Accepting a Gift We Don’t Deserve
How can we rejoice in Christ’s sacrifice when we know we don’t deserve it? Even though Christ died for us willingly, how does this appease the Father? This week on Ask Away, Jo and Vince Vitale respond to a listener’s heartfelt questions on how to understand the cross and find peace in God’s plan for salvation.
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Michael Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I am your host, Michael Davis.
From the early church through today, the idea of a crucified God has been the object of scorn by those who do not know who Christ is and what He has done for sinners. Even for believers, dealing with the reality of what the cross means, both in its necessity and its significance, can be trying.
On one hand, receiving the sacrifice of Christ for our sins can be difficult to bare, in that the only truly sinless person who has ever lived became sin for us, personally. On the other hand, even reconciling the reality that this transfer is even just, rather than unjust, can be difficult. How is it possible for Christians to rejoice in Christ's sacrifice? If it isn't possible for people to transfer guilt from one person to another person in our courts, how is the cross even fair?
But before we get started, Jo, can you tell our listeners a little bit about ReMind, happening in Hudson, Ohio August 9th through the 10th?
Jo Vitale: I absolutely can. At ReMind, it's just phenomenal. Vince and I were there last year. It's a really fun conference for young adults. You will have the chance both to learn how to answer the questions of your friends and also get your own questions answered, and a huge range of people come, so whether you're someone who knows what you believe or you're doubting, this is a great opportunity to be there.
A lot of our team will be there speaking. Abdul will be there speaking and a bunch of others as well. We also have an exciting surprise musical guest. We can't reveal or disclose who it is yet, but it's going to be a really great time. So I encourage you, if you're anywhere in the area or you want to jump on a plane, it's absolutely worth going for the day. It'll be a great time.
Vince Vitale: Yeah, it's pretty flexible on the age range - sort of late high school through college plus, but if you get as old as me, you're too old.
Michael Davis: Though it's interesting. There were plenty of people that age.
Jo Vitale: Sneak in.
Michael Davis: All you've got to do is show your AARP membership card, Vince, and you'll be fine.
Jo Vitale: What is AARP?
Michael Davis: Oh, it's the Association for Retired Persons. It's fine.
Jo Vitale: Oh. Awesome.
Michael Davis: So if you're interested in going, all you have to do is go to rzim.org and click on the events tab.
Okay, so let's get to our question. This is from Zachary Self: "How am I to live an honest life, knowing someone else has been put to death for my sins? How do I sing and rejoice in heaven, knowing I never had to pay the price for it? I am having a hard time getting perspective on this. How do you find peace knowing another man died for you? Even though Christ died willingly, would any similar act in life exonerate an individual? If a child commits a crime, can a parent take the sentence for their child and go to prison or be put to death for them? How does this appease the Father?"
Vince Vitale: Zachary, thank you so much for this thoughtful question - obviously a genuine one, definitely one that resonates with us, especially this idea in the first half of the question of someone just having done too much for you.
Not too long ago, we had friends who treated us so extravagantly when Jo was pregnant with Raphael, and they did so much for us, it almost felt like we shouldn't be receiving that much. How could we be receiving so much from people when we hadn't done the same amount in return?
We had to kind of wrestle with that a bit and figure out what we were feeling, and I think, in our case, it highlighted something we hadn't been fully aware of and maybe didn't think was true of us, but realized, actually, we had some trouble believing in the reality of grace, which is an interesting thought, because, as Christians, we would say that is so central to what we believe and to who we are.
But we found ourselves having to ask that question: "Could this really be a gift? Could we actually be loved to this extent, that even though we hadn't earned this at all, people would treat us with such extravagance? Could people really want to do us for this, this much for us, even though we could never sufficiently pay it back?"
It's been said that there's never a free lunch, but this really was a free lunch, and it wasn't just a free lunch. It was a free baby shower and baby gifts and babysitting and everything else, and it convicted us, because we realized, "Huh. We're Christians. This is who we're supposed to be - people who receive grace."
Michael Davis: Right, right.
Vince Vitale: By identity, that's who we're supposed to be, and we found it difficult.
Jo Vitale: Yeah, and I think, partly in the back of your head, there's sometimes that feeling of, "Oh, do people really want to do this for us? Did they in any way feel like they sort of had to, or do they definitely really care about us that much that they would willingly choose to do that for us?"
