Lesslie Newbigin Lectures, Part V: ” The Fall” (Sin and Salvation)

Creation was very good! But this was not the last word… there follows the story that we call “The Fall.”

I. Sin in our Culture:

  • The human race was made in God’s image, and is therefore good, but has fallen and in rebellion. This is a point on which we are very strongly criticized in our culture. To call a person a sinner is like the greatest sin you can commit! It undermines their humanity. People need to be encouraged and told that they have great dignity, deep worth… [true, but not the whole story!]
  • Certainly from the time of the Renaissance onwards, European culture has tried to take an optimistic view of human nature. We have rights! To life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, for example. The middle ages had not expected happiness on earth — only the first taste of it. They expected it to come at the end. From the Renaissance onwards, however, human nature is good. Yes there are bad people, but that is the exception.
  • We have a very strong tendency to identify sin with particular groups. Nazi Germany, for instance [or these days, the LGBTQI community, Muslims, drug addicts] — there has been the suggestion that we dealt with that, and it should never happen again! But of course it has happened again, and is happening.

II. The Bible on Sin:

  • The Bible of course speaks about humanity as sinful, but what grounds do we have other than the third chapter of Genesis? We should also be able to identify this doctrine of sin at the heart of our Scriptures, namely, through the account of the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To put it very crudely, we know that we are sinners because of what happened on Good Friday. That is the ultimate ground.
  • The cross means that we are all in the same situation regardless of our differences, because what happened on Good Friday is that when God personally met us as a human race, face to face, it was for practical purposes the unanimous decision of that representative company that he must be destroyed.

o The crucifixion was not the work of a few bad people. It was brought about by those who were and are accounted as the “best” people! The righteous, the priests, the scribes, the governing officials, and of course the crowd in the streets [also the disciples abandoning him!]. So unless we take the view that we are in a very special case, essentially what happened there was that the human race came face to face with its Creator, and its response was to seek to destroy him. That utterly central and crucial moment in universal history is the ground on which we are compelled to say that all of us, the “good” and “bad” together, are sinners.

  • Now of course if that were the last word, then there can be no future for the human race. The only authentic response to what happened would be what Judas did when he went out and hanged himself! What future is there for the human race?

III. The Cross as God’s Response to Sin:

  • But of course it is not the last word, because the crucifixion of Jesus, while it was on the one hand the work of sinful men and women, it was on the other hand the work of Christ, who went deliberately to that meeting point in order to give himself for the life of the world — so that at that point where we are judged and condemned without distinction, the cross cannot be used as a banner for one part of humanity against another. It is the place where we are all unmasked as the enemies of God.
  • But it is also the place where we are offered the unlimited kindness and love of God, so that while that in a sense the first reaction to the cross is a sentence of death upon all of us, it is also a gift of life. For, as Paul says, I am crucified with Christ so that it is not I but Christ that lives in me! This life is no longer ours, but rather is one in which we live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.
  • That is why we preach the doctrine of original sin. We can only know that we are sinners because we have been forgiven — because it is sin itself that blinds us to sin! It is only the forgiven who can truly repent. So we do not speak of sin because we are in a position to pass judgment on anybody else, but because we are all in the same situation.

IV. Fall and Redemption for Fully Expounded:

  • Romans 5-6 — our solidarity in sin. In Adam, we all sin, and in Christ, we are all made alive. This statement though, as has been grievously misunderstood, partly as a result of some words by Augustine. When “death passed from to all people,” the sin of Adam did not automatically make us all guilty. The true text means that it is because we have all sinned that we are in solidarity. Sin is not transmitted through the act of sexual intercourse, as Augustine came near to saying. This corrupted Western thinking about both sin and sex.
  • Apart from those individual choices about which we are conscious and for which we are responsibility, we are also part of a network in which, from the very beginning, we become victims of sin, collectively (wars, poverty, environmental degradation, etc.). We are all together in this web of sinful relationships. It was there before we are born, and we are incorporated into it in the way that we are brought up into this situation.

o Original sin in this sense is much more intelligible. And in addition to this, any parent who has had to cope with a small child having tantrums because it doesn’t get what he or she wants understands very well what is meant by original sin.

–> The answer to this is “a righteousness from God by faith.” In other words, it is the gift of a relationship to replace the one that we had broken.

