Our Only Hope Is God’s Grace
January 9, 2013
As we continue our consideration of the great doctrines of the church and essentials of the Reformed faith, we now broaden our exploration of Incarnation to ask, “For what purpose would God become a man?”
One of the mysteries of the Incarnation revolves around the question of why God would go to such lengths to identify with his creation. It is a legitimate question and its answer must be consistent with God’s nature, which includes love, hope, holiness, and purposefulness. God created human beings to receive God’s gracious love, to bask in his glory, and to represent God as stewards of his creation. But when they rebuffed God’s grace, second-guessed God’s intent, and patronized their own desires (the fateful story told in Genesis 3), they were alienated from God. A great chasm caused by sin was created. God knew there was nothing mere mortals could do to restore the relationship: no “trying harder to do better next time,” no payment, no exemplary life on its own could bridge the gap. Not that human beings haven’t tried, but even the best long-distance swimmer is unable to paddle from San Francisco to Hawaii. And human beings cannot leap across the spiritual Grand Canyon created by our sin either.
So God had to do it. God wanted to do what was necessary to restore right relationship with him. God came in the flesh for a purpose, to redeem creation.
But why crucifixion? Because Jesus accomplished something on the cross that could be gained no other way. He offered himself up to death in order to free us from the mundane irreverence and the profound slavery to sin that permeate our lives. What exactly Christ accomplished on Calvary is described through many so-called theories of atonement, illustrations of the divine act of redemption. They surface under names such as ransom theory, substitutionary atonement, legal justification, and even Christ the Victor (over sin, death, and Satan). What helps us appreciate each of these and evaluate other attempts to describe the significance of the cross is a central truth: that God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. He did more than offer a good moral example of obedience (though his sacrifice was certainly that), he died in our place so that we would be reconciled to God and gathered in Christ before the throne of grace.
This is where prepositions become important. Our approach to God is made possible because our life is hidden in Christ. We are clothed in Christ, and our sin, forgiven and released, can no longer be seen by God, who judges the worthiness of all people to stand in his presence. In Christ, we have access. In Christ, we have our introduction and endorsement. In Christ, we are clean and whole. Our union with Christ is sealed by the Holy Spirit, who, very practically, grafts us into Christ and helps us express faith as a way of life. As a result of this gracious initiative on God’s part, we are embraced by the Father as children, loved and protected and set apart for holy living.
Several years ago, for Christmas a friend gave me a beautiful wrought iron cross which stands upright. I set it on the kitchen table and left it there until I could decide its permanent place in our home. Something very interesting began happening: the cross got in the way.
Andy got up first in the morning and spread the daily newspaper on the kitchen table to read while he ate breakfast. So the cross was moved to the edge of the table where it wouldn’t disturb the paper. Then Katy and Judy came to the table for breakfast and moved the cross to the opposite side of the table to make room for their meal. This shuffle continued the rest of the day. As homework was spread out on the table after school, the cross was placed as far away as possible to give a clear workspace. When the table was set for dinner, it was moved once again, and the unfortunate dance continued.
In exasperation one day, a family member who shall remain nameless burst out, “Can’t we put this thing somewhere where it won’t always be in the way?”
At this moment, the symbolism of that humble cross took on new meaning. Its presence was uncomfortable, because it named personal sin and spiritual need. It became a constant reminder that God paid the price charged to us, in order that we might be saved from the consequences of our sin. It spoke of our natural desire to push spiritual things to the edge of our lives rather than to keep Christ at the center of our awareness and activities. It shouted its pain, when we want to feel comfortable and undisturbed. And this cross was definitely in the way of our defiant assumption that we could save ourselves without help.
And so, the wrought iron cross found its permanent home right there in the middle of our kitchen table. We still move it around, continue to touch it, and allow it to remind us of our human weakness and God’s strength. It is placed where it can have its greatest power: at the center of our daily life, visible at all times, a challenge to our assumptions about life—especially life that insists the cross is in the way.
For many, embracing the Cross of Jesus Christ is really, really hard. The stumbling block is admitting that we need what Christ did for us. But once we get over that hurdle, the truth of the matter overwhelms us: Only the one, perfect, sinless human being could absorb in his person the sin of the world. Only God himself had the strength to withstand the weight of it. Our only hope is God’s grace, poured out for us and available in Christ alone.