Grab a cuppa and give yourself some time. This is a longer than usual piece
When I was a teenager I remember being both excited and fearful when one of my non-Christian school friends came to church. I was excited because they were expressing an interest in faith. I was fearful lest they take communion, for it had been drummed into me that “anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup unworthily, eats and drinks damnation on himself”. Looking back on it now it seems so odd. How could it be that the very ritual that signified grace and love could simultaneously be an object of fear and terror?
The answer was centuries in the making. The fourth century theologian, Augustine, gave us the doctrine of “original sin”, which held that not only do human beings sin, but that they possess a sinful nature that makes it impossible for them not to sin and renders them unable to do anything truly good. Although Augustine recognised the doctrine could not be demonstrated from Scripture it became the orthodoxy of the Church for centuries to come. For example, I was encouraged to take up this view as a teenager when I read Holiness, a book first published in 1877, written by Anglican bishop, JC Ryle, and considered a classic. Reflecting the theology of original sin Ryle says
I ask my readers to observe what deep reasons we all have for humiliation and self- abasement. Let us sit down before the picture of sin displayed to us in the Bible, and consider what guilty, vile, corrupt creatures we all are in the sight of God.
Even babies were afflicted with this despised nature.
The fairest babe that has entered life this year, and become the sunbeam of a family, is not, as its mother perhaps fondly calls it, a little “angel,” or a little “innocent,” but a little “sinner.” Alas! as it lies smiling and crowing in its cradle, that little creature carries in its heart the seeds of every kind of wickedness! Only watch it carefully, as it grows in stature and its mind developes, and you will soon detect in it an incessant tendency to that which is bad, and a backwardness to that which is good. You will see in it the buds and germs of deceit, evil temper, selfishness, self-will, obstinacy, greediness, envy, jealousy, passion – which, if indulged and let alone, will shoot up with painful rapidity.
JC Ryle, Holiness
According to this narrative the essential truth about us was that we are vile and loathsome creatures. So why would we expect God to do anything other than reinforce this notion? And so theologians declared God is actively seeking to bring us to a place of brokenness where we see who we are. Take, for example, the famous Puritan Thomas Hooker:
The Puritan minister and Connecticut founder Thomas Hooker frequently compared the relationship between God and human beings to a king who has discovered traitors plotting against him. What would the king do? He would torture them. The traitor would be “brought upon the rack, and then one joynt is broken, and then he roares by reason of the extremity of the payne.” Perhaps then the accused would confess to some wrongdoing, but the king would not be satisfied. Instead, he would be “hoysed uponteh rack the second time, and then another joynt is broken, and then he roares againe.” The king would keep at it until he “discovered and layed open the whole reason.” God tortured the human soul so that men and women would cry and roar and eventually mourn for their sins.
John Turner, Thomas Hooker & the Terror of God
This teaching continues to find a place in the Church today, albeit in less violent forms. The website of an evangelical church near where I live describes the “good news” that “we are more flawed and rebellious against God than we ever realised, yet in Jesus are more loved and forgiven than we ever thought possible” (Maitland Evangelical Church).
The wretchedness of humanity may have been an unwelcome “truth”, but it was made a terrifying concept when coupled with the notion of God’s holiness as an offence against God’s honour. To disobey the will of a human king was serious enough. To disobey the will of the heavenly King was infinitely more serious. God was thought to be so pristine, pure and good that evil and sin could not survive in God’s presence. God would break out against evil, and in the fury of his wrath strike it dead. Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” is a frightening example of this type of thinking. He sermon includes this piece
The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince…
Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
To the wretchedness of humankind due to original sin and the nature of sin as an offence against an infinitely holy God, theologians added the assertion that God seeks his glory. In a disturbing piece of writing on hell, British Evangelist John Blanchard reflected this tradition when he wrote
In his eternal punishment of the wicked God is not aiming at their good but at his glory. The time for correction and discipline will be over. What matters then, is that God’s justice is satisfied, his majesty vindicated
John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell (Evangelical Press, 1993) p147
Who wouldn’t be terrified of such a God? The genius of the Reformation was that it took these twisted notions of God and humankind and crafted them into a theology of atonement that reconciled them with claim that God is love and provided relief from the emotional breakdown anyone who took the teaching seriously would be liable to suffer. Martin Luther spoke of the anxiety and despair he felt when recognising that God was filled with wrath and anger against him that was entirely justified, but which he could do nothing to evade. Although he was a monk who dedicated himself to worship of God, Martin Luther found himself hating God and despairing of a future in a hell torment. In the throes of his crisis he had an aha moment that would change the world: that the just shall live by faith. Our works might condemn us but our faith in Christ saves us.
