Category Archives: Sin and Salvation

It’s Time to Remember What Politicians Cannot Do

In this season of high hopes and deep despair, of utopian dreams and dystopian fears, let us remember that there is only one Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the only one who rules by divine right, and he is the only one who can save us from our deepest problems. So, I want to speak today about the limits of politics—not the limits of a particular party or political philosophy but the limits of any possible political order. In this post, I will not be advocating for any party, philosophy or human person. I simply want to ask Christian people to take their confession seriously: Jesus is Lord and Savior. Jesus alone!

People look to the political dimension of society to provide order, justice and prosperity. We can imagine having order without justice and a just order without prosperity. But we want all three. Hence politicians defend their own leadership abilities, theories and policies as the best means to the optimum balance between these three values. Hardly anyone expects politicians of any party to create perfect order, justice and prosperity or even the ideal balance among them. Most people know they must settle for what they believe is the best of those imperfect systems.

But let us assume that a utopian state is possible and that your favorite politicians can bring that state into being. Your society is efficiently ordered, and peace dominates. Everyone is treated fairly, and prosperity extends to all levels of the society.  What then? Can the president forgive your sins? Can your senator raise you from the dead? Can the congress decree that you will inherit eternal life? Politicians cannot create the world or make sure that everything that happens to you works out for your eternal good. No state can guarantee your human dignity or assure you that you exist for a reason. The government cannot make sure that you are loved and have the courage to love in return. No politician can give your life ultimate meaning or give you true and lasting happiness. Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. There is no other.

Now let us assume, on the other hand, that your worst political nightmare comes true. The worst people and worst party come to power, and your dystopian fears become reality. Injustice reigns, order serves the interest of only a few and prosperity eludes the majority. Perhaps dissenters and critics of the new order are persecuted. What then? Can the president make you unhappy? Can poverty erase the image of God in which you are made? Can being treated unjustly make you unjust? The state cannot keep you from loving your enemies and your friends. The senate cannot rob you of God’s love. Nor can congress withhold divine forgiveness or invoke divine judgment. Can politicians prevent God from working all things to our eternal good? Can death or persecution separate us from the love of God? Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. There is no other.

Hence let us have a sense of proportion in this season of debate and decision. The best outcome cannot bring salvation to your house and the worst cannot assign you to perdition. Let us not seek from ourselves what only God can provide. Instead, let us treat politics as what it is: it is a means of maximizing certain worldly goods. Worldly goods! Not heavenly treasures! There is nothing sinful about wishing to enjoy and use worldly goods unless we begin to love and worship them and lose perspective on their true value. Putting too much stock in politics may indicate that we have lost hope in the real Savior and have given up trusting in the true Lord. Or it may indicate that we have grown to love the world. John gives a warning apropos to our time:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world (1 John 2:15-16).

And Jesus, our true Lord and only Savior, reminds us of the One we should fear:

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:4-5)

What Has FAITH Got to Do With Salvation?

In recent essays we considered how God deals with three aspects of the sinful human condition through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Jesus enacts God’s forgiveness in his dying on the cross, and in the resurrection of Jesus by the power of the Spirit, God heals the damage and death sin causes. The power by which God raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us to a new life free from the power of sin. But how does God’s work in Jesus Christ affect us here and now?

In addressing these questions we must keep two things in mind. (1) The New Testament sees Jesus Christ not only as the Savior but as the first truly saved human being. His action is not only divine but also human. His acts of obedience were not only righteous as divine but also as human. Jesus Christ was one of us as well as one of the Trinity. Hence we can say that one of us, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, lived a righteous life completely pleasing to God. With God all things are possible! What God did for Jesus he can do for us through Jesus! (2) The New Testament sees the salvation that God enacted in and through Jesus as the realization of God’s eternal plan for creation. Jesus’ human salvation, that is, his deliverance from the deadly consequences of sin (other people’s sin) and his glorification, happened to him alone. And it happened to Jesus before the end, before it happens to the rest of creation. Jesus is the first of a future, new humanity.

How, then, does what God did in Jesus affect us? How do I begin to experience the salvation that Jesus experienced? First, consider that the salvation described in the New Testament involves objective and subjective elements. Salvation involves the whole person, and our existence is comprised of conscious and unconscious dimensions. God could forgive (that is, not take revenge for sin’s insult) and prevent the worst consequences of sin from running their course even if you were unaware of it. But you cannot stop sinning and come to love God and your neighbor without consciously willing to do so. Salvation involves liberation of the will, so that we truly will God’s will above our own private interests. Or, let me put it another way: no one can be saved apart from their own knowledge and will, without their own active participation. You cannot unwillingly or unconsciously love God or become holy or experience glorification.

