God rest you merry, Gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Saviour
Was born upon this day.
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy . . .
2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which I recently heard someone sum up the as the “recovery of the assurance of salvation.” Martin Luther in particular was devastated by his own efforts to secure his own salvation through merit under the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The hard won recovery of the fact that our salvation is by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone, has given us a heritage that when properly understood and believed leads us to true joy. It is not the kind of joy that rests upon our own efforts, external circumstances, or the undulations of our fickle emotions. It is rather the deep-rooted and burning joy that comes with the certainty that we have been reconciled to our God through the perfect, sinless sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf.
Strangely, this kind of joy is elusive. Or at least it can seem that way. Somehow it is possible to go through the Christmas season, which is designed to celebrate the incarnation of Jesus, without connecting with the gospel at all. It is easy to simply succumb to busyness this time of year, and thereby miss out on the joy. Perhaps Christmas is a painful time, as we are reminded of those people who are missing from our lives who once brought us happiness at Christmas. And it may be that we are distracted by all the things that are naturally delightful about Christmas – food, decorations, gifts, music, and the excitement of our children. The problem with these things by themselves is that they can quickly become idolatry if we are missing out on the chance to glorify God for his perfect salvation. I recently heard Alistair Begg (who is worth listening to for his Scottish accent alone, but also happens to be a fine expository preacher) describe idols as “heart-level substitutes for the real God,” and it serves us to be vigilant against such things. We can only properly enjoy the lesser things when we first give God His proper place in our hearts.
What we truly need is the joy that comes with the assurance of our hope in Christ. I remember hearing someone teaching on sermon preparation that you needed to be able to pass the “3 A.M.” test – that is, if a person startled you out of your sleep at 3 A.M. on Sunday morning and asked you what you were going to preach about, you could immediately give a one sentence summary of your sermon. The idea is that if you could condense your sermon down to one focused sentence without having to think too hard about it, then you are most likely properly prepared. I have a similar practice when I wake up in the middle of the night, or first thing in the morning, or any time I am at my lowest – I borrow the prayer of the tax collector from Luke 18 and simply pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus said the the tax collector went down to his house justified, unlike the Pharisee who believed he was justified to stand before God based on his own good works. The Protestant Reformers recovered the truth that salvation is the work of God alone, and we stand justified because of the righteousness of Jesus, not our own merits. Praying the publican’s prayer helps me avoid trying to find security in my own ability to obey, or even the good things that God helps me do. Instead, it helps me rest in the complete and finished work of Christ.