from sanctified logic) that Jesus died for His people. That is, not for all without exception but rather for all without distinction (that is, every race, gender, tongue, etc.). Put another way, Christ died for the church. And this is a truth that is filled with devotional and practical implications.

First and foremost, this is vital to understand because of the fact that Jesus succeeded in His work. He did not die with a hope-so purpose. He did not die merely to provide the opportunity for salvation but rather He died to assure the salvation of His people. That is a powerfully motivating truth. Jesus did not die to merely make salvation possible but rather to make it certain. If we do not confess the truth that the gospel promise is exclusive in its effect then we do a disservice to the honour of Christ. In fact, we dishonour the Triune God.

Furthermore, this exclusivity had nothing to do with our merit but it was solely by the free grace of God. We have no right to boast but rather we are humbled by God’s amazing love. When this truth sinks in then we come to appreciate what a privilege it is to be a member of Christ’s church. And as we do so then we will live in light of our privilege: a chosen people, a purchased possession, a peculiar people.

Dear people, let us embrace this gospel promise and be humbled by the love of God. We are not saved from our sins because we are intrinsically better than others but rather because of the gospel which applies the merit of Christ to unworthy sinners. Hallelujah! We are sinners who by God’s grace have come to see that we need a Saviour, indeed, for the Saviour (see Acts 4:12). And thanks be to God, we have one who saves us from our sins!