I think it’s safe to say that Charles Wesley’s hymn “And Can It Be?” is my favorite hymn of all time, especially that final stanza which decidedly declares, “No condemnation now I dread; / Jesus, and all in Him is mine!” Those are, in every sense of the term, anthemic words which ought to make every believer shout for joy! The truth within those words is far deeper and truer than, perhaps, we realize whenever we sing them on Sundays. As it is, “no condemnation” is the quintessential banner under which we stand as those whom Christ as justified. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
I recently preached a message on this very idea, in which I explored the seminal meaning of Jesus’s words in John’s Gospel: “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). I’m very thankful, though, for the words of Matt Pearson, who, in his latest piece for Mockingbird, connects the absorption of debt by the New York public library system to the unconditional pardon we receive in Christ alone. He writes:
It’s fascinating what happens to us — in us — when we are secure. A recent New York Times article further verifies this reality. Since Fall of 2021, nearly 90,000 books have been returned to New York’s public library system. Yes. You read that correctly. 90,000 books that were overdue or considered lost were returned between October 6, 2021 and February 2022. Many of the returned books had been “missing” for decades. According to the article, “Some books were checked out so long ago that they had to be returned to different addresses.” For instance, “In December (2021), Flushing Library in Queens received a package containing ‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips,’ a novella by the English novelist James Hilton, that had been checked out in July 1970 from an address that is now associated with a shopping plaza.” Why would someone who checked out a book nearly 52 years ago decide to return it now? Further, why would tens of thousands of people “do the right thing” now?
Good question. The answer? “New York’s public library systems announced last October that they would be eliminating all late fines.” They cancelled the debts. They took on the penalty. All the accumulated fines were suddenly removed. Freedom. Nothing owed. No punishment. Why did the library system do it? “(T)he goal was to get books and people back to the more 200 branches, as well as research centers, across the city after a year and a half of limited hours and access.” Boy oh boy did it work. “A wave of returned overdue materials came crashing in, accompanied by a healthy increase (between 9 and 15 percent, depending on the borough) of returning visitors.” People were free to enjoy libraries as originally intended.
The New York Public Library president Tony Marx said the system realized they were “not in the fine-collection business.” Rather, they are “in the encouraging-to-read-and-learn business, and we were getting in our own way” . . . When the penalties were absorbed and removed, however, everything changed . . . people enjoyed the library again.
It’s amazing what we will do when the motivation is right. When we are safe. When we are secure. When we truly believe we have nothing to lose.
When the fear of rejection is removed and the guilt of doing wrong is gone and the burden of owing so much is borne by another — we are free to be. Free to live.
I think this is the way the Christian life is intended to work. The cross is God’s way of saying we will never be rejected. The cross is God’s way of bearing our burdens and destroying our guilt. Shame is gone. Striving can cease. Everything we long for and everything we will ever need are given to us by God because of Jesus. We do, not in order to get. We do because we’ve already gotten. We don’t have to hide our library books anymore. We can return them. We don’t have to fear being turned down. The Father is thrilled to be with us . . .
When everything we long for is ours in Christ, we devote ourselves — not trying to get; oh no — we give ourselves away because we already have. We have nothing to lose. Nothing to fear. It’s all yours. Now go ahead and return your library books.
You are free, brother, sister. Christ has loosed the chains of sin, canceled the devastating debt you owe. You’ve been liberated by his life-giving blood to walk in “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). You are not condemned because Christ absorbed your condemnation. “Go, and sin no more.”
Grace and peace to you, my friends.