I recently heard a pastor say from the pulpit that our personal salvation depends on our recognition of our sin. We can’t, he said, fully love or accept Christ as our Savior until we have understood the weight of our sin. On a surface level, I agree with this wholeheartedly. We will see no need for a Savior if we don’t view ourselves in need of salvation. We will not see ourselves in need of salvation if we don’t first understand that it is our sin that damns us. CS Lewis said something similar in Mere Christianity. Christianity just doesn’t seem to make sense unless you can recognize that you are in the wrong and are in need of God to save you.
Recently, however, I’ve been chewing on some of the undercurrents of this thought process, namely, God’s own character and how it relates to our sinful nature. During a meditation of Jesus’s baptism story, the scripture “It is only right to do all that God requires” stuck in my mind. It also brought to mind Micah 6:8 – “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” In a sea of rules and regulations, God’s list of requirements seems short. And, of course, there is Jesus’s answer to that question: What is the greatest commandment? Love. Love God. Love other people. Everything else depends on these.
Western culture seems bound and determined to cling to rules, to live inside a box that is well-ordered and clear-cut. It wants to be able to single out specific sins that condemn us, to filter out the good people from the bad people based on a simple list of behaviors, an analysis of the do’s and the do not’s. It wants to pigeon-hole, to name, to judge.
It makes me wonder: how do we come to love God? Do we love Him because of who He is or because of what we’re not? Do we love Him and want Him and need Him because we’re sinners and can’t save ourselves? Or, do we love Him because He’s….. Him?
“If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”Exodus 3:13-14
Is it possible to first love God based on who He is? Based on those “invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature”? Can you first fall in love with Christ the man, God the Father, and then, in time, receive the Holy Spirit unto yourself? Is it our own “badness” that draws us into the need for our salvation or is it the contrast of our own “badness” to God’s absolute goodness? Without a recognition of how completely and majestically good and loving God is, can we even begin to recognize our own sin as something in need of trampling and ourselves in need of redeeming?
These questions beg yet another. What is it that makes God’s just? Is He just because we’ve sinned or is He just in and of Himself? If Adam (and no man after Adam) had ever sinned, would we not still love and worship God based on His justness? Would his justness – His inherent attribute of fairness and rightness not still be evident in the nature of the world, in the ordering of the stars, in the rhythms of the tides? Without our sin to muss it up, would we not still be capable of seeing the world He made and loving Him for it, even in an unfallen nature?
Perhaps (and it’s very likely) I’m looking at this the long way round. We can’t know what a relationship with God would have been without sin – not in a theological sense. We can know that it would have been loving, peaceful, and abundant. But with nothing broken, there would be nothing to fix. And fixing seems to be the core of our theology and Gospel – how Christ became man to redeem His people.
So, maybe, without sin, we would have experienced God as Just with no relation to ourselves, and that would have been okay. No knowledge of our sin would have been required because our sin would not have existed. God would still have been just, as evidence in the way He created the world. Scriptures seem to point to this.
So the heavens and the earth and everything in them were completed. On the seventh day, God had completed His work that He had done, and He rested on the sevent day from all the work that He had done. God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, for on it He rested from all His works of creation.”Genesis 2:1-3
“Where were you when I established the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who fixed its dimensions? Certainly you know!”Job 38:4-5
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands.”Psalm 19:1
“For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, that is, His enternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation fo the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are withut excuse. For though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude.”Romans 1:18-21
One of CS Lewis’s more controversial beliefs is one that many traditional evangelicals consider Universalism and others label Inclusivism. I don’t want to delve into that here, as it’s something I’m still working to understand, but it comes to mind when I’m entertaining these thoughts.
In “Nice People or New Man” (book 4, chapter 10 of Mere Christianity), CS Lewis discusses why some Christians don’t act like Christians and some non-Christians act more like Christians than Christians do (a question we all debate, I imagine). Here is a selection:
“In the first place the situation in the actual world is much more complicated than that. The world does not consist of 100 pecent. Christias and 100 percent non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrne about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of the religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points. Many of the good Pagans long before Christ’s birth may have been in this position. And always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled up together. Consequently, it is not much use trying to make judgements about Christiand non-Christians in the mass.”p. 165 of The Complete CS Lewis Signature Classics, 2007
In some sense, it seems that Lewis believes that people can love Jesus based on His inherent attributes (love, peace mercy, justice, etc…) even if they don’t necessarily realize or acknowledge that they belong to Him and certainly if they don’t necessarily realize or acknowledge the tenants of the Gospel that we fret over (I’m talking here of the exact manner of propitiation of sins and other minute details we concern ourselves with). The question does still remain, however: are these people – these Buddhists more concerned with mercy than karma or rebirth – closer to faith in the true God only if they recognize their own shortcomings and that there is one better? Or is recognition of His glory alone enough?
In case you haven’t noticed, I have no answers to my question. This is not a theological exposition. Indeed, it’s more of a stream of consciousness and inner debate. It’s certainly not a subject that I would consider a determiner or deterrent of my faith. I would, however, love to hears the thoughts of others! Is this something you’ve considered? If so, what conclusions have you drawn (or what additional questions have you generated)?