BY RYAN FOUTS
His agonized frame, shrouded by a burlap sack, struggles against the chains that bind his hands and feet. The stage lights strike the guillotine’s razor-sharp blade. A flame tickles the rope, holding the blade in place above the man’s writhing figure. Snap! A single strand of the rope gives way. The crowd gasps. All eyes are upon the blade. A single hand emerges from the burlap sack. His head follows. He turns toward the crowd, as a discernible look of terror strikes his face. Another snap! The blade falls! Screams, followed quickly by signs of relief, fill the auditorium. The daring performer had evaded death by mere milliseconds. He takes a bow, to the roar of a thoroughly entertained crowd.
You’ve seen the routine, or a variation of it. The components are always the same. A performer willfully puts himself in mortal danger. He manages to escape—but only in the nick of time. The audience feigns a sign of relief, even though they knew the escape artist would be fine all along. Face it, these shows don’t attract much of a crowd if the performer is prone to making many mistakes.
The escape artist routine is predictable. But I still find it alluring. I know what’s going to happen. I still watch, I still feel anxiety as the escapist wrangles with whatever is binding him and the cause of his would-be doom draws closer. The intrigue, I think, is that I have no clue how the artist does it. There are “tricks of the trade” invisible to the audience that allow the performer to somehow escape hand-cuffs, chains, ropes, or whatever else constrains him, in ways I’ve can’t figure out. If I get an inadvertent knot in my shoelaces, I’m vexed. These escape artists are impressive! It is, in fact, the art of escapism (how do they do it!?!?!) that is most intriguing about the routine.
Houdini was great. But even his most legendary routines have nothing on the old Adam.
The Old Adam is a regular escape artist. Under the peril of the law’s condemnation, our sinner selves are impressively proficient at finding a “way out.” The truth is, there are several “tricks of the trade” we’ve all become so accustomed to employing that we find ourselves wiggling out of the law’s oppressive constraints time and time again, almost by second nature.
But the intrigue is dispelled a bit once you know how the trick is done.
SPOILER ALERT: If you prefer to keep the Old Adam’s escape artist routine under wraps, if you are dedicated to protecting your sin from the law’s accusations, stop reading now.
Here are a four “tricks of the trade” the escapist Old Adam uses on a regular basis to escape the law’s accusations:
Trick #1: Make Comparisons.
Testimonials are sort of the “gold standard” in Christian witnessing today, no doubt. But I’m always hesitant to tell mine. Not because I care what people will think. I have no problem talking quite openly about my past sins. Ultimately, Christ alone receives the glory. My story is 100% a story of redemption—death and resurrection. It’s really the same story that every Christian should tell. But here’s the rub. We usually spend more time relating to the “down side” of the testimonial, the part that has to do with how bad someone’s sins got, than we do the “up side,” the grace side.
That’s because the Old Adam clings to that. He starts making comparisons. “Well, that’s quite a story. I struggle with that sin a little bit too, but thank God my sin has never went that far.” When we hear grace, then, we tell ourselves, “thank God that he has saved me from ever falling so far in sin.” Indeed, you’re right. It’s only by God’s grace you haven’t fallen further. But insofar as that is your prayer, it’s only a matter of time until you do. And if you do, that will be God’s grace too. At the end of the day, drowning the Old Adam is an act of mercy.
There’s another version of this trick too, that also lets the Old Adam escape the law’s accusations for a time. The fundamentals of the trick are the same. It hinges upon comparing oneself to other’s stories of sin and grace. This time, we tell ourselves that our sin was worse that another person’s sins, but we were spared the consequences because God intervened for us sooner.
Lurking beneath this kind of “comparison” is the damnable notion that God loves me more than “that other sinner”, because he spared me the full extent of my sin’s humiliation. Here’s why this trick becomes so dangerous. We begin to think that we will consistently be spared sin’s worst consequences in the world. We begin to focus on the consequences of sin as if that was what was damning more so than the sin itself. The truth is—sin does have earthly consequences, and we suffer those consequences in varying degrees. Sometimes those consequences are a “wake up” call to drive us into repentance. But when it comes to our need for grace, the consequences we face are immaterial. Even more, whether you face more or fewer earthly consequences for your sin does not change the gravity of your sin, nor does it mean you received more or less grace than your fellow Christian.
That said, if you begin to measure the seriousness of your sin by the gravity of the earthly consequences you face (or don’t face) you have failed to consider the true consequence of sin, which is eternal death and damnation.
Running a few comparisons, though, will allow the escape artist to survive long enough to put on another show.
Trick #2: Measure it up.
