December 19, 1999
Sometimes it can be hard to see how Christmas fits into the Bible’s big picture. Alistair Begg reminds us, however, that Christmas isn’t just about satisfying demands for charity; it’s about accepting an amazing offer of salvation. By God’s perfect providence, Jesus took on humanity at the right time so that He might be our substitute. As helpless sinners in need of a Savior, we can turn to Christ for the free promise of salvation that was made to Abraham in ages past.
Sermon Transcript: Print
God, we’re going to study the Bible now, as you know. We want to acknowledge freely that unless you come to illumine our minds, then we’ll just allow them to dance around through all the things that have preoccupied us in bringing ourselves to this place, all the considerations that are before us in our leaving this place. And even if we manage to pay attention to what’s being said, we won’t understand a word of it unless you come and help us. And even if we understand it, we won’t care about it unless you make us care. And even if we care, we won’t do anything about it unless you make it perfectly clear to us that we absolutely must. So then, we come to ask for your help for this and more. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
I’d like to invite you to turn to Galatians chapter 4 and to two verses, 4 and 5—page 825 in the pew Bibles. Galatians 4:4–5. I’ll read them in just a moment, but let me begin by reminding you of the fact that we say to one another from time to time that if we’re going to get to grips with the Bible, we need to remind ourselves that the Bible is a book about Jesus—that in the Old Testament, Jesus is predicted; that in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus is revealed; when we then read the Acts of the Apostles, we discover that Jesus is being preached; and when we read the Epistles, which is another word for the Letters, we discover there that Jesus is being explained; and when we get to the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, we find that Jesus is expected.
Another way in which we try and help one another weave our way through the Bible is to say that between the Old and New Testaments, it’s a bit like a two-act play. If you come to a play having missed the first act, you make a perfect nuisance of yourself asking the people around you, “Who is this character, and what does this mean, and why has that happened?” And the person says, “Well, if you had come to act 1, you would understand how act 2 works.” In the same way, if you visit a play, you leave after act 1, then you have to call somebody later on and say, “How does the whole event finish?” When we read the Bible in the Old and New Testaments, in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, we discover that it is very much just like that: a two-act drama—that they fit together.
However, for a number of people—and some, doubtless, who are here this morning—the Bible remains like a trackless jungle. You have seldom considered it, and when you do, you open it up, and you might just as well be lost somewhere in the jungle as you look at it and you say, “I don’t what this means or where this goes, and I don’t know if there’s a path that takes me through it that I can understand. It’s full,” you say to yourself, “of apparently unrelated ideas, unrealistic notions, and incomplete sentences. I just can’t make sense of it at all.”
Well, nothing could be further from the truth. The Bible actually is coherent. There is a story that runs the whole way through the Bible that is understood when we think about the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is this, in a sentence or two: God, from all of eternity, determined that he would redeem—purchase, buy, take to himself—a people who are his very own, and that the whole of the Bible is the unfolding of this plan of redemption. When Paul refers to it in Ephesians chapter 1, he says that God throughout all of history is accomplishing all these things “according to the counsel of his will.” So in other words, far from the Bible being haphazard, far from it being a trackless jungle, a sort of amorphous mass of ideas thrown haphazardly together by people who knows where, and who knows when, and who knows how, and who knows why—far from that, what we discover is that God is orchestrating everything, even the disclosure of himself, in the pages of the Bible, and he’s doing it according to his eternal plan.
Now, the reason I take a moment to mention this this morning, as we come so close to Christmas, is because for many people the Christmas story hangs totally unrelated to anything else in the whole of the Bible—in fact, in many ways, hangs totally disconnected from anything else in all of life.
Now, some of you are particularly interested and efficient with jigsaws. Jigsaw puzzles are not one of my gifts—nor, actually, are crosswords. I treat dreadfully in the United magazine when I do the crossword on the plane, and I’m always hoping that no one’s noticing how many times I turn over those few pages to find out what the answers are, particularly when I’m sitting next to my wife—although she knows how bad I am, and when I finish with a great, smug smile on my face, she knows that I cheated for at least 80 percent of the clues. And the same is true with jigsaws, because they actually appeal to me in those boxes. I go in the mall, often close to Christmas, and I’m tempted again to buy a jigsaw, because it all looks so good—until you open the box and throw the pieces out, and then it looks so chaotic. And there have been one or two memorable Christmases when a great splash of enthusiasm from myself has unleashed a jigsaw upon the family, only for it to sit around for a day or two and then to be thrown back into the box and consigned to the darkness, never to be seen again.
