Our Primary Identity is as a Redeemed Sinner
What Bible Do You Read?
It makes all the difference what Bible you read. And I’m not talking about what translation you use or whether you read it in its original languages. Most of us have been taught to read one version, but I’m going to contend we must learn to read another one. The one we’ve been taught to read runs from Genesis 3-Revelation 20. The other reads Genesis 3-Revelation 20 within the bookends of Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22.
Other than arguing about the “historicity” of the creation stories in Genesis we pretty much ignore the real import of Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22. I suggest they may be the most important chapters in our Bibles.
These four chapters of the Bible, the only four, mind you, that are not touched by the blight of sin, give us the big picture of what God wants from his creation and creatures, who we are created to be, our vocation as human beings, and the kind of world God designs for us. Things are as they should been and will one day be. We might say we get the “truest” picture of life in these chapters. They also put the rest of the Bible, Genesis 3-Revelation 20, in its proper context. And without that context we misread the Bible in damaging ways.
So the question before the question of whether we see our primary identity as redeemed sinners is whether we are Genesis 3-Revelation 20 people or Genesis 1-2/Revelation 21-22 people. If the former, we are going to see ourselves primarily as redeemed sinners. Because that’s the problem introduced in Genesis 3 and not finally resolved until Revelation 20. If this is the Bible we read, we will see ourselves and others as basically sinners in need of redemption. And I believe that is our default way of seeing ourselves and other. We further believe that if the good news of the gospel is to reach others, they too must come to understand themselves as sinners in need of redemption. But that’s easier said than done. Especially in a culture that no longer believes in guilt but rather is entangled in issues of shame.
The difference between guilt and shame is the difference between doing wrong and being wrong. We may try to convince others they have done wrong and therefore need the gospel. But it is far more difficult to help them deal with shame, especially with a Genesis 3-Revelation 20 view of them. We reach a point of wondering what the gospel actually say to those whose lives are free of the more overt kinds of sin whose negative results are pretty evident. So it’s these we focus on (“Don’t drink, smoke, dance, or screw or run around with those who do”), preying on those who display such faults.
I use the word “prey” advisedly here. Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this sort of approach “ignoble” and “unchristian” (Letters and Papers from Prison) because it tries to use people’s weaknesses against them in a manipulative way and convince those who lives are going well that they are really miserable and weak. A lot of so-called evangelism in North America clearly reflects this approach.
Bonhoeffer is searching for a gospel that will address people in their strength and success, at the center of their lives rather than the periphery. I would say he looking for a word that speaks to who they are as human beings, God’s creatures, rather than or beyond what they have become as sinners. And that, I think, is what Genesis 1-2/Revelation 21-22 gives us!
Taking our theological bearings from these biblical bookend chapters and reading the rest in their light, we can make at least these two powerful claims:
-we are divine imager-bearers; we have become sinners, and
-we have a vocation: stewarding this good creation; we have become servants of self.
Here’s a gospel that calls to each of us, in our weakness and in our strength. It addresses what we have become (sinners who serve ourselves) but it does so under the rubric of idolatry. For idolatry is the fundamental human problem. And whether we’re in the gutter, alone, and flat broke or basking in the glow of wealth, security, good health, and family, each of us can and should be challenged about our worship of the wrong deity (ourselves). No need to hector, blame, or shame the former or stand silent with nothing to say to the latter. The problem of sin is idolatry, which afflicts both equally, and keeps them from their true selves and vocation in the world. This enables us to appeal to them on the basis of who they are: those loved and called by God to be his image-bearers and stewards offering them God’s welcome and promise in Christ to restore them to their authentic identity and primal vocation.
Jesus seemed to use this approach. Other than religious leaders, he seldom chided people for their sins (a lá modern evangelism) but called them to repent and become again who God called them to be – the Abrahamic people through whom God would bless the world (Genesis 12:1-3). Jesus approached people as who they were, not who they had become. He took care of who they had become (thank God!) on the cross and through his resurrection opened up new life to them – the life of God’s image-bearer and steward.
If we think of ourselves and approach others as redeemed sinners, we have not yet laid hold of the fullness of the gospel. But if we can think of ourselves and approach others as restored image-bearers the gospel has reached it goal. Redeemed sinners keeps the emphasis on what we have become. Restored image-bearers on who we truly are and are called to do. That’s why Paul calls his people “saints,” even the fractious and sometimes immoral Corinthians! Only as we embrace our true identity and vocation will we experience growth in Christ. We’ve been reclaimed by Jesus but there’s still a race to be run (Hebrews 12:1-3). Seeing ourselves as primarily as redeemed sinners makes us satisfied with being reclaimed and remaining at the starting line! More on this in the next post in this series.
C.S. Lewis, as so often, captures the insight here in memorable fashion. In his sermon “The Weight of Glory” he writes:
“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”