After 12/7/2011, this blog will no longer be updated, although content will remain. Please visit my new blog at Hidden Latitudes.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The real point of Easter

   The logic, for want of a better term, of Christ dying for our sins is lost on most unbelievers for several reasons. One, they do not see themselves as sinful enough to warrant a sacrifice on their behalf. Two, they cannot fathom why Jesus dying counts, or what it counts for. And they refuse to use the word sacrifice accurately.

In Romans 5, Paul tells us this: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—“ (v. 12). Paul is making a fundamental statement: everyone is a sinner. It wasn’t a new idea; King David said in Psalm 51:5: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” This concept of Original Sin (the belief that Adam’s original sin has been passed down to all his offspring, i.e., you and me) has a strong Biblical basis, as well as a practically observable one. G. K. Chesterton once remarked: “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” You may have trouble with it emotionally, and even cognitively, but if you have lived past the age of two, when you first told your parents “No!” then you have your own sin, and the point is moot.

This pervasiveness and egalitarianism of sin not only escapes modern man; it sometimes even escapes modern Christianity. Think of it this way: Next time someone asks you what your church is like, tell them it is a wonderful community made up of murderers, adulterers and thieves. Strong words but true. Most likely, the differences between me and Ted Haggard, the recent president of the National Association of Evangelicals who had to step down because of sexual impropriety, are more ones of action than attitude. As C. S. Lewis discovered, “For the first time I examined myself with a serious practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.” He perfectly describes what faces those earnestly seeking forgiveness and restoration:

“When you know you are sick, you will listen to the doctor…. Of course, I quite agree that the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in…dismay.”

This is our dilemma. Sin has destroyed our relationships with one another, our relationship with the natural world, our relationship with ourselves and, most importantly, our relationship with God. I find it curious that most, if not all, of the humanitarian programs and activist groups around the world, from Greenpeace to the Red Cross and even the PTA, are all seeking to heal these fractures. Yet all but a few ignore the root cause. And the thing to remember is it isn’t whether we feel guilty or not: we are guilty. Is there a remedy, a relief from this hopelessness and helplessness?

A few verses later in Romans 5, Paul gives us the answer:

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. (vs. 18-21).

Most of us know and believe this: that Jesus died on the cross, taking our sin guiltiness with Him, and healed the separation between God and man. And hopefully, that healing leads to other healings—within us between our spirits and our bodies and minds; between husbands and wives, parents and children, one nation and another; even between man and the environment.

But here is where I think many believers stumble: they think somehow that, having accepted Christ’s atoning sacrifice for their sin, they are better than those who have not. This is a deadly notion—deadly not only to those you are trying to reach who have not yet come to faith, but deadly to your own humility and usefulness. In his first letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul, obviously a devoted, informed and thoroughly saved Christian, said, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” (1:15)

Notice the tense: “I am.”

Charles Spurgeon suggests that you can never experience the fullness of forgiveness until you realize the fullness of your sinfulness: “There never was a man yet who was in a state of grace who did not know himself, in himself, to be in a state of ruin, a state of depravity and condemnation.” Again, C. S. Lewis strikes just the right tone when, in writing to Sheldon Vanauken, he said, “Think of me as a fellow patient in the same hospital who, having been admitted a little earlier, could give some advice." We are not better than anyone else. We are still as helpless and sinful as ever; we are simply forgiven, and expect God to better us. We cannot do it ourselves. Without Christ, we can do nothing.

I love the terms “lost” and “saved.” We’ve twisted them a bit, made them religious words, but in their primary uses, they illustrate so well what grace truly is.

Picture this: You take a small sailboat out into the Gulf of Mexico. What started out as a lovely morning turns nasty. There is a terrible squall, and the boat is torn in half. You survive the storm, but are left adrift, clinging to a decreasingly buoyant piece of flotsam. You have no idea which way is shore, and no way to summon help.

Just as you are about to surrender to the darkening sky and cold water, a deep-sea fishing boat comes by and hauls you to safety. Soon you are on dry land.

You are incredibly grateful to your rescuers. You are exhilarated. You were facing sure death, and someone snatched you to safety.

A year later you hear of another weekend sailor who has become lost in the Gulf. The circumstances are eerily similar. But now that you are on solid ground, what do you think: That you are a better sailor? That you always knew which way the shore waited?

If you’re wise, you’ll realize the only difference between you and the lost mariner (and you and a lost soul) is that you know where you are. It is place you could not find on your own, and could not reach on your own. And you still can’t. The only thing for sure is that you will not ever again risk death at sea. But if you have a heart at all, you’ll aid in the search for all those who are still lost at sea.

It is no small thing to have your sins forgiven. What love it is to be spared an eternity of suffering and separation (and no doubt much in our earthly lifetimes as well). And you can be freed from that constant wondering of whether you are “good enough” to please God. But don’t think you can take credit for it. And don’t think it makes you better than anyone else. If you do, even a little bit, you don’t understand grace. All of what is good and true for us is true and good only because Jesus died in our place, to pay the price we owed. Those who haven’t figured this out are not stupid but, as you once were, merely ignorant. They do not know what they do not know.

In 1981, Harold Kushner, a Reformed Jewish rabbi, published a very popular book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The premise was that that God has arranged the universe in such a way that even He cannot solve all of its dilemmas, but that He also, due to his caring nature, suffers along with his creatures.

While I’m sure the book brought comfort to many, it seems to me that it must be a sentimental comfort, not a real one. More important than God suffering along with His creatures is the truth that he suffered for His creatures. That’s the point of Easter.

Why do bad things happen to good people? With apologies to Rabbi Kushner, it is both to our sorrow and our gladness that, in fact, they don’t.

Well, once.

—W. S.

No comments: