John Kent was dying. He was soon to pass into the eternal world. He would then have to appear before God. It ought to be a solemn question for everyone in that position: Will God accept me? Can He accept me as someone who is perfectly righteous, as someone who has kept God’s law perfectly? And, particularly because we do not know when we will die, we should be asking these questions now.
Can He accept me, we should ask, as someone who kept the Sabbath Day perfectly, not only in outward things, but also in my thoughts? Were my attitudes to the Sabbath perfectly holy? Did I always welcome it as a tremendous opportunity to get good for my soul? Did I use every possible minute to worship God and learn about Him?
And can He accept me as someone who also kept the Fifth Commandment perfectly? Did I always obey my parents as I should have done? Did I always obey them without delay? Did I always have a sincere love to them? Did I put my whole heart into the things they asked me to do? Did I always speak respectfully about them to other people?
Do you feel that these questions assume an impossible standard? Yes, perfection is impossible – for people like us who have a sinful heart. Yet it was not an impossible standard for Adam and Eve at the beginning, before they fell into sin. But after their first sin they could never again live perfect lives. Nor can we, because we have fallen hearts. Sin is natural to us.
Even God’s children, though they have new hearts, cannot keep God’s Commandments perfectly. Though God is subduing their sin, He does not do so all at once. He subdues their sin gradually, and He will not complete that work until they are leaving this world for heaven. The Bible tells us that “there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:20); there is no one in this world who always does what is right, without ever sinning.
When Kent, a sinner like everyone else, came to die, what had he to say about himself? He said, “I am accepted, accepted”. And the whole way he lived his life until then suggested very strongly that he was right in what he said; people could see that he was a godly man. And God will bring holy people to heaven when they die.
Yet, as no one on this side of death is perfectly holy, how could Kent claim that God had accepted him? The answer to that question is that he was looking to the Substitute that God has appointed – Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). He came to save John Kent and a huge number of other sinners. God knows who they are, and they are described as “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations” (Revelation 7:9). And when each of this great multitude approaches death, they have the right to say, like Kent, “I am accepted”. Not all of them may be so assured about it; but they all, for Christ’s sake, have a right to say so. Kent himself suffered much pain and was sorely tempted by Satan during his final illness, yet God strengthened him to tell the people around him: “I am accepted”.
Kent was very likely thinking of Paul’s words: “accepted in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6) – the Beloved is, of course, Jesus Christ. Paul loved Him with all his heart, and so did John Kent. They loved Him as the Substitute for sinners like them, the One who did all that was necessary for them to be accepted by God Himself. What they could not do, Jesus did in their place.
It is true that they could not keep God’s law perfectly; they could not love Him with all their hearts. Indeed, before they were converted, they could not truly love Him at all. But Jesus kept the Sabbath perfectly; He had a perfect attitude to the Sabbath. He also kept the Fifth Commandment; He honoured Mary and Joseph with perfect obedience and with a sincere love; He had a perfect attitude to them. He kept all God’s Commandments perfectly, as the Substitute for every sinner who believes in Him. And as the Substitute for sinners, Christ also endured the punishment which otherwise would have fallen on them. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), and so He had to suffer the cursed death of the cross in their place.
How can God accept us, sinners that we are? We must believe in Jesus Christ; we must trust in Him as the substitute for sinners – the One who bore their punishment when He suffered and died, and who kept all the commandments, perfectly.
There was another man, a well-educated minister, who denied many important teachings of the Bible but especially the fact that Christ is God. This was all the more serious as it was his duty to point his people to the Lord Jesus as the divine Saviour from sin. This man’s name was John Bradford. (There was another John Bradford who was a martyr at the time of the Reformation; he was burned to death because he held to the teachings of Scripture.) One day the unbelieving Bradford was writing out a sermon on the text, “Ye must be born again”, when all his sins suddenly came before his mind. He knew that it was wrong for a man like him to be a minister. His text told him that he needed to be born again.
So he stopped work on his sermon – in fact he never finished it – and he cried out to God to bring him through the new birth. He realised that his preaching was putting people wrong rather than doing them good. He burned almost all his old sermons; he could never use them again; he had seen that to sin against God is a very serious matter indeed. He realised too that he needed a Saviour who could really deliver from sin. He soon saw clearly that Jesus really is God and, being born again, he trusted in this Saviour as One who can save from sin. Jesus is only able to save from sin because He not only is a real man, He also is truly God.
The next Sabbath, Bradford began to preach the truth revealed in God’s Word. And, in God’s amazing kindness, five people were convinced of their sins by Bradford’s first biblical sermon. Possibly it was a sermon on that vital truth from John 3: “Ye must be born again”.
When Bradford believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, God accepted him as if he had never sinned – as if he had always kept God’s commandments perfectly. He was accepted, not because of anything he had done to please God – in fact, he had never done anything to please God. He was accepted only because of what Christ did as his Substitute. To say that Bradford or Kent or anyone else was accepted by God is just to say that he was justified. The Shorter Catechism explains justification like this: “an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Answer 33).
If we are to get to heaven, we must be justified; we must be accepted as righteous before God. So we must be willing not to look for a righteousness which we can produce ourselves but submit instead to the righteousness that Christ has provided through His work as a substitute for sinners. We must receive Christ’s righteousness by faith alone. We must believe in Him, just as Paul and Silas directed the jailer in Philippi: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31).
The jailer did believe in the Saviour; so he was justified, by faith alone. We do not know anything about his death, but we can be sure that, just as he was accepted by God when he believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, so God accepted him into heaven. And if we, like him, obey the call to believe in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, our death too will bring us into the eternal happiness of a better world – just as John Kent and John Bradford were brought into the blessedness of heaven. There is no other way of safety.
Rev Kenneth D Macleod
[This article first appeared as the editorial in the July 2014 edition of the Young People’s Magazine.]