St. Paul tells us in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
How often do we confound these words in our heads with our own religiosity? It is natural for fallen man to assume his relationship is built on transactions with God. All human beings who believe in God, or gods, naturally think in ways of transactions because we want to help God do what He alone can do. This is part of our fallen idolatry. When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, they were deceived into believing that they would be just like God. This lie has come to us these many generations later, and we too believe that we can be just like God, perhaps even by helping God to be a God in our image.
Yet our God, the one true, Triune God did establish a system of sacrifices in the Old Testament. After the fall, God came looking for Adam and Eve in the Garden, while they were hiding. We remember the conversation well in Genesis 3:9 and forward: “But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
Then followed a nice game of “pass the buck:” Adam blamed God for giving him that darned woman who wrecked everything and then Eve denounced the serpent. God rightly cursed the serpent, promised that One would come from Eve who would crush the serpent’s head, and then God did something very interesting: He performed a sacrifice to cover the nakedness and sin of Adam and Eve.
With this sacrifice, God put into effect three marvelous things.
We too believe that we can be just like God, perhaps even by helping God to be a God in our image.
First, God made one promise with two meanings: God promised to crush the head of Satan in the presence of Adam and Eve, in effect also promising to deliver them and the rest of mankind from sin. We see the fulfillment of this on Good Friday. This was the most horrible of days for Jesus, who suffered the brutal beatings, crucifixion, and agony of the sins of the whole world. Jesus hanged cursed on that wooden tree of a cross. Scripture tells us, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21 and Galatians 3). Our sin, created in our broken and decaying hearts, constructed that gruesome work of art: Jesus on the cross.
Jesus became cursed to take our sinful curse onto Himself for, “He who knew no sin became sin so that we might be the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Second, God established a sacrificial system to teach us that the death and bloodshed that we brought into the world must be atoned for. So God established blood sacrifices. His preference: a spotless lamb without blemish. Thus God foreshadows the final sacrifice of the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29,36)
Third and finally, God does something else that is truly marvelous: He provides an offering for the sacrifice He demands. God kills an animal whose skins provide a covering for the sins of Adam and Eve. God did not command Adam to hunt down a spotless lamb for himself, but instead, He provided both the content and the work of the sacrifice. He did it all.
Adam and Eve willfully rebelled against God, and yet God did everything necessary through the atoning sacrifice to bring them back into relationship with Him.
It is so common in this fallen world that we believe we must initiate, participate in, or complete some transaction to appease the angry god(s), but the true God does all things necessary for our forgiveness and salvation.
In ancient days (and some not so ancient), the gods were angry, and they demanded sacrifice. Be it the Incans gods, Supay or Paryaqaqa, or the gods of Polynesia like Oro or Pele, or whatever the god of our own conjuring. All “gods” require sacrifices: some human, some animal, some monetary. In the case of the gods of Major League Baseball, atonement may even look like wearing your hat inside out to which is “heap good mojo” for your team to be victorious (if you are a sports fan, you know what I’m talking about. We have all done silly superstitious things for the good of our team.)
Regardless, religion demands transactions between man and gods, but the one true God, in His timing, short-circuited all of our notions of transactions.
God did not command Adam to hunt down a spotless lamb for himself, but instead, He provided both the content and the work of the sacrifice. He did it all.
Just like that first sacrifice in the Garden, our God has done it again. In His timing, He sent His only Son (the Lamb of God) into this world. He shorted out our transactionalism by doing what He had done before but this time on a global and eternal scale. Even while we keep wrecking everything by attempting to justify our sin with that same blame game first started in the Garden, God did all the work required as Jesus Christ lived a perfect, spotless, sinless life on your behalf - on our behalf.
Jesus is perfect in our place and perfect as the final sacrifice. He required nothing of us, and yet He provided all things necessary for us to have everlasting life. And to top it off, He rose from the dead, giving you the promise that His resurrection is yours and that on the last day, all who believe in Him will indeed be with Him in paradise.
All of this, from beginning to end, is a gift.
While payment is always earned, gifts are always freely given, without any requirements on the part of the recipient. And to whom does God give these gifts? To the whole world and moreover to those who know that they do not deserve them.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 3:5)
To be poor in spirit is to confess that there is no merit within our fallen hearts and no sacrifice that we could bring that would be of any value to the perfect God. It is these empty vessels that our Lord delights in filling with His wine of gladness.
Even as we come to the Lord’s Table in Holy Communion, we find that those who do not eat and drink judgment on themselves are those who rightly discern their unworthiness, an unworthiness to receive the body and blood of Christ given for the forgiveness of their sins.
So it is with all of God’s gifts. We receive the blessings and mercies of our Savior as empty-handed beggars discovering both that we have no spiritual currency for any transactions and that our accounts are paid in full. And yet, we find ourselves heirs of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, rich beyond all measure.
Christ Jesus provides all that He requires of those who have nothing of value to bring before the almighty, perfectly righteous God who has mercy on those who are unworthy of such tender and loving mercies. Thanks be to God that our cups indeed run over with His mercies which are new every morning and are without end.