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?).
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.