The Cross vs The Grave

He paid a debt He did not owe

I owed a debt I could not pay.

I am the offspring of an agnostic Jew and lapsed Lutheran. I did not meet Christ through the witness of an evangelical, by reading a tract (Chick or otherwise), or being persuaded by the preaching of the Gospel or any other part of the scripture. I did not meet Christ in church, though I was there most Sundays.

Both of my parents were religious in their own ways. Dad, Jewish by birth and an admitted agnostic, believed that God “set the world spinning and then left it alone”. There were no consequences of sin in his system, even though there was the occaisional expectation of adherance to one Jewish tenet or another, while rejecting so many others. I never understood what Mom believed. Raised as a Lutheran, the church, the Bible, Jesus… I have no memory of any of this being a part of her conversation or life direction.

Jesus invaded my life at Ft. Jackson, SC as an 18 year old Army National Guard trainee. I did not know that He would. I did not ask for or expect what He did. I simply begged Him for help with the complete self-awareness that my life was such a mess, that I no longer wanted to be who I was. I was wretched, profane, lustful, angry, jealous, proud, arrogant, and friendless. I was alone and knew that I knew no way out.

I did not have labels for all of what I was. And I did not know or understand what help would come, I only knew that there was no other place to turn to for help. In an instant I was changed. No sinner’s prayer, no memorized verses – just a simple one word plea for “help”. The invasion was instantaneous and complete; the journey only just begun.

My parents rejected the radical change they saw in my life. And let me be clear, this change they saw was only a joy in my countenance and conversation. I did not know scripture. I did not have a church to recommend. At this point, no one had spoken into my life about my speech or behavior (though there was much about both that Christ would later step into). I was only changed. I did not know how to explain why, but it was painfully obvious to them.

In fact, I was one that was so “lost”, I did not know that I was “saved”. I didn’t know what that meant. Though I was in a Protestant church most Sundays, I had never heard that word in the spiritual context. A brief encounter with a storefront bible study leader gave verbiage to my voice when he showed me in God’s Word what had happened to me. It was then that the words “Jesus” and “saved” became part of my conversation. But by then, my parents were already convinced I had joined a cult. They were so convinced until their deaths, that they, on more than one occasion, tried to turn me at first, and then years later my children, away from Christ.

As I grew up, the church – because it was my only social outlet – was a big part of my life. I was there almost every week. Acolyte, youth group, choir, handbells, media… I did it all. I attended 2 out of 3 years of catechism classes, and my church “confirmed” I was a Christian by telling me I was (even though, by their standards, I was only ⅔ Christian). They even gave me a certificate. I was baptized when I was 13 because – and only because – I realized I was the only one in my Sunday School class that had not been baptized. In fact, my 3 siblings and I were all baptized at the same time because – and only because – of that realization.

I knew about God because they talked about Him a lot. I knew about Jesus because they talked about Him a lot. I knew He died on the cross because of pictures and the Easter story. And therein lies the sum total of what I comprehended about salvation from my quasi-religious parents and active church life.

Today, I know exactly what Jesus did for me. I know what I am forgiven for. And that forgiveness was provided by an experience so much harder, so much more gruesome than the cross, we do Jesus an injustice to give the cross that credit. I am not saying the cross is unimportant. I am not saying the cross was not a fulfillment of prophecy. And I am certainly not saying that the cross is neither rugged nor old.

What I am saying is, one of these things is not like the other:

Jesus died on the cross.
Jesus died for my sin.

They both happened. They are both important. They are symbiotic in a critical process. But they’re not the same thing.

The death He died for my sin, was the death I will not experience. I may experience a difficult and gruesome death, be it a cross or cancer, but I will never experience the more difficult and costly death from which I am saved – because of what he did to free me from that. And the devastation and agony of THAT death cannot be adequately compared to the temporary pain and suffering of the cross.

Jesus died on the cross so that he could die for my sin.

Jesus physically died on the cross so that he could then pay the spiritual price for my sin.

And if you think that the physical death was worse than the spiritual one, please consider that you need to reconsider.

He paid a debt he did not owe.

I owed a debt I could not pay.

My Inkling

Because of a very difficult illness suffered by my wife (and thereby, our entire family) as our kids were growing up, God gave me in our children answer to prayer that I had no words for which to ask. Each of them brought into my life a portion of God’s grace that helped save me emotionally, and save our family.

While my wife was so ill, and I was seemingly so alone, our oldest wanted to talk – to talk theology, to debate, to challenge – while in middle school and beyond. Oh, how I needed someone to talk to – and take my mind off of the lot of our lives at that time. I still cherish opportunities for those conversations.

