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During this Easter season, we often sing the Elvina Hall hymn “Jesus Paid It All.” The refrain is:
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.
Jesus paid our debt through His substitutionary atonement on the cross and then overcame the penalty of sin through His resurrection. However, I’m afraid the fact that Jesus paid your debt and my debt is losing its wonder in today’s world.
We live in a time when debt is no longer something to be avoided or delivered from, but it is an accepted, even embraced, way of life. Numerous countries, including the U.S., run on debt-based economic models. The government’s debt is presently greater than $21 trillion—that’s a debt of $174,000 per tax payer. It is the largest debt for a single country in the world. Chasing the American Dream has resulted in student loan debt of $1.5 trillion and credit card debt approaching $1 trillion. One credit card company’s marketing promises to pay the card user cash back for using its credit card. Why doesn’t this company simply go bankrupt giving away cash? Because card users carry debt on the card.
Folks have forgotten the wisdom of “don’t spend what you don’t have.” Society has become desensitized to debt, justifies debt burdens, and feels entitled to debt forgiveness without consequence. To be sure, society is now conditioned to carry large debt burdens despite the long-term ramifications. Commercials and societal norms opine that you cannot go to college, buy a house, or get a car without loans. Even cell phone companies offer financing for the purchase of the latest and greatest phone.
With “living with debt” as the societal norm, do we really understand the debt that Jesus paid? Romans 3:23 is clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and Romans 6:23 informs us that “the wages of sin is death.” You and I deserve death. We are not entitled to probation for good behavior or a “get out of jail free” card. Death—no breathing, no firing of brain neurons, no beating of the heart, and no life support technologies keeping us “alive.” Moreover, the consequence of carrying our sin debt is beyond the temporal trappings of this world; it is eternal—eternal separation from God. As sinners, we are an abomination to a holy God. We cannot approach Him after the fact to plead our case or play “let’s make a deal.”
There is no debt forgiveness with a holy God. The sin debt has to be paid, or else we suffer the consequences. However, our debt is so enormous that it leaves us bankrupt, and we cannot do anything about it. Isaiah 64:6 attests that “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.”
But the good news is that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16) to pay our sin debt. Jesus is the only man who could pay our sin debt. Scripture attests to what Jesus did for us:
Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5)
[Jesus] Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation….” (Revelation 5:9)
Jesus died for your sins and my sins on the cross. His blood was spilled as the atoning sacrifice to pay our sin debt. John 19:30 records the last words of Jesus on the cross: “Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, ‘It is finished!’ And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.”
The single Greek word translated “It is finished” is tetelestai. It is an accounting term meaning “paid in full.” Jesus was declaring that our debt owed to God for our sin was completely wiped away forever. No payment plan is required, no surprise balloon payments materialize at the end—the sin debt has been paid in full. This is perhaps easier to see in the Greek, for tetelestai is spoken by Jesus in the perfect tense. There is no English equivalent to the Greek perfect tense. The perfect tense means that something happens at a specific point in time and continues on into the future with ongoing results. Hence, Jesus paid all of mankind’s sin debt at that very moment and for eternity.
Properly understanding debt this Easter season is of critical importance. It is not a material or monetary debt, but one that possesses eternal consequences for our soul. Hell is no longer our destiny because “Jesus paid it all….” We will be able to stand before holy God and be ushered into eternity with Him.
For an in-depth discussion on atonement, the following book is recommended: The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review, by David Allen, B&H Academic, 2016.
Although not the focus of this post, debt directly opposes biblical stewardship, and the amount of debt is affecting our churches as it prevents Christians from practicing the biblical discipline of generosity.
I had a conversation with a close friend a few years ago, and he asked me a question that I chewed on for days afterward: Do those of us who adhere to the doctrines of grace tend to downplay the resurrection of Christ? Do we, in our drive to make everything gospel-centered and cross-saturated unintentionally underemphasize the final miracle in the doctrines of grace, the vindication of the Son by the Father in the empty tomb?
