Every child wants to know if they please their parents. This is certainly true of young children whose very identity is shaped by the affirmation and attention of a mom and dad, but I also believe this is true of us even as we get older. I remember the time when I was in my 30’s and I had spoken in chapel at Wheaton College, IL. My mom had sent for the tape of my message and when she received it she called me with delight. Billy Graham had spoken the week before and so his message was on the tape as well. Mom said, “David, you’ll never guess who they put on the backside of your tape!” Well, I knew who was on whose backside, but my mom affirmed me as only a mother could.
In the same way, I believe that every child of God desires to know whether they please their Heavenly Father. We go to great lengths to evaluate our actions and measure our behavior. The problem is that we tend to do this evaluation by our standards, which are tinged with self-focused guilt and cheap-grace legalism. The times I think I am most pleasing to God may be the times I am most lifted up with Pharisaical pride. The times when I feel I am the most despicable me, may be the very time when I please Him the most. This makes John’s counsel wise indeed, “for whenever our hearts condemn us God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” (1 John 3:20)
And so I go round and round, like a gerbil on its wheel. Is there any recourse, any truth that would help me stop wasting time in taking my spiritual pulse and finding a false heart rate? Yes. The truth is found in two prepositional phrases that characterize Paul understanding of Christianity: in Christ and Christ in me. I want to focus on what it means to be “in Christ” and how it relates to pleasing God. The person in Christ is the one who believes in the gospel and through that faith has entered into a union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
When a person comes to see him/herself as a sinner and believes that Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection has dealt once and for all with his sin and guilt, there is a divine relational transaction that occurs. The believing sinner comes into a faith-union with God’s Son so that all we are not in relationship with God (our sin) becomes swallowed up in all that Christ is in His relationship with the Father (righteousness).
V. Raymond Edman tells the story of the banker whose son was a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War. One day another soldier walked into the bank and up to the father’s desk and handed him a note. The young soldier was in a tattered uniform and his arm was in a sling from a wound. The note read: “Father, this is my friend who is like a brother to me. He was wounded in our last action. Please take care of him; treat him as you would me. Love, Charlie.” The father recognized the handwriting of his son and took the young soldier and put him in Charlie’s room to rest, gave him Charlie’s clothes for dress, and put him in Charlie’s place at the table to eat. This young man was beloved for the sake of Charlie. Likewise, we are loved for the sake of Christ.
I have often used an illustration of taking an ink-splotched piece of paper, representing me and my sin, and placing it into my open Bible, representing Christ and His righteousness. The act of faith is depicted as putting the paper into the book and enclosing it. Thus when God looks at me, who does he see? Christ. Whatever relationship that Christ has with the Father, I have with the Father. Christ’s history becomes my history; His future is my future. By faith, the very righteousness of Christ becomes my righteousness. “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22).
Paul uses a legal term “justify” for describing what happens when we believe the gospel. He never infers that righteousness is somehow infused into us when we believe in Christ so that we actually become righteous. The Bible teaches that through faith, God imputes or places the righteousness of Jesus Christ on our account and we become “just-as-if-ied” never sinned in relationship to God. And herein was Martin Luther’s certainty and mine as well. If my salvation comes as the result of what Christ has done for me, then I have the complete assurance of knowing that it is enough. The more my relationship to God depends upon my efforts the less certainty I have of my acceptance with God. Have I done enough? Am I sorry enough? That is why we see the cry of Martin Luther to the recovered Gospel: sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo.
Thus the first thing I need to do when taking my spiritual pulse is not to ask whether God loves and is pleased with me, but whether God loves and is pleased with Christ. And since I know the answer to that question and I am in Christ, therefore, I may have the confidence of knowing that God loves me today and will always be pleased with me as his son in Christ! It is by this standard of measurement that “the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:16, 17). Did you notice the last part of this verse, “…provided we suffer with him”? Sometimes we doubt God’s love for us because we suffer, but here we assured that our family shield includes suffering as well as glory.