The cross of Christ represents the end of earning, the end of seeking God’s approval based on our own “sacrifices.” This is why the writer of Hebrews specifies that one of the crucial differences between Jesus and the system of the past is the finality of the cross:
11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,
16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds,”
17 then he adds,
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. (Hebrews 10:11-18)
In a 2005 interview, Bono—the lead singer for the band U2—talks about how this magnificent picture of grace has led him away from thinking only in terms of “karma,” the law of cause and effect:
“I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace…You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…every action is met by an equal or an opposite one….Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff…I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge….It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity…The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That’s the point….It’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of heaven.”
One of the hardest things to fully wrap our minds around is this basic principle of grace. Sure, I love the idea of my slate being cleaned, but I might hate—absolutely hate—that grace robs me of the privilege to “boast” (cf. Ephesians 2:9) of my moral superiority. Don’t I deserve credit, after all?
The problem of this kind of arrogance is that it leads us into a dangerous path, relationally speaking. Because only one of two things can happen. First, my moral system might actually work for me, more or less. I may spend a lifetime devoted to strict moral obedience. Life goes well—I get a good job, raise good kids, and be respected as a pillar of my community. I conclude that I am blessed; my righteousness has earned God’s approval. And I am constantly sneering at my neighbors, who have not achieved my blessing—clearly because they’re just not as morally upright as I am. Secondly, my moral system might not work for me. I might spend a lifetime of trying, only to be routinely confronted by the naked brutality of this fallen world. I obeyed all the rules; why doesn’t God bless me? I become bitter—at myself, at God, at my fellow church-goers who—despite not sharing my strict moral convictions—always seem way happier than I can ever hope to be.
Life is far more messy than all that. But so is spirituality, so is grace. Jesus joins us in our mess and—as we’ve been saying—absorbs the stains of our sin that we might have God’s approval not through any—any!—works of our own, but only through the finished work that he achieved on our behalf.
This is why it’s hard to hear the gospel if you’re a religious person. Because it’s easy to assume that you already know it—when all along you’ve only been learning to cling more tightly to your moral code. And it’s killing you.
Moral character isn’t a disposable part of the Christian life, but if we make transformation a prerequisite to forgiveness we strip grace of its beauty and strip the cross of its power. At the cross we do more than repent of our self-indulgence; we repent quite equally of our self-righteousness. Let it go. Let it all go—your self-righteous moralism, your sense of self-importance and smug religious superiority, your condescending attitude toward the sin of others deemed to be worse than your own. Let it go, and stand in the glorious grace of the once-for-all grace offered by Jesus. We close this week with the words of an old hymn, a hymn whose title comes from the last words of Jesus on the cross: “It Is Finished.”
“Lay your deadly doing down,
down at Jesus’ feet.
Stand in him and him alone,