The Reformers went on to expound a new way of understanding the death of Jesus by placing their own novel twist on the theory of satisfaction first reported by Anselm in the 13th century. At the cross God poured out his wrath upon Jesus, which met the demand for justice and satisfied God’s offended honour. Because God-in-Christ bore the penalty for sin, the righteous standing of Jesus could now be credited to the wretched sinner. God could now look upon sinners who embraced faith as though they were Jesus.
And so for the last 400 years the heart of gospel proclamation in the evangelical, reformed at Pentecostal churches has followed the pattern set by the Reformers.
Something however does not seem right. For one thing, it never made much sense to me to say that sin could be transferred to Christ and his righteousness transferred to me. It might be a neat legal manoeuvre, and it may be profoundly moving to say that God took our punishment upon Godself, but it is hardly justice for God to punish the innocent and acquit the guilty. Moreover I remained a sinful human being. God knew it. I knew it . We all knew it. I love the thought that Christ’s righteousness is credited to me, but I struggle to escape the conclusion that it is God getting us off the hook of punishment on the basis of a legal technicality that in any other context would be decried as a travesty of justice. And even if we accept it as true, it didn’t change the fact that I was a filthy, rotten sinner. There may no longer be a penalty to pay but surely God was still perpetually furious with me.
But it seems to me that by far the strongest objection to the Reformation narrative is that it just bears no resemblance to the life and ministry of Jesus. If Jesus was God incarnate among us (and I think he was), then he didn’t behave anything like the God of my theology. Sinners didn’t combust when they came into his holy presence. Jesus didn’t resile from contact with them, nor did he express feelings of disgust and abhorrence at being plunged into this great heaving cesspool of sin.
Far from abhorrence, repulsion and disgust, Jesus is described as filled with compassion for humankind, went out of his way to touch lepers and shared meals with prostitutes. He didn’t applaud the righteous instincts of a crowd ready to enact the demand of God’s law that an adulteress be executed, but intervened to heap shame on her would-be accusers and deliver her from them. He got angry, but it wasn’t an indiscriminate outrage against “sin” but was targeted at those who spiritually and financially oppressed the vulnerable.
So I’m wondering if the problem is that the Reformation didn’t go far enough. The Reformers took on board the assumptions of that time about original sin and the nature of God’s holiness, and crafted a powerful narrative from that. With the benefit of hindsight I think we can argue that they should have questioned the assumptions about sin and holiness that they held.
The doctrine of original sin, which even Augustine recognised could not be found in the Bible, ironically falls short of what the Bible has to say about human beings. Yes, human beings have a propensity to greed, violence, selfishness, pride and the like, but we also have the glory and beauty of being those were created in the image and likeness of God and are capable of extraordinary acts of generosity, kindness, compassion and justice. Standing on its own, the construction of human sinfulness that was held in the church for so long tells us that we are worthless. In my youth we would often say that God loves the unlovely and God values the unworthy. Yet we are not unlovely and we are not unworthy. The Bible directly ascribes worth to us because created in God’s image (eg Genesis 9, Psalm 8). It seems that in order to magnify the glory of God, theologians and preachers past felt it necessary to reduce human beings to worthless abhorrent creatures. I don’t accept this is true to the biblical teaching on human beings, true to the way Jesus treated human beings, or true to our own experience life.