But before it goes, I usually manage at least one piece of it. Maybe fifteen or seventeen pieces I manage to get together, and they all sit and look there—you know, a chimney pot, or whatever it is—and someone comes and finds me smugly looking at my little section, and I’m saying, “Isn’t this wonderful? Look at what I’ve done,” only to have the balloon burst by the person saying, “And where do you think it fits in the rest of the jigsaw?” Say, “Well, frankly, I haven’t got a clue where it fits in the rest of the jigsaw, but I was just excited about the fact that I managed to put this little piece together.” “Well,” says the person, “big deal. But unless you know how and where it fits, it frankly is largely irrelevant, wouldn’t you say?”
And so it’s Christmas again. Twelve months have gone by, and we came back. Go back in the attic, get out the same jigsaw, lay it out, throw the pieces out, pick up a small cluster, get fifteen or seventeen pieces put together—where we’ve got a little picture of Jesus, or a little picture of a donkey’s head, or whatever else it is—and we’ve got some semblance of what’s going on. Somebody says to us, “Now, where does this fit within the larger scheme of things?” The answer is, “I haven’t got a clue where it fits.”
Now, when Christmas is viewed in that way, as it is so easily viewed—truncated, disconnected—it very quickly becomes sentimentalized. It very quickly becomes marginalized in our minds. And cynical men say, “You know, ‘Christmas comes but once a year, and when it comes it brings good cheer,’ but frankly, I think Scrooge was right, and a lot of it is total humbug. It’s good for grandmothers who like to wear rugs on their laps. It’s good for children; I like to see them run around. But frankly, it is totally irrelevant to me. After all, what do I have with a baby in a manger in Bethlehem—two thousand years ago, some totally unrelated, disconnected piece of information? Who invented this?” we say to ourselves. “Hallmark? Who’s trying to foist something on me here? What, indeed, is all of this about?”
And in the back of our minds, we’ve created the impression that Christmas is just largely one appeal—and usually an appeal for money. There are people everywhere sending letters: “Send me money.” There are people doing things with all kinds of little bags and whistles and drums and bugles in order to try and make us feel largely guilty that we had one of those wonderful things that allowed us to lock our car door without even putting the key in, and we felt quite smug in being able to walk twenty yards away and click it, and we turn round, and we met a man with a kettle, and out of a dreadful sense of guilt at the lovely car that we’ve just left parked, we reached in our pocket and dumped in a bunch of cash that, frankly, we had no interest in giving. But then, as we walked into the mall, we found ourselves saying, “My, my, this is what Christmas is all about after all, isn’t it? Coats for Kids. Be your best. Make a difference. Work together. Eradicate war. Establish world peace.”
Is that it? No. Christmas is not an appeal. Christmas is an announcement: “Good news, great joy for all the people.” And what exactly, then, is the nature of the announcement? What is the nature of the good news? What does this mean, and how does it fit?
Well, as I said to you, in the Epistles, much of what we read in the Gospels is explained, and every so often in the Epistles, you come on a summary statement which gives to us a very succinct way of understanding the story. And Galatians 4:4–5 provide us with just one of those statements. And I want to read them to you, and then I want to try, in the time that remains to me, to unpack them for you by noticing with you a number of questions.
“But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.”
“Well,” you say, “that sounds tremendously complicated to me. Can we not just go back to Bethlehem for a moment or two and just think about the simplicity of it there?” Well, no, I want you to think about this, if you would. Some of you will be very quickly in the third stages of anesthesia; there’s no doubt about that. But to those who have ears to hear, let them hear. “The gospel,” says Stott, “is not good advice to men,” but it is “good news about Christ”; it is “not an invitation to … do anything,” but it is “a declaration of what God has done”; it is “not a demand,” it’s “an offer.” And if we have fastened on Christmas as being something which comes first of all to make demands upon us which, when we respond to those demands, thereby contribute to the spirit of Christmas as defined for us, and miss the fact that Christmas is actually an offer, it is an announcement; it is not a demand and an appeal.
