Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Why I believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ

[I posted this on my Facebook page over Easter and felt it would be fitting to re-post here.]

Easter is one those funny holidays when people are either posting about eggs and bunnies or something about Jesus rising from the dead.  I'm sure everyone has a "religious" friend who does the latter-- you've probably seen a Bible verse, a picture of an empty tomb, maybe a Jesus meme, or some other content, indirectly or directly, that's supposed to hearken to the fact that Easter is one of the most important days in Christendom.

If you're not a Christian, you probably scroll right past these kinds of posts because, for all intents and purposes, they're about someone who you believe has no bearing on your life whatsoever.  I mean, who cares what a 1st century Jew did nearly 2,000 years ago?  Your concern is making today's world a better place, because for all you know, this is all the life there is until you breath your last.

Over the years, I've posted a lot of random stuff that has more or less hinted that Christianity is important to me.  But I've never explained why I believe what I believe, and more importantly, why I believe it has bearing on every single person to ever live.  I think most people are vaguely aware that Christians believe in Jesus because he died for their sins.  But being able to elucidate the true meaning of Jesus' cruficixion beyond this elementary statement becomes the tricky part.  What does it really mean that Christ came to die for sinners?

To start, we need to think about God-- who he is, his attributes, character, etc. etc.  People like to think of him as the "man upstairs" or the "big cheese" or some higher being that provides comfort and care for those who believe in him.  Let's step back from this presupposition for a second and see what the Bible says about God.  We're told that God is holy (1 Peter 1:16).  Holiness is like a binary characteristic-- you're either holy or you're not.  Anything short of perfect holiness is not holy.

Holiness means that there isn't a morsel of evil, a speck of filth, or a trace of sin present.  If it coexists with something that's 0.000001% evil, then it ceases to become holy.  The justice of a holy being means that anything failing to conform to that standard needs to be wiped out stat.  So if God is perfectly holy, then it is logically impossible that he reside with anyone who comes up short, even if just a nanometer.

Enter human.  Chances are you've been taught that you're a morally good person.  If you answer in the affirmative, it's probably because there are a lot of sad wretches out there who are worse than you.  Compared to some other people, you do pretty well.  And that's true as long you keep using a humanometer to determine your moral worthiness.  If there's really is a heaven and hell, then your ability to stay afloat of the 50th percentile will grant you access to heaven.  The bottom fifthy percent?  Not so much.

But if there's really a heaven and hell, and a God who determines who goes to which, is he really going to use a humanometer for your eternal consignment?  Remember when I mentioned God's holy standard and how anything less than that needs to be blotted out?  Well, that's the measuring stick that God uses.  To put it bluntly, everyone doesn't do so hot when we use God's holy assessment.  Everyone falls short (Romans 3:23).

I don't need to point out what's going on out there for you to see how messed up the world is.  In fact, I want to avoid doing that, because then you start evaluating the really bad stuff in the world against the really good stuff.  The one thing I think Hobbes (the philosopher, not the tiger) got right was that humans are inherently selfish.  Sometimes, I'll do something for someone out of what I think is an altruistic motive, only to later realize how smug I was feeling about it afterward.  A long time ago, a prophet named Isaiah said even deeds that we think are good are just filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

You might think this is pretty unfair but when we're talking about an infinite and utterly holy God, then there's no excuse.  According to the Bible, you're pretty much worse than a pile of crap when compared to God.  In an age of humanism, this is the singlemost difficult pill for people to swallow, because we're conditioned to think that humans can be empowered to build a morally responsible society.  After all, who needs God when you've got good moral people?

The Christian worldview, on the other hand, holds that "good moral people" do not exist.  Yep.  It's true.  They may according to the standard of what humans judge to be right and wrong, but when measured up against the holiness of God, people don't even come close.  So if there really is a heaven and hell, and the only qualification for the former is perfect holiness, where do you think we're all headed by default?

If you've followed everything I've said up until this point (or not), this leads us to one point: there is a massive gulf between us and God.  Like massive.  So massive that no human could bridge the gap.  How do you reconcile perfect and infinite holiness to well, everything else?  You can't.  That's the bad news.  You, I, President Obama, Gandhi, Hitler, and everyone in between: we all hold a one-way ticket to hell.  According to God's standard, that's our just destination.

