Sunday, September 20, 2015

How Much We Owe

Maybe you've heard it before – people saying that Christianity is just a crutch. What they mean is that belief in God and in his promises is just a defense mechanism; that people like us are just too soft and weak-minded to face the harshness of reality, and so we fabricate a fantasy to help us get by. Karl Marx famously called it “the opiate of the masses,” something to drug people into a false consciousness and keep them from facing the reality of their oppression. Ted Turner once said that “Christianity is a religion for losers,” though he later changed his mind somewhat. Sigmund Freud called it a form of wish-fulfillment for the loving protection of a Father who isn't there, saying that these are “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind.” Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler and later governor, called it “a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers.”  Are they right?  Is Christianity just a crutch? I don't think that's true at all. For one, it ignores all the reasons supporting the Christian faith – the powerful case that God exists; the impossibility of explaining the rise and spread of Christianity without the death and resurrection of Jesus; the unparalleled beauty of the gospel. But they miss something else.  They miss the real depths of our need.

See, we have a problem. We live in a universe that's been wrenched out of place. The entirety of the creation we know and love is broken, pulled from its orbit and going down in flames, coming apart at the seams. Ever since God handed us the keys and we threw away the owner's manual and crashed it, the creation's been a moral wreck. It's a world full of opposition and conflict, a world where even the ground is cursed because of us: “In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17-19). This whole place, from top to bottom, is cursed because of us. It misses the mark – and that's what sin means. If you want to know why bad things happen, why there's suffering and death and tragedy, why the news is what it is, look no further – what else would you expect? It's only the mercy of God that restrains every day from being one continual and unmitigated tragedy.

What's more, from birth onward, each and every one of us is socially and legally enmeshed in sin. The very structure of our societies are built on sin. Everywhere you look, sin, sin, sin. The world outside of God's covenants, the Gentile world, the world of the nations, is defined by this trait above all others: people “by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). We have no excuse, no defense – we refuse to honor God, we refuse to give him thanks, our minds are darkened, we lust for idols, we barter away God's glory for a cheap knock-off (Romans 1:20-23). And even inside God's covenants, the world is no better than that, because it's filled with hypocrisy and law-breaking (Romans 2:21-24). The truth is that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9). There's not a society on earth, not one way of life, not one culture, that doesn't pin us down like Gulliver on his travels, strapping us to sin and ensnaring us in it. Sin is our inheritance, our cultural legacy.

And what's more, we are each and every one of us corrupt. Our desires are hardwired to seek out the lowest common denominator. Serious reflection shows that “the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of [our] hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Jeremiah writes that “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9). People “loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). How, after all, do the Scriptures summarize us?

There is no one who is righteous; no, not one. There is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one. Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of vipers is under their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace is not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Romans 3:10-18)

That sounds extreme, but as we heard last week, that's “the natural pathology of the human heart.” And yet we trick ourselves into thinking that the Fall is something less than this.  We trick ourselves.  And because we trick ourselves, we react with confusion at the news whenever it reports unspeakable acts of malice and depravity. We say to ourselves, “I can't understand how someone could do these things. What's this world coming to?”  You've heard it.  You've probably said it; I know I have.  Russell Moore wrote, “We can wring our hands that the world is going to hell, but then we ought to remember that the world did not start going to hell at Stonewall or Woodstock but at Eden.” It's no mystery how a corrupt person in a cursed world could do the things in the news cycle. The real mystery is how anyone doesn't do them.

Look around you: people sin all the times – sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes with big, flashy neon signs. And in every act of sin, whether subtle or gross, we ratify Adam's apostasy – we raise our hand in support of his decision to willfully defy God's commandment, to set himself (and ourselves in him) up as an authority independent of God and capable of revising the world through his own wisdom and his own desires. When we sin, we throw our support behind his unapologetic rebellion, knowing all its consequences – from Cain on down. And so understandably, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). And sin doesn't stop – it just increases and increases, never satisfied, always consuming us as a parasite.

This sin doesn't just hinder us. It doesn't make us merely morally lame, it doesn't just weaken us, it doesn't make us a bit forgetful. “You were dead in your trespasses and sins … following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:1-3). Not slowed down, not even hobbled or crippled – dead. And each of us is hopelessly lost in debt – the national debt doesn't even come close to touching it – all the debt for all the sin we've done and the sin we've supported, the weight of Adam's fall and its consequences, falls on us. Every man, woman, and child born under the sun is hopelessly abandoned to bankruptcy and doomed to destruction.  To say that's bad news is an understatement the understatement of the millennium.

But those three great letters but... enter Jesus. “God so loved the world” – yes, God is filled with love for the world that hates him, the world that denies him, the world that takes up arms in rebellion against him, the world that curses him and fills itself with violence and injustice just to spite him – “God loved that world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him” – whoever trusts him and flees from the world's hopelessness into his outstretched arms – “should not perish” as we deserve, but instead “have eternal life” (John 3:16). Were any words ever so sweet? Were any words so delicious, like a honeycomb in the mouth?

