This is the twelfth post in a 15-week study. More information and resources can be found here.
A quick note to those of y’all who are not participants:
– Please read along as we go through the study chapter by chapter, and contemplate the questions we’ll be tackling. This is good stuff!
– We will be utilizing the comment section as a forum for discussion for the participants only. I respectfully ask – if you are not participating – that you refrain from commenting on the Reason for God posts, simply to help keep things well… simple.
– We have an incredible group of women representing various ages, faith backgrounds and life experiences – I hope you’ll check out all they have to say.
It is my prayer that the participants, as well as those of y’all who will be reading along, will contemplate your own faith and understanding of God in a new, and more purposeful way. If you have any questions about the study, or about God in general, feel free to email me from the link in the right sidebar.
“The primary symbol of Christianity has always been the cross,” begins Chapter Twelve. (p. 193) Keller goes on to say that what we as Christians see as Good News – the Gospel – our society views as difficult at best and horrific at worst. “In the Christian account, Jesus dies so that God can forgive sins. For many, that seems ludicrous or even sinister,” according to Keller. (p. 194) Society is okay with good news but the idea of a good God causing injury and death to his own son is too far from their normative belief of what constitutes good. Apparently some believe the cross even moves from questionable to evil, “While the Christian doctrine of the cross confuses some people, it alarms others.” (p. 194)
So, Keller asks, “Why did Jesus have to die?” (p. 194)
The First Real Reason: Real Forgiveness Is Costly Suffering
Keller runs through an illustration of how someone who damages your property with a car would either have to pay for the damage caused, or you would. In other words, there is a cost when someone has been wronged. Keller says it, “When we are seriously wronged we have an indelible sense that the perpetrators have incurred a debt that must be dealt with.” (p. 195)
When someone has been wronged and a debt has been incurred, there are only two responses — and both require a payment.
The first option is to have the perpetrator(s) pay. “You can withhold relationship and actively initiate or passively wish for some kind of pain in their lives commensurate to what you have experienced,” per Keller. (p. 195) There are multiple ways to accomplish this but it eventually leads to, “Cycles of reaction and retaliation [which] can go on for years. Evil has been done to you — yes. But when you try to get payment through revenge the evil does not disappear. Instead it spreads, and it spreads most tragically of all into you and your own character.” (p. 195)
The second option is to forgive the perpetrator. Keller brings up an excellent point about the results of this choice; “However, to refrain from lashing out at someone when you want to do so with all your being is agony. It is a form of suffering. You not only suffer the original loss of happiness, reputation, and opportunity, but now you forgo the consolation of inflicting the same on them.” (p. 196) The anger may slowly subside, Keller tells of C.S. Lewis realizing, at the moment, he has forgiven someone it took him 30 years to forgive. The cost is emotional but not evil. The decision to forgive, Keller says, “…must be granted before it can be felt, but it does come eventually. It leads to a new peace, a resurrection. It is the only way to stop the spread of the evil.” (p. 196)
But forgiveness is not non-confrontational. It is not taking on a victim mentality nor is it weakness. In fact, it is the only way to truly love the perpetrator. When children do something wrong, it is best to confront them and teach them boundaries out of love. It is the same when you are wronged. “The best way to love them [perpetrator] and the other potential victims around them is to confront them in the hope that they will repent, change, and make things right,” Keller writes. (p. 197)
Keller uses the inspiring example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author of the Christian classic The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging in a Nazi concentration camp just weeks before the liberation of the camp and then end World War II for his bold resistance to the Nazi dictatorship. Despite his circumstances during the time, he still forgave those he was confronting. “He did not ignore or excuse sin. He resisted it head on, even though it cost him everything… He passed through the agonizing process required to love our enemies, so his resistance to their evildoing was measured and courageous, not venomous and cruel,” Keller says. (p. 198) Of someone who witnessed the execution it was said, “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.” Bonhoeffer lived and died a life that exemplified Christ.
The Forgiveness of God
Keller posits, “Why did Jesus have to die? Couldn’t God just forgive us?” (p. 199) He has already answered the question earlier when he discussed the cost of forgiveness but continues for the sake of teaching, “Forgiveness means bearing the cost instead of making the wrongdoer do it, so you can reach out in love to seek your enemy’s renewal and change… Forgiveness means absorbing the debt of sin yourself.” (p. 199) Jesus is obviously the ultimate example but Stephen also – as he was being stoned – asked God to forgive his killers. In addition, Bonhoeffer did the same. Sin has a cost, and forgiveness means taking on the cost yourself. As Christians we see Jesus as God, and fundamentally believe that He punished Himself for our sin. He understands the cost because, “..this is a God who becomes human and offers his own lifeblood in order to honor moral justice and merciful love so that someday he can destroy all evil without destroying us… Forgiveness is always a form of costly suffering,” writes Keller. (p. 200) For the Christ follower, Jesus paid the ultimate penalty and absorbed the ultimate cost to remove our guilt and alleviate our indebtedness.
