Monday, 8 December 2008

"God can't look on or have anything to do with sin"

It’s a common evangelical cliché and throw-away line. But is it fair to say that ‘God can’t look on or have anything to do with sin’? I’ve heard a couple of people (festively) attacking this notion recently, on the grounds of the incarnation.

The argument runs like this:

  • Jesus is fully God as well as perfect man;
  • During his ministry, Jesus associated himself with sinners – he talked with them, worked with them, ate and drank with them;
  • Therefore, the idea that God is totally against sin is false (as what can we say but that Jesus is ‘having something to do with sin’ during his ministry?).
Now I think that this argument is flawed for a number of reasons (for instance, it seems to imply a deistic and unscriptural understanding of a god that isn’t actively involved in creation apart from when physically manifested in the person of Christ). But let us put this aside for the moment.

It’s surely true that Jesus associated himself with those widely recognised by the religious establishment (and pretty much everyone else) as being particularly sinful (see Mark 2:13-17). Equally, the New Testament endorses Jesus as God (Colossians 2:9 and so on). But does this mean that we must come to the conclusion of the third statement above? Or in what sense, if any, is it impossible for God to look on or have anything to do with sin?

Clearly, as God in the flesh, Jesus looked upon sinners, in the sense that he looked at them. But in his grace he came not to endorse their sinful lifestyles (or even to say that their sin didn’t really matter) but to bring them freedom and forgiveness and reconciliation in his kingdom. When Christians (perhaps thoughtlessly) say that the God of the Bible can’t look on sin, they’re not saying that he’s somehow blind to the sinful reality of the world, but rather that his character as moral arbiter of the Universe is to call sin evil and wrong. The great news of Christmas is that, in Christ, he’s found a way of reconciling us to himself in his own body without compromising his character.

There is one question that remains. It’s this: if Jesus really was fully God, why did no-one (as sinful beings) burn up and drop dead in his presence? John 3:17 says that, ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’ This is the same Son of God that, according to John 1:17, came into the world with grace and truth. In other words, the Father would have had every right to send Jesus the Son into the world to immediately condemn it (and by implication each of us – for, as members of the world, each of us is sinful). But he preferred to send him instead as an atoning sacrifice to make reconciliation to himself possible. Peter perhaps caught something of this when he said (in Luke 5:8): “Go away from me, Lord, I am a sinful man!” Jesus had every right to condemn Peter, yet lived amongst sinful people in order to be the perfect sacrifice to make atonement for sinners.

I think that part of the reason that this debate has come up is that, in certain circles, Christmas is presented in quite a flat and tired way: it's just a necessary preamble for all of the stuff that followed later. We feel unable to say what it means to have our God as Emmanuel, God with us. The implications of the incarnation as an event in itself are sidelined and flattened (perhaps because we can’t fit it otherwise into 2 Ways to Live). And that is wrong and a symptom of wider illness in evangelicalism.

It’s right to look for and meditate upon the wider significance of the incarnation. (Indeed, I’ve been personally struck recently by the number of times that Hebrews draws real pastoral application from the incarnation and the humanity of Christ). However, in looking to say that the incarnation represents more than just a pre-requisite for Easter, we surely cannot say that it is anything less.


Anonymous said...

Hi Pete!
Thanks for tackling this one in such a helpful way, especially with John 3.
This is slightly off your main point, but links to your last thought about considering the wider implications of the incarnation.
I was blown away by Athanasius in 'On The Incarnation' this morning. In it - among other glorious things - he tackles the question: how could Jesus remain the divine Word while being in a human body?
The wonder of the Incarnation was that he was both at the same time:

"A man cannot transport things from one place to another, for instance, merely by thinking about them; nor can you or I move the sun and the stars just by sitting at home and looking at them. With the Word of God in His human nature, however, it was otherwise. His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument, so that He was both in it and in all things, and outside all things, resting in the Father alone. At one and the same time—this is the wonder— as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father.
Not even His birth from a virgin, therefore, changed Him in any way, nor was He defiled by being in the body. Rather, He sanctified the body by being in it. For His being in everything does not mean that He shares the nature of everything, only that He gives all things their being and sustains them in it."

On reflection, quite far off your main point. But what a remarkable way of, as you say, "reconciling us to himself in his own body without compromising his character"!
On that note, Happy Christmas!

Chris said...

i tend to think problems come when we abstract theological principles rather than watch God in word and deed.

I also think your first point about what it means to be "present" is bigger than you think. For starters - simply considering "well look, where was jesus", or even "where is God" forgets that God can be present but in hostility and love at the same time in the same place, namely, at the cross.

peterdray said...

Chris - yes that's part of it. We need to think before we roll off cliches. It's like the whole 'God is outside of time' statement - partly true, but I'd rather see the living God at work. Both the example I discuss and what you mention are often said pretty untrinitarianly.

I guess more broadly I wanted to address a statement that a chaplain recently made that did away with the incarnation as an act in salvation history. That's why I took the approach I took.

ernie said...

slightly off subject i realise, but forgive me, it's christmas... and your blog made me wonder!

so i've heard people argue over whether God hates sinners because he hates sin, or whether he 'hates the sin, loves the sinner'... or whether he's bigger than our little brains (affirmative)...

and recently overheard this question being asked by a non-Christian, and was handled relatively badly. what would you say to that person asking (christian, or non-Christian)?

peterdray said...

Hi Rachel

That's a really good question. I may tackle it on here at some point. But Don Carson's The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God can do it justice far more eloquently than me!


ernie said...

Thanks Pete... I don't think there was a link behind that, could you try again? :)

ernie said...

it's okay, Google did the trick :)