Order Of Worship (Liturgy)
Hy 3:1,2 [after Apostles’ Creed]
Reading – Isaiah 1:1-20; 1 John 1:1-2:2
Sermon – Lord’s Day 23
Beloved in the Lord, few of us have been to court for any length of time. Yet somehow we all know about court, and what takes place in a trial. Because once in a while, there will be an especially terrible case, unfolded by the media in all its detail. There have always been TV shows too, about what happens inside that world of “law and order.” People want to watch, because there’s something compelling about a courtroom. Evidence is presented; witnesses take the stand to testify; statements are made by prosecutors and defendants and judges.
A trial is where important things are decided, where human lives held in the balance. It’s where ugly secrets are brought to light. It’s a place where justice is administered, and where redemption is (sometimes) found.
This is certainly true for human courts, and human trials. But it’s also true for the courtroom of God. For we know that the LORD is an Almighty Judge. And standing before him, we’re accused of terrible crimes. Without delay, we ought to be declared guilty. No, the outcome of our trial before God shouldn’t really be in doubt. But then something happens. In that courtroom, someone stands up with an announcement to make. There’s new evidence, a new argument! There’s a defense that cannot be challenged.
For by faith, sinners are justified in God’s sight. That is, by faith we’re declared righteous—“not guilty,” you could say—and we are cleared of every charge and every penalty. It’s something that is possible only through Jesus Christ, who was condemned in our place. That’s our theme this afternoon, based on the summary of God’s Word in Lord’s Day 23,
Through Christ, sinners find mercy in God’s courtroom:
- the charge is serious
- the Advocate is accomplished
- the Judge is gracious
- the verdict is unexpected
1) the charge is serious: Before a case is brought to trial, the prosecution is careful about what charges they’re going to lay. You can’t appear in court with a vague list of offenses, but you need to be specific. The prosecutors look for an open-and-shut case, even just one or two major charges, with lots of evidence. Some of the lesser offenses might even be overlooked.
Not so with God. The King calls us to account for our actions, for our inactions—even to account for our hidden attitudes and secret thoughts—and it’s a sweeping indictment. God lays against us a three-fold charge, and once you start unpacking it, it’s quite a bit. This is what we read in Q&A 60: “My conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, have never kept any of them, and am still inclined to all evil.”
Three things are mentioned here. First, we have “sinned against all God’s commandments.” That’s like taking the Criminal Code—a pretty heavy volume—and slamming it down on the table in front of the accused: You have broken each and every precept and law! Not just one or two, but the totality of God’s laws have been broken, in thought, word, and action. “We have sinned against all God’s commandments.”
Second, with respect to those same laws, “[We] have never kept any of them.” That’s the other side of the prosecution’s argument, and it’s one you’d rarely hear in court today. We’re not just accused of actively breaking the law, but also of failing to keep the law. We’ve neglected those positive parts of God’s Word.
For example, God commands us to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength—but we don’t. We hold back on God, and we reserve some of our love for other gods. The LORD also commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves—but we don’t. A lot of the time we pretend our neighbor isn’t even there. So this trial isn’t just about the murdering and robbing and cheating we’ve been involved in. It’s also about the helping and sharing and true worshiping that we haven’t been involved in; it’s about the good things that we haven’t done. Sins of commission, but also sins of omission.
Finally, a third point for the prosecution: “[We are] still inclined to all evil.” Today that’s still a central question about a convicted criminal who is pleading for a shorter sentence, or who is applying for parole. Have there been any improvements in his behaviour? Is there a likelihood of him re-offending? Well, if someone is “still inclined to all evil,” still bent on breaking the law, then he better stay locked up. And that’s us. Apart from God’s help, this remains our natural inclination: to break God’s commandments!
And so this ends up being a long list of charges, and well-founded ones at that! The prosecution doesn’t have to work hard to close the case. The apostle John is honest about our chances before the heavenly Judge: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his Word is not in us” (1 John 1:10).
We just have to look at the evidence. God presents it at the beginning of Isaiah’s prophecy. These are what you might call his opening arguments. The LORD appeals to his audience, to all creation. “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth!” And reminding his people Israel of the past, He says, “I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me” (1:2).
He was a good Father, a good God, but how has Israel—and how have we—so often treated our Maker? “They have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked to anger the Holy One of Israel, they have turned away backward” (1:4). Let the record show that we are a “sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a brood of evildoers, children who are corrupters!” (1:4).
Our outright wickedness is one thing, and makes a long list of offenses. But even our supposed goodness is just an odour in the court. That’s what God says about Israel, “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me? (1:11). He answers his own question in verse 13, “[Your] incense is an abomination to me.” It’s a terrible offence, because without a heart of living faith, even the nicest offering that we make is made in vain. Without true repentance, even our daily prayers and our Sunday worship serve to condemn us.
The charges are serious, and cannot be disputed. All the fingers are pointing in our direction. For our own conscience accuses us. Satan accuses us. And God himself accuses us! In his righteousness He doesn’t miss anything; we read in Proverbs, “The eyes of the LORD are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good” (15:3).
