Review: Robert A. Peterson’s Salvation Applied by the Spirit: Union with Christ (Crossway)

Union with Christ was integral in the soteriology of the Reformers, and especially that of Calvin. As Marcus Peter Johnson notes in One With Christ, “when Calvin wrote of being united to Christ, he meant that believers are personally joined to the living, incarnate, crucified, resurrected Jesus...this union with Christ, which Calvin described in strikingly graphic and intimate terms, constituted for him the very essence of salvation. To be saved by Christ, Calvin kept insisting, means to be included in the person of Christ. That is what salvation is” (Johnson 12, emphasis original). And it wasn't just a heady doctrine, either; for the Reformers, union with Christ had multifaceted implications for the life of the believer and the life of the Church. Many, myself included, can attest to a fundamental change in personal spirituality as well as approach to life and ministry upon discovering and plunging the depths of the doctrine of union with Christ. I've therefore been delighted by the steady stream of excellent books on the topic in recent years (e.g. R. Letham, J. Billings, M. Johnson, C. Campbell, G. Macaskill, etc), many written from a Reformed perspective. Naturally, I was very eager to read the latest offering from Robert Peterson, Salvation Applied by the Spirit: Union with Christ.

Structurally this book is similar to the volumes in Crossway's Theology in Community series, with a bulk of the book (twenty chapters in this case) providing a sweeping overview of what the entire Bible has to say about the topic. Then a chapter is devoted to a biblical theology of union with Christ, followed by seven chapters treating the doctrine from a systematic perspective.

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Calvin’s Institutes: The Ten Commandments

Are the ten commandments relevant today? Are they something we only pay lips service to? Or do they still guide and order the moral imperative for Christian living? Calvin says, “[M]an is so wrapped in darkest ignorance that, through natural law, he is scarcely able to savour what it means to serve God acceptably” (110). And that’s the bottom line isn’t it? Without God’s law we would remain in “darkest ignorance” and we would not know (not just sipping kind of know, but the drinking deeply kind of know) that we need the mercy of God. Calvin again, “[W]hen we compare the righteousness of the law with the life we lead and when we see how little we comply with God’s will, we recognize that we do not deserve to keep our place and position among his creatures, still less to be reckoned as his children” (111).

Some might say that this is whole of the law. It shows that we need the mercy of God, but Calvin goes on to make an important point. “The Lord, however, is not content to teach us only to revere his righteousness. He seeks to train our hears to love it and to hate iniquity, and thus adds both promises and threats” (ibid). The law does not exist solely to inspire fear of punishment and despair without the gospel. It does that, but, after it does its first work, God then trains our hearts to love him through loving his law. As David so regularly said in the Psalms, he delighted in the law of God.

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Jason Garwood’s Be Holy: Learning the Path of Sanctification Now Available

I’m excited to share this gospel rich resource with you. Jason Garwood is a pastor who loves God, loves the church, and loves the gospel. That seeps through the pages of Be Holy. From the back cover:

Inside Be Holy: Learning the Path of Sanctification, Jason Garwood explores the terrain of sanctification in a comprehensive and easy to understand way. It’s saturated in Scripture and rooted in the church’s history of holiness—the ups and downs of growth and change in the Christian life. And at the center of Be Holy sits the reigning King Jesus and the work of the trinitarian God in the gospel. May God stir up your affections as you behold His glory and walk the path of sanctification.

Also, here are what a few of the earlier readers are saying.

In Be Holy: Learning the Path of Sanctification, my friend Jason Garwood gives us a crisp and clear treatment of biblical holiness that will rock the illusion of self-righteousness. With biblical precision, he gives us simple, yet profound insights. Be Holy will serve as an indispensable teaching tool for many years to come. You may just have to rethink the way you view holiness altogether. Read it, teach it, preach it . . . often!

—Pastor Doug Logan, Jr., Lead Pastor & Founder of Epiphany Fellowship of Camden NJ.

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G4S Books: Jason Garwood’s Be Holy

Over the last month, I’ve been working with Jason Garwood (read what he’s written here, here, and here) on a new book project under the Grace for Sinners Book label called Be Holy: Learning the Path of Sanctification. The last several years the church has had intramural dialogue about sanctification. I’ve seen the dialogue spread through out several traditions—Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutherans, non-denominational, etc.

It’s an important discussion and stems from common sense questions Christians have after being made alive by the power of the gospel. What happens next? How should I live? Is the gospel something that happened, but has little effect in the here and now?

