By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
(Note: I rarely offer the same column twice – perhaps three or four times in 15 years of writing – but because I was ill a few days this week, because this one made the points that are much on my mind, I offer it with thanks for your indulgence.)
It’s not bragging to say I’m a Christian; it’s a confession. It doesn’t mean I’m somehow magically better than anyone else; it’s an admission of profound, personal failure.
We who lean toward Reformed theology call it “total depravity” – an acknowledgement that even our best efforts miss the mark and that our best intentions are impure.
That’s why I’m a Christian. It means Jesus lived a perfect life in my stead – because I couldn’t – so that his righteousness could be registered in my account. As the saying goes, “He paid a debt he did not owe because I owed a debt I could not pay.”
In God’s economy, sin is an absolute violation of his perfection. Anything less than absolute punishment will not answer. Sin cannot be counterbalanced by a superior number of good works any more than arsenic can be counterbalanced by a larger quantity of oatmeal.
Some people object to this Christian cornerstone as a cartoonish portrait of a tyrannical deity. To them, it’s as though God is on a capricious ego trip: “I’m in a bad mood, so somebody’s gonna catch hell!”
Not so. God himself – for God the Son is not separate from God the Father – chose to die a horrible death on our behalf, not just because it settles an account that nothing else could, but because it also has the maximum impact on its beneficiaries.
In Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Men,” there is a scene in which Professor Bhaer confronts the orphan Nat about the boy’s frequent lying. Nat’s generally a good boy – much as we all like to think of ourselves as generally good people – but the professor understands just how ruinous one failing can be and wants Nat to know it, too.
The good professor approaches Nat with a ruler as though planning to strike him. Nat’s dread turns to horror, though, when Professor Bhaer gives Nat the ruler, holds out his own hand and insists that Nat strike him again and again, harder and harder.
The realization that his beloved mentor is taking the punishment he deserved affects Nat far more than any physical pain of his own could have. The scene ends with Nat embracing the hand that took his punishment, weeping in shame for the pain he’d inflicted on his benefactor.
So it is with every Christian. According to tradition, Good Friday symbolizes the day we were individually responsible for the suffering and death of our Benefactor. It is a humiliating reality, but one that impacts far more eternally than our own punishment ever could.
It would be a shame for me to spurn such love.
Contact Daily Journal Oxford reporter ERROL CASTENS by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.