Our middle child was full of grace and care. She was the “daddy’s girl”. She forgave me when I was gruff or angry. She just knew when I needed a hug. She understood without being asked how much we needed her help with her Mom. Oh, how I needed that unconditional care and grace!

Our youngest, our son, could make you laugh just by walking in the room or by giving any number of “looks” that can’t be reproduced by anyone else. I can’t tell you how powerfully important that was to me in those days – to be able to laugh in the midst of terrible days. And I still look forward to the looks!

Bethany, my mind; Sarah, my heart; and Jesse, my soul. God gave me in my children the protection and strength to press on; just a bit of Himself with flesh on…

Bethany graduated from high school the year before a job situation forced us to move from Georgia to Colorado. I was getting accustomed to her being gone, even though she was just two hours away. Sarah was about to be a high school senior. Her church and friends were a tremendous strength in her life. As we looked at all of the scenarios involving the move, we determined that the best thing to do was to leave Sarah in Georgia with dear friends, so that she could continue to flourish.

We moved – our full house now down to three.

I wept every day for months. My “mind” was at college. I missed her, but this was the way it was supposed to be. My “soul” – gratefully – was with us in Colorado. But my “heart” was absent. Separated. Distant. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

I missed her every day. I missed every day of her senior year. I missed every game she played, every event she was in. Every joy she experienced. Every pain she endured. And I missed her much needed grace – the hugs, forgiveness, and care. I still weep today at times for her – and for all we missed together. I miss her still.

That’s just my inkling of “forsaken”.

Jesus did not cry out when beaten. He did not cry out when nailed. He only cried out when He was forsaken. To pay for our sin, the Father had to leave the Son. For the first time – the only time – in all of eternity, they were seperated. He became alone, so you and I would never be alone again. In agony, Jesus cried out, experiencing the incomprehensible pain of this forsakenness. And then he died. And then, for what we count as a bit more than 2 days, he died again: he paid for my sin, your sin, and the sin of the entire world. This is the death that the song speaks of.

He paid a debt He did not owe.

He took on the consequences of my sin and yours. He applied to himself that which The Father would never allow into the heavenly kingdom. He immersed himself in the wretched, profane, lustful and grotesque. He covered Himself with the appalling, the horror, the pain, and the grief. He took on the mantle of the abusive, the murderous, and the decaying. He wrapped himself in the garments of the arrogant and proud, liars and cheaters; and the morally filthy and corrupt. My sin. And yours.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Jesus did die on the cross.

And then He paid a debt He did not owe.

The cross took hours.

The grave took days.

And if you think that the physical death was worse than the spiritual one, please consider that you need to reconsider. If you think the cross was the hard task, then ask yourself – given the choice, which one would you choose?

Skip the cross and take the grave.
Take the cross and skip the grave.

Some may ask, “Then why the cross?”

Indeed, this question has been asked for centuries. If the battle for our sin was in the spiritual realm, then what difference did it make how He died. Why not a heart attack or old age? Why such a gruesome physical death if the spiritual death was what mattered.

“To fulfill prophecy” is not the sufficient answer to “Why”. Whatever the mode of His death, that is what would have been prophesied. That is not why this matters. It matters because this was His choice. And like every other event, conversation, miracle and relationship in His life, this was a purposeful and deliberate decision.

The cross does matter, so important that He endured it. I believe it to be His final parable. A picture-story so horrific, that for any with eyes to see and ears to hear, they would have at least an inkling of, to the degree possible for man, the devastating price he paid, what He has forgiven us from, and what agape love truly means.

I can’t imagine a stronger picture-parable of the ultimate sacrifice He paid. The price of our sin is high. This was no easy task, so no easy physical death would do. He spent every breath of His life, every waking moment strategically and purposefully revealing, teaching, and preparing those who followed Him to understand and pursue their calling to continue to follow him. Their understanding of the price that was paid, and the subsequent victory that was won was sufficient to move his disciples to a life-long pursuit of that call, even when long life was not their lot. And for this pursuit, He provided a vivid, tangible story-experience to empower that work; to give verbiage to their voice and ours – to give us an inkling by what was seen, of that which was unseen; that we may be able to bear witness to the depth of His sacrifice on our behalf.

I have to tell you, the cross alone, for me, is not sufficient to that end. But the war He fought for me with Death and the Grave; beaten back in the victory of His resurrection, forever will be.

The cross is vitally important to our mission. It is the picture of what He did for us.

However, I am forever grateful that he did the harder work as well.

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