There’s a reason The Shawshank Redemption ranks #2 behind The Godfather, and in front of every other movie on IMDB’s list of the top 100 movies of all time. If you haven’t seen it, I’m sure you feel a seemingly insatiable void deep down inside that will remain deprived of satiation until you experience this cinematic marvel. (Also, this post probably won’t resonate with you as much if you haven’t seen it.)
The classic story of an innocent man, unjustly punished for a crime he didn’t commit, sentenced to suffer injustice at the hands of those on both sides of the bars, only to finally, after years of his life robbed, against all odds, taste the sweet relief of vindicating freedom (as opposed to a mouthful of sewage). Oh, and did I mention it’s narrated by Morgan Freeman?
There are few moments on screen that are as satisfying as when Tim Robbins spews from the waste pipe, stumbles through the knee-deep waters with the cover of night as his ally, strips off the filthy shirts stained with years of injustice, lifts his unbound hands and soaks in the liberating moment while the rain falls freely on his upturned face. In that moment, we rejoice in the righting of a wrong as the weight of someone else’s crime is washed from his shoulders and falls with the rain to a watery grave below.
But how would you feel in this moment (or about the movie in general) if it turned out Andy Dufresne really did do it? What if the story Tommy shared, which eventually got him killed, was actually made up to gain the approval of his mentor as the warden suggested? What if Andy Dufresne was guilty?
I don’t know about you, but the movie would lose a lot of its luster for me. It would still be good, but it wouldn’t be #2 on IMDB’s list, nor would it be rerun on cable TV in perpetuity as it is today.
Why is that?
In a word: propitiation (but we’ll get to that later).
You see, it’s infinitely more gratifying to see the innocent go free than the guilty. Don’t believe me? I’ve got two letters for you: O and J. The defense rests.
Proverbs 24:24 says, “Whoever says to the guilty, ‘You are innocent,’ will be cursed by peoples and denounced by nations.”
Proverbs 17:15 says, “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—the Lord detests them both.”
I’m guilty of describing the Gospel in this way:
If a person commits a crime, the law requires the crime be punished. We have broken God’s law and therefore deserve to be punished. But Jesus has taken the punishment for us – and is able to do so – because He was without sin. Had He had His own sin to account for, He would not have been in a position to bear ours. But because He was the only One in history to live a blameless life, He was uniquely qualified to pay the penalty and take the punishment for us that we could be free and reconciled to God.
This is good news for me, the guilty party, but has justice truly been served?
Imagine a murder trial. The accused is proven guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt. The sentence is delivered: life in prison without parole. But rather than sending the convicted to prison to serve the sentence, someone else steps forward (who did not commit the crime) and volunteers to serve the time on behalf of the murderer so the murderer can walk away free.
Yeah, there’s something wrong with this picture.
The victim was brutally and unjustly murdered, and while the punishment for the crime is technically being paid, the family watches the murderer – who actually committed the crime – walk away a free man. Would you, as a family member of the victim, feel that justice was served?
Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—the Lord detests them both. So how is it possible for Jesus (Who did not commit our crime) to do this on our behalf (the truly guilty party) in a way that is not only not detestable to God, but actually a fragrant offering to Him?
Paul explains it quite succinctly in 2 Cor 5:21; “God made Him Who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” In other words, Paul says God pulled the old switch-er-oo.
I can’t fully explain it, but I’ll give it my best shot.
As my pastor, Glen Johnson, so astutely put it in a recent Sunday morning message, “There’s a difference between ‘not guilty’ and ‘innocent.’”
It’s one thing to be declared ‘not guilty’, but it’s something else entirely to be declared ‘innocent.’
For me – one who was dead in my transgression and sin; one who followed the ways of this world and the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient; one who lusted after the gratification of the craving of the flesh, following it’s desires and thoughts; one who was by nature an object of God’s wrath – to walk away a free man, declared not just ‘not guilty’ (acquittal), but rather ‘innocent’, means something supernatural just took place.
When God looks at me, He doesn’t see the sins of my past, present and future (yes, I unfortunately still have a plethora of failures yet to come). What He sees is the righteousness of Christ. In some way, somehow, when Christ hung on my cross, it became His cross. He became sin for me, so that in Him I might become the righteousness of God.
In heaven’s eyes, while Jesus hung on the cross, it was as if Jesus and Jesus alone were the guilty party in all of humanities failures.
At the risk of sounding heretical, we committed the crime, but God was convinced Jesus did it. It’s as if we pulled one over on the Big Guy. We actually got away with murder and when God tried us in the throne room of heaven, He didn’t declare us to be ‘not guilty,’ He declared us to be ‘innocent!’
Paul, again, explains this in very concise language just a few verses earlier in 2 Cor 5:17; “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come.”
The man or woman you were before Christ entered your life was guilty.
That person died.
You are now a new creation.
You still have the physical body and thoughts and memories and fallible shell in which you live in this world, but the Spirit inside you is new, blameless and not of this world. When the Father looks at you through heaven’s lens of eternity, He sees His Spirit. He sees the righteousness of the Son. He sees Himself.
It’s like looking in a mirror at His own image. Sound familiar? If not, read Gen 1:27.
Let’s get down and dirty for a moment shall we? Let’s briefly explore three words: atonement, expiation and propitiation. I know, fun right?
We are most familiar with the word ‘atonement.’ This is the act of appeasing something, namely, the wrath of God. Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 Jn 2:2), sent by God to demonstrate His love for us (1 Jn 4:10). Atonement is an action.
Expiation is also an action. The prefix ‘ex’ means to remove or take away; specifically to take away our sin. But it’s more than just the removal of sin. It’s more like a rewinding of time to before the trespass ever happened. Atonement and Expiation are what Christ did for us – the work of salvation.
Propitiation is the result of the Atonement/Expiation/Work of Salvation. The prefix ‘pro’ means to be in favor of. Propitiation is the essence of the Gospel. When God looks at us, He sees the righteousness of Christ and we are welcomed into His presence. Propitiation declares us to be not just ‘not guilty’, but rather completely ‘innocent,’ as all must be to enter the presence of Holiness.
The result of Christ’s work on the cross and resurrection from the grave is our innocence restored.
We’ve all spilled something on our shirt or the carpet before. Even after soaking and scrubbing and washing and rubbing, there’s still a slight discoloration to remind us of what happened. Because of propitiation, there is no remnant like a scar or a stain to remind God of what we’ve done when he looks at us. Last I recall, Jesus is the one with the scars. We look white as snow because by the blood of Jesus we are white as snow (Is 1:18).
The Lord detests letting the guilty go free while the innocent are condemned and He says in His word that whoever pronounces the guilty ‘innocent’ will be denounced and cursed, so when He says to you and me that we are innocent, we really are innocent!
God, in His infinite wisdom, was able to supernaturally impute our sin upon Jesus and His righteousness upon us thereby completing the work of salvation.
We have somehow crawled through 500 yards of unimaginable depravity only to be birthed anew, by the washing with water through the Word, casting off the old self and standing tall, arms open to the heavens while grace like rain falls on our upturned faces.
We rejoice with Andy Dufresne and his newfound freedom because he is truly innocent. Jesus rejoices with us and our newfound freedom because, having become the righteousness of God through Christ, we are now truly innocent as well.
The old is gone; the new has come!