And what does the LORD say about us, according to Isaiah? “Put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes” (1:16). Humanly speaking, God is tired of our failures. He’s ready to send us away forever, and who could blame him? It’s clear that the accused is in trouble. Sitting there under God’s cross-examination, we’re in a very bad spot. We need to know this.
So what can we do, beloved? Is there any way out? As a first thing, Scripture says: Don’t try to hide from God’s searching eyes! Don’t run away from your guilt, or attempt to deny it. Adam and Eve tried to run and hide. They tried to cover up their shame with fig leaves, and God saw right through it. It didn’t work for them—it won’t work for you either. As much as you’d like to, don’t blame your sin on the way you were brought up. And don’t blame your character, or blame the pressure you were under at the time, or the difficult circumstances of your life. “Come clean,” God says to sinners, “and face up to these charges!”
The LORD our God wants a confession. Even if it seems like confessing will only make our guilt seem worse, it’s what we need to do. Bring it out in the open. Acknowledge your sins to others, and before the LORD! He already knows all the details, but He wants to hear it from you. He wants to see that your sins grieve you, that they hurt you because you know they hurt him! He wants to hear that even though you’re still inclined to evil, you’re not content to remain there. It’s humbling, but this is what God wants: an honest acknowledgment of weakness and shame.
For, says John, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9). You can hear that good things follow from our true confession. We don’t get condemnation, but we get forgiveness and purification and righteousness. If we confess our sins, He is faithful to forgive!
2) the Advocate is accomplished: Lawyers sometimes have a bad reputation. People seem to think that lawyers are good at exploiting the system to their advantage: charging those high fees, and looking for loopholes. We probably shouldn’t be so suspicious of lawyers, especially when it comes to the one who sits beside us in God’s court—our advocate, Jesus Christ.
Let’s understand his position. Christ is actually a defense attorney who’s been appointed by the court, someone to represent us who has been set in place by the Judge. Because we couldn’t afford a defense ourselves! Even if we could afford one, we wouldn’t have found anyone to argue our hopeless case. But God in his grace has granted us abundant help.
Writes the apostle John, “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Righteous” (2:1). We have an “advocate,” which means that He is one who speaks for us! And notice how John says He is “the Righteous One!” Christ has proven himself an able and worthy defender.
For Christ has constant and countless honours to his name. For one, He obeyed God’s law: while on earth, He abstained from all sin, and He also did all that was right. Then He honoured his God-given calling on earth, from A to Z, as prophet, priest, and king. Finally, our Advocate was faithful even to the point of death, staying true at the greatest cost to himself.
The striking thing is that our Advocate himself was once put on trial, once accused of blasphemy and rebellion. It happened in the courts of Jerusalem, so long ago. To be sure, his trial before Pontius Pilate was a joke; He was unjustly condemned. And it couldn’t have been any other way. For how could Jesus have ever gone to trial for some real offense? He didn’t call for rebellion against Rome, He called people to obey Caesar. Nor did He blaspheme God’s Name, because truly, He was the Son of God! There could only be false charges, and lying testimony; there could only be an unjust verdict.
Yet this was the way that God decided. This is the humiliating path that our advocate would follow. For Christ wasn’t out for himself, looking for honors and praise. He would bow to wicked human rulers. He’d stay silent as He was charged, found guilty, sentenced, and killed.
And He would go through it for good reason. He’d hang there, not for some empty charge. He’d hang there, as John says, as “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (2:2). All our guilt was upon him, so He’d suffer to the greatest extent. That was the force of the Father’s judgment on his Son. Three times Jesus was declared innocent by Pilate, and from a human point of view He was innocent! But in the eyes of God, Jesus was guilty, beyond a shadow of a doubt.
That was the scene we began with, in our introduction. This is the new argument, the perfect defense, when Jesus stood up for us in the courtroom of God. He stood and declared, “Father, please don’t hold these crimes against them. Please accept that it was me! I take on all these charges, every last one. All their sin I admit myself—I’ll even become sin in their place, so that nothing is left over for them. I’ll endure the full sentence of your wrath, so these sinners can go free forever.”
Beloved, this is the gospel. This is how we who once were covered in our own guilt can be declared righteous. We’ve been made right with the God who sits in judgment. We’ve been made right, but it’s not because we deserve any kind of sympathy or help: “For only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God” (Q&A 61). We can rest only in what our advocate has done.
It’s our only defense, and it’s our only defense by faith. That’s the truth that is at the centre of this Lord’s Day: the Father welcomes back into his favour those who believe. The accused can go free, if we’ll just accept it. If we’ll just reach out the arms of faith and embrace our one Defense and Advocate, we will be saved from condemnation.
That’s all it takes. We might think there has to be more, that it’s entirely too easy. It’s so easy that some never get around to believing it. Some think that it’s beneath them to need a Saviour, that their guilt is really not so bad. But Christ’s saving benefits are only by faith. They are only for those who confess to Christ, every day, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner! Here are my sins—now take them away!”
Beloved, when we acknowledge that we’ve wandered, it’s then that God takes us back. When we acknowledge that we’re nothing, we gain everything. When we cast ourselves fully on Christ, the Judge will show us mercy.
