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Beautiful, Hopeless Legalism

I’ll not forget the first time I saw the film, The Mission. The music by Ennio Morricone is among the most beautiful and haunting you’ll ever hear. The scenery is stunning. The acting is top-shelf. The story (essentially historical) is heartrending. What struck me more than anything else, however, is the religious symbolism of a scene (below) in which a former slave trader and murderer (played by Robert De Niro) is doing penance. Since he chose his crime, his priest tells him, he must also choose his penance in order to find redemption, and the scene records his self-inflicted punishment as he claws his way back to morality and God’s favor. Though it ends with a moving portrayal of forgiveness on a human level, the scene provides a vivid and tragic example of works righteousness, of Roman Catholicism, of Islam, of American morality, of legalism of any kind. There’s no grace here—at least not from a God and Savior. Instead, there is religion at its most hopeless and damning, experienced every day by billions who are depending on their own determination and suffering to atone for their sins—something they can never achieve.

Contrary to this moving scene, no human can earn righteousness with God, regardless of his supposed goodness or penance (which is absolutely foreign to the Scriptures). Nor can any human “release” another from his sins. Indeed, despite the scene’s opening lines, sin is more than the weight of a guilty conscience that must be appeased, as though one must and can forgive himself. Rather, sin is an offense—it is rebellion!—against God. He needs to be appeased, and that’s exactly what the death of His beloved Son accomplished. Nothing else will suffice. What people need, then, is the grace of God extended through Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who died as a sacrifice to pay the entire penalty of our sins (John 1:29; 1 John 4:10). They need to turn away from their futile works and embrace the gospel, as the Bible repeatedly says:

“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:4-5)

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

“And there is salvation in no one else [in no one but Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” (1 Peter 3:18)

That’s Christianity—free salvation provided by Jesus Christ’s substitutionary death and received by faith alone. The sort of religious works depicted in The Mission, however, will only lead to condemnation. Regardless of your religious background, if you see yourself in this scene, I urge you to flee to the gospel and find forgiveness, full and free, in Jesus Christ.

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11 Responses

  1. Excellent post, Bro Chris. Just yesterday at Bible study I was talking with the ladies about how “His ways are not our ways,” from the very inception of our relationship with Him. The plan of salvation does not smack of human thought, even remotely. If we were to contruct our own system, it would most certainly not include a gift given freely, to be accepted in humility, and with empty hands. As the songwriter poignantly asked, “What grace is this–What grace is this?!?”

  2. The imagery is powerful, isn’t it? It’s really a perversion of the picture of salvation in Pilgrim’s Progress. Similar, but so very different!

  3. So I see your doing movie reviews now. :P
    I always liked that movie for the cinematics. On the other hand I always thought it was sad, not only because of how the movie plays out, but because of the bad theology preached throughout it.

  4. Wow. Watching that scene through the lenses that you provided is moving and heartbreaking. What a vivid picture of our own futility. What a wonder the gospel should be to us all.

  5. […] Anderson has written a thoughtful, insightful, and gospel-saturated piece on his blog, “Beautiful, Hopeless Legalism.”  It’s worth watching and reading.  It’s also a worthy reminder for […]

  6. Great piece Chris. Thanks for posting it.

  7. Thanks for chiming in, all. While it’s easy to point to Roman Catholicism, there’s a little legalist in all of us that needs to be reminded of the wonders of grace.

  8. […] Anderson posted in Beautiful, Hopeless Legalism a clip from the film The Mission (which I have been wanting to see ever since discovering the song […]

  9. Very good blog post. It is always convicting to consider the ways we (and I use that word globally to include myself) create our own logical religion. While it makes perfect sense that we should pay penence for our sins, it quickly becomes another gospel and we begin to worship another god. I have engaged several RCs recently regarding the doctrine of Justification. It has caused me to run back to my Bible and embrace the pure Gospel unadulterated by our imaginations and pursuit of our own preeminence.

  10. Chris,

    I just saw this movie for the first time last week. My wife and I came to the same conclusion that you did. Excellent analysis and use of this movie clip.

  11. […] Pastor Chris Anderson writes about the Gospel in the movie The Mission — and how it isn’t there, either. Using the damning legalism of Roman Catholicism (which the movie features) as a counterpoint, Anderson points to the wonderful good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. […]

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