Christ Suffered and Died: To Cancel the Legal Demands of the Law Against Us

DURING THE WEEK LEADING up to Easter I will present seven distinct reasons why Christ suffered and died, culminating on Easter Sunday with To Reconcile Us to God. Today we look at Christ suffering and dying to cancel the legal demands of the law against us.

And you, who were dead in your trespasses… God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross.         (Col. 2:13)

commandments

WHAT A FOLLY IT is to think that our good deeds may one day outweigh our bad deeds. It is folly for two reasons. First, it is not true. Even our good deeds are defective, because we don’t honor God in the way we do them. Do we do our good deeds in joyful dependence on God with a view to making known His supreme worth? Do we fulfill the overarching command to serve people “by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11)?

What then shall we say in response to God’s word? “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). I think we shall say nothing. “Whatever the law says it speaks… so that every mouth may be stopped” (Romans 3:19). We will say nothing. It is folly to think that our good deeds will outweigh our bad deeds before God. Without Christ-exalting faith, our deeds will signify nothing but rebellion.

The second reason it is folly to hope in good deeds is that this is not the way God saves. If we are saved from the consequences of our bad deeds, it will not be because they weighed less than our good deeds. It will be because the “record of [our] debt” in heaven has been nailed to the cross of Christ. God has a totally different way of saving sinners than by weighing their deeds. There is no hope in our deeds. There is only hope in the suffering and death of Christ.

There is no salvation by balancing the records. There is only salvation by canceling records. The record of our bad deeds (including our defective good deeds), along with the just penalties that each deserves, must be blotted out—not balanced. This is what Christ suffered and died to accomplish.

The cancellation happened when the record of our deeds was “nailed to the cross” (Colossians 2:13). How was this damning record nailed to the cross? Parchment was not nailed to the cross. Christ was. So Christ became my damning record of bad (and good) deeds. He endured my damnation. He put my salvation on a totally different footing. He is my only hope. And faith in Him is my only way to God.

Righteous in His Sight

Our great initial need before God is to be justified. To have God declare us not guilty, and pronounce us righteous in His sight. At first glance this appears to be an impossible situation for man. God, our Judge, is holy by His nature. Because of sin, man is unholy by nature. “But we are all like an unclean thing, and our righteousness is like filthy rags” (See Isaiah 64:6). The consequences of such ungodliness are inevitably universal and appropriately severe. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… for the wages of sin is death” (Romans 3:23 and 6:23a). The appropriate sentence for all of humanity, in light of their sins against a pure, holy, and eternal God, is death—everlasting separation from God.

The Law of God offers no help, and provides no hope of remedying this dire situation. People are not justified by the works of the Law. Trying your best to measure up to God’s standards never produces a verdict of not guilty. In all of history, Jesus was the only one who could stand up to the scrutiny of God’s Law and receive a declaration of being righteous. Jesus was in all ways tempted as we are, yet without sin (See Hebrews 4:15). No other person could ever perform sufficiently under the Law to achieve a declaration of righteousness. No one is justified by the Law in the sight of God.

Clothed-in-the-Righteousness-of-ChristWe are clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

Vows and pledges of personal improvement offer no hope. Asking others for advice on how to strive more earnestly provides no answer. Only faith supplies the necessary remedy. Man is not justified by the works of the Law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. Trusting in our own best efforts leaves us guilty before God. Trusting in Christ’s perfect work on the cross makes us justified before God. God’s Word tells us, “Remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off, having been brought near by the blood of Christ” (See Ephesians 2:12-13).  Verse 16 tells us that we are reconciled to God through the cross. It is a command, not a suggestion. We must remember that we are hopeless!

What Exactly is Righteousness?

Dictionaries define righteousness as behavior that is morally justifiable or right. Such behavior is characterized by accepted standards of morality, justice, virtue, or uprightness. The Bible’s standard of human righteousness is God’s own perfection in every attribute, attitude, behavior, and spoken word. Thus, God’s Law, as given in the Bible, both describe His own character and the very plumb-line by which He  measures human righteousness. Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible says, “The work of religion is to no purpose, unless the heart is in it, and we must worship God in the strength and grace of the Divine Spirit.” It’s important to note that things Paul counted as gain while a Pharisee he counted for loss for Christ.

Righteousness is an attribute of moral purity belonging solely to God. It is He alone who is truly righteous. No one in the world is righteous in the eyes of the Lord except the Christian. We are counted righteous in the eyes of God when we receive Jesus by faith. Paul counted all things but rubbish so that he may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having righteousness of his own—derived from the Law—but that which is through faith in Christ (See Philippians 3:9). Our righteousness is based only on the work done by Jesus on the cross. Through propitiation, the righteousness that was Christ’s is counted to us. This is why when God looks at us, He sees us as righteous. Though we are actually worthy of damnation, we are made blameless.