Well, first of all, will you notice in verse 4 that Paul establishes for us the time factor in relationship to the coming of Jesus? When did Jesus come? Well, the answer is “when the time had fully come.” “When the time had fully come.”
In Jesus Christ Superstar, in one of the songs, the writer of the particular lyric seems to question—perhaps even disdain—the time at which the Lord Jesus came to earth. And the lyric goes like this: “Every time I look at you,” says the writer, looking at Jesus,
Every time I look at you, I don’t understand
Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.
You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned.
Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?
If you’d come today, you would have reached a whole nation.
Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.
Don’t get me wrong:
I only want to know,
I only want to know,
I only want to know,
Jesus Christ, who are you?
So, on the one hand, the writer takes to himself the prerogative whereby he can call in question the appearing of Jesus and yet is honest enough to say, “But frankly, having said what I’ve said, I really don’t know who you are, Jesus.” Exactly where some of us are this morning.
When did God send Jesus? “When the time had fully come.” What does that mean? Well, at the time that God determined; at the moment that God had determined in his eternal decree. Jesus did not arrive haphazardly. He didn’t come arbitrarily. He didn’t come a moment too late, and he didn’t come a moment too soon. He came “when the time had fully come.” You find other statements like that. In Romans chapter 5, Paul again, he says, “At just the right time, when we had no way of escape, God sent Jesus—at the perfect moment.” And those of us who are tempted to say, “Well, if he’d come now, with the internet and all these different things, then it would have been so vastly different”—well, we understand all of that, but the fact is God sent him at the exact moment in time that he needed to come.
Now, we could say that the fullness of time pointed, for example, to the conquest of Rome. Rome, having been so triumphant and built all these wonderful roads, was making it possible under the providence of God for the news of the gospel to emanate and disseminate itself from Jerusalem and make its way through the Roman Empire. That would be true. That the Greek culture, having established its language on so many people, provided a cohesion that made for the spread of the gospel. That the minds in men and women, having so many of them given up on the mythological gods of Rome and of Greece, were ready for some reality, were confused by so much religion, and were wondering if there was truth anywhere. That would be true too. I think the only thing we can say with absolute, definite conviction is that he came at the right time, when the law of Moses had done the work of preparing men for Jesus.
Now, I’m going to come back to this, but I want you simply to notice that in 3:23. “Before this faith came,” says Paul—before the notion of Jesus being someone to trust and believe—before this came, “we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.”
When, then, did God send Jesus? “When the time had fully come” and when all of the preparatory work had been done. That’s all we need to say for the moment.
The second question is, What is it that God has done? Well, it is there in one simple verb: it is the verb to send. It is in the past tense: “God sent.” When? At just the right moment. What? He “sent.” He didn’t send an idea. He didn’t send a phantom. He didn’t send a religious apparition. He “sent his Son.”
And it isn’t possible for us men and women this morning to understand the work of Christ and its relationship to the will of God unless we understand at least something of the fact of the Trinity: that God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are coeternal and coequal, and that in eternity—pre-time, preincarnation—the Father and the Son and the Spirit entered into a covenant with one another, determining that one member of the Trinity should become the Savior for the sins of men and women. And that role was given to the Son. And Christ, in submission to his Father, said, “Father, when the time is right and you determine it, then I will go to do your will, and I delight to do your will.” And the promise of the Father to the Son was that having entrusted him with the specific task of redemption, he would not only uphold him in that experience of his earthly journey, but he would also reward him—that this Son would “see of the travail of his soul,” that he would see all of the agony of his life, all of the fulfillment of his purpose, in those whom the Father had given to him as this company of people whom God from all of eternity had determined to put together.
Now, I grant it to you that this may seem immediately in the minds of some to be a long, long way removed from a cradle in Bethlehem. But let me say again to you: the significance of the cradle in Bethlehem may only be fully grabbed by an understanding of where that piece of the jigsaw fits in the larger scheme of things. And I say again to you that the reason that many reject the Christmas story is because it seems so largely irrelevant. And one of the reasons I give to you that it seems so irrelevant is the way that people like myself proclaim it is so largely irrelevant. And the thinking mind says, “There is nothing there for me.” But when I ask you to think with me beyond the nine dots of your human capacity into a realm that is unknown to us and to ponder this immense idea that the creator of the universe, one in three and three in one, enters into a plan in eternity whereby he will send in time his Son, you say, “This demands my attention in a way that I had never really considered.”
