(How a passage in Zechariah explains this old chestnut of a problem)
I’m quite sure the early church never suffered from this problem. But modern Christian writers seem to find themselves in a tangle over Grace and Works. They start off by saying emphatically that salvation is by grace, and by grace alone. We can never earn it. And of course that is quite correct. But as soon as they start reading the parables in the Gospels, they tie themselves up in knots, because most of the language seems to be related to human response, human effort, and competition resulting in rewards or forfeits, all of which is contrary to Paul’s emphatic statement in Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast.” Or so they say. But in fact there is no contradiction whatsoever. The New Testament is replete with verses suggesting a fight, or a race, with rewards held out to those who endure.
In this article, I would like to refer to a well-known passage in Zechariah, which I believe puts to rest all wrangling over the problem of Grace and Works. First of all, let’s read it –
“Then he (the Angel) showed me Joshua the High Priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, ‘The Lord rebukes you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?’ Now Joshua was standing before the Angel, clothed in filthy garments. And the Angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Remove the filthy garments from him.’ And to him he said ‘Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with rich apparel.’ And I (Zechariah) said, ‘Let them put a clean turban on his head.’ So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments; and the Angel of the Lord was standing by.
“And the Angel of the Lord enjoined Joshua, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.”
I would go along with David Baron, that well-loved Messianic Jewish writer of the late 19th century, who believed that Joshua symbolised the entire house of Israel. Being High Priest, he stood for, and on behalf of, the whole nation. And the nation was sinful, depicted by the filthy garments. Furthermore, Satan stood by to accuse, because God was about to pour out His blessing on the nation. The finger of accusation was already being pointed. But the arch-enemy of mankind had (and still has) no idea of the extreme compassion, forgiveness, and love towards His people. Hence Satan was rebuked, and Joshua (with the whole nation) forgiven, and clothed in rich apparel.
The symbolism of this passage harks back to the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies, and presented the blood on behalf of the whole nation, for forgiveness of all those sins that had not been atoned for during the year. On that day, when the High Priest emerged from theTemple, the people knew that they were forgiven and accepted by the Lord.
How could the Lord do this? Because, in Zechariah’s day, He could look down the avenue of time, and see His Beloved Son on the cross, and know that the sins of the world were laid upon His head. Even as the whole nation of Israel was cleansed and forgiven on the great Day of Atonement, so the sins of the whole world were removed (judicially) on the greater Day of Crucifixion.
It would be easy for God to visit the nation of Israel today and enact this same message that He enacted to Joshua in Zechariah’s day. Yes, they are sinful. Yes, they are unbelieving. Yes, in the eyes of the world they are undeserving of God’s grace and forgiveness, but judicially God would be fully justified in doing this, and perhaps one day in the future He will do it. If He does, then we had better watch out, because we could easily be seen as one who points a finger!
However, this is an aside, and not part of what we are driving at just now. The point is, God is more than ready to forgive man’s sin. He sees it all gone into the “land of forgetfulness”, where He will “remember it no more.” Whether it be an individual or a town, a city or a nation, He is waiting to show compassion and forgiveness. Let no one argue with this, otherwise they will be accusing God. What is more to thepoint, they would be devaluing the cross of Christ. Let it be said again, He died for ALL, and therefore judicially, every man’s sins are forgiven. It may not have become fact in the lives of people, but in God’s sight, He has no problem with man’s sin any more. It lies under the blood of Calvary.
This is why Paul was so emphatic, that our salvation has nothing to do with our works, whether those works are good or bad. Just as the whole world exists in Adam, and is under condemnation because of sin, so in Christ, the whole world has been released from that debt, and is potentially cleansed, forgiven, and restored. In the process of time man will see the truth of this emerging, until not one soul is left who does not bow the knee to Jesus. Those who have some knowledge of law, maybe having been throughLaw School, will the more fully appreciate the argument here. They will know that if a man is arraigned in court for non-payment of huge debts, and he has no way of paying, he would be liable to a long prison sentence. But if someone else paid his debts, he could immediately be released. Our salvation is something like that. None of us has a ghost of a chance of paying for our sins, whether they be few or many. But One has come into the Court House on our behalf, and paid all our debts. We are free. That freedom has caused many a lost soul to rise from their prison house of misery, and offer deep and heart-felt thanks to the Lord.
