The NFL Shows No Mercy

New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) sacks Denver Broncos quarterback Kendall Hinton (2) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

I don’t know if you guys have heard about this whole COVID situation, but it seems to me that it is getting pretty serious. I mean, I think it might even start having an impact on things that really matter in this world, like, for example, sports. Case and point: consider what happened to my beloved Denver Broncos and their quarterback situation this past weekend. Each team carries a number of players at each position who are eligible to play on any given Sunday. The Broncos had three eligible quarterbacks who, though testing negative for COVID, were exposed in a manner that, according to the NFL’s contact tracing rules, rendered them ineligible. One quarterback was exposed, none of them wore masks in practice, and, thus, they could not play. 

The Broncos searched for a loophole to the rule. They tried to get the game rescheduled. They tried to get permission to let their offensive coaches play the position. But the NFL said no. They had a rule. The rule had been violated. The Broncos would have to play without the most important position in all of sports. In the end, they started a practice-squad wide-receiver, Kendall Hinton, because he played quarterback in college. Though he played his heart out, Hinton completed only one pass and the Broncos had the most “2020” showing you can imagine, losing to the Saints 31-3. 

Now, it has been a while since I’ve done much blogging over here with the dear Jagged Word, but for those who have read my stuff in the past, you’ll recall that I enjoy examining the intersection between theology and sports. It is not an intersection with much traffic, but I do believe the current sports culture gives us great insight into things like law and gospel, sin, hope, fear, disappointment, and idolatry (among other theological interests). And, it seems to me that what the Broncos faced this past week is a fine example of how the Law of God works upon sinners. 

Perhaps some definitions are in order. The Law, for our purposes here, refers to any command or expectation that God has worked into His creation. Best summarized by the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) or by our Lord himself who says the Law should be understood as the command to love God with all you are and to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-34). Love, St. Paul writes, is the fulfillment of the Law (Romans 3:10). This Law of God demands, not just outward obedience, but perfect fear, love, and trust of God above all things from the heart. The Law is glorious. It is wonderful. It is beautiful and perfect. And, when it finds a sinner, it kills her where she stands. 

See, the Law demands righteousness from all of God’s creatures (righteousness here defined as perfect fear, love, and trust of God in thought, word, and deed) and when it doesn’t find that righteousness, it doesn’t change to help the sinner out. It doesn’t offer loopholes or other options. God means what He says in His Law and says what He means. The consequence for not living up to the righteousness demanded by the Law is death and condemnation. The hard part about the Law for us is that it demands that which we don’t have in ourselves. It demands a righteousness that we have long rejected by nature and choice. The Law is Jesus coming to a fig tree out of season, demanding a snack, and condemning the tree for its lack of fruit (Mark 12:12-14).  The Law exposes sinners for their lack of righteousness but offers no help to them at all. It only demands and condemns. 

It is just like the NFL’s decisions with the Broncos this past week. The rules of the game demand someone to fill the position of quarterback. The NFL required them to play even though they had no one to run the offense. Now, we might say it wasn’t fair for the NFL to be so harsh with Denver. They could have given them some options. But, you see, that is not how law works. The reason the Broncos couldn’t field a quarterback is because the quarterbacks broke the rules! They violated the law. They practiced without masks. They put themselves in a position to be carrying the disease. They were unable to fulfill the righteous demand of the NFL. Their own sin rendered them unrighteous and quarterback-less. But, the law didn’t change because of the Broncos’ sins. The command to play still remained. So, the Broncos played and, because of their sin, got killed.

Now, all analogies ultimately break down. To state the almost absurdly-obvious, the NFL will never be gracious in the way God is. Though the NFL’s actions here are a fine example of how God deals with sinners in His Law, the NFL does not offer us a picture of the gospel, and thus, the analogy offers in incomplete picture of our God. See, our God works with two words: Law and Gospel. Where Law is a demand and expectation from God, the Gospel is a promise and a gift from God. The Law-word demands a perfect performance. The Gospel-word gives graciously apart from the sinner’s performance. And, as a good-Lutheran preacher, I prefer to end with the Gospel.

The Law of God does not change or adjust for any sinner. The demand remains. So, God has mercy on sinners apart from the Law (Romans 3:21), yet not in violation of the Law (Romans 3:26). God sends Christ Jesus to keep the Law for us. The old theologians called this the “active righteousness” of Christ. That is, Jesus lives a sinless, perfect life in our place, on our behalf. He then goes to the cross to die as perfect sacrifice for our sins, for your sins. He takes the credit for your sins and, in return, gives you the credit for His perfect life. You are counted righteous, not because of your works, but because Christ’s obedience and sacrifice which He gives you credit for! 

This seems almost crazy! This would be like the Saints going to the NFL and saying, “Since Denver can’t field a quarterback, we’ll forfeit and give them the win.” It would be a loss taken and a victory given entirely apart from the Law, completely graciously. Yet, it would be done in a way that also satisfies the Law. Such a sacrifice would seem absurd. And yet, that is what God in Christ has done for you. He demands perfect righteousness from sinner’s like you, and then Christ forfeits His life to give you His righteousness!