What is it exactly that is at the heart of Christianity? What is the one issue that defines this faith above all others, that makes its adherents believe it to be so true and full of good news? As a pastor, I wonder often what those in the pews need to hear the most. Do they need to hear that their sins are forgiven? Do they need to hear about the Kingdom of God? Should I focus on their context – affluent America? Or maybe how to become a better person, one curtained bad habit at a time, is what they need to hear. One issue, for sure, has come to be seen as the crux of Christianity more than all others: the forgiveness of sins. This act of love, made possible by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, is, for many Christians the central, and almost the only focus of the faith. It was central to Jesus’ teaching, and is even part of the succinct teachings of the Lord’s Prayer and the Words of Institution. But once convinced of this fact, where do we go from there?
There’s a number of reasons that this prominent theme of the faith could use some vetting. For starters, this is an intellectual fact for the believer. You know your sins are forgiven through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is in your mind, and hopefully, it finds a place to reside in your heart as well. But once one generally comes to understand the concept of sacrifice, of the way Jesus takes our place because he, as a sinless man, is the only person who can stand before God on our behalf, most people pretty much accept that. While this is the core message for the Billy Grahams of the world (or preachers without a congregation), for most pastors and congregations this is Christianity 101.
But what does the forgiveness of sins actually look like? This is the bigger question that must be answered, especially given the somewhat awkward reality that before the concept can be preached, you must first convince someone they are a sinner. And there are two cultural norms that make this difficult.
1. To tell someone they are a sinner is not exactly the best way to hit it off with a non-believer. But if forgiveness of sins is the crux of the faith, then that’s where one must start. I wouldn’t be particularly attracted to a faith that first had to convince me of my guilt, only to offer the solution. This is a business-like equation – “you have a problem, I have a solution” – I find lacking in the real life-giving power of the gospel.
2. In a postmodern context, sin is relative, and it may actually be quite hard to convince someone that they are truly a sinner, much less, that they need to be relieved of it.
Essentially, if this is only what Christian faith is about, it relies on this beginning block: to preach this word, you must convince them of their sin first. Certainly, we are all sinners, and to live in denial of that fact is tragic. But making it the banner headline of faith will likely be Greek to people who aren’t aware they sin to begin with. I can just imagine missionaries traveling the globe, or Christians speaking to a neighbor, and making this the beginning point of their evangelism. There’s certainly nothing theologically wrong with it. It just strikes me as rather unappealing.
In other words, how many of us go to church with this question on our minds: “How do I get these sins of mine forgiven?” I would say very few. The question is likely more like this, if I had to guess: “In my mind, I know my sins are forgiven. But why don’t I live like it? What difference does it make?”
Forgiveness itself is a rather esoteric concept. The idea that a man (and a divine man at that) took punishment and experienced death in my place must be a foreign idea to many. The idea that we are not justified by good works is clearly counterintuitive, even to many Christian Protestants, who live as though our salvation does not depend on “alien righteousness” as much as good behavior. (This is one of the truly delicious ironies of the Reformation’s aftermath; it is many Protestants who give lip service to, but reject in daily life, the concept of justification by grace through faith.)
In addition to forgiveness, there are other major themes of Jesus’ teaching and preaching that can be lifted up. The Kingdom of God/Heaven, for example, is a constant theme of the New Testament. Yet, I rarely hear pastors, myself included, really talk about what this means today for us, especially given that we live in a free democracy, not a kingdom. Or joy as a part of life in the Spirit…this was one of Jesus’ main thrusts in the Gospel of John. The theme of reversal is heavily present as well, as in the beatitudes (Matthew 5), or in many of the parables about the Samaritans, among others.
Let me be clear. Cheap grace is the most abhorrent theological tenet the liberal mainline churches face. And at the heart of it, Jesus preached about, and died for the forgiveness of our sins. But the goal of the church, I don’t think, is to dwell on this fact, at least as a mere fact. While it should never be ignored, the church must take the question further, to push the congregation to ask, “So what? So what if my sins are forgiven? What difference does that make?” When the answers start to flow, the real preaching has begun.