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Journaling for Spiritual Maturation

We are uniquely a people of the book. God has spoken to us and he chose to preserve those words in a book, not just orally. Throughout the life of the church writing and reading has played an important part of our spiritual formation. I have for the most part found reading and writing come easily to me, but I have not found that journaling has. However, as I have struggled to keep a journal throughout my Christian life the words I have written have been formative in my maturation as a disciple.

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Review: Christopher J. H. Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God

Old Testament Ethics for the People of God explores the worldview of Israel as a nation. Wright reconstructs this worldview through “their beliefs, stories, and worship” (19). Also, Wright consistently employs a “broad matrix of self-understanding” to “pinpoint three major focal points” (ibid) or angles—the theological angle (“The LORD, as the God of Israel”), the social angle (“Israel themselves as an elect people in unique relation to the Lord”), and the economic angle (“The land Israel believed the Lord had promised and given to them”) (ibid). This grid underlays all discussions of the Old Testament ethics in this book.

Part one explores this grid in-depth and how it provides structure to the Old Testament ethical laws. He contrasts situational ethics of our day with Israel fundamentally theological ethics (23).

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Santification and Assurance

I have a checkered past with the doctrine of assurance. I was born into a Roman Catholic home and was baptized into that church. Within a few years my parents had met the Newman’s (now life long friends) who shared the gospel with them. My parents trusted Christ and believed in the promises of God. I made a profession of faith at four years old and was baptized. The rocky road begins.

In the circles I ran, the gospel was preached, but they missed the overarching tone of the good news. The gospel reminds us what Christ does for us then reminds us how we should live because of those truths. When God creates the world, his first command is be fruitful and multiply. Think about it. God’s first words to mankind is “Enjoy your spouse and do it a lot so you can fill the world”. Next he tells them the entire world is their’s to enjoy except one tree.

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Survivor’s Guilt

A worn and broken soldier returns home to his lovely wife and unknown child. He shuffles up the pathway to his home and his family swarm him. His shoulders tense and his gut clenches. He thinks, “Why me?” You might think, “Why isn’t he overjoyed? He’s home.” But he’s also seen a half dozen friends die who also had lovely wives and children, who had fathers, mothers, and lives back home. Why is he left alive? What should be joyous turns to grief.

I’ve silently watched a certain brand of Christianity form around this kind of survivor’s guilt mentality. We live in this world, but we don’t do it joyfully. We don’t do it overflowing with the love of God. What should be joyous turns to grief. A lot of the sentiments I hear sound right, but the more I see them, the more I’m convinced the pathos is all wrong. It might be, “ I don’t judge others because if people only knew my sin” (this one is especially sneaky because we should be slow to judge others and be gracious. We should work to see our self and sin more clearly, but that doesn’t mean we neglect Scripture in other areas).

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Justification: Gospel of Peace

Many evangelical churches truncate the gospel. They focus primarily on the benefits of the gospel for us. They explore the depths of our salvation, but rarely talk about Creation, Fall, or Consummation. Salvation is a crucial act in the gospel story as we explored above but it’s still only one act.

Many theologians have desired to correct this salvation-focused gospel by pointing out the full story of the gospel. But in doing so, many downplay the importance of justification by faith.

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A Steaming Pile of Lies

I was meditating on this parable after reading Jared C. Wilson’s The Storytelling God (which I recently reviewed), and something struck me. That’s one of the things I love about the parables. Every time I read them, they feel fresh.

The prodigal son demands his inheritance before his father is even dead. He goes out into a far country and spends everything. Jesus says, “So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything” (Lk. 15:15-16).

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Review: Andrew M. Davis’ An Infinte Journey

An Infinite Journey is a robust treatise on salvation and mission. Dr. Davis arranges the book around a single conceit, a journey. He posits two journeys--“The external journey of the worldwide advance of the Kingdom of Christ [Matt. 28:18-20]” and “The internal journey of individual, personal salvation--from justification, through sanctification, into glorification [Rom. 8]” (17). Tolkien somewhere says all good stories start with a journey. I think he’s right and I was intrigued by the possibility of a treatise that took this kind of approach to the doctrines of salvation and mission.

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Sexual Abuse and the Gospel

Many of you may not know my alma mater is Bob Jones University. I went to high school and college at what Al Jazeera network calls the “fortress of fundamentalism.” I was a born and bred fightin’ fundie. I don’t regularly keep up with what goes on at BJU. Most of the news I hear comes from friends and family who are still involved in one way or another with fundamentalism.

