The doctrine of Christian assurance isn’t much debated among the Reformed. Most conversations circle around how to apply the doctrine to the lives of troubled Christians. But my concern is that some nevertheless make theological conclusions in other areas that undermine a biblical understanding of assurance.
How some understand the high priestly intercession of Jesus in heaven to the Father is my main concern. While Christians have found assurance by recognizing fruit from their faith, they are right to place more of an emphasis on the high priestly work of Christ: his once and for all time sacrifice (Heb. 10:10-14) and his eternal intercession for us in heaven to the Father (Heb. 7:25; Rom. 8:34; 1 John 2:1). In heaven, what is Jesus praying for? How do his prayers “save to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:25)?
Many answer these questions by explaining what he is not doing: He is not pleading to a reluctant and ill-disposed Father to have mercy. On the contrary, Jesus Christ is the very expression of the Father’s attitude towards us. But it is here, where evangelicals are careful not to pin the Son against the Father, that some give a troublesome explanation of Christ’s intercession:
Since the purpose of Christ’s prayers is not to change the mind of the Father, then the prayers must be metaphorical.
John Stott may be the most popular advocate of this explanation. Stott says:
We are not meant to understand [the prayers] literally, but metaphorically. If you’re suggesting that Jesus is on his knees pleading for us, you’re suggesting there is some sort of reluctance on the part of God.
Stott’s explanation of Christ’s prayers as metaphorical is understandable. Like any good theologian—and Stott is among the best—he doesn’t want to corrupt the biblical understanding of the unity of the Father and Son. This is not only a good theological concern, but also a good pastoral one. But I think Stott’s explanation is troublesome.
As I move to critique Stott’s argument, I want to tread lightly. Few people have influenced me more than John Stott, and it would be difficult to identify someone over the past 100 years who has done more to unite the global church around the truths of the gospel. Since Stott’s work has had such a positive and proven evangelical influence for more decades than I’ve been alive, I recognize the burden of proof is on me to make a case against Stott’s interpretation.
If we are to understand Jesus’ prayers as metaphorical, as Stott explains them, then we have little reason to believe his prayers for us are as significant to our assurance as Hebrews 7:25 and Romans 8:34 lead us to believe. The idea that his prayers are metaphorical only momentarily solves the Son-for-us/Father-against-us dilemma. In the end, it explains away too much. There are good biblical and theological reasons to not be satisfied with this explanation. Here are three of them:
1. If the prayers of Jesus as our high priest are not metaphorical, but real, it does not necessarily mean they are meant to change the mind of God. Take, for example, our prayers. We believe in the sovereignty of God and still believe that our Christian duty is to pray. We certainly do not think that our prayers in any way manipulate or change the mind of God, but we still believe our prayers are meaningful. God uses our prayers as means to accomplish his already determined ends. In the same way, Jesus offers real and meaningful prayers that God uses as part of his plan to finally and fully save sinners—save them to the uttermost.
2. I can already foresee the objection: “But you can’t argue that our prayers and the prayers of the glorified Christ are the same.” To be sure, there are distinctions between our fallible prayers and the effective prayers of the risen Christ. But we shouldn’t put too much of a distinction between the two. Jesus Christ is still acting as our mediator through the union of his divine and human nature. In other words, it’s not as if his human nature fell off as he ascended into heaven. Part of the essence of his priestly work is that he still has a human nature, along with his divine. It may be glorified, but he is still like us and able to act on our behalf. We could easily conclude that his heavenly priestly prayers are not too different from his earthly priestly prayers (Luke 22:31-43; John 17). In a very real way, his prayers for us are human. Jesus’ heavenly prayers are no more metaphorical than his earthly ones were metaphorical.
3. As mentioned above, the priestly work of Christ is both his sacrifice and intercession. It would seem unlikely that half of his priestly work is real (his sacrifice) and half his work is metaphorical (intercession). I don’t think any evangelical wants to claim that the death of Christ is metaphorical—certainly not John Stott! Jesus died a real death, took on real wrath, and paid for real sins. And thanks be to God, our sins are really forgiven. But it would seem strange to then explain Christ’s intercession as metaphorical.
Prayers Paid for with Blood
Because the author of Hebrews bases the assurance of our salvation on the priestly intercession of Christ, it may be helpful to come to some conclusions on the nature of his intercession. What is he asking for? How do his prayers save us to the uttermost? Here are a few biblical reflections:
1. The apostle John writes in 1 John 2:1, “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Though John is speaking to believers, he is not claiming that we need to be saved every time we sin. His sacrifice is once and for all time. But if we do sin we have one, namely Jesus Christ, who, on the basis of his death, calls attention to his perfect righteousness in defense of sinning saints.
2. Luke 22:31-34 is widely accepted as an earthly “high priestly” prayer. In other words, Jesus is praying effective prayers on behalf of believers (John 17 is another one) and may be of some help in understanding what his heavenly prayers are like. Luke 22 is the account of Jesus foretelling Peter’s denial. Jesus warns Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-34, emphasis mine).
The biblical evidence gives us some hints as to what Christ’s intercession for us looks like: (1) He advocates for believing saints, that even though they still sin, they have the perfect righteousness of Christ—1 John 2:1. (2) He prays that though they may be faced with many temptations, none would shipwreck their faith—Luke 22:31-34.
We have every reason to believe these prayers are real. Every prayer of Jesus is answered and paid for with blood. There is no greater Christian assurance!