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The Gospel: the central message of Christianity (part 3)

This post and its subsequent parts have been merged into a single post. You should read that instead.

The previous post of this series ended with John 3:16, which states that whoever believes in Christ will not perish, but have eternal life.

That finally brings us to "Christ", the first and the most important word in my simple summary of the Gospel, "Christ saves sinners". If I had to condense those three words down to one - just one word to describe the Gospel and therefore all of existence -  it would be this word. Jesus Christ is God himself incarnated as a man. In God's act of true love for us, Christ came - God came as a man - to fulfill the plan for our salvation. For what power does anyone else have to stop the course of sin? To save us? To reach us, he humbled himself down to our level, and took on the human form that he first granted us. Like us, he was conceived, born, and raised, and became a man familiar with our sorrow, who experienced our pain. Despite being fully human, he remained morally perfect, so that he could serve as the perfect example for us. Moreover, this was necessary for the next key part of the plan: his crucifixion and resurrection.

I do not understand Jesus' death on the cross. There are theories of how it worked, but I doubt we have anything close to the full picture. This is only expected: the cross is nothing less than the intersection of all of existence - things on heaven and earth, visible and invisible, life and death, good and evil, sin and righteousness, God and his creation, story and Author - they all collide here. I think that a complete understanding of Christ's death and resurrection would require nothing short of the entirety of the mind of God. My telling of the story is utterly insufficient for it - nevertheless I will proceed.

Through Christ's great love for us, he became one with us. As he became part of humanity, we became parts of Christ's body. We can see this happening to a small degree between humans: people become one to the degree that they love one another. Thus an individual's loss or gain, their grief or joy, their ignorance or knowledge, and even their guilt or righteousness, are all suffered or enjoyed by their family and friends, to the degree that they've become one in love. But Christ is God, and God is love. In his perfect love for us he became perfectly one with us, as only God himself, as only love itself can.

In being united with us, he took upon himself all our sins and its consequences during the crucifixion. Because of his perfect love for us, the transfer of our sins is also perfect: we truly bear them no more, as if we had never sinned. Conversely, Christ truly carried our sins, and became truly sinful for us. There on the cross, he suffered all of sin's consequences. He was pierced for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities. The infinite separation from God that was our due was laid upon him, and he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" God himself had never before experienced this separation - this sundering of his own being - because the Trinity had existed without sin in perfect fellowship. No human has ever experienced it, because Jesus took it upon himself instead. The fullness of Christ's passion is therefore incomprehensible to us and incomparable to any of our experiences.

The cross is also the demonstration of God's love for us, the proof of that love in sacrifice. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. That's how we know he loves us. And because he first loved us, we can love him back. That's what allows us to believe in him and participate in his plan of salvation. In loving him, we thereby become one with Christ just as he became one with us, thus participating in his suffering and death. Like the sin transfer, our perfect oneness makes this participation perfect: we are truly crucified with Christ and truly die with him. Some think that becoming a Christian is trivially easy; that one can simply plan to "repent" after a lifetime of sin then "get into heaven". In reality the closest analog to becoming a Christian is dying: you must take up the instrument of your execution and follow Jesus to his death.

Thus at Calvary I find myself identifying with nearly every party in the passion story. I am the mockers, deriding Jesus in my disbelief. I am the women, devastated that my teacher should suffer such agony. I am the centurion, saying "Truly this was the Son of God". I am Pilate, waffling between my need for justification and my cowardice. I am the disciples, overcome with fear and unable to understand. I am the thief on the cross, asking to be remembered. I am chanting "crucify! Crucify!", for this Jesus is a sinner, full of my sins, and he must be crucified. And I am with Jesus - crucified, dead, and buried, as punishment for my sins.

So we must be crucified and die. This is difficult - impossibly so. How could we do any of this? Wasn't the whole point of all this that it was supposed to be easy? How could we share in Christ's suffering and death, and not be defeated by it? Would we not be crushed by the penalty for our own sins, the very same penalty that we could never bear ourselves?

But what is impossible for man is possible with God. We are not on our own: we are united with Christ in love. He first loved us, he bears the burden for us, he enables us to love him, he enables us to have faith, he makes us one with him, he does everything. What can separate us from the love of Christ? We will not be crushed or defeated while he still stands. If God is for us, who can be against us? In Christ, we are crucified, dead, and buried for our sins - and yet we live.

The resurrection is the proof of Jesus's perfect victory over sin and death. If Christ was not raised, that would mean Jesus failed in bearing our sins, and they would have then crushed us in turn. God himself would have been defeated, our faith would have been falsely placed, and we would be pitiable above all humanity. But by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus demonstrates that death has no hold on him, that his power exceeds the power of sin, that both sin and death have been ultimately nullified.

The same power that raised Christ from the dead now works in us, for we have been made one with Christ by loving and believing in him. His victory is our victory. If we died with him, we will also live with him - yet not us, but Christ who lives in us. Therefore, we who are in Christ are a new creation - dead to our old selves and made new to be like Christ. Death and sin have no power over us, no more than they have any power over Jesus. The resurrection therefore demonstrates that this whole plan of salvation worked.

Behold furthermore what lavish love God has given to us in Christ: we are not only freed from sin, but made the children of God! We are given Jesus's righteousness, adopted by God, and made co-heirs to God's glory, all on account of being resurrected and made new in Christ. Jesus is the Son of God, so we also become the children of God. We are in Christ, and Christ is one with God. This, finally, is the fulfillment of our destiny, the plan for which God first created us.

So, this is my story: Christ saves sinners. It is a small telling of the one story, the only story in the universe. Although we have a royal heritage, sin has long kept us from it, in darkness. But Christ comes to us, and at last we see the light - that by loving, believing, and thereby becoming one with him, we can fully become a part of God's family.

I hope that you, too, will tell this one story as your story. The promise of salvation is for absolutely anyone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ. Anyone can thereby have life in his name.

You may next want to read:
Orthodoxy vs. living out the Gospel: which is more important?
How is God related to all other fields of study?
Another post, from the table of contents

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