Amazingly, they did, because they're incredible friends, but I think the same thing is going on here. I find your question interesting, Zachary, because you mentioned someone being put to death for your sins or someone dying for you. But that sort of language could imply sort of something that's done to somebody, but, of course, the thing about this here is there's an absolute willingness to this, that Christ isn't unwillingly being put to death. If you've seen the Hunger Games, He's like, "I volunteer as tribute."
That is the language of what's going on here, that this was intended and intentioned, and not just a sort of, "Oh no, things have gone horribly wrong. Now I have to jump in and intervene." This was a decision before you were even created.
Michael Davis: Right, right.
Jo Vitale: The lamb was slain before the foundation of the world. God knew exactly what it was going to take to have you with Him and to have you in heaven and to rescue you and still chose to create you anyway, knowing what that would cost. So it's not a sort of accidental thing here.
Vince Vitale: I think that's really significant, Jo, about who is it that's doing it, because I think the other thing that's sometimes behind our uncomfort at receiving such a gift from someone is that we sort of would've rather have done it ourselves. We would rather be our own savior than have to be saved, play the role of God rather than let God play that role.
I was thinking of an illustration. Imagine that you and a friend were stuck in a burning building, and you were helpless and afraid and just crying on the floor. Your friend found the strength and the courage to pick you up and carry you out through the flames.
Now, that's a humbling story to tell afterwards. Would you rather be the helpless friend who got saved, or would you rather be the strong, courageous, heroic friend who carried the friend through the flames?
Sometimes I think we can almost be jealous of Jesus, because He is so much greater than us, and we are broken and helpless and afraid. We are, in reality, in that humble position of needing someone to carry us out of that burning building. But, oftentimes, we're not willing. We're a bit caught up in our pride. We want to be the savior, rather than the saved.
So I think that's sometimes behind this idea of, "Why are we so uncomfortable with someone having done something so extravagant for us?" Well, because we don't get the credit for it.
Michael Davis: Right.
Vince Vitale: God gets all of the credit for us. That's a good thing, and that's a beautiful thing. That's in line with reality. But it requires us humbling ourselves. So, to the extent that we hold onto pride in our desire to be the savior in our own lives, to that extent will we also be uncomfortable with Jesus having been the one to save us.
Jo Vitale: The thing here is that it's not like you've deceived your way into heaven, in the sense that you...I don't know if you...There was a TV show that came out a little while ago called “The Good Place”...
Michael Davis: That's right.
Jo Vitale: ...and I think the premise of the whole thing - right? - is this idea that the good place is for good people, the good place is heaven, but some people have snuck in who shouldn't actually be there.
I think, as long as we think that way, that heaven is a place for good people and if we somehow wind up there, then do we even belong? Have we snuck in? How can we honestly be there, singing and rejoicing? But heaven is full of people. Everyone who's in heaven didn't deserve to be there. We're all singing and rejoicing because we've been saved, not because any person has earned it.
This kind of struck home for me, and now the parent analogy coming to the fore here. But just being a mom and suddenly realizing how much.. It's not just someone physically dying for you that is a costly thing, but, actually, even as a parent, you're basically laying down your life for your child every single day, particularly the moment when you're feeling the weight of that, because you're up so early in the morning. You're up, often, in the night. Everything in my mind is kind of revolving around, "What does he need?"
It's this kind of constant caretaking, and yet, I don't think he'll ever have a clue how much I've sort of done for him or how costly that was until he's old enough to have his own children.
Michael Davis: Right, right.
Jo Vitale: Now it's hit me, and I'm like, "Oh my gosh. My mom has done so much for me. How am I ever going to pay her back?"
Michael Davis: "I love you, Mom."
Vince Vitale: That always happens.
Jo Vitale: Seriously. But there is that feeling. But then I sort of feel like, "Well, there aren't enough flowers that I could buy on Mother's Day" ...
Vince Vitale: Right.
Jo Vitale: ..."to make it up to my mom, how much she has given me, how much she has laid down her life for me." But I know that that's not what my mom wants, at the end of the day. She doesn't want me just to go out and buy every flower I can find in the florist's, just to pay back what she's given to me, that laying down of her life for me.
Actually, what does she want? She really wants a relationship with me. She really wants me to love her, and, actually, the best way I can show gratitude for that wouldn't be to put a distance between us and say, "Mom, you've done too much for me. I can't bear it. I just have to go away." It would be to say, "Mom, I just love you. Let me just thank you for this by spending time with you, by delighting in your company, by loving you the way you desire a daughter to love you."
