The following article is adapted from a talk he gave at Reformation Fellowship on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009.
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One thousand nine hundred and eighty years ago, in response to public pressure from the Jewish religious establishment, a Galilean peasant named Jesus of Nazareth became such a problem for the Roman government in Judea that they executed him, using means that were less than humane. The event would have been entirely unremarkable if Jesus had stayed dead. But having been unconventional in life, he remained so in death. His body did not lie quietly in the tomb, rotting and turning to dust. God brought him back into being. That is why, nearly two thousand years later, Jesus has our attention.
Jesus was not unconventional in the conventional sort of way and for the conventional sort of reasons. He was not just some itinerant, non-conformist Cynic philosopher with his own unique shtick and out to make a name for himself. He was unconventional in how he lived because he was unique in who he was. No human being who had ever lived before him, and no human being who would ever come after him, was more important than Jesus—not even John Lennon. Throughout his life, Jesus claimed that he was the unique Son of God—the man who God became, the man who embodied all that God was, the man who possessed the very authority of God himself. Accordingly, no man has ever been so whole in his goodness as Jesus; no human being has ever been so pure and complete in his love; no human being has ever been so courageous in his obedience to his Creator; no human being has ever been so independent of others’ opinions of him as Jesus. Jesus’ life and way of being was absolutely unique in this world. So his life, his way of being, supported his claim. He not only claimed to be the Son of God; he lived like a Son of God. But no matter how remarkable his life had been, few of us would be paying him any attention today if he had not been raised out of his grave.
The resurrection of Jesus was the one absolutely undeniable proof that Jesus was not a self-deluded nut with a messiah-complex. In the resurrection, God himself weighed in. He had said it in words out of the sky, “This is My beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17). But words are just words, and one can mistake God’s voice for thunder. But there can be no mistaking what God “announced” at the resurrection. Restoring the dead Jesus to life and existence spoke out loud and clear, “This is My beloved Son! Listen to him.” Divine actions speak louder than divine words. That is why we continue week after week to gather and listen to the teaching of Jesus. God declared Jesus His Son. He gave undeniable proof of it by raising Jesus from the dead. How can we do anything else but listen to Jesus?
At the resurrection, Jesus underwent a transformation of his being that no other human being has ever undergone. Jesus emerged from the dead and entered into a whole new order of existence. He assumed the life, existence, and reality of one who would never, ever be subject to death again. One day we may join him, but he went first. He led the way. He blazed the trail that will lead us beyond the familiar territory of mortality and corruptibility to the uncharted territory of immortal Life beyond the now.
The question is, who will follow Jesus down the trail that he blazed? Christians have been quick to supply answers to that question. Two answers are particularly popular: (1) It is the man or woman who persistently does the right thing who will find eternal Life. (2) It is the man or woman who believes all the right things who will find eternal Life.
Neither of these answers is consistent with what Jesus taught; and we should listen to him—just like God proclaimed from the skies of Judea so many centuries ago.
Consider the first suggestion—that we will be saved if we persistently do the right thing.
Jesus taught us that none of us is good. We are fundamentally and unfixably evil. It follows, then, that no one can find eternal Life by doing the right thing because we are constitutionally incapable of persistently doing what is right. Our whole being is wrong.
To begin with, we do not readily know what is the right thing to do. Our vision is clouded and distorted by our selfishness. Our ego-centric standpoint gives us a very poor vantage point from which to see what is ultimately right and good. Furthermore, we have an allergy to what is right and good; we sneeze at it. We readily embrace lies and fairy tales if we can thereby avoid the truth. So, coming to know what is right is fraught with difficulties that none of us can ultimately overcome.
But even if we could know the right thing to do, we do not have it in us to do the right thing. As Paul so eloquently described, “The good that I want to do, I do not do. The very evil that I do not want to do, that is what I do” (Romans 7:15). Paul describes me. Paul describes you. All the effort I might exert in coming to know what is right will be of no avail when it comes to salvation because, in the final analysis, I just will not do what is right. I am a typical human being, sold into bondage to sin. No one, then, will find his way down the trail to eternal Life by doing the right thing with sufficient regularity.
Consider the second suggestion—that we will be saved if we believe the right things.
