Every year when celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ, I hear others try to find something new in the story. Either they hope something fresh sticks out to them, or they force some personal relevance into the story. I've always felt like this approach missed the point of the celebration.
It has bothered me for the last few years, but I didn't know why until I happened upon Thomas Goodwin's classic book, Christ Set Forth, where Goodwin asks a simple question, "What are we to look for in Christ's death?" And although his answer seems simple, it carries weight: Look to the intention of God and of Christ; see why the cross happened. He writes, “…faith is principally and mainly to look unto the end, meaning, and intent of God and Christ in his sufferings, and not simply at the tragic story of his death and sufferings.”
To you and I, immersed in the popular evangelical idea of 'easy believism', we know why Jesus died. It was to forgive our sins. It's that simple. Now we can move on. We aren’t taught to look for the meaning or to inquire into why the words we read tell us what they do. The emotions we feel from the story are enough.
I think 'easy believism' explains why we often do what Goodwin tells us not to do and dwell more on what happened historically on the cross than why it happened. We have truncated the reason for the gospel to the forgiveness of sin, leaving us with nothing interesting other than the historical account of the event.
The cross is a historical fact and its historicity is crucial to our faith, but the historical fact by itself cannot confer the spiritual benefit of Christ's death we so desperately need. True spiritual blessing is only found in contemplating God and Christ's intention through the cross. This is where Goodwin helps us by contrasting the incorrect way of thinking about Christ's death.
And yet all, or the chief use which the papists and many carnal protestants make of Christ's sufferings, is to meditate upon, and set out to themselves the grievousness of them, so to move their hearts to a relenting, and compassion to him, and indignation against the Jews for their crucifying of him, with an admiring of his noble and heroic love herein; and if they can but get their hearts thus affected, they judge and account this to be grace; when as it is no more than what the like tragic story of some great and noble personage, full of heroic virtues and ingenuity, yet inhumanely and ungratefully used, will work, and uses ordinarily to work in ingenuous spirits, who read or hear of it.
Essentially, Goodwin is saying that those who read the crucifixion account without looking at the intention of Christ read it no differently than any other tragic story. What's worse with the crucifixion story is those who are emotionally moved by it think they have received grace. So every year, many continue reading it simply for its historical and tragic element, hoping to receive some sort of spiritual blessing by looking for something fresh or forcing personal relevance onto the story.
Thomas Goodwin's response for those looking to be emotionally moved by the story is that they miss the point of the story entirely. The point of the cross is not to be moved to pity. It is to trust in Christ and to do that, one must become aware of His intentions toward sinners through His death.
For us to become aware of Christ's intentions, we must think about Jesus living for us—an oft-forgotten reality in the gospel. The reason for this comes from Paul when he writes, "For while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life" (Romans 5:10).
By way of contrast, Paul introduces us to the importance of Christ's life, and what we notice through this shift of perspective is the intention of God in Christ for us. First, since we are familiar with Christ's death forgiving us of sin, we should note Paul is more interested in Christ's death reconciling us to God. Reconciliation is the bigger picture into which our forgiveness fits, and this helps us take our eyes off the personal, experiential effect of the cross and onto God's intention. Second, Paul says "…we are saved by his life." The intention of God and Christ in our redemption extends further than the historical cross to the entire life of Jesus.
When the focus turns to Jesus' life, it turns to His active obedience.
It turns to the unassuming historical fact that Jesus was born of a virgin. It's unassuming because when we think of the virgin birth, we think of a miracle, but the virgin birth has more to do with Christ keeping the law than it does with miracles.
Paul explains the importance of Christ keeping the Law throughout his letter to the Romans, and what he does is reiterate the Old Testament truth that only those who keep the law will be justified (Romans 2:13). The problem was that no one could keep the law, no one that is until Christ. Christ kept the law perfectly. He did not sin, nor was he born with a sinful nature.
Adding to the argument in Romans 5:10, Paul tells us that while Adam's disobedience imputed sin to the whole human race, "by [Jesus'] obedience the many will be made righteous" (Romans 5:18). Paul's emphasis on Christ's life as being important for our salvation helps us focus on God's intention in our salvation. God's intention in the historical story of Jesus on the cross was to redeem you and me through the righteousness of Christ.
Paul doesn’t just mean the life Christ lived on this earth, but the life Christ now lives in heaven where He intercedes for His own before the Father. His righteousness is currently active on behalf of the believer, mediating the relationship between the believer and the Father. This means our dependence on Christ’s righteousness is not only a historical, one-time blessing but also a current and active gift of grace.
I think Christians underestimate the importance of Christ's righteousness given to them. They are content to know their sins are forgiven so they can carry on their lives with a free conscience. They underestimate Christ's righteousness because they do not look to His intention on the cross. The gospel offers so much more! It offers them rest from their efforts to please God by their works. It offers them hope throughout their failures. It gives them the strength to live holy lives.
Next Easter, or better yet, throughout the year, think about God's intention in Christ to reconcile you to Himself, declaring you righteous because of Christ's obedience. Consider God and Christ's intention and you will experience God's love for you more deeply, and you will understand God's grace to you in your salvation more fully.