Alongside the disaster that the doctrine of original sin has proven to be, I wonder if we have not badly misconstrued the nature of God’s holiness. Yes, God is fiercely opposed to sin, but we have falsely located the origin of that opposition in the notion that our sin offends God both objectively (ie it violates God’s will) and subjectively (ie it arouses God’s anger, revulsion and abhorrence).
In my experience two Biblical passages above all are cited to support this: Psalm 51 and Habbakuk 1. Reputedly composed by King David after his sexual assault of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah, Psalm 51 contains David’s heartfelt but misguided prayer that “Against you , you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” Ah…no. As the prophet Nathan made clear when he confronted David, David had sinned against Uriah, and I would add against Bathsheba. If Psalm 51 was a prayer of repentance after the sorry episode with Bathsheba and Uriah (and it’s only tradition that says it is) then we must conclude that like many of the psalms, David’s prayer does note represent textbook theology but the cry of a broken human being, and in this case, the hubris of a king.
Likewise, when read in context, the prophet Habakkuk’s statement that “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing” does not mean that God is literally not able to gaze upon evil, but that God opposes evil.
Where the traditional narrative sees history as the outworking of the great tension between God’s holiness and God’s love, it is a narrative that is strikingly absent absent from the teaching of Jesus. Jesus rather seems to reframe the notion of holiness within a framework of love. “Be holy as I am holy” is cast in Luke’s gospel as “be merciful as I am merciful”. Jesus did not tell parables of a God who can’t abide the presence of sinners, but of a God who loves people and goes out searching for those who are particularly wayward – God is the shepherd seeking a lost sheep, a woman seeking a lost coin, a father seeking a lost son, a king who forgives a great debt, a rich man who gives his workers more than they deserve. Over against the Pharisees who had a spirituality grounded in purity, Jesus had a spirituality grounded in love for others. For him the demands of the law were summed up in two commands: love God and love your neighbour. His followers would have a righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees, not by outdoing them at their own game, but by expressing holiness in an entirely different manner – loving others. Where the Pharisees identified God’s people by their maintenance of purity standards, Jesus said that they would be identified by their love for one another and those around them (eg Matthew 25 parable of sheep and goats). Holiness in Jesus’s teaching seems to be the unwavering commitment of God to proactively seek the good of all creation.
It makes sense then to see God’s abhorrence of sin deriving not from some impugning of his honour ( as if human beings could do that!) but from the damage it does to people and to the planet. Could it be that the dismay of God is not the pique of an offended noble, but the broken heart of a creator who witnesses the very people he loves and values destroying themselves, each other, and the planet on which he placed them. This brokenheartedness can issue in anger at the damage we do to one another, compassion for the ways we have been damaged by others, and wisdom to prevent us damaging ourselves.
And by the same token, God can rejoice in the love we show each other, the justice we enact and the care we show for creation.
Moreover, if love is at the heart of God’s holiness and God’s opposition to sin, we are relieved of the idea that God’s highest good is to seek God’s own glory. The gospel defines love for us as laying down one’s life for the other and putting the interests of the other above oneself. We know this is what love is because this is how God has loved us. The suggestion that a day will come when God will cease to love people or subordinates their best interests to pursue self glorification, overturns the very centre of the gospel message.
Is it not time to lay aside the blemishes and distortions of the Reformation narrative and share with our world the glorious truth that there is a Creator who values us more deeply than we can imagine; who longs for our flourishing; who is filled with empathy at our brokenness; who is deeply angered by the damage we inflict upon others and the planet; who grieves the damage others have done to us; who has wisdom to share that will lead us down the often counterintuitive path of flourishing; who is working to bring peace where there is conflict, love where there is hate, hope where there is despair; who is willing to forgive and to restore; who was revealed to us in Jesus; who laid down his life in order to win us back; and who raised Jesus from the dead to bring humankind and creation to the place where healing and peace will be complete.