Formulate, express, reformulate, clarify.
One of the best things about this writing process is the opportunity to interact with thoughtful people and, from that, to reformulate and clarify my thoughts.
In a recent conversation someone remarked that if Jesus came to take away our sin then isn’t being without sin what it means to be in right relationship with God?
In a nutshell, No.
For sin is not so much “stuff we do wrong against God” as anything that takes out of right relationship with ourselves, others, our world, and particularly God.
Perhaps a comparison will help. Take Steve Brown’s book, Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad at You. For Brown we have “3 free sins” because nothing—nothing—Christians do can separate us from God (and God’s love) because of Christ’s death on the cross. But I am saying that nothing can separate anyone—anyone, Christian or no—from the love of God because of who God is.
Putting it another way, not acting, thinking, or being of a disposition that distances us from God is not the same thing as being in right relationship with God, just as knowing about God’s love is not the same thing as being in love with God, and having all of one’s orientations informed and directed by one’s love. Right acting—obedience—is essential for right relationship between humans and the Christian God but is not the relationship itself.
For example, the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15) did all the “right things” and yet was not in right relationship with his father, his brother, or even himself.
Because he lacked love. He was completely obedient—he had done everything right—yet he was not rightly disposed towards his father, his brother, or himself. And this was made clear by his response at his brother’s homecoming.
The error here is that there are two categories that are integral to God and essential to Christianity: love and truth. In my experience, evangelical Christians typically set truth over love while liberal Christians set love over truth. Neither works (though we’ll put that discussion on hold for now).
So I would say that we have “no free sins,” because every act, disposition, thought, etc. that puts me into improper relationship with myself, my fellows, my world, and with God is moving me further from my goal and not closer to it. For what is the goal of one who is in love? It is to be with the beloved, to be close to that one, engaged with that one.
So it is not a question of “what will be held against us” or of God loving us less on account of our wrongdoing. Rather, it is a question of who we are and where we are versus who and where we long to be as those beloved of (and in love with) God. In this context sin is not something that counts against us but that which, to whatever degree, keeps the lover from the beloved.
The pivotal point is this:
It is not only that God loves me but that I love God, because the fitting response to love—by one who in truth knows me more truly that I know myself and who, in love, loves me more deeply than I love myself—is love.
So sin is important, but the primary focus is that God loves us, God desires us, and longs to hear our voices. And when I sin, I cannot love / relate to / be with God as I long to.
In this sense, then, we come full circle in that we fulfill a command (“Love the lord your God”) that is our greatest command and yet which is our greatest joy to fulfill. And indeed, how much more could the “law be written within my heart” (Jer 31:33) than that it is my greatest joy to fulfill my greatest command? (NRSV)