Wearing Masks to be Accepted
When my son Jonathan was around 18 months old, he discovered Batman. I have never witnessed such an obsession in my life! I will never forget the way he would scuttle around the house, saying “I ‘Batam’. I ‘Batam’.” Day and night, weekdays, weekends, holidays, all the time for more than ten years, he was completely absorbed. I can’t even count the number of Batman costumes he wore out, or the ocean of batman figures spread through every crevice of the house. Who knows how many times we watched the animated series, or the movies? When my youngest child was born at home, five or ten minutes after the birth we invited the boys in to meet their new brother. After a few minutes of hushed and reverent silence, Jonathan looked up at me and said, “Dad?” I responded (knowing it was coming), “Yes, Jonathan?” “Does he like Batman?” I said, “I’m sure he’ll learn!” Jonathan was not satisfied with being a mere boy; he wanted to be something more. He wanted to be accepted as a hero. He wanted to be Batman! What he did not want to acknowledge is that he was precious and beautiful and richly important to me whatever he decided to wear, despite his weakness and faults. He is my child whom I dearly love.
Jesus Fulfills the Law — For Me
In the last post, we looked at how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets because the central principles, practices and prognostications of the Old Testament were fulfilled by Jesus. In this post, we are going to look at the idea of fulfillment in more personal and present terms. I may not fulfill the Law, but in Christ the law is fulfilled for me.
How does this work? At first blush this sounds like a lot of theological hooie. I’ve heard people say that justification means that God looks at me “just-as-if-I’d” always obeyed — somehow because of Jesus’ obedience, when God looks at me He sees only Jesus’ obedience. That sounds very holy and theologically wonderful until you reflect on it a bit. It leaves this lurking suspicion that God may love Jesus, but He rejects the real me. While I am in actuality a sinner, He only accepts me because I wear a fake Jesus mask. He has rejected the real me, the sinning me. In this sense I am not only presenting a fake persona to other people around me in order to be accepted, I am instructed to present a fake persona to God in order to be accepted. In the end this is a substitution, but it is a bloodless and crossless substitution.
True Acceptance Requires Justification
The message of the cross of Christ shows forth a much stronger grace. It sees our sin. I do not come wearing a fake Jesus mask. It is most liberating that while God may deal with me just as if I’d never sinned, he does not see a fake me. He sees and loves the weak and sinful me (Romans 5:8). My sins have not simply been forgotten or overlooked, and He does not simply pretend that they never happened. In Christ I have been definitively and authoritatively forgiven. In Christ I can face the fact that the obedience and righteousness of Jesus is a condemning example. In Christ I can acknowledge how grandly and consistently I have fallen short of glory (Romans 3:23). The cross acknowledges that I have truly sinned, and that God has seen it all the way to its root; there is no pretense whatsoever. He has loved me knowing the depth and persistence and richness and evil of my sin. The justice for my sins has actually been executed, and a strong vengeance and wrath has been delivered upon my choice to obey my selfish and harmful lusts. I don’t have to act like I am OK or pretend like I am righteous. Justice has truly been executed against our most secret and feared past deeds.
So for each of us, the fact is, we are not righteous. The righteousness of God stands as a condemnation, not as a comfort. You may have given your body to feed the poor, but if you did it to prove your worth instead of from love, you are a selfish clanging cymbal. We think we can change if we want, but we really cannot. Even our best righteousness is filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We are very bad at fulfilling the law. We have to be willing to face the fact that if the law is going to be fulfilled for us, if justice is to be upheld, it is not a matter of future obedience. There is going to have to be a penalty for the law to be fulfilled. We are tempted to think that the fulfillment of the law involves obedience from now on; we are often foolish enough to think that from here on we will be sufficiently successful at our righteousness that it will surely make up for our past mistakes. We want to promise that we have “repented”. If you have murdered someone, simply refraining from murder for the rest of your life does not bring back the life of the one you killed. Similarly, even if you were completely successful at your repentance, you cannot possibly make up for your past. Also, what you think is 100% successful reform and what is actually 100% successful reform are two separate things. You won’t be able to do it, and if you did it wouldn’t be enough. You do not need reform, you need redemption.
Penal Substitution — The Worst Case Scenario
There is a certain vein of thought that says that the “penal substitution” theory of the cross of Christ is an archaic and medieval notion. The thought is that it is unkind and some kind of nonsense to say that when we err, we ought to expect some kind of punishment. It may be important to demonstrate punishment as deterrence, but even this would seem to some to be archaic nonsense. Such people would have to say that we don’t require punishment, we require reform. It may seem kinder and gentler, but this leads inevitably to the false gospel of salvation by personal transformation. In this sense, the only thing the cross of Christ could represent would be an example of endurance despite injustice. However, we don’t really think that future reform is enough, no one does. When there is no penalty, there is no clarity of conscience. Where there is no penalty, no consequence, the hearts of men are given over fully to do evil (Ecclesiastes 8:11). Where there is no penalty, there is no justice, because the suffering of the one unjustly harmed is marginalized. In our day-to-day affairs, we deeply understand this. If our boss lets the slacker get away with their laziness, we seethe. If the parent lets their child get away with their petulance, we at their bad parenting. If someone in our house makes a mess and leaves it, we are outraged that we have to clean up after them again. When the bad guy gets what is coming to them in the movie, we rejoice. We don’t want to see them getting a chance to reform! We want consequences, we want justice, we want perfection, all the time. If the gospel does not speak to these daily situations, it speaks to nothing at all.
Faith says that the blood of Jesus satisfies justice for every little thing we do wrong, all the time. Faith says that I always feel inadequate because I really am inadequate, but that I am saved through His cross from all of these judgements that daily accuse me. My thoughts are no longer bound up in the fear that I am inadequate and sinful and unworthy, but instead my thought is constantly that I am worthy of God’s death. The cross declares that the law, which speaks so powerfully to my conscience, has been fulfilled — not because I obeyed it, but because Jesus has more than sufficiently borne its penalty. The cross says that even if I take the dumbest and most medieval notion of justice possible, even then I am OK, because it is all satisfied. It embraces penal substitution because the fear of raw and dumb penalty is the worst case scenario for us, and the cross takes this fear out of the way. That way, even if you are only partly reformed or you relapse, you are still justified, because it is not your reform which saves you. It is Christ who saves you. Vive le penal substitution!
Paul gives us this very powerful phrase in Romans 3:26, that God is “just and the justifier” of the one who has faith in Jesus. He does not simply pretend that we always obeyed. That would not be just, because we in fact did not always obey. He is just. The Father would be wrong to look at our sin, and say that Jesus’ public death on the cross was not sufficient penalty. The cross of Christ says that the penalty which the law demands for our sin has been more than carried out; He would be unjust to hold me accountable for my sins when I claim faith in Christ. The cross of Christ declares that law has been fulfilled on my behalf — it is indeed finished. I do not need to wear a fake Jesus mask for God to accept me; I am accepted and justified in Christ as myself.