Jesus is my substitute. He became sin for me, that I might stand before God righteous and forgiven (2 Corinthians 5:21). That is beautiful. But is Jesus also my joy substitute — my hope for when I fail to delight in God as I ought? It’s a sharp question from a listener named Jake.
“Hello, Pastor John! I love the fact that Jesus is my substitute. In any way I display Christlikeness, that is something made possible by the cross of Christ and the Spirit’s work inside me. Christ was sexually faithful for me because I was not. In him I find forgiveness for my past and power to fight my lust today. Similarly, Christ was never arrogant for me so that I can be forgiven of my angry past and given the power to fight my own arrogant heart today.
“I wonder if this paradigm also applies to my joy? Is it true that Christ was fully satisfied in God for me so that I am not condemned for my sourness, but my lack of joy in God is forgiven, and I can be freed to pursue my joy in God daily? When I fail, I rest in Christ, the perfect Christian Hedonist, who paid for all my heart’s idols; there I find renewed hope to press on in seeking after God. In other words, is Jesus my joy substitute?”
That’s pretty thoughtful. I like that. I like this question a lot, but I’m sure that not all of our listeners are tracking with Jake’s pretty remarkable grasp of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Let me put some Bible verses under it and then answer his question.
“The sinful defects of our joy in this life are forgiven, and the righteous joyfulness of Jesus is imputed to us.”
He’s applying the doctrine of justification by saying that all the defects of my obedience to God — all my shortfalls in keeping God’s commandments — do not keep me from being justified in the courtroom of heaven or from being vindicated and declared not guilty, but in fact, I am declared righteous in God’s sight. He’s saying rightly that all this is owing to the perfect obedience and righteousness of Jesus, which through faith alone is counted as mine in union with Christ. Christ’s perfections are credited to my account so that God’s wrath is taken away, and he is one hundred percent for me as I am in Christ.
Here’s where Jake is getting that:
- “Because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).
- “For as by the one man’s disobedience [namely, Adam’s] the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19).
- “For our sake he made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him [in union with him] we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
- “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him [in union with him], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:8–9).
Now, Jake is asking if this applies to our joy failures in the Christian life. Joy is commanded by God: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). One of the central tenets of my life is that joy is essential for honoring God and obeying God because we’re commanded to treasure Christ and be satisfied in him and rejoice in him above all things. Jake is asking, “If we are defective in this regard, is the perfect rejoicing of Christ counted as mine like all the other aspects of his obedience are?”
“Our joy, with all its defects, is a real fruit of the Spirit.”
Now, here goes my answer, so I want you to listen carefully, everybody, because I took a long time thinking about this sentence or (these two sentences). Here’s my answer: The sinful defects of our joy in this life are forgiven, and the righteous joyfulness of Jesus is imputed to us, in the same way that all of our sinful defects as Christians are forgiven. All of Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us by our union with the perfect Jesus Christ. We enter that union by faith — by faith alone — and we confirm it by Spirit-enabled holiness, including holy joy in Christ.
Now, let me take a minute and unpack that answer. There are two implications of what I’m saying. One has to do with the faith by which we enter union with Christ, and the other has to do with the works of faith that the Holy Spirit enables us to do after we are in Christ, which confirm that we really are new creatures in Christ. Let’s take one at a time.
Genuine Faith Required
The implication regarding faith in Jesus, through which we enter into union with Christ, is that Christ does not perform faith for us or instead of us in such a way that no faith is needed in us to enjoy union with him. In other words, the way Jake is applying the doctrine of justification has been taken by some people to the extreme.
They say — I’ve read this; I’ve really read this — “We don’t even need to be believers if we are elect because Christ believed perfectly on our behalf, and his belief is credited to us when we are unbelievers.” Now, Jake is not saying that, but others have followed that logic of imputation to that unbiblical conclusion. The reason it’s unbiblical is that faith is the instrument God uses to unite us to Christ, and only then in union with Christ do his perfections count on our behalf. The faithfulness of Christ doesn’t replace the requirement of faith to be united to the faithful Christ.
That’s the first implication. Justification by faith does not mean that Christ’s perfect belief replaces the requirement for us to believe.
Genuine Joy Required
Here’s the second implication. Christ’s obedience, which is imputed to us, also does not replace the obedience we are required to have as the fruit of our union with Christ. Here’s 2 Thessalonians 2:13: We are saved “through sanctification by the Spirit.” In other words, the reality of saving faith is confirmed in sanctification that is in lived out Spirit-enabled obedience, including the obedience of joy in Jesus, treasuring Jesus, and being satisfied in Jesus. Christ’s holiness does not replace the requirement of our holiness.
“Because of our union with Christ, his perfect joy is counted as ours, and it covers all the defects in our joy.”
Look at Hebrews 12:14: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” That’s spoken to believers. To be sure, our holiness is not the ground of our justification, Christ’s holiness is, but our holiness confirms the reality of the faith that unites us to Christ and his holiness.
What does that imply about our joy in Christ? It implies that Christ’s perfect joy does not replace the requirement for us to rejoice in Christ above all else, but because of our union with Christ, his perfect joy is counted as ours, and it covers all the defects in our joy. Our joy, with all its defects, is a real fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). It is a real fruit of the Spirit and thus a real confirmation that we belong to Christ.