Johnson: Hebrews On What God Does For His People

. . Hebrews speaks of Jesus’ fulfillment of the Servant’s side of the covenant in three specific ways: (1) He maintains flawless loyalty to the Lord and fulfills every command and requirement, thereby achieving the blessedness promised by the Lord for himself and those he represents. He is like them in every way “yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15; cf. 7:26). (2) He endures on their behalf the curse that the covenant pronounced on its violators. The “will” of God that he performs is the offering of his body once for all to “perfect” others (10:5–10). (3) He inscribes the Lord’s law in their hearts (8:10) so that by grace they, though still dull of hearing (6:12) and needing strong encouragement (6:18), can do the will of God (10:36) and offer sacrifices that please God (13:15–16). All three of these dimensions of Jesus’ covenant keeping benefit us as gifts of sheer grace. The first two constitute the ground of the forensic act that Paul calls justification, with its double imputation of our sin to Jesus and of his obedience to us. The preacher to the Hebrews, employing the terminology of priestly consecration, expresses the same truth when he assures his hearers that Jesus has “perfected” them once for all (10:14), even though his sermon makes clear that they are not yet subjectively free from sin. Jesus’ obedience and sacrifice are objective acts that occur “outside us”—a truth that Luther found so comforting.
What preachers must see and help their hearers to see is that the third act of covenantal faithfulness, the sovereign transformation of our hearts, though it is subjective rather than objective, is no less gracious than are his once-for-all obedience, death, and resurrection on our behalf. Because sanctification also entails our responsibility as well as God’s sovereign initiative, it is easy to forget that sanctification, no less than justification, is by grace alone and through faith alone. The Westminster Shorter Catechism captured apostolic, gospel truth when it echoed Paul’s new creation language to define sanctification as “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.” Both the attribution of sanctification to the work of God’s grace and the passive verbs “are renewed” and “are enabled” highlight the wholly gracious character of the process by which we grow in holiness by the almighty and all-merciful Spirit of Christ. Union with Christ is comprehensive, and salvation in Christ leaves no aspect of sin and its damages unchallenged or unchanged. Those justified by faith in the Son are recipients of the Spirit of the Son, the Spirit of holiness, who (through our feeble efforts at faith and obedience) is at work to conform us to the image of the Son in purity and love.
Dennis Johnson | Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures, ed. John J. Hughes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 265–266.


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  • Tony Phelps
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    Tony grew up in Rhode Island. He was educated at BA (University of Rhode Island) and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He worked in the insurance industry for ten years. He planted a PCA church in Wakefield, RI where he served for eleven years. In 2015–18 he pastored Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) in Colorado Springs. He is currently pastor of Living Hope (OPC). Tony is married to Donna and together they have three children.

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