This week’s standard readings are, quite obviously, all about sin and redemption. Adam and Eve in the Garden, the psalmist acknowledging his sin, Paul explaining how all sins are made redeemable by Christ, and Jesus resisting Satan in the wilderness. All involve (either explicitly or impliedly) the issues of temptation, recognition of the same and either resistance to it or a succumbing to it, and the questions of why and when and how atonement can be made.
It’s worth noting that for many of us, the story of Eden is troubling theologically and logically, and also fails to resonate emotionally. Among the dozen or more questions that naturally arise: Why would God create the conditions for the “fall of man” in the first place? Why plant the tree if He didn’t want us to eat its fruit? Why provide the temptation He knew we were unlikely to resist? And why – according to most traditionalist theology – should the “punishment” for that “original sin” be visited upon humankind for all eternity? The whole “sins of that father being visited upon the sons” seems patently unfair, senseless, and counterproductive.
Saint Paul, as usual, tries to redirect our focus. The point, he says, is not that we sin, and not whether the original sin is justly imputed to us. (Paul says we all sin enough on our own, again and again, completely apart from Adam’s legacy.) Instead, he says, the point is how God responds to our sin: with compassion, forgiveness, and the hope of redemption through faith in His grace.
Paul reminds us that it isn’t cheap grace, either. It is grace brought via one man’s suffering, sacrifice, and obedience until death. It is a grace offered through the one ultimate act, designed to expiate not one act of sin but a long and continuing history of transgressions.
“For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification,” Paul wrote.
Note, though, that the grace is not cheap on either side. Not only is the grace awarded via the greatest and hardest act of all, the self-sacrifice of the innocent Christ, but it also must be accepted by us, in the spirit both of thanks and contrition.
Psalm 32 shows that the entire tradition of Jesus’ Jewish faith was based on this idea that the covenantal relationship between men and God works both ways in an ongoing interplay. Wrote the psalmist:
“I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity,” I said. “I will confess my transgressions to the lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
For some of us, this is hard, not because we sin so flagrantly and are ashamed, but because we have a hard time understanding or admitting that we have sinned at all. We follow the Ten Commandments; we try to act with kindness and thoughtfulness towards others; we usually do love our neighbors and also obey the civil laws (well, maybe except for slightly fudging the Interstate highway speed limits).
These readings, however, should (when taken together) re-orient us. The point is not to beat our breasts and condemn ourselves as horrendous evil-doers; the point is to compare ourselves to the highest standards and realize that we can always improve even more. If Jesus could resist the greatest temptations Satan threw at him; if Jesus could later suffer flogging and crucifixion despite being entirely innocent; if Jesus could take onto himself not just one or two menial sins but all the sins, great and small, of all mankind, then surely we can aspire not just to an anodyne inoffensiveness and decency but to extraordinary love for God and for the great creation he gave us.
The measure of our sinfulness is not that we haven’t murdered or committed adultery – those are bare minimum requirements – but whether we have (forgive the cliché) gone the extra mile, the mile we are surely capable of traveling, in order to carry God’s love to realms where it hasn’t yet been understood or appreciated.
This redemption God offers for our sins great and small is God’s call to us to love extravagantly and unconditionally – not guardedly, in order to check off a list of sins avoided, but rather exuberantly, as willing vessels through which God’s grace can act.
Again, the psalmist’s wisdom stands out: “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, o righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.”
If the wage of sin is death (as Paul said), then the wage of obedience is joy. With or without the sin in Eden, that is the understanding God wants us to share.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist. His faith-themed satirical novel, Mad Jones: Heretic, is due for publication in June by Liberty Island Media.