If there is any one word to describe why Jesus came and what he did, it is Saviour. Of course the Greek word Jesus has this very meaning, as is spelled out in Matthew 1:21: “She [Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
The Greek word reflects the Hebrew Yeshua or Yehoshu, meaning Joshua, or Yahweh saves. So salvation is bound up in the very name of Jesus. And Christ means Messiah, or Anointed One, another term which can have connotations of the idea of deliverance or redemption, as in Luke 24:21: “we had hoped that he [Jesus Christ] was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”
Of course to have a Saviour or a redeemer means that we are in need of saving, or redemption. What are we being saved from? Sin of course is the biblical answer. So any understanding of the Christian message and worldview must begin with and take with the utmost seriousness the concept of sin.
Yet sadly that is the very thing so often lacking in modern Christian circles: an awareness and understanding of the biblical idea of sin. Much of course has been written on the topic of sin, so here I simply wish to take just one approach to the concept.
Let me preface this approach by saying that I have long loved theology, and have over the years lectured on various theological topics, including systematic theology. Thus I have a sizeable theological library, with plenty of systematic theologies. Indeed, entire bookcases are taken up with such works.
Whenever a new systematic theology comes on the scene, it will soon find its way into my home. But every new addition involves a double loss: a loss of my hard-earned cash, and a further loss of space on my bookshelves. But this is a small price to pay, or so I reason to myself.
One of the newer systematics to appear is Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way which appeared earlier this year (Zondervan). This massive volume (well over 1000 pages) is a welcome addition to any theological library. Horton has been writing careful theological works for decades now, reflecting his Reformed faith.
I was today reading through this volume, especially his chapter on the Fall. While plenty of other systematics could be appealed to here and quoted from, let me just share a few snippets from what Horton has to say on all this. To begin with, the biblical witness is clear: if we seek to understand the notion of sin, we need to accept a historic Adam and Eve and a historic fall.
“On this point,” says Horton, “Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians are one.” Of course they differ in other areas. For example, Catholics hold to the doctrine of concupiscence, while Protestants do not. The former argue that the proneness or propensity to sinful desires is not in itself sinful, while Reformed theologians claim there was no propensity to sin in human nature prior to the fall.
But fall mankind did, and we are all impacted by it. The doctrine of original sin emerges here. It may not be a readily accepted understanding today, but it clearly finds its basis in Scripture: “The concept of solidarity – human solidarity in Adam and Israel’s in Abraham and Moses, is basic to the biblical worldview, however alien to our own.”
Indeed, it is not just a Pauline or Augustinian concept, but a thoroughly biblical one: “Repeated attempts to dismiss the doctrine of original sin as a peculiarity of Calvin or Luther, Augustine or Paul fail to take seriously the fact that the same assumptions are articulated in the Psalms (Pss 51:5, 10; 143:2), the prophets (Isa 64:6; Jer 17:9) and in the Gospels (Jn 1:13; 3:6; 5:42; 6:44; 8:34; 15:4-5) and catholic epistles (Jas 3:2; 1 Jn 1:8, 10; 5:12).”
“No one is an island. The past is present not only among us but within us. The covenant consciousness that we all share by virtue of our humanity carries with it ever since the fall the ineradicable consciousness or our existence as breach, alienation, and transgression. We are not only guilty for Adam’s sin; we are guilty as sinners in Adam.”
Of course the Old Testament is saturated with this concept of corporate personality and responsibility. Horton offers a number of examples, such as Achan’s sin in Joshua 7, and Paul’s treatment of the fall in Romans 5. He also looks at the practical results of abandoning this concept.
He notes how modern notions of jurisprudence based on a sentimental (sin-free) theology have turned justice into mere amelioration and healing. This weakened sense of God’s holiness and human sinfulness means that the very notion of human justice is being undermined as well.
But the church itself is getting weak in these areas and that is the real problem. “The tendency of fundamentalism is to reduce sin to sinful acts and behaviours, while liberalism reduces sin to evil social structures that impede the realization of the ethical kingdom. In contrast to both forms of reductionism, the biblical understanding of sin is far deeper in its analysis. Sin is first of all a condition that is simultaneously judicial and moral, legal and relational. Accordingly, we sin because we are sinners rather than vice versa.”
He continues, “Furthermore, we are both victims and perpetrators. There is no human being since the fall who is only a victim; yet it is also true that every sinner is also sinned against. Such is the solidarity of humanity under the curse of the violated covenant of creation.”
As an aside here, just as I have been typing this, an email appeared in my inbox with this title: “Vatican Cardinal Burke: In today’s society ‘morality has ceased to exist’.” The moral relativism he rightly bemoans is of course the direct result of our abandonment of the notion of sin.
Horton speaks to this as he discusses how the modern understanding of sin has no vertical dimension (sin against God) but at best only a horizontal dimension (sin against others). “When reduced to the horizontal dimension (intrahuman relationships), sin becomes negative behaviours that can be easily managed or a failure to live up to one’s potential and expectations. Apart from its vertical reference, sin can produce shame but never guilt.
“The only judgment that matters in such a scheme is that of society or our own, rather than God’s. The role of God in this perspective is merely to serve the sovereign self in its striving after perfection. Religion can become the chief means by which we suppress our participation in human guilt….
“Religion is one of the chief ways we cover up our shame without actually dealing with the guilt that gives rise to it. And we project a god who will satisfy our suppression of the truth about ourselves.” He cites Barth here: “We come to our own rescue and build the tower of Babel. In what haste we are to soothe within us the stormy desire for the righteousness of God!”
Only by admitting our actual sin and guilt before an actual holy and pure God can we find release from our accursed condition. Only by facing squarely the biblical understanding of sin can we appreciate the biblical understanding of redemption, and why Christ came to earth and died on a cross on our behalf.
Faulty notions of sin will always lead to faulty notions of the incarnation and the work of Christ. If we get the biblical picture of sin wrong, we will invariably get the biblical picture of Christ and salvation wrong. Thus too much is at stake to have an incorrect view of sin.
In this sense we can say ‘Three cheers for sin’. For without a proper understanding of sin, the work of Christ will always be cheapened, tarnished and ultimately dismissed. To appreciate what Christ has done for us, we must first appreciate the seriousness of sin.
Thus we can never get away from teaching it, preaching it, and warning people away from it.