As Paul notes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and all things have become new.” Without regeneration of his spirit, it is vain for any man to profess a relationship with Christ according to the flesh, while he is unchanged in heart and lifestyle; accordingly, he is dead in trespasses and sins. Let’s take a look at the blessings of the Gospel. It brings us into Christ. Through it, we become a new creation; old things are passed away. The Gospel allows us to put on a new life, which is literally opposite the old life. With the new believer, all things are of God. The true Christian does not permit anything in his life which is ungodly. The cross allows us to be reconciled to God. We become the righteousness of Christ in the eyes of the Father.

Self-Righteousness and Legalism

We are accepted as righteous by God because of what Jesus has done. He was made sin, while we are made righteous. On the cross, Jesus was treated as if He were a sinner, though He was perfectly holy and pure, and we are treated as if we were righteous, though we are defiled and depraved. Put another way, we are treated as though we had entirely fulfilled the Law and had never been exposed to its penalty. Self-righteousness is defined as “confidence in one’s own righteousness, especially when smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others.” Basically, self-righteousness—which is related to legalism—is the misconception that we can somehow generate within ourselves a holiness that will be acceptable to God. As it is written, there is no one who is righteous on their own merits (See Romans 3:10).

realitycheck self righteousness.jpg

Jesus had harsh words for the puffed-up self-righteousness of the Jewish leadership. He said, “Everything they do is done for people to see… they love the place of honor at banquets, and the most important seats in they synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called Rabbi by others… [but] those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:5-7; 23:12, NIV). Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Whoa to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27, NIV). This scenario plays out many times between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes.

The Apostle Paul on Self-Righteousness

Paul’s treatment of self-righteousness is no less harsh than that of Jesus. Let’s look at what he had to say in the Book of Romans. “For in the Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith'” (Romans 1:17). Paul notes in Romans 10:3, “Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the culmination of the Law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”

He addressed this same issue with the Galatians. They were convinced that they had to do certain things to be acceptable to God, including circumcision. Paul astutely called their belief “another gospel,” calling those who advocated it “accursed” (See Galatians 1:8-9). Paul said if righteousness could come from the mere actions of man, then Jesus died “for no purpose” (See Galatians 2:21). He concluded that the Galatians were foolish in their attempt to be perfected by the flesh.

are-you-so-foolish-having-begun-by-the-spirit-are-you-now-being-perfected-b-esv.jpg

Concluding Remarks

It is in our sin nature to attempt to behave ourselves into God’s grace. While under the lash of active addiction, I did whatever I could to appear righteous. Admittedly, I was trying to convince friends, family, and employers that I was finally doing things the right way. I was a modern-day Pharisee, bent on presenting a public self-righteousness while privately drinking and drugging. I went to church every Sunday, taught Bible study at two local county prisons, prayed publicly at mealtimes, and attended 12-step meetings. I was driven by pride, fear, and delusions of self-sufficiency.

Most of us are always trying to do something to merit our salvation. The costly freedom of grace, bought for us by the blood of Jesus with no contribution from us, is difficult for our prideful hearts to understand or appreciate. It is far easier to compare ourselves with one another than it is to recognize that we cannot measure up to the standards of a holy God. However, in Christ we can know true righteousness. Through Him, we can know the forgiveness of sin that comes to us through grace and not through works. Because He stood in our place, we benefit from His sinless life and His sin-bearing death on the cross. We are told in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (NIV). Through His sacrifice, we can bring our sin to the cross instead of trying to be good enough to earn appear sacred and holy before God. Only through the cross can we see the grace that covers all our sin and defeat the constant tendency toward self-righteousness in our hearts.

 

The Gospel: Part Two

THE FALL

The world was made for God’s glory, but His glory in creation was made manifest in man and woman, bearers of His image, who were created to take dominion over creation, to be the crown jewel of the material world. So when sin entered us, it entered the world. Original sin has effects beyond humanity; it affects the world, the cosmos. “The whole creation has been groaning.” (Romans 8:22) This is not just to remind us of the seriousness of rebellion against God, but to indicate that human rebellion against God disrupts the natural order of everything. This is why the Gospel must be explicitly about the restoration of God’s image bearers and also about the restoration of the entire theater of His glory, the cosmos.

There is a vital connection between Adam’s disobedience and the Fall of the very earth itself in Genesis 3, as God pronounces the curse:

“And to Adam He said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain 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 food. By the sweat of your face, you shall eat the bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:17-19, ESV)

The harmony that Adam and Eve enjoyed with God’s creation, the peaceful dominion they were given over it, is not broken. “Cursed is the ground because of you.” The fracture between Adam and creation reflects the fracture between God and Adam. Where Adam’s work was toil-less, it is now toilsome. While the earth was once wonderfully subdued, it now yields grudgingly. Where it was once only fruitful and abundant, it now offers the challenge of thorns and thistles. And while Adam was once bestowed with imperishable flesh, his sin limits the life span of his body. Having rejected God’s blessings, he has chosen to place his hope in the dust from which he was fashioned.

