Where I live, winter is bitterly cold. On the coldest mornings, as I look out over the countryside, I notice the stillness and quiet of nature. The birds cease their singing, and no person dares to venture out unless they have to. In this scene, I notice the peace of Christmas. I also feel the peace of Christmas when giving gifts to loved ones, not because of necessity, but because I appreciate and care for them.
This, however, is not the peace we celebrate at Christmas—it is not the peace God has brought us through Christ.
As the apostles explain the gospel in their epistles, the peace Christ brought was spiritual and focused on individuals. It was not governmental peace as the Scribes and Pharisees thought. Instead, Christ came to bring peace to our hearts.
I think Paul encapsulates this best in Romans 5:1, where he writes, "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." Two noteworthy phrases stand out from this passage: "justified by faith," and "peace with God." They are interconnected in that justification is the work of the gospel, and peace is the result of justification. This means you and I cannot understand true peace unless we first are justified, and we are not justified unless we have faith in Jesus Christ.
Peace is vertical and horizontal. Vertical peace comes from God's redeeming grace, and it breaks down the partition of sin between Him and us. Horizontal peace is the result of vertical peace. It gives us peace in our hearts and peace with others.
Peace with God
One of the character differences between the Western Church (Roman Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals) and the Eastern Church (Orthodox) is the Western Church's focus on righteousness. I'm not entirely sure where this focus originates. Perhaps it is the influence of Roman Law that caused Christians to focus on God's Law. Or, it could be the Roman Catholic understanding of salvation as becoming more pleasing to God that concentrated their attention on obedience and righteousness. Whatever the cause, it has influenced us in North America to focus on 'making things right with God' in the most simple way.
Our focus causes a problematic idea: we must initiate a peace-making deal with God. Usually, this comes in the form of the "sinners prayer." However, the advent of peace tells us God initiated the peace deal by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to pay our debt and save us from sin. Everything in Romans 5:1 points to God as the benefactor and we the beneficiaries of peace.
The advent of peace with God brings wonder and amazement to the Christmas season, for it bolsters our understanding of God's gift to us through the baby in the manger.
Peace in our hearts
As Paul continues explaining the effects of justification in Romans 6 and 7, it becomes abundantly clear that peace extends to our hearts as well. We see that sin not only separates us from God but also burdens us with guilt and fear of eternal death. Romans 6 is dedicated to justification defeating the power of sin. In Christ's death, those who believe in Him by faith die with Him, and when they die with Him, they die to the power of sin over them, which is the death sin deserves.
Romans 7 is dedicated to justification defeating the guilt of sin. Dying with Christ also means dying to the Law, not as to do away with it, but as to free us from its demand to obey it for righteousness. This deals with our universal, internal guilt. At some level, everyone feels they fail to measure up to a moral standard, which causes guilt. And, everyone tries in some shape or form to rid themselves of their guilt. Only Christ, who died in our place, truly defeats our guilt. He brings us true peace within our hearts.
Internal peace is not something we must work for; it is given to us and maintained through the gospel. Nevertheless, Satan continues to accuse us who have inward peace and lie to us to cause guilt. The gospel overcomes these lies, serving as a reminder of the cosmic, eternal work of Christ in our place.
Peace with others
Only when we have peace with God and peace within will we have peace with others. An important distinction needs to be made here: peace with others does not necessarily mean they will be at peace with us. Peaceableness is the result of peace with God and peace within. It is an attitude where we strive with all our might to be peacemakers, gentle and humble in our interactions with others. Peace is a fruit of the Holy Spirit indwelling us.
As we celebrate the advent of peace this Christmas, let us remember the peace Christ brings to us: peace with God, peace within, and peace with others.