Free to live
If you’re in a church that says to God, “We’re sorry”, I wonder how it happens? Is it rolled up into all the other prayers: “Yeah, we’re sorry for being like that, but make us better, we pray, and help us to live for Jesus. And we pray for the Ukraine...”
Or is it made a big deal of? Many churches will observe the custom of Lent, which started this year on 5th March. Sin is a big deal in Lent – we’re really, really, really sorry about it.
With sin, we can slide one of two ways. We can be focused on sin and on avoiding it by keeping rules; that’s called legalism and it needs countering with grace, God’s free forgiveness. Or we can so delight in our forgiven-ness by grace that we simply stop caring about the standards of how we might live – that has a fancy name, too: antinomianism (tr: against standards). The New Testament has got both kinds of people in it. Think of the church in Corinth, some of whom were legalists about food and sex (1 Corinthians 7:25-8:13), while others were antinomian (1 Corinthians 10:23-24).
How can we get beyond that Corinthian divide: keep the rules / abolish the rules?
When I train people to lead church services, I often find that they want to lead into our time of confession by saying something like, “Let’s have a moment to recall the ways that we’ve fallen into sin this week”. Immediately, this feels to me like legalism, where Sin = “rules-wot-I-broke”; and then forgiveness becomes just another chance to keep the rules. But, if we could capture a vision of God in all his burning pure holiness, then we just might be able to hate our sinfulness as well.
On the other side stands the antinomian, glad of grace, but untroubled about continuing sin: “I’ve got the Get Out of Jail Free card”, and I need nothing more. Again, a vision of holiness will lead us towards God’s deepest character. Grace is not then a mechanical transaction but a summons from God to be like Him.
But where do we go to find a vision of God in his holiness, so as to be motivated away from sin? Well, how about Isaiah 6:1-8, or Revelation 1:12-20? Perhaps more surprisingly, I want to suggest another possibility – the Cross of Jesus. We’ve heard that God there shows his mercy, love and grace. But his holiness? Perhaps his holiness is in the severe judgment on sin that is enacted at the Cross. True...
...but it’s more than all that. God’s holiness is not an abstract, static thing; it’s wrapped up in his determination to be a god who does the right thing. And the Cross is where the God of Israel, in ancient covenant with his people, acts to do the Right Thing by them; he delivers them from the oppression of sin. Like the Old Testament deliverances, the rescue of the Cross is a mercy to God’s people, but it is also God acting the way God should act; he defends his name in the face of opposition, especially the spiritual powers of the universe (Ephesians 3:10-11).
Seen this way, the Cross (with the Resurrection that follows) becomes an event that rescues us, but it becomes so much more than a “transaction” to deal with my sin; the event is a display before the world and the universe of the character of a God who will give up his life to Do The Right Thing. That’s why I like the picture below – it’s huge, ancient (600 years old), weird and surreal, an illustration of Revelation 5:6-14: the haloed Lamb on the altar is bleeding into a chalice. But the Lamb symbolises the whole Bible story, not an abstract virtue. The Lamb of God was how God rescued ancient Israel (Exodus 12:21-23), so that their own first-born sons were not killed by judgment. But now God has appointed the true Lamb of God who is his very own first-born son, so that we are not killed by judgment. Through all of history, it becomes clear that God has always done the Right Thing.
Sin could be defined as simply “not doing the right thing” (which is of course a much bigger idea than “doing the wrong thing”). If I am to deal rightly with my own continuing sinfulness, I have to be called forward, pulled towards something else. The Cross and Resurrection show me a God who acts in mercy and righteousness to save me and defend his own honour. Faced with my sin, I need a story that is bigger than my sin, and bigger than the rules I want to live by (even if they’re not bad rules) – I need a story of passion, truth, love and justice, a story that is simply but unendingly a story of Rightness, speaking to all the wrongness I know in me. I find it at the Cross of Calvary, and I learn all over again to love such a Lord, and to hate all that keeps me from him.