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Obedience that’s already finished.
This article has also appeared on Christ Hold Fast.
The rich young ruler’s inquiry to the Lord Jesus in Mark 10:17–22 (along with Mt 19:16–22; Lk 10:25–28) remains increasingly prescient for us today. I would say that it’s the inquiry that’s apropos of the human condition; it’s the question on everyone’s tongue, even if it’s not explicitly admitted — that question being, “How do I secure a spot in heaven?” The young man in Mark’s Gospel asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk 10:17) This question appears multiple times throughout the Scriptures in various forms (Jn 12:25; Acts 13:48), and I’d hasten to say that many of you have asked the same thing, or something similar, numerous times throughout your life. (I know I did when I was younger.)
The question of eternity is a popular question to center a youth camp or conference around, the structure of which, unfortunately, gets mired in scary “fire and brimstone” sermons that serve no other purpose than to unnerve the audience to such a degree they feel the incessant need to “reassure” or “reaffirm” their faith. Perhaps those types of sermons have their place, I won’t deny that. But scaring your audience, even the listeners that are truly among the redeemed, into thinking they’re not saved seems inefficient. Isn’t the work of a minister bound to building up the body of Christ? As the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians, “And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, equipping the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.” (Eph 4:11–13)
In my mind, the work of building up the church doesn’t happen by weaponizing heaven as a means to scare some into “genuine belief” or “assurance of salvation.” Conversely, I think it happens when the promise of heaven as delineated in the gospel is made abundantly clear. Such is why I love the following passage from the late Episcopal minister Stephen Tyng. You want assurance of eternity? Put your faith in the obedience that’s already been finished.
The man who has truly embraced the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, has cast out all dependence upon his own obedience; and rests his whole hope of justification before God, upon the perfect righteousness of his divinely appointed Saviour. He does not expect to earn a single hour of peace or glory by his own holiness of character. The obedience in which he trusts, and in which he envelopes himself by faith, was long since finished. He cannot add an iota of merit to that great offering, which has been once for all made for his soul, and which has perfected his title and his hope forever.
Heaven is for those who believe in an obedience that’s already been finished for them. For those who trust in a righteousness that’s given to them, scot free. This, I believe is what’s meant by the idea of “dying daily.” Faith in the finished gospel of God necessitates dying to faith in a meritorious obedience. It means dying to the notion that one more verse memorized, one more chapter read, one more minute in prayer, or one more Sunday service attended earns you one more iota, one more ounce of favor with God. We die daily to such notions by remembering the once for all completed work of salvation that’s offered in the proclamation of the gospel.
You want assurance of eternity? You want certainty of your spot in the afterlife? Put your faith in the obedience that’s already been finished. “This is the work of God — that you believe in the one he has sent.” (Jn 6:29)
Stephen Tyng, Lectures on the Law and the Gospel (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1849), 143.