There are some aspects of our belief that leave no wiggle room. What a person believes about Jesus and His work on the cross is one of those; that belief makes all the difference in the world now and for all eternity.
In a taxi ride a few days before Christmas, I bolstered up the courage to interject discussion about Jesus into polite conversation with the driver. I learned early in the exchange that he was from Africa and had been living in the United States for about a decade. After some pleasantries and with some trepidation I asked, "What do you believe about all this emphasis on celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ?" He said, "Oh I think it's wonderful. I'm a Muslim. but I think it helps people to be better" (his English was a little disjointed).
"We can all learn to be better," I said.
If you have been in one of these conversations, you know how challenging it is to maneuver through the maze of language and culture, present the Gospel, and not become a traffic statistic. I pressed on, "Are you aware that Jesus Christ was not only born but He died on the cross for our sins?" I was not fully prepared for his answer. "How sad," he said.
I quickly flashed through all my training — EE, CWT, FAITH — more degrees than a thermometer. I'm definitely going to fail this course, I thought.
"No, no," I said, "that's not sad; it's the best news anyone could ever hear. Jesus was born, lived a sinless life, died on the cross for our sins, was resurrected from the grave, and is alive here today in this cab with us."
He went on, "I didn't know that, I don't know that much about Jesus." Given enough time I would have gone into "most of the world doesn't know that much about Jesus either," but that was for another day.
John A. Broadus, considered one of the greatest men to have served among Southern Baptists, wrote, "My hearers, what is the most wonderful event that ever occurred on earth or ever happened in the universe? The history of our race is so full of wonderful events you might well pause for your answer. My answer would be this: by far the most wonderful thing that has ever happened in the universe is the atoning death of Jesus Christ the Lord."1
That's what I was trying to communicate to the cab driver. It would be difficult to get into a long lesson in systematic theology in a short cab ride, but I wanted to get to the heart of the Gospel.
So I left him with, "Would you be willing to check out the truths about Jesus and His death on the cross for your sins?" He was gracious, and with that I was off to my ministry meeting about reaching the world for Jesus. But that encounter reminds us of what sets our faith apart from every other religion — God's provision for redemption from sin.
The Reality of Redemption
Many of us have memorized Romans 3:23, but look at it in the context of the verse that follows it:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:23-24, emphasis added).
One of the occupational hazards of ministry is the temptation to forget or "get over" some of the foundational realities of our faith. The reality of redemption is foundational, indeed, but it should never be relegated to the distant and dusty memories of classroom lectures and theology notes. It impacts every move that we make every day as followers of Christ. Let's take a moment to briefly remind ourselves of this precious truth.
The article entitled "God the Son" in the Baptist Faith and Message states: "In His substitutionary death on the cross He made provision for the redemption of men from sin."2 It further states in the article on "Salvation," "Who by His own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer."3 This is the central message of the Bible and the main reason Jesus came to earth. It is taught from Genesis to Revelation.
Because we have heard these verses so many times, we may gloss over them, or even take them for granted, but consider these verses afresh:
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace (Ephesians 1:7, emphasis added).
For you know that you were redeemed from your empty way of life inherited from the fathers, not with perishable things, like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19a, emphasis added).
The root Greek word for redeem in these two passages is lutron; in ancient Greek culture it most commonly referred to the ransom that was paid to free a person from slavery.4 Paul makes it clear that we were enslaved by sin (Romans 6:17), so the use of this word is even more poignant.
Jesus Himself used this word when He declared:
Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life — a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28, emphasis added).
Of course the concept is not new to the Gospels or to Paul's writings. God redeemed His people from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 15:13; Deuteronomy 7:8; 13:5), and that redemption was directly linked to the blood of the Passover lamb. This and the system of sacrifices that He established at Mt. Sinai pointed all the way forward to Jesus' redeeming sacrifice on the cross. And in that context, the author of Hebrews reminds his readers:
Now the Messiah has appeared, high priest of the good things that have come. In the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands (that is, not of this creation), He entered the holy of holies once for all, not by the blood of goats and calves, but by His own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who are defiled, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of the Messiah, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrew 9:11-14, emphasis added)
The powerful and glorious reality is that though we were enslaved by and to sin, and we could never, ever buy our freedom from it or its consequences, God lovingly and graciously provided that ransom, our redemption, through the precious blood of Christ.
Jesus Christ is the only One who offers a ransom for our slavery to sin and the eternal hell we deserve — not Mohammad, not Buddha, not any other religion.
The Implications of Redemption
The theological significance of these truths may seem obvious, but consider again Paul's words to the Colossian Christians:
When you were dead in your transgression ... He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14, NASB).
Some commentators suggest the "certificate of debt" was an allusion to the charges posted against an offender that would remain in effect until the sentence of payment was met. There is some evidence that this "certificate" would be nailed just outside the guilty party's cell so all could see the crimes for which the prisoner was being punished. If that is the case, what a glorious thought that the charges against us have been taken away by Jesus Christ through His death on the cross!