I’ve been encouraged, since my departure, with Stephen Jones’ presidency. He often provides clarity on essential issues. He led the university to make a good statement on their wrong racial policies of the past (there’s a few things I would’ve adjusted for clarity’s sake, but from Dr. Bob Jones III first statement with Larry King it’s head and shoulders).

When the Penn State scandal broke, he also initiated a review of BJU’s sexual abuse policies and hired GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) to investigate past sins in not reporting sexual abuse. Those are all things I give a hearty amen to.

However, recently BJU decided to abruptly terminate their contract with GRACE. In BJU’s statement, they said, “Over the last several months, we grew concerned about how GRACE was pursuing our objectives, and on Jan. 27, 2014, BJU terminated its contract with GRACE.” I was saddened by this news and shared it on my Facebook. I stated simply that I felt this was a bad move. I slowly started receiving responses. Some thoughtful. Some asking that we be patient and see what happens (this is always a good move, but it shouldn’t prevent us from graciously sharing concerns in the meantime). Some outrageous. Some abuse blaming.

I didn’t expect the stream of vitriol from people who felt that any criticism of BJU was wrong and we must stand with BJU regardless of their missteps. From what I gather, a lot of this movement comes because many of the victims are quite bitter with BJU and “out to get them.” I know people like that so I understand the concern. However, (and this is something I brought up) can we condemn their bitterness gently and also feel compassion and understanding?

You see many of the people I interacted with removed themselves from the hurting person’s point of view. For those of us who haven’t been abused, it’s impossible to imagine what being abused, finding the courage to tell someone, and having that person blame the abuse on you or not standing with you to prevent further abuse or even lending a hand and encourage you to report the abuse to the police feels like.

Also, when initiating the sexual abuse investigation and changing their policies, BJU is at least tacticly admitting they were wrong in handling certain situations (even if the majority of the situations didn’t occur on campus or by faculty members). Sadly the kind of responses I received (up to the worst--which blamed victims of abuse by ascribing the abuse to some kind of sin in their own life) are responses I’ve seen time and time again when scandals break out in churches, ministries, or denominations across the board. What does the gospel teach us should be our response when our favorite pastor, ministry, denomination, parachurch organization, or unusual university gets embroiled in this kind of fiasco?

First, the gospel demands we see all people (including those who are bitter, hurting, burned, abused, and vitriol) as image bearers of God. This means even people who might be out to do us or our favorite ministry harm are God’s children from a creational point of view. It also means those who are wrongly vitriolic are also image bearers. Patience and love must be our weapons. We must not shame those who shame others. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Second, the gospel demands we see the fall as all encompassing. That means it doesn’t just infect others, but it infects you and me. It infects the ministries we love. It infects our favorite university. This honest evaluation of our condition allows us to remove the rose colored glasses that so many people wear when they love someone or something. And it allows us to be brutally honest when we and others fail. I fight for this kind of honesty in my family. I am brutally honest in my evaluation of myself as a father and husband. Just the other day, I snapped at my oldest daughter without listening to her. I found out my wife and I had given her conflicting instructions and she was doing her best to do them both. I had to tell her, “Your dad was being a jerk. I should’ve listened instead I just snapped.”

Third, the gospel demands we proclaim in speech and action its cornerstone as the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. That means the second truth isn’t heaping shame upon shame. We lovingly correct and admonish others. And we may find ourselves patiently and lovingly receiving harsh criticism--truth mixed with error. We can do this because as C. H. Spurgeon says, “If any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him; for you are worse than he thinks you to be.”Also, we know these criticism are not part of God’s final judgement of us. We did screw up. We do screw up. But we are not screw ups. We are sons and daughters of God.

The often forgotten cog of the gospel is Jesus Christ’s ascension and reign. Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father ruling. This should strike the proper kind of fear in the Christian’s heart. Not an irrational fear and loathing, but a reverence and respect for Jesus’ sacrifice and righteous rule. David writes, “He loves righteousness and justice”(Ps. 33:5) and later “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne” (Ps. 89:14). Solomon says, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Prov. 21:3). Isaiah prophetically describes Messiah in these exact terms: “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (Is. 9:7).

