Salvation is a restoration project, not an evacuation project!
— Brian Zahnd, A Farewell To Mars
A few weeks ago I suggested that it is perhaps time for us to find some new ways of understanding sin. Today I want to take that thought a little further.
Many believers understand that the Christian life is about being, not doing. In other words, it’s not the things you do or the actions or duties you perform that make you a Christian; it’s your status in Christ that makes you a Christian. Your status as an adopted heir of God is given to you as a free gift, and cannot be earned by any amount of performance.
With this I wholeheartedly agree.
On the other hand, however, many believers seem to understand sin primarily as something we do or commit. After all, sin is by definition wrongdoing, isn’t it?
It seems to me, then, that there is often a contrast between how we understand sin (doing bad things) and how we understand salvation (being made right with God/given a new standing before God). This divergence doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
The basic problem is this: if sin is simply the bad things we do, then all we need do to be saved from sin is stop doing those things. Yet Jesus made it clear that sin goes much deeper than external actions: sinful words and deeds flow out of a sinful heart. It follows that the remedy for sin is not behaviour modification but heart transformation.
This is why I find it much more helpful to think of sin as a kind of sickness than as simply offences that we commit.
Why then is the view of sin as “crime” so widespread and the view of sin as sickness so relatively shunned? Allow me to suggest two reasons:
1. The whole notion of God as a retributive judge requires us to maintain this primary view of sin as crime (against God and our fellow human beings). What do we do with criminals, especially those who keep on offending? We catch them, drag them to court and sentence them to punishment. Now, as a Christian, you might well believe that Jesus took God’s punishment in your place; but the fact remains that what you have is a penal/retributive understanding of God and his justice.
However, if we start to see sin not as a crime but as a sickness, it’s immediately clear that retributive justice is both unfair and unhelpful. We don’t punish people for being sick; we treat them so they are freed from their sickness and all its evil effects. I would say the same goes for sin: if salvation is simply a courtroom transaction in which our deserved punishment for wrongful acts is dealt with by Jesus, this does absolutely nothing to heal us of our underlying sin-sickness. But if salvation is something that heals the sickness of sin with which our hearts are infected, then we are both made whole on the inside and freed from the compulsion to keep doing sinful things on the outside.
2. Many people feel that understanding sin as a form of sickness rather than as a crime somehow lets us off the hook and means we are not held responsible for our sin. While I understand this concern, I don’t think it’s very well founded.
Think about it this way: imagine a person infected with a highly contagious disease that is deadly but treatable. Now imagine that this person refuses all offers of treatment. The consequences are twofold: not only do they condemn themselves to death, but in the meantime they go around infecting everyone around them. They live in a way that knowingly spreads death to everyone they come into contact with. The fact that they are sick through no fault of their own does not in any way diminish their responsibility for hastening their own demise and passing on their sickness to others.
Of course, we could choose to punish this imaginary person for their crime of spreading a deadly disease. That would certainly remove the immediate problem (i.e. the risk of them infecting others). But we could not honestly say that punishment would address the underlying issue, which is the fact that the person is sick in the first place. Ultimately, what this person needs is not punishment but healing.
The conclusion I’m coming to nowadays, then, is this: seeing sin as forensic in nature – i.e. primarily a legal offence that requires a legal response – is unhelpful to the sinner’s actual condition, tends to make salvation into a legal transaction and helps maintain an understanding of God as a divine dispenser of retributive justice. Conversely, seeing sin as ontological in nature – i.e. a matter of being rather than doing – enables us to understand God in Christ as first and foremost a healer rather than a judge, with salvation as an invitation to open ourselves up to God’s healing and transformative love rather than simply the offer of a legal certificate bearing the words “not guilty”.
To me, there is a stark difference between these ways of looking at sin. It’s the difference between saying “I do bad things that deserve punishment” and “I’m sick and I really need to be healed”. The first of these approaches is likely to leave me feeling even more condemned by my sin and failure than I already feel, while the second gives me hope and inclines me to submit myself to God’s healing work, however painful that may be.
[ Image: Lawrence OP ]
Here are some things I used to believe were essential components of the Christian faith. By which I mean, if you didn’t believe them, you weren’t really a Christian:
– A literal six-day creation
– A world that was little over 6,000 years old
– A pre-tribulation rapture
– The “inerrancy” of scripture
– “Hell” as essential conscious torment
– The penal substitution theory of the atonement
– Revelation, Matthew 24 and Danielic prophecy as yet to be fulfilled
Funny thing is, the older I get, the less I realise I know with any degree of certainty. If you asked me what I feel is critical for me to believe now in order to be saved, it would probably boil down to something like this:
– The sure knowledge that I am a pitiful sinner, utterly reliant on God’s gracious initiative for salvation
– Faith that Jesus is God’s messiah, and that he gave his life and rose from the dead to free me from sin and death and offer me eternal life as part of his body
I think that about sums it up. Simple, when it comes down to it.
Embracing the cross with Jesus is to be our salvation. It is to release ourselves into the realm of God, into God’s care, and to stop trying to work the human system of power and desire to get what we want.
— Dallas Willard, The Craftiness of Christ (the whole thing is well worth a read)
Money makes the world go round. We’ve heard this so often it’s become a cliché. In fact, there’s a lot of truth in it.
We live in a world that is predicated on buying and selling. We sell our services to an employer to get money to buy the food, clothing and shelter we need. Children enter the picture, and suddenly we need to buy more food, more clothes, and goodness knows what else. Thus has it ever been.
Modern consumer capitalism has taken this basic cycle and extrapolated it to an extreme degree. Just having enough for our own needs and those of our family is no longer enough. We begin to enjoy fancier food or decide we’d like to sport the latest fashions, so we have to earn more money to pay for it. Our perfectly serviceable car no longer looks as sleek and shiny as it once did, so we take out a bank loan to buy a new one, thus putting even more pressure on our pay packet. And, of course, we need the latest mobile phone, tablet, mp3 player, cable TV package… the list goes on. It’s no longer just about meeting our needs; it’s about establishing our identity and making a statement through how we dress, what we eat, what music we listen to on what device, even what brand of sunglasses we wear.
Multinational corporations understand this cycle of desire and fulfilment all too well. We’re surrounded by radio, TV, online, press and billboard ads all clamouring for our attention from the moment we wake up until we lay down our heads to sleep. And they’re all telling us essentially the same story: buy this product and you (or your family) will look and/or feel happier, thinner, sexier, cooler, healthier, cleverer, richer, calmer, stronger, more popular, more beautiful, and so on. Some companies even go so far as to conceive of marketing strategies that cunningly create and plant in our subconscious minds desires we didn’t even know we had, so that they can then fulfil those desires with their latest “must-have” product. Apple is perhaps the company that has used this strategy to most spectacular effect, more than once propelling it to the top of the list of the world’s most valuable companies, but it is far from the only company to spend an awful lot of money working out how to convince us what we really need.
We rest our souls on a ‘finished work,’ if we rest them on the work of Jesus Christ the Lord. We need not fear that either sin, or Satan, or law shall condemn us at the last day. We may lean back on the thought, that we have a Savior who has done all, paid all, accomplished all, performed all that is necessary for our salvation.
— J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: John, Volume 3
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