This post is by Sharon Hodde Miller (Ph.D. student, Writer for Her.meneutics). To see the entire series click here. You can preview a full month of The Gospel Project here. Or click on these links if you would like to purchase the Atonement Thread for adults or students.
I once knew a man who was, to put it nicely, very difficult. He was a hard person to be around, hurtful and unkind. Whenever I was with him, my blood pressure would immediately rise as I braced myself for the coming emotional blows. Having a conversation with him was like going into battle.
Everyone who knew this man experienced the same unease. As a result, he had few genuine friends. However he did have one thing going for him, and that was his two grown children.
This man’s children cared for him with all the tenderness and devotion in the world. You would have thought he had been a wonderful, doting father by the way they attended to his needs. They were selfless and sacrificial, honoring him in a manner that surely honored God.
Whenever I observed their interactions with their dad, I always thought one thing: What an amazing testament to their character.
This man, on the other hand, saw things differently. It’s not that he was ungrateful for their care and concern. He didn’t ignore their good deeds. But his interpretation of their love was severely skewed.
To him, the attention was deserved. In his mind, it was evidence of his success as a father. Oh how he crowed about their deep love for him! He smiled and winked and touted their adoration.
“They just love their dear old dad!” he would say.
What this man failed to understand was the root of their devotion. His children’s love was a reflection not of his character, but theirs.
I share this story because it has always been a powerful reminder to me. Scripture proclaims that Christ died in my place, for my sins, in the most remarkable act of love. There is a deeply personal component to the atonement, which is individually transformative. I believe that.
But practicing that belief is a different matter. Too often, I live out a different view of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. I treat it as an expression of my own goodness, rather than an expression of his. Like the man who takes for granted the sacrifice of his children, there are times when I take the cross for granted as well.
That’s why it is so important to re-affirm the nature and purpose of the atonement: Christ died for me, but not because of me. In John 10:18, Jesus clarifies that he didn’t have to die, but chose to, because of who he is. In short, Christ’s sacrifice was not a reflection of my greatness, but of his.
Few of us would blatantly proclaim our own deservingness of Christ’s death. But whenever I belittle the atonement by taking it for granted and cheapening the grace that was shown me, I do just that. I act as though I am worthy of the sacrifice, and that Christ did no big thing.
The thing is, when we get the atonement backwards, we rob it of its power in our lives. A vision of the atonement that is based on us is, ironically, a greater burden to us:
- No longer does it free us from the terrible slavery of works righteousness, but it feeds into it all the more.
- No longer does it strengthen us to forgive, but instead becomes an entry point for bitterness and hardening.
- No longer is the church a home for the broken, but a gathering for the elite.
On the other hand, when we remember that Christ died for us, not because of us, Christ’s sacrifice is freedom and life. It also shapes our outlook in three fundamental ways:
- It shapes our view of self: There is no pressure to earn our standing before God, because Christ died for us while we were still sinners (Rom. 5:8).
- It shapes our view of others: We are compelled to show grace and forgiveness to all, without prejudice, because every insult, injury, and mistake has already been crucified with Christ.
- It shapes our view of the church: The church is not an exclusive club for the virtuous, but a refuge for the sinner. As the saying goes, the ground is level at the foot of the cross.
Christ died for you, not because of you, and that is good news. The only shoulders strong enough to bear the weight of the world are the very ones that hung on a cross. Not one of us earned Christ’s sacrifice, and living in that truth is freedom.