A Savior vs. Santa.
Merry Christmas, sinners!
This article has also appeared on 1517.
Growing up, I never really believed in Santa Claus. You can call that a parenting travesty if you wish. I don’t, however. I am thankful that it was never instilled in me to believe in this omniscient, omnipresent man who’d reward you on December 25th for all the good you’ve done throughout the past 360-odd days. To be sure, my family sang the carols and crooners about Santa. We had Santa decorations. But he was never a figure in whom I placed my hope for presents. That was never a thing for me. I’m not really sure how we’re going to present this to my daughter because I do believe there is a certain amount of innocent magic and wonder at the historical Santa Claus that I think is warranted. But mostly I’d say that Santa garners far too much attention in our collective psyche. In fact, it’s my estimation that jolly ole St. Nick is a rather imposing individual. I mean, have you ever considered the lyrics to his theme song? You know, the 1934 classic, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”? They’re actually frightening.
You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
These words make the feeling of Christmas one of dread, not delight. Don’t cry. Don’t pout. And if you do, you better watch out! “Santa is coming!” I sometimes imagine this being shouted throughout the streets of the little Christmas villages we set up, akin to the foreboding warning, “The Russians are coming!” And as if that weren’t enough, the song doubles down on the demand for good behavior and the unspeakable consequences if you misbehave.
He’s making a list
And checking it twice;
Going to find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!
I don’t know about you, but I find zero glee in the picture of a pudgy bearded old man peering through my window, watching me sleep, making sure I’m not behaving unruly. Likewise, the notion of a list that determines your fate is daunting, is it not? This list is the embodiment of the law we all feel. The law requires our absolute goodness before any reward is ever handed out. It’s the law that necessitates perfection but ends up only inspiring more sin (Rom. 7:16–19). And where we might be able to fool ourselves into believing we’re on Santa’s “nice list,” the law of God is even more stringent than that. With him, there’s only one list, and at the top, it doesn’t read “Naughty,” it reads “Damned.” The more we feel the weight of this list (law) and its stipulations, the more we must admit that we’re failing. We’re falling short (Rom. 3:23). We’re not living up to the standard of goodness laid down by the divine qualification of righteousness (Matt. 5:48). There’s no eluding its perfection.
If Jehovah operated like the old man in the red suit, we’d stop there, with absolutely zero hope on which to rest for mercy, pardon, and approval. But thank God he is not like Kris Kringle! Praise the Lord my hope isn’t in Santa but in a Savior! “[Jesus] is not, thank God, Santa Claus,” Robert Capon asserts. “He will come to the world’s sins with no lists to check, no tests to grade, no debts to collect, no scores to settle. He will wipe away the handwriting that was against us and nail it to his cross” (29).
You see, the “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10) that’s proclaimed to all peoples is that Christ has come not to check up on our goodness, not to break out the ruler and dish out blessings according to his measure, but “to disturb the caked conventions by which we pretend to be good” and offer a better way (Capon, 98). Coming to sinners with more helpful tips on how to not be naughty would be as effective at producing nice children as shouting swimming instructions to a drowning man would be at ensuring his survival. Or, as Capon puts it, “Giving the human race religious reasons for not sinning is about as useful as reading lectures to an elephant in a rut” (100). It simply doesn’t work.
Jesus comes into a world already condemned not to bring more condemnation but salvation (John 3:17). He enters our ruinous realm — a realm we ourselves ruined by our own choosing — and brings about his perfect restoration. Christ comes with no ledgers to balance, no points to award, no lists to check. He comes not just to cover our sins but to erase them entirely (Col. 2:8–15; Isa. 43:25). He doesn’t come with two bags in hand, one full of coal from which to give the naughty ones their due, and another full of gifts which will be dispensed to all the good little boys and girls. He comes with one plan and one purpose: propitiation (1 John 2:1–2). Substitution. To be the atoning Advocate for all the naughtiness we’ve piled up for countless generations. To be the death our insubordination and disobedience rightly deserved. Not that he deserved it but that he took it upon his own shoulders because he loves us, indiscriminately, unconditionally (1 John 4:10).
This love will not cease. It cannot be stopped. It cannot be tamed. It is love unsought (1 John 4:19). Before you lift a pinky in repentance, it has come to you already (Rom. 5:8). It is love that is undeterred by any amount of iniquity. Notwithstanding how nefarious your soul may be, God’s grace is stronger and his love greater. It is not conditioned upon your love for him. It is not administered based on your ranking on the “nice list.” Actually, it could care less about your perceived goodness. This love comes not just to make you good but to make you holy. It is not bound to any prerequisites. It has no stipulations or constraints. It is full forgiveness, for free, forever. It is mercy that is forever unmitigated, unreserved, and unconditional. It runs after the undeserving and rescues them from the brink of condemnation. No matter what else gives way, God’s love will not. Not now. Not ever (Lam. 3:22–23).
So Merry Christmas sinners! May you realize and revel in the glad tidings of God’s righteous grace. May all your anxiety about lists be abandoned as you lose yourself in the Father’s faithful love. May your soul be animated this Christmas by the love that will not let you go!
Robert Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996).