The sleep of the just(ified)
This is an excerpt from Geoff Robson's book Thank God for Bedtime.
One of the traps of regular Bible reading (if something as good as regular Bible reading really has any ‘traps’) is that we can start to gloss over words or sentences we know well. We can assume that we know what they mean rather than digging into the details and allowing every word to penetrate the heart and the mind.
Having spent most of my life attending Anglican churches, I recently noticed that I’d fallen into this trap with 1 John 1:9, a verse that’s used regularly in church meetings around the time we confess our sins together: “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
That seems pretty straightforward (and pretty fantastic), right? We can be totally assured that, if we genuinely confess our sins, God forgives us. It’s that simple. But where I’d slipped up was around the word ‘just’. I’d started to treat this verse as if it said, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and loving…” or “God is faithful and merciful…”, or simply “God is a really good guy, so he’ll forgive our sins”.
But while those things are obviously true, it’s not exactly what this verse says. This verse says that, when God forgives my sin and cleanses me from all unrighteousness, he isn’t just being merciful; he’s also being just.
That’s a truly incredible thing for John to say, because I am a miserable sinner. I have rejected God in countless ways, even though he gave me life and breath and everything else. I haven’t loved him with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. And I haven’t loved my neighbour as I love myself. I deserve his condemnation and judgement.
How amazing, then, that God is not only loving enough and kind enough to want to forgive my sin, but that it’s just and it’s right for him to actually do it. Or, to flip it around, it would be unjust and wrong for God not to forgive my sin.
The only thing that makes this possible, of course, is the death of Jesus in my place. “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1b-2). If it weren’t for Jesus, the only thing that would be just is for God to judge me according to my sin. But now that Jesus has died for me and I have turned to him in trust, it’s just and right that God forgives me.
I admit that, from time to time, I still wonder what God really thinks of me. When I mess up badly, or when I’m confronted with my sin’s consequences, or maybe when I’m just feeling down about life (for instance, when I haven’t had enough sleep), I can fall back into thinking that maybe what would make God happy is to really let me have it. It’s perverse and awful, I know, but the mind or the heart sometimes wanders in these directions: “Maybe God still wants to punish me”. And since I continue to fail all the time, wouldn’t it be fair for God to treat me this way?
No, it wouldn’t. It would be unfair. That’s most emphatically not because I don’t deserve God’s wrath. It’s because Jesus has died for me. He has borne my sins in his body on the tree (1 Pet 2:24). He has died for sins, once for all, to bring me to God (1 Pet 3:18). So once I am united to him by faith, God not only doesn’t want to ‘let me have it’; it would also be entirely unjust of God to punish me for my sin—because I have been justified.
There’s an old saying about “sleeping the sleep of the just”. With only the slightest of tweaks, it becomes a great summary of a Christian theology of sleep. We sleep the sleep of the justified.
In ourselves, none of us could say, “I am a just person”. If I relied on knowing that I’d basically been a good boy that day in order to sleep well, a peaceful night’s sleep would be rare indeed. But, praise God, I am a justified person. When he looks at me, he declares: “Not guilty”.
For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 3:22-25, 5:1)
Does good theology have anything to do with sleeping well? You bet! With the gospel under my pillow, I can experience the sweetness of Proverbs 3:24: “If you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet”. With the assurance that both God’s love and God’s justice are on my side, I can say “Amen” to David’s comforting words: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Ps 4:8). Whatever else may have gone wrong on any given day, I end it at peace with God, knowing that he is for me, not against me (Rom 8:31).
So how does a Christian sleep? We sleep safe in the knowledge that God’s work is decisive, and that God is sovereign. We accept sleep as a gift from our loving Father, who teaches us to trust him every time our head hits the pillow.
We sleep because we have relinquished our anxieties and our efforts to prove ourselves into the hands of a loving and generous God.
We sleep peacefully because we no longer seek the treasures of this world, but instead have given ourselves to seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness, trusting that, along the way, God will meet all our earthly needs.
We sleep because we know the physical benefits God has built into it, and we long to be refreshed and renewed for his service.
We sleep with awareness that we’re receiving a good but dangerous gift, especially mindful that we must remain on our guard and stay spiritually awake.
And we sleep the sleep of the justified sinner—no longer fearful that God is out to get us, but confident that he is both merciful and just. As long as our trust is in Christ Jesus and his blood shed for us, we are completely at peace with God, declared not guilty and promised the forgiveness of our sins.
If getting these truths deep down into your bones doesn’t help you to sleep well, nothing will. Your eternity is secure because of Jesus, and the eye of God that watches you as you sleep is an eye of justice, love, care and protection all at the same time.