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.
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.