We say a great many things in church (and out of church too) without thinking of what we are saying. For instance, we say in the Creed “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” I had been saying it for several years before I asked myself why it was in the Creed. At first sight it seems hardly worth putting in. “If one is a Christian,” I thought “of course one believes in the forgiveness of sins. It goes without saying.” But the people who compiled the Creed apparently thought that this was a part of our belief which we needed to be reminded of every time we went to church. And I have begun to see that, as far as I am concerned, they were right. To believe in the forgiveness of sins is not so easy as I thought.
– C. S. Lewis, “Essay on Forgiveness”
Of what are we being forgiven? Of our sins, of course!
Or is it really that easy?
What Lewis is challenging in this first bit of his “Essay on Forgiveness” is just our frequent notion that the forgiveness of sins is as easy as we often make it out to be. And I think I share with him in this challenge for two reasons: first, I had not, until recently, recognized just how sinful of a person I am (and that each of us, if we’re honest, is) and, second, I had not appreciated as fully as I could the ridiculously paradoxical beauty of Christian forgiveness.
As Lewis intimates, Sin is a touchy subject both within and without the Church (or the theology classroom, as is my case). We really do not enjoy talking about Sin. Those of us who were reared in the Church may well be familiar with Paul’s words to the Romans, saying that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (3:23). Not ungratefully, we often rehearse these words. But do always we recognize the full significance of such a statement? I certainly haven’t always recognized it. And this is mostly because for much of my Christian walk, Sin had been relegated to the confines of my intellect. I was (and still am) really good at thinking about Sin.
But the rub arrives when we come to recognize that merely thinking about Sin isn’t going to fix a thing. We cannot simply say in our minds, “I am a sinner, I fall short of the glory of God, and I need help.” The very words “I am a sinner” constitute an essential claim. To say that we are something means that our way or manner of being is characterized by whatever comes after the verb “to be.” So, if we say that we are sinners, we should mean what we say and say what we mean. Because of the cosmic fracture called the Fall (see Genesis 3), we human beings find ourselves twisted and crooked along with the rest of creation. Humanity, created for the purpose of freely walking with God himself and for the purpose of embodying his way in the world, chose freely and willingly to turn against God’s good purpose and design to serve its own purposes and desires. Humanity, created in the image and likeness of God (that is, its true essence), breathing through its nostrils the divine breath of life (Gen 2:7), bit the hand that created it. It chose a new (and false) identity: “Ego.”
This fracture of Sin is manifested in our daily lives by embodied actions (i.e. sins) that run contrary to the will of God in Christ for our lives: “You are to be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). Our actions bear witness to the fact that we have, in our various ways, turned away from God. So, Sin is not merely an essential category that we can talk about on the intellectual or conceptual level. Our state of sinfulness is something that is acted out on a daily basis. If we have trouble believing this, we should turn on the television or go take a look at our News Feeds. If we have trouble believing this, we should take a moment and examine ourselves against the question, “Did I do anything contrary to the will of God in the past 24 hours? 12 hours? 2 hours? 2 minutes?” Yes, I did.
And if we thought that sin only consisted in action, we’d be wrong. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus clearly communicates that sin consists also in thought and word. So, it is not just committing adultery that is sinful; it’s looking at someone who is not your husband or wife with lust. Jesus says that you might as well have committed adultery already. By this same moral calculus, we are murderers even if we are unjustifiably angry with someone, and if we call that same person an “idiot” or a “fool” we are guilty enough to be thrown into hell (read Matthew 5). These are hard, offensive, and unsettling words. And they are true.
The Great Physician was right in his diagnosis of us as sinners. But the Good News is this: “…but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). The same Great Physician who gave us this proper diagnosis also came and died to bind up the wounds and sew up the fractures that we could not fix ourselves.
The depth of beauty contained in this Good News can be lost on us at times. So, it seems important to reflect further on these 26 words of Paul in Romans 5:8.
It’s quite possible that the whole of salvation history could be summed up in four words: “And you, but God…” “And we are sinners, but God forgives.” “And we are unholy, but God is holy.” “And we do not love God, but God loves us.” In this early part of Romans 5, Paul reflects on the fact that it would be difficult for anyone to give his or her life up for the sake of “a righteous person” (5:7). It would be one thing for Christ to have come and died for a group of people who, for lack of a better phrase, “had it all together.” However, this course of action makes sense to us. We don’t first think about dying for those that are our enemies. We might readily die for those who demonstrate a certain amount of loyalty to us. We might die for someone in whom we see goodness.
But God was not working with a group of righteous people, and the witness of the cross goes against the logical presuppositions we make. God was working with, even dying for, sinners (and, in truth, has been since the Fall). What demonstrates God’s love is that the same willingness to die for someone worthy of admiration is that which Christ showed in his death for us sinners past, present, and future on a Roman execution rack. But this was not the end of the story. Death was followed by its defeat: Resurrection.
The Resurrection promise seems to be written into the language of Romans 5:8, insofar as Paul intimates that our essential nature is not static. “…[W]hile we were still sinners…” is a statement which implies that our sinful state carries with it no sense of finality. We were not made to be sinners… we chose to be sinners. Into our willful sinfulness entered Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, who, while we still made the choice to sin against him, while we still made the choice to crucify him, demonstrated an utterly paradoxical and ridiculous sort of love in giving up his life for his enemies and his killers. This statement also implies that, through participation in the life of Christ (which is the incredibly difficult yet eternally worthwhile taking up our cross and following Christ), our very essence and nature is being changed and restored (see 2 Cor 4:7–12). As we live out the life that Christ lived in the flesh, we are (re)formed into the likeness of God in Christ. We hope and live for the day (whether here or hereafter) when we are not counted essentially as sinners, but finally (to use Martin Luther’s phrase) as “little Christs.”
Yet how do we confront the fact that though we live with and live into this hope, we go on sinning? We certainly, as Paul says to the Romans in chapter 6, are not to go on sinning so that grace can flourish. Grace already has been given to us and is flourishing in us. But, most of our trouble comes when we understand that we must receive grace as a gift from God.
This, too, is paradoxical. Christmastime is approaching, and we would be hard-pressed to say that we aren’t looking forward to receiving gifts given to us by loved ones and friends. But why, unlike Christmas presents, is receiving the gift of Christian grace often so difficult? My thought is this: we (I) so often think that the grace offered to us (me) in Christ is too good to be true, and we (I) feel as though we (I) must “have it all together” or “get things right with God” before we (I) could ever hope to receive grace. This, to be clear, is a lie used by Satan himself as a barrier to keep us from receiving the grace of God in Christ.
The Good News, however, is that Christ came, lived, died, and rose to abolish this lie, as well. The love, grace, and, yes, forgiveness he has offered us is more real than the breath in our lungs and the nose on our face. Christ, as Paul says in Romans 8, “condemned sin in the flesh,” and as we participate in his life, sin is condemned also in our own flesh as Christ comes to reign in our mortal bodies. So, along with the apostle John, we can say with confidence that “If we confess our sins, [God in Christ] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Forgiveness, offered us in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and accompanied by our confession of the need for forgiveness begets sanctification. As we recognize and confess our sinfulness, we are forgiven and healed of the sins that weigh us down!
If you can’t take my word for it, take Lewis’s:
The second remedy [for our sins] is really and truly to believe in the forgiveness of sins. A great deal of our anxiety to make excuses comes from not really believing in it, from thinking that God will not take us to Himself again unless He is satisfied that some sort of case can be made out in our favor. But that is not forgiveness at all. Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the [person] who has done it… To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable [in others] because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.