The Recovery of Self and the Gospel of Sin Management
by Leonard Hjalmarson

Not long ago I listened to a set of tapes by Dallas Willard, recorded as part of a lectureship given at the School of Leadership at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. In that lecture series he referred to "the gospel of sin management." It was a striking insight.

Isn't it incredible how the enemy traps us in one error by our dislike of its opposite? We see the world filled with evil and idolatry, and so we determine that we will not have this in the church! As a result, we swing to the other extreme and become so pre-occupied with sin that we are naval gazing and self-centered once again.

A focus on sin and its dynamics plays nicely into the enemies hands. We don't concern ourselves with the impact of the gospel on the world; we gather in tidy fortresses to ensure that we are a pure people. Instead of asking how our sin, and self-centered behavior, affects others, our primary concern is our own salvation and purity. We become self centered in an effort to live the gospel of the kingdom, which is meant to get us beyond ourselves in giving our lives for the world.

In the kingdom of God it is not so. Rather, we seek first His kingdom and justice.. and let Him worry about the rest. Salvation is already ours.. the Father DELIGHTS to give us the kingdom. Let's concern ourselves with His concerns.. the hurting and lost outside the walls.

Sadly, our Calvinist heritage doesn't help.

Richard Rohr ("Everything Belongs") relates that it's all about how we see. In John 9 Jesus SEES the man born blind. The disciples immediately ask him, "Lord, who sinned, this man or his parents, that this man was born blind?" That's what their culture had taught them.. it's all about sin.

Jesus dismisses the argument and moves it to another level. He takes mud and anoints the man's eyes. Interesting that he uses mud. Man was created out of the earth, and now the Lord is re-creating the blind man with sight. Perhaps we need Him to do the same for us. We think we see, when we see sin all around us. The Lord has other concerns.

In the rest of the chapter we all have our eyes opened. We SEE good people fighting against Jesus for healing the blind man.

The Pharisees argue that this man cannot be from God, so the healing cannot have really happened. Talk about virtual reality! It happened right before their eyes.. but their preconceived ideas about sin and the kingdom won't let them see it. Rohr comments,

"Their argument is logical and theological; a sinner can't work miracles and Jesus didn't observe the sabbath therefore he is a sinner. Then, with guilt by association, they accuse his parents of being sinners. In the final paragraph they accuse the man himself of being a sinner. They see sin everywhere: Jesus, parents, the blind man. Sin all over the place."

Jesus ends the story with a devastating line. "It is for judgment that I have come into the world. So those without sight may see and those with sight may become blind." The Pharisees are fuming. "Surely we are not blind!"

"Hey, we are the good guys, remember? We are orthodox, good Christians. We do it right. We attend church every Sunday. We tithe ten percent of our income, and even give to some telethons!"

"Hey! I pastor one of the largest churches in the city. We are successful by every measure. I have an MDiv, ThD, and GST and VAT. You can't be talking to me?"

But Jesus says, "Since you say you see, your guilt remains."

Is It All About Sin?

Is it all about sin? Is this another bill of goods that we have inherited with religious western culture?

Now I know this is an important and a heavy question. How we answer this question affects not only our understanding of salvation, but our anthropology, our theology, and ultimately our ecclesiology. It will impact how we think about the kingdom and how we see God's work in the world.

No, it isn't all about sin. It's all about grace.

The most basic fact is not mankind, or sin, the most basic truth is God and His mercy. "The Word of God appeared, full of grace and truth." The second Adam succeeded where the first Adam failed. It's all about grace and redemption.

I remember studying the Anabaptist movement of the 15th and 16th centuries and being struck by their perspective on human nature. Instead of the Reformed view "I am a worm" doctrine, they saw mankind as fallen but with tremendous dignity and value. Instead of talking about depravity, they talked about two inclinations in humanity, both good and evil. The image of God was intact, but marred by the fall.

The mystics had a similar view. Julian of Norwich talks about sin, but refuses to see it as the starting point for talking about human nature. She says that our goodness is deeper than our brokenness. Humanity is created in love and for love, and our most basic desire is to find our way home to that loving Creator.

Sin is secondary. It is not substantial. It is painful, but cannot destroy the work of God. The wounds we experience in life are the doorways for the journey back to God.

Julian states the worst case scenario. Like Paul, she declares, "I may do nothing but sin; but sin will not impede the operation of his goodness." My screw ups will not wreck the program, and whether I measure up or not will not prevent God's loving work in my life.

"But all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

Julian recounts biblical history in the stories of David, Mary Magdalene, and Peter. These all failed, but are remembered with honor for the ways God worked His goodness through their failure. Failure opens us to honesty and to the loving care of God. Through facing our failures in an atmosphere of love we experience healing. The greater fact is God's goodness and the redemption of Christ at Calvary.

Maybe the real problem is that we have no idea who we really are, and no idea who God really is. Can we possibly grasp the dignity and honor with which God crowned mankind in creation? And even if we do, can we possibly grasp the depth of His passion for us?

We are created by Love for love.

Finally, Julian left us with a paradoxical expression of the truth of our relation to God. May it touch you as it has touched me..

He who can serenely bear the trial
of being displeasing to himself
may become for Jesus a place of shelter.

Greek or Hebrew Worldviews?

The Greek word for salvation is sodzo, and it took over for a term that was much wider in application. The Hebrew word for salvation was shalom. Shalom means good health, happiness and peace, justice and right relationships. It encompasses the individual, the community, God and creation. It is much, much more than life insurance and a remedy for guilt.

