I’ve been asked why do we, who like the Reformation and support a Law/Gospel paradigm in theology, always focus on ourselves as sinners? Aren’t we like Debbie Downer from Saturday Night Live who litters every fun conversation with sad and depressing news? When people want to talk about living out a life of love for the glory of God, we talk about our weakness, our need, and our inability. What about intimacy, healing, and fruit in a relationship with Jesus? Intimacy is wonderful; healing is great, and fruit is awesome! The question is not “what” is good (that’s God’s holy Law to love him and our neighbor as ourselves); but rather “how” we get there.
Furthermore, if we are constantly talking about ourselves as sinners, then aren’t we neglecting our identity as children of God, as saints, as new creations? Isn’t this going to cause our self-esteem to plummet and make us feel worthless as Christians? All excellent questions.
The short answer is, well no! Even though Christians are saints, they are still sinners this side of heaven. We prefer to talk about our need versus our victory because it keeps things in their proper place. Like any good recovery group, we go there to admit we are addicts. We talk about our incredible need for intervention from the outside (ever been in an argument where neither person can stop hurting each other?), our failure to choose the good (ever looked back on a decision and suddenly recognized the selfish motivations behind them?), and our weakness in sin (ever talked poorly about anyone?) because all these realities admit our human depravity is depraved! Our belief in human sin directly affects our belief in Jesus’ power to save. If our need is dire then his victory is mighty.
This is shown at the cross. At the cross, Jesus knew me in my secret (and not so secret) selfishness completely. He came specifically to take my place of condemnation and give me a right relationship with God instead. He took away my sin and reckoned to me (imputed) his righteousness. By admitting I’m a sinner, I’m weak, I simply admit the truth shown at the cross – I am weak… but He is strong.
In Who Shall Deliver Us? Paul Zahl writes: “Honesty means facing up to a tragic situation. In the New Testament, honesty is exemplified in Paul’s confession that his righteousness, his claim to moral superiority—let alone integrity—in the face of judgment, is equivalent to garbage (Phil. 3:8). In light of such honesty, God’s imputation to us of Christ’s moral perfection is a precious gift. It conveys authentic worth to personality” (74). I find it so freeing and relieving that Jesus knows me, and loves me, and he has forgiven even that. At the cross, God validated our worth and showed his great love for us. All the glory of being a saint will hit home when we are forgiven as a sinner.
What about the objection to focus on “the good parts” of us now that we are saints? Until Jesus returns I have a double life: I am fully justified and fully a sinner. I still live here on earth. My sin, though conquered, will continue to be condemned by the Law and thrust me on the Gospel until I go to heaven. I would prefer to focus on God’s “good parts” rather than mine. In Luther for Armchair Theologians Steven Paulson describes this as talking about the Law only, not the Gospel: “the simplest form of law alone in theology I suppose is that created nature itself is grace, or God’s favor, and the human problem is that we haven’t recognized it or responded to it (i.e. all Christians need to do is to remember that they are redeemed now and act like it!). If that were the case, then humans would be rid of their problems if they could just convince themselves that they are beautiful, good, and worthy in and of themselves. But as you may have learned, affirming yourself is a lonely and endless enterprise” (Paulson 30). It’s what God thinks of us that counts.
I will close with a word from Rod Rosenbladt at this year’s 2010 Mockingbird Conference: “Complete bondage of the human will in matters heavenly is ultimately good news because a doctor only comes for the sick.” The Apostle Paul boasted in his weakness, claiming to be the chief of sinners because that left him only one option: “so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9b). In Jesus’ kingdom, only sinners are called saints.