I started this series on sin and salvation with a perhaps controversial suggestion: that we normalize sin — and specifically our own personal and corporate sins — not to minimize them, but in order to be able to talk about them and their impact more honestly. As a culture, so much of how we think and talk about sin still seems to be stuck in the bad old days of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” as bad behaviour that needs to be punished by a raging and merciless heavenly judge. But this is not a fair representation of how the Bible understands either sin or God. A far more accurate starting place for how we understand God’s relationship to sin is offered, not by Jonathan Edwards, but by Jesus himself, in the loving father in his Parable of the Prodigal Son: “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15.20). What if this was our starting point for understanding the question of sin and salvation?
In this series, I have sought to help us (myself included) along this journey by expanding on the many different images through which the Bible talks about both sin and salvation. These have included:
- debt and forgiveness
- bondage and freedom
- blindness and sight (together with deafness and hearing and lameness and mobility)
- barrenness and fertility
- hunger and feeding
- alienation and communion
- defilement and purification
- the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God
- law-breaking and mercy
We’ve also challenged some pairs that have been common in a lot of Christian thought even though they lack a strong basis in the Bible, such as dishonour and restitution and crime and punishment — and how ancient Israelites understood sacrifice in almost as many and varied ways as they did salvation itself.
Each of the biblical metaphors offers us a unique glimpse into the larger realities they seek to describe. Some, like trespass or law-breaking emphasize personal responsibility for sin, but others envision it more as a state of the world in which we participate, but for which we aren’t really to blame. Some see it as a choice, but others as a kind of illness or disability from which we can be healed. Some see it as a presence of something bad, but others more in terms of the absence of something good. We need each of them to help us to see the bigger picture of what’s wrong in the world, and just as importantly, to see what can be done to make it right.
Marcus Borg engaged with just this kind of approach in his wonderful book, The Heart of Christianity. There he wrote:
To list some [of the biblical images for the human condition]: we are blind, in exile, in bondage, we have closed hearts; we hunger and thirst; we are lost. Each of these images for our problem has a correlative image; that is, each implies a remedy, a solution. If we are blind, we need to see; if we are in exile, we need to return; if we are in bondage, we need liberation; if we have closed hearts, we need to have our hearts opened; if we hunger and thirst, we need food and drink; if we are lost, we need a way, we need to be found. (168)
By learning to speak of sin — and salvation — in all of these ways, I am convinced we learn to speak of sin better, and more accurately. Far from the blaming and shaming we are used to, and just as far from the blind ignorance caused by a reactionary rejection of sin-talk altogether, this approach opens us up to understanding sin in a healthier way.
We are good — very good, if the Scriptures are to be believed — but we are also finite and therefore fallible, stained by, compromised by, and bruised by the world as we know it. And all this means that we sin, that we miss the mark, in the metaphor underlying the basic Greek word for sin. Try as we might, we don’t always hit bulls-eyes. We won’t always be the brothers and sisters, the friends, the partners and spouses, the parents, the employees, the bosses, the allies, the activists, the people we would like to be. This is nothing to be ashamed of. We don’t need to be flawless.
We don’t need to be perfect to be acceptable, because the one thing all of the Biblical metaphors agree upon is that we are loved. We are cherished. Our God who is Love acts always out of that love, mercy, and compassion to reconcile us and heal us and forgive us, and all of the rest of the images of salvation we’ve looked at the past few weeks, and more still.
And so, it feels appropriate to be wrapping this series up right at the start of Advent. What better time to remember the fullness of what God has done, the big, beautiful, all-encompassing salvation of our God, who was and is and will always be Immanuel, God with us.