The Good News


Luke 1:57-80

Text Comment

v.58     That the Lord has shown mercy to his people is a great theme of this second half of chapter one. The word “mercy” occurs five times, twice in each of the songs and here in between them.

v.60     These two verses are interestingly a window on Jewish customs of the period concerning which very little is otherwise known. It was not the practice in the OT that babies would be named at their circumcision, but it apparently had become the custom in Judaism by this time; nor was it a rule that first born sons would be given their father’s name, but that is certainly the expectation here.

v.63     The writing tablet would have been a board covered with wax.

            The force of the grammar in Zechariah’s reply is interesting: his name is John. The point is that Gabriel gave the baby his name. His name is an accomplished fact! [Morris, 95]

v.64     Isn’t it interesting to think about Zechariah planning what he would say when his voice was restored. He knew it would be, the angel had told him so. So he had months to plan his first words and, understandably, he begins to speak again by praising God.

v.66     The stir these events made and a similar stir made by the report of the shepherds must have created great interest in the surrounding area, but, of course, nothing more would happen until both babies had grown to manhood, nearly 30 years in fact. Many of those who were witnesses of these things would have been dead by the time John made his appearance as a preacher of repentance and Jesus was baptized by him and began his ministry.

v.68     This hymn is called the Benedictus after its first word in the Latin translation. “Redeemed” means save by paying a price.

v.69     In the OT “horn” is a symbol of strength so “horn of salvation” means either a mighty savior or a strong salvation. As we will read later in this song, Zechariah is very clearly not talking here about his son John, but about the Messiah who is yet to be born and before whom John will go as forerunner.

v.75     As in Mary’s song before, Zechariah is saying that in the events then unfolding, the birth of John and the conception of Jesus, God is working out his plan for the salvation of his people, a plan long ago disclosed to Abraham and the fathers of Israel.

v.76     The description of the baby to be born to Mary as “Lord,” we said in a previous sermon should be taken as a reference to him as the Messiah. The triune nature of God would not have been understood by these people. However, what Zechariah said, we read in v. 67, he said under the influence of the Holy Spirit. And the more one compares all of this in Luke 1 with the prophecy of the coming of the Lord in Malachi 4 it appears that they realized that somehow, in some way, the coming of this baby was the coming of the Lord! How true that would prove to be!

v.79     The final three verses describe the salvation that the Lord will bring employing beautiful images familiar from the Old Testament: the coming of dawn, the shedding of light in the darkness, and the granting of peace. You remember that peace, the Hebrew shalom, means not simply the absence of strife, but everything that contributes to goodness in human life.

v.80     We wish we knew what this means. Did his parents die when he was young and was he raised by others in the wilderness or did he simply go to the wilderness when he reached adulthood. Some have even suggested that he might have grown up at Qumran – we know the Essenes did raise other people’s children — but it is all pure speculation. But like his namesake, Elijah, he was a prophet associated with the wilderness, a man alone and apart.

Zechariah, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote and sang a beautiful song about God’s salvation. He tells us this at the outset:

“…the Lord…has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.”

The rest of the song describes this salvation in various ways. As we already learned earlier in the chapter, Mary’s baby was to be the Messiah. However, it is not clear that among the Jews, even the pious Jews of the time, the general expectation was that the Messiah would be their savior from sin and death. He would be their savior from their enemies, to be sure, as Zechariah says in vv. 71 and 74, but were they expecting that he would bring with him and accomplish salvation in the ultimate sense?  They should have been expecting that, with all that had been prophesied about him in the ancient Scriptures, but were they? We know that in general the Judaism of that period had almost completely lost any expectation of the appearance of one who would die for the sins of the world such as Isaiah prophesied in his servant songs. There may have been among the truly faithful some sense that God’s definitive provision for salvation had not yet been made, but as a result of Gabriel’s announcements to Zechariah, to Mary, and to Joseph (as we read in Matt. 1) it has now been made very clear, at least to a few people, that the Messiah would be the instrument of eternal salvation. As Gabriel said to Joseph concerning his son: “he shall save his people from their sins.”

