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A Word to Lent

“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:20b-21).

When my younger sister was just a toddler, one of her favorite sayings was “do it me-self.” No matter what anyone tried to help my sister do, she would inevitably proclaim in a fit of stubborn resistance, “Do it me-self!” Maybe you have known other toddlers who are similarly independent. The truth, of course, is that toddlers are almost entirely dependent on others. Yet, they excel, it seems, in declaring their independence, regardless of how false that claim might be.

Unfortunately, many Christians today have a “do it me-self” theology when it comes to our relationship with God. Many Christians — and many Christian churches — proclaim that our relationship with God depends almost entirely on what we do instead of what God does. “Do it me-self” theology insists that our relationship with God is dependent on our decision to follow Jesus instead of on God’s decision to save us. “Do it me-self” theology demands that our relationship with God depends on whether we adhere to a certain set of moral certitudes instead of confessing that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “Do it me-self” theology turns faith into a contest to see who can appear to be the holiest instead of trusting the holiness of the One who transcends all our unholy charades.

The season of Lent flies in the face of such a “do it me-self” theology. The season of Lent calls us to confess our brokenness and admit our complete and total dependence on what God has done for us in Christ. The season of Lent reveals the self-deception that underlies all “do it me-self” theologies and, instead, calls us to the cross where the raw truthfulness of God’s love for us is freely and graciously extended to us by no doing of our own.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul entreats this early Christian community, “Be reconciled to God” (5:20b). Taken by itself, Paul’s plea seems to propagate a “do it me-self” theology in which our reconciliation to God is dependent on our own human activity. However, Paul immediately follows his plea with a crucial corrective, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21).

Reconciliation with God is not something that we do at all. It is a gift given to us only through the reconciling death of Jesus. Thus, Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (5:10-11). Or, as James Kay, the Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary, so powerfully writes, “The only basis of all pulpit pleas to be reconciled to God is that in Christ God has already reconciled us to himself. Pleading the former without proclaiming the latter exchanges the enlivening gospel of God for the deadening moralism of a hectoring harangue” (The Lectionary Commentary, Eerdmans, 2001, p. 260).

Lent is not about adding one more thing to our spiritual to-do list, nor is it about giving something up to try to fool God or others that we are somehow better than we really are. Lent is about confessing the lie of our “do it me-self” theologies and our “do it me-self” lives and to risk coming face-to-face with the all-too-truthful reality of our sin-filled finitude. Lent is about standing completely unmasked at the foot of the cross and boldly confessing, “God, I can’t do it me-self,” trusting the promise that, in anticipation of our confession, God in Jesus has already proclaimed, “Everything that is needed I have already done for you.” Thanks be to God!