The more I have thought about it, the more I wonder if perhaps there is not some subtle truth in this notion, though there is no way to empirically substantiate it. As adherents to historic evangelical orthodoxy, we love to proclaim Good Friday and its staggering implications for fallen humanity. Rightly, we cherish the great truth of Christ’s substitutionary, effectual death on behalf of His people. We exalt His propitiating the wrath of the Father—the wrath that we deserved to bear, Christ bore. How could we not exult in so glorious a truth?Centrality of preaching the cross
We speak often of Christ’s active and passive obedience and the application of both for the imputation of His righteousness to sinners: “God made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf so that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” That may be the Olympus of theological truths.
As I thought of these things and my friend’s question, I realized that in my own speaking of the gospel, I always frame as the “person and work of Christ” or His substitutionary atonement, but invariably, I (unintentionally, of course, I’m not suggesting any of us does this on purpose), leave off the resurrection. In the past few days, I have found myself saying “Christ’s death…and resurrection in our place.” After all, His resurrection secured our resurrection and Paul tells us that we are raised in Him.
The resurrection has been the focal point of attack from atheists and liberals throughout the history of the church. Jesus contended with the Sadducees whose central theological thrust was a denial of the resurrection. In the Enlightenment, British empiricist David Hume virtually made a career out of attacking the validity of Christ’s resurrection in his assault on the Christian faith. Hume, the Sadducees and all skeptics know that if one proves the resurrection of Christ false, then the Christian faith and its supernatural power collapses like a house of cards.8 devastating results if we lose the empty tomb
Of course, we who cherish sound evangelical doctrine certainly also cherish the resurrection of Christ, for without it, the cross is void of significance. With Good Friday looming in a matter of days, Paul’s exposition of the centrality of the resurrection of Christ in 1 Corinthians 15:12-22 serves as a good reminder for us all of the catastrophic consequences for our fallen world if Christ “be not raised.” If the resurrection is not true, then Paul says eight awful truths emerge that renders false the Christian faith. If Christ is not raised, then:1. Not even Christ is raised.
This is the first and most obvious consequence. This is nuclear fallout. If there is no resurrection from the dead, as Hume and the Sadducees claim, then Christ’s body was eaten by dogs or taken by thieves or secretly removed by Jesus’s disciples or there exists another naturalistic explanation for the claim by hundreds of witnesses to have seen the risen Lord.2. The preaching of the gospel is useless.
The good news is then no news. Actually, it is bad news. For, apart from the resurrection, Jesus has not conquered suffering, sin or death and these three evils will forever be our conquerors. As Barney Fife always loved to tell people while dispersing a crowd in Mayberry, there is nothing to see here.3. Faith in Christ is worthless.
Faith in a lifeless corpse buried somewhere in the Middle East will save no one. If Christ did not rise from the dead, then Hebrews 11 would better be dubbed the “hall of fools” instead of the hall of faith.4. Every witness to the resurrection and all preachers of the resurrection are liars.
To deny the resurrection is to call the apostles and every other New Testament leader liars. They are not simply mistaken, but are peddling a whopper of a myth. Jesus, too, is a liar, for it was He who said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”5. Christianity is a fairy tale
Scripture is nothing but a book of history comingled with superstition and myths. Missions and evangelism are a colossal waste of time, energy and money. We do not waste effort and resources peddling Mother Goose and we should not waste our time on this ancient myth.6. All of humanity is still in its sins.
What Paul says remains true, “The wages of sin is death.” Our world is still fallen, still captive to sin, still enslaved to death.7. Everyone who died is in hell.
There remains no sacrifice for sins, if Christ be not raised. This consequence follows from the sixth one and means that every human being will face the full, unmediated wrath of God for all eternity.8. Christians are the most pathetic people on earth.
Paul puts it this way, “If Christ be not raised, then we are of most men to be pitied.” Indeed. And this is why the world, as Paul says so well in 1 Corinthians 1, sees the cross of Christ as foolishness. If every part of the Gospel is not true, then we will have spent our days pursuing a God who will not be able to benefit us beyond the grave. Not only are we objects of pity, the skeptics around us are correct. Blaise Pascal’s famous “wager” will do little to make us feel better in eternity.
Soon, the Christian world will celebrate both Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In all the teaching, talking and theologizing we who march behind the banner emblazoned with the five solas tend to do, let us remember that we cannot have the one without the other.
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