The New Testament message proclaims that we can enjoy the salvation that has appeared in Jesus Christ. It is not meant for him alone. God unites us to Christ and we join ourselves to Christ so that his qualities become ours and we enjoy the salvation he experienced. (Note: God’s grace always precedes and empowers our action, but our act is really ours.) God has demonstrated in Christ that he does not want to take revenge on us. Instead he wants to heal and liberate us. And the power for this healing and liberation is at work in the sphere of Christ and the Holy Spirit. And we need access to that power and presence.

The most basic act by which we join ourselves to Christ is faith. It’s not love or obedience or repentance or any other subjective act of our wills. Of course, faith implies all of these virtues, but the New Testament places the priority on faith. Faith is such a rich concept that I can only begin the plumb its depths. There is a mysterious side to the act of faith because, apart from the preaching of the gospel and work of the Spirit, faith in Christ as Savior and Lord would be impossible. But I want to concentrate in this essay on the visible, human side of faith.

For many reasons, faith is a fitting human response to God’s work in Jesus Christ. (1) Faith is an act of knowing. It embraces the apostolic testimony to Jesus Christ as the truth. By believing the apostolic witnesses, it gains access to the knowledge that God raised Jesus from the dead and to other aspects of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. This knowledge enables us to think of God, pray to God, obey God, and direct our love to God as we see him in the face of Jesus Christ. The act of believing is already the beginning of our transformation. It changes what we think of God and allows us to direct all our energies toward the true God. God is always near, the risen Jesus Christ fills the universe, and the Spirit is closer to us than our own spirit whether we know it or not. But in faith we come to know his true identity and the true depth of his love for us.

(2) The act of faith is acknowledgment. Faith acknowledges its poverty, its total dependence on God for everything good. Faith is not an adventurous act of human discovery, a brilliant insight into the nature of things, or an exceptional act of righteousness. It is a humble admission that God is God and we are not and that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord; we cannot save or rule ourselves. (3) Faith is affirmation. The act of faith not only admits that God is God, it joyously affirms this and celebrates it. Faith affirms that the distinction between the Creator and the creature is good and right. The believer finds his/her joy in being a creature given existence by the Creator and a sinner saved by the Savior.

(4) Faith is an act of trust. It takes the promise of the gospel as certain. In faith, we embrace the word of Jesus Christ as completely reliable. We believe he will forgive us, heal us, and purify us. He will deliver us from death. (5) Faith is an act of certainty. Faith embraces Jesus Christ wholeheartedly and confidently as the truth about God and human destiny. Hence it inspires bold action. It gives rise to courageous acts of love, forgiveness, repentance, obedience, grace, and holiness.

(6) Faith is an act of uniting ourselves to Jesus Christ. In saying this I am returning to the theme of the first half of this essay. If we are to benefit from Christ’s salvation, we must be united to him and receive the divine power at work in him. Jesus Christ is not merely a historical figure about whom we have some information. He is alive. In the power of the Spirit, he is present and active everywhere. But Jesus speaks to us today through his words and deeds that are remembered and preached by his apostles. By believing, we know he is alive and available to us. We know who he is, what he is like, how much he loves us, and what he has promised us. When faith listens to the words of the gospel, it hears the voice of One alive and present.

By the time you read these words of mine, my act of saying them will be past. Nevertheless by reading them you will be joining your mind to my mind, your heart to my heart. Even when we read the words of someone long dead we have a feeling of understanding and knowing them. But Jesus is not dead; he is alive. His words remain his living voice. They are not echoes from the past but trumpet blasts in the present. And through his living voice we have fellowship with him, mind to mind and heart to heart. In this conversation and find ourselves united to him through faith. In view of these thoughts perhaps the words of John may take on a meaning we had not perceived before:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).

Forgiveness Is Not Enough

Forgiveness is not enough. If sin is as destructive as the New Testament claims, if it’s a condition of the will as well as a quality of the act, if it attempts the absurd, destroys the self, and produces death (see the posts of January 06, 16, and 23), divine forgiveness is only the beginning of salvation. In forgiving sin, God deals with the insulting aspects of sin not by becoming angry and taking revenge but by renewing his standing offer of reconciliation and fellowship. God, so to speak, absorbs, ignores, and neutralizes the insult to his dignity. But what about the damage sin does to others and ourselves? Sinful acts cause damage that sometimes continues long after the act. A person who steals your possessions or injures your body or harms your child sets in motion a cascade of ill effects in the world that may cause damage far beyond the their original intention or control. Such sinful acts affect others at every level, physical, social, psychological, and spiritual.

