A reflection by Fr. Justin Clemente on 1 John 2:1 & the work of Dane Ortlund on the Advocacy of Christ, as written in his book Gentle & Lowly. Given January 29, 2022 at Frederick Church of the Brethren’s Men’s Conference on the Heart of Christ.
In Christ – Our Advocate – Alone
When I heard that my talk would be preceded by “In Christ Alone,” I said to Jeremiah, “Perfect, don’t change that!” Hymnwriters like Getty and Townend are great examples of what our singing can be when the person and work of Jesus is front and center.
Believe it or not, their hymn got some coverage recently because it turned 20 years old. Yes, that’s right, 20 years old. So, in car years it could now be considered a classic. And, like me, if you’ve been singing it in the church since it came out, I suppose you could be considered a classic at this point, too.
As that song was written, one of the crucial revisions made was to change the first line of the song from “My hope is found in Christ alone” to, as we now have it, “In Christ alone my hope is found.” You hear there the centrality of the Gospel, of Christ, and the objectivity of who God is and what he has done for us. And the basic question that I want to leave all of us here today with is this: what would it mean for you and me to genuinely take the Advocacy of Christ seriously? To push that to the front of our relationship with God. This is incredibly significant. Some of us here today may have been given or embraced a form of Christianity that says the Gospel is how you become a Christian, but that you stay a Christian by your own works. Your own bootstraps, essentially. Friends, the Gospel is not only how we become a Christian, but it is also the daily life and breath of the believer until his last breath and his last day. When we think about 1 John 2:1 (which we’ll look at in depth in just a moment), one of the things we need to quickly see is that this is a verse for Christians. John does not say, “if anyone sins, they have an advocate with the Father.” Or, if anyone who does not yet believe in Christ sins, they have an advocate with the Father.” No, John says, “My little children, I am writing these things to you. … If anyone sins, we have an ongoing and available advocate with the Father.” Present tense – now – in the current struggles and sins of your Christian life.
As I prepared for this talk, there was something in Dane’s book that took me aback. You get to the Epilogue of his book and he says this: “This is a book about the heart of Christ and of God. But what are we to do with this? The main answer is, nothing. To ask, ‘Now how do I apply this to my life?’ would be a trivialization of the point of this study. If an Eskimo wins a vacation to a sunny place, he doesn’t arrive in his hotel room, step out onto the balcony, and wonder how to apply that to his life. He just enjoys it. He just basks. But there is one thing for us to do. Jesus says it in Matthew 11:28. ‘Come to me.’” (Gentle & Lowly, pg. 215)
So, the aim of my talk today is to help you, as men, continue to come to him after this conference. It would be an utter shame to come here today and pick up, so to speak, the advocacy of Christ – to admire it as we would a diamond – and then to put it back down. My aim and hope today is that we would treasure it day in and day out. To do that, I want to apply the advocacy of Christ to the hearts of men in three areas or spheres of life. I want to help us come to him in the heart (personally), in the home (family), and in the pew (corporately).
Treasuring the Advocacy of Christ in Our Heart
So first: treasuring the advocacy of Christ in our heart. I want follow a close reading of Ortlund’s definition here, based , again, on 1 John 2:1: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” So what is his advocacy? Ortlund writes: “Jesus shares with us in our actual experience. He feels what we feel. He draws near. And he speaks up longingly on our behalf. … Why is this advocate able to help us? The text tells us: he is ‘righteous.’ He and he alone. We are unrighteous; he is righteous. Even our best repenting of our sin is itself plagued with more sin needing forgiveness. To come to the Father without an advocate is hopeless. To be allied with an advocate, one who came and sought me out rather than waiting for me to come to him, one who is righteous in all the ways I am not – this is calm and confidence before the Father.” (Gentle & Lowly, pg. 89)
First, what if we saw our daily devotional life and our habits of prayer and worship as moments of invitation into the ongoing advocacy of Christ for us? Definitions don’t often change your life, but years ago I encountered a definition of worship that changed mine. In his book on worship and the Trinity, James Torrance give a densely packed, dynamite-laden definition of Christian worship that Dane Ortlund would love. Worship, he writes, “is the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father.” That definition will turn drudgery into delight, and will lift a dying prayer life from the doldrums of diffidence to the heights of boldness won for us through Christ. How can a prayer life remain cold and distant in the light of such a promise? Charles Wesley got it right in “And Can It Be”:
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Second, notice how Jesus’ advocacy is tied directly to our sin. It is in the midst of our sin that Jesus advocates for us. From Ortlund again, “[Jesus] stands and speaks in our defense when we sin, not after we get over it. In that sense his advocacy is itself our conquering of it.” (Gentle & Lowly, pg. 92)
His advocacy itself is your conquering of sin. When we are entangled in sin, the specific besetting sins that are known to each of us here today, we must counterintuitively press into Christ rather than run from him. He is not repelled by your sin, but rather, like the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, runs to meet you on the road (Luke 15). Like the Apostle Paul, we must choose to be weak, so that Christ may be in strong in us and for us (2 Corinthians 12:10).
