I am writing on Tuesday April 7th, 2020, three days before Good Friday and five days before Easter Sunday. I have been writing on what J.I. Packer calls the heart of the Gospel. For him, the heart of the Gospel is that God sent his Son to earth to sacrifice Himself for sinful man. We have discussed repeatedly that to know God is to know that He is capable of being wrathful as He is disappointed with man. As we conclude Packer’s heart of the Gospel chapter, it is pretty clear that he sees God saving man from God’s wrath by sacrificing God [incarnate]. That is a lot to “wrap your head around” to use a contemporary cliché.
What better timing than Easter to discuss “vital matters which cannot be properly grasped until we are on top of the truth of propitiation” [Packer, 191].
Here are the final three of five vital matters [see the previous two posts for discussions of the driving force of Jesus’ life and “What of those who reject God?”].
First is the idea that the Gospel offers us the peace of God. When one uses this phrase, it calls up ideas of inner tranquility, that God gives us a carefree happy life. When we truly become believers, God is our shield from life’s hard knocks.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Believers go through tough times just like nonbelievers do, so that is not the “peace” that God offers. Pastors who preach that God offers us a carefree life are ignoring what I mentioned in paragraph one: God is a wrathful God. Packer says we should also add in that God can make us feel guilty when we sin. God can condemn us when we do wrong. God can feel enmity, hostility and animosity when we let Him down. Does that sound like peace?
I think not.
So what is this peace?
Well, if we do finally wrap our head around propitiation, we begin to understand that peace means that God is for us, not against us. It is based on a new relationship we have with our Father, a new relationship of forgiveness and acceptance. When Jesus came to visit His disciples at the evening of His resurrection He showed them His hands and His side. I have always read that as Jesus was trying to prove His identity, but Packer says that is not so. They knew Jesus when they saw Him. He was trying to make the point that He loved them and all men so much that He suffered a gruesome death on the cross so that they would have peace with God. That’s why John cried out “look the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Understanding propitiation gives us a way to understand the vital matter of Jesus making “peace through His blood, shed on the cross” [Colossians 1: 20]. When this vital matter is understood, one can grasp the true knowledge of the peace that God offers.
Next is the idea of how wide, how long, how high and how deep is the love of Christ; aka the dimensions of God’s love. You might think how silly to think about the width, length, height, and depth of an abstract concept like love. Turn to Ephesians 3: 18-19 and you will see those very words about the dimensions of love used in Scripture. Packer thinks the apostle Paul expresses these words because he is trying to communicate that God’s divine love is “inexpressibly great.”
Packer believes we can begin to understand the dimensions of God’s love by reviewing the context of Ephesians. The first two chapters of the letter review the whole plan of grace [election, redemption, regeneration, preservation and glorification]. “The atoning sacrifice of Christ is the centerpiece” [Packer, 197]. Pulling phrases from Ephesians, Packer points out “Christ’s love was free, not elicited by any goodness in us.” It was eternal, “being one with the choice of sinners to save which the Father made before the creation of the world.” It was unreserved, for it lead Him to extreme depths of humiliation, of “hell itself on Calvary.” It was sovereign, for it achieved the final glory of the redeemed, “their perfect holiness and happiness in the fruition of His love is now guaranteed and assured.” With our limited ability to understand God, even catching a glimpse of His inexpressibly great love gives us some understanding of God’s glorious grace.
The last of the five “vital matters” that we can comprehend if we understand propitiation is the glory of God. Packer introduces his discussion with a very difficult passage to understand. In John 13: 31 Jesus says “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in Him.” What has happened in the context of this Scripture, Judas has left the Upper Room and has gone to betray Jesus. That is when Jesus spoke of His and God’s glory. Jesus knew what was about to happen; He will be lifted up on the cross [that is what Judas was going to set into motion]. Packer writes to his readers: “Do you see the glory of God in His wisdom, power, righteousness, truth and love, supremely disclosed at Calvary?” It is in the propitiation of our sins; that is where we see the glory of God.
Packer ends his chapter on the “Heart of the Gospel” with lyrics from songs.
Hallelujah what a Savior by Phillip Bliss:
“Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood.”
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
And Can it be that I should Gain by Charles Wesley:
“He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.
’Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.”
“These are the songs of the heirs of Heaven, those who have seen ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’” [Second Corinthians 4: 6].
This is the joyful news of the gospel that God cares for us, extends His peace, His love and His glory into our lives. He truly deserves our praise. People who understand God’s substitution, God’s propitiation are always ready to give Him praise.
I like the way he ends his chapter, with a question directly to the reader. A question about five vital matters which can be grasped if you understand propitiation, five vital matters which lead us to praise God.
“Are you among their number?”