Suppose for example that someone lies about you so effectively that you lose your job, are abandoned by your closest friends, and your marriage is on the brink of divorce. You determine that you will not allow your enemy’s hatred to evoke hatred in your heart and provoke you to take revenge. Suppose further that your enemy comes to realize his sin, repents, confesses his wrong to you, asks for forgiveness, and seeks reconciliation. You respond by assuring your former enemy that you will not seek revenge and harbor no hatred. Does repentance and forgiveness heal the damage sin has caused? No, not fully. Even the best efforts of the repentant person to replace property and mend relationships cannot restore things to their original state. Repentance and forgiveness cannot replace a lost limb or bring the dead back to life or restore trust to a betrayed heart. It cannot undo past suffering or erase traumatic memories. Our willingness to forgive does not cause us (or others) to forget. We don’t have complete control over our psychological nature any more than we have complete control over our physical nature. Damage to the psyche can be as lasting as damage to the body. We cannot change the past or stop the cascade of cause and effect flowing from past sin.

Human repentance and forgiveness is not enough. Nor is divine forgiveness enough; it is only the beginning of salvation. In last week’s essay on divine forgiveness I asserted this:

“the work of Jesus Christ was not designed to change an offended and revenging God into a loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ suffering is not the cause of divine forgiveness. No. Jesus Christ is the visible, temporal enactment of divine forgiveness, of God’s eternal selfless love for us.”

In the same way, I do not think it is correct to think of the work of Jesus Christ as making it possible for God to heal the world of the destructive effects of sin. Jesus Christ is the enactment of this divine healing. God always has been the creator, the giver of life, the healer of our diseases, and the Lord who “works all things for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). God has determined from all eternity that “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Jesus enacted divine forgiveness by willingly enduring the fullness of sin’s insult and injury, without retaliation. What could be worse than annihilating humanity and blaspheming God? Healing impossible and forgiveness unthinkable! From a human point of view, the result of the sin done to Jesus was totally irreversible, completely hopeless. No human regret, repentance, or attempted restoration could change the deed that was done. In the suffering of the cross we see divine forgiveness happening before our eyes and, in the resurrection of Jesus, we see sin’s damage healed and turned to God’s service and glory.

Jesus’ resurrection was not merely the healing of his private wounds and the restoration of his personal life. The New Testament gospel understands Jesus’ resurrection as the beginning of a new humanity, the first fruits of the resurrection of all the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20), and the liberation of creation from its “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21). In Ephesians, chapter one, Paul speaks of the mystery of God’s eternal plan “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (1:10). The history of Jesus Christ from his birth to his suffering, death, and resurrection sums up the history of all creation from beginning to end. God’s hidden work in creation, providence, forgiveness and redemption becomes visible and concentrated in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we can see how all the damage, destruction, and death caused by sin, from the beginning to the end of time, will be and has been healed. Christianity reads history backwards, from the future revealed in the resurrected and glorified Jesus Christ to the act of creation and the course of providence. Every divine act in creation and providence finds itself fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus Christ is, was, and always will be the life-giving, forgiving, and healing God with us and for us.

Next week: we’ve seen how God forgives insult sin directs at God and heals the damage cause by sin, but how can we be saved from the condition of sin, which the New Testament describes as corruption, sickness, slavery, powerlessness, blindness, and death?

 

Can Sin Really Be That Bad?

In the previous post (“Why We Really Need a Savior”), I defined sin as a condition of the will in which we assert ourselves against our Creator. We prefer our own judgment about what is good and bad, possible and impossible, and wise and unwise to God’s judgment about these things. In sin, we reject our place in God’s creation and put ourselves in the place of the Creator. We try to reorder creation so that it centers on us and serves our private interests.

According to the Christian message, God acted in Jesus Christ to save us from sin. This message is called “the gospel” or the good news. But do we hear it as good news? Aren’t believers as well as nonbelievers tempted to ask, “What about sin is so bad that we should want to be saved from it?” Whatever its motivation,  this is a good question and deserves a good answer.

Sin Attempts the Impossible

The first step toward grasping the badness of sin is understanding that the sinful will and the act of sin attempt to do the impossible. God is the Creator, and we are God’s creatures. A creature cannot make itself the Creator by an act of will or imagination. God gave creation existence, order, purpose, and destiny. We cannot change it. By preferring  our own private wishes above God’s will for us, we won’t change our nature. But we can divide ourselves by superimposing an imaginary image of ourselves over the person God created. In our image of ourselves we become alienated from our true nature and destiny.

