The sweet exchange of hidden sins.
The exchange of Christ’s merits for our demerits is the lifeblood of the saints of God.
There is a tendency, at times, to suppose that it was the Reformers who first “discovered” the Pauline doctrines of grace and justification, and the like, as if to say that the church throughout all the 1,500 years prior had no knowledge or familiarity with such truths. Certainly, the legacy of Reformation history is one which saw a radical renewal and rediscovery of such fundamental Christian tenets — but the Reformers didn’t necessarily “discover” anything as much they recognized that the church, as it was, articulated and propagated a perspective on the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3) that was opposed to Scripture. The doctrines and writings which circulated throughout the Protestant Reformation were not necessarily the spontaneous imaginings of churlish men who wished only to see the world burn. Rather, they are the dissemination of the Word of God firmly planted within mens’ minds and souls, bringing them to the point where they are forced to confess or compromise. And, as Luther did so famously, the Word’s everlasting truth gives us full assurance to confess its truths till doomsday. There is, as it happens, no room for compromise.
The salient point remains, though, that as long as there has been a church, there has been an understanding of the Word of God. The early church fathers and bishops often expressed the doctrines of Christ in much the same way as we do today, which, to be sure, fills my heart with tremendous hope and gratitude. When you and I stand to preach — or sit to listen to preaching — that is faithful to God’s Holy Scriptures, we are following in the footsteps of countless saints before us. Yes, our church services might look different. There are obviously an abundance of technical differences. But the element that ties us together, that allows us to say that we are members of the same Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12), is the event of preaching. When God’s Word is opened, we are carrying on the fundamental calling of the “church of the living God” by functioning as the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:16). A prime example of this is found in the anonymous patristic letter, the Epistle to Diognetus. This specimen of the faith of the early church is unique in that it demonstrates the existence of the language of the Reformation as early as the 2nd century — or, more accurately, is pulsates with scriptural truth as its basis, but you get the point. Listen:
But when our unrighteousness was fulfilled, and it had been made perfectly clear that its wages — punishment and death — were to be expected, then the season arrived during which God had decided to reveal at last his goodness and power (oh, the surpassing kindness and love of God!). He did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in his mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, “the just for the unjust,” the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous man, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners! (29)
What Luther and Calvin and a host of other saints throughout the ages have championed as the crux of the church’s faith — namely, Christ’s assumption of man’s sins and the gift of his righteousness to those selfsame sinners on the basis of faith alone — is, indeed, just that: not an inherently reformational idea but an intrinsically scriptural one. The exchange of Christ’s merits for our demerits is vital to any proper biblical understanding, and is, furthermore, the lifeblood of the saints of God. And for good reason. We feel in our bones the dearth and chasm of our “not-enough-ness,” of our inability to measure up to the holiness of the law, of the impotence of our self-justification projects. And such is why the glad tidings of this “sweet exchange” have resounded throughout the march of time as the uniquely uplifting message that Christ’s church is assigned with making known.
From now till the Lord returns, I pray you will find me preaching this tremendous truth — namely, the sweet exchange of my sins hidden in the shadow of the cross. May I proclaim that message with all the boldness and conviction of the Reformers, not because of them but because God alone, who makes himself known through his Word.
Grace and peace, friends.
“Epistle to Diognetus,” quoted in Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, The Five Solas Series, edited by Matthew Barrett (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015).