Here's the good news.  God didn't just say: "Screw it!  Damn everyone to hell!", which he could have very well done.  Instead, he did something really remarkable and inexplicable.  He bridged that massive gulf himself.  He made a plan that we call redemption: the reconciliation of human and God.  How he did it is even more remarkable-- he sent his son, Jesus Christ, into the world, ultimately to be executed not for any crime he had committed, but for every crime we had committed against God.

When Christians talk about Jesus hanging on the cross, it's not some simple sentimental expression of love.  He literally took our place.  Theologians refer to this as 'substitionary atonement'-- the belief that Christ substituted himself for the sinner on the cross and in so doing, made atonement not just for the sinner's sin, but for the very sinful nature inherent in all humans.  This exchange is foretold just prior to the crucifixion when Pilate asks the Jews who they want to crucify: Barabbas, a notorious criminal, or Jesus, who lived a perfect sinless life.

In our modern judicial system, we often cry foul when big crimes go unpunished while the law comes down hard on petty crimes.  But is there any greater injustice when a man, who is not only law-abiding but also sinless, gets executed while a hardened criminal gets off scot-free?  If that happened to anyone today, you'd probably be screaming "injustice!"  But that's exactly what happened to Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago.

What's even more crazy about this story is that Christ's crucifixion wasn't unjust at all.  In fact, it was totally just.  Why?  Because he wasn't dying for himself.  He was dying for sinners.  He was accounting for their sinful lives and imputed his righteousness to those who would believe in him.  In that moment, he wasn't just saving, he was recreating new lives that would be fit to stand before God.

Remember when I said that the only qualification for heaven is perfect holiness?  Well, Jesus fulfilled that qualification for his people.  And here's the remarkable thing-- our sin wasn't just some debt he wiped away, he remade us as new creatures.  When we were born into this world, we were born in sin.  But when we're remade as new creatures, we're born in righteousness.  This is what Christians mean when we talk about being born again.  It's not some mythical fantasy-- there's actually significance behind it.

So what's up with the whole resurrection story then?  If Jesus died and he stayed dead, then Christians wouldn't have very much to celebrate.  But the Bible tells us that Jesus burst out of his grave just three days after he was crucified.  To this day, no archaeologist, secular or Christian, can tell you where the body of Jesus is buried.  Why?  Because he's not here.

So why does the resurrection matter?  It matters because it not only fulfills what the Bible promised earlier in the Old Testament, but it also proves what Jesus claimed all along-- that he was the Son of God.  And even more importantly, his resurrection points to our resurrection.  You might be wondering: "What resurrection?  We're not dead."  But we are.  The Bible tells us that we're spiritually dead people, and that only the power of God brings spiritual life to the dead (1 Corinthians 15:22).

That brings us back to the whole gulf thing.  For anyone to even meet the qualification of perfect holiness, God had to redeem and recreate a new people to fit that holy standard.  We call this grace-- he did it completely out of his own mercy and with no consideration of human merit.  Because if he did, we would all be screwed.  Instead, we point to Jesus in all his righteousness when we're before God in his judgement.

Ultimately, this brings me to my final point.  The Bible isn't some ancient religious text for the purpose of ethics and moralism.  It's an account of God's redemption plan and how he brings salvation to those who place their faith in him.  People like to prooftext and cherry-pick bits and pieces of the Bible, but that's not how it's supposed to be read.  It should always be read in the context of a perfect and holy God, sinful and unclean people, and how God redeems his people from that.

There are a lot of popular misconceptions about what Christianity is, and much of it has tarnished what the true gospel teaches.  You might have been turned off by instances of scandal among church leaders, or rampant hypocrisy within evangelicalism.  But I'd urge you to look to Jesus instead.  Not because he's some moral guru, but because he's the perfect and righteous redeemer for sinful people.

If you've always bought into some warped version of Christianity, I hope this post sheds some light on the true gospel.  But don't take my word for it.  Read the Bible yourself and see what God has to say about his redemption plan.  Come to Jesus in repentance and faith, and he won't turn you away (John 6:37).

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