Moreover, the history of Israel is filled with judgement from God on Israel for failing to enact justice and righteousness in her rule (Is. 1:21, 27; 5:7, 16; 59:14, Jer 22:3, Ez 45:9, Amos 5:7, 6:12). I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that God’s main problem with Israel was how they did not enact justice when they should’ve. They failed to stand with the fatherless, widow, stranger, weak, and oppressed. You can see how Messiah came in the New Testament and fulfilled all justice and righteousness. He took care of the weak, weary, sinner, hurting, and abused. That means if the benefit of the doubt should be given it should always be given to the oppressed, hurt, weak, and abused. Beside the fact that false allegations of sexual abuse are rare (it’s far more likely to go unreported), we shouldn’t create a false dichotomy between standing with victims of sexual abuse and being unloving to those accused. Standing with victims doesn’t mean destroying someone’s life. But woe unto us who don’t stand with the abused. We will one stand before the perfectly holy and righteous God. We will stand before Jesus Christ sitting on his throne of righteousness and justice. Don’t forget that next time you’re tempted to say something stupid when talking about sexual abuse.

My only concern in all of this drama between BJU and GRACE is the victims. To have to trust BJU after having them not handle your abuse properly. To have that trust renewed when the investigation started. To have that trust bruised with the abrupt and unclear termination of GRACE. To have the prospect of sharing your hurts with another third party. I wonder if we could do better for the sake of the gospel. It does appear BJU and GRACE are talking again. That gladdens my hearts. I pray the Spirit would mend fences and humble the hearts of those involved in these talks.

[Editor’s Note: After posting this article, I saw this video from Ryan Ferguson, a local pastor in my area. He just absolutely nails the issue.

5/20/14 After going through all my old posts to update video link, I noticed the aforementioned video is now listed as private on YouTube and is no longer viewable.]

The Arrows of Grace

We easily forget that when the arrows of grace put the old man to death the marriage with our old master is annulled. We are no longer prostitutes bound to the body of sin (Rm 6:6). Our sins were always and will only ever be John’s disguised as abolitionists, a turn of phrase borrowed.

So if we are free in Christ, why do we return so easily to our sins?

Sin can seem comfortable. We know the routine. What we forget is the toll. We forget there’s a price. Sin isn’t freedom. It feels free for a time, but it always comes for its payment. The old saying goes you can count on two things death and taxes. And death is part of the price for sin.

But often times although death is the final payment, there’s also payments in the here and now, temporal consequences. For instance, someone who robs a bank runs the risk of being arrested. Someone who murderers may be put to death. Someone who lies may find themselves alone.

So if we are free in Christ, why do we return so easily to our sins?

Sin is very, very sneaky. For many years I struggled with a particular sin and was tempted in a particular way. I experienced victory for a period of time. At first, I was very vigilant in rooting out the weeds of this sin. I never let it so much as sprout a millimeter out of the ground. But as time went out, my vigilance turned to sloth.

But temptation didn’t come in the same fashion. I would’ve expected that. It came from a different angle, an altogether unexpected angle. It put me off balance. I realized in a moment I was rationalizing a sin which I knew to be wrong. A sin which the arrows of grace freed me from. Have you ever done that? If it can’t get in the front gate, it’ll take to the side door. Thankfully the Father will never forsake us, the Son has given us future grace, and the Spirit lives within us to transform us evermore.

So if we are free in Christ, why do we return so easily to our sins?

Bottom line: we do not love God as we should. We must come to grips with this. It will be a truth that causes tension through out our life on this earth. We will never while we live on this earth, as it is, love God as we should. We live simul justus et peccator--as justified sinners or sinners and saints. Thankfully the terms of the covenant, the curse from disobedience, has been fulfilled. There’s no longer an ounce of that death left for those who believe.

Can you feel that breeze? That’s free air. That’s real freedom. There’s no striving for salvation. It has been given freely. We live now as free-peoples. You do not love God enough. You do not treasure the gospel enough. You cannot do enough to save yourself. But would it be gospel if you could?

Proverbs can be confusing. In the same book, Solomon writes, “Answer a fool,” and “Don’t answer a fool.” The simplest explanation is it takes discernment to know when and when not to answer. I want to try a little Solomon-like paradoxical proverbs on you: Never strive to save yourself (Gal 2:15-21), but never stop striving to work out your own salvation (Phil 2:11-13).

As you continue your journey in faith this year, hold fast to your salvation, the once for all delivered faith. The one you did nothing to merit. The one you could never merit. The one signed, sealed, and delivered by the Triune God. You may find as you hold fast that you are not holding fasting to it as much as it is holding fast to you.

On the other hand, continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, as Paul says to the Philippians. Or as James says, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (2:17-18). This isn’t a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of good works. This isn’t coerced good works (you know the kind we see all the celebrities do for the cameras). This is good works accomplished by the Spirit, the same Spirit who raised us unto new life. This is Spirit-empowered, grace-accomplished, rooted-in-union-and-communion-with-the-Trinity kind of good works. And in the end, you may find that you are not so much working out your salvation as much as God is working in you for His good pleasure (Phil 2:12-13).

