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---- meets Kirchliche Dogmatik
As the local people say wherever you go, "We've been having some unusual weather for this time of year." (1) No question about it, not only has the winter been unusually warm, but this spring has been fantastic, including some downright summer-like days. It sure looks like the climate pendulum is returning to the 12th century or so. That's not an endorsement of the political ideology connected to global warming, just a recognition that the weather we're experiencing at the moment is consistent with one of the climactic shifts that has swept the world from time to time. Flowers and trees are blooming.
The other day, I took out the No.'s 20 and 24 Jeff Gordon & Tony Stewart Sears Craftsman Silberpfeil tractor, moved some piles of sticks out of the way, and cut the grass for the first time this year. Possibly it also may have been the last time with that tractor. Yesterday, we loaded it up on a trailer so that Nick could use it on his far more extensive grasslands. Yes, of course we're going to replace it, presumably with a machine that's a little smaller and more suitable for our premises. But I wouldn't necessarily expect it to have a shorter name. We'll see.
So June got this nice card in the mail from a well-known mail order house. "Dear June, Please accept the FREE* pair(s) of earrings below with our thanks. They're our way of saying we appreciate you!" (Emphasis theirs.) Pictured below were two extraordinarily ugly sets of earrings. Then, of course, way on the bottom was the counterpart to the asterisk: "All you pay is $6.99 shipping and handling for each pair of earrings plus any applicable taxes." Was this a good deal? I don't know. $5.00 for a pair of cheap fake earrings with no bubble gum plus $1.99 actual shipping cost may be okay. My point is that paying a price for something, no matter how small, is not exactly "free."
"Oh, come on, Win! We've lived with that practice forever. Surely we are all used to the typical advertisement of Buy this or that and get such-and-such free ! "
Well, of course. We are totally accustomed to that understanding of what "free" means in the world of commerce. I mean, as soon as I saw the word free on that little card, I looked for the asterisk and the information on how much free earrings would cost. We expect the "fine print" and would probably be even more suspicious if there weren't any. It's conventional wisdom: If you want something free, you have to pay for it.
The problem is that this self-contradictory notion of "free" has contaminated our understanding of our salvation as free. Not that there is anything really new in this. People have forever wanted to pay God for their salvation or to receive salvation as a payment for their righteousness. But look at the familiar verse in Romans 6:23:
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (HCSB)
There is no direct comparison in this verse. It's the proverbial apples and oranges: wages and a gift. There is a standard remuneration for being a sinner, which comes with our fallen human nature, namely death. On the other hand, what do you get for having faith in Christ and becoming "enslaved to righteousness" (6:18)? Nothing.
Let me repeat the question: What is our reward for believing in Christ and allowing God's righteousness to transform us? Let me repeat the answer: Nothing. There isn't any. We are not on God's payroll, and given the above information, we surely don't want to be. Eternal life is a gift, and, given the plain meaning of the term "gift," its not something that we earn or deserve or receive as a reward.
It's Easter weekend, and, as always during this time of year, religion is in the air. The TV schedule is filled with pseudo-Christian programs. This year we are also simultaneous with Passover, so I'll let our Jewish friends take credit for "The Ten Commandments" playing at this moment on some channel; that story is, after all, the Pesach haggadah. (We've got the Whitesox-Rangers in the background.) Anyway, let me get back to those of us who consider ourselves Christians. Easter is a time when a lot of people visit a church, and, I imagine, resolve to do so more often, though then wind up not getting around to it. People get concerned about their salvation; they realize that they need to become more religious. But somehow that doesn't really work out either. Seriously, what can you do?
So, the preacher comes along and tells you that you've got to get serious and follow through on those religious impulses. He knows that your salvation is not dependent on your religiosity, but he isn't going to bring that up just now and spoil the opportunity of getting you to attend his church more often. And that, surely, is the saddest thing of all.
Let's remember what Easter is all about. Of course, first of all we need to begin with Good Friday and the crucifixion of Jesus. The significance of this event is not that we contemplate the physical suffering of Jesus (let alone the emotional pains of Mary), as real as they were. The point is that on the cross, by his atoning death, Jesus reconciled us to God. Jesus took the penalty for our sins, and his work was finished, as he said. Good Friday can be a day suffused with morbidity. It should be the beginning of the celebration. (One could even question to what extent it makes sense to single out certain days for special celebrations, but the need for such days is a part of our psyche and God works through basic human culture, not against it, and I like Easter baskets.)
The atonement occurred at the crucifixion; Easter Sunday made it effective for us. God the Father raised the incarnate Son, and thereby demonstrated that his work on our behalf was done and complete. The only thing that is required of us is to trust in Christ, recognize that we cannot work ourselves out of our sinfulness, and accept what God has done for us. Our salvation is the work of God alone. It is also supernatural, and he will see to it that your life will be changed as a consequence. But that's his work again, as well.
But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared,
He saved us—not by works of righteousness that we had done,
but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration
and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
so that having been justified by His grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7 HCSB)
It seems downright contrary to our nature to accept the fact that we cannot do anything to earn our salvation or contribute to it with good works, so that we can feel at least a little bit that we deserve it. And there are plenty of opportunities to get this feeling reinforced, such as the Roman Catholic theology of Trent, the "New Theology" advocated by Sanders, Dunn, and Wright, or any number of people who think that you are not pious enough to please them or God (the former being probably not possible, the latter being most definitely out of the question, which is why God's grace is necessary). But, please, look at what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, the chapter dealing with the resurrection, both Christ's and ours:
For this corruptible must be clothed with incorruptibility,
and this mortal must be clothed with immortality.
When this corruptible is clothed with incorruptibility,
and this mortal is clothed with immortality,
then the saying that is written will take place:
Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Death, where is your victory?
Death, where is your sting? (1 Cor. 15:53-55)
The defeat of death is the ultimate miracle of Easter. Now, if you believe that you contributed to this miracle, by all means congratulate yourself and enjoy what you have earned. For the rest of us, let's thank God for having done what he alone could have done and continue to let him be in charge for our future. Easter shows us that it couldn't be in better hands.
(1) Other such recurring statements include, "Oh, I could have shown you a quicker way to get here (or there)," and, if you're speaking somewhere, "Attendance seems to be a little low today. A lot of people are on vacation."