A curious phenomenon exists in Christianity. Many people in the past have rejoiced to confess their sins, even to call themselves “miserable offenders.”
This phrase was removed from the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer because it was thought to be off-putting, and it is undoubtedly true that many of today’s churchgoers, not having grown up with the phrase, would be baffled, even repelled, by such language if they walked in off the street.
The underlying dynamic here is that we cannot rejoice to think of ourselves as sinful, let alone “miserable offenders,” unless we are already claimed by the divine light of the gospel. There is no way to help people to the knowledge of sin except to offer the news of God’s “prevenient” purpose in overcoming sin through the cross of Christ. It is with a sense of lightheartedness that one comes before the mercy seat of God, but none can understand this until the light of grace dawns upon them. The light of Christ reveals sin by the brightness of the redemption already accomplished.
The South African novelist and Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee writes: “There is always something unmotivated about conversion experiences: it is of their essence that the sinner should be so blinded by lust or greed or pride that the psychic logic leading to the turning point in his life becomes visible to him only in retrospect, when his eyes have been opened.”
The church has always been tempted to recast the Christian story in terms of individual fault and guilt that can be overcome by a decision to repent. This undermines the gospel at its heart. The liturgy for the Jewish high holiday Yom Kippur contains these words: “Repentance will turn aside the severe decree.” No disrespect is intended in pointing out that this is perhaps the major difference between Christianity and Judaism. The germ of the Christian proclamation is already present in the apocalyptic late sections of the Old Testament, when the biblical writers have begun to realize that human repentance is not powerful enough or thorough enough or dependable enough to deliver the human race from wrong. Only the incursion of God’s irresistible grace will suffice to prevent us from self-destructing. As Austin Farrer wrote, “Christ … took us, and associated us with his divine life, even while we struggled against him. He has wrought all our repenting in us.”
Karl Barth preached regularly to the inmates of the prison in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland. Knowledge of the context adds poignancy to the sermons. Here was an audience of people who had been officially judged and condemned as guilty. One of the sermons is based on Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” He illustrated by retelling a Swiss legend:
You probably all know the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told whence he came, he broke down horrified. This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved! In such a moment we are like that terrified rider. When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger! What did I do? The most foolish thing I ever attempted! What happened? I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe!
The story of the rider well illustrates a central phenomenon in the Christian life: “Not the man who is lost, but the man who is saved can understand that he is a sinner.” Gary Anderson writes, “The notion of human sin and fallenness is nothing other than a considered reflection on the unmerited and unfathomable moment of salvation.” Properly understood, the knowledge of one’s sinful condition comes as good, even joyful, knowledge.
The familiar caricature of the evangelistic tent revival depicts the preacher attempting to whip up a sense of sinfulness in the audience so that it will “come to Jesus” for mercy and forgiveness. I want to make precisely the opposite point. If a congregation is led to an understanding of salvation, the sense of sin will come as a consequence—and then the knowledge that the danger is already past will result in profound and sincere repentance. That is the proper time to start talking about sin. The interpreter is at a crossroads here. There cannot be an adequate representation of the meaning of the crucifixion without a deep personal response to the problem of sin. The human response to the prevenient grace of God is the acknowledgment of one’s sinful condition and trust in God’s unfailing mercy. That is why we have Ash Wednesday, with its sobering list of “crimes and misdemeanors” and its solemn recitation of Psalm 51:
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me. (Ps. 51:2-3)
God is moving upon a person’s heart before the person even realizes what is happening. The movement of God’s prevenient (“going-before”) mercy comes first, in the disclosure of the presence of God, which then awakens the sense of sin by exposing the chasm between us and the holiness of God. When this recognition dawns on us, we are already standing within God’s grace (“this grace in which we stand”—Rom. 5:2). This is another way of explaining why the confession of sin can come as such a blessed relief.
Sin, then, is an exclusively biblical concept. The word is used, of course, in various nonbiblical contexts by people who know nothing of the Bible, but outside its biblical matrix it simply comes to mean wrongdoing of some sort, defined by whoever happens to be using it—almost always with reference to someone other than themselves.
To be in sin, biblically speaking, means something very much more consequential than wrongdoing; it means being catastrophically separated from the eternal love of God. It means to be on the other side of an impassable barrier of exclusion from God’s heavenly banquet. It means to be helplessly trapped inside one’s own worst self, miserably aware of the chasm between the way we are and the way God intends us to be. It means the continuation of the reign of greed, cruelty, rapacity, and violence throughout the world.
In view of God’s nature, it is impossible that this state of affairs would be allowed to continue forever. Once we come to know God in Jesus Christ, we can no longer imagine the Father’s joyful banquet continuing into all eternity with the elder brother still standing outside looking in, imprisoned forever in his envy and resentment (Luke 15:25-32). We cannot talk about sin for very long without being drawn into doxology. Were it not for the mercy of God surrounding us, we would have no perspective from which to view sin, for we would be entirely subject to it. That is the reason for affirming that wherever sin is unmasked and confessed, God’s redemptive power is already present and acting.
Condensed and excerpted with permission from The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Christ, by Fleming Rutledge, published in 2015 by Eerdmans Publishing. Reprinted by permission of the publisher; all rights reserved.
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