At the morning service yesterday I preached from John 12:20-26. In v. 24, Jesus says:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
In my sermon I spoke about a family trip we took two years ago to California’s Big Basin Redwoods State Park . There we admired the magnificent coast redwood trees, famous for their massive trunks and towering heights (they can grow to be over 320 feet tall). As I prepared for the sermon last week, I consulted that always-useful preaching resource, Google, and learned that the cones of these redwood trees are tiny, about an inch long. And the seeds they contain are even more minuscule – it takes over 100,000 of them to weigh a pound.
One coast redwood seed is nothing but a tiny little speck of organic matter. But if you bury it in the ground, and the conditions are just right, in hundreds of years that same seed will be transformed into a mighty redwood. In the same way, the crucifixion of Jesus was just the death of one man (speaking from a strictly historical, human perspective). Yet behold the fruit his death has borne – an ever-growing Kingdom of redeemed sinners whose numbers will exceed the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore (Gen. 22:17)! Who can fathom the coming splendor of the Kingdom of God in its full revelation (Rom. 8:18, 19; 2 Cor. 4:17), when the vast multitude of saints are joined together in a new heavens and earth, giving all praise forever and ever to Christ Jesus the Lord of all? What ineffable glory! And all because Jesus willingly died on a Roman cross some 2,000 years ago.
As I spoke of this in my sermon, I said something that prompted a theological question from one of our members. I said that if Jesus had not died, there would not be a single human being in heaven today (and nor would there ever be). Heaven would still be populated by angels and whatever other creatures God put there, but every last descendant of Adam and Eve would be barred forever because of our sin. Her question was, “What about the God-fearing people of the Old Testament, such as Moses and David? Would they not be in heaven, either?” And the answer I gave is “no”, because they also were saved by the blood of Christ shed upon the cross. Although Jesus had not yet died, still the efficacy of his sacrifice applied to the saints who lived before the cross. Like us, they too were saved by faith alone. And like us, it is the blood of Christ that saved them.
At the time I didn’t appeal to the Westminster Confession of Faith 8:6, but I wish I had because it answers that question far better than I can. Here is what it says (with proof texts):
Although the work of redemption was not actually wrought by Christ till after his incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefits thereof were communicated unto the elect, in all ages successively from the beginning of the world, in and by those promises, types, and sacrifices, wherein he was revealed, and signified to be the seed of the woman which should bruise the serpent’s head; and the Lamb slain from the beginning of the world; being yesterday and today the same, and forever. (Gal. 4:4-5; Gen. 3:15; 1 Cor. 10:14; Rev. 13:8; Heb. 13:8; and Rom. 3:25; Heb. 9:15).
As the questioner put it, the death of Christ was “retroactive” to save the faithful who lived before his coming.
Later at the evening service I spoke on the priesthood of Christ, as part of an ongoing series of messages from the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
Though I don’t feel I should include it on the blog, I also had to make a disappointing announcement to the congregation concerning a recent decision of the session. Ministry is a mixture of joy and sadness.