At the core of our faith is the truth that man is a sinner and cannot make himself right with God. Our sins have separated us from God with absolutely no hope of bridging the gulf by our own efforts. The redeeming work of Jesus Christ accomplishes for us what we could never accomplish on our own.
What does this mean for us? Of course, the most obvious and perhaps most cited result is the provision of eternal life. John 3:16 has been branded upon so many of our hearts, and rightly so. God loved the world so much that He sent His Son Jesus to pay for our sins and provide a way for us to have eternal life. Our belief about the redeeming work of Jesus has direct bearing on our eternal destiny. Because the price for our ransom has been paid, we can have the assurance of deliverance from hell, and conversely, life with Him forever. But that reference to eternal life in John 3:16 also addresses the quality of life we now live.
Hebrews 9:14 says that His blood cleanses our consciences from dead works to serve the living God. This indicates that His redemption delivers us from the futility and guilt associated with legalism and ritualistic religion. What an incredible relief! Because He paid the price in full, we don't have to labor under the crushing burden of trying to earn His favor through religious activities! How many of our members — indeed, how many of us — have borne that unnecessary weight of thinking we can, and must, perform in a way that in some way gains His favor? His redemption removes that burden forever, making such efforts not only futile and unnecessary, but even offensive to God. It frees us from the guilty conscience produced by a works-based religion, and it frees us to serve Him with a clean conscience.
In addition, we have daily — even moment by moment — access to a loving, gracious, and merciful Heavenly Father. In fact, after addressing the Lord's redemption in 9:12, the author of Hebrews goes on to say that the Lord's provision makes it possible to actually enter the heavenly sanctuary and "draw near to God" (10:19-22, NIV).
Not only that, he further indicates that because of Christ's work on the cross, we can stand steadfast in the face of trials, confident of His faithfulness (Hebrews 9:22-23).
Also, Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 2:13 indicate that His redemption provides forgiveness from our sins — not just when we die, but NOW! His redemption frees us from daily slavery to such a cruel master. As Paul points out in Romans 6:14-18, we are free from that bondage to sin!
Finally, Peter reminded his readers that the Lord provided redemption from an empty and futile way of life (1 Peter 1:18). Each meaningful breath we take as one of the redeemed is truly because of the One who has redeemed us.
Spatial limitations prevent an exhaustive treatment of the practical outworking of the Lord's redeeming work on the cross, but suffice it to say that everything good that we are and become in this life, and all that His followers will experience in the next, is directly and inseparably linked to the magnificent reality of Christ's glorious work of redemption on the cross.
The Urgency of Redemption
As a nine-year-old, I first understood the truth of our Lord's sacrifice for our sin in an evangelistic meeting held by Dr. Jesse Hendley, a Southern Baptist evangelist for more than sixty years. Before his death a few years ago, he gave me a book by Dr. James Denny titled The Death of Christ. Inside the front page Dr. Hendley wrote these words:
"To Jerry, My beloved son in the faith: This volume is enormously important. When I first began to preach, most people knew they were lost and the Gospel of the grace of God — the central truth of the Bible — God made the atonement of the cross — in the death of Christ — God's beloved Son. Today, I believe few of our church members really understand this. I am telling my young preacher friends to study the profound and only saving truth and to preach it constantly. What value is it to teach the other great truths and people remain without understanding clearly that God and Christ settled it all at the cross."
I have the book in my office situated so I see it every day — a reminder along with other books, pictures, and additional items, that Christ died for my sins and the only merit I will ever have before God is what Christ accomplished for me. Reflect again on John's opening words in the Book of Revelation:
To Him who loves us and has set us free from our sins by His blood, and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father — to Him be the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (Revelation 1:5b-6, emphasis added).
Has this truth somehow gone out of vogue? Have we become ashamed of the Gospel? Is the redeeming blood of Christ no longer a significant part of our theology? Do we really help people to "be better" if we assist with their family, finances, and perhaps their fun, but never point them to faith in the redeeming work of Christ?
What was I to say to the cab driver? How would this sound? "There are many ways to God. You go yours, and I'll go mine. See you in heaven!" God forbid!! As I said, there is no wiggle room here. Our belief about the redeeming work of Jesus is the bedrock of our faith.
Isaac Watts, the prolific hymn writer, penned:
Alas! and did my Savior bleed,
and did my Sovereign die!
Would he devote that sacred head
for sinners such as I?
Was it for crimes that I have done,
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!5
I hope to see that cab driver again, and I'm praying that the Lord will touch his heart and prompt him to investigate the truths about Jesus and His redeeming work on the cross. If he does, he will find that it is there, and only there, that we find true redemption from life-strangling and eternally-damning slavery to sin. And may we never let that glorious truth diminish in our hearts or from our mouths.
1 Necessity of Atonement, John A. Broadus (1827-1895).
2 Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Article II, B.
3 Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Article IV.
4 Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume 3, s.v. "Redemption," lytron, 189-190.
5 Alas and Did My Savior Bleed, Isaac Watts (1674-1748).
Dr. Jerry Garrard is a member of First Baptist Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, and serves as vice president of Institutional Advancement at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.