All the great themes of salvation from the ancient scriptures are gathered in Zechariah’s Spirit-inspired hymn:

  1. Redemption: God delivering his people from bondage by the payment of a ransom and, as we will learn as the NT proceeds, the bondage from which we need deliverance is not that of Egyptian oppression but from our guilt, our sinful corruption, and the power of the Devil. Christ Jesus would be that ransom price and it would be paid on the cross.
  2. Forgiveness of sins as we read in v. 77. All through the ancient Scriptures God’s forgiveness of our sins is the first benefit of the covenant that he has made with his people. The sacrifices were instruments by which that forgiveness was mediated to the people. In the psalms we read again and again of forgiveness sought and received. Time after time we are given beautiful and powerful images of divine forgiveness:

 

    1. God has separated our sins from us as far as the east is from the west;
    2. He has trampled our sins under his feet;
    3. He remembers them no more;
    4. Though our sins are as scarlet, they shall be made as white as snow;
    5. He buries our sins in the deepest sea;
    6. He does not count our sins against us;
    7. He casts them behind his back; and so on.

And we are given wonderful narratives of forgiveness: From Abraham to Judah, from Moses to David, from Naaman the Syrian to Manasseh, Israel’s worst king who repented late in life and whose terrible sins were forgiven. And all of this is said of the God whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity and who will by no means clear the guilty! The just and holy God nevertheless loves to forgive the sins of those who trust in him. This is the great revelation of God in Holy Scripture!

  1. And, finally, though the vocabulary of sanctification or spiritual renewal is not used here, the idea is magnificently described in vv. 74-75:

 

“…that we…might serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”

So you see, the whole biblical array of salvation is here in Zechariah’s hymn of praise though cast in terms more familiar to us from the OT than the NT. The Lord will conquer on our behalf all of our enemies: our guilt, our sinful nature, and the Devil. Zechariah doesn’t here mention the Devil. It is our sin, its guilt and its power to corrupt our lives that he is thinking of. This is the darkness into which the Lord shines light, the night upon which the dawn of God’s grace rises.

And the rest of the New Testament is simply going to elaborate the good news that Zechariah has put in his hymn at the very headwaters of the life of the Lord Jesus Christ. His coming is God’s great mercy to us, his tender mercy as we read in v. 78, he brings salvation, and that salvation consists of, as it always has, two things in particular:

  1. the forgiveness of our sins
  2. and the renewal of our lives in holiness and righteousness.

 

Later NT writers and the Christian theologians who followed them would furnish the vocabulary with which Christians would ever afterwards refer to this double grace of salvation. We would call forgiveness justification and we would call the moral and spiritual renewal of our lives sanctification, but it is good to remember that those terms mean nothing more nor less than what Zechariah and many biblical writers before him meant when they spoke of the forgiveness of our sins and our being set free to serve the Lord in holiness and righteousness. This is salvation in the Bible. Salvation is being set free from both sin’s guilt and its power, it is being forgiven and it is being given a new life of righteousness to live before God and man. This is the good news! Salvation is both of these things and Christ has brought them both to us.

In a way utterly typical of the Bible we find merismus wherever we read of salvation in the Bible. Merismus, which term comes from the Greek word meaning “part,”is the practice of speaking of something “part here, part there.” That is you find one part of a biblical doctrine taught in one text and another part in another; and only sometimes do you find both taught together in the same place. Merismus serves to ensure that each part gets its proper emphasis, but it tempts people, and has always tempted readers of the Bible, to latch on to one set of texts – one “part” – and to ignore other texts that teach the other part. Most mistakes in understanding the Bible originate in such onesidedness. Even here in Zechariah’s song the two parts are not really brought together. We have a reference to the transformation of our lives early on and then later on we have a reference to forgiveness. But no effort is made to connect the two or to explain their inter-relationship.

For example, sometimes salvation is spoken of as if it is simply the forgiveness of sins.

On the night of his betrayal, in the institution of the Lord’ Supper, the Lord Jesus took the cup and said, “this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Peter, in summarizing the gospel message to the crowd that had gathered in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10) said, “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” In the opening paragraph of Ephesians Paul writes, “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of his grace…”

In these passages, as in many others like them, nothing is immediately said of the transformation of our lives, of our deliverance from the power of sin so that we might live not sinful but godly and righteous lives.

On the other hand, sometimes salvation is presented as if it were simply the renewal of our lives. Nothing is said about forgiveness, only a new way of life. What did Christ come for? Paul tells us in Titus 2:11-14:

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

A theologian friend of mine says that he tells his classes that one of the keys to interpreting the Bible correctly and to being a good theologian is remembering three words, just three words: “distinct but inseparable.” [Robert Letham]

Think about it. It is true of the doctrine of God: the three persons are distinct from one another – the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and so on – but they are inseparable, the three persons form a single Godhead. It is also true of the doctrine of Christ. He is God and he is Man. He has two natures and they cannot be confused or mixed in our thinking. He is neither a superman nor God simply appearing as a man; he is the God/Man; he is both fully God and fully man at one and the same time. But mystery of mysteries, he is but one person. There are not two Jesus Christs, but only one. Again, his natures must be kept distinct but remain inseparable in his one person. It is true as well of the nature of man. Man is a body and he is a soul; he has a spiritual dimension and a physical one. They are distinct enough that after death and for a time they can exist apart, but they are inseparable in us and will be forever. And in the same way “distinct but inseparable” applies to these two consequences of redemption, these two parts of salvation: justification or forgiveness and sanctification or the renewal of our lives in holiness and love.