Well, was it, then, that God the Father sent his Son, and Jesus was resentful of it? No, that’s Jesus Christ Superstar again. In the “Gethsemane” song, you may recall, Jesus is praying in the garden of Gethsemane, and he’s singing to his Father, and he’s basically saying, “Why did you put me here? How did I get myself in this dreadful predicament? I didn’t really want to be here, and I don’t want to do this.” Well, of course, we know that Jesus said, “Father, if you’re willing, let not this cup pass from me,” because in his humanity, he recoiled from all that was before him. But he said, “I delight to do your will, and nevertheless, not what I want but what you want.” And when you read the summary statement in Philippians 2:5 and following, you find there Paul explaining that when the Lord Jesus comes, he comes voluntarily. He’s not coming out of a sense of coercion. He gladly gives up the equality that he has enjoyed with the Father and the Spirit in heaven in order to take to himself humanity. And when, for your homework, you read Philippians 2:5–11, you will notice that the Lord Jesus becomes what he was not—namely, flesh—without ever ceasing to be what he was: God.
When was this? “When the time had fully come.” What was this? God was sending. We’ve already really dealt with “Who was this?”—’cause he was sending his Son. So let’s go to “How was this?” How did this take place? How does this unfold—this huge, metaphysical concept? Well, two little phrases are all we have in verse 4. “God sent his Son…” Phrase number one: he was “born of a woman.” Phrase number two: he was “born under law.” Is there significance in this? Yes.
“Born [under] woman” is simply a reminder to us of the fact that he was truly man—that the Jesus who walked the Jerusalem streets and moved around the hills of Judea and was present on the Sea of Galilee was a real man. He was not a phantom. He was not an apparition. He was not a ghost. He took a human body which had the exact same biochemical composition as yours and mine. He had his own DNA. He had the same anatomy as any other human being, the same physiology. He had the same central nervous system; therefore, he had the same sensitivity to pain. His mother made the exact same contribution to Christ as her Son as any other human mother makes to the genetic input of her child; 50 percent of his chromosomes came from Mary, and 50 percent of the chromosomes were imparted miraculously in the creative act of the virgin conception.
Incidentally and in passing, who would ever invent a religion with all this stuff in it? That’s what my friends want to tell me: “Oh, this stuff was just invented, you know. It was just made up. Somebody sat around and contemplated their navel for a while, and they came down from a hillside, and they said, ‘Here’s an idea!’” Were they trying to make it as unbelievable as they possibly could? Was that it? I put it to you, Mr. Skeptic, Miss Skeptic, this morning that it is the very unbelievableness of this story that makes it so patently believable.
Really a man, really alive; born under woman and born under the law. Now, you’re gonna have to go home—and only one of you will probably do this; probably me—and read the first three chapters of Galatians and fill in all the blanks. But stay with me, and I’ll try and help you by summary. Taking these verses out of context is dangerous, because so much of the surrounding context is vital to understanding each piece of it, and particularly “born under [the] law.”
The previous chapter has had so much to say about the law of Moses, summarized in the Ten Commandments. Okay? And, says Paul, when God comes to earth in the person of Christ, he has a human mother, and he lives a human existence, and he’s born under the jurisdiction of the law of God. In other words, he’s not free to do whatever he wants to do. He is here to do all that the law demands. He becomes subject to the demands of the law: to love the Lord his God with all his heart and all his soul and all his mind and all his strength, to be absolutely truthful in his words, to be absolutely faithful in his friendship, to be absolutely committed to the things that God has given to his people whom he has redeemed. And it is because he has fulfilled all of the precepts of the law in perfection that he is able to be the representative of his people. In other words, nobody has lived on earth and kept the Ten Commandments perfectly except Jesus. And because he has done so, he is able then to represent us. Nobody who ever lived on earth was able to exhaust the penalty which falls on people for having broken the law, and Jesus in his death takes the penalty of the law upon himself and therefore fulfills the role of substitute.