Along with this narrow view of salvation, western consumerist religious culture has focused on the cross and sutstitutionary atonement.. In "Flame of Love," Clark Pinnock's theology of the Holy Spirit, Pinnock remarks that we have fixated on the Cross in our thinking about the atonement, in part because we misread "It is finished," and in part because western Christianity has focused on the legal aspects of justification over the experiential aspects (sanctification), placing the work of the Son over the work of the Spirit. In part this is due to the western focus on guilt over redemption.. the walking out of the Christ life.

But the Cross is much more than atonement, it is identification. And the Cross is much more than an ending, it is the beginning of a new kingdom and a new community.

First, the Cross is God identifying Himself with us in our sin and darkness, and it is God made powerless and vulnerable and poor.

I have had the privilege of being poor, and it is an education that you won't get if you are rich, unless you take the steps that Jesus took and leave it all behind for the sake of the world.

Being poor is about lacking choices and lacking power; it is about a forced humility and a forced simplicity, and learning that justice is rarely done, unless you hold the cards.

But the Cross is all about justice. And it is a profound symbol of Jesus identification with the poor. Perhaps another of the reasons we have focused so much on the personal and legal aspects of justification is that it enables us to avoid these implications and justify our comfortable lifestyles.

"The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me
To preach the good news to the poor,
To heal the broken-hearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty the oppressed,
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD."

Secondly, the Cross is about a new beginning, the end of one era and the dawn of a new age of God's rule. After the Cross is the resurrection, where Christ ascends in glory to rule from the right hand of the Father. The resurrection proclaims Jesus to be both Lord and Christ.

One of the themes of the Patristic fathers was Christus Victor. Jesus was victorious over every power and rule, and now sits in power over every authority. He will use that power to bring justice to the oppressed.

Howard Snyder, in his recent work "Decoding the Church," makes the point that the four marks of the church identified by the Reformers neglected a complementary set of marks. Referring to Jesus statement of His own commission in Luke 4 (quoted above) Snyder quotes Benjamin Roberts:

"Two fundamental claims about the nature of the true church are made here: First, that preaching the gospel to the poor is an identifying mark of the church -- part of its essential DNA. Second, that this mark is a test of whether the church is genuninely apostolic -- is the church walking in the the steps of Jesus? Whoever ministers the good news among the poor "is in the true succession. He walks as Christ walked."

"But for whose benefit are special efforts to be put forth? Jesus settles this question.. When John sent to know who he was, Christ charged the messengers to return and show John the things which they had seen and heard. "The blind received their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up," and as if all this would be insufficient to satisfy John of the validity of his claims, he adds, "and the poor have the gospel preached to them." This was the crowning proof that He was the One that should come." (Benjamin Roberts 1823-1893.)

The new age that dawns with the reign of Christ is an age of justice, where the claims of God's kingdom outweigh the claims of all earthly rulers. Christians who are completely absorbed in the economic structures and economic priorities of the surrounding culture have given over their allegiance to fallen powers (see Pauls discussion in Col. 1-3). The church is to be a sign and sacrament of Jesus rule in alternative communities which already show in seed form the shape of the coming kingdom. Christians are those who live a new way, showing God's shalom concretely in their relationships with one another. The real significance of Acts 2-4 is both the giving of the Spirit and the sharing of goods in common; the formation of an alternative community where "worship and justice kiss."

When Jesus triumphed over every earthly power, he was made Lord over every earthly system. Jesus is Lord of capitalism, communism, modernism, postmodernism, and every other "ism" or "arche." Too often we have demonstrated our allegiance to the systems of this world, while we have neglected allegiance to God's reign. But Pentecost and the giving of the Spirit demonstrated that the kingdom of God continually breaks into our world, transforming our relationships even as we are restored to relationship with God. As Walter Brueggemann points out,

"What must survive is not simply the physical community; what must survive is an alternative community with an alternative memory and an alternative social perspective rooted in a peculiar text that is identified by a peculiar genealogy and signed by peculiar sacraments, by peculiar people not excessively beholden to the empire and not lusting after domestication into the empire... Cadences of Home.

Sadly, our focus on inward righteousness asks only how a set of beliefs or behaviors affect "me." The ego is still at the center. Instead, we should be asking how the way we live impacts those around us.

Equally sad, too many churches and leaders are concerned about apostolicity in some abstract sense of authority and control. Maybe this shouldn't surprise us, since popular religion is always personal but never political, and the implications of faith for discipleship are rarely spelled out. Better to keep things private so we can continue the Sunday/Monday dichotomy, so we can "love God but do as we like."

But apostolicity, like Christianity itself, was never intended to be an abstract or merely personal concept, aimed at helping us order the inner life and structure of the church. Apostolicity is about service and about the coming of God's kingdom. As Benjamin Roberts put it,

"Apostolicity is rather abstract and easily loses its tie to the actual life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Serving the poor is concrete action, not abstract concept. It is done or not done. Claims of apostolicity ring hollow if the church is not in fact good news for the poor."

This is why NT Wright stresses the dual meaning of the term "gospel," on the one hand comfort for Israel and hope for the world, and on the other hand kingdoms in conflict and the accession of a new Lord and King. In "Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire" he writes:

"It is important to stress, as Paul would do himself were he not so muzzled by his interpreters, that when he referred to "the gospel" he was not talking about a scheme of soteriology. Nor was he offering people a new way of being what we would call "religious". Despite the way Protestantism has used the phrase (making it denote, as it never does in Paul, the doctrine of justification by faith), for Paul "the gospel" is the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel's Messiah and the world's Lord. It is, in other words, the thoroughly Jewish, and indeed Isaianic, message which challenges the royal and imperial messages in Paul's world."

Where the modern church could separate religion into public and private spheres, sacred and secular contexts, neither Paul nor Jesus ever intended that separation. Belief and obedience are one, and meant to be incarnated in alternative communities that witness in their daily life to the rule of Jesus and the good news of the kingdom.

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• © 2005-2008 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on April 18, 2008