In Part I of this two-part series, we talked about Christianity’s assumptions about so-called “original sin,” and why I don’t think they are the best way to think about sin. In this follow-up article, we are going to get into how God deals with sin and how human volition plays into things.
In the last article, we established that God is against sin. I’m not sure any Christian would disagree with me there. The issue, then, isn’t whether God is against sin or not, but how God is going to go about dealing with sin. Luckily, because of the Gospel of Christ, we already have an answer to that: God forgives sin. Preemptively. Before repentance. There is evidence of this all throughout the New Testament (as well as the Hebrew Scriptures, too). Here are but a few places where forgiveness precedes repentance:
- When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts. “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk?’ ‘But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic—’I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” ~ Mark 2:1–12
- Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” ~ Matthew 18:21–22
- Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. ~ Luke 23:32–34
- Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When the kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” ~ John 8:2–11
Now, it can be argued that there are also places in Scripture where it seems to suggest that God withholds forgiveness until we first forgive others. Matthew 6:15 states that “if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” This passage, however, cannot be plucked out from the “Lord’s prayer” that comes before it, nor should it be used as some prooftext against all the biblical evidence that forgiveness was given prior to anyone asking for it. Notice that if we are praying for God to “forgive our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” we are saying that those who have sinned against us are already forgiven. By us! That’s the context. Preemptive forgiveness. So, to say that the Father won’t forgive us if we don’t first forgive is more pedagogical—a teaching tool—than a theological dictum. In other words, it’s basically saying: Don’t be a hypocrite. Think of it like this: If you say you are tolerant of others’ religions, viewpoints, philosophies, etc., it doesn’t then follow that you must also tolerate intolerance itself. The racist, for example, can’t beg for tolerance for his racism when he himself isn’t tolerant of other races.
Again, though, there are so many instances where Jesus is preemptive in his forgiveness of sins that we shouldn’t take a passage here and a passage there and fling them around willy-nilly as if they are theological truisms. Some still do, so for them I’ll simply provide them with the words of Paul: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7–8). And again: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom. 11:30–32). In other words, all will receive mercy in the end because that is God’s posture toward all sinners. (See, I can prooftext, too.)
What About Free Will?
So, what about free will? Where does this factor in? Simple: We all have it. Or, at least we have access to it. It’s just not the type of free will most of us in the West think about when we hear the term. It’s not, as Kant argued, “the absolute spontaneity of the will.” As I discussed in chapter 8 of Heretic!, this understanding of human volition—libertarian free will, as it’s called—is not conceptualized until the fourteenth-century, initially by a Franciscan friar named William Ockham, and then fully developed roughly four centuries later by German philosopher Immanuel Kant. That is to say, it’s not necessarily true, and certainly not how folks were thinking of things in Jesus’ day. Hence, whenever the Bible mentions human volition, or what it means to be enslaved by sin, they aren’t thinking of humans as absolutely spontaneous, as Kant would have thought of things.
So how, exactly, should we think of free will?
There are a few illustrations I could offer. First, think of it like a spectrum. On one end you have complete enslavement. You have Gollum, completely and utterly devoid of his former self. He is consumed by the power of the One Ring. On the other end is Tom Bombadil. When he is offered the Ring after he saves the Hobbits from the Old Forest just outside the Shire, he has no interest in it. It has no power over him. In fact, it’s so powerless that Gandalf has to remind the Council of Elrond that Bombadil would be of no use to the Fellowship because he would simply forget where he set it down. Then, in between you have everyone else. Frodo, with his continual struggle against the power of the Ring. Galadriel, able to resist the Ring when offered in Lorien. Boromir, able to give the Ring back to Frodo while on their way to the Redhorn Pass, but unable after the Fellowship arrives at Amon Hen. We are all these characters at some point in our lives, all on a “free will spectrum” of sorts.
Secondly, and piggybacking off our first illustration, our will is bound to something other than spontaneity. It is bound by goodness. Put simply: To be free is to do the good. And so, a free will is not a will that chooses one thing among other things—steak over chicken or lamb, Ford over Dodge or GMC, Target over Walmart or Costco, Middle Earth over Narnia or Hogwarts—it is seeing good and evil for what they truly are, and only being able to choose the good. Disobedience to the good, then, as Karl Barth once put it, is “the incapacity of the man who is no longer or not yet able to choose in real freedom.” Or, as Jewish Rabbi Moshe Weinberger recently said in a Facebook advertisement that came across my feed, “God doesn’t look at any one of us as being bad, the same way that I don’t look at my children or grandchildren as being bad. I could see them as being uninformed or mistaken, and I’m going to find ways—sometimes it will hurt—to help them encounter the good within themselves.”
Licensed to Sin?
Bringing it full circle, does everything I’ve presented in here then give us license to sin? Does God’s posture toward mercy and grace allow us to “get off the hook,” so to speak? No! Because our will is, as David Bentley Hart would put it, “inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good,” it is not only in our best interest to choose God, but is something our true self desires. All we need is to see things for what they truly are and have the faculties to make the right choice. In Christianity, it would be the Christ nature that sets us free to choose the good. As Jesus says in John 8:32, the truth “will make you free.” In Buddhism, something similar is emphasized. Rejecting the Western debate between determinism and libertarian free will, Buddhism tends to find a “middle way.” As Gier and Kjellberg assert:
We can now define Buddhist free agents as those who are keenly aware of the effects their actions have on themselves and others. They are free from ego attachment and craving either for ascetic deficiency or indulgent excess, representing karmic bondage rather than karmic freedom. Free and mindful agents know what their needs are and what their preferences should be; and, on the basis of that knowledge, they can separate desires from cravings, defined as desires that either cannot be fulfilled, or for things that are simply not needed. Moral freedom lies in the ability of agents to form desires that are consonant with their needs and personal circumstances.
To this end, at the end of the day what matters most is not how much we’ve sinned, but how sin will one day be defeated. So, for those like myself who believe that everything will be reconciled and restored, it’s not that we take sin lightly, it’s that we elevate God and the human, made in God’s image, to a place where sin gets properly dealt with. It’s not entirely a deterministic thing, where God is the only actor in this play, nor is it something humans “freely” do all on their own; it’s that we work in partnership in order to get the job done. God made us for community. She made us to be reconciliatory agents. She made us in the image of goodness and so, truly free, we can all choose goodness.
Sin is something that gets in the way of reconciliation, sure. But it is not to be an eternal stumbling block. It is a speedbump on the way toward restoration, one that began in Adam but will end when all are made like Christ. As the apostle Paul once put it, “Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:17–18). And again, in 1 Corinthians 5:22: “For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” Like I said before, most Christians like to emphasize the universality of sin, but what they fail to acknowledge is the universality of the undoing of sin in Christ. For without this undoing, sin, or at least its effects, will forever live on in infamy. And that, to my mind, would not only be to take sin too lightly, but it would also be a great tragedy, because it would mean that God is powerless against sin. It would mean that love doesn’t win. Sin wins. And I can’t believe that for one second. God is far greater than sin, and so too are the humans made in her image.
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