So, he cannot be our representative unless under the law he is absolutely faultless, and he cannot be our substitute unless he is able to bear in himself all of the penalty that falls on those who break the law. So, you see, when you look into the cradle, as it were, and into the eyes of this wriggling infant, don’t think you can walk away and say, “Oh, cootchy-coo, how nice is that, you know? It gives me a cozy feeling. It makes me want to phone my grandchildren,” or whatever it is. When you look into that face, you look into the eyes of one who in the growth of his humanity was to live in total perfection for you that he might represent you and who was to die in total agony in order that you need not die. Don’t sidle by this Christmas story and think to take your hat off at it, and throw some money in the pail, and give a coat to a child, and say, “I understand it and I live it.” No, there is an immensity of material in this, and to grapple with it, you actually need to understand so much of the surrounding material.
Let me try and summarize it to you by pointing out that all of this has to do with the way in which Paul interacts between three figures of history: one is Abraham, one is Moses, and one is Jesus. If you like, if you were drawing on a sheet of paper, you’d draw three mountain peaks, and one mountain has an A at the bottom, stands for Abraham; the other, with an M, stands for Moses; and the Everest towering over it all has a “Christ” at the bottom, standing for the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, try and track with me on this, and then I’ll try and bring it to a close in a way that I think you will understand, even if you find this next section a little daunting. When you read 3:15–22—which I know you’re going to do—you will discover there that Paul is reminding these Galatian Christians that to Abraham, God had made a promise. Just a promise. He comes to Abraham, and he makes him a promise. He says, “All nations on the earth will be blessed through your seed.” And he deals with this in chapter 3, which you can consider on your own. He makes a promise to Abraham with no strings attached, totally free, totally unconditional: no laws to obey, no merit to establish it, and no conditions to fulfill. Then he says in verse 17, “The law,” which was given to Moses and through Moses, which was “introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant,” the promise, “previously established by God and thus do away with [it].” Okay?
Because the question in the mind of a thinking person is this: If God comes and he gives a promise to Abraham, and then he gives a law to Moses, how do the two of them fit together? Is it a promise that you just accept, unconditionally? Or is it a law that you have to obey, and you get entry to God’s eternal kingdom on the basis of obeying the law? Which is it? For if it’s promise, it’s not law; if it’s law, it’s not promise. How do they fit? I mean, is the message of Jesus as he comes, “Here I was, and I came, and I was perfect. Now I want you to be as perfect as you can. I obeyed the law in its perfection. I know that you can’t, but do as good as you can, and we’ll see you when you get up to the eternal gates, and depending how well you did, we’ll grade you when you’re there.” Is that it? Or is it that he comes, and he promises us that if we will trust in what he has done as our representative and as our substitute, then we will be welcomed into his eternal presence? Now, that’s the question that he’s wrestling with. Verse 18: “For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise.” It’s gonna be one or the other, he says. “But God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.”
Then he asks the question that at least three of you have in your mind—verse 19: “[Well,] what, then, was the purpose of the law?” I mean, if God is determined to do this by means of a promise, where does the law come in? Where do you put the Ten Commandments? What are they supposed to do? Are the Ten Commandments ten rungs on a ladder up which we climb, finally to reach God? No. After God gave the promise to Abraham, he gave the law to Moses. Why? Because he had to make things worse before they could ever get better. He had to make things worse before they could ever get better.
You see, what the law does is it exposes sin. Well, you get up in the morning, you say, “You know, I’m a fine character. I mean, in comparison to most of the people in my office, I think I’m doing fairly well. And I’m sure that as Christmas comes around, I’m playing my part and doing my bit, and I think everything’s fine.” Well then, just take Exodus 20 and read the Law of God. And when you read the Law of God, what it will say to you? “I’m not as smart as I thought. I’m not as good as I believed. In fact, I’m a lawbreaker.” Why is that? “Because the law shows my sin. It tells me that I’m supposed to have no other gods before God. And I worshipped myself last week. I put myself forward when I should have sat back. I prided myself on my investments and my retirement account, and I’m actually trusting in them; I’m not trusting in God. But I’ve grown so used to doing it that it doesn’t confront me at all—until I read the Law. And I read the Law, and it says, ‘You shall have no other gods before me,’ and if I’m honest, there’s a great arrow goes to my heart and says, ‘You have a god before God, and the god is yourself,’ or ‘the god is your resources,’ or ‘the god is your plans, your dreams, your ambitions, your girlfriend, or whoever else it is.’” So the law exposes my sin.
And the law condemns my sin. God’s promise to Abraham is fulfilled in Christ; the law given to Moses is fulfilled perfectly by Christ. And the law is given not to bestow salvation on men and women but to convince men and women that we need salvation.
