Forgive Us Our Sins
Last year at the beginning of Lent I decided that rather than giving something up I was going to take something on. I would read Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion. What better way to journey toward Good Friday than by immersing myself in a serious theological reflection on the cross of Christ? I made it just over a hundred pages. I wish I could say I had a good reason for quitting, but I don’t really have one. I suppose I could blame COVID’s arrival in Lent 2020 and the way it colonized most of my mental bandwidth, but mostly it was just a combination of distractibility, apathy, and preoccupation with other (lesser) things. What can I say? The truth isn’t always flattering.
So, let’s try this again, shall we? Lent 2021 is upon us and I’ve picked up Rutledge’s book where I left off. I gave up last year, it seems, in a chapter with the ominous title, “The Gravity of Sin.” The section I began with today had the subheading: “Sentimentality: The Sacrifice of Fools.” In it, Rutledge argues that we need an understanding of ourselves as people who both commit sins (small ‘s’) and who are enslaved by the power of Sin (big ‘s’). Much as we like to think that we’re basically decent people who just need a bit of self-help or inspirational religion or sensitivity training or an unconscious bias workshop, things are actually a lot worse than we like to imagine.
And by “things,” Rutledge means, well, “us.” We don’t do the good things that we ought to do and we do the bad things that we ought not to do. We set aside edifying Lenten reading projects to watch garbage on Netflix, for example. And we do these sorts of things (and far worse) with remarkable consistency. According to Rutledge, the cross is, among other things, a sober diagnosis of the human condition:
There is something sickening in human nature, and it corresponds precisely to the sickening aspects of crucifixion. The hideousness of crucifixion summons us to put away sentimentality and face up to the ugliness that lies just under the surface. The scandal, the outrage of the cross, is commensurate with the offense and the ubiquity of sin…
Sin is the colossal X-factor in human life.
I don’t imagine that it will surprise anyone who reads this blog to learn that I happen to think that Rutledge is spot on here. Several decades spent observing other human beings and living with myself have yielded a rather low anthropology. I don’t need much convincing that sin and Sin are both painfully real and universal. And so, after reading the passage above, I sat down intending to write a blog post about how we need to recover a robust concept of sin, in our churches and in our broader culture. After thinking about this for approximately twenty seconds, it occurred to me that this would be a waste of my time (and yours). This is because, a) I have already written many posts about this in the past (see here and here, for example); and, b) because we actually don’t need to recover a concept of sin in our culture at all. Sin is alive and kicking.
Anyone who spends any time on social media or reading the news of the day knows full well that to do these things is to drink from a veritable fire-hydrant of sin talk. Condemnation of sin pours forth daily from these sources, whether it’s directed at sins related to race or sexuality or gender identity or failure to adhere to COVID rules or embracing the wrong politics or social causes or failing in some other way to think rightly and sufficiently about the right issues with the right combination of guilt and sensitivity and outrage and commitment to “do better” or “be better” and publicly brand ourselves as appropriately moral citizens.
No, we have not even remotely abandoned the concept of sin. We may not use “sin” language explicitly. And we are certainly quite selective in how, when, and to whom we apply it. And we might shrink in horror at the suggestion that what we’re doing is in any way “religious. All of these things may be (and I think are) true. But however poorly and inconsistently we think about sin, we quite clearly believe that it is objectively real and that it deserves judgment.
Many people have noted that our present cultural obsession with calling out sin and cancelling sinners is the sort of thing that could only occur in a culture formed by a Christian ethic. Our categories are more theological than we realize. We require repentance and penance almost endlessly. Sins—whether the ones that are committed personally or the ones that sinners are complicit in by virtue of their social location—demand atonement. These things are very clear to us even if, again, they are very selectively applied.
But the one thing that is rarely offered, the one crucial piece of the Christian framework that we have mostly left behind, is absolution. We do not know how to forgive or who could finally pronounce such a thing. We don’t know what we would do with ourselves or others if we let go of our sins. How would we remind ourselves or our own righteousness if we were deprived of the weapon of condemning others?
If we’re honest, absolution is the sort of thing that we want for ourselves but not for our enemies. We’d like to see all the stupid, wicked people who think and do the things that make our blood boil wriggle on the end of the hook. Their sins are different than ours. They don’t deserve to be absolved of anything. Our sin is different. Our sins have a story behind them and usually it’s one that exonerates us in the telling.
A few Sundays ago, I spoke these words after a prayer of confession during worship:
Hear the good news!
Who is in a position to condemn?
And Christ died for us,
Christ rose for us,
Christ reigns in power for us,
Christ prays for us.
