Gospel death by qualifications

It is an interesting expression—to die the death of a thousand qualifications. The idea comes to us from the Parable of the Invisible Gardener, an attempt to discredit claims of belief in the invisible God. While Christians have done well to expose the falsehood of the argument, I think the bad reasoning has infected us in other, deeper ways. The Lord may own the cattle on a thousand hills, but we have made the gospel to die on a thousand hills of our own making. Let us consider how the free grace of God dies the death of a thousand qualifications every day in our hearts.

Just as the man in the parable is dead-set on believing in the existence of an invisible gardener in the face of all contrary evidence, are we not dead-set on the existence of our own special case that somehow disqualifies us from the gospel? Do we not find ourselves taking the free mercy of God and marching it up these hills to die? We say:

Jesus “came not to call the righteous, but sinners” but I’m not a regular sinner. My sin is so bad that he is not calling me.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” but that’s for believers who don’t sin like I did after I was saved. My past sin as a believer disqualifies me from the gospel.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” but the sin I’m dealing with right now means I am condemned. First I need to overcome this, then there will be grace for me.

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” but my feelings are too powerful for him. I change too much for the grace of God.

“Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” but my trials are unique. The way my life is going proves that I am outside the kingdom and beyond gospel hope.

What makes us so unique, that we are the exception to the gospel rule? Nothing! Who do we think we are, sticking our little buts in God’s eternal gospel and dragging it up the dunghill of our pride? For that is what these hills are, pride. Pride commands us to feel special, even if we are only special in our misery. My dear soul, leave your petty, self-important arguings with God and go to the cross. And don’t do the prideful thing with your pride when you get there. Instead, let it go in the strong currents of his mercy.

Pharisee godmother

“I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17

The Pharisees were Jesus’ chief opponents. And is it any wonder? Wherever the gospel appears, the legalists will rage. His very demeanor boils their blood. See how nonchalantly he disregards their make-believe rules! A non-stop feast with his disciples, or a Sabbath stroll through the fields, were declarations of war upon their pretend world.

Ah, but lest we point the finger too quickly (the gesture a Pharisee would choose, by the way!), let’s remember that in these very hearts of ours the Pharisee yet lives. Legalism is the cold skeleton of our old man, and it must be put off. May these bones that you have broken, O Lord, never rejoice again!

How did we get here? Simple—we are born this way. Legalism was woven into our souls in the Garden. In fact, we may lay the fall of the human race at the feet of this iron-fisted lie. Satan tempted Eve, not first by lawlessness, but by legalism. Yes, it was legalism which readied her to commit lawlessness.

She must first be made to believe that God is strict, harsh, and (perhaps with a little help from Adam), that it was even good to create buffer laws of our own making to protect us from breaking the command. Properly bewitched, she was now ready to lash out against God as she imagined him to be. It has been the same with us ever since.

We are quite content to take God on these terms. In fact, we love legalism. It shows up in the way we think about things like sermons. “Just give me something to do,” we say. Our flesh loves all manner of activity, anything but quietly beholding Jesus Christ and him crucified. The answer is see the Creator as he really is: full of goodness and rich in mercy.

Not only must we not make up our own pretend spiritual rules, but we must not imagine for even a moment that it is our performance of holiness that maintains his favor to us. That belongs to Christ and Christ alone, the spell breaker. So by real gospel power let’s keep the enchantment of our first mother broken. As Sinclair Ferguson wrote in his breath-of-fresh-air-from-heaven book The Whole Christ:

‪“The root of legalism is almost as old as Eden, which explains why it is a primary, if not the ultimate, pastoral problem. In seeking to bring freedom from legalism, we are engaged in undoing the ancient work of Satan.”

Level the gospel against your legalism.

Nothing undone

“Just as the LORD had commanded Moses his servant, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did. He left nothing undone of all that the LORD had commanded Moses. So Joshua took all that land…” Joshua 11:15-16

Joshua gets slept on (which is a slang phrase meaning he is generally ignored), mostly because he stands in the shadow of the great Moses. Yet, Joshua is a shadow of one greater than Moses — one greater than all!

The greater than Joshua (who shares his name, by the way) fulfilled these verses in marvelous fashion. Did he not keep the law of Moses in all its particulars? Did he not observe the ten commandments in flawless, spiritual perfection? His life was one continuous good work—or to view it from another biblical angle, one continuous loving of God and people.

You may have heard of the infamous video game killstreak. Well, here was a lifestreak of heavenly wonder. Jesus took all that land for us single-handedly, spilling his own blood for our sin, putting the principalities to open shame, granting us eternal life, guaranteeing all of God’s promises and blessings to us, and filling our ledgers with his spotless righteousness.


Read it and weep

And afterward Joshua struck them and put them to death, and he hanged them on five trees. And they hung on the trees until evening. But at the time of the going down of the sun, Joshua commanded, and they took them down from the trees and threw them into the cave where they had hidden themselves, and they set large stones against the mouth of the cave, which remain to this very day. Joshua 10:26-27

Resistance is futile. Five kings rise up against Joshua and his God. Obliteration awaits!

The rebellion was led by “Adoni-zedek, king of Jerusalem” (10:1). It didn’t turn out well. But in this ancient conquest we find looming shadows of the good things to come.

We may summarize the text as follows. The king of Jerusalem was marked as an enemy of God, judged, executed, hung on a tree till evening, put in a cave, and sealed with large stone. It’s all there in the text. It’s always been there.