We know Adam and Eve were placed as the crowns of God’s good creation, but as the crown goes, so goes the creation. Their sin brings the curse to us all, and the curse is found far as east is from west. What Adam and Eve enjoyed before the Fall is often referred to by the Hebrew word shalom. The fullness of this word means peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare, and tranquility. There is a sense of soundness, and an absence of agitation or discord; a state of calm without anxiety or stress. Shalom has been said to be God’s word for total satisfaction in life. This is the abundant life Jesus promised! (John 10:10)

The order God established in creating the universe and us as its inhabitants is certainly reflected in the Law – it is there summarized in the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – but it is bigger than mere legal commands. Prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve were stewards of the creation God had given them in a way that accurately reflected God’s glory. The way they cultivated the garden, tirelessly drawing forth from it the very best of fruits, was a reflection of the way God drew forth Adam and Eve’s best. The whole place ran like a well-oiled machine.

Their sin, however, threw a wrench in the gears. The relationship Adam and Eve had with creation itself was broken at the precise moment their relationship with God was broken:

“Therefore the Lord sent him out from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the Garden of Eden He placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:23-24)

Today, every person is searching for meaning, significance, and happiness. Man’s pursuit of these ideals can morph into some of the most self-centered and perverse avenues ever known. Whatever label we put on it, however we personally identify with it, we all are seeking fulfillment. And this search for fulfillment alone should tell us that there is an actual fulfillment to be had. Happiness is the driving force behind everything we do. Anything we do has the desire for happiness at its center. Even distasteful things we do are done because we see them ultimately as preferable and more conducive to happiness than the alternatives.

When sin entered the world and fractured it, Romans 1:23 tells us that you and I exchanged the infinite creator God for His creation. We settled for temporary fleeting pleasures rather than for what is eternal and soul-satisfying. Almost all of us, whether we’ll admit it or not, have bought into the philosophy that what we need to finally make us happy is more of what we already possess. This is nuts! It’s all meaningless. After all, God has put eternity into man’s heart. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) At some level, in the deepest parts of our soul, we remember what life was like before the Fall. At some really deep level, our sould has this impression cut into it by the finger of God, like the grooves on a record, encoding the memory of what it was like before sin entered into the world. We remember, at a really deep level, that at one time we were full, and at one time we were happy, and at one time there was nothing weighing us down. Our souls are outright groaning to get back there. We have a God-shaped hole in our soul.

In the end, there is nothing under the sun that brings lasting fulfillment. You have to look beyond the sun. The hole in our soul cannot be filled with the temporal. It demands eternity. Therefore, our very search for more and more, for bigger and bigger, and for better and better, is our sense that something is off, amiss, deformed, and broken. In the same sense that death, pain, insatiable searching tells us that something bigger than the earth itself is missing from our soul.

Sin isn’t just a personal thing; it’s a cosmic thing. While the Gospel shows us that depravity is very personal, that it’s inside our being, it also shows us that depravity affects earth’s very social fabric. The whole thing is messed up. The system and all its parts are lacking. There is no peace or contentment in our hearts. We are cursed; creation is cursed. We are groaning; creation is groaning. The ache is bigger than all of us. Consequently, we need a redemption bigger than all of us.

In looking at the happening and the consequence of the Fall, I cannot help but note Paul’s words in Romans 11:22: “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in His kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.” There is sin, and there is judgment, but the Good News is God sought out the sinners. Although he passed sentence, he also promised salvation to come. In many respects, Eden was a type of Canaan or Promised Land. Canaan was a place of beauty; a land of milk and honey. Possession could be had only by obedience to God. Once again, man was faced with a decision to make. What kept Adam and Eve from everlasting blessing was their desire to have pleasure at the cost of unbelief and disobedience.

We all suffer the consequences of the Fall. Our salvation is in calling upon the name of the Lord and trusting in Jesus’ perfect sacrifice for our sin. (Romans 5:10-11; 2 Corinthians 5:18) The world groans under the curse, crying out for the relief that will come at the ultimate redemption of God’s people when Christ returns. (Romans 8:22-23) When Jesus comes for all those who have trusted in Him, God will restore all things. He will create a new heaven and a new earth to replace that which sin destroyed. (Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter 3:12-13; Revelation 21:1) Mankind will no longer be “fallen” but restored and redeemed by the blood of the Lamb of God. (Revelation 7:14)

A Daily Prayer (Draw Near)

Holy Father, You are perfect in character. Your law is perfect in standard. Your law rightly demands perfection of us. Father, we ask that You remind us often that we cannot live up to that divine requirement on our own resources. Bring to our remembrance this inability of Your law. Stir our hearts to trust in that better hope. Lord, we desire to walk closely with You. Thus, we trust in Your grace as the only sufficient hope that will allow us to draw near to You, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.