Folks will use and abuse you if you let them. Statements like this were common in my childhood home. I grew up in a family that kept to itself. Our relationships with outsiders were mainly casual; we children were cautioned against anything deeper. People will take more than they give and might even reject you in the end, we learned. Be friendly, but always maintain some distance.
Today, as an adult, I’m part of a new family: the church. I belong with brothers and sisters that I’m called to love and honor above myself. Yet the deeply ingrained childhood lessons repeat and, at times, appear to ring true: People are takers, and loving them demands more than I have or care to give.
Unfortunately, living in Christian community sometimes corroborates these old messages. There are needy members within the household of faith. These people take up space in my thoughts, my phone, and the chairs around my kitchen table. From my perspective, I’m constantly checking on, meeting with, praying for, forgiving, encouraging, challenging, and feeding people whose responses don’t always deliver the fruit I want for my labor. I’ve poured time and resources into people whose affections for me (or for Christ) have grown cold. Some have misjudged my intentions toward them, some have made damaging faith decisions, and others battle yet continue to lose to the same unrelenting sins. I’ve left small-group meetings and church services feeling discouraged and fighting a desire to pull away. Perhaps I can be friendly at a distance? Maybe you’ve asked yourself the same question.
Loving your neighbor as yourself is a hard practice. We talk of the polarization of the broader American church—congregations across the country that are divided by faith, creed, color, and politics. Yet many of us are disconnected from people who are not across the country but across the pew. The command to love and serve—not merely tolerate—each other requires more commitment and sacrifice than we care to give, and so we do the polite minimum from afar.
The seasons of Lent and Easter bring thoughts of surrender and sacrifice. This year, as I consider the ultimate act of self-giving—the one that won my justification—I’m surprised to find it speaking to this heart that struggles to love and serve others.
We typically think of justification in personal rather than communal terms. After all, the doctrine deals with our individual position before God. The apostle Paul says in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Each of us is a lawbreaker standing before a just Judge whose expressed commands we do not and cannot keep on our own. To abide with this Judge, we need a righteousness granted apart from our keeping of the law.
Amazingly, Paul’s bad news is followed by the greatest news ever: All who believe “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood” (3:24–25). The Judge doesn’t sweep away our sins, but he sent his Son to satisfy the demands of our redemption. Jesus lived sinlessly (crediting his active obedience to us); he died on the cross (paying the debt of our sins) and “was raised to life for our justification” (4:25). Those who trust in him are pronounced righteous and forgiven by virtue of his life, death, and resurrection.
The Judge is our Justifier (3:26)! He earned our reconciliation with God, and we no longer stand at a distance. On the contrary, we are encouraged to draw near—not to be condemned, but to receive mercy and grace “to help us in our time of need” (Heb. 4:16). We are welcomed before God as beloved children, for the Son shares with us all that he is and has.
This Easter season, as we celebrate the personal benefits of our justification, may that worship also warm our hearts toward Scripture’s imperatives to love as we have been loved. May it draw us into deeper reflection upon the extent of Christ’s sacrifice for us—and what that means for our relationships with others. Ephesians 5:1–2 urges us: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Friends, we are called to be imitators of the One who loved us unto death.
Yes, justification deals with our individual standing before God, but the basis of our justification—Christ’s work—demonstrates incredible self-denial for the sake of another. Our justification came at a high price for Jesus. He entered a broken humanity, people alienated from God and each other. Beyond the physical pain of the Cross, he suffered the humiliation of moving close to a people who take freely from him on the one hand and reject him on the other.
In Knowing God, J. I. Packer calls Christ’s coming “a great act of condescension and self-humbling.” For the sake of our atonement, God the Son descended to take on humanity. He was made like us in every way but sinfulness (Heb. 2:17; 4:15). He submitted to the limits of flesh as Mary’s vulnerable infant. The One for whom all things were created became a poor servant. Christ—the righteousness of God—dwelled with people who accused him of sin. He gave himself to their hands and was betrayed, tried, beaten, spat upon, and stripped naked. Jesus’ great act of condescension culminated on a cross. There, he humbled himself to the point of death (Phil. 2:6–8). Our Justifier became sin “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Justification impacts us in many ways, but one crucial implication of our justification is righteousness lived in loving community. We “are justified freely by his grace” and are called to extend that same grace to those across the pew. Christ suffered, rose, and ascended to the Father, leaving behind a believing people whom Martin Luther called simul justus et peccator—“at the same time just and sinner.”
We are declared righteous in Christ and are empowered by his Spirit to live righteously, yet “the evil [we] do not want to do—this [we] keep on doing” (Rom. 7:19). We are simultaneously saintly and sinful. We share union in Christ, yet our relationships are easily broken. We open our doors for gracious fellowship but quickly shut our hearts when misunderstood. We are compelled to love and serve sacrificially but often find ourselves staying at arm’s length.
Brothers and sisters, may we remember “the Son of Man [who] did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). He doesn’t stand at a distance but is ever drawing us closer to himself and to each other. It is he who calls us to outdo one another in showing love. So let his voice rise above those who tell us that we don’t have enough to give our all—especially when Jesus stands near to give more grace and help than we could ever receive.
Nana Dolce serves as an instructor for the Charles Simeon Trust and has an MA in theological studies from Palmer Theological Seminary. She teaches the Bible in her local church and writes for various ministries. Her website is MotherhoodandSanctity.com.
This piece is part of The Cross, CT’s special issue featuring articles and Bible study sessions for Lent, Easter, or any time of year. You can learn more about purchasing bulk print copies of The Cross for your church or small group at OrderCT.com/TheCross. If you are a CT subscriber, you can download a digital copy of The Cross free at MoreCT.com/TheCross.
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