This is closely related to Trick #1. Any time we attempt to “quantify” the seriousness of our sin we inevitably end up in a game of comparisons. That said, it need not be a comparison to others. Sometimes, we just quantify our sins in our own mind. We know the “big” sins, and we know the “little” ones. But when we start applying mathematics to our sins (or even to grace, for that matter) we miss the fact that our sins are an infinite negative when it comes to our relationship with God, and God’s grace is an infinite positive. Both sin and grace defy all measurements, which means they also defy all comparisons.
That said, the Houdini of your flesh can undoubtedly put on quite a show using this trick.
Trick #3: Keep it hidden in the dark
Sin is like mold. The more we hide it away in dark, moist places, the more it festers and grows. But the Old Adam is notoriously proficient at dusting certain sins under the rug. If the sin is not in “public view,” at least it is not publicly humiliating. We like to pretend that our “secret” sins do not really exist.
And here’s the big problem—the more humiliating a sin in, the more likely we are to hide it away. This isn’t a major revelation. Obviously, if a sin is embarrassing you won’t tell other people about it. We don’t talk about it because we care too much what people think of us. We have an image to maintain. We don’t even bring it to confession because, even though the Pastor will keep it confidential, we don’t want to affect his opinion of us either.
So, we hide our sin in the dark, behind closed doors. We might pray about it, but we don’t really take our sin seriously. If we did, we’d confess it. It buys us time. It helps us escape any humiliation, therefore any outward condemnation. Houdini is at it again.
Trick #4: We say, “God will save me from this… eventually.”
This trick—commonly employed by those of us bound by habitual sin—is shrouded under a thin veil of faith. But it sounds pious enough that we let it go. After all, it is God who removes our burdens, right? We convince ourselves, in faith, that God will spare us the consequences of our sin before it becomes too late. Like the escape artist, who frees himself in the nick of time, we tell ourselves that God will save us eventually. He’ll protect us from the worst consequences our sins face. So, we stop taking our sin all that seriously. We don’t confess it—why bother? God will deal with this anyway. He loves us too much not to deal with it. Warning: this trick is particularly risky. God will, in fact, deal with your sin one way or another. The problem is that you have no control over how God deals with it.
In truth, we are all fine escape artists. We’ve all become fantastic Houdinis, mastering even the most complicated and risky tricks to escape the law’s condemnations. We do it well. We do it often.
But there was one who defied the narrative of the escape artist’s performance. He employed no tricks to evade the condemnations of the law. This New Adam, in fact, was tempted in every way we are tempted, but remained free from sin.
Being free from sin! That sure sounds like a good way to evade the law’s wrath. But then he did the unthinkable. He assumed the condemnation all our sins deserve. He did not try to escape the law’s accusations, but he claimed them all as his own.
Under the greatest, most perilous, threat imaginable he found himself bound and nailed. Fastened to a wooden cross.
Come down from that cross! He saved others! Surely, if he is whom he claims to be, he can save himself as well (Matthew 27:42).
Indeed, he had done things far more impressive in the past. He healed the sick. He multiplied fish and bread. He walked on water. He even raised the dead. Coming down from the cross should have been a simple feat for Jesus.
But he stayed there. Willfully. He shouldered all the accusations that you and I do our worst to try and escape. He took our inner-Houdini and our self-justifications with him, too. And he went to the grave. He died.
This was no performance, gone wrong. It was the inevitable consequence of our sin, meeting the infinite love of our Lord. But it was in his plan. He died. He was buried.
And he rose again.
He had predicted it, he had given away what was going to happen. There should have been no suspense. But there was. Our only hope, in the grave. What does this mean? It means our hopes were dead and gone. But now, our only hope is arisen. Your sin went with Christ to the grave.
He left it there. It is no more. There is no reason to continue our “escape artist” routine, because the law’s accusations already did their worst to the Son of God. No more comparisons. No more measuring it up. No more hiding it in the dark, and no more “eventually.” It is finished.
So don’t let the comparisons imposed upon you by others damn you again. Do not allow those who try to measure you up make of you anything more or less than who you are—a child of God, redeemed by Christ the crucified. And stop hiding in the dark. Live in the light. In Christ, the law can be heard anew, and you can cling to it in joy. When it accuses you (and it will) remember the cross. Christ has born that burden. Be thankful. Live life in gratitude, heeding your Lord’s words like a child joyfully hears his father’s bidding. And look forward to the only “eventually” that matters, the consummation of the age when what Christ accomplished on Calvary is fully realized in the world.
We are a Law & Gospel collective of creative contributors, dedicated to proclaiming to people how Christ remains faithful even when we are faithless. We provide a voice for Christians who are both Sinner & Saint. We promote the bad news that you are a greater sinner than you think and the good news that Christ is a greater savior than you can imagine.