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  • Gerald Bray

The nature of sin and the need of a Saviour

Part 1- The diagnosis of the problem.

The awful curse of sin and the glorious message of salvation from it are the great themes that lie at the heart of our Christian faith. Without sin, there would be no need for salvation, and our relationship with God would be different from what it is. Whether we like it or not, we live in a world in which ‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). Yet we have also heard that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16). God has addressed the universal condition of mankind and provided a way out of it. It seems very simple – sin is the problem, the Son of God is the Saviour, and all that is required is for the Son of God to come to people everywhere and give them the gift of his salvation.


Unfortunately, things are not so straightforward. For a start, not everybody accepts that sin is universal. Even if we believe that all adults have sinned, what about newborn babies? They have never done anything, so how can they be condemned as sinners? What does sin mean in their case? As for salvation, we know that not everybody has accepted Jesus as their Saviour. Some have refused his offer of salvation outright, while many more have never heard his message. What can we say about that? Can the Son of God be the Saviour of the world in principle, but not the Saviour of every individual in practice?


These are the questions that we have to make some attempt to answer. It is not an easy task, and there will always be people who will find it impossible to accept that the Christian message is both true and just. There is a mystery hidden in the mind of God that is only partially revealed to us, but we know enough to be able to explain what has gone wrong and how it can be put right. Let us take this one step at a time.


First of all, we must diagnose the problem correctly. A false diagnosis will never produce the right solution. Wrong ideas about sin can only lead to distorted understandings of salvation, and this is what we often see. People start in the wrong place and end up confused and lost in a labyrinth of false assumptions that leads them nowhere. It may even cause them to reject the message of the Saviour because they have not understood it correctly.


Many people start with the assumption that sin is an act of some kind. If I kill someone, I have sinned. If I steal something, I have sinned. In this way of thinking, sin is essentially a crime. Even if we have not committed it, we may have thought about it, and in God’s eyes there is no difference. Evil is evil, whether it is manifested openly or lies hidden in our hearts. Bad thoughts are just as reprehensible as wrong actions, not least because so often the actions have been premeditated in the mind. But although this analysis is correct as far as it goes, it does not go far enough. The Bible tells us that there is a state of sinfulness into which all human beings are born. As we mature, we become increasingly aware of our shortcomings, but those defects have been there all along. As we mature, so do they and we become aware that something in us is seriously wrong. It is because of this that all human beings, including newborn babies, are caught up in the mysterious web of sinfulness, whatever we have or have not done.


Sinfulness is a spiritual condition that is not the result of our sinful actions but the cause of them. In this respect, all human beings are the same, whether we are criminals or upstanding citizens who have never done anything wrong in the eyes of the law. At its heart, human sinfulness is the result of a broken relationship with God that we have inherited from our first parents. We may argue about who Adam and Eve were, but whether we think of them as historical individuals or as symbolic representations of something that is beyond our understanding, it is perfectly clear that all human beings now suffer the same problem – we are cut off from God. This is true whether we have heard the gospel all our lives or are people to whom the message has not yet come. The human race is one, despite all the many differences that divide us, and one of the most startling things about the preaching of the gospel is that its message resonates with people of every tribe, nation and background.


The next thing we must understand is that sinfulness cannot be removed by our efforts. When two people fall out it is often the case that they can only be reconciled by the intervention of a mediator who can reach out to both of them. Sometimes human beings can achieve reconciliation without such an intermediary, but when the breach is between us and God that is not possible. God is not a human being and we cannot deal with him as with an equal. He is our Creator, and therefore he has a claim on us that no fellow creature has. If our relationship with God has been broken, we are responsible. He has done nothing to cause the split or to deserve it – it is because our ancestors rebelled against him that we now find ourselves in the predicament that we are in. Our broken relationship with God is their legacy to us, and we should not be surprised by that. Parents cannot give to the children what they do not have themselves, and so a right relationship with God is not something that we can inherit from them. This is what it means to be conceived and born in sin, as the psalmist puts it (Psalm 51:5).


It may not be our fault that this has happened, but it is our responsibility to put it right if we can. If our parents have polluted and abused the land in which we live, it is no good for us to try to run away from the consequences. We have to accept our inheritance and deal with it. What is true in material terms is equally true in spiritual ones. To put it crudely, we have to work with what we have been given, whether we like it or not...


Tomorrow's instalment will bring this insightful article to conclusion...

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Gerald Bray is Director of Research at the Latimer Trust. He is also a research professor at Beeson Divinity School and a prolific writer. Some of his books published by the Latimer trust can be found here. His latest book The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland was released last month.

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