This is what defines us as Christians: our confession of what Jesus Christ has done for us. This isn’t the foundation of our faith—that must necessarily be God the Father, the one who made us. Nor can it be separated from our understanding of who Jesus is; had he been just another human being, nothing he did would have mattered a whit. It’s because he was the God of all creation become one particular human being that his work is worth everything instead of nothing. But it’s when we consider the astonishing reality of his life that all this stops being merely theoretical and becomes for us in a way that no other religion accepts. Judaism begins with God, too, and Islam even honors Jesus as a prophet; we are the only ones who bow before him as Lord and Savior.
Now, back when the early church was fighting about who Jesus was and what he did, going through the process of figuring out which popular beliefs about him were true to Scripture and which ones weren’t, they laid out five basic affirmations about his redeeming work. In one of the least creative titles in the history of preaching, I got four of them in there, but couldn’t fit all five. Obviously, first, Jesus Christ is God become human—the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, born by the power of the Holy Spirit as an apparently ordinary human baby to a most decidedly ordinary human woman, with a human father even more along for the ride than we usually are. This is a truth which the poets have generally handled better than the theologians, because it’s just too big for our propositional language; thus, for instance, the Anglican priest-poet John Donne wrote, addressing Mary,
That All, which always is All everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful Virgin, yields himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; . . .
Thou hast light in dark; and shutst in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.
This truth has launched a thousand speculations, many of them designed to avoid having to face it squarely, but in the end, I think Michael Card offers the wisest counsel in his song “To the Mystery”; having spent the verses exploring this inexplicable reality, he finally concludes, “Give up on your ponderings and fall down on your knees.”
That really is, I think, all we can do in the end as we contemplate this. The God of the universe traded in the throne of glory for a working-class childhood—not that his family was poor, they probably weren’t, but they were of no real status in a highly status-conscious society—then spent his adulthood as a vagabond, an itinerant teacher with no fixed address and no financial security. He spent the time teaching his disciples and preparing them for what was to come—not only in telling them he would have to die, which they never understood, but in teaching them what they would need to know in order to be able to carry on his mission to the world. The teachings of Christ in the gospels are not incidental to his redemptive work, but are an integral part of it.
Of course, any time you speak the truth without flinching and without obscuring it, you’re going to make people mad, and you’re going to make enemies, because all of us have places in our lives where we’re actively walling out the truth, and for a lot of folks, those places are pretty big and pretty central to their lives; in Jesus’ case, the enemies he made were the leaders of his own people, who decided he had to die before he ruined everything for them. Through a mass of trumped-up charges and quasi-legal interrogations and trials, they succeeded in accomplishing his judicial murder, never really registering that they were only carrying out things which he had set in motion, or that they were only able to kill him because he let them.
From the Roman point of view, of course, Jesus wasn’t a citizen, so he wasn’t a real person; as such, if it was expedient to get rid of him, his execution need not be carried out with any sort of respect, and so they crucified him. As I’ve noted before, this was a form of execution designed for maximum pain, both physical and also emotional, because it was intentionally degrading, humiliating, and dehumanizing; what I don’t think I’ve mentioned is that this was even worse for the Jews than for anyone else. You see, Deuteronomy 21 declares,
If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.
From the Jewish point of view, then, to be crucified was not merely to be executed, it was to be accursed. Paul picks up on this in Galatians 3, quoting this passage and concluding, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” These are the depths to which he was willing to go for the sake of his people.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, but of course, that wasn’t all that needed doing; nor could death ever hold the maker of all life. As we talk about on Easter, his resurrection was both inevitable and necessary; having paid the penalty for all sin by his death, by his resurrection he broke its power forever, putting death itself to death and giving us his life in its place. As I’ve said before, in his resurrection it’s not merely that he rose from the dead, but also that we rose with him, spiritually speaking, from the death of sin to the new life of God. I don’t think we can repeat this enough, that in Christ we are no longer bound by death and grief and loss and defeat, because in him, we have overcome the world. These things do still oppress us now, but their presence in our lives is only temporary; Jesus has conquered all of them, and in him, so have we. His full victory is still coming, but its coming is assured, because he has already won it.
Having done this, Christ finished his work when he returned to heaven. This is something that’s often overlooked; I preached a series on it a couple years ago, and I expect we’ll be touching on it again later this year, but Christ’s ascension is not merely an afterthought. Rather, having made the sacrifice once and for all for human sin, in his ascension he returned to the presence of the Father to complete his work by bringing the sacrifice into the holy of holies, then sat down at the Father’s side as our great high priest. There he intercedes for us before the heavenly throne, inviting us into God’s presence and bringing our prayers to the Father. It’s because he ascended and is now our great high priest that we can come freely to God in prayer.