So I get that it is overwhelming. It's a completely overwhelming gift, but that's the way to respond to it, with gratitude.
Michael Davis: So that actually brings up the idea of peace. We understand that, in humility, that we have done nothing to earn salvation, but obviously the way we live can oftentimes cause us to not have peace, in light of that sacrifice, considering how far we fall short on a regular basis. So how would you say someone could actually find peace in the reality of this truth?
Vince Vitale: Yeah, I wrestled with this question, Zachary. It's a really good one, and I'm not sure there's just one answer or just an easy answer. But where I found my thoughts going were by passing it on and connecting it a bit, Jo, with what you were saying as well, that sort of your mom gave so much to you and now, in a sense, with Raphael, you're pouring out so much to him. There's a sense of you can't pay back what your mom did for you, but you can pass on that type of love to Raphael.
I think there's something Biblical about that, bringing that peace. In my mind, that brought me to the parable of the unmerciful servant - so that man who owed 10,000 bags of gold. His debt was canceled, but then he turned around and refused to cancel the debt of his fellow servants, who owed far, far less than that.
You're never going to find peace if that's your attitude, if you receive this incredible gift from someone and then you're not willing to pass on the same type of extravagant gift to someone else.
Then 2 Corinthians 1, I was thinking of those wonderful lines: "Praise be to the God Our Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Compassion and the God of All Comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God."
So God gives us that supernatural gift of divine comfort, but why does He do it? The purpose is so that we can give that gift, we can pass that gift on to others.
So I think we find peace in life when we fulfill the purpose for which God has made us, and when it comes to the extravagant gifts that God gives us, the reason He has given that is so that we can then hand on those gifts to others, which in turn points them back to God Himself.
Jo Vitale: Peace and freedom that comes with repentance.
Michael Davis: Yeah, yeah.
Jo Vitale: I think, in the moment, it can be very painful. I think, initially, you do feel that weight of, "Oh my goodness. Jesus died for me," and that is the conviction of the Holy Spirit. So, yes, Zachary, I'm totally with you initially. There is kind of a lack of peace, but I think once you accept what He's done for you and repent of it...which isn't just feeling sorry, but actually turning around and walking away from the thing and leaving the very lifestyle that Christ died to save you from.
Then I actually do think there comes a peace in that, of giving your burden over to Him and then walking away. I get that sometimes that takes a while, because there are some things that are habits of sin in our life that we're still trying to work out, and we're still being sanctified. That is an ongoing process, and in this lifetime we will never have it perfect or be perfect.
But I do think there is a peace that comes from at least being able to look back and say, "Okay, I used to be like this, but I can see a trajectory in my life of changing, of becoming more like Christ, of becoming more like the life that He died to give me, of kind of stepping into that."
Then you feel like, "Okay, Christ died for that person who was a sinner, but, gradually, that person is becoming no more, and, ultimately, in heaven, that person will be no more." When you're in heaven, you won't be anymore the person that Christ had to die for. You'll be the person that He has made you to be...
Michael Davis: Right.
Jo Vitale: ...living the life that He's gifted you with. So, in that sense, that person has truly been put to death, with the death of Christ. When you're raised to life in heaven, you'll be raised as a completely different person, in that sense, with all of that sin gone, made new.
So I think there's a kind of freedom and peace that comes with that and saying, "Okay, You died for those things, but those things won't define me anymore, because of what You've done. That literally won't be who I am anymore, and the best gift I can give back to You to show my gratitude" ...
Michael Davis: Yeah.
Jo Vitale: ... "is like Vince said, to love others as my act of worship and to love God by being obedient to Him, by becoming who He's made me to be and living a life that's worthy of the call that He has given us."
Vince Vitale: Yeah, that's good. It's like this way of honoring the gift giver and actually appreciating the gift that you've been given that brings peace, because it brings the right sort of relationship between the gift giver and the gift receiver, as opposed to when someone gives you a gift and then they come to your house a few years later and they ask about it, and you don't know where it is. You can't find it.
Michael Davis: I've re-gifted it to somebody else. I don't even know who it is.
Vince Vitale: Exactly. You've re-gifted it, and...
Jo Vitale: Obviously, that's never happened to us.
Vince Vitale: But, thinking back to those instances...
Michael Davis: Yeah, yeah.
Vince Vitale: ...it's not an experience of peacefulness, right?
