Hope and the Free Pardon of the Cross


In Proverbs 13:12, we read that, "Hope deferred makes the heart sick . . ."

Thousands of counseling hours over more than ten years at Baylight have made this biblical truth visibly evident. Life's dominating circumstances can surely weigh anyone down, but nothing saddles the soul with despair like the felt or perceived absence of hope. Matthew Henry, in his commentary on the Proverb, wrote, "Hope quite dashed kills the heart, and the more high the expectation was raised the more cutting is the frustration of it."

This year, and every year at Baylight, indeed, every counseling session represents to us an opportunity for the suffering soul to be reminded of and experience the calming truth found uniquely in the promises and benefits of Christ that belong to all believers at all times and in all places. While the presence of hope does not necessarily mean the immediate and final resolution of a troubling trial, hope does grant to the soul the confidence that circumstances can change over some measure of time. This establishing of hope provides the strength that one needs to endure. To be sure, the more intense and the longer in duration the trial, the more time might be needed to see hope become reality. Even so, nothing slows or brings the "cutting frustrations" of hopelessness to an end like the re-establishment of hope.

There can, of course, be a variety of reasons that a Christian might struggle to imagine that hope exists for them. But, there's one in particular that we desire to uproot where ever it's found. It can be called by many different names, but historically, it has been known as a failure to properly distinguish between God's moral law, and the beauty of his glorious grace--the gospel.

We Distinguish

The Protestant Reformers recognized that the ability to distinguish between these two pillars of the Christian life was the mark of a good theologian. Why? Because, the law and the gospel, while inextricably linked to one another, are eternally separate categories that perform quite different tasks in the life of the believer. To apply one where the other is needed is akin to thinking that the cancer patient's radiologic imaging is in itself curative. Imaging might tell the story and reveal the truth, but until the right medicine is applied, hope for the patient is deferred, making them, in effect, "sick."

Such is the situation for us as believers.

We must always be about the business of properly applying God's law and his gospel in ways that accord with the Father's design for both. Unfortunately, we have found over many years of counseling (and, the attentive pastor discerns) that too many Christians are not aware of this critically important distinction, and therefore, are too often turning to the law (and their ability to keep it) for hope, when what is unequivocally needed is the grace, mercy, and kindness of the gospel. Conversely, false hope is extended to unbelievers when the benefits of the gospel are promised to them apart from the necessary and unavoidable ramifications of a life lived in rebellion towards God's law.

But, the focus of this post on this New Year's Day 2024, is the all-too-common condition wherein the Christian, well-intentioned as they may be, seeks the benefits of the gospel in their ability to keep God's moral law and the performance of good works. While they may affirm salvation by grace alone, they functionally walk in a "salvation = grace + my cooperation with grace" posture, inadvertently turning the gospel on its head (cf. Romans 4:13-14). The Heidelberg Catechism, Questions 60 and 62 are particularly helpful here:

Q. 60: How are thou righteous before God?

Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.

Q. 62: But why cannot our good works be the whole, or part of our righteousness before God?

Because, that the righteousness, which can be approved of before the tribunal of God, must be absolutely perfect, and in all respects conformable to the divine law; and also, that our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.

Not Merit, but Grace

In summary and application, Heidelberg might say to us, "If your heart is sick in some trial becuase of hope deferred, do not look to the law and the your performance of good works, but turn in faith to the one whose holiness and righteousness have been forever and perfectly credited to your account. On your best day, your evangelical obedience remains marred by your sin, and therefore unworthy of merit. On the other hand, the active obedience of Christ on your behalf means the right-now presence of hope for you and your household in whatever trial you may face, whether natural suffering, or the kind brought about by human sin." As Dr. R. Scott Clark succinctly writes, "The ground of our acceptance with God as righteousness is wholly outside of us. [emphasis added]"

Some of you may be wondering, "But, what about the role of good deeds and law-keeping in the Christian life?"

Certainly, you raise a good question, and one that the Heidelberg Catechism anticipates:

Q. 63: What! do not our good works merit, which yet God will reward in this and in a future life?

This reward is not of merit, but of grace. [emphasis added]

As we enter the new year, we know that many of you are facing difficult circumstances--the loss of income, illness, martial strife, addiction, parenting struggles, etc. Some of you have just encountered the truth of the matter, while others of you have been walking with God through pain and suffering for years. In either case, we desire that you know, or are reminded of the promises of God in Christ for you, no matter what you face.

Our prayer for you this year is that your hope would be found in the sure glories of the gospel, and that you would be encouraged by the fruit produced in your life by the Holy Spirit in relation to God's good law.

We close with this from Horatious Bonar (God's Way of Holiness):

"Terror accomplishes no real obedience. Suspense brings forth no fruit unto holiness. No gloomy uncertainty as to God’s favour can subdue one lust, or correct our crookedness of will. But the free pardon of the cross uproots sin, and withers all its branches. Only the certainty of love, forgiving love, can do this."