“Christ died for nothing.” Every time I read the words, I feel uncomfortable. Saying them out loud seems inappropriate and irreverent. Just looking at them makes my stomach turn and puts a bad taste in my mouth.
This week the Church is reflecting on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as we anticipate the arrival of Easter Sunday. Many will hear the life-changing story. Some will watch reenactments of the gruesome events. Others will contemplate the failure of the Romans’ highly regarded justice system.
It’s difficult to grasp the full extent of what Jesus suffered at the hands of sinful men – not only the physical torment but also the spiritual anguish of being forsaken by His Father (Matt. 27:46). Can you even begin to imagine if all of it was meaningless?
The words “Christ died for nothing” come from a hypothetical (but impossible) assertion in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. His goal in the epistle is to remind his Christian readers that they are both justified and sanctified by grace through faith. Initial salvation and ongoing spiritual growth are both attributed to the grace of God alone. As Paul reiterates these realities in Galatians 2:21 he remarks,
“I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
The conjunction “if” tells us that Paul’s statement is hypothetical. If it were possible for people to earn and maintain right standing before God through the law, then Christ’s death was “for no purpose” (ESV), “in vain” (KJV), and “needless” (NASB).
As M.R. De Hann wrote in his commentary titled Galatians, “To be saved by the law demands perfect, complete, uninterrupted obedience. If this were possible for a sinner, faith would be made void and the sacrifice of Christ a needless, colossal blunder.” Later on he adds, “If the law could have given life…then Christ would never have needed to die…His death was all of no avail, if man can save or keep himself by works of the law.”
It is easy to assent to the intellectual veracity of Paul’s argument, but it is much more difficult to live consistently in light of its truth. In my head I believe that Christ’s death was both meaningful and efficacious, but sometimes my life subtly whispers, “Christ died for nothing.” Although I realize that “complete, uninterrupted obedience” to the law is not on my résumé, thus rendering me in need of a Substitute who kept the law perfectly on my behalf, I live as if I have the ability to earn the eternal acceptance and approval of God on my own.
All who experience the salvation of God do so by the keeping of the law. Either these individuals keep the law perfectly on their own (a theoretical reality, but a practical impossibility), or they trust in the perfect law-keeping of Another. There is no other Name, and no other way, under heaven by which men can be saved. If there were, Christ died for nothing.