A. Theological Anthropology: What does it mean to be human?

  • Our thinking has been very much shaped by the Greek conception of substance — the idea that behind everything we know, there is a kind of underlying substance, which is the real thing, and that everything is to be understood as its essential substance. But the truth in the Bible is that what we are is constituted by our relationships. We are human beings by virtue of the fact that we are related to others and to God. Human nature does not exist except in a pattern of relationships.
  • In physics, for centuries, people have sought to identify the atom as the essential unit of matter — the ultimate substance that underlies everything. But of course we know now that the atom is actually a network of dynamic relationship between particles of electrical charges. Moreover, on the other end of the cosmic scale, it is proper to the Christian faith that when we use the word God, we are not speaking of some kind of divine substance. We are referring to a pattern of relationships of total and complete communion between three persons (Trinity).
  • From this point of view, we can see that the fall is essentially the attempt by human beings — whose only relationship is one of dependence upon God — to establish for themselves a reality independent from God, which allows them to make up their own minds about what is good and evil, and not simply to stand in a relationship of love and obedience to the Creator.

o This is why the answer to the appalling fact of sin is the establishment of a new relationship — the righteousness of God by faith, and not our own righteousness. It is a righteousness constituted by the fact the God has accepted me in Jesus Christ, and in faith, we believe and accept. That relationship between Holy God and sinful us which constitutes the only righteousness that there can be. How is this brought about though?

B. Old Testament Background: The Old Testament is full of terrible stories of the wickedness of human beings — from Cane and Abel through all that leads to the flood story and the tower of Babel, which was another instance of human beings trying to establish their own authority. The response of God is the passion of God, which is a theme of the whole Old Testament, for sinful humanity:

  • God invites a people to learn to live a new life simply by faith, called to leave home, rescued out of slavery, brought into a good and pleasant land. But that family defiled that land and rebelled again and again against its loving Creator. God responds in agony, sometimes threatening and apparently following through with terrible punishments — and then again repenting and wooing them back as his bride. We see this from the unconditional love but also anguish of God as expressed in Hosea and the Servant Song in Isaiah — the Servant who should be Israel fulfilling its true calling of bearing the sin of the world in its own heart.

C. The Culmination of the Story of Israel: And finally of course we come to our Lord himself, in whom all these signalings of the passion of God and prophecies are made flesh and blood in the life a human being. We see Jesus Christ calling Israel to fulfill that role to which it was called, to be God’s servant people for all the nations. And when that calling is denied, Jesus goes alone to the cross bearing the passion of God for a sinful world.

  • And so, the one who is Lord of all is humiliated, cursed, cast out, executed with the execution of a criminal and a blasphemer, and cries out in desolation, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” going down to the greatest and darkest depths, so that nothing would escape his redemptive reach.
  • God raised him from the dead, to new life, and exalted him to heaven as Lord and sent forth the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost to fill the church with the knowledge that this is the Lord, this crucified man, rejected by the world. And so the church goes out to proclaim the mystery of salvation.
    –> The point that Newbigin is especially trying to bring out by narrating the gospel story is that, this fact of God’s victory, is a fact of history before we come to our attempts to explain it. By the coming of the Holy Spirit, the church was given the assurance to preach this to the world, that the righteousness of God has been given to us, so that we, the unholy, may live in the love and fellowship of the Holy God.

D. Three Traditional Theories of Atonement, and Newbigin’s Signal Toward a Fourth: Newbigin is confident that when we talk about the atonement, we are speaking of something that we can never fully explain in human language, because we are dealing ultimately with that which is the contradiction of all reason, namely, sin. And if we could incorporate sin into a coherent rational structure of thought, it would no longer be sin. Our attempts to comprehend the atonement will always fall short of the truth of it. They can only point us toward this truth. And if one takes some of the great metaphors of reconciliation that are used in the Scriptures:

