The eternal God gave us life. “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7). In the beginning, we were both physically and spiritually very much alive. And we were able not to sin. Augustine famously said it this way: We were “posse non peccare” (Latin) – “able not to sin”.
But we did in fact choose to sin. We defied God, fundamentally broke the creation, and opened the door for death to mercilessly invade our lives. We wouldn’t have deteriorated and died in the garden, either physically or spiritually. But given our sin, now we will. Our rebellion has earned us death as a “wage” (Romans 6:23). We forced God’s hand. Thanks to our spiteful insurrection, God is now obligated to give us death, in the same way that your employer is obligate to give you a paycheck. Seriously bad news. And now we were trapped in our sin – now “non posse non peccare” (“not able not to sin”).
Physically, both our bodies and the world around us will now deteriorate and die. And all along the way, there would be pain and loss, suffering and fear. And hard labor to draw from the earth its fruit. What in the garden was just hanging on the trees for anyone to grab and enjoy, now requires back-breaking labor Adam and Eve had never dreamed of. Aching pain, blistered hands repairing / rebuilding worn-out tools, devastating crop failure, famine, drought, pestilence, the continual need to invest energy to achieve an ever diminishing rate of return… All the price of the fall of man.
Spiritually, the situation was even worse. Adam and Eve were cut off from God immediately – thrown out of the garden (paradise), made to wander the earth apart from God. It took less than a generation for Cain to kill his brother Able, and within a few more generations, wickedness had increased to the point that God undertook his first act of re-creation in selecting Noah to start over. God would become famous for this approach… From the self-worshipping, sin-soaked, idolatrous masses, God selects one man on whom to rebuild. He calls that man to respond in faith, knowing that he will, and he does. And all of mankind is wiped out in the flood, while Noah’s family is saved and becomes the new seed of mankind. Out of a great and horrible flood of death, there is a single shoot of new life. A mustard seed that grows into a great tree.
But the world was still broken, and man became incredibly corrupt … again. So, God selected one man on whose shoulders to bring salvation … again. This time, the man’s name was Abram (changed by God to Abraham). God made this man the father of a nation – His nation. Through Abraham and his people, God gave the world His Law, by literally engraving it onto stone tablets and handing it to Moses, God’s faithful servant. Again, one man at the center of God’s plan. God’s Law served one major purpose: to be a tutor to man, to watch over him until God would redeem them fully.
The Law fulfilled this function in two ways. First, it demonstrated the hopeless condition of man. Compared to God’s greatness, man is corrupt and stained and ugly, wicked and helpless, condemned to be forever separated from God’s purity and perfection. The Law clearly shows us that it is utterly and completely futile to try to earn our way back to God. No matter how hard we try or how nice we are to that cranky uncle or difficult neighbor, we will never deserve to regain access to the garden. We will never, by ourselves, stem the tide of the onslaught of death. We will receive the wages for our sin, no matter what we do while “off the job”.
Secondly, the Law provided a way to have some kind of interaction – however imperfect or incomplete – with a holy and righteous God. Visiting rights, as it were. The Law couldn’t take us back to the garden, but it did provide a way for God to speak directly to a prophet or two to encourage or exhort His people, or to rest in a pillar of fire above the altar once a year. At least we could still see God every once in a while.
How did the Law accomplish this? What was the cost of God’s visitation rights? In a word, death. A whole lot of animal sacrifice and an endless river of blood. On our way to the grave, God’s people (and a few astute outsiders) spilled the blood of countless lambs and doves (doesn’t get more symbolic than that), rams and bulls on the altar to just get a glimpse of or a few words from God. Not because God is capricious, but because God’s holiness is that serious. Only in our day – when we all think ourselves to be the center of the universe – do we have the … um … guts … to declare that God must be pretty unfair to insist on a gap between us. What we should be acknowledging is how loving God is for making a way for us to see Him at all! What we deserved was to be booted out of the garden and left entirely for dead. But God made a way, as God always does.
After centuries of blood pouring from the altar, God again brought salvation through one man. This time, for good. This was the plan from the beginning. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). Jesus was this man. He was at the same time, the only begotten Son of God, second person of the Trinity, fully divine, “in whom all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9), and fully man, born of Mary, under the Law, just like you and me. Note that all the fullness of deity dwells in Him … in bodily form.