Know that you are forgiven,
And be at peace.
It felt good to be able to say these words to a group of sinners. It felt good to hear them as a sinner. It felt so good to be reminded of the life-giving truth that sin, while real and painful and destructive, is not the whole story. Sin is real and it requires a reckoning. We need words like repentance and atonement and penance. But we must never forget about absolution. God, how we need it. God, how we need the hope that sins can be forgiven and that we can be at peace.
Thanks for these reflections Ryan — really appreciate your continued insight and honesty in this space.
You got me ruminating myself a little bit…
It truly is scandalous and marvelous that as John points out in that famous passage about confessing our sins (1 John 1:9), that the end result of confession is a faithful and just cleansing of unrighteousness. Not a façade, or a public apology so that life can return to normal, and everyone can carry on in our twisted by pragmatic ways — but a genuine doing away with sin and its dominance in our lives/world altogether. I suppose this is also a way in which the truth sets us free…
Though… It still feels like fantasy these days. Does genuine confession ever take place? And what does God given cleansing really look like?
You raise some good points and questions here, Kevin. I suppose this side of eternity, all of our confessions of sin will fail to hit the mark of “genuine” if only because sinners we remain, and we cannot subtract ourselves with all of our mixed motives from anything. All we can do is be as honest and sincere as we can, seek to purify our actions and our motives as far as we can, and lean on the grace of God for the difference. It sounds like a cop out, probably, but I don’t know what else we can do.
(I have, as I said, a very low anthropology 🙂 )
Wow! This one, Ryan.
ABSOLUTION . Such a powerful and much needed message. Sadly,You would be hard pressed to find this freeing message emanating from a christian pulpit.
I was listening to a preacher on Shortwave radio the other day and heard a teaching that blew me away. He was pointing out that we have a fallen nature at birth, that we are born into sin and therefor sin will manifest in us. He argued that it’s not me sinning but rather the sin that dwells in me is doing it. Is this grounds for ACQUITTAL ??
I think Scripture always exhibits a twofold message about sin. There is little “s” sin that refers to the sins that we commit and there is big “S” Sin that is a power that enslaves us against our will. How these two work together is a mystery, I think, but I think they must both be preserved to be faithful to Scripture and to human experience. There is wrong that we do that we willfully choose. There are also forces at work in the world that act against us and hold us in bondage. The cross is the decisive defeat of both, even if we await the full manifestation of this victory.
Thank you for your insights, Ryan. I appreciate you.
I guess I (and many other Christians) am desperate for a more Pauline understanding of sin and it’s effective theological mechanism of relief from the persistent guilt and shame of my “S” Sin/sinfulness. When I confess my sin/sinfulness, if I can also acknowledge that it’s not really “me” but rather the sin that dwells in me, then I can take full refuge in Christ’s atonement and experience true and uninterrupted reconciliation with God The Father, released from all guilt and shame. “You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free”.
Thanks very much, Mike.
As a rule, I try not to set Paul against Jesus or the OT when thinking about sin or anything else, but, whatever my frustrations with him might be, Paul is the primary interpreter of the finished work of Christ. He is a force to be reckoned with.
I have found that the older that I get and the more that I see (in my own life and in the lives of those around me), the more I, too, long for what you have described as a “Pauline understanding.” At some point, we all get weary of the injunction to “do better” or to “stop sinning” or whatever else. At some point, we realize that we are powerless to effect the change that we most desire on our own (Paul understood and articulated this better than anyone). At some point, I think we all come to the end of ourselves and collapse into the grace and mercy of Christ.
I don’t know if all this is a “theological mechanism” of relief from guilt, but I do believe that it is the deepest and most hopeful truth that I have ever encountered. Saved by grace through faith. It’s the kind of thing you could spend a lifetime living into (and out of).
Beautifully put,Ryan. Thank you!
erajohn, if your out there, I would appreciate your perspective on this please.
Spend time with Him. Just Him
In the silence, He forgives….always
Accept forgiveness. Accept that you are forgiven.
His sacrifice made you worthy.
His sacrifice is eternal
As is your worthiness
Accept the loving, eternal forgiveness that your Father has for you.
Trust in His forgiveness.
Imitate and forgive.
Again and again
Forgive them all.
Just as He forgives you
Every time 🙂
Absolution comes and goes
Try not to think about it.
Satan lurks there
calling you a failure
The Father will always forgive you
Spend time with Him. Just Him.
In the silence.
Such powerful and anointed words spoken by the Spirit. Thank you, erahjohn. I will print this and hang it up where I can be frequently reminded.