Another theologian illustrates the same reality by likening justification and sanctification to the two legs of a pair of trousers. They are distinct. The one is not the other; they cannot be confused. They are two different things. But they are inseparable. They are not like, say, two socks which may well become separated; at least in my house. But the legs of a pair of trousers cannot be separated; if they are you no longer have trousers at all. The left and right legs make a pair of trousers in the same way that only together do justification and sanctification make salvation. Or think of the sun. It gives out both light and heat. Light and heat are not the same thing, they are distinct – we are not warmed by the sun’s light or illuminated by its heat – but you can’t have one without the other. [A.N.S. Lane, Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue: An Evangelical Assessment, 18]

It is fundamental to a right understanding of the Bible, of salvation itself, and, in many ways, of church history to realize that right here, at the very beginning of the story of Jesus Christ, we are told that the salvation Christ brings in both the forgiveness of sins and the moral renewal of our lives. Not one or the other, but both. We get both from him, always and only both, never the one without the other. The unbelieving world does not really get this. They don’t understand that this is what Christians understand salvation to be: the forgiveness of sins and the moral renewal of their lives and that there cannot be one without the other. Many Christians don’t get it either.

Christians have always argued about this and great divisions of the church have resulted from such arguments. Is salvation forgiveness of sins, is it moral renewal, or is it both together and only both together?  Now, perhaps you will be inclined to say, “Well, of course, salvation is both, only and always both. There is not forgiveness of sins that is not accompanied by a new life. And there can be no new life that does not begin in the forgiveness of sins.” But not so fast.

You have no doubt heard Protestants, including Reformed Protestants like ourselves say, indeed, I have said it myself as I recollect, that justification by faith is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. That, of course, was first said by no one less than Martin Luther; he was the one to say first that justification was the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. It was a bit of typical Luther rhetoric, the sort of overstatement you forgive in a crusader for the truth. But many Protestants have repeated it since then. Now it wasn’t the wisest thing to say. After all, why justification by faith and not the Trinity, or the incarnation of God the Son; why justification by faith and not the Lord’s atoning death on the cross or his resurrection from the dead? I mean, when Paul summarized his message he didn’t say that he preached justification by faith; he said that he preached “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” [1 Cor. 2:2] There could be no justification by faith without those other doctrines. But the point I want to make is that that statement amounts to saying that forgiveness of sins is the key doctrine of the Christian faith, not the renewal of life; that justification is more important than sanctification.

Now perhaps people never meant to say that when they were quoting Luther, but that is surely the implication of the words however unwittingly. And, there can be no doubt that such an idea has often taken root in Protestant Christianity.  There are few evangelical theologians who would ever say that once your sins have been forgiven you can live as you please, but there are plenty of evangelical Christians who have said that – even some Christian teachers that have taught that – and a still greater number of evangelical Christians who have lived as if they thought that! In this view, without question, forgiveness is the main thing in salvation because you can’t have salvation without forgiveness but you can have it without the renewal of your life, without sanctification. You can’t get to heaven without justification, but you can get there without sanctification. Or so they claim.

But whatever evangelical Christians are wont to say about the glory of justification by faith, and about its being the article of faith by which the church stands or falls, to say that justification, or forgiveness is the most important thing doesn’t even jibe with what we know of the characteristic emphasis we find in evangelical Christianity, at least since the Reformation and especially since the Great Awakening. Evangelicals have always maintained and emphasized justification by faith as they should, taught as emphatically and clearly as it is in the NT and especially by the Apostle Paul, but it is an observation of history that more fundamental to evangelical Christianity, at least in the western world, is the contrast between the nominal Christian and the genuinely converted Christian. Historically, the new birth, being born again, is a greater emphasis in evangelical preaching and writing than justification by faith. Some may say that justification is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, but more often than not in evangelical preaching it has been the new birth. [cf. Lane, 147-148] It was so in the Great Awakening and it has been ever since. Conversion to Christ has been the hallmark emphasis of evangelicalism, But that emphasis on the new birth, on conversion, on genuine rather than spurious Christianity, is an emphasis on salvation as renewal not on salvation as forgiveness. And then of course in the liberal side of the Christian faith over the last several centuries the emphasis has all been on moral renewal and not at all on the forgiveness of sins and the removal of guilt before a holy God.