Michael Davis: Yeah.
Vince Vitale: You feel the opposite of peace in that instance, because you have dishonored the gift giver. So when we honor and appreciate the gift that God has given us by cooperating with Him and doing the most that we can with it, then peace comes from that as well.
Michael Davis: So that actually brings us to the last part of the question, and this is actually where... Can a human being do this? So he says, "If a child commits a crime, can a parent take the sentence of their child and go to prison or be put to death for them? How does this appease the Father?"
Vince Vitale: Yeah, you're getting my philosophical gears turning here.
Jo Vitale: Uh-oh.
Vince Vitale: I really like it. I think this is one of the most under-addressed objections or questions in the Christian faith. So we talk all the time about this idea of Jesus dying for us, but then, if we go a bit further and say, "Well, how does that actually work?", it's not as simple as we sometimes make it out to be...
Michael Davis: Right.
Vince Vitale: ...because it's not the case that Michael can just go to jail for my crime and we say justice has been served. We wouldn't say, in that instance, justice has been served. So why then do we think that someone else - Jesus - can take our punishment and justice have been served? I mean, it's a really good question, and I think it's a stumbling block for a lot of people who are trying to figure out faith as well.
I mean, the first thing I'd want to say is that, if you feel that there is injustice surrounding the death of Christ generally, that initial intuition is a good one, right?
Michael Davis: Yeah, that's right.
Vince Vitale: That is part of why the sacrifice is so great, because it wasn't just this warranted death, but it's actually a deeply unjust death. So, to a certain extent, we want to affirm the objection, and that shows the greatness of Jesus's sacrifice.
But there's also an assumption behind these questions or these objections I want to explore a little more, and it's an assumption that, for something to make sense in divine terms, it would also have to make sense in human terms. Right? If it would make sense for God to be able to do it, then the same thing would have to make sense for a human parent and a human child. I think we need to be careful about that.
I don't believe that I can be one being along with two other people. Okay? I don't believe that's possible for me.
Michael Davis: Right.
Vince Vitale: But that doesn't mean I don't believe in the Trinity. I do believe that God can be one being and three persons. So just because something's possible on the divine plane of existence doesn't mean that we need to have an analogy on the human.
Something similar, I think, is true when we begin to think about justice in human and divine terms. So I don't believe that I can exonerate people of crimes merely by declaring it to be the case. But I do think that the President of the country can do this by Presidential pardon. Okay? He's operating with a different level of authority than I am, and the President's authority pales in comparison to God's authority.
So it's not a good approach to merely ask, "What would be just in a typical human case?" and then apply that same reasoning to God. He's a different type of being. He's operating on a different plane and with a different authority.
Jo Vitale: Yeah, I think that's particularly important, because I think whenever we're trying to think through analogies in that situation, we're always imagining in a sort of individual circumstance, where we're thinking, "Okay, there's an innocent party and a guilty party, and there's a judge. The innocent person is accusing the guilty one, and what is the judge going to do about it? How are they going to resolve it?"
But one way in which it's so disanalogous is that there aren't any innocent people here. So there's a guilty party and then maybe someone accusing them, but then the accuser is themselves guilty of wronging someone else. It just goes on and on. There isn't a single person left who isn't actually finding themselves in the place of guilty. The only person who's uniquely innocent is the judge...
Michael Davis: Right.
Jo Vitale: ...is God Himself, and He's there for only the one who has been wronged without wronging anybody. So, in several ways, it's already a completely disanalogous situation, that the one issuing the judgment is the only innocent person and also the one who has ultimately been the most wronged, as the one whose well we have destroyed and the lives that He's given to us we have destroyed as well.
So, in several different ways, it's going to have to be disanalogous and going to have to be different, the way God deals with it to the way that any of us could, because there are so many components there that are true of Him that aren't true of any of our kind of legal case situations.
Vince Vitale: Yeah, that's really good, really good, and it is so interesting how often we think, "Does this make sense in my everyday human life? If not, then it must not make sense for God." But, of course, you just take a step back, and, like Jo says, God is so different than us, in so many respects. So we shouldn't be at all surprised by that.
Zachary, let me say just a bit more to your specific question. Can one person take the sentence or imprisonment for another? Now, even in human relationships, I do think we have some relevant analogies that suggest that sometimes that can be a good and just thing to occur. I think of the captain who runs laps on behalf to the team.
