In this country we live in a Christian culture well-described by the late Dallas Willard as promoting a gospel of “sin-management.” Perhaps it’s because it was birthed in frontier revivalism with its dualism of body and soul. The latter was the important thing about us and hence, “soul-saving” (getting people into heaven) was the overriding (only?) task of the Christian. The barrier to this was “sin.” Therefore we became sin-obsessed. We saw ourselves as forgiven sinners (which we are – thank God!).
This was Billy Graham’s burden in his evangelistic crusades and, in a different key, it was the message of philosophical theologian Paul Tillich is his famous essay “You are Accepted” in his book Shaking the Foundations. After quoting Paul’s claim that where sin abounds grace superabounds (Rom.5:20), Tillich writes: “These words of Paul summarize his apostolic experience, his religious message as a whole, and the Christian standing of life” (http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=378&C=84).
As important, crucial, necessary, gracious, and non-negotiable as God’s unconditional acceptance of us in Christ is, it remains but the first word in living faithfully as a Christian. A first word we never outgrow or leave behind, to be sure, but a word that if made the whole of our life with God stunts our growth and leaves us infantilized. And I believe this is what has happened in much American Christianity.
The key here is the phrase “in Christ.” Irenaeus of Lyon, the great second century theologian, in his book Against Heresies wrote:
“[Christ] was in these last days, according to the time appointed by the Father, united to His own workmanship, inasmuch as He became a man liable to suffering ... He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam—namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God—that we might recover in Christ Jesus.”
Athanasius, an important fourth century theologian put it more concisely: “He became what we are so that he might make us what he is.”
Paul’s favorite phrase “in Christ” is what Irenaeus means by “salvation” – the recovery of the “image and likeness of God” and what Athanasius means by us being made “what he is.”
And that is much more than seeing oneself as a forgiven sinner. God accepts us fully and unconditionally as the sinners we have become. But his intent is that we are restored to the humans we he created us to be.
Accepted in Christ is thus but a first moment in believing existence. Indispensable yet incomplete by itself. A second moment is that God has respected us in Christ. He treats us as the beings he made and redeemed us to be. Forgiven sinners is not an identity that will foster growth in us because it does not correspond to reality in Christ. Karl Barth gets it right in the chapter on the resurrection of Jesus in his Dogmatics in Outline:
“. . . he is translated into the kingdom of God’s dear Son. That means that his position, his condition, his legal status as a sinner is rejected in every form. Man is no longer seriously regarded by God as a sinner. Whatever he may be, whatever there is to be said of him, whatever he has to reproach himself with, God no longer takes him seriously as a sinner. He has died to sin; there on the Cross of Golgotha. He is no longer present for sin. He is acknowledged before God and established as a righteous man, as one who does right before God. As he now stands, he has, of course, his existence in sin and so in its guilt; but he has that behind him. The turn has been achieved, once for all . . . Man is in Christ Jesus, who has died for him, in virtue of His Resurrection, God’s dear child . . . may live by and for the good pleasure of God.” (121-122)
God respects his own handiwork and purpose in us and his costly redemption and restoration of us to, as Irenaeus put it above (echoing Genesis), “the image and likeness of God.” He treats us in Christ as he created us to be: his image-bearing royal priests to whom he entrusted the responsibility for reflecting his will and way throughout creation and caring for the creation’s well-being. And it is folly, perhaps even blasphemy, to regard ourselves as other than that!
Finally, in Christ responsibility comes with response-ability. We are now expected, the third moment in our profile of Christian existence, to live like those royal priests in the world. What God gives us to do, we can do. By grace, of course. Thus it was always meant to be. God never envisioned us doing what he wants us to do on our own. That’s what the “tree of life” in the Garden of Eden means. Our life source and energy comes from God’s life in us. All we can do by ourselves is sin! But accepted and respected in Christ, we are also expected now to live as who we are.
All this is why I claimed earlier that to live only as accepted stunts our growth as believers. It leaves us in the position of forgiven sinners, which is great as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. It does not go as far as God goes, which is as far as we should go too. We never enter into the fullness of life God has for us here and now. Instead we stay trapped in a holding pattern, often called “at the same time a sinner and justified,” thinking we will always be “treading water” between sin and faith. Now while this slogan captures a certain truth, it needs to be reformulated to indicate that there is no equilibrium between sin and faith but rather an asymmetrical relation. Sin, while still a reality for us is passing away, while faithfulness is growing to be more and more real in our lives. And we can only claim and live that out if we embrace the profile outlined here: accepted, respected, expected!