I really love how the Westminster Confession of Faith (XIII.1) captures this tension.

They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.

Live Like Free Peoples of Middle-earth: Sacrifice (Part 4)

We’ve been examining Tolkien’s Middle-earth and asking, “What can we learn about Christian discipleship?” We’ve seen how Tolkien understood God’s sovereignty as a pillar for living in the midst of suffering and evil. Also, he emphasizes the necessity of friendship, fellowship, and food. The lack of these things especially the suspicion of friends allows evil to rot one of our greatest supports for Christian living. Last week, we examined Tolkien’s valuing of strength in weakness and finding your place in the one true story. Our final point today will examine the virtue of sacrifice.

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Robert Farrar Capon: “Fifteen-Hundred-Year-Old,Two-Hundred Proof Grace”

I had never heard of Robert Farrar Capon before his passing created no small stir on social media. After reading a few of the tributes (see The Calvinist International’s “RIP Robert Farrar Capon,” Douglas Wilson’s “Marcion After a Couple of Beers,” and Tullian’s “Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)”), I kept coming across the same quotation then today I started reading Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel where it was quoted again. It’s a picture of grace that arrests the heart.

The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace–bottle after bottle of pure distilate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the Gospel–after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps–suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started . . . . Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, not the flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.

Robert Capon, Between Noon & Three (Eerdmans, 1997), 109-110

The Infinite Love of Our Suffering Savior

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” (Matthew 26:36-46)

I just finished reading Tim Keller’s The Obedient Master and I can’t remove my mind from the passage of Scripture above. I’ve just been meditating on it and considering it and allowing the Spirit to teach me from it. My goal is to share one point Keller makes and expand on it.

Through out the Old Testament, “the cup” is used as a picture of judgement, a picture of God’s wrath being poured out on a people who had broken covenant with him. It’s never used in connection with those who are faithfully keeping the covenant. The Prophets use a variety of images to describe this cup but one that’s arresting is “cup of staggering” (Is. 51:17, 22; Zech. 12:2). His wrath is so intense and so complete it makes even the most steadfast stagger. It takes them by surprise and knocks them off their feet.

In Matthew 26, we have Jesus who has faithfully kept all the law and fulfilled the covenant entering the Garden and getting a taste for the coming wrath of His Father. Something his tongue had never tasted before. The wine he shares with his Father previously had always be celebratory and joyful--the cup of communion. But here he is in the Garden: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.”

What occurs next is astounding--the disciples fall asleep. They fail their friend in his most dire hour. They are children struggling to stay awake and engaged during family worship. We’ve all been there, am I right?

Jesus, on the other hand, prepares himself for the flood of God’s wrath on the cross by sampling that cup of staggering. He cries out, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” Again he finds his disciples sleeping.

If that were you and I, in desperate need of friendship and communion, and instead receiving neglect and abandonment we would most likely be boiling over with anger. “How dare you sleep while I’m suffering! You call yourself friends? True friends would be listening and sympathizing with me.”

Yet Christ, while tasting the cup of wrath to come, chooses to cover the sin of his disciples. In the midst of their neglect, he still chooses to go to the cross for them. He sees their inability and declares, “I will not lose any of them.”

Many people say they will not follow Christ because they do not believe his grace will cover their filth. Keller responds and assures,

I know people who have said: “I would follow Christ, but I do not think I can keep i t up. I do not trust myself. I think he’d get tired of my failures.” Please look at him in the garden. Look what his love for you has already enabled him to endure for you. If he had turned away from suffering and the cross, we would have been lost, but he didn’t do that. Hell came down on him, and he would not let go of us. His love for us has already taken everything that the universe could throw at it and it held fast--and you think that you are going to somehow going to upset him? Is Jesus going to look at you and say, “Well, that does it! Infinite existential torment was one thing, but I can only take so much!”? (Kindle Location 245 of 842)

Friends, his disciples slept for you and me. They slept so God could show us how steadfast He is in pursuit of his beloved. He chooses suffering, death, and wrath in the very face of their failures, not in spite of them. Do not doubt he does the same for you. He does not bear the full brunt of God’s staggering cup of wrath only to be petty and trite with you and me. He bears the wrath so we can be clothed in righteousness. We then share his glory because we are united with Him by the Spirit.