See, God could easily have sent Jesus into the world to tear it apart in judgment, to set it on fire with blazing wrath, to quash our rebellion with more-than-lethal force. God could have sent his Son into the world to condemn us. Looking around at each other, looking outside the church walls, looking into our hearts and what they've been made by sin, we can find no reason to think that there's any other way this is going to play out. But listen to this: “God didn't send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but those three great letters again but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17)! We need a Savior, and the Son came to do some saving!

We were and are powerless to save ourselves, and powerless to save each other. We have no strength, we dare not boast in our power – though we often do. We pretend we can fix sin through our brilliant technology or through our social engineering. We imagine we can build utopia atop a graveyard – and then we're surprised when the world is shredded by bigger and bigger and bigger wars, and when the evils we stifle burst out in new and unexpected places. The whole history of modernity is a game of Whack-a-Mole with relentless evil, but we continually delude ourselves into thinking we've won. The truth is, we're helpless. But those three letters but “while we were still helpless, at just the right time Christ died..." for the good? for the wonderful? for the deserving? for the worthy?  No.  "At just the right time, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6), for us.

Can you believe it? “God shows his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners" - not after, not later, "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The hero sacrifices himself to redeem the villains! God bends down from heaven and dies for God-haters of every stripe! He stepped into our filth, the filth of all our sin and our debt – “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). We had a debt we couldn't pay; he paid a debt he didn't owe. We were “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:20), bound by its heavy chains; but “for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm, therefore, and don't submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). He shed his precious blood on the cross, and “sin stains are lost in its life-giving flow,” able to free us from our “passion and pride” and free us from “the burden of sin”!

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9)! And we don't need to work for it – as if we ever could (Ephesians 2:9)!  Our salvation isn't the result of our works; our works are what sealed us under wrath in the first place! But instead, we're “saved by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8), blessed by the sheer gift of God – and all we have to do is trust, all we have to do is look, fix our eyes on the Son of Man as he's lifted up, so “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). He was lifted up to bear God's wrath so that we could have life instead, and have it to the full (John 10:10).

We were children of that same wrath, we were doomed to destruction. We were dead in our trespasses and our sins. We were slaves to sin; we were caught up in its power. We were completely and totally helpless and hopeless. But Jesus Christ became our hope he became my hope, and he became your hope! “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20)! He did more than just free us. He did more than just snatch us from the fire. He blessed us; he gave us reconciliation through his death and salvation through his risen life and, above all, the ability to not despair in our sin but instead to “rejoice in God” (Romans 5:10-11).

Coming as the embodiment of his Father's rich mercy, coming out of pure love, “even when we were dead in our trespasses,” he “made us alive together with Christ,” saving us by his grace, “and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-7). And we actually “have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). Not just an escape from fire, but an ascent to glory and fellowship with God, being made members of his own household (Ephesians 2:19)! He actually reserves us thrones in heaven, making kings and priests out of what once was a hopeless wreck of wickedness. That's the power of grace.

We once owed a debt we couldn't pay. But  “Jesus paid it all; all to him we owe; sin had left a crimson stain; he washed it white as snow.”  And he blessed us anew. Now we don't have the harsh burden of debt, but we do have one obligation: our gratitude and our service. That's what it means when we were “created in Christ Jesus,” not by good works, “for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Walking in gratitude is the only natural response to what Jesus has done. His “streams of mercy, never ceasing, / call for songs of loudest praise.” We're daily constrained to be the greatest debtor to grace. And yet the one and only thing we owe is love, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). That's the only debt; that's the character of all we owe: love, which reigns above all virtues and binds them together because it's the very heart of God. But now, to what extent to we owe love? What's the upper limit of the gratitude we should express? Well, now I'll tell you – or, rather, I won't.  See, “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor the heart of man imagined...” (1 Corinthians 2:9).  That is how much we owe.

So is Christianity a crutch, like some say? No, Christianity is not a crutch.  The gospel is not a crutch. And thank God! A crutch is so much less than we need! We weren't just weak; we were dead and doomed! The world is littered with crutches – money, fame, power, respect, family, work, possessions, anything we rely on, even our own vaunted independence and our pretenses of strength, our claims to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But a bootstrap is a crutch.  A crutch can't give a cadaver motion. A crutch can't pay a debt that outweighs the earth. The crutch can't shine light into the darkness. And yet the world is full of crutches, and it's time we stopped relying on them and turned to something stronger.

The gospel is no crutch. The gospel is resurrection! The gospel is life from the dead; the gospel is the only hope; the gospel is new creation! So often, we're focused on all we need to do, all we need to change. But sometimes, we just need to be reminded to open our eyes to the beauty of what God has done, to the infinite blessings he crafts all around us but especially in us through Jesus. We just need to rediscover why we “live daily his praises to sing.” Resurrection, and the sure hope of attaining to the glory of God and never missing the mark again, is the only possible measure of the holy mystery of how much we owe. So “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57)!

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