We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).
In this post, and the next couple, we turn to chapter 4 and ‘The Gravity of Sin’
What is your response to the word ‘Sin’? Emotionally? Intellectually?
What is sin?
Would you agree with Rutledge’s argument in this chapter, that the church has largely lost a sense of the gravity of sin? Are God’s love and grace much talked about, but sin little mentioned? Is it just too ‘negative’ and depressing a topic to focus on?
What is the connection between sin and the gospel? In other words, what is the relationship between the ‘good news’ (of Jesus Christ) and the ‘bad news’ (of human sinfulness)?
So, how to talk about sin today? It is hardly a fashionable, attractive or exciting topic.
In a culture of optimistic self-affirmation, sin is simply not taken seriously as an idea. If mentioned, it is a bit of fun, used to sell some form of ‘sinful’ self-indulgence because ‘you are worth it’ – chocolate, cream, a spa, a holiday. The ‘sin’ of making space for ‘me time’.
The idea of ‘sin’ here is purely ironic, a marketing mechanism. The message underneath the ad being that ‘sin’ (of a bit of self-indulgence) is really a good thing. And the sub-text is that the idea of sin itself (that there is something fundamentally wrong with us and the world) is nonsense, to be smiled at as a primitive idea and dismissed.
The reason Rutledge had the chapter on Justice before this one on Sin – and Anselm in the middle – is that we need to understand God’s justice as his good intent to put things right – ‘liberating and restorative, not crippling and retributive’ (169). Then we are in a position to discuss Sin.
Rutledge uses a capital S – Sin singular, in terms of a general term describing human rebellion against God, a brokenness of relationship that impacts all other relationships.
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 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. (174)
Plural ‘sins’ follow on from ‘Sin’ singular.
The point here, and throughout this chapter, is that we have an inbuilt tendency to downplay the gravity of Sin.
In the following quote – does what is said seem surprising or puzzling to you? Why?
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. (171)
Hang on a minute – is not the Christian story all about overcoming guilt through repentance? How does it undermine the gospel?
What Rutledge is getting at here is the shift from utter dependence on God to confront and overcome sin, to a more optimistic and spiritually naïve anthropocentric emphasis on what we can do – as if Sin is overcome by our action (of repentance). For Rutledge
‘human repentance is not powerful enough, nor thorough enough or dependable enough to deliver the human race from wrong. (172)
This is why Rutledge is critical of evangelical revivalism – it focuses and actually depends on the human response as the overriding determining factor of salvation. The aim in such evangelism is to whip up emotion, primarily guilt, about ‘my’ sinfulness as a precursor to the resolution of ‘my sin problem’ through my repentance.
To be clear – Rutledge is not denying the importance of repentance. What is being criticised is where one ‘begins’ when talking about the gospel.
This takes us right into recent debates within contemporary evangelicalism, specifically for example, Scot McKnight’s book The King Jesus Gospel which was discussed at length on this blog some time back.
To recap, McKnight’s criticism is that evangelical revivalism fostered an individualistic salvation narrative, namely, a ‘gospel’ ‘method of persuasion’ designed to evoke a crisis of guilt and a subsequent decision to repent. Ironically, this took the focus off the announcement of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ and zoomed attention in on the resolution of the individual’s ‘sin problem’.
This not only reduces the breadth and scope of the good news, it makes ‘the gospel’ all about ‘my salvation’ (individualistic soteriology) rather than the good news of Jesus and what God has done in Christ (Christology and soteriology – with salvation being much broader than individuals ‘being saved’).
So rather than beginning with the bad news of sin, Rutledge is arguing this,
‘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 a profound and sincere repentance. That is the proper time to start talking about sin. (173)
In other words, coming at things from a very different angle to McKnight and others, Rutledge is agreeing with them by saying the announcement good news (gospel) of what God has done in Christ comes first. This puts focus where it should be – on the grace, love and saving action of God.
Human response follows – including a deepened awareness of sin and subsequent repentance.
Rutledge retells a story of Karl Barth about a Swiss legend. A rider unknowingly crossed a frozen Lake Constance by night. When he realised what had happened he broke down horrified at his near death experience. This is like the impact of the announcement of the gospel. We hear retrospectively the news of what God has done. It is only then we understand the fate from which we have been rescued.
The words of Karl Barth
Do we really live in such danger? Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved. Look at our Savior, and at our salvation! Look at Jesus Christ on the cross … Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our sake – because of our sin – sharing our captivity – burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross. This is how God had to deal with us. From this darkness he has saved us. He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: “By grace you have been saved!” (Barth, Deliverance to the Captives, emphasis in the original in italics. Rutledge, 172-73)
So when it comes to Sin, there is a deep personal response – but it is to the gospel of good news of God’s love and saving action. Salvation does not depend on ‘me’, but on God.
Gospel first, then joy, gratitude, thanksgiving, repentance (a turning to God and from ourselves) and subsequent obedience.