Opinion: Our real ‘sin problem’

This is the meaning of salvation we must recover: Jesus rescues us from false concepts of reality that hold us captive

Mar 16, 2015 by , and

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When people in the church talk about sin, they often add a highly theological meaning: Our sins are an offense that separates us from God. This relational rupture is said to be the crucial reason we need a Savior. It is the core of what many churches refer to as “our sin problem.”

Since this understanding is so prominent in Christian theology, we would expect to find Jesus speaking of it often. But that is not what we find in the Gos­pel accounts. Instead, Jesus describes God as sending rain on the just and the unjust, forgiving us as we forgive each other, standing on the front porch watching for our return from a long and fruitless journey and as eager to meet our needs as any human parent to feed her hungry child.

Yes, Jesus often engaged people who were estranged from God. Recall, for example, his encounters with people possessed by evil spirits. But always the estrangement was rooted in the human side of the relationship. Never did Jesus suggest God had a score to settle with us.

Some parts of the Bible can be interpreted to support the notion that our sins prompt God to turn away from us in disgust. Generally, such passages describe the real-life consequences of our sins, not God’s rejection of us as sinners.

What’s a Savior for?

If it is biblically incorrect to say God rejects us because of our sins, then why do we need a Savior?

Behind every First Testament call to “repent” — and there are many — is the assumption that the Israelites were able to repent (metanoeo in Greek), to change their minds, to make a different choice. Yet repentance must have been nearly unimaginable for them. They assumed the world worked by violence and greed. Everything in their experience confirmed this. Though the prophets called for repentance, it was beyond the people’s reach.

This is the sin problem the Apostle Paul writes about in Romans. God’s compassion and grace are on display all around us, but we are blinded by false gods and deceitful power structures that find great advantage in exploiting our sinfulness.

These false gods and deceitful structures fix a false concept of reality into place. This is the “the power of sin” Paul wrote about in Rom. 3:9, a power that renders us incapable of imagining an alternative to the world’s bleakness. So repentance, a new way of thinking, remains out of reach.

Broken stranglehold

Until, that is, we look at Jesus. In him, the “righteousness of God has been disclosed” (Rom. 3:21). He breaks the stranglehold of the imperial worldview, reignites our imagination and raises high a standard of compassion and justice that shines a light on all that is violent, tawdry and deceitful. Jesus overcomes evil with good.

Jesus did this by his life, death and resurrection. The memory, power and vision of his life are what enable our repentance today.

From Genesis to Revelation, we read of God opposing empires and structures of deceit and coercion. It is most obvious in the story of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt, but the same dynamic was at work in the movement launched by Jesus. Paul wrote of it in Colossians: “[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them” (Col. 2:15). It is from their tyranny that Jesus saved us.

The neglected gospel

The gospel invites each of us as individuals — and our cultures collectively — to repentance and the new life Jesus has shown us. It is a life very different from the one the rulers and authorities tell us is the norm. This is the part of the gospel neglected by the church, which often views principalities and powers, kings and empires as better teachers and examples than Jesus of how to live this life and run the world.

This, then, is the meaning of salvation we must recover: Jesus has rescued us from false concepts of reality that hold us captive. Because we have seen the world set right with a new form of power in Jesus, we are able to recognize the pretense and deceit of the powers that bind us — whether those powers take the form of the mighty U.S.-led empire, an economic ideology or a set of lifestyle expectations. And we are able to repent, turn and walk in newness of life.

Jesus has provided a way of escape from our sin problem.

John K. Stoner and Berry Friesen are members, respectively, of Akron (Pa.) Mennonite Church and East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church, Lancaster, Pa. They are co-authors of If Not Empire, What? A Survey of the Bible. For more information, go to bible-and-empire.net.


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  • Elaine Fehr

    Quote: “Never did Jesus suggest God had a score to settle with us.”

    That quotation is interestingly worded. Berry or John – I’m trying to understand your view on salvation. What place in your philosophy does Romans 6:23 have? – “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

  • Conrad Hertzler

    “The memory, power and vision of his life are what enable our repentance today.” You seem to indicate here and in the general spirit of this article that repentance comes simply by looking at how Jesus lived his life. In your view, what is the role of the Holy Spirit in enabling and bringing about repentance? I agree with you on many of your points about “Empire” and how Christians have and are buying into it’s philosophies and systems. But I’m confused about how you are saying repentance and salvation actually come about. You state that it was impossible for the Israelites to repent. It does seem so. But what Jesus bring that actually enabled true repentance?

  • Berry Friesen

    Conrad, we see repentance in the prodigal son, who “came to his senses,” walked out of the pigsty and headed home. God’s Spirit drew him to his senses, but it also was important that the young man was able to comprehend another reality. So with us. We know life is often wretched, and the Spirit tells us it should not be so, but without Jesus we could not imagine it being any other way, and without his followers carrying on his spirit, we may have misconstrued Jesus’ witness as an aberration, not a new way for the entire world.

    Elaine, we understand Paul to have been thoroughly Jewish in his understanding of salvation. Thus, he understood it to be an historical event, one that actually changed the direction of history and forever broke the stranglehold violence-based systems had over people’s lives and worldviews. Paul didn’t see salvation as perfection, but as life lived by the faith of Jesus, a faith that God would bring great good from compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil. Beyond that, Paul also understood salvation to include the resurrection, the same vindication Jesus experienced after his physical death.

    • Conrad Hertzler

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I agree that repentance is defined as turning around and going the other direction as the prodigal son did. In order to do this, yes, we do need the Holy Spirit draw us to our senses and help us to recognize our need. And yes, for this to make sense, we have to be able to comprehend a new reality. But it seems to me that beyond this point you are not recognizing our crucial need of the help Holy Spirit to continue walking in that new reality of a life emulating that of Jesus. We are not just carrying on the spirit of the life of Jesus, we are empowered by His Spirit living within us to “walk in newness of life”. Perhaps I am not understanding fully what you are saying (that’s quite possible actually) but it just seems that there is something missing in how you are presenting repentance and salvation.

    • Elaine Fehr

      “Paul didn’t see salvation as perfection, but as life lived by the faith of Jesus, a faith that God would bring great good from compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil.”

      Berry, did you mean “lived by faith in Jesus” instead of “lived by the faith of Jesus”? I’d like to continue in this discussion after that is clarified.

      Well, maybe just one more comment – I don’t see all those good things that you mentioned (“compassion, forgiveness…”) as salvation. Are they not our good fruits as our hearts and minds are transformed by God’s Holy Spirit? That is, after we receive His gift of salvation upon repentance and belief (trust) in Jesus Christ?

      • Berry Friesen

        Elaine, I meant “lived by the faith of Jesus.” The faith of Jesus is what justifies and it is what the Apostle Paul exhorts us to embrace.

        But the faith of Jesus (that God uses compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to save the world) also is the way for Earth to be saved. “Good fruits,” certainly, but more than that: the very means of Earth’s salvation.

        See my blog post at http://www.Bible-and-empire.net for more on “the faith of Jesus.”.

        • Elaine Fehr

          Berry, I read some of your blog post and I can’t tell you how saddened I am for having done that. It is clear from what you say that you have heard and are familiar with the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, but have rejected it in favour of a different gospel.
          Let’s take heart in Paul’s message to the Galatians. They are applicable for us today:

          “3 Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

          6 I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, 7 which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.

          10 For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ.” Galatians 1
          Berry, I pray that you will consider the seriousness of what you are doing.

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