Earlier this week I wrote a post suggesting that we can often fall into the trap of viewing Jesus’ death on the cross, and the sacrament by which we remember it (commonly referred to as communion or the eucharist), as a kind of repeated scapegoating of Jesus. Just as ancient Israel’s sins were expunged by symbolically transferring them onto a goat that was then sent out into the wilderness, so we deposit our sins on Jesus and trust him to carry them away.
Now, we know that Jesus only died on the cross once: we’re quite happy to state with Peter that Jesus died once for all. However, when we treat Jesus’ death and our remembering of it as outlined above, in effect it’s as though he were having to be put to death again and again, each time we need our sins carried away and our consciences salved.
This, to me, is the fundamental problem with any theology in which salvation is essentially an abstract one-time event: it doesn’t deal with our ongoing sin problem. We may feel temporarily relieved of our burden of guilt, but — all other things being equal —the same patterns of sin continue to entangle and ensnare us, leading us back over and over to the same need for absolution… and thus the need for Jesus to be symbolically re-crucified again and again. Rather than being a journey of progressive transformation into the image of Christ, the Christian life thus becomes a continual cycle of guilt management.
Another way of stating the problem is that salvation has become detached from sanctification. Salvation is commonly understood to mean a place in heaven for us when we die, secured by means of a transaction in which God acquits us of our guilt by declaring Jesus guilty in our place. However, salvation conceived of in this way can do nothing, in and of itself, to free us from the grip of sin in the here and now. It might give us some kind of mental assurance as to our eternal destiny, but it is powerless to effect change in the present. So we end up struggling on in the same old ruts while trying desperately to feel like we’re saved.
I’ve written about the nature of sin on quite a few previous occasions, so I don’t really want to delve into it in depth again here. Suffice it to say that the widespread understanding of sin as a series of legal offences against God goes hand-in-hand with the legal model of salvation laid out in the previous paragraph.
For myself, I’ve come to see sin as a kind of brokenness – a condition in which the whole paradigm by which we perceive and navigate the world is skewed and off-kilter. What we fundamentally need, then, is not a salvation that offers the repeated purging of our accumulated guilt; indeed, how is such a salvation any different from the “blood of goats and bulls” which, in spite of being continually poured out, could not take away sin? Rather, what we need is something that addresses our broken condition and actively and practically helps free us from sin in this life.
Just as the legal acquittal of a criminal does nothing in and of itself to reform him and prevent his return to jail, salvation in the form of a legal transaction does nothing to rescue us from the present reality of sin and prevent our ongoing entanglement in it. It is as though the prisoner were brought out of his cell, told he was legally free, and then led back into his cell to enjoy the imagined benefits of his salvation.
Again, without delving deeply into the mechanics of sin, if salvation is to be meaningful at anything other than an abstract level, it needs to address the roots of sin. For me, these roots largely have to do with fear and separation (you might like to read my short series on the origins and consequences of fear – you’ll find the first part here). Most of what we call sin can be traced back to attempts at self-preservation based in fear (of God, the other, and even ourselves). As such, to be freed from sin means to be freed from the fear and hostility in which it is grounded.
If sin is ultimately grounded in fear and separation, then the remedy for sin must be something that can conquer fear and overcome separation. And what is it that can do this? The answer is actually quite simple: forgiveness. Not forgiveness as an abstract legal notion; not forgiveness as a conditional premise that will hold as long as we keep our noses clean. What is needed is forgiveness full and free, final and without condition. And, thankfully, that is just the kind of forgiveness the Father extends to us all.
When Jesus rose from the grave, he did not come announcing vengeance for his unjust death. Nor did he proclaim a temporary amnesty that would need to be renewed through regular religious observance. He came announcing peace – the kind of enduring peace that can only be obtained through complete, unconditional, unearned forgiveness.
Of course, if we keep this peace and forgiveness purely on the vertical plane — i.e. between God and us — then we’re right back at square one: enjoying the benefits of forgiveness for ourselves while perpetuating separation and hostility with others. For this forgiveness to be real, we need first to receive it and then to become practised in passing it on to others, just as fully and freely as it was given to us. That, my friends, is how the world will be reconciled to God.
To summarise, then: the answer to sin is not a metaphysical legal transaction, for such a transaction could do nothing to remove the separation and hostility in which sin finds its most fertile soil. The answer to sin is forgiveness, which leads to reconciliation and peace, first between man and God and then between man and man. And oh, how the world needs reconciliation and peace, not only in eternity, but today!
[ Image: Celestine Chua / edited to remove URL ]