Thousands of sermons and talks up and down the land will have attempted to answer this question in the last week. Why did Jesus come, and what are we celebrating at Christmas? Justin Welby’s sermon in Canterbury on Christmas Day focussed on the theme of freedom or liberation:
In the manger is something completely different from all human strivings for freedom. The baby in the manger is a paradox from the first breath he draws in his mother’s arms to the last cry he utters on the cross. He is power seen in humility, and He offers freedom expressed in loving service.
It is this Christly paradox of freedom springing from the overflowing of love that leads to salvation, to the common good and human flourishing. There is no power in the universe stronger than God’s love and it is directed towards the liberation of human beings.
Just before Christmas, a tweet from Tim Keller (of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York) had a different (but possibly related) focus:
Jesus didn't come primarily to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world. He came to forgive our sins.
— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) December 18, 2017
There was, not surprisingly, something of a reaction, pushing back against this claim—as you can see from the number of responses. The early parts of the Twitter discussion make quite interesting reading, not least because Tim Keller himself actively engages in the debate—something not many high-profile Christian leaders do on social media. The comment that attracted my attention came from Daniel Kirk, who had been teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary but left when he could no longer sign their basis of faith.
Just an observation: if this is right, then people who have written books about Jesus and missed the fact that the primary thing (forgiveness of sins) is primary include: Matthew, Mark, and John. You can only say this if Paul is your primary theology and Jesus your secondary. https://t.co/adKVRoNG3y
— Daniel Kirk (@jrdkirk) December 19, 2017
Leaving aside the assumed separation between the theologies of Jesus and Paul (which is worth another whole debate), I thought this was a very odd way of reading the gospels. I started at the beginning of Matthew to see whether sins and their forgiveness featured in his account of Jesus’ birth and ministry—and didn’t need to read very far. When the angel announces to Joseph that Mary will give birth to a son, he tells him to name him Jesus (Joshua) ‘because he will save his people from their sins’ (Matt 1.21). In John’s ministry preparing the way for Jesus, the people’s response is to ‘confess their sins’ prior to baptism (Matt 3.6). Jesus then arrives on the scene, announcing the presence of the longed-for kingdom of God in his own person and ministry. What is the first response to this to be? To ‘repent’ (Matt 4.17), meaning not so much (as popularly preached) simply to have a change of mind, but (in the sense of the Hebrew term in the OT shuv) to turn from sin to forgiveness. For Jesus, this appears to be an integral part of the process of believing and receiving (or entering) the kingdom. In his teaching about prayer in Matt 6, Jesus includes reference to the forgiveness of sins, which we pray every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer. It is interesting that, of all the petitions, this is the one that Jesus makes a subsequent comment on Matt 6.14).
When the paralytic is lowered through the roof, Jesus’ pronouncement is surprising for all sorts of reasons: ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’ (Matt 9.2). Jesus then characterises the purpose of his whole ministry as calling, not the righteous, but sinners (Matt 9.13) and Luke makes clear in his parallel account that the calling of sinners is not simply to being accepted, but to ‘repentance’ (Luke 5.32). Near the end of his account, Matthew is also clear about why Jesus will die and what we are remembering in the Lord’s supper: ‘This is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26.28). We could do a similar exercise in relation to the other gospels, through this noting that Luke, too, sees the coming of Jesus related to the forgiveness of sins. Although we think of Mary’s Magnificat as focused on upending social structures and power relations, Zechariah’s Benedictus is clear that preparing to receive Jesus involves ‘the forgiveness of their sins’ (Luke 1.77).
Looking back over this cursory list, it seems odd to have to spell this out. But what is even odder is Kirk’s comment that the importance of forgiveness of sins is not a focus of the gospels. It seems to me that ‘progressive’ theology often pulls away from what the text of the NT actually says, driven by particular ideological concerns. That’s not to say that other theological traditions aren’t also shaped by ideology, including many strands of US evangelical theology. But the answer to ideological bias isn’t to offer an alternative bias; it is to read the NT more carefully and allow it to scrutinise all our biases.
Another ‘progressive’ who picked up on Keller’s statement was Morgan Guyton, a member of the United Methodist church in the US. Curiously, Guyton draws on Keller’s own writing to offer a critique of Keller’s tweet:
In any case, the argument Keller makes in Generous Justice is what I would use to critique the false dichotomy he creates in this tweet. In a nutshell, Generous Justice explains why a straightforward evangelical gospel of God’s mercy ought to make Christians into the most ardent advocates for the poor and marginalized. So why did Keller write this tweet in a way that perpetuates the false presentation of the social gospel and the evangelical gospel as zero-sum alternatives to one another?
