I’ve been hearing a lot about the “finished work” of Christ lately.
Jesus took care of everything on the cross, a lot of Christians are saying. Because of this, we can rest in God’s love and know that everything is good, that we’re already reconciled to God, that there’s nothing more we need to do.
To be honest, I’m not really sure what people mean when they say things like this.
If they mean that we’re saved by grace, and that there’s nothing we can do to “earn” God’s love, I would have to agree. Salvation by grace is the central message of the gospel.
In the process of reconciliation, God takes the initiative and reaches out to us before we’re even capable of a response.
I also believe that God is sovereign. While God’s plans for a new heaven and new earth can be hindered, they can’t be stopped. The ultimate outcome is certain.
I often get the sense, however, that people mean more than this when they talk of the “finished work” of Christ.
For some, it seems to mean that since Jesus has “paid the debt” for our sin, nothing is expected of us in return. To these people, the gospel is simply knowing that God loves us as we are – and nothing more than this.
While such a simplistic view of the gospel is attractive to many people, and sounds nice, there’s a serious problem with it – it doesn’t square with what Jesus actually teaches!
“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus tells us, “but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21).
Jesus goes on to say that many will claim to know Him, and even say they have done great works in His name, only to be told, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers” (Matt 7:23)!
For Jesus, there’s no salvation that doesn’t include works of justice and mercy. Those who ignore the plight of the poor and marginalized will not fare well at the final judgment – where the righteous and the wicked will be separated like sheep and goats (Matt 25:31-46).
Jesus didn’t become a human being, live a life of poverty and homelessness, and ultimately die on a cross, just so we can sit around and bask in God’s love while the world burns! Such an understanding of the Incarnation has rightly been called “cheap grace.”
Jesus didn’t give His life simply to pay the “debt” for our sin. He died to take away the power of our sin – and He was raised from the dead so that we too can be raised to a higher life.
In the words of Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware, “God’s Incarnation opens the way to man’s deification” (The Orthodox Way, 74).
The entire purpose of the Christian life is to gradually take on God’s character; for us to become what Jesus already is. If we have no desire to become like Jesus, there’s reason to question whether what we’ve experienced is actually God!
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that holiness is a prerequisite for salvation – as if salvation were something we could earn. What I am saying is that those who have truly tasted God’s love will naturally become holy – if they continue to walk in this love.
Holiness isn’t something we do in order to be saved; rather, holiness is the experience of salvation itself! It’s where God’s love leads us.
Those who have read my other writings may wonder why I think sanctification is so important, if in the end everyone will be saved (which I do think is a strong possibility).
To this I can only say that salvation isn’t so much a legal status as it is an experience of God living within us.
God doesn’t “consider” us holy simply because of what Jesus did on the cross, as if the atonement is a blindfold God wears so He doesn’t have to see our sin! Indeed, God doesn’t consider us holy – God makes us holy! The difference is important.
God is in the process of reconciling all things to Herself, giving us a share in the divine nature God has always had. Even if this eventually happens for everyone, that’s no reason to neglect holiness now!
In the words of Quaker universalist Philip Gulley, “God’s grace, while offered eternally, is available immediately. Evil and sin need not reign a single additional day in our lives” (If Grace is True, 195).