The way to life
by Patrick Lafferty
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
Editor’s note: This week we are publishing the meditation that will be offered in Good Friday’s noontime service.
Twenty years ago this week, Kevin Costner strode to the podium in the Shrine Civic Auditorium in Los Angeles to accept the Best Picture award for Dances With Wolves. Before he finished, he said in an almost defiant tone, “I just want to say that it’s very easy for people to trivialize what we do sometimes. And they do it in ways of saying, ‘Well, if it’s such a big deal, how come nobody remembers who last year won the Oscar?’ And I’ve got a real flash for you. I will never forget what happened here tonight.”
In 1997, James Cameron came forward to receive the same award for his work on Titanic. In his concluding remarks he said, “Mom, Dad, there is no way that I can express to you what I’m feeling right now—my heart is full to bursting—except to say, “I’m the king of the world!”
And if you were alive in 1984, you likely know that when Sally Field accepted the award for Best Actress in Places in the Heart, she said, in a clearly unrehearsed moment, “I haven’t had an orthodox career and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. . . . I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!”
In each case, what they said indicated that, to them, this was more than just an acceptance speech for a theatrical work. You might say that what each of them was celebrating, down deep, is that they thought they’d really found true life—the sweetness and lightness of being that translates into seemingly endless vitality and stability. Their words revealed their belief that life was found in being remembered, in being on top, in being respected.
Some of us might smirk at their triumphalism. Others of us might secretly envy them. In truth, we’re just like them, but often on a much different stage. We find ourselves hoping for and seeking the same things they have, albeit through different avenues. We think, deep down, that these things are where true life is found.
What you’ve heard from every man who’s stood in this pulpit—what you’ve heard in every text so far and in the text you’re about to hear—is that true life isn’t found there. There’s nothing wrong with desiring to be remembered, or pursuing excellence, or being admired. But what the Apostle Paul says to us today, on this Good Friday, is that life is found in a quite counterintuitive place, in a highly countercultural manner.
Listen to what Paul says in Galatians 2:17–21:
But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
We encounter Paul here in the midst of an intramural debate of enormous significance. His compatriot in the faith, Peter—the one who had accompanied Jesus for all His ministry, who had seen Him die and yet raised again—this Peter had lost sight of something fundamental about the good news Jesus spoke, for which He died and was raised. Peter had come to understand that it was by faith alone in the word and work of Jesus that anyone would have the favor of God. But in time he’d been led to believe by others that it took more than faith in Jesus to be included in the people of God. It took subscription to all that Moses had spoken of in the Law. And that included having table fellowship only with those who had been circumcised.
And so Paul, aggrieved at the subtle way an ostensibly moral teaching had begun to obscure the good news of Jesus, confronts Peter publicly. Peter was being hypocritical. He was insisting that Gentiles be circumcised, while he himself was not in full compliance with the Law. How could he demand compliance with part of the Law when he too was failing to comply with all the Law? But worse, Peter was giving Jewish and Gentile believers a deeply flawed impression that the way to God’s favor was through one’s own demonstration of moral rectitude; that acceptance from God would be found through doing what was acceptable to Him.
Aghast, Paul rebukes Peter and gives the entire church in Galatia a remedial course in what makes us acceptable to God. It’s not in one’s compliance with the moral standards of God found in His Law. Six times just in chapter two, Paul makes it plain: no one is accepted in God’s sight because of their adherence to His law. For a man’s every obedience to the law there are untold other examples of blatant disobedience, blatant disregard for the holiness of God.
Right now, it may seem that what Kevin Costner, James Cameron, and Sally Field were tittering over and what Peter and Paul were fighting over couldn’t be further apart. Yet I say their respective subjects couldn’t be more alike. As I said, those actors weren’t just discussing awards and accolades; they were talking about where life is found. Peter and Paul—they weren’t just talking about laws, righteousness, and favor with God. They were talking about the life that is to be found in a right standing with God. Both the 21st-century artists and the 1st–century theologians had their sights set on life and were asserting where it would be found.
You and I have our sights set on where life is found, and too often they are set on where it can’t be found. When’s the last time you’ve been so frustrated by not obtaining something that it sent you into a prideful outrage? The outrage signaled that you were looking for life where it would not be found. When’s the last time you’ve been so frightened by what you lost or could not have that it sent you into a panic? Or when you’ve been so disappointed that you teetered on despair? Panic and despair reveal a search for life where it will not be found.
