Years ago, after I had attended a year or so of college, I returned home for vacation. I went to my home congregation, and the pastor was on vacation. I remember walking into the pastor’s confirmation class and talking to the students there. I remember very vividly talking to one of the kids. He was pretty bright in the sense that he didn’t just accept any answer to certain questions. He was what one might call a critical thinker.
I don’t know if it was because I didn’t seem imposing or whether or not I wasn’t a hyper-critical threat, but this young man opened up with both barrels. The question he asked was explosive. It went something like this, “I don’t mean to be offensive or anything, but why did Jesus have to die like He did? I mean, I understand God saving the world and everything, but why did He have to pick such a lame way to do it?”
Tough, tough question to answer for a 13 year old. Tough, tough question for a 20 year old college student to answer. Tough, tough question for a pastor to answer in an understandable manner for that confirmation student and for a congregation in the midst of a 15 minute sermon. The answers are there, of course, but how does one convey such thoughts in a clear, concise manner that can be understood? I say this since volumes of thought have been put down in books and papers throughout the centuries since Christ suffered and died on that cross to reconcile the world unto God. Why was Jesus’ death necessary? Why did He have to die in the manner He did? And how do we respond to it?
St. Paul has condensed this down into a short paragraph in the book of Galatians as he deals with a congregation that is trying to impose the Jewish law on anyone and everyone who seeks to become a Christian. This congregation believed that if one became a follower of Jesus Christ, then that person had to adhere strictly to all of the Law lest they would be eternally damned–this included circumcision. As you can imagine, gentlemen, this was not a selling point for many men who were seeking to become Christian. I don’t know about you, but if someone told me, “Well, you are becoming a Christian. If you are not circumcised, then you have to have this done now.” I’d be like, “Um, I’m not so sure about this anymore.” But that was just the tip of the ice berg. Circumcision was just one part of the Law. There were those in Galatia who believed that the entirety of the law must be adhered to in order for one to become Christian and attain salvation.
Paul resoundingly says, “No!” Why? Why would Paul say this? Why would Paul say that adhering strictly to the Jewish law to become Christian and attain salvation is wrong?
Let’s begin with an analogy that Timothy Keller uses in his book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Let’s say that you have worked diligently to install a wonderful gated entrance to your home. You’ve spent a lot of time and money putting things together, but then someone runs into it with their car doing a couple of thousand dollars in damage. What happens next?
Well, someone has to pay for the damage. If the person who was driving is forced to pay for the damage, this is called restitution. Whether legally or voluntarily, this person pays for the damages he or she caused by his or her actions. This is the right and just thing to do.
Now, let’s say that God created the heavens and the earth. He put humankind on the earth, and He endowed all of creation with free will so that creation could live in a true relationship with its creator. Now, let’s say that humankind and creation rebelled against its creator and broke that relationship. Who is going to fix it? Who is going to pay to have it fixed? Well, in the broken gate scenario, it is right and just for the one who broke it to fix it, is it not? So, how do we as humankind and creation fix what we broke? Is it possible for us to fix this relationship when in fact we discover that we are broken ourselves? And what if the price to fix this relationship hinges on our absolute perfection? Can we fix something this broken? The fact of the matter is, we don’t have the ability, capability, or finances to fix what was broken by humankind’s and creation’s rebellion.
Which brings us to the next phase of the scenario in the broken gate. The landowner/homeowner can forgive the damage and fix it himself. Of course, this will cost the landowner. He or she will have to dig into his or her own pocketbook and pay the price. This is called forgiveness. Notice that there is a cost. You can’t just let the gate lie in disrepair.
And so, when it comes to the broken nature of the relationship between humankind and God, who chooses to fix things? Well, God Himself does knowing that there is no possible way for us to fix it ourselves. And the price is high. I mean, think about the broken nature of creation. This isn’t just a little do it yourself project. The damage is great, and the cost is astronomical. Therefore, God had to die to repair it. God had to take on human flesh, face betrayal, evil, injustice, suffering, and finally death to pay the price for creation’s failure. Thus, the crucifixion.
Ah, but there is also resurrection. This is the promised first fruits of the new creation–a creation where God, humankind, and the world God created will be renewed and all the evil will be unmade. The price is paid. The reconstruction is underway to be brought about fully and completely in God’s time. This is the grace of God which Paul talks about in the snippet from Galatians chapter 2. This is why Jesus had to die in the manner He did. He paid the price.
Which leads us to the question: what next? What is our role now that Christ has paid the price? Where do we go from here?
Let’s pick apart this final statement from St. Paul, “19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”
This is dense stuff. Really dense in its application and implication. Do I pursue the works of the law believing that I must accomplish it to receive salvation? Do I say, “I’d better not lie, cheat, steal or else I will go to hell.”? Do I say, “I’d better worship regularly, give to church and charity, feed the hungry, work for justice, and do all sorts of good things or else I might find myself in a fiery ordeal.”? Do I say, “There are certain things that I have to do and other things that I can’t do so that I get into heaven.”? No. If it is by your actions or inactions that you believe you go to heaven or hell, then Christ died for nothing. If you think your actions or inactions have anything to do with where you end up eternally, then Christ died for nothing. For then everything depends upon you and what you do–not what Christ did.
And Christ did not die for nothing. His actions are responsible for our salvation. Period!
But that does not mean we do not adhere to those things I spoke about earlier? Again, no. For as a believer in Christ, I live to and for God. I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me and who now lives in me. And if I live to and for God, I must ask myself, “How does my life reflect this reality? How does my life show that I live to God and for God? How does my life reflect that I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me?”
Do I lie, cheat, steal, commit injustice, gossip, live in self-righteousness looking down my nose at others? Does this convey the nature of Christ? Do I walk around telling everyone how sorry they are and how they are sinful in the eyes of God and how they need to repent? Does this convey the nature of Christ? Do I act as though I have everything figured out with all knowledge and power? Do I come across as though I know all there is to know and have achieved perfection? Does this convey the nature of Christ? Or, do I seek to be like Christ–humbling myself in perfect obedience to God, pouring myself out in service to God and to others showing compassion, forgiveness, and an uncompromising faith in the power and goodness of God? Christ did not die for nothing. Let your life show this convincingly. Amen.