3) the Judge is gracious: By now there’s no question about the character of the heavenly Judge. We know He’s slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. We know this, but it’s not something to take for granted. Let’s understand first why God has the right to make judgments about anything and anyone in this world. He has this authority, because all things were created by him, and everything must bend before his will. Psalm 75 puts it this way, “It is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another” (v 7).
And God isn’t just any judge. We expect that most judges will be honest and fair when they make their rulings. Yet every judge is only human, capable of prejudice and oversight and error. But God alone is perfect. Says the LORD in Psalm 75, “It is I who judge uprightly” (v 2).
Being upright in all judgments means God can’t overlook even the slightest sin. It’s a “zero tolerance” policy. And this isn’t because God is petty, because He’s a God who likes to sweat the small stuff. It’s because, as John says, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1:5). Sin—all sin—is fundamentally at odds with God’s holiness. Not a speck of filthiness will He allow in his glorious presence.
So there’s really no reason to expect mercy. Based on what God himself has said, on who God is, sinners can expect only condemnation. And we’d all have to say it’s only fair. For God told us what He wanted, and He warned us of the consequence. But we went ahead anyway, and sinned against him.
We can’t expect mercy from him, unless somehow our sin has been properly addressed. But it’s that very possibility God suggests, already in his opening statement in Isaiah. What does the Judge say to his people there? “Come now, and let us reason together… Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (v 18). Even as He points out their filthiness, He says it can be washed completely away. That criminal record can be totally erased.
And it’s been done through the One of God’s own choosing! Isaiah will tell us about him in places like chapters 40 and 53: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for” (40:2). For on God’s chosen One our iniquities have been laid, “the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him” (53:5).
Here’s how it works: The judge makes a legal exchange. In his records, He makes a transfer of all those many honours accruing to Christ’s name; He transfers them, from him to us! And our guilt, in turn, He transfers to Christ.
It’s the glorious exchange. We confess it in the Catechism, “God, without any merit of my own, out of mere grace, imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ. He grants these to me as if I had never had nor committed any sin, and as if I myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me” (Q&A 60).
This is the perfect mercy of our Judge! He speaks tenderly to the people who once scorned him. He helps the people who once said that we’d be fine on our own. Without contradicting his justice, He shows a rich compassion. So now, asks Paul, “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns?” (Rom 8:33-34). Beloved, if we are in Christ, no one can condemn us. For God has handed down that most unexpected verdict.
4) the verdict is unexpected: We’ve all seen this in one place or another. The judge (or jury) re-enters the courtroom with the big decision. The whole court stands, and the drama weighs heavy in the air. Waiting for the verdict, the accused grows pale and trembles. Then, the announcement: “Not guilty!” A sigh goes through the courtroom. Some might shout in dismay, others in joy. Sometimes such a verdict is almost expected—if the prosecution hasn’t done its work, or the defense has shown a reasonable doubt. But sometimes the verdict is a complete surprise. They really didn’t think that it’d go this way.
So it is with our trial. We know how all that evidence is stacked up against us. We expect a conviction. Satan expects a conviction. But God’s grace is always surprising! In Christ, all those sins have been taken away!
And truth be told, we’re declared more than just “not guilty.” If that’s all it was, we’d still be hopeless. As soon as we left the courtroom, we’d re-offend! We’d immediately go back to doing what God forbids, and failing to do what God commands. So God actually declares us righteous: that is, completely, thoroughly, and permanently innocent. God declares that—in principle—we sinners have been fully rehabilitated, and totally renewed. “In Christ I am righteous before God and heir to life everlasting” (Q&A 59).
No, the struggle against sin continues, every single day. We know it to be a long and hard struggle. But we need no longer live as captive to sin’s power, because Christ has set us free! Nor do we need to live in guilt, because whatever God held against us has been dealt with. It’s been dealt with, so now we can have peace: peace with God, peace within ourselves, and peace with our fellow man.
It means there’s no more uncertainty about our relationship with God. Through Christ Jesus, salvation is completely secure! You don’t have to rely on your good works, or on other people, on traditions or ceremonies. But by faith, you can rely entirely on the mercy of God.
As we heard this morning, Christ will soon come again from heaven: the Advocate himself, now appointed as Judge of the living and the dead. All people will appear before his throne. That’s the great trial at which we all must yet appear. We’ll get our day in court! Yet when the books are opened on that day, we know that every last one of those pages will be wiped clean. Every last one of the black marks of our offenses will be blotted out—blotted with the blood of Christ! If we’ve believed in his Name, on that final day we’ll be crowned with everlasting glory and honour!
So beloved, here’s something to think about in this new week. How do you think that a forgiven sinner should conduct himself? What should such a person do, if he’s been released from a death sentence, if he’s been granted a full pardon, given full privilege and blessing and wealth? How should such a person live, someone who’s got back her life and freedom and honour and future?
What should you render to God for all the riches of his consolation? What do you give back to him, the Saviour? Every day of this new week, let’s show our thanksgiving to our Advocate and Judge. Every day, let’s present him with our grateful praise! Amen.
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service. Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was: http://frcmn.org/sermons/
(c) Copyright 2017, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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