I tend to go to sporting analogies, but some of the teams I played on, growing up, if you were late, every minute you were late for practice, you had to run a lap around the field. There were a couple instances where everybody was so late that we wouldn't have been able to get on with anything if we all had to spend the entire time running around the field.
So the captain might step up and say, "Coach, I will take that punishment on behalf of the team. Add up all the laps, and I'll run the laps. Then the rest of the team can actually have a practice."
Now, the coach is not obligated to accept that payment on behalf of the team, but he has the right to, and he gets to make that decision, because he's the organizer of the system. He's the authority in the situation.
Now, God is the ultimate creator and authority of the system, and so, while I don't think that He will trivialize sin or the situation that we're in or just trample justice by just looking the other way and saying, "Don't worry about it" and there not being any payment whatsoever, I do think, like that coach, we get to say He gets to determine...not us, but He gets to determine what counts as a sufficient price to be paid.
So if God determines that Jesus's sacrifice is sufficient to pay for the sins of the world, that's His prerogative to make that decision, and that could be a good and a just thing to do. We actually do have even some analogies in the human realm that could point in that direction.
Now, there's one more thing, I think, that we tend to assume wrongly when we think through this question. We wrongly assume that our criminal justice system is necessarily a reflection of moral reality. Okay? That's not always the case. Adultery is completely permissible in our criminal justice system. It's not a crime. But, nevertheless, it's deeply immoral, and it's certainly a crime in God's eyes.
So just because something is or is not allowed in our criminal system, in our penal system, is not enough to determine how it looks from God's perspective. The reason that adultery is not a crime in our legal system, big conversation to be had here, but, for one thing, it has a lot more to do with the challenges of actually enforcing that as a law than with its morality. Most people would agree that marital unfaithfulness is immoral, but it would be a very difficult thing to enforce that sort of law.
Now, likewise, I think it would be extremely difficult to manage a legal system where one person could serve another person's jail sentence. Think about the extent to which people would go to get others to serve their jail sentences for them, and think about the unfairness that would cause between the rich and the poor, the polarization that you would have as the rich try to pay off the poor to go to jail for them.
I think that would create a terrible society, in many ways. It would far too easily be abused in a human context. Plus, it would leave very dangerous people, very often, out on the streets. Our legal system is not just retributive. It's also trying to prevent certain crimes from happening with frequency.
But now change things into the divine context. In the divine context, we don't have to worry about a lot of this. No one can pay Jesus off to give His life for them. No one can manipulate Jesus into it. He voluntarily accepted our punishment, out of love for us, and there's nothing, I don't think, inherently unjust with one person paying a penalty for another.
So in our human system, there are lots of practical reasons why that couldn't be the case, but it's not clear that that's inherently unjust. We even have some analogies, when we talk about the captain paying that price for the rest of the team's wrong. We can think about other contexts as well.
Where somebody has a great financial debt, somebody else can come and pay that off for someone else. Even if they're in that financial debt because they've done something very wrong, one person can pay that for another.
There are practical reasons why, in a human society, one person serving another person's jail sentence would not be practical or good and would lead to an unhealthy situation. But in the divine context, there's not something necessarily wrong about one person paying a price for another, especially when it's not going to be abused, because the person who's doing it can't be manipulated, and that person is God Himself.
Michael Davis: Right. Well, guys, we are out of time. Vince, sum it up for us.
Vince Vitale: Wow. Deep question, Zachary. Appreciate your thoughtfulness and challenging us the way that you have. I was just thinking, as we're ending here, of an experience that I had way back in high school, but brought some of these philosophical thoughts into a much more concrete and tangible experience, and that was when I, at a red light, rolled into the car in front of me.
It was a long day. I was tired. I fell asleep, and I got out. The guy in front and myself, we started to exchange information and insurance and this sort of thing. He went back to his car to get his, and he came back to me. He said to me, "You know what? My family's going through a difficult time. How about you just commit to praying for my family and we just go with that?"
Never took my insurance. Just asked me to pray for his family. He decided to pay the price for the damage that I had done to his car. He was the owner of the car, so he was in the position of authority. He was in the position of having the right to make that decision, and he chose to take that on himself and to invite me into a relationship with him and his family, rather than to make me pay that myself.
Is that something which is very unusual in our human context? Yes, but it's also something which is beautiful and certainly an expression of love and of justice.
Michael Davis: Vince and Jo, thank you guys for joining me. Thank you all for listening, and we will catch you guys next week.
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