“… the death of Christ was necessary to vindicate the righteousness of God in justifying the ungodly by faith. It would be unrighteous to forgive sinners as though their sin were insignificant, when in fact it is an infinite insult against the value of God’s glory. Therefore Jesus bears the curse, which was due to our sin, so that we can be justified and the righteousness of God can be vindicated.” — John Piper
The Second Reason: Real Love Is a Personal Exchange
So, Keller asks, “Why can’t we just concentrate on teaching about how God is a God of love? The answer is that if you take away the Cross you don’t have a God of love.” (p. 201) Agape love, demonstrated by Jesus, requires sacrifice on our part while western society’s overly marketed romantic love does not. Keller states it thus, “All life-changing love toward people with serious needs is a substitutional sacrifice. If you become personally involved with them, in some way, their weaknesses flow toward you as your strengths flow toward them.” (p. 202) This substitution is the very message of the Cross. Keller quotes John Stott, “The essence of sin we human beings substituting ourselves for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for us. We… put ourselves where only God deserves to be: God… puts himself where we deserve to be.” (p. 202)
The Great Reversal
The message of the Cross – that Jesus died as a substitute for our selfishness and sin – means the outcasts of society have hope in the Cross. And the exalted of this world, without the Cross, have hopelessness. “On the Cross, Christ wins through losing, triumphs through defeat, achieves power through weakness and service, comes to wealth via giving all away,” Keller says. (p. 204) Jesus reversed the pattern of the world and created a new paradigm. Keller explains, “Those who are shaped by the great reversal of the Cross no longer need self justification through money, status, career, or pride of race and class. So the Cross creates a counterculture in which sex, money, and power cease to control us and are used in life-giving and community-building rather than destructive ways.” (p. 204)
“On the Cross neither justice nor mercy loses out — both are fulfilled at once… Jesus identified with the oppressed. Yet we should not try to overcome evil with evil.” Keller says. (pp. 204-05)
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12:21
The Story of the Cross
Keller writes the meaning of the Cross can be found in the movies that move us emotionally. We are enamored with the story of the innocent who substitutes themselves, at great cost of life, money, power or position, for the wrongdoer. The story isn’t new — Jesus did this on the Cross. Where the difference lies is that the truth of Jesus on the Cross should propel us to actual change while the resolutions we develop when watching fiction or human non-fiction are easily forgotten; they inspire nothing more than a passing thought as we return to life.
According to Keller, “The Gospel… is not just a moving fictional story about someone else. It is a true story about us. We are actually in it.” (p. 208)
Seeing the story of the Cross from the outside can only tickle our thoughts but once you realize you are a part of the story, you are changed. Keller finishes, “The fact that Jesus had to die for me humbled me out of my pride. The fact that Jesus was glad to die for me assured me out of my fear.” (p. 208)
Question: Before reading this chapter, had you fully grasped the weight of your sin? What Jesus did on the Cross to purchase your forgiveness? If so, has that understanding led to a true change in you? If not, do you think reading this chapter might be the impetus for such a change?
My response: I think God is revealing both those truths to me bit by bit. Honestly, the reality of it – my sin and what Jesus had to endure to purchase my forgiveness – when I brush up closely to it, leaves me wrecked. I have dropped to my knees, broken over my sin, many times over the last few years. And each time God sweetly and clearly reminds me of His abiding love. It’s amazing how when we surrender our will and our self-righteousness, He in turn gives us an overwhelming sense of His love and mercy. And through each experience He is growing me, stretching me to be a vessel that can contain more and more of His unending love. My grief yields humility and humility yields a greater understanding of His goodness and grace.
I am trusting, day by day, that God is growing me, molding me and shaping me if I willingly and humbly submit to Him as my God. That I take myself – my desires, my selfishness, my fears – off the throne and allow God to rule. And part of that is, and must be, through the revelation my sin and the reality of Jesus’ sacrifice for me.
It behoves every one to ask, whether the Holy Spirit has begun a good work in his heart? Without clear discovery of our guilt and danger, we never shall understand the value of Christ’s salvation; but when brought to know ourselves aright, we begin to see the value of the Redeemer. — Matthew Henry
Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.
For your name’s sake, O Lord,
pardon my guilt, for it is great.
Who is the man who fears the Lord?
Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose.
His soul shall abide in well-being,
and his offspring shall inherit the land.
— Psalm 25:8-13
Here is the button for the participants who will be linking up to the study. Grab the code, paste it into your Reason for God post and link up below.