You may know this famous quote from Martin Luther, “When the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!” That is the bold speech of an adopted, forgiven, cleansed child of God. That is what it sounds like to daily treasure the advocacy of Christ in the heart.
Treasuring Christ’s Advocacy in the Home
Next: Christ’s advocacy in the home. How would your leadership in the home change if you could constantly hear the voice of Christ saying of you, “That man is my brother. I call him my own.”
Brothers: from where I sit as a fellow believer & pastor, I see an epidemic in our churches. It is the passivity and absence, spiritually speaking, of men, both in the home and in the body of Christ. I believe this happens at least for two reasons: 1) past failures and 2) a sense of inadequacy for the job at hand. We’re here today, gathered together, I assume, so that these trends might be healed in our place and time. And so that we can encourage other Christian men to persevere in their spiritual leadership in the home, too!
Both of these reasons men go spiritually AWOL are dealt with through a firm grasp on Christ’s advocacy. If men are to move forward as the chief shepherd of their home and to reclaim that calling in their life, then past (and present) failures must be daily held up to Christ’s flawless record – and his willingness to impart that record unto them. He is our righteous advocate. He is not like us, and yet he speaks for us.
And, secondly, inadequacy must be exchanged for confidence in Christ’s advocacy in the home. Who, exactly, is sufficient for the task of being a husband and father? No man. But there is one who is adequate. And that man is your Advocate. He is the good husband of his church and he is your elder brother in the Faith. Don’t wait to begin leading in your home until you feel up to the job – you will never get there. Claim Christ’s advocacy for yourself, and let him take you along with him.
Treasuring Christ’s Advocacy in the Church
Lastly: Christ’s advocacy in the pew. For many men, the call to regular, intentional, engaged corporate worship can be challenging (to say the least). As I said earlier, Christian worship is the invitation into the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father through the Spirit. I wonder how many of us view ourselves as simply awkward spectators on any given Sunday morning. I wonder of how many of us think that because we can’t sing well or we’re not particularly emotional, that we can’t fully enter into the church’s worship. Christ’s advocacy tells us otherwise.
Here too, I do believe that the church needs to help our men fully engage in worship. The fact that this church is hosting this conference with this theme tells me you all feel the same. Related to music, much of contemporary music is overly romanticized, simply aiming at getting Christians to feel a certain way rather than leading them into heart and work of God. As one deeply passionate about the theology of corporate worship, I do believe that the church, in general, has much work to do. Rather than how good we can sing, or how emotional we are or aren’t, we need to help our men be rooted in the objective work of God and in the advocacy of Christ. We need more artists like Getty & Townend, and more of the church’s entire treasury of worship – not just the last couple decades of songs.
But as individuals, I wonder how our outlook on a typical Sunday morning would be changed if we each saw, not the pastor or musicians as the foremost, but Christ, our great Advocate and High Priest, very present, reigning over, celebrating, singing and leading the praises of God’s people, beckoning each one of us to come boldly before the throne of grace and mercy with all the saints.
And then, having that vision fixed firmly in our minds, how could Sunday morning become a time to encourage and lead others into Christ’s advocacy for them? Here we come back to the unique role God has given men to be shepherds and guides in the family. I believe that nothing will bless the church so much as men at worship through their Advocate. That’s true whether you’re a young man, aged, married, or single.
I want to close my teaching today with the words of Hebrews 10:19-25. When all has been said, these words demonstrate a right response to the advocacy of Christ. Would you read this with me today as a personal affirmation on your behalf?
19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.