From the 1930s-60s Alcatraz Island was home to a high-security federal prison, famously known as The Rock. The island is approx. 1.25 miles off the coast of San Francisco, surrounded by cold waters and strong currents, making escape nearly impossible. Over the years, approximately 36 prisoners made 14 attempts to escape. But in June of 1962 Franke Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin escaped. The escape was difficult and strategic. They had to chisel through concrete walls with a spoon, utilize an electric drill made with a vacuum cleaner motor, do their loud work during music hour, make paper mache dummies with hair from the barber shop to fool guards, and use around 50 raincoats to make a raft. It took time, energy, boldness, and strategy.
For many of us, Christianity feels like a great escape. But is this what Christianity is like? Is this what Christianity is about? Is escaping the reality and result of sin about a strategic plan carried out with intense effort, driven by fear? What is Christianity all about?
Galatians 1:3-5 summarizes Christianity well as Paul begins his letter in v. 3, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Paul is writing to the Galatians, who are being caught up in the idea that they need to add to the work of Jesus, that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is not enough to save. They must add their effort and works to complete their salvation. We might say it like this, “Jesus lived for me, the least I can do is live for him!” Or maybe, “God helps those who help themselves!” With the help of Jesus, we think, we can deliver ourselves. We can escape the reality and result of sin. Paul writes in response to what is going on in the church and he is fired up. For Paul, the idea of adding anything to the work of Jesus for salvation amounts to absolutely and utterly abandoning Jesus. So he writes to explain what Christianity is really all about.
He writes that Jesus came to deal with “our sins”. Let’s establish two things about sin. First, sin is transgressing God’s law. But sin is not just defined by our actions but who we are. We are sinners and we are sinful. Second, and important for this discussion, sin is also thinking we can remove our sin and escape it ourselves. The right response to sin is not, “I can escape it! I can fix it!” That response is actually and ironically the sinful response of a sinner, thinking sin is not a big deal, easily handled. In this light, Paul says Jesus “gave himself for our sins”. He does not say, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, and to you who gave it your all to deliver yourself from sin.” When it comes to sin, Paul has long abandoned the idea that he or that you or that I can deal with it. We cannot pardon and deliver ourselves. Salvation comes from outside of us.
Rescue from sin does not come through intense, strategic effort. Notice, Paul says Jesus “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age”. Christianity is not about prisoners and hostages pulling off the great escape. It is about rescue coming from the outside, surprisingly and graciously, breaking in to bring us out.
So, what is Christianity all about? “Grace and peace…” Martin Luther writes, “These two terms, grace and peace, constitute Christianity.“ Christianity, the Bible, is not about Jesus coming to help you clean yourself up and execute an escape plan. It is about God for us, acting on our behalf, rescuing us fully and completely. You were a hostage, just sitting there helpless, then God showed up and gave himself for you. This is the Christian life: “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” (Gal. 2:20).