Why didn’t he say that Jesus solves the economic, political, and social problems of the world by forgiving our sins (which is the thesis of Generous Justice)? That would have been a lot more thought-provoking. I could cosign that statement as long as we understand that sin is not a privatized system of demerit for rule-breaking but rather a global spiderweb of imprisoning toxicity in which we are all trapped.
What is interesting here is that a ‘progressive’ is actually aligning himself with the theological outlook of a Reformed conservative in Keller; his concern is the implications of the tweet as it is expressed. Keller appears to be well aware of this:
Folks, key word is "primarily." Of course, he addresses economic, political, and social issues. See my book Generous Justice. Please don't make a tweet of mine indictive of my entire theology.
— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) December 18, 2017
As Tom Wright has commented, the problem with being a theologian is that people expect you to say everything all of the time—if you ever make a particular statement, you get criticised for all the other things that you did not say! This is amplified on social media, and particularly a medium like Twitter which is limited in its character count.
At one level, this discussion is simply a re-run of the question found in the tension between reading Paul in Romans and James in his letter. Paul teaches that Christians are not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 2.16; Rom 3.28). He refers to Abraham as an example of one who was justified by faith, not works, citing Gen 15.6 (Rom 4.3; Gal 3.6). James seems to claim just the opposite: A person is justified by works, and not by faith alone (2.24), and he too uses Abraham as an example, also citing Gen 15.6. Although their points are different, the parallels in argumentation appear as follows (cited from Dunn, Romans I:197):
|Issue posed in terms of faith and works||3.27-28||2.18|
|Significance of claiming ‘God is One’||3.29-30||2.19|
|Appeal to Abraham as test case||4.1-2||2.20-22|
|Citation of proof text—Gen 15.6||4.3||2.20-22|
|Interpretation of Gen 15.6||4.4-21||2.23|
The tension here can be resolved by noticing that Paul and James actually use their language in different ways. So for Paul, ‘faith’ is trust in Christ that manifests itself in love (Gal 5.6), whereas for James ‘faith’ is mere intellectual assent that only professes belief without demonstrating it (2.14, 19). For Paul, ‘works’ means a continuing insistence on OT ceremonial, but for James (as elsewhere in the NT) ‘works’ refers to the fruit of a regenerate life—acts of kindness and obedience to God (2.15-16). What both are concerned about is that trust in God for salvation—if it is real—will make a measurable difference in the conduct of life, which is why Paul often follows his exposition of what God has done for us in Christ with quite lengthy ethical instructions. Keller seems very well aware of this connection:
That's not how it works in my world Brian. Our justice arm Hope for New York @HopeforNewYork gives away millions a year, volunteer hours, etc. Properly placed forgiveness of sins motivates out of gratitude a heart of service. Motivation out of guilt or shame is worse.
— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) December 18, 2017
It is worth noting (in passing) that the language of Jesus ‘coming’ is often thought of as Johannine: in John’s gospel Jesus appears to have a very developed sense of his pre-existence, particularly when talking about ‘coming into this world’ (John 5.43, 8.14, 12.46, 14.28, 16.28, 18.37 and elsewhere). But Simon Gathercole points out (in The Pre-existent Son) that this language of ‘coming’ is also present in the Synoptics gospels, and has similar overtones to the language in John. He highlights ten important Synoptic ‘I have come’ + purpose sayings:
- “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1.24)
- “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” (Matt 8.29)
- “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (Mark 1.38)
- “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5.31–32)
- “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5.17)
- “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12.49)
- “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt 10.34)
- “For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter–in–law against her mother–in–law—” (Matt 10.35)
- “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.45)
- “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19.10)
It shouldn’t really surprise us to find hints at pre-existence here—since all these as texts post-date Paul’s language in Phil 2 which most commentators see as clear exposition of belief in Jesus’ pre-existence. There might even be a sermon series in this list of sayings.
But the question remains: if at Christmas we primarily celebrating Jesus coming for the forgiveness of sins, how can we speak of it in Christmas services? Certainly not in the crass way I once heard it from an earnest curate—telling the once-a-year congregation that they were all sinners, and that the first thing they needed to do at Christmas was to repent. Tom Wright argues, most recently in his The Day the Revolution Began, that we have a poor, pietistic and individualised understanding of sin, and we need to see sin as more fully that complex of failure which marks every aspect of life and catches us up in its web. We need to recapture the wide range of vocabulary used in Scripture of sin as missing the mark, failing, transgression, rebellion, guilt, bondage, slavery and alienation. If Jesus came to bring all these things to an end, then we have good news indeed.
The question remains: how can we do this in an engaging and inviting way? Answers on a postcard please…
Don’t forget to book your place at the the Festival of Theology on Jan 30th!
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