What exactly are we celebrating?
The Christmas decorations are out, and holiday music fills the air. But Christmas means different things to different people. For some, the Christmas season is about having survived another year, enjoying extra time to reconnect with family and friends, and bargain-hunting for great gifts. In fact, many who celebrate Christmas don't think much about a reason for the season. Or if they do, it's just a swirl of unrelated thoughts about family traditions and a generic sense of good-will toward all.
The Reason for the Season
How about us, as Christ-followers? What's our reason for the season? I hope we would agree that Christmas is the recognition that Jesus, God's Son, came to live among us, and ultimately to die and be resurrected.
But why was it necessary for Him to come to earth to die? Why the cross? Grappling with this, British social activist Steve Chalke once explained:
The fact is that the cross isn't a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful father, punishing his son for an offence he has not even committed….. The truth is the cross is a symbol of love. It is a demonstration of just how far God as Father and Jesus as his son are prepared to go to prove that love.
It's an attempt to defend God the Father's reputation: Surely God couldn't require the death of His innocent Son on behalf of the sins (offences) of others, could it? Wouldn't that make Him akin to some pagan god, demanding the blood sacrifice of a victim in order to be appeased? Similarly, Rob Bell's best-selling book Love Wins advised that we do not need to be rescued from God — since God, in fact, is the rescuer. How can God rescue us from himself?
Our view of the cross — the heart of Christianity and the fixed objective of Jesus' life (Luke 9:51) — is invariably shaped by our view of God's character, our status as fallen human beings and our ultimate accountability to our Maker. Jesus' life and death will only seem as precious as our moral condition before God seems horrendous. It's the badness of the bad news that makes the good news so sweet.
Saved From God, By God, For God
Yes, God is the rescuer (the Savior), but saying that we don't need to be rescued from God is to diminish God's holy character and distort the Bible's message. Historically, Christians have believed that we're rescued from God, by God and for God. We're rescued from God's wrath by God's Son, Jesus Christ, living the perfectly obedient, God-dependent life we should have lived, and dying the death that we deserved, for God — that is, for the sake of belonging to God — to live in unbroken fellowship with Him forever (1 Peter 3:18). This — and nothing less — is the good news of Christmas. And in no way does it pit the Father against the Son — since the Father in love sent His Son, who came willingly to pay the penalty we deserved.
Let's put this in context of the larger story of the Bible. The story starts with God's people (Adam and Eve) living in God's place (The Garden of Eden) under God's rule. But they disobey and are driven out. God calls out a people and creates a system whereby they (though sinners) can dwell with Him. The difficulty is that God's perfect holiness is inherently dangerous for unholy people. It would require the regular offering of sacrifices whose "pleasing aromas" created a temporary atonement for sin (see the book of Leviticus).
Yet the book of Hebrews tells us that the Old Testament's methods for dealing with sin never really got the job done. That's why Jesus needed to come, in our likeness, but also in God's likeness, to be our perfect mediator and representative. As a man, Jesus lived in total dependence upon God the Father (as we were made to do). And the climax of His obedient life was His death, where He experienced the divine wrath which we merited. Those who trust in Him receive forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God, as well as the power to overcome sin and live a life of greater conformity to the character of God. Eventually, in the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21), God will once again dwell in perfect, unmediated fellowship with His people — and this time for all eternity.
What all this demonstrates is that God's love for us does not come at the expense of His holiness. Rather, because of His love for us, He made a way for His holiness to not destroy us (Romans 5:6-11). Rather than ignore or overlook sin — and essentially become unrighteous (like us) — God's holy love devised a way to make us righteous (like Him).
This counter-cultural message is predicated on several key concepts:
1. God is infinitely worthy of allegiance.
God is the most glorious Being in the universe. As the eternal, omnipotent and morally perfect creator of all things, He is worthy of our total allegiance. In love, He created humanity, and set them in a garden perfectly suited to their needs and desires. Total happiness was available in Him, and in the enjoyment of His gifts, each meant to be received with thanksgiving. We were made in His image to live in complete dependence upon Him and delight in Him.
2. Therefore, sin is an infinite, personal offense to Him.
The heart of sin is trusting or delighting in anything but God, and therefore building our life around non-gods. We have all sinned in our words, actions, thoughts, and motivations (Romans 3:23). Romans 1:21 speaks of sin as a refusal to glorify God and give Him thanks — so there's plenty of sin even in our goodness. Whatever doesn't flow from faith is sin (Romans 14:23), because trust in God glorifies him (Romans 4:20). Lack of faith shows that our delight (our worship) lies elsewhere — for example, in the praise of others (John 5:44) or in material blessings (Matthew 6:24). The Bible speaks of sin as spiritual harlotry to express the deep, personal betrayal of God involved.
3. God's anger toward sin flows out of His moral perfection.
We're outraged when a judge releases a person who is widely believed to be guilty of a heinous crime. We consider it a travesty of justice. How much more must God be personally angry with sin and, yes, even sinners. God's wrath is His righteous, controlled, deliberate indignation against all that is contrary to his nature. "God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day" (Psalm 7:11).
4. God's justice requires that sinners must either experience His judgment or have a sinless substitute experience this legal sentence on their behalf.
And so the penalty for sin must be paid. We oversimplify matters by saying "God should just forgive" — that no payment should be required. Tim Keller illustrates this principle excellently. If I break your lamp, you could require that I pay for it. That would only be fair. The alternative is to forgive me and pay for it yourself (or suffer the consequences of going without it). But someone pays either way. Forgiveness always comes at the cost of the one granting the forgiveness. Yes, it is often free to the recipient, but never to the party which grants the forgiveness. On the contrary, the greater the forgiveness, the greater the cost to the one extending it.
God put forward Jesus Christ "as a propitiation" — as one who appeases or satisfies wrath (Romans 3:25). This way God could be "just" (fair, righteous) and also "the justifier" of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). God's good standard is upheld, and we who believe are made righteous. This doesn't make God a monster: For one, His anger was perfectly justified; secondly, it was His love that made a way out; and thirdly, Jesus Christ — fully God and fully man — willingly endured the punishment to make us right with God. The cross of Christ is a demonstration not only of God's love but of God's justice.
Christmas is not just about family and presents, or even a sweet baby in a barn surrounded with shepherds, angels and beautiful music. It plays the much more profound role of pointing to Good Friday, which culminates in Easter. "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). Jesus came to drink the cup of God's wrath so that we would never have to drink it (Matthew 26:39). He was temporarily abandoned on the cross so that we might forever be accepted.
This can only be good news to those who have owned the enormity of their debt to God and have declared allegiance to Jesus Christ, surrendering fully to his lordship and rightful rule in their lives. Therefore Christmas is fully and truly celebrated only by Christians. Care to join us?
Copyright 2011 Alex Chediak. All rights reserved.