Pre-Christmas Theology to Start the Day

A few days ago, I (John Alexander) wrote how much I love Christmas. I really do. The number one reason I love Christmas is because of the GOSPEL! Man, what a STORY! The true GOSPEL is the difference maker. It is what separates Christ-followers from all other religions. It is an incredible, incredible message.

The problem? We don’t talk about it enough in churches and with others. We focus much more on “pop psychology,” minor issues, and “ways to get your best life now,” to name a few. In comparison, the Gospel message doesn’t compare. If presented every week, people would be so full of this rich and abundant food they couldn’t help but share it.

Today, Pastor Michael Stoops joins “At The Garage” with a post on justification and the “possible” problem of saying Jesus died for the forgiveness of sins.


Theologian Paul Tillich on Justification and the possible problem of saying that Jesus died for the forgiveness of sins: “Men [and women] forgive particular sins, for example, offenses against themselves or the trespass of concrete commands and laws.  In relation to God, is is not the particular sin as such that is forgiven but the act of separation from God and the resistance to reunion with him…The symbol of forgiveness of sins has proven dangerous because it has concentrated the mind on particular sins and their moral quality rather than on the estrangement from God and its religious quality.  Nevertheless, the plural ‘sins’ can stand for the singular ‘Sin’ and point to the situation of man before God, and a particular trespass can even be experienced as a manifestation of Sin, the power of estrangement from our true being.” (3:225)

This passage jumped out at me this morning because it articulates well something that I had already formulated.  Some deny that Jesus died for sins on the cross because he forgave sins during his earthly ministry (Mark 2:10).  They ask, “How could Jesus forgive sins if he hadn’t died for them yet?”  Therefore, they conclude that Jesus did not die for sins and are forced to find some sort of imaginary rationale for Good Friday.

A few problems with this: 1) This is far too linear a way of thinking; the Cross is an eschatological moment where God’s future in-breaks into this fallen world held under the power of Sin and Death and, hence, redefines our past and our future.  2) To deny that Jesus died for sins is unbiblical (1 Cor 15:3, note how Paul says that this is of “first importance”).  3) Jesus could have literally gone to every person and forgiven them of his sins and he still would have had to die in order to take on Sin, that is our “estrangement” from God–our state of separation from God, so that we might be reconciled to God and adopted as his sons and daughters.  4) Tillich points out in the last sentence of the above quote, that we can say the Jesus died for sins, since sins (note the lower-case), both of omission and commission, are manifestations of the gap between us and God.  By dying for Sin, for our fallen nature, for the distance between us and God, Jesus forgave sins that originated from that estranged state.

This is the Gospel at its core: that Jesus died and rose for the forgiveness of Sin and sins so that we might be in a right relationship with him.  That we would no longer be aliens and strangers to God, but are now his beloved children, adopted by means of the Holy Spirit.

Worship your heavenly Father today, thank him for his grace and mercy, meditate upon the Cross, which is foolishness to the world, as our sole hope.

2 thoughts on “Pre-Christmas Theology to Start the Day

  1. Thanks for the post. I was just considering and reading about reconciliation last night. Great comments from Stoops. I’m quite leary of Tillich’s statements though. He is incorrect to say that it is not particular sins that are forgiven. Particular sins are forgiven (Col 2:14-15).

    I would add to Stoops’ list Heb 9:22. Jesus could not simply forgive sins without providing a payment, or a satisfaction of the punishment for those sins.

    I have to take exception to #3 and Tillich’s quote though. Our separation from God is a result of sin.

    What I was reading about last night was the alienation between God and ourselves and whether the reconciliation is Godward, or manward. While every transgression of God’s law is a violation of the first commandment, and thus an act of willful separation from God, the greater problem is God’s separation and alienation from us in response to our sin. That is the reconciliation that the cross brings. It reconciles God to us.

    Christ had to die for particular sins, else they could not be forgiven. And it is the forgiveness of these sins that reconciles God to us.

    The symbol of forgiveness of sins has proven dangerous because it has concentrated the mind on particular sins and their moral quality rather than on the estrangement from God and its religious quality.

    Not knowing the context, I’m not sure why he refers to a symbol here, but it doesn’t make sense to. The cross is not symbolic. Also, he is incorrect to say that focusing on particular sins prevents one from concentrating on our estrangement from God. The two are not mutually exclusive. We come to understand our estrangement from God by understanding our depravity and failure to obey particular commands (most importantly the first). That’s what the bible means when it talks about the letter killing. Paul says it was specifically the 10th commandment that made him aware of his estrangement from God (Rom 7:7).

    I don’t know what Tillich intends to mean by “moral” and “religious” but perhaps he means that many people look at their particular sins and simply try to be better people, while ignoring their standing before God. If that is the problem, then the solution is not to turn from looking at the particular sins, but to look at them more accurately and biblically to understand what they truly are – an affront to a holy God, not just something that has bad consequences.

    What do you think? (Thanks for the thought provoking post.)

  2. First of all, thank you, Brandon, for your hearty engagement with my post. A few things to clarify:

    1) What is more important: the source or the symptoms? If I have H1N1, I don’t want medicine that will just alleviate my symptoms, but a medicine that treats the source, the virus itself. Sin (capital-letter = estrangement from God just by virtue of my existence) is the source and sins (lower-case) are the symptoms. In Western Christianity, we have become overly preoccupied with sins and not with Sin. (For example, the church has forgotten for decades to not only call sinners to repent of their sin, but also for religious people to repent of their religion.)

    2) Furthermore, this is an important distinct, and touches on your criticisms of point 3. In your critique, should I be reading it correctly, you argue that it is our sins (lower-case) that separate us from God. Thus, for you, they are the “source” of estrangement, whereas I argue (and Tillich) that they are symptoms of a larger source (Sin (capital-letter)). I’m obviously arguing from the perspective of a belief in Total Depravity (Tillich is arguing from existential categories). Therefore, even a new-born baby is born estranged from God, even though they’ve never committed a “sin” (lower-case). Now, if you are more of the Arminian-persuasion, then some more conversation on this will be necessary; we would go through a more detailed argument regarding Romans 3 and 5 in particular.

    3) Tillich uses “symbol” to mean “an authoritative summary” or also to mean “a complex of various ideas (since, for instance, “forgiveness of sins” includes issues of christology, atonement, etc.).” For example, Lutherans refer to the Book of Concord (collection of Lutheran confessional documents) as the Symbolic Book of Lutheran Confessions. All that to say, he’s not using ‘symbol’ how vernacular English does.

    4) At the end of your comments, I would agree with you that focusing on particular sins does not prevent one from concentrating on our estrangement from God. You outline a classical understanding of the second use of the Law. Also, I do think that you correctly understand Tillich’s distinction between “moral” and “religious.” However, we should recognize the legalism that can flow from overemphasizing particular sins. You have youth groups that are more concerned with ‘Did you see a R-rated movie (that wasn’t about Jesus)? Did you drink? Did you swear?’ than ‘Are you a Christian? Has the Holy Spirit regenerated your heart?’ They’re not mutually exclusive, but it is good to be reminded.

    In brief, Tillich is orthodox (on this point at least), though I believe he is coming at it from a corrective angle that can be helpful for us.

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