A comment on Facebook in a discussion regarding homophobia: “However, I was a little disturbed by your definition of the Gospel: ‘the good news that, through Christ, God is making all things new and the Kingdom of Heaven is open to all who long for it.’ Perhaps you weren’t trying to make this a holistic statement of the Gospel, but you left out a key part, a part that is essential to the Gospel–and essential to the good news that every human heart wants to hear! And that is that God provides forgiveness of sin. We can’t get around the fact that the essence of the Gospel is that our sin (whatever those sins may be) separates us from God, but through Jesus our sins can be forgiven. Only when we repent and accept Christ’s forgiveness, can we experience new life and the Kingdom of God. We can never lose sight of the importance of addressing sin and forgiveness when we are spreading the Gospel…otherwise, we are preaching a different Gospel entirely.”
In our modern presentation of the gospel, we go through a sequence of steps in order … and in a sense, seem to say that one must first believe that one is a sinner as a prerequisite before belief in Christ as savior has any benefit. Certainly the sense of sin was deep into the culture of Christendom, and that this is typical of revivalism in the USA since the 1830s and in Methodism from the beginning. I wonder if this understanding that acceptance of sinfulness must precede acceptance of salvation is now one of the cultural “traditions of men” which Jesus spoke of.
Now, no longer in that culture of Christendom, the church is working overtime to convince the world of sin (a task assigned to the Holy Spirit, after all, in John 16:8-11) because only those who are fully converted to gospel of sinfulness can hear the gospel of salvation. In effect, this keeps the gospel a secret if it is reserved only for those who understand themselves as sinners.
And if we must become holy in various ways before we are able to receive the Lord, is that not close to salvation by works?
It seems odd to say this – We can’t get around the fact that the essence of the Gospel is that our sin (whatever those sins may be) separates us from God – when we consider that when Jesus walked this earth, sinners were not separated from God at all, nor did Jesus separate himself from sinful people. It would seem that the desire for a person’s sinfulness to be addressed first more resembles the attitude of the Pharisee Luke 7:39 than the attitude of Jesus: Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” When Jesus was approached in the gospels by a person in need, when did he first insist upon confession of that person’s sins prior to engaging in a relationship with them that led to healing?
John the Baptist made it very clear that repentance and repentant behavior preceded his baptism … but my mind is going over the four gospels looking for examples where Jesus insisted on the same by “addressing sin and forgiveness” whenever he was “spreading the Gospel.” It would be useful to examine how Jesus explained sin to his hearers and how Jesus told them that they were sinful.
There are times that Jesus made something like an explanation of right and wrong, in response to a person, but typically there is no condemnation of a person’s sin prior to Jesus showing love and grace toward that person. Jesus didn’t bother to remind Zacheus that he was a tax collector prior to going to his house for lunch. He didn’t ask if Matthew understood that he was a sinner prior to calling him to follow him as one of his twelve disciples. He didn’t lecture the party attenders at Matthew’s house prior to entering the party, much to the disappointment of the Pharisees in Mat 9:11: And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus didn’t often point out sins at all … except the sin of religious hypocrisy and judgement. His insistence that the self-righteous Pharisees admit their sinfulness is the strongest argument for this position awareness of sinfulness needs to precede following Christ and receiving grace … although this seems to be restricted to when Christ deals with religious people.
In reality, I would think that we learn about sinfulness more and more as Christ’s presence provides light that shines into our life. And we’re still learning. I would assume that salvation typically awakens the human conscience to the awareness of sin in our lives – when Jesus is Lord, isn’t obedience more important?
So there are a number of challenging aspects to the idea that the gospel can only have meaning in the context of an awareness of sin, or only be communicated in the same context of an awareness of sin, and it’s worth discussing.
Photo by Philippe Leroyer, courtesy of the Flickr.com Creative Commons License, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/philippeleroyer/3473720626/.