Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Power or Guilt of Sin?

I am reading The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views at the moment, and generally enjoying the food-for-thought it offers.

Something that surprised me in Greg Boyd's section on Christus Victor, was the degree to which the New Testament speaks of sinfulness as being a kind of "power" which rules over humanity and which we thus need freeing from. Thomas Schreiner, who defends Penal Substitution in the book, took issue with this of course and asserted that it is the personal moral "guilt" of sin that is the issue, and thus God's wrath which we need freeing from. Yet he provides little evidence of this beyond his assertion. (pg 51, 68)

Now the New Testament never once mentions the word "guilt" in relation to the atonement, so Schreiner's inability to support his claims is hardly surprising. But it is interesting to realize that the New Testament talks about sinfulness as if it were a power that dominates humanity and holds it in its thrall. Correspondingly, humanity needs rescuing from its domination.

I find it interesting to reflect on the biblical authors' way of viewing sinfulness. Taken too far in that direction and it could seemingly erase moral responsibility, leaving humans totally helpless and trapped by the domination of sinfulness from which we can do nothing at all to be free. Indeed Paul lays this picture on thick in Romans 5-8 and presents a person saying "woe is me, I am trapped by sinfulness ruling over me despite what I want" and then presents Christ as the answer to free the person from the power of sinfulness. I think this depiction is balanced however by language in the other direction elsewhere - given the NT is choc-full of moral exhortation it definitely implies ability on our part to join the fight. I think Boyd has it right when he highlights the war language that depicts a battle, and sees the fight of us and Christ against the power of sinfulness and evil in human lives as an extremely strong focus in the New Testament.

It is interesting how our modern Western worry about guilt before God are just so different to these ideas. Instead of asking "who will save me from the power of sinfulness", we ask "who will save me from God?" Instead of seeing sinfulness as a dominating power we pretend the bible is talking about guilt whenever it mentions sinfulness. People are convinced that guilt is the problem, and hey, the bible might never say it, but they're sure that it's the real problem nonetheless. However much I might disagree with Stendahl, I think he was absolutely on the money in suggesting that we have learned to read the bible in a way that sees talk of "guilt" where there is none.


Blogger Scott said...

Surely the reason we need to be saved from the power of sin, is the reality of guilt, death, and the wrath to come? I dont' think it's either/or, esp. in Romans 5-8. We're very much in need of saving from the wrath of God

"Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him!"

Blogger Scott said...

But I would say that, because I'm western and evangelical and completely biased. ;)

Blogger mervyn said...

Surely the fact that Paul can quote from Psalm 32 - the great OT text about gulti and forgiveness - in the context of his discussion of atonement and faith (Romans 3:21-4:25) suggests that it is simplistic to say that the NT never talks about guilt in the context of discussing atonement??


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