Jesus did teach that we should receive and embrace the truth. And, indeed, he suggests in many different ways that it is the man or woman who embraces the truth who will enter into eternal Life. But what Jesus meant by this teaching is tragically misunderstood. Jesus never intended to suggest that we must believe all the right things if we wish to attain Life. That is Christianity speaking, not Jesus. That is the Church speaking, not the Christ.
Many of us have certainly been taught that our eternal destiny hinges on whether we get our doctrine and theology right. The message has been impressed upon us that our beliefs had best be biblical or we will certainly be damned. The fear of condemnation hangs over us every time we open our Bible. Augustine heard the children chant, “Take up and read! Take up and read!” But we hear the Christian centuries chant back, “But you better read it right! You better read it right!” We want to read, but we are too terrified to read. Is it not so much safer to let others, more worthy, read it for us and tell us what to believe? Our fear of getting it wrong drives us to take shelter in tradition. And the safety of tradition keeps us far away from new vistas that could allow us some insight into the truth that Jesus came to teach. So long as we continue to think that we have to believe the right things in order to gain Life, we can never read our Bibles with anything like the freedom to make mistakes that is a precondition for arriving at true understanding.
Jesus did not teach that we must believe all the right things—and only the right things—if we wish to escape condemnation. In fact, we misunderstand him if we think that he said what he did because having the Truth was of central importance to him. Jesus did, in fact, teach that the one who believes the Truth will be saved, but he did not mean that the one who has the Truth who will be saved. Therefore, we cannot deduce what many of us have been taught—namely, that the one who does not have the Truth will not be saved. Jesus was not saying that.
To put it another way, Jesus did not intend to suggest that the one who has his beliefs right will be saved. And we cannot therefore deduce from his teaching that the one who does not have his beliefs right will be condemned. For Jesus, the opposite of believing is not not believing. The opposite of believing is refusing to believe. Jesus does not intend to suggest that the fallacy of unbelief is in its failure to believe. No, the fallacy of unbelief is in its denial and rejection of the Truth. The man who is right with God is not the one who has his doctrine right. The man who is right with God is the one who is open and receptive to the Truth because his heart is open and receptive to God. The man who will follow Jesus into eternal Life is not the one who has exegeted his Bible correctly. The man who will follow Jesus into Life is the one who longs and yearns for the truth of the Bible to enlighten him.
Let us, then, answer our original question: Who will follow the resurrected Jesus into Life?
The one who will follow into Life is not the one gets it right or does it right; rather, everyone who is rightly oriented to his Creator in the innermost depths of his being will follow the resurrected Jesus into Life. One can get his beliefs right but not be rightly oriented to God inside. One can do what is right and yet not want, in the depths of his being, what his Creator wants. Furthermore, one can be rightly oriented toward God and still get things wrong. Being rightly oriented toward God does not guarantee that I will get my doctrine right; it does not guarantee that I will get my exegesis of the Bible right; it does not guarantee that I will know the right thing to do; and it certainly does not guarantee that I will do the right thing. However, being rightly oriented toward God is determinative of who I am. I am qualified for eternal Life by being rightly related to my Creator in the commitments at my core—not by outward success in what I do and believe.
If, from the depths of my being, I yearn to know God and am inclined to love Him, if I am open and receptive to what He wants me to know and understand, if I readily acknowledge His status and authority over me, and if I live before God in gratitude for who He is and what He has done for me, then the resurrection of Jesus will become my resurrection, and the absolutely new Life that Jesus entered into on Easter morning will become the absolutely new order of existence that I will one day enjoy.
On Easter, we confront the question posed by human existence as explicitly and clearly as at any other time in our lives: Will we bend the knees of our heart to God, or will our hearts stand up straight in defiance? Will we, with Jesus, choose to say to God from our hearts, “It is not about my will; it is about your will.”
Only you have it within your reach to follow Jesus in his resurrection. Only you have it within your power to reorient your heart—if God should sovereignly grant it—turning it toward God, and not away from Him. May all of us, this Easter day, choose to humble ourselves before God and follow Jesus into Life. May none of us this day remain behind in the tomb because we are too proud and stubborn to acknowledge God as God.