A little over a year ago, my now-husband and I went out to dinner. When we had finished our meal, we asked our waiter for the check and were shocked to learn that someone, a stranger, had picked up our tab. What a blessing! Stunned but feeling so blessed, we finished our drinks, put on our coats and left the restaurant. (Then we went back to his apartment and got engaged, but that’s beside the point :P) What we didn’t do was pay the check a second time.
In this season of Lent, preparing for Easter, we focus on our need for God, our humanity and brokenness. We are reminded that “from dust you come, and to dust you will return.” We put ourselves into our own desert, committing to sacrificing something we enjoy (like meat, or fat, or Facebook or sweets). At my church, we are studying the Seven Deadly Sins. We spend the 40 days before Easter focusing on our own broken humanity. This prepares us for Easter by helping us recognize our need for the sacrifice He made on the cross, helping us to appreciate and internalize His salvation.
But what I’ve come to realize is that, for many, believers and non-believers alike, Lent lasts all year.
I think all believers understand and accept Christ’s forgiveness that was provided to use on the cross, that we have been granted righteousness and washed clean of our transgressions in his blood. But wait, do we really?
Well, of course we do! If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be Christians!
But the thing is, we are still trying to pay the bill.
We are constantly striving to earn or be worthy of our salvation, trying desperately to climb high enough on the ladder to be able to see God’s face. We punish ourselves mercilessly for our failures, ashamed of ourselves for failing Him yet again. We spend every day trying to figure out how to be better Christians, how to earn the forgiveness of our Heavenly Father, how to lay down our Earthly bodies to purify our spiritual souls. We meditate on Romans 3:23, but willfully ignore Romans 3:24.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
– Romans 3:21-24
Paul teaches us a lot about what it means to attempt to earn our salvation and uses himself as an excellent example in Philippians 3. He is the “Hebrew of Hebrews…as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” Paul was a Super-Jew. If anyone was going to pay their own bill, it was Paul.
But, yet, he gave up paying his own bill, knowing it was impossible to do so himself and that attempting to do so would be only a loss. When talking about his Jewish credentials, he says, “I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” (Philippians 3:8b-9) The law demands that he earn his way to salvation, paying penance when he breaks that law in order to earn reconciliation. However, the New Covenant offers free justification, free reconciliation through Christ (Romans 3:24).
But why do we keep trying to pay that check? Why do we insist on pulling out our wallet, laying down our credit card, separating out the appropriate number of bills and adding on a generous tip, just for good measure? Why do we do this when we’ve been told that the bill is already covered?
- We believe in justice.
- It’s part of who we are, especially Americans. We want to see people pay their debt and the righteous uplifted, the guilty suffer and the innocent prosper.
- We believe in earning our own way.
- Another thing our culture has taught us– we must earn it. For us to be able to take any pride in it, to cherish it, to deserve it, we must make our own way, earn it ourselves. It cannot be inherited, not received as a gift; the only way to gain something justly is to obtain it through our own blood, sweat and tears.
- We know our sins require payment.
- “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
- We know this. We believe this. We feel this. There is no question in our hearts that we need to make recompense for our actions. Our culture, friends, even family, have taught us that we have to do something to earn their forgiveness (e.g. make them dinner, buy them a gift, pander, grovel, shame ourselves); why wouldn’t God require the same, then?
But that’s where the beauty of God’s plan intervenes. He takes the lessons we learned from ourselves, from our friends and family, from our culture (and even sometimes from a broken understanding of Him) and turns them on their heads. He takes those understandings and has the beautiful patience and grace to teach us something different, to teach us love and mercy.
So what does God have to say in response to the reasons we try to buy the gift He freely gave?
- I love justice. Justice is who I am. I punish those who sin (2 Samuel 12:1-14) and disobey me (Numbers 14). I let my people wander in the desert for 40 years because they were too afraid to follow my calling into the promised land, but Caleb was not afraid, so he and his descendants inherited the Land of Milk and Honey (Numbers 14:18-24). But my love for you transcends justice. You will reap what you sow, but you will remain faithful to you throughout, just as a remained faithful to my Hebrew people, despite their unfaithfulness to me.
- You cannot earn your way to me. Sin is too great a barrier. Nothing you do could ever be enough to reach me. Even if you could, I have chosen a different path. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) If anyone could earn their way to me, it would create within you a hierarchy, with those that “earning” their salvation first boasting in their triumph. I do not desire this. I want you all and no one of you is greater to me than another. Do not begrudge my free gift, my mercy and grace.
- I already paid the cost. I love you so much that I sent my only begotten son, so that anyone that believes in him shall not perish but may have eternal life. I did not send him to you to condemn you, but to save you (John 3:16-17). I paid the highest price that can be paid. I died the most shameful and painful death while innocent so that you may live with me free of your guilt. Whenever you choose to live in guilt and shame, you deny my gift, my sacrifice. You negate my love and sully my blessing. You return freely to the pit from which I bled and died to uplift you.
Do you believe that the debt is paid? Do you believe that God does not want you to continually pay the bill that he has already paid? Do you believe that he wants your confession and contrite heart, but that he does not require nor desire your continual pandering and atonement? That no atonement that you attempt to make will even make a dent, so Christ provided you a free and effective alternative? Do you believe that there is no shame in accepting his gift, forgiveness and salvation?
Your sacrifices, of your own self or through disciplines, are not winning you back your salvation, for “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:4) The war is fought. The war is won. The check is paid. Instead of attempting in vain to pay the check a second time, live a life worthy of that purchase, that investment. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) Instead of living in attempts to atone for your sin, “go and sin no more.” (John 8:2-11)