  1. That of ransom, which draws on the experience of the redeeming of a slave from its master by the generosity of another, and was a metaphor of enormous emotional weight for a society in which slavery was so common. But of course if you push this metaphor to its conclusion, you have to ask, to whom was the ransom paid? So some early theologians said to God, and some said to the devil. Neither of them can be accepted, however, because to say that it was a ransom paid to God implies that God had to be placated in order to forgive us, and this sets an antagonism between the Son and the Father, which is wholly contrary to the Christian faith.
  2. There is, secondly, the metaphor of substitution, in which another has died in our place, and that again has an element of deep truth in it. And yet it cannot finally explain what happened because it is so very clear that in the teaching of Jesus himself — although he goes before us, he alone can meet the ultimate enemy in that final battle — yet it is not in order that we may be excused from that encounter, but precisely in order that we may be enabled to follow him, to take up the cross and go the way that he has gone.
  3. And again, there is the metaphor of sacrifice, which is so fully developed in the letter to the Hebrews, and so clearly fulfills the Old Testament regulations with regard to sacrifice, so that we see Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice to the father. But yet again, we must be careful not to state that in such a way as to make it seem that there is a relation of antagonism between the Son and the Father as though, once again, the Father needs to be placated [i.e., a punishment/penalty satisfied].

• It’s one of the little features of the Old Testament use of the word expiation or atonement that that Hebrew verb, which is so constantly used in relation to God is never used in the form which puts God as the object. It is used when Jacob wants to placate Esau who is coming to meet him with an armed band, and Jacob sends gifts ahead of him. There the word is used, he is trying to placate his brother. But that word is never used with God as its object. It is always that God has provided a sacrifice to make atonement concerning your sin or whatever it may be. It is used always in that subtle, indirect form, so that there is no question as it were placating the Father. On the contrary, the atoning work of Christ is also the work of the Father.

  • And yet all these different metaphors help us, at least to come a little nearer, to the center of this mystery. Newbigin thinks that one of the most helpful of them is the one in which the Old Testament Hebrew word for mercy seat, the place where the sinner could be received by the Holy God is used, translated in Romans 3 as the place of propitiation. Surely here we come near to the heart of what was done there.
  • It has created a place where we who are sinners, still sinners, can nevertheless, be in fellowship with God who is Holy. Because in this act in which the son of God in loving obedience to the Father has taken his place right where we are in our lost state and therefore made possible a communion in the Holy Spirit in which we share the very life of God himself — sinners as we are.
  • This word koinonia/fellowship/communion, is actually a word that means common sharing in a property. It’s a shared participating in the actual life of the Spirit. And that place is the church, where we gather in the name of Jesus, we hear his words, and in the sacrament he ordained we partake — his dying and his victorious resurrection ad victory over death. And there is the place where we know justification and sanctification.

E. Justification and Sanctification:

  • Justification, that is to say, being recognized by God not because we are in ourselves just or righteous, but because in this act in Jesus Christ, he has accepted us as just, as righteous. It is a righteousness on the one hand that is the sheer gift of God and on the other hand that is accepted in faith. It is never in our possession but rather something we receive moment by moment by faith in what God has done for me in Jesus Christ.
  • And here also is where we know sanctification. But here sanctification does not mean a process by which we gradually become holy in ourselves, as though we could have a holiness which was not simply God’s gift, but was our characteristic. That would be a contradiction at the very heart of the gospel.

–> It is interesting that when Paul puts the words justification and sanctification together, it is sanctification that comes first: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified.” Both the words sanctification and justification refer to a relationship with God, not to something that we possess in our ourselves. And the holiness, which is the proper mark of the a disciple of Jesus, is not and can never be something that we possess in ourselves, so that we can say that holiness is so to speak a designation of myself. That perfect holiness is simply the relationship of faithful dependence upon the sanctifying grace of God.

F. Reclaiming the “Good News” of the Doctrine of Original Sin:

  • And all this adds up to a very joyful preaching of the doctrine of original sin. G.K. Chesterton talked about the “good news of original sin.” If the whole lot of us are nothing more than a bunch of escaped convicts — and that is what we are, basically — then there is room for an enormous amount of joy in the church. We don’t have to go around pretending like we are righteous people.  And that is good news.
  • We are forgiven sinners. We have been embraced, accepted and loved by the holy God. That is something which can only lead us to singing and dancing. We are delivered from the unbearable burden of trying to be ourselves, and in ourselves, righteous. We have only one thing to do — to give ourselves moment by moment as a thank-offering, to the one who has loved us and laid down his life for us. That’s what the Christian life is.

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