From the beginning, confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior has been the defining mark of Christianity. The two titles and the works to which they refer complement each other. How could Jesus save us if he didn’t have the authority and power needed to do this great work? And what would his authority and power mean to us if he did not use them for our benefit? For the next few posts I will examine Jesus’ work of salvation. I will address such issues as “From what does Jesus save us?” “How does Jesus save us?” and “For what does he save us?” Today, I want to begin exploring the first of these questions. If Jesus is the Savior, what is the danger from which he saves us?
Christianity proclaims a message of salvation. Ordinarily, when we speak of something as having been “saved” we mean that it was under threat of being damaged or lost but through the intervention of some power it was removed from danger and prevented from suffering damage. Usually, we don’t speak of things saving themselves. You can save money but money does not save itself. You can save data to a hard drive; data doesn’t save itself. If you are saved from drowning, it’s through the intervention of someone else. Something needs saving when it is powerless to protect itself from damage or loss.
What is the danger, damage, and loss from which Jesus Christ offers to save us? The first answer that comes to the believer’s mind is “sin”: “Here is a trustworthy saying: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). Indeed, that is a good summary of the Christian message of salvation. But simply quoting a saying is not the same as understanding it. What is sin? And why does it constitute danger of damage and loss? Why is that danger so great and why are we so helpless against it that being saved from it required the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God?
The Paradox and Mystery of Sin
Answering the question “What is sin?” is not as simple as quoting 1 John 3:4: “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.” Of course, every act of sin breaks the law of God. But more questions beg to be asked and answered. Why do we all sin? Is a particular act “wrong” only because it is forbidden by the law? Are its only destructive consequences the divine punishment imposed on the lawless act?
The biblical doctrine of sin presents many paradoxes and puzzles for our contemplation. Sin is a general condition and a specific action. It carries its own destructive consequences within it, but it is also met with divine punishment. Sin is universal, but it is not an aspect of our created nature. We cannot be coerced to sin against our wills, yet we cannot escape sin by the power of our own wills. Sin is slavery but also rebellion. It is a sickness and a choice.
The Essence of Sin
What is the essence of sin? (In a sense that I will need to define later, sin has no essence because it is not a real thing or a real act; it is a defect in a real thing or act. Nevertheless, we need to speak of sin as if it were a thing if we are to speak about it at all.) God created human beings with the potential to know him and to become like him in character and action. Human nature is designed for knowing and loving God. This is its proper activity. Only by doing this can we thrive and fulfill our potential as living images of God. If human beings refused to know and love God, they would be contradicting their nature, thwarting their fulfillment, and throwing away their happiness. Sin consists in this absurd choice and this miserable condition.
Sin is a condition of the human will in which we affirm our own private interests and trust our own private judgment about good and bad instead of trusting and affirming the perfect will of our Creator. Out of this condition of the heart arise sinful acts, acts that attempt to force God’s creation into conformity with our wills. In sin, we substitute ourselves for God. We attempt to become our own protectors, providers, and judges. We act as if we were wiser, stronger, and better than God. Rejecting our own created nature, we try to remake ourselves according to our fanciful image of what we wish we were. Then we begin working to remake the rest of the world into our distorted image, creating death and destruction everywhere.
Why do we make this absurd choice and embrace this miserable condition? There is no answer to this question. For there can be no reason to make an absurd choice. That’s what being absurd means. You may ask about Adam and Eve. They brought sin into the world and we “inherit” the broken world they made. But why did they make that absurd choice? And even if we do inherit a tendency to sin from them, we reaffirm that original sin in our own willing and acting. We inevitably do what they did. Why? God alone knows the answer to this question. For us, however, it is just a brute fact.
Next Time, we will consider the inherent and natural consequences of sin and the idea of punishment for sin. Does sin contain its own punishment as a natural out-working of its essence or does God add pain and destruction above and beyond sin’s natural consequences?