It has always been engrained into me that at its most base level, when it comes to the Gospel, the “good news”, I am a “sinner saved by grace”. Though there is a way in which this is certainly true, is this who I am at my core? The Gospel into which I was indoctrinated says yes. It says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and because of this a punishment needs to be paid to atone for our sin. God is a just God, therefore sin requires a penalty. This all begins in Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and are subsequently punished for that sin. None of this is necessarily wrong, except for one thing:
The story doesn’t start in Genesis 3. Sin and death is not the beginning of our story. Life and love are. The story begins in Genesis 1, not 3, where the poet says that we are “created in God’s image”. And by “we” the poet means humanity. Like, all of it. Genesis 1:26 says “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”. The argument goes that because of the fall in chapter 3, from then on out humanity is sinful, and therefore our identity is sinner and we need to be saved from that identity and its consequence. But does chapter 3 wipe out chapters 1 and 2? If so, why even include them in the narrative? Why? Because they matter. A lot. The story doesn’t start with sin and death, it starts with love and life. So it is with our stories. We start out as beloved creations of God, not sinners deserving of God’s wrath.
In Luke 18 Jesus tells this short, straightforward parable about two men going to the Temple to pray: A Pharisee and a tax collector. That is, one who is a strict adherer to the law and in that sense, who is clean, and pristine; and one who is considered a filthy sinner (and in all honesty those tax collectors were pretty nasty). The Pharisee is standing and praying audibly in gratitude for not having been made like one of those sinners, and then lists the ways in which he is righteous. The tax collector is looking down, “beating his breast” and begging for mercy.
This is often used as a way of describing our proper posture toward God, but the problem is “posture toward God” is not exactly what Jesus is talking about here. He’s talking about humility and being aware of and honest about our failings, and we could extrapolate from this that this is how God would have us approach God, but I’m not so sure. If our core identity and answer to the question “who am I” is “sinner saved by grace”, and the proper posture toward God is beating out breast begging for mercy, then this doesn’t just say something about us, it says something about God.
It says that God is exactly what we never want to communicate that God is: An angry controlling God waiting to smite us unless we beg for forgiveness. We talk about how loving God is, but if that love is defined by “God didn’t smite me when I deserved it”, then it’s a pretty confined love. The loving-kindness of God, which runs throughout the entire story, is the first and primary move of God. Our logic is backward: When we start with sinner, we presume that God is starting with condemnation, not love. In my early Christian days I heard teachings from 1 John about how it’s not that we love God but that God loves us first, and I remember thinking, “if God so loves me, then why is God so angry with me all the time.”
Yes, we are sinners, but before we are sinners, we are loved. By virtue of being created by God in God’s image, we are loved and cherished by God. Our sin is real and we need to deal with it, but it doesn’t define us. God’s enduring loving-kindness does. And we see this most powerfully in the baptism of Jesus.
In those days baptism was a ritual cleansing and a sign of repentance, as evidenced by the John the Baptist’s call. As Jesus approaches John to be baptized, John is confused, and understandably so. If this is a ritual cleansing and a sign of repentance, why does Jesus want or need to do it? Well, we soon find out. As he comes up out of the waters we do not hear from God, “Jesus, you are forgiven” or “congrats, you’re a Christian now”. No, we read these words spoken to Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).
This primary ritual act of Christianity, the one we name as the initiation rite into the faith community is not just about the cleansing of our sin. It is about that, but it is first about our identity in God, which at its base is not “sinner”, and is not “saved”, but is simply “beloved”. It is to say, that the good news is not that you’re a sinner who God spares and saves, but that you are God’s beloved child and there is nothing you can do to disqualify yourself from that. The younger son in the Parable of the Lost Sons (Luke 15 11-32) rejects his father, effectively wishes him dead and leaves him, but the father never stops loving his son and never stops being his parent. The beloved son is an identity the son cannot shake. It is his primary and fixed identity- not “lost” or “prodigal”.
This is one of the overarching themes throughout the Gospels: Jesus making sure that those who have been labeled “unclean”, “outsider”, “unworthy”, and “disqualified” (like the tax collector) know that this what’s most true about them: They are God’s beloved, worthy of God’s presence, wrapped in God’s love.
And this is where I get called a heretic.
You see, I don’t think Jesus had to die on a cross to atone for our sin. I think our sin was already atoned for by the loving-kindness of our Creator, our Heavenly Parent. No matter what my kids do, my love supersedes everything else. Yes, they may be punished for poor behavior, but primarily they are my children and I love them. No matter what. I don’t say of my kids “They miserable sinners, but so long as they admit it to me and beg for forgiveness, I’ll love them and be with them.” No, my love for them precedes and supersedes everything. So it is with God and us.
The reason Jesus dies is that he spends his life doing the radical work of dismantling a system that gave a few great power by controlling people through making them afraid of God’s wrath over their sinfulness. It’s not that Jesus had to die on the cross to be a payment for our sin to satisfy God’s wrath. It’s that Jesus spends his life proclaiming all as God’s beloved, declaring that all are already forgiven simply by virtue of God’s loving-kindness, and in so doing the power structures of in/out, clean/unclean, and worthy/unworthy are broken down, threatening the power of those benefitting from the system. And if there’s one thing we know about those who effectively threaten and dismantle power structures, it’s that the power structure eventually kills them. As they did with Jesus.
How quickly we took this Gospel of love and welcoming and equity and fashioned it into a Gospel of fear and exclusion and judgment.
Where you are is here. And it is right here that you are loved. You are not primarily a sinner saved by grace. The Gospel, the “good news” is that you are God’s Beloved, created with grace.
(Stay tuned for Part III, “Relationship”, where I’ll look at our sin and how it is worked out.)