We have it all wrong when we invite people to follow Jesus. The typical Evangelical invitation to Christ is, of course, summed up most fully in the so-called “Four Spiritual Laws.” In short, they are (and partially in my own words):
- God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life;
- Because you are sinful, you can’t experience God’s plan for your life;
- Jesus has the solution to your sin and is the only way you CAN experience God’s plan for your life; and
- You must “receive” Jesus so that he can put God’s plan in action for your life.
Now, at least numbers one and three have some basis in fact–I contend 2 is distorted and 4 is totally off-base–but the biggest problem here is not the accuracy or inaccuracy of the Four Laws as factual propositions, but that they have been represented and taught as the way one who has not previously believed in Jesus Christ comes to be his follower. I must hasten to add that, like all flawed human endeavor, God in his grace has frequently used the Four Laws in all their faulty inadequacy as a “foot in the door” to bring people to him, but this is a testimony to God’s mercy, not to the efficacy or truth of the Four Laws or the underlying doctrine they promote.
The doctrine to which I refer, of course, is the concept that coming to Christ is primarily about dealing with this sin barrier between God and humanity. I’ve seen it expressed in other places that a holy God cannot abide or associate with sin, and only by having his Son die on the cross to atone for our sins, can God even look at us. In its most foolish form, people describe the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness on us as almost some sort of adolescent trick where Jesus aids those who are “in” with him in some cosmic bait-and-switch on his Father, whereby the Father sees only his Son’s righteousness and not the actual filth of his Son’s buddies. I think that’s an insult–God isn’t that gullible or blind.
But there is a bigger issue here. Ancient religions, Judaism included, had a real issue with sin. Much, if not most religious practice involved appeasing the appropriate deity somehow–usually through sacrifice–in order to atone for some slight or anger or offense that the humans had caused. One didn’t have to be Jewish to realize that God or gods were upset with human behavior and required payment.
Characteristically, Jesus came along and turned that whole concept on its head. He actually had the audacity to up and forgive people’s sins unasked, as he did for the paralytic in Matt. 9:2-7. No sacrifice, for that matter no demonstration on the part of the forgiven man that he had either asked for forgiveness, or acknowledged his sinfulness. No, Jesus just flat-out forgave him, citing as his authority his ability to heal the man.
I think we miss the significance of Jesus’ behavior in this situation when we get all wrapped up in doctrines of the “atonement.” Atonement, or sacrifice to pay the debt of sin, is not an unknown concept in the old or new testaments, to be sure. Nor, as I said above, was it at all strange to the people of Jesus’ time, even the pagans. But Jesus offered FORGIVENESS, not atonement. His authority to deal with sin was already established long before his trip to the cross.
Importantly, however, while Jesus definitely and repeatedly preached forgiveness of sin, it was not the core of his message the way it has become in Christianity. Jesus’ own message was one of repentance and the simple call to “follow me.” The key point of both of these things is that they involve an active change of lifestyle and direction, not simply of belief. Sure, you have to believe something pretty radical about Jesus if you’re going to submit to his lordship, but it’s that submission, not the belief, that is Jesus’ call. Never in all the gospels or Acts do Jesus or his apostles invite people to acknowledge their sinfulness and “accept” Jesus. No, they are called to repent (turn around), be baptized, and follow. When “belief” is part of the equation, for example Paul & Silas preaching to the jailer in Acts 16:31, the phrase is “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Given the common usage of “Lord” as the term for Caesar in those days, the jailer (himself a government functionary) could not possibly have confused this command with a proposition for intellectual or spiritual assent. He was being invited to change his ultimate allegiance–perhaps even to go AWOL.
Back to my main point. I am contending that, while Jesus certainly did and does forgive our sins, that fact is not the centrality of the gospel, that Christianity has made it. Even the many Pauline discourses on Jesus’ atoning death, I have observed, occur in the context of Paul defending the gospel he preached to the Gentiles, against the legalism of the Judaizers–people who were trying to drag the Way of Jesus back into the old paradigm of rituals to atone for sin. When Paul speaks of Jesus’ death atoning for our sins, he is trying (hopelessly, it sometimes appears) to demonstrate that the whole model of sin and sacrifice-atonement has been done away with by Jesus.
For us to turn around and make sin and its atonement a central element (at times it seems, the ONLY element) of our gospel is to preach a gospel fundamentally at odds with the one Jesus and the apostles preached. And we know what Paul said about that. . .see Galatians 1:8.