And so the socialist comes forward to tell us that Jesus was a radical with an anti-greed and anti-corruption message which challenged the establishment of his day and got him put to death. The liberal comes forward to talk of Jesus’s compassion towards the marginalised and how he would be in their corner today. The conservative or traditionalist comes forward to tell us about Jesus’s message of righteousness and truth.
These things all have two things in common. The first is that they all contain some element of the truth. Jesus did indeed clash with the corrupt establishment and call them out for their greed and “devouring of widows” houses. He did indeed associate with the marginalised and the outcasts, dining with publicans and prostitutes. He did indeed preach about morality and truth.
But as much as each one of these sorts of responses contains an element of truth, they all fall infinitely wide of the mark. Ultimately, they are attempts at self-justification, albeit using Jesus as the hook on which to justify ourselves.
The socialist wants Jesus to justify his thesis that the problem with society is the rich and powerful. “Be thou in my camp Lord Jesus as I rail against the unfair distribution of wealth.”
The liberal wants Jesus to come and justify his thesis that the problem with society is the oppression of minority groups. “Be thou in my camp Lord Jesus as I rail against inequality.”
The conservative wants Jesus to come and justify his thesis that the problem with society is the decline in standards. “Be thou in my camp Lord Jesus as I rail against the loss of traditional morality.”
At some level, those who seek to identify Jesus with their cause do so because they seek justification. At some level they quote and misquote Jesus because his words, deeds, sufferings and death make him the central figure in all human history, and having him “on our side” is bound to justify us and our cause. “Here is my identity or my thesis or my cause, and here’s what Jesus said about such things. He’s on my side you see.”
It is true that Jesus did come to give justification to men, women and children. Yet if we suppose that we can cherry pick the “friend of the poor and marginalised Jesus”, or the “compassionate Jesus”, or the “moral Jesus” or any other bit of Jesus that suits our cause to justify us, then we have a fundamental misunderstanding of who he is, of who we are, and of what he came to do.
It is absolutely true that he came to justify men, but he didn’t come to do this because of who we are. Rather he came to do it in spite of who we are. He didn’t come to justify us in our cause, but he came to justify us for his cause — the salvation of sinners from the righteous judgment of God. We do not get to have him in our camp, justifying our actions, our words, our cause, our explanation of why the world looks like it does and what can be done to fix it. Rather, we get to be in his camp when we accept his actions, his words, his cause and his explanation of why the world looks like it does and what can be done to fix it.
His explanation of why the world looks like it does is this: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6).
His cause was to come and die to pay the penalty our sins deserved: “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5).
And his way of fixing the world is to come and save sinners, by calling them to repentance, that through his death and resurrection they should die to sin and live to righteousness: “By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant (Jesus), make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11).
In other words, he came not to justify people for their ways, their opinions, their cause. On the contrary, he came to call them all — the socialist, the liberal, the conservative, the poor man, the rich man, the black man, the white man, the feminist, the patriarch, the lesbian, the heterosexual, the academic, the unlearned, the atheist, the churchgoer and any other person you can think of — to repentance. You. Me. We. Us. Them. We are all called, without exception.
On Good Friday we remember his death, which is the day when he was delivered up for our trespasses (Romans 4:25). On Easter Sunday we remember his resurrection, which is the day when he was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25). Easter Sunday — Resurrection Day — is the day when God the Father reversed the unrighteous judgement of men against his Son and proclaimed him to be innocent of all charges. It is the day when God the Father justified Jesus in his cause. And because of what Jesus has done, it is the day that makes it possible for God the Father to reverse his righteous judgement of guilty against us, and proclaim us innocent and righteous in his sight.