See, as we go through our days, we don’t believe we need a Savior. We’re not walking around the streets of Cleveland going, “Excuse me? Excuse me? Can you tell me where I could be saved? Excuse me? Can I just stop you for a moment? Can you help me? I need a Savior. I need somebody to get me out of my mess.” Has anyone in the last five years ever come up to you and said that just out of the blue? There’s not a soul doing that! People are walking through the streets of Cleveland saying, “I’m fine. I’m fine!” So how are they gonna find out that they’re not fine if all that happens when they come to church is someone says, “Well, I’ve got a lovely promise for you, I have a promise for you, I have a promise for you”?
The person says, “You know what? You can keep your promise. I don’t need your promise. What’s the promise?”
“The promise is that Jesus is a Savior.”
“Big deal! I don’t need a promise.”
“Well then, let me tell you about the law.” And so you read the Law of God to them. You say, “How do you feel now?”
“Well, I admit I got a bit of a problem here. I thought that I was going to get seven or eight out of ten. Frankly, by the time you finished, I was down to about two and a half, and I think I’m being generous to myself.”
“Well then, if God is going to judge you on the basis of his law, how are you planning on standing before him, since you’re only scoring about two and a half out of ten, and you’re trying to be generous to yourself?”
“Well,” says the individual, “I really don’t know.”
“Well then, could I tell you about a wonderful promise that God has made to those who, having confronted the law, find themselves in need of somebody to do for them what they can’t do for themselves?” And then that, you see, sends us to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, that answers the why question—and it’s a why question of importance, isn’t it? When was this? When the time was right. What was this? “God sent.” Who was this? “His Son.” How was this? “Born of a woman, born under [the] law.” Why was this? Look: to redeem and to adopt. To redeem and to adopt—that he who was a Son by nature willingly takes the form of a servant so that those of us who by nature are servants of sin may discover what it means to be adopted as sons as a result of his grace. Now, you may have to get the tape to think that one out. But that’s it. He who was a son by nature becomes a servant in time so that we who are servants to sin might discover the wonderful privilege of being redeemed and adopted into God’s family. And this is an announcement, you see. This is good news.
The Lord Jesus redeems us from the curse that awaits us as lawbreakers by taking the curse himself. That’s why you cannot understand Christmas without Calvary. You cannot get to the issue. The Harry Belafonte thing does not do it: “And man will live forevermore because of Christmas Day.” Not true! Man will live forevermore because God has made him an eternal being. The question is where will man live forevermore: with God in heaven or without God in hell? And how can we determine that we’re going to heaven and not to hell on the strength of what we find in this manger? It is only in recognizing that here in the manger, God has sent to us one who bears the curse that we deserve.
See, the Lord Jesus comes to fulfill the law voluntarily, taking upon himself a curse, while we, failing to fulfill the law voluntarily, face a curse that we can’t get out of.
So in other words—and I’m sorry to burst your bubble—this is really bad news. I mean, I got bad news for you.
There are three groups this morning. Group number one has never trusted in Christ, and the reason they’ve never trusted in Christ is because they’ve never had the law preached to them. They come to Parkside quite regularly, and I’ve been deficient; I haven’t made this clear to you. I’ve continually said to you, “Jesus is the answer, Jesus is the answer, Jesus is the answer.” And you’ve been sitting there saying, “Could you just take a couple of minutes and fill in on what the question is? Because, frankly, he is no answer to me at all.” So what you actually need is not a lot of promise; you need a lot of law. You need the law to come to you and break you and bruise you and expose your sin and then show you up for what you really are. You can’t get away from it by simply saying, “These are sentimental songs, they’re sentimental melodies.” You need to be aware of the fact, as do we all, that we stand before God, and we need to be humbled and terrified and bruised and broken, and when that happens to us, then we’ll come to seek his grace and to seek Christ—and not until it does.