Finally, we affirm that in the proper time, Christ will return; this sinful world will come to an end, the wicked will be judged, and all things will be made new. Christians disagree about the details, but on that much, we can all agree, that those who are alive in Christ will live with him forever in the kingdom of God, filled with his love, made new in his perfection, shining with his glory. This is our hope in Christ.
Now, this is central to our faith; this is basic truth that the church ought to teach all of us from the time we are very young, because it’s essential to our understanding of who God is and who we are in him. This is the gospel, the good news; it’s what we’re supposed to be on about. The problem is, far too many in the church believe that because this is basic, it’s kid stuff that they’ve outgrown; they don’t think it matters to their lives, and so they think they need something else to speak to their problems and challenges. For an example, let me share this with you from a Christian counseling website:
Jeremy & Carol do not like each other. Jeremy is passive and Carol is hurt. Carol has been in therapy for many years and their problems have not gone away and their marriage is no better off today than it was when Carol began her therapy sessions. The fundamental problem with Jeremy and Carol is that they do not understand the Gospel.
When I shared this with them, they dismissed this notion with a wry smile. The Gospel is too simple and they had already “accepted Christ” twenty something years ago. From their perspective, they understand the Gospel, accepted the Gospel, and are now looking for something a bit more sophisticated to help them through their marriage difficulty.
In that response, they aren’t uncommon among American churchgoers, but they are unfortunate; they think they need something better and deeper than the gospel when in fact there is nothing better and deeper. Their problem is that they don’t understand their problem; as the author goes on to say,
they are spoiled Americans who believe they deserve better than what they currently have. They believe they are better than what they are receiving, when the truth is they deserve a lot worse than what they are receiving.
As, in truth, we all do. Their problem—which is a problem to varying degrees for most of us—is that they don’t take their sin anywhere near seriously enough, and thus don’t think the gospel is really all that big a deal. Their shrunken sense of their own sinfulness has given them an even more shrunken view of the redemptive work of Christ, such that they truly do not understand the incredible grace and mercy of God; thus when they face problems in their lives, they think they need something else in addition to the gospel in order to deal with them.
This is nothing less than a tragedy, because it leads them, and us, to believe that Jesus is not enough, and thus to look elsewhere for redemption when he is the only redeemer there is to be found. It’s a tragedy that is driven, I believe, by the desire to avoid looking too closely at ourselves and our sin. The only solution to it is to do exactly that: to look unflinchingly at our lives and ask God to teach us to see our sin as he sees it. To pull from this piece about Jeremy and Carol one last time,
Suppose Jeremy & Carol truly understood that they were on the precipice of hell. Let’s further suppose that they knew they were the worst, wickedest, and most undeserving people who ever lived. And there was not one ounce of an entitlement attitude in their souls. They were the worst of the worst.
Now let’s suppose someone came and totally transformed their lives. If anyone had ever gone from worst to first, Jeremy and Carol were those people. They received an “other worldly” gift that they not only did not deserve, but they were absolutely helpless in ever earning. Jeremy and Carol were truly regenerated: they were born again. They are now seated in heavenly places with the One who fully secured their regeneration. They have been affected by the Gospel.
That’s what all of us need to understand, because that’s where all of us are. God doesn’t owe us anything except judgment—even the best of us. But instead of giving us judgment, he gave us himself; he gave us his Son, Jesus Christ. We were and are utterly undeserving, and he saved us anyway, at unimaginable, immeasurable cost to himself; he did it because even though we turned our backs on him, he loved us too much to let us go. This is the reason for everything Jesus did, and it’s the reason he is the answer to all the deepest problems of our lives; it’s the reason that the truth of the gospel is sufficient, that it doesn’t need any of our human fake “wisdom” piled on top of it like poison ivy on a hot-fudge sundae. The gospel is enough; his grace is sufficient.
So what does it mean to live this out? Well, that’s what Paul’s talking about in Philippians 2. I think the best expression of the idea here that I’ve ever heard came from Fr. Ernest Fortin, a philosopher and priest from Quebec—the Roman church in Quebec is not exactly known for being saturated with the gospel, but he was, and I love this quote that was attributed to him by one of his students:
The Christian virtue par excellence is humility. . . humility first of all of a God who would humble Himself to take on our humanity and give His life as a ransom for the many. But humility as well for the believer—to understand that all is grace; that we have no right to claim anything as our own—not our life, not our gifts, not even our faith. We are at every moment God’s creation.
That’s really the bottom line: all is grace. Everything that is good in our lives is grace. Everything that is good in us, everything that is best about us, it’s all grace. It’s all Jesus, it’s all his gift in us, to us, through us. At every moment, we exist because he made us, we live because he gave us life, we love because he first loved us, we have faith because he placed it in us, we have hope because he is the source of hope, we see because he gives us light . . . all is grace, and we can take no credit. All we can do is give thanks, and bow in humble awe at how good is our Lord, how good he is to us.