What I’m saying is that we can’t get away from this double nature of salvation as we find it everywhere in the Bible: forgiveness of sins and renewal of life, freedom from guilt and freedom from the corrupting power and rule of sin in our hearts and lives. It is both, always both, just as Zechariah said it would be. And it will be this salvation in two parts that Luke will show us throughout the rest of his Gospel and in the second volume of his great work, the book of Acts.
Now that may be nothing new to you, but I want you to think about this fact this morning. Perhaps you will if I ask you this question: what do you love the Lord for more, the forgiveness of your sins or the renewal of you life? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Which is for you the better half of salvation?

Robert Murray McCheyne, who preached the forgiveness of sins as powerfully as anyone ever has, nevertheless said that in his view sanctification was the better half of salvation. And you can understand why he might say that.

  1. There is a sense in which forgiveness is just a means to an end. Wonderful as forgiveness is and essential as it is, what God is after is not simply that we be forgiven but that we be conformed to the image of his son, that we come to live as his children ought to live, that we enter into the fullness of human life as he created that life to be lived.
  2. Also forgiveness, in one sense, is a blessing of shorter duration. Now it is true that we will always in heaven praise God for our forgiveness. We will not forget the sinners that we were or how much God had to forgive in us, or how amazing it was that he was willing to pay so dearly to secure our forgiveness. As Luther once put it, “Sinner is my name; sinner is my surname; sinner is the name by which I will forever be known.” But once we are in heaven we will not be continuing to sin and so no more forgiveness will be necessary. Is that not right? But we will live a changed life forever!

 

Or perhaps I should ask you: which do you crave more, to be forgiven or to be pure and holy and full of love and to live a genuinely good life, the kind of life you know the Lord Jesus lived and the kind of life every Christian knows he or she ought to live? As you sit there, what is more precious to you personally: the forgiveness of sins or the fact that you have a new heart from God that is capable of producing a new life?

There is a sense, of course, in which such questions are unimportant. The Bible doesn’t ask them and, no doubt, we ought to reply that they are both of equal importance and if we found that we really cared for one more than the other, more for forgiveness than for renewal or vice versa, we would admit immediately that this was a defect in us; we ought to care for both and long for both and prize both to the same degree, because they are both the Savior’s gifts to us, both his tender mercy toward us as Zechariah says, and both together are our salvation. We can’t get to heaven without forgiveness, but it is also true that without holiness no one will see the Lord.

Even when a person first becomes a Christian salvation can be described in one way or another, with respect to one dimension or another. William Cowper came to Christ reading Romans 3:25. He had been beset by a guilty conscience. He knew he was a sinner and was seeking forgiveness and the Lord came to him in that word of the Apostle Paul and as Cowper put it, “Immediately the full beams of the sun of righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement he had made, my pardon sealed in his blood, and the fullness and completely of my justification. In a moment I believed and received the gospel.” [In Ella, William Cowper, 90] Contrarily, when Justin Martyr became a Christian, it was not under the conviction of sin needing forgiveness but of the need to know the path of life. After a long conversation with a Christian stranger on the seashore that ended with the man praying that Justin might be receptive to what he had heard, Justin tells us “A flame was kindled in my soul and I was seized by love… While I was pondering his words in my mind, I came to see that this way of life alone is sure and fulfilling.” Salvation in both cases without a doubt, but an emphasis on forgiveness in one and moral renewal in the other.

Sooner or later, however, everyone understands that both parts of salvation are necessary and equally wonderful. There is no justification, no forgiveness of sins that does not produce and is not accompanied by deliverance from our enemies that we might serve God in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And in the same way, there is no new life that does not begin in the forgiveness of our sins. God will not work in you without first doing that for you.

Give your own thanks to God as Zechariah did. Say or sing your own Benedictus because God met all your needs through the work of his Son. We were guilty and liable to be punished for our sins and he secured their forgiveness; and we were corrupt and slaves to sinful desires and would have lived the rest of our lives in that slavery and he delivered us from that enemy and set us on the way to a good life and finally a perfect life. When we come face to face with our sins we know both how great a gift forgiveness is and how wonderful it is no longer to be at their beck and call; but when we are in heaven we will know far far better than we do now how extraordinary both gifts really are, how utterly beyond comprehension that God should have given them to us when it cost him so much to do so.