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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Very Large Question

Ron asked a question about my post from last week.  A really, really big question.  It’s one that deserves an answer.
I don't understand why Jesus' death was 'necessary'. It seems like an extremely cruel act just to get our attention. Not that there is any shortage of cruelty in the Bible condoned or ordered by God. How do you explain all this to the layman?
This covers a lot of theological ground.  For Christians, it covers nearly all of our theology, in fact.  I’ll do my best to be concise and hopefully clear.*  A quick caveat, too:  I’m just a schmoe with a (non-religious) desk job, and by any definition a true “layperson.”  I won’t parse that definition here, but I will say that Protestantism generally obliges even ordinary folks to have Christian doctrine down cold, and to be able (and willing) to teach it to others.  Here we go.

For the sake of argument (and time), we’ll assume that there is a thing called ‘sin,’ and there’s clear, objective, knowable right and wrong (truth), and that God has communicated truth/morality/what he wants from us via the Bible.  For some that’s a lot to swallow, but this isn’t the place to take on apologetics and Postmodernism and relativism and all that.

If you sin, you’ve broken God’s rules, transgressed against his law, done evil/wrong, or however you want to phrase that.

The Bible says sin is punishable by death.  “For the wages of sin is death,” Paul says in Romans 6.  There are many more, like Ezekiel 18:20.  (“The soul who sins is the one who will die,” which isn’t really arguing this point but it’s certainly implied.)  Sin equals death.  
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.  – James 2:10
It gets worse.  You sin once, you’ve broken the whole law, and… wait for it… you die.  We’re talking about any sin.  Let that one soak.  Every sin is a capital offense.  You swear when you stump your big toe.  You sucker punch a guy in a fistfight.  You imagine what a chick at the grocery store would look like naked.  You fudge your taxes.

So you’ve broken the law.  What now?

Well God, we find out in the Bible, is loving and forgiving and patient (1 John 4:8, Ephesians 4:32, 2 Peter 3:9, oodles more).  Finally we get some good news!  But what many forget is that he’s also imminently just and fair (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Romans 2:11, many more).  That is, he’s not your favorite uncle that smiles and slips you the occasional twenty and doesn’t know or care what you do.  He’s the arbiter and judge of right and wrong.  When sin happens, it’s a slight against him personally.  (In an interesting twist, and in case you were headed there already, God simply letting all sin or even some sins slide would be patently unjust and unfair, would it not?)

Assuming we don’t want to get crosswise with the Creator of, well, everything, how do we make sin right with God?  How do we fix our mess?  The short answer is that we can’t.  What can we give God?  Money?  Nope (various groups have tried almost exactly this to predictably awful results).  Doing good deeds?  Or just plain obedience?  Can you obey your way into goodness?  Nah, that’s really only not sinning – and it doesn’t square what you’ve already done.  And besides, you can’t obey perfectly all the time.  You cannot avoid sinning indefinitely.

So we’ve got a huge problem.  And we can’t fix it.

Early on, the Bible gives a hint as to an incredibly valuable substance that can actually pay for sin:  blood.  Don’t ask me, “Why blood?,” because I don’t know why.  Genesis 9:4 says, “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.”  Later on, while we’re hearing more dietary laws, this time for the Israelites, Leviticus 17:14 is particularly direct:  “…[T]he life of every creature is its blood. That is why I have said to the Israelites, 'You must not eat the blood of any creature, because the life of every creature is its blood; anyone who eats it must be cut off.'" There’s something special going on there.  The way to pay for sin, apparently, is through blood sacrifice.  It's a good explanation for why we see the incredibly detailed regulations about animal sacrifice under the Law of Moses.  To modern sensibilities it all sounds off-putting, but hang with me for a minute.

So the people sacrificed animals for hundreds and hundreds of years.  But we’re told that it never did them much good.  The animals didn’t have any idea what they were dying for, and the people that actually did the sinning generally got off scot-free.  The next year, they would do it all over again.
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. – Hebrews 10:1-4
Yet another problem.  Animals weren’t cutting it.  We needed a better sacrifice.

Sacrifices had to be perfect.  The animals couldn’t be lame, or blind, or injured.  They were the best of the best.  And blood-wise, your only step-up option from sacrificing an animal is to sacrifice a person.  But again, we’ve got a bit of a problem.  There are no perfect people walking around.  That’s sort of the point.

The Bible argues that because Jesus, God’s son, was deity, and yet was human at the same time, he could and did live perfectly (i.e. he didn’t sin).  Christ, and Christ alone could be that perfect sacrifice to finally, truly, fully pay for all sins.  For all time.  For everybody.  More from Hebrews 10: 
 ...[W]e have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.  Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.
In other words, we finally got the only sacrifice that would do us any good.  If you believe that Jesus was who he said he was, then he’s able to take care of the sin that animal sacrifices couldn’t.  There’s no more need of a sin sacrifice.  Ever.  We were under sin’s control, and we were bought back at incredible cost (“redeemed” is the proper term).  Now we belong to God again.

So we can be saved, because our sin has been paid for.  But hold on.  We’re not righteous (i.e. square with God) because we did anything great, or because we gave God anything of value.  We’re righteous because of what Jesus did on the cross.  We can “use” Jesus’ righteousness, if we’re in him.  Paul sums this up in really gorgeous language:
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.  He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. –Romans 3:21-26
So no, Jesus’s death wasn’t a morbid stunt to get humanity’s attention.  It was the completion of God's plan to reconcile humanity back to himself.  A plan, the Bible says, laid out before the founding of the world itself.  That one should really bake your noodle.  Does mine.

Another summary, this time from Peter:
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.  He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.  Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God. – 1 Peter 1:18-21
But I’d be an idiot if I didn’t say that all this is academic if you don’t do something with it.

If you haven’t become a believer in Jesus by turning your back on sin and by being baptized into his name (thus participating in his atoning death, and even better, in his resurrection, Romans 6:1-14, Acts 2:37-39, Acts 8:26-40), then this is meaningless to you, and you’re on the outside looking in.  There’s no nicer way to put it.  And there’s nobody else to fix the fix you’re in.

The idea isn't complex, but it is hard.   And it’s a lot to think about.  Anyway, I hope this is helpful in your journey.

*Cruelty/violence/unpalatable stuff in the Bible (a.k.a. “The Problem of Evil,” etc.), its origin, and exactly who’s behind it is an altogether separate issue that I’ll skip for the time being.

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