Likewise, our attempts to make creation fit our preferences and go according to our wishes cannot defeat God’s plan. God is the Lord, and God sustains the order he created. We too are creatures in God’s created order and we have no power that God does not give us. We can do nothing God does not permit. Attempting to defeat God’s will aims at the impossible.

Sin Destroys the Self and Implies Death

If you try to do the impossible, you will fail. And this failure is destructive. When we imagine taking God’s place as the Creator and Lord of creation, we entertain a false image of ourselves. And what is appealing about that image is a lie, an impossibility. We imagine attaining a greater abundance of pleasures, a feeling of power, dignity, security, and many other good things. In reality, however, we cut ourselves off from the Creator who is the source of everything good. God freely gives us life and power, the dignity of being in his image, and the security of his care. Since we are not the Creator, we cannot supply these things for ourselves. Apart from God we are nothing. Sin implies only death and destruction. If God cooperated with our sin, if he gave us what we say we want, he would stop giving us life and all good things. We would die. More than that, God would forget us, and we would never have been.

But God does not cooperate with our sin! He keeps giving us life and all that sustains it. And this gracious act has a double effect. God wills to save us from our foolish, absurd, and self-destructive wish. But God’s gracious preservation—for the sake of our future salvation—also sustains us in our self-contradictory condition. And this condition is painful in two ways. First, we experience division, self-alienation and frustration within ourselves. Our true nature and destiny keep coming into our consciousness reminding us that we are not what we should be. We cannot seem to remake ourselves to our liking, and this is a source of great unhappiness. We bounce back and forth between pride and shame, both of which are attempts to escape from what we are or what we think we are.

However, the greatest suffering we endure is felt hardly at all, except as a huge emptiness. Something very important is missing. Since we have cut ourselves off from God, we do not have fellowship with God. What an infinite loss! We give up the Source of all good, true, and beautiful things and leave home for the “far country” in search for something better. We lose confidence in our worth and our sense of place in the world fades. Since we possess a dim awareness that we are empty and powerless, we can never feel secure and in control.

In this case, as we can see clearly, sin is its own punishment. There is no need for God to add any suffering to the suffering we inflict on ourselves. Indeed, in view of his love for us manifested in Jesus, God protects us from receiving the full consequences of our own choices. And the merciful suffering we endure may awaken us to the truth and motivate us to turn toward home and begin to seek God.

Sinful Acts Cause the Sinner and the Whole World to Suffer

Our sinful wills drive us to endeavor to force creation conform to our selfish wishes. Whatever its nature, every act expresses the will of the actor. A sinful act attempts to express the sinful will of the actor. The sinfulness in the sinful act is the will to substitute the private wishes of the sinner for God’s will. But there is a sense in which no sinful act can succeed in achieving its true aim, because we cannot defeat God’s will.

Suppose I wish to take your money or your car. Or perhaps I want to diminish your sense of self-worth by cursing you or lying about you. Of course, these acts are possible. Thefts, murders, lies, and all sorts of other sins occur in the world, and they have destructive effects. And they are forbidden according to God’s law. But they do not defeat God’s will and replace it with the sinner’s sinful will. The sinner intends to take God’s place as the sovereign over the course of the future. This cannot happen. God works out his sovereign will whatever creatures do; God can work through natural causes, through chance events, through free human actions, and even through sinful acts. God negates the sinful imagination that inspired the sin and defeats the sinful intention in the act. It comes to nothing. It fails utterly because it is impossible. But God uses the physical motion and results of the act for his own purposes. “God works all things for the good of those who love him…” (Romans 8:28).

Even though God uses sinful acts for his good purposes, they still cause great suffering. They cause suffering in those to whom they are directed. Murders cut short the lives of those they target and cause deep grief in those left behind. Out of the sinful condition of the will—which itself implies death and nothingness—come actual death and destruction, pain and suffering, loneliness and heartache, war and hatred. Just as the sinful act arises out of the sinner’s internal misery and death, it returns to plague the sinner once more. When sinners externalize the sin festering in their hearts, they are made that much more aware of their miserable condition and this awareness compounds their misery. The anger, condemnation, and scorn of others fall on them, making them even more aware of their unworthiness and ugliness. The human community seeks revenge. Hatred excites hatred. Violence provokes violence. And the isolation and selfishness expressed in sin finds itself rewarded with exile. Sin is its own punishment.

“What about sin is so bad that we should want to be saved from it?”

Answer: the nature of sin is absurdity, death, emptiness, wretchedness, isolation, despair, and destruction.

And that is why the gospel of Jesus Christ is such good news!

Why We Really Do Need a Savior

The Savior

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?

The Danger

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?