“Man was created good and upright; for God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness.’ However, man by voluntary transgression fell and thereby incurred not only physical death but also spiritual death, which is separation from God.”
“Salvation is received through repentance toward God and faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ. By the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, being justified by grace through faith, man becomes an heir of God, according to the hope of eternal life.”
Sin has a bad name. Even using the word seems to imply ignorance and bigotry in contemporary culture. It’s fine for an individual to have strong feelings about values, but it is definitely not fine to “impose” those preferences on others.
Despite these objections, moral sensitivity does seem to be hardwired into the human soul. While no culture has cornered the market on personal standards, every person has the ability to sense when things are not right. Anyone who did not believe that on September 10 was converted on September 11. Individuals who lose this ability are considered sociopaths. Sin is for real.
Three realities of sin
To appreciate how God can rescue us from this force, we need to understand what it is and what it does. Three complementary views of sin help us grasp the scope of its destructive nature.
Legal: Sin as crime. God has established certain “laws” of conduct (e.g., the Ten Commandments) and we commit sin by disobeying them. In this sense, transgressing God’s law is a spiritual “crime” that incurs punishment. This may be the most widely held view both inside and outside the church.
Indeed, we have all “fallen short” of the character of God (Romans 3:23). The Bible uses the metaphor of sheep to describe us as wayward and self-willed. And that’s the point – my stepping over the boundaries God has provided for my welfare and peace of mind says that I have decided to replace Him as the sovereign of my life. One commentator describes this as living as though God does not exist. The offense is not just in the deed, but in the rebellion it represents. Our deeds reveal who we are, fallen beings mired in selfishness and exploitation.
Relational: Sin as alienation. The peace and joy that flow from knowing God intimately are simply unavailable when we demand control of our lives. This breakdown with our Heavenly Father distances us from Him and makes the human race the ultimate dysfunctional family.
Jesus illustrated this with a story about a young man who demanded his inheritance prematurely and used it to abandon his family for a life of self-gratification (Luke 15:11-32). With everything he could ever want in hand, he walked away, preferring control over a pittance to a fortune gained by loyalty.
Alienation leads to deprivation. The young man started off feasting with rented friends but ultimately found himself feeding with the pigs. Eventually the consequences of our separation from God will catch up with us as well. If I refuse to be reconciled to Him, He will allow my condition to become permanent in the form of eternal separation.
Volitional: Sin as slavery. The self-centered life promises freedom but delivers the opposite. One of the most destructive aspects of sin is its ability to dominate us, to take away our choices, our volition.
Sin is much more than discrete deeds such as holding up a convenience store. The Bible also describes it as a dark force that controls our hearts and reinforces our selfishness. In its most overt forms, it manifests itself as addiction, violence or injustice. Paul describes this bondage in stark terms: “The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God” (Romans 8:7,8). Ironically, the more I grasp for freedom, the stronger the chains that bind me. Sin and self-centeredness feed on each other.
If sin can be an act of transgression against God, a state of alienation from God, and a form of spiritual slavery, where do we turn for hope? The good news of the gospel is that there is salvation larger than our sin!
Three realities of salvation
God’s love for us is so profound that He simply refuses to abandon us in this condition. We can know this because He sent His Son Jesus to bring us “salvation” in many forms.
Let off: Salvation as pardon. Sin and judgment have a cause and effect relationship. In His mercy, the Father sent Jesus to pay the price for all our violations of His divine law. First John 2:1,2 describes Him as “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
By dying on the cross as a substitute for us, Jesus has made it possible for God to extend a full pardon to all those who trust in Him.
This is the essence of forgiveness. God supplies it by grace, giving us what we need rather than what we deserve. We receive this gift by giving up on our self-governance (repenting) and reaching out to God with whatever faith we have. Any believing heart will find forgiveness in God through Christ.
Coming home: Salvation as reconciliation. Our Heavenly Father recognizes that personal alienation is a recipe for heartbreak. He is grieved by the distance we maintain from Him, and, like the father who was deserted by his son in Jesus’ story, God longs for us to return home.
The wayward son’s road trip did not prove to be permanent. He came to his senses and returned home. Instead of confrontation, his father ran to meet the son, clothed him, fed him, and invited the rest of the family to celebrate his return. Alienation was at an end!
It also ends in Christ. Faith in Jesus allows the Father to “adopt” us into His family as His own sons and daughters (Ephesians 1:5). Even our alienation from other people can be healed in Christ as He becomes “our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations” (Ephesians 2:14,15a). On the cross, Jesus demolished the walls of human alienation as well as the sin barrier that separated us from our Father in heaven. When my faith meets God’s grace, He receives me with the same joy as the father who welcomed home his rebellious son.
Set Free: Salvation as deliverance. All of the things we do to take control of our lives, to gratify our wants, are subtle forms of slavery. These bondages are so severe that rescuing ourselves from them is impossible. The power of sin is so great that Paul cried out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).
He went on to answer his own question: “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord! … Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 7:25 through 8:2).
Jesus has come to break the power of every kind of darkness that holds the human heart captive. In Christ, God “has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13). Jesus’ death on the cross has broken the power of sin and His resurrection has provided us a new life of freedom and peace.
Pardon releases us from the guilt of sinful deeds. Reconciliation restores our broken relationship with God and others. Deliverance frees us from bondage to sin’s power. All of this is possible because of the Cross and is available to us by faith. “How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:3).