So where is life found? Will it be found by displaying virtue until God is impressed? Or will it be found in our efforts to achieve or dazzle the masses, to amass power, influence, or prestige? Or in getting our hands on all the thrills, delicacies, and extravagances we can? The Good News of Good Friday tells us the security and stability sought in those efforts won’t be found in those ways. Paul explains it will be found in this way only: by faith in a death born of love.
True life rests, paradoxically, upon a death. Christ’s death. When Paul says “for through the Law I died to the Law, that I might live to God,” he means the one thing that kept us from the life of sweet communion with the God responsible for all things was our alienation from the heart of God, expressed most clearly in His Law. That was our condition, and we were powerless to reverse it. Paul also means that the only thing that could restore me to communion with God was One who had the means to satisfy what the law required of me. It had to be the One who would submit to all the Law demanded in a righteousness life, and who would submit to its death penalty for sin. Only by His submission to the Law could I become totally and finally unassailable by the Law. It can no longer accuse or condemn me because Jesus bore its accusation and condemnation on my behalf. Life for us begins and rests on a death in Him, because no other kind of effort can overcome my primary hindrance to life in God.
But further, the life found in His death is ultimately born of love. Paul understands full well that Jesus’ willing sacrifice was no stoic, perfunctory offering. He knows Christ’s love for us is the only thing that can explain His willingness to give Himself for us in death. And though it might seem like Jesus’ death is an effort to appease a tyrannical God, the love that led Jesus to go to His cross is the same love with which our Father who is in heaven sent Him there. The violence done unto Jesus was full of hatred, not toward us but toward our sin. The blood He shed does not dispute but rather confirms that God is both holy and merciful. And God’s mercy is born of love.
Why must we know that this death was born of love to find our life? When you know Jesus isn’t trying to sell you a ticket, so to speak, or compensate for His insecurities, or manipulate us out of fear of others’ approval, it compounds the trustworthiness of His act. Which leads us to the last aspect of what brings us true life.
The life found in death born of love comes by faith. Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. The life I live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God.” Paul’s true life—brimming with hope, strength, and stability—rests on his belief that Jesus’ death is in a sense his own death. In other words, what Jesus’ death accomplished is now his. Sin is forgiven, righteous wrath turned away, relationship reconciled; a whole new kind of life is inaugurated and an entirely different destiny sealed. Paul identifies himself with Christ, because Christ identified Himself with him. It’s by faith that Paul identified with Christ, and it’s by faith that we identify with Christ.
As Christ identified Himself with us in becoming what we are, so must we identify ourselves with Him by faith in what He did. Win every award. Astonish every soul. Accomplish every goal. Obtain every luxury. The life you seek from those efforts will not endure and therefore will not satisfy. Jesus has to become your acceptance speech, or you will become consumed by your own pursuit of it. In Christ you have the acceptance of God. His love meant your acceptance. His work. His accomplishment. And because He is my acceptance, it’s by faith in Him that I discover life that is strong and true.
You know what life with that sort of faith translates into?
It doesn’t mean you stop trying to earn a living, or pursue excellence, or raise honorable children. It doesn’t mean you stop trying to find a mate or nurture the one you have. It doesn’t mean you stop enjoying the opportunities that give gladness to others, and it doesn’t even mean refusing to do things that lead others to think well of you.
Faith in His death born of love translates into a life of profound relief—the greatest relief imaginable. Relief that your greatest need has already been met. That you no longer have to strive in fear for the acceptance He has already obtained for you. Relief that your successes and failures are not tied to the approval of the only One in this universe whose approval matters. Looking in faith to the Son of God, you can’t deny the fact that He does love you, and not because of what you’ve done or not done. That’s relief.
It translates into relief, and then it translates into a life uniquely catalyzed. Fear of what you might not become or what you might not obtain is a powerful motivator, but one that will ultimately destroy you. However, a confidence in His love for you compels you much differently. Being remembered, or being on top, or being respected become so much less important than a life of faith working through love. That’s a life worth living, and in truth, the only sustainable life.
On that Good Friday, Jesus came to his own podium at Calvary and stretched out His arms in triumph, and by His death and resurrection confirmed He is the king of the world.
If your presence in this sanctuary today is the equivalent of you taking an old dusty picture off the shelf you haven’t considered in years, it’s likely you’ve been trying to find true life in the ways those actors, directors, and even Peter in his funk had been: through every means possible to obtain or preserve your acceptance. This cross behind me invites you to find your true life in Christ.
If you’re here because you know Christ to be Lord but have found yourself tempted to find your peace in something other than the acceptance of God in Christ, I invite you to remember why they call it a Good Friday. In Christ, there is no greater acceptance to be had, and no greater life to be found.