This article is part of the Questions and Answers series.
Q: Is God mad at me for my sin?
A: Fallen, anxious sinners are limitless in their capacity to perceive reasons for Jesus to cast them out. We are factories of fresh resistances to Christ’s love. Even when we run out of tangible reasons to be cast out, such as specific sins or failures, we tend to retain a vague sense that, given enough time, Jesus will finally grow tired of us and hold us at arm’s length.
We cannot present a reason for Christ to finally close off his heart to his own sheep. No such reason exists. Every human friend has a limit. If we offend enough, if a relationship gets damaged enough, if we betray enough times, we are cast out. The walls go up. With Christ, our sins and weaknesses are the very resumé items that qualify us to approach him. Nothing but coming to him is required—first at conversion and a thousand times thereafter until we are with him upon death.
Q: If Christ is perfectly holy, isn’t it necessary for him to withdraw from sin?
A: Here we enter into one of the profoundest mysteries of who God in Christ is. Not only are holiness and sinfulness mutually exclusive, but Christ, being perfectly holy, knows and feels the horror and weight of sin more deeply than any of us sinful ones could—just as the purer a man’s heart, the more horrified he is at the thought of his neighbors being robbed or abused. Conversely, the more corrupt one’s heart, the less one is affected by the evils all around.
Carry the analogy a little further. Just as the purer a heart, the more horrified at evil, so also the purer a heart, the more it is naturally drawn out to help and relieve and protect and comfort, whereas a corrupt heart sits still, indifferent. So with Christ. His holiness finds evil revolting, more revolting than any of us ever could feel. But it is that very holiness that also draws his heart out to help and relieve and protect and comfort. Again we must bear in mind the all-crucial distinction between those not in Christ and those in Christ. For those who do not belong to him, sins evoke holy wrath. How could a morally serious God respond otherwise? But to those who do belong to him, sins evoke holy longing, holy love, holy tenderness. In the key text on divine holiness (Isa. 6:1–8), that holiness (Isa. 6:3) flows naturally and immediately into forgiveness and mercy (Isa. 6:7).
Q: I know what Christ did with my sin on the cross, but what is Christ doing with my sin now?
A: We don’t have to speculate. The Bible tells us. He is interceding for us. Justification is tied to what Christ did in the past. Intercession is what he is doing in the present.
Think of it this way. Christ’s heart is a steady reality flowing through time. It isn’t as if his heart throbbed for his people when he was on earth but has dissipated now that he is in heaven. It’s not that his heart was flowing forth in a burst of mercy that took him all the way to the cross but has now cooled down, settling back once more into kindly indifference. His heart is as drawn to his people now as ever it was in his incarnate state. And the present manifestation of his heart for his people is his constant interceding on their behalf.
Q: If we speak of the finished work of Christ on the cross, does the doctrine of intercession suggest that the cross was actually left unfinished?
A: The answer is that intercession applies what the atonement accomplished. Christ’s present heavenly intercession on our behalf is a reflection of the fullness and victory and completeness of his earthly work, not a reflection of anything lacking in his earthly work. The atonement accomplished our salvation; intercession is the moment-by-moment application of that atoning work. In the past, Jesus did what he now talks about; in the present, Jesus talks about what he then did. This is why the New Testament weds justification and intercession, such as in Romans 8:33–34: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” Intercession is the constant hitting “refresh” of our justification in the court of heaven.
We cannot present a reason for Christ to finally close off his heart to his own sheep. No such reason exists.
Pressing in more deeply, Christ’s intercession reflects how profoundly personal our rescue is. If we knew about Christ’s death and resurrection but not his intercession, we would be tempted to view our salvation in overly formulaic terms. It would feel more mechanical than is true to who Christ actually is. His interceding for us reflects his heart—the same heart that carried him through life and down into death on behalf of his people is the heart that now manifests itself in constant pleading with and reminding and prevailing upon his Father to always welcome us.
Q: What does it mean that Christ is our advocate?
A: The idea is that of someone who appears on behalf of another. Perhaps “advocate” comes closest of all our English words in expressing the role of the Greek word parakletos. The text of 1 John goes on immediately to say that Jesus is also “the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2). Jesus as our “propitiation” means that he assuages, or turns away, the just wrath of the Father toward our sins. It is a legal term, an objective one. Christ as our advocate may have a faint legal connotation, but more frequently in literature outside the New Testament in early times it has to do with something more subjective, expressing deep solidarity. Jesus shares with us in our actual experience. He feels what we feel. He draws near. And he speaks up longingly on our behalf.
Q: Why is Christ able to help us in our sin?
A: 1 John 2:1 tells us: he is “righteous.” He and he alone. We are unrighteous; he is righteous. Even our best repenting of our sin is itself plagued with more sin needing more forgiveness. To come to the Father without an advocate is hopeless. To be allied with an advocate, one who came and sought me out rather than waiting for me to come to him, one who is righteous in all the ways I am not—this is calm and confidence before the Father.
Christ’s advocacy is not a static part of his work. His advocacy rears up when occasion requires it. The Bible nowhere teaches that once we have been savingly united with Christ, we will find grievous sins to be a thing of the past. On the contrary, it is our regenerate state that has more deeply sensitized us to the impropriety of our sins. Our sins feel far more sinful after we have become believers than before. And it’s not only our felt perception of our sinfulness; we do indeed continue to sin after becoming believers. Sometimes we sin big sins. And that’s what Christ’s advocacy is for. It’s God way of encouraging us not to throw in the towel. Yes, we fail Christ as his disciples. But his advocacy on our behalf rises higher than our sins. His advocacy speaks louder than our failures.
This article is adapted from Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane C. Ortlund.
Popular Articles in This Series
What does the Bible really teach about abortion and the sanctity of human life?
As we continue to plant seeds of faith in our daughters, we must shape their understanding of what it means to grow in godliness.