Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Sin (Page 1 of 2)

Looking for love

“Looking for love in all the wrong places.” It may be a well-worn cliché, but like all clichés, it contains more than a modicum of truth.

I think we can truthfully say that at some level, each of us just wants to be loved. And yet there is something about the world, and about our particular situation within it, that conspires to keep this much-sought-after feeling of being loved just beyond our grasp.

In some cases, it’s easy to see where a deep-seated sense of unloveliness might stem from; I’m thinking in particular of all forms of child abuse, whether physical, sexual or emotional. When we suffer such abuse at our most tender and formative age, it makes a profound imprint on our soul that can be very hard to erase or reshape. However, even those of us, like myself, who have experienced no major childhood abuse can be all too familiar with an abiding sense of lack that sends us searching for all manner of substances, experiences and/or relationships to fill the emptiness in our souls. Even those blessed with the happiest of circumstances somehow sustain wounds on their journey through childhood and adolescence – wounds whose pain they later seek to ease with money, success, sex, alcohol, fame, and so on.

To be alive in this world, it would seem, is to suffer trauma.

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The cross: religious self-projection or radical discontinuity?

3832056730_e1775658e2_oMost Christians agree that the central, defining feature of Christianity is the cross. I think it’s fair to say that no other religion has such a universally recognised identifying symbol.

However, when it comes to what we understand the cross to mean, things get more complicated. And what we understand the cross to mean is of huge importance, because it shapes our entire understanding of God and what it means to be a Christian.

If I were to put it to a roomful of Christians that God is most perfectly revealed in the crucified Christ, I’m pretty sure I’d get a lot of hearty amens. But the fact that we could all agree that God is most perfectly revealed in Christ upon the cross emphatically does not mean that we have a shared understanding of the cross or what it tells us about God and our relationship to him.

Let’s try to unpack this a bit by exploring two alternative understandings of the cross.

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Original sin fail

340729493_bf6dbe0ae1_oOne of the foundations of evangelical thought is the doctrine of original sin. We mainly have Augustine to thank for this gem. Thanks, dude.

The idea is that Adam sinned, and thereafter his sinfulness was passed down through his bloodline to all of humanity.

But let’s just think about this for a moment.

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The judgement of the cross


“Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” (John 12:31)

Christians are generally accustomed to speaking of the cross as the place and time where God enacted judgement on the world. But what does this actually mean, and what are its implications?

Usually, the cross as the place of judgement is understood to mean the physical location where God poured out his wrath upon Jesus. Here, wrath is understood as the punishment for our sin which God, in his justice, is obliged to mete out: namely death. And Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God, gamely hangs on the cross in our place and bears the brunt of God’s implacable justice so that we, in spite of our sin, can escape punishment.

And the cross as the time of judgement is understood as the point in history when God sovereignly intervened in human affairs to solve humanity’s sin problem as described above.

So there we have it: time and place come together at the cross as Jesus bears God’s punishment for our sin. This, then, is the judgement of the cross: a resounding verdict of “Guilty!” pronounced upon the human race by God, accompanied by an unappealable death sentence. The twist is that Christ comes in as an innocent victim to serve the sentence in our place.

This is what I believed without a second thought for most of my Christian life. Until I began, through a process of reading and thinking, to see some gaping holes in it:

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Musings on sin

SinI recently got into a long Facebook conversation that basically revolved around the nature of sin and our response to it. I’ve written about this a few times before (do a search), but perhaps it’s worth sharing some of my recent thoughts on the matter.

Essentially, the conversation to which I refer centred around the idea of sin as anything that falls outside “God’s divine order”. I suppose this goes right back to the Ten Commandments: define sin as a list of proscribed behaviours, attach God’s sanction to said list, and you can then safely judge those who engage in such behaviour.

The problem with such a view, it seems to me, is that we all think we know what constitutes acceptable versus unacceptable behaviour… But who is right?

You might say that the Ten Commandments represent a definitive and immutable definition of unacceptable behaviour. But if that’s the case, how come most Christians today are quite happy to turn a blind eye to adultery, which is specifically outlawed by the Decalogue, while denouncing, say, same-sex relationships, which don’t get a mention?

It seems to me that whenever we are drawn into defining sin as a list of rights and wrongs, we are simply continuing to try to live off what Genesis 3 calls the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We take upon ourselves the authority to name good and evil, and we boost our own self-identity and security by identifying those on the evil side of the line and congratulating ourselves for being on the good side.

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On Jesus’ death and freedom from shame

26/365 - Such ShameToday I’d like to say a bit about one particular aspect of how the way we understand Jesus’ death affects our ongoing perception of ourselves and of God.

The most common understanding of how Jesus’ death achieved our salvation goes something like this:

– Because of God’s holiness (which we narrowly interpret as his moral purity), our sin separated us from God.

– Because God is just, sin needs to be punished.

– Rather than allow the just punishment of death to fall on us, God arranged for Jesus to take this punishment in our place.

– Because Jesus paid the price for our sin, we are thus no longer separated from God.

(I should also mention that, within most evangelical paradigms, this reconciliation with God only actually takes effect if we accept Jesus as our personal saviour.)

In theological terms, this framework for how Jesus’ death bought us life is most often referred to as penal substitutionary atonement (PSA for short): penal because it involves punishment for sin; substitutionary because Jesus is our substitute, taking our punishment in our place; and atonement because the result is that we are no longer separated from God (think at-one-ment). I no longer find it a helpful framework; in fact, I find it positively unhelpful, mainly because I think it perpetuates a picture of God as a cosmic tyrant obsessed with balancing the scales of justice and needing blood in order to do so.

My purpose today, however, is not to delve into all the details of why I find PSA problematic. Rather, I’d like to focus in on one particular consequence of believing that salvation hinges on this type of arrangement.

Specifically, I’d like to talk about shame.

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Of sin, law and sacrifice

GavelFollowing on from my recent post Salvation reimagined, I had an interesting discussion with a friend at church about what an updated perspective on salvation might do to our understanding of certain Old Testament practices, including in particular law-keeping and sacrifice. I thought it would be good to unpack this a little here on the blog.

My contention is this: whether we’re aware of it or not, our understanding of sin and salvation is closely tied to our understanding of Old Testament law and sacrifice.

The discussion with my friend was triggered by a disconnect. On the one hand, he found the idea of seeing sin as a form of sickness or brokenness, rather than simply as wrongdoing, inherently appealing. On the other hand, he found it hard to completely let go of the notion of sin as legal offence, mainly because of the huge Old Testament emphasis on law and sacrifice.

I think this is a problem for very many Christians. In my experience, many believers instinctively resonate with the idea that sin is better understood as a condition we suffer than as legal offences we commit. The reason people resonate with this idea is that it makes sense in the context of their own lived experience and the flaws and defects with which they personally struggle. But they very often run into the same brick wall my friend did: given that so much of the focus in the Old Testament is on law-keeping and sacrifice, surely sin must to a large extent be legal in nature, mustn’t it?

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