This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
On a summer day in 2008, Thomas and Romayne McGinnis were presented with the highest honor that can be received in any branch of the United States military, that is, the Medal of Honor. The McGinnis’ accepted the award on behalf of their deceased son, Private First Class Ross McGinnis, who was being posthumously honored for his incredible act of courage and valor and bravery in the line of duty. An act which ended up claiming Private McGinnis’ life.
While patrolling the streets of a Baghdad neighborhood in the winter of 2006, a hostile grenade was thrown into the gunner’s hatch of the military Humvee which was occupied by Private McGinnis and four fellow soldiers. Despite being afforded enough time to identify the grenade and save his own life by exiting the vehicle, Private McGinnis, instead, fell onto the grenade and absorbed the full impact of the explosive. He was killed instantly at only 19 years old. The lives of his fellow soldiers, however, were saved. Their lives were spared because of Private McGinnis’ extraordinary sacrifice.
After reading accounts like this, I’m left dumbfounded at the intrepid heroism on display. I’m no soldier. I don’t pretend to know or understand the incredible amount of hardship and sacrifice it takes to serve your country at the expense of your own life. But, something in me wants to believe that, if put in the same situation, I’d do the same thing. I’d like to think that I’d react out of self-sacrifice and love and courage and bravery, too. I’d like to think that I’d take a bullet, that I’d fall on the grenade for those I love.
But what if we changed the scenario. Let’s suppose that instead of the military, Ross McGinnis was a federal prison guard. And instead of an enemy grenade falling into a Humvee full of Army brothers, the grenade was thrown into a van full of convicted felons — murderers, drug dealers, rapists, the worst of the worst. Do you think there’d be any amount of hesitation before choosing between saving yourself or falling on the grenade? Do you think there’d be a second or third or fifteenth thought about losing your life for the sake of those who had taken and ruined so many other lives?
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t think twice — I’d save myself. These guys deserve to die, I’d say as I justified my jump to safety. These are criminals! They’re not owed my love, my sacrifice, my life! Presented with that scenario, we don’t make much room for grace. Only justice.
But what if I told you that there was someone who gave up his life for not just a van full of convicts, but an entire world of law-breakers? What if I told you there was Someone who fell on the grenade for you? Because Someone did, and his name was Jesus.
For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. For rarely will someone die for a just person — though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die. But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6–8)
The apostle Paul’s words in Romans speak to our scenario in the prison transport van. He understands the heart of man, how self-concerned it is, how full of self-preservation. And so it is that he notes just how rare it is for a person to give up their life for even another “just person,” let alone dying on behalf of the unjust. Accordingly, this makes the news of the gospel all the more incomprehensible. For the gospel tells us that God himself didn’t die for good people, for heroic people, for righteous people, but for the helpless, for the ungodly, for sinners, for us.
This, to be sure, is the truest and greatest act of love ever known in the history of the world. “No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13) The Friend of sinners dies for his friends. The Savior gives up his life for his enemies. This is the untold, uncanny news of grace. Not that you’re loved because of something inside of you. Because of something you’ve done or accomplished. But that in spite of you, you’re loved anyway, by God himself.
The very One you ridiculed and scorned and derided is the One who bleeds for you. The very blood we drew from the Savior’s gaping side covers our sin and washes us in righteousness, in the righteousness of God. (2 Cor 5:21; Rv 7:14; Ps 51:7; Is 1:18) God loves you because of something his Son, Jesus Christ, accomplished. He loves you not only when you didn’t deserve love, but when you deserved just the opposite of love. He loves us when we deserve wrath. He doesn’t wait for us to somehow become “good enough” before loving and saving us. “While we were still sinners,” he loves us. Enough to die for us. In our helpless, ungodly, sinful state, God substitutes himself for us. He assumes all our punishment onto himself. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Jesus loves you to such a degree that he takes on your guilty sentence and bears your verdict of death in his own body. Christ himself declares for me, “I can take it. Brad deserves all the wrath and fury of hell because of his sin. But I’ll take it for him. I’ll die for him. I’ll suffer his punishment. I’ll fall on the grenade so that he can be saved!” When he died on that cross 2,000 years ago, Jesus was dying the death for your sin and mine. And his death is powerful enough to cover all your sin, to cover the sin of the whole world, past, present, and future! (Jn 3:16)
Christ takes our persons and condition, and stands in our stead; we take his person and condition and stand in his stead. What the Lord beheld Christ to be, that he beholds his members to be; what he beholds them to be in themselves, that he beholds Christ himself to be.1
And so it is that God proves his love for you not by loving you at your best but by dying for you at your worst. “God proves his own love for us” by unassailably showing love to sinners — “love to the lost, the guilty, the wanderer, the backslider, the rebel, — love without measure and without change, — love that is not regulated according to the worthiness of the object loved, or the amount of love expected in return, but love that embraces the unworthy.”2 This is a love you never have to doubt or question. It’s the inseparable, unstoppable love of God.
Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35–39)
This is the promise of God’s love. Of God himself. It’s a promise you never have to question or doubt. It’s the promise of a love that’ll never let you go. A love that’ll never give up on you. A love that’ll never quit on you. It’s the promise of the Bible. The message of the church. And the only hope in life. Jesus died for his enemies. Jesus died for you. Grace fell on the grenade.
Tobias Crisp, Christ Alone Exalted: In the Perfection and Encouragements of the Saints, Notwithstanding Sins and Trials, edited by John Gill, Vol. 1 (London: R. Noble, 1791), 437.
Horatius Bonar, Kelso Tracts (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1851), #24.