And that is, you see, why I am completely powerless. This is one of the hardest tasks in all the world. If I could coerce people into this—if I could come up to you and shake your wooden head and say, “Listen! Do you understand this? Will you not do this?” But I can’t! I can only explain as best, say to you, “Loved ones, God is gracious and patient with you. That’s why you’re still alive. God is coming, and he’s putting, as it were, the scalpel upon these areas of your lives. He wants to bruise you, and he wants to break you, and he wants to wound you. And until you are wounded, you will never ask for Christ to relieve you of your wounds. Until you know yourself to be imprisoned by the means of the law, you will never come to Christ for freedom. Until you have been driven to despair of yourself, you will never come to trust in another—namely, Jesus.” Why would you? Why ever should you? Why trust in Christ if you trust in yourself? But only when you come to see it is a folly to trust in yourself may you then consider trusting Christ. Only when you have been humbled down to hell will you be interested in the way that you might be raised up to heaven. But as long as you live here—just another 1999 Christmas, another little bit of heaven on earth, another little bit of Coats for Kids, and put a little money in the United Way, and do my thing, and respond to all the appeals—not only did you miss the point, but you live in grave danger.
The second group is the reverse. The second group is not made up of people who need to have the law preached to them; it is made up of people who have had the law preached to them and need to understand the promise of God. These people are slavish in their commitment to the rules. They don’t understand that God has provided the law to reveal sin and drive men to Jesus to save them. And Satan has bewitched them, often from the lips of religious professionals who have proclaimed the law in such a way not as to drive people to Jesus but as to drive people to despair.
I meet these people all the time: “Religion for me has been a slavish commitment to rules and regulations. I have tried my best to do it. I’ve been told every week, ‘You’re a dreadful person and you’re in grave predicament.’” Well, of course, if you’re in group one, that’s the message you need to hear. But if you’re in group two, the message you need to hear is, “Listen, God gave the law not so that you could prove yourself holy but in order that it would prove that you’re a sinner.” So what you’re actually trying to do with it is the wrong thing. If you embrace it, it is not to make yourself holy; it is to show yourself up for what you are. And when you realize what you are, you said, “Oh, now I understand why the baby came in the manger.”
What a strange place for God to show up, incidentally. Who’d ever look for God in amongst all those donkeys and stuff? Who’d ever look for God on a cross, a bloodied mass of humanity? What is that about? It’s about the promise. And surely the reason why so many are able to wander aimlessly in and out of corridors such as our own—and we are not immune from this—is one of two reasons: either they have never had the lid taken off their respectability to show them what they’re really like underneath—sinful, rebellious, guilty, and helpless—and so they remain perfectly happy with their lot, for they wander out, wander in, wander out, gone—it’s an irrelevant story—or because, having had the law preached to them so much, they’ve determined to embrace it and concluded that they are righteous on the strength of all they do.
And the third group comprises those who, having seen themselves in the law of God as helpless and in need of a Savior, have gone to Christ and found that the promise that was made to Abraham was offered to them: no strings attached, no rigmarole, no regulations, “nothing in my hand I bring”—simply, “Lord Jesus, may I receive your gift?”
Father, help us to make sense of this, we pray, for on it hangs our eternal destiny.
O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood!
To ev’ry believer the promise of God;
The vilest offender who truly believes
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
Hear us, then, O God, as we admit to you that we’re more sinful than we are usually prepared to acknowledge, and as we recognize that in the Lord Jesus, we are more loved and accepted than we ever dared imagine. So, forgive us for all our attempts to polish ourselves up, to make ourselves acceptable, and thank you for taking the lid off our respectability and showing us our need of Christ.
And may the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon each one, today and forevermore. Amen.
 See Titus 2:14.
 Ephesians 1:11 (RSV).
 See Luke 2:10.
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians: Only One Way, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1968), 70.
 Tim Rice, “Superstar,” Jesus Christ Superstar (1970). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Romans 5:6 (paraphrased).
 Galatians 3:23–24 (NIV 1984).
 See Psalm 40:8; Hebrews 10:9.
 Isaiah 53:11 (KJV).
 Tim Rice, “Gethsemane,” Jesus Christ Superstar (1970). Paraphrased.
 See Matthew 26:39, 42; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42.
 See Deuteronomy 6:5.
 See Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18.
 Exodus 20:3 (NIV 1984).
 Jester Hairston, “Mary’s Boy Child” (1956).
 Augustus M. Toplady, “Rock of Ages” (1776).
 Fanny Crosby, “To God Be the Glory” (1875).
 Attributed to Jack Miller. See, for example, Katherine Leary Alsdorf, foreword to Every Good Endeavor, by Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf (New York: Penguin, 2012), xix.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.