Approaching the Throne of Grace
As we think about the Protestant Reformation, one topic that I think about often is the intercession of Christ. Regarding this topic, the Westminster Larger Catechism states the following:
Q. 55: How doeth Christ make intercession?
A: Christ maketh intercession, by His appearing in our nature continually before the Father in heaven, in the merit of His obedience and sacrifice on earth, declaring His will to have it applied to all believers; answering all accusations against them, and procuring for them quiet of conscience, notwithstanding daily failings, access with boldness to the throne of grace, and acceptance of their persons and services.
This is well-articulated statement that is theologically robust and profoundly comforting for the Christian. Although our Lord is so highly exalted in glory, yet He has not forgotten us. In the midst of our various temptations and trials, our risen Savior is our High Priest, and as our High Priest, He has all the names and needs of His people written upon His hands, as the modern hymn states. Although He is exalted to the highest place of honor in heaven, He is mindful of His saints on earth. As Thomas Watson states, “Christ, though in a glorified state – hears your sighs, and bottles your tears!”
However, in reading this statement, one is also mindful that this statement is a radical departure of the views held by the Roman Catholic Church. My first experience with Roman Catholics occurred in my early twenties when I lived in a small town named Brownsville, Texas, which is on the border of Texas and Mexico. In this town, there were a number of Mexican-Americans who grew up within the Roman Catholic Church. When we were discussing matters of our faith, we stumbled upon the topic of prayer. As a young Christian, a verse that I put into memory was Hebrews 4:16, which declares that the saint has the privilege of approaching the throne of grace with boldness. In discussing this verse, I noticed that the joy of approaching our Father in prayer was not their common experience. They explained to me that they saw Christ as their Judge and so they were taught to pray to the saints and to Mary.
Now, I’m quite sure that a Roman Catholic apologist would cringe at their statement, but it did highlight the experience of these Roman Catholics. They did not believe that Christ “answers all accusations against them and procures for them peace of conscience” as the Westminster Larger Catechism states. Many older Roman Catholics would claim that the intercession of the saints and of Mary is not in exclusion to Christ’s intercession; however, the common experience of these Roman Catholics was that they appeared to be terrified of coming to the throne of grace. For them, their peace of conscience came through the merit of the saints and of Mary. Over time, I’ve learned that their experience was not an isolated thought. This thought re-appears in numerous works of Medieval Roman Catholic art and music. For example, consider the words of Stabat Mater, which is a 13th century Franciscan poem about the Mary grieving at the cross of Jesus:
As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned that there appears to be a Protestant/Evangelical parallel to many major Roman Catholic errors and the topic of intercession is one of them. It is common for many of us to ask fellow church members and Christians to pray for us during times of significant trials, difficulties, and afflictions. However, there is a temptation to believe that the prayers of Christians are heard because of the merit and obedience of Christians. In other words, there are some who believe that God is more likely to hear and answer the prayers of mature Christians rather than immature Christians. This mentality appears in many different ways for many different people. For some, this becomes a source of pride because they feel that they have merited God’s ear in prayer. For others, this leads to cowering fear because they feel unworthy to approach the throne of grace through prayer. Although these are divergent responses, both groups of people see Christ primarily as their Judge and not as their High Priest and Intercessor.
Moreover, if one does not see Christ as our all-sufficient intercessor, then he will either trust in his own merit or rely upon the merit of another mature Christian. Although many Protestants have a rightful aversion regarding the intercession of Mary and other saints, they are tempted to ask a more godly Christian to pray for them during times of personal failings, believing that God will not hear them because of their sins. The essential error between is the same as in the case of the intercession of the saints: Christ’s intercession for us (and our acceptance before God) is based on the merit of His obedience and His sacrifice on earth. We can approach the throne of grace with boldness because we have the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. We are accepted before God in prayer because God pardons our sins and imputes Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law and passive obedience in His death for our whole and sole righteousness. For this reason, there can be no other mediator and intercessor between God and man, apart from Christ Jesus.
Despite my numerous and daily failings, it is the intercession of Christ that soothes my doubts and relieves my conscience. Said in another way, if Christ’s intercession is not sufficient for us, what can be added to it? If Christ has not granted to us access to the throne of grace, who can? Without Christ’s righteousness and merit, we dare not approach Him, but thanks be to God that Christ, our High Priest, continually makes intercession for us in our nature. His mere presence before the Father as the God-Man proves that His obedience and merit was accepted on our behalf (cf. Hebrews 1:3) and is the proof of His love towards us who believe. He has made us accepted in the beloved (cf. Ephesians 1:6) and because of Christ’s current intercessory work, our spiritual service of worship is acceptable (cf. 1 Peter 2:5). Therefore, let us rejoice in the knowledge that “it is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.” (cf. Romans 8:34).
Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.