In a future post, I’m going to come back to the significance of Christ’s nature as fully God and fully man, but for now, suffice it to say that this had to be. No other formula would work. Without this truth, there would be no Easter, no redemption, no salvation for man. For Jesus, once born as a man, like us, must die as a man. Death is a wage, not a gift. It has been earned by mankind, and therefore, God must pay it to mankind. Everyone born under the Law (and therefore condemned by it) must die if the Law is to be fulfilled. Even Christ.
And die He did. Over 2,000 years ago, a bunch of religious people like me (and probably you) couldn’t see past their own selfish desires and rampant god-complexes, so they paid a friend to betray Jesus, convicted Him of trumped up charges in a kangaroo court, coerced the people to demand the release of a murderer in His place, beat Him bloody, and brutally executed Him in the most horrible way the wicked heart of man could conceive. It turns my stomach just to write it.
And so, on “Good” Friday, c.AD 33, Jesus died physically. He did not deserve death, but chose it. No man took His life; He gave it away. Had He chosen to sin, He would not have had this choice, and His human nature would have been subject to spiritual death as well. But He didn’t. His perfection made Him exempt. Had he desired to claim for Himself the key to re-enter the garden, He would have had the right to it and entered without challenge.
But He was also God, perfect in love (for us) and for whom the concept of death is in fact a non sequitur … a fundamentally meaningless concept … not possible. Neither spiritually, nor physically, can the God of the Universe die. What would that even mean?
Again, I’ll dive further into this in a future post, but it means that the infinite resources of Christ’s divine nature were unleashed by His obedient perfection to underwrite the finite (though by us, unpayable) debt of the sins of all mankind. Jesus “filled up in His flesh” the suffering and wrath and death that was due to each of us. In so doing, He paid our debt to God and restored the honor we stole from God when we called Him a liar and spit in His face in the garden.
And so, the door that was closed behind Adam and Eve as they walked from paradise, was flung open wide by Christ through His death on the cross. Now we can choose. Death still looms before us, but faith can affect the all-important transaction through which we can trade places with Jesus. It’s a spiritual union. The very thing that marriage was modeled after in this world. Christ is the bridegroom, and He desires to be united with us, His bride. If we submit to Him and are united with Him, we will become one with Him. All our sin, He absorbs to himself. And all His righteousness is ours as well. Our sin is swallowed up in the infinite reserve of His perfection and divine holiness. With His perfect goodness, our cups runneth over. But not without death.
Jesus died, and His blood ran red, so that we could be washed white.
But still we too must also die. Submission to and oneness with the Lord does not stave off physical death. We’re all still aging, wearing out, and dying – the mortality rate has been holding at 100% since AD 33. But spiritually, our union with Christ also requires death to self. Like Jesus on the cross, in choosing Him, we are dying to one life that we might live to another. There is, in that moment, an important sort of death – as baptism demonstrates. Jesus laid down his plain old Adam-model of human life to pick up a new life, for which He (not Adam) was the template. He was “the first born from the dead” (Colossians 1:18). Jesus was not the same man on Monday that He was on Good Friday, including physically.
For us, the same is true. Our union with Christ requires the death of the “non posse non peccare” man. Jesus makes it possible, but we must choose it. This is the death that Adam earned for us and that we perpetuate with every wicked choice (whether deed or thought). It is the death of the slavery to sin. One way or another, Adam’s rebellion had to end in death. And so it will, whether now as we submit to God willingly or someday when we stand before God’s throne of judgment and bow in terror. One way or another, we bow and we die, for God is supreme over all.
If we hold on to this life, refusing to be parted from it, then with it comes the spiritual death that is the fulfillment of our sin. Someday it will be too late, and spiritual death will follow physical death. We will have spit both in God’s face in the garden, and on Jesus’ offer of new life on the cross. And no punishment will be too great for us. There will be no one left to restore the honor we have taken from God.
But if we choose to die now, we do so only in part, as Jesus takes upon Himself the brunt of that death and punishment – again, absorbing it into the infinitely deep well of His grace. For this man, from the ashes rises a new man who is “able to sin and not to sin” – “posse peccare et non peccare”, according to Augustine. We are new creations.
We chose sin in the garden, to purchase for ourselves slavery and suffering and death.
Countless animals died throughout the centuries, to purchase fleeting moments of clarity and comfort for God’s people.
Jesus died on the cross, to purchase redemption for any who would hear His voice, turn from their sin, and come to Him.
We now die to ourselves that we might belong to God.
And when our bodies fail someday, and we die physically in this world, we will rise…
But that will have to wait ‘til Sunday.