All this is in respect of our forgiveness of sins. Although many of us are fully aware of the teaching, and have rejoiced in it perhaps for many years, we must be careful not to take Satan’s part, and point the finger at another man’s sin, as though He cannot be touched by divine grace, or perhaps, in a moment’s ungrateful thinking, we imagine that he is undeserving of God’s grace. The most wretched of sinners, and we could mention a few names of men today who seem to be evil beyond repair, are within the compass of God’s forgiveness, and though each may find that “whatsoever he has sown, that will he also reap”, a time will come when he will learn that he has been forgiven at Calvary. Jesus will not be satisfied until He sees the travail of his soul and has gathered the last of His wandering sheep from the mountains of sin and shame.
All the fire may have gone from the minds of men and women concerning the apostle Paul, who is now considered the main agent for bringing God’s forgiveness to the Gentiles. But there was a time when many thought a bad thought about him. They would say, “How can God suddenly appear to that awful criminal, that slayer of God’s children, that hateful wretch, so full of murderous thoughts, so hostile to the Messiah? Why should he be singled out for attention? Why hasn’t God appeared to many others, far more worthy than him?” D’you see what I mean? It’s so easy to think in that vein, and when it boils down, it’s exactly the attitude of Satan as he stood before Joshua the High Priest in Zechariah’s vision. That’s why I’m emphasising the Grace of God towards ALL human-kind, and the danger of us taking (albeit unwittingly) the part of Satan when we look at evil men in the world.
Now let’s move on. There is a second part to Zechariah’s vision. Joshua is now attired in rich robes, and by Zechariah’s request, he has a clean turban on his head. His sins are forgiven, and he stands before the Angel of the Lord justified by God’s grace. The Angel now has a message for him. “If, . . . if, . . . then, . . .and I will.” Whereas his salvation from sin was unconditional, everything that follows isconditional. We have seen how magnificent is God’s Grace towards the sinful nation, but now we are confronted with the matter of Works. The sinner, once saved, becomes responsible for a life of obedience, trust, faithfulness, and love towards the One who has forgiven him at such cost to Himself.
“If you will walk in my ways.” Here is the first challenge. What is to be your response to God’s rich grace? Jesus expects us to walk in His ways. What are His ways? If the way of the cross was His way, then it must be ours. In other words, our life must be lived in respect of the needs of others, rather than ourselves. Our Lord spoke to the people within His nation as His Father had done to Joshua the High Priest, in other words, He looked upon them as a forgiven people, but all His teaching was based on the need to act in accordance with that. He spoke in a parable about an unforgiving servant, who refused to “walk in God’s ways”, and set about recovering a measly little debt after receiving forgiveness of his huge debt. The Lord was annoyed, and demanded that he now pay “to the uttermost farthing.” In other words, his heart was not moved with the same compassion to others that God had shown to him. This parable had nothing to do with salvation. It had everything to do with what followed salvation.
“If you will keep my charge.” What was God’s charge? This differs from one to another. In the case of Saul of Tarsus, a dramatic change had occurred in his life, and he was told to take the message of salvation to the Gentiles. This was God’s charge. Coupled with it were the words concerning “how much he must suffer for my name.” Hence the charge involved a very positive life-work, in which he would see the blessings of the Gospel in the lives of countless scores of people. But at the same time, he knew that he would have to “reap what he’d sown”, because there was no respect of persons with God.
“Then you will rule my house and have charge of my courts.” Here is God’s promise to all those who, having once found salvation, show a life of obedience and trust. They will be able to “rule” in a coming day. They will have shown God that their minds have been changed, their thinking becoming like that of their Lord and Master, and therefore God can safely allow them to exercise some degree of governmental responsibility in the running of the world. This is the “reward” of obedience. At the end of Paul’s life he said, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith, henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day, and not only to me, but to all who love His appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8)
“And I will give you right of access amongst those who are standing here.” Who are they? They are the Angelic host. Not only would Joshua be allowed to judge and rule his house, but he would be granted the inestimable privilege of having fellowship with the angelic host. This is why Jesus spoke to the Sadducees that day, when confronted with the problem of multiple marriages, when He said, concerning those who are “worthy”, “They are equal to the angels, being children of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36)
Once it is properly understood that in almost all of Jesus’ sayings, He speaks to His disciples and to those of His nation as to a redeemed people. His words were focused on the necessity of understanding the graciousness of God, acting in accordance, and earning a reward for obedience and trustworthiness. There is no problem here. There is never any chance of mixing grace and works. Theycannot mix, any more than oil can mix with water. The water of life is our salvation. The oil of anointing is given to enable us to walk worthily showing true gratitude to the One who had been so gracious to us.