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It seems like redemption through sacrifice is a major theme in the movies right now.

Seven Pounds took this theme to the limits of credulity, but I loved the movie. I’ll wait another month until most folks have likely seen it before I discuss the plot in detail.

Last night on my birthday I saw  Gran Torino, which also features a leading character who is willing to put his ife on the line in order to protect his loved ones. Again, I don’t want to spoil the part so I won’t get into the plot details.

In both cases you have an unlikely hero — one is an IRS agent who likes to throw his weight around; the other is a grumbling, sneering, unhappy old man who hurls racial epithets to his neighbors and makes himself unbearable to his children and grandchildren.

In both cases, the heroes struggle with whether they should lay down their lives for another person. In other words, the question that life confronts them with is: if you want to help someone and the best way for you to do that risks the loss of your own life, what would you do?

Both movies also include guilt as a major plot element, and both heroes seem driven by personal guilt over their past sins to redeem themselves while they are trying to save others.

Seeing the lives of just one savior and maybe 10 beneficiaries of his efforts on their behalf reveals the immense task before anyone who would lay claim to the title, “savior of the world”. Ultimately our romantic, poetic notions break down under the weight of a burden that is too great to bear.

It’s amazing how much the Bible says about this point. In Psalm 49:7, the  lesson is that “no one can redeem his brother.” Perhaps Moses penned this one, spurred by the terrible events of the sons of Korah … and he states that people should stop kidding themselves into thinking they can interfere with the death sentence they are under:

“For the redemption of his soul is costly,
And he should cease trying forever—
9 That he should live on eternally,
That he should not undergo decay.

Redemption is costly… and no one can make up for either his own fatal flaws or those of his loved ones. In a passage where Paul urges us to carry other people’s troubles as much as we can, the apostle still reminds us that ultimately we have to carry the final weight of our responsibility alone. (See Galatians 6, especially the first 5 verses)

Job takes up the question in Job 33

Elihu, himself a messianic figure in the conversation, describes the role of the deliverer as one who has a righteousness of his own, which qualifies him to be a true messenger from God, and a go-between or mediator in the negotiation. And what is the burden of this messenger’s words? To show unto man His (God’s and the messenger’s) righteousness. When we see that God is righteous and we are sinners, we are ready for God to be gracious to us, and apply the benefits of salvation personally on our behalf:

If there be a messenger with him, a mediator, one among a thousand,
to show to man His uprightness:
Then He is gracious unto him, and saith, Deliver him from going down to the pit: I have found a ransom.

This teaching is reinforced in the New Testament in many places, including Romans 8:19ff where Paul states that the whole creation waits longingly for the revealing of God’s children… a time which ushers in a worldwide redemption. (see an interesting theological treatise on this passage here).

Perhaps the most thorough discussion on this issue in scripture is Romans 5, where Paul talks about the willingness of a few to die for another: a woman for her child, a soldier for his trenchmates, etc.

6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.

Notice that Paul’s position is that as humans we are helpless. We really can’t save ourselves, much less each other. Dying for a neighbor, while noble and admirable in every way, is only salvation in a poetic way. The end result is still one person living on a little while longer under “the wrath”, while another succumbs under “the wrath” — the global human curse since the beginning of human history.

Only the entirely external redemptive process initiated by God and carried upon the cross of Christ can actually redeem or buy back a human soul from the curses of his fallen and incomplete existence.

It’s refreshing and heartwarming to see great actors mirror this human struggle, and inspire us to do the most we can and the best we can to meet the needs of others. What I get from the Bible, though, is that realistically no one can do diddly squat in the final analysis. If there is no hope in Christ, we who hope in human redemption are of all men most miserable, because we accept the grim reality that no other hope or bootstrap efforts can possibly avail.