When the true King of Jerusalem, the Lord of righteousness, was executed, he didn’t stay in that cave. He emerged in new glory. But, like these wicked kings, he left our sins in that grave. They are there to this very day.

Sin and Satan, behold yonder ancient text. Therein is written our redemption. In the name of the Lord we bid thee, Read it and weep.

Right relics

“Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.” Joshua 4:3

The memorial was made from the memory itself. The stones were taken from among the very footprints of the priests. Whenever God’s people passed that way, the grand entry was called to mind. The people had lighted upon the land on the wings of miracle.

Do we have, as it were, any relics like this? We sure do. Is not Scripture itself a sort of relic? It was written by the men who tasted and saw, things yes, but him, the wonder worker. The writings were forged in the very midst of the things written. The Scriptures are living memory. Truly, “they are there to this day”.

The Lord’s Supper is a sort of relic for us. It was these elements that the Lord took on that night so very long ago. The simple Supper is a living memory, in remembrance of him.

Even fellow believers are a kind of relic. They themselves are the very souls that were saved; the footprints of Christ are fresh upon the soil of their hearts. We may look upon them in wonder, and fellowship with them in joy.

In all these things we may be brought to “remember Jesus Christ” (2 Tim 2:8). For right relics (so to speak!) are those instituted by God, those that remind us of him who loved us and gave himself for us.

Beam me up, Moses

“If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will take you.” Deuteronomy 30:4

Some have taken this verse to indicate ancient space travel. They have boldly gone where no interpreter has gone before; we shall not follow them into that great unknown.

The sense of the text is either a hypothetical were it so, I would come get you, or, in distant nations under the farthest skies, I will rescue you. The true meaning is undoubtedly the second. Jesus uses the same celestial imagery: “And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Matthew 24:31). In other words, at his second coming (not third or fourth, by the way), he will gather his people from every part of the globe.

But the first meaning (the one involving hypothetical elect astronauts) holds some fascination for us. Let us see if we can’t find a blessing in it. Is it true? If one of God’s lost elect were cast off into space, would he go there and find them? Well, certainly, and it would be no great feat for God. He’s already there. He could send them dream or vision, or cast a Space Force chaplain upon the shipwrecked planet to evangelize them.

In fact, the Lord did undergo such space travel for us. He entered our distant world as one of us, conquered all, and rode on the highest heavens to glory. If he came to this uttermost part of heaven to put away your sin, and soared back to the highest height to represent you before the Most High God, surely he will do the lesser feat and see to all your needs today.

Scary Christians

“And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you.” Deuteronomy 28:10

The world professes to be scared of Christians. But let’s unmask the ruse: no one is scared that real Christians as such will harm them. That fear is faux. Time would fail us to speak of the atrocities of the Roman Catholic Church and of people who said they were Christians throughout history. Although the church has dwelt in darker ages, in this age of toleration the little societies of faithful local churches are non-aggression itself.

But there remains a real fear of God’s people. Their presence is a terrible reminder to the world that God is real. They are a living emblem of the real option of serving God and of the impending doom of sinners who love their sin and refuse to give it up. Therefore, humbly let your light shine before men, and do not withhold the word of witness, though it torment their conscience as fire from your mouths. Who knows whether it might spark the fear of God in their hearts, and drive them to Jesus for safety? For they should be scared, but not of us.

It's fruit bearing season

“When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit.” Matthew 21:34

Fruit. It is the accomplishment of long patience, the proof of a lively root, and the crowning jewel upon the year. The leaves sing gold and the harvesters rejoice.

What is the fruit that God expects of his people? To receive him! “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). Is this not the “fruit” in the parable, to respect and receive the Son of the Master? In a parallel parable (ch. 22), to “bear fruit” is to accept the wedding feast invitation. This is the fruit that God loves, and that which produces all other fruit in the Christian life. Truly, his burdens are light.

Looks like meat's back on the menu boys

“When the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as he has promised you, and you say, ‘I will eat meat,’ because you crave meat, you may eat meat whenever you desire.” Deuteronomy 12:20

“I will eat meat because I want to eat meat” is the general run of it. What freedoms the people enjoyed! God’s bounty, rich and free, reaching even the every day matters of food and drink. It is not perhaps so difficult to do to God’s glory when the choices of holy doings are so pleasant. Our first parents enjoyed the same: “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely.”

So eat meat to God’s glory. But in your feasting remember that true meat is set upon the table of his dearly beloved. Is not our Lord the True Food? Do we not have certain liberty to feast at this table whenever we wish? The truths of God are so many strengthening portions; take them as you please. Pick a doctrine, a Scripture, because you want to, and chew it by meditation. Draw forth its savory delight and heavenly virtue by prayerful contemplation. And know that when you say, “I will behold Christ,” because you want to behold Christ, that you may behold Christ whenever you desire.

God's man on fire

“So I took hold of the two tablets and threw them out of my two hands and broke them before your eyes.” Deuteronomy 9:17

Moses didn’t stroll down the Mount with both tablets tucked under his arm like a football. He held one in each hand. This is God’s prophet with God’s law in dual-wield kimbo, weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left.

The people broke faith, shattering the commandments in a swoop. Moses, after the fashion of a prophet, makes a physical display for them. The law they transgressed is cast to the ground and dashed to bits. He threw his soul into the performance too. He had just begged God to stay his anger but, once he saw what they did with his own eyes, he’s a man on fire.

What then is God’s anger against sin? What sinner can stand before him? Only the greater Moses who stood between God and man and absorbed the fury of divine wrath.