There are three basic ways to describe any sin – not three different sins, but three ways to analyse what is going on. I’m increasingly convinced that our evangelistic and apologetic impact will be sharpened if we choose the right biblical language. These three are not in tension, although they give us different biblical language to select. But equally, choosing the wrong language can drastically reduce our ability to communicate well. Since all three are biblical, covering the same ground but in different ways, I take it we need all three, but maybe we can choose different starting points according to the culture of our hearers.
Starting with Jesus
The simplest and most helpful summary of the person and work of Christ is Calvin’s brilliant ‘Prophet, Priest and King’. I know it’s not his original idea, but his development is probably the best known and most influential. Take each in turn.
If we describe Christ as our Lawful King, then sin is an act of rebellion, and the consequence of sin is guilt.
The is probably our best-well trodden path, and for good reason. It is self-evidently biblical, and powerfully analytical in the way it provokes self examination.
For good reason, then, it is built into some of our most widely used evangelistic tools. Two Ways to Live, which originated in Australia, has as its constant visual theme the picture of a crown, and the verbal themes of ruler and rebellion. Similarly, Christianity Explored, which runs through Mark’s gospel, has one of its motifs, “You’re more wicked than you ever realised, but more loved than you ever dreamed.”
But we need to realise the way that this might be heard, or resisted. Ever since the work of Freud, Jung and Adler, there has been a determined push to move guilt away from being an objective reality, into a subjective feeling; and then, to ‘help’ people to realise that their feelings of guilt are inappropriate. Freud was quite explicit in his determination that the religions which talk of guilt should be displaced, and the work of therapy replace them.
There is much more we could say on that, and if you want a tough but dazzling read, I heartily recommend Philip Reiff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968, repr. Wilmington: ISI 2006). But the consequence of the move, is that people can evade our message of guilt, because like a good tennis player, they have already practiced their return of serve. They know how we will spin the ball, and they know how to counteract it. Now if we’re really good at tennis, we can anticipate that and position ourselves for the rally – but along with less proficient tennis players, they know that they need to have more than one way to serve.
If we describe Christ as our Perfect Priest, then sin is an act of idolatry, and the consequence of sin is being unclean.
Perhaps the person who has done most to popularise this motif is Tim Keller, at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, in New York. In much of his teaching about preaching, including his latest, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Scepticism (New York: Viking; London, Hodder and Stoughton, 2015) he has diagnosed a series of cultural idols: money, sex, power, beauty, and so on. Behind him lies the diagnostic counselling theology of CCEF and the outstanding work of David Powlison and Paul David Tripp.
There are a number of reasons why this is a powerful way of describing sin. First, it is a biblical way, but a less well-known one, so it catches people by surprise. Then, because it is less well known, people don’t know where the idea will lead, and they will listen, more intrigued. And third, because the bible is true, it resonates with their experience: idols demand full loyalty, can never be satisfied, and will never give you what they promise. So someone who worships beauty can never escape the expectation s/he will look perfect, spends huge sums at the gym, on beauty products and clothes, and when s/he looks in the mirror willingly feel ugly. Above all, we worship ourselves as the ultimate idol.
The key to the gospel here is the work of Christ as a perfect sacrificial offering, with a full devoted heart to the God who rightly demand full loyalty, but because of the work of Christ has been satisfied, and will deliver on each of his promises and demands. And it is as Pauline as the guilt theme: Romans, for instance, can be described as the outworking of idolatry from chapters 1 and 2, and the outworking of true worship from 12:1-2.
These are not exclusive patterns, of course: Keller himself has said, ‘The gospel of justifying faith means that while Christians are, in themselves still sinful and sinning, yet in Christ, in God’s sight, they are accepted and righteous. So we can say that we are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope — at the very same time.’ (Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: Living in Line with the Truth of the Gospel (New York: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2003), p2)
But it immediately recognisable to me, that while the non-Christians near me bridle at being told they are guilty, they resonate with the language of idolatry. Now, the question is, is that an equally biblical way of describing the issue which has the advantage of impact, or am I avoiding the gospel’s cutting edge?
If we describe Christ as the True Prophet, then sin is an act of lying, and the consequence of sin is the intellectual confusion of believing lies.
Again, this is a major biblical theme, from the consequence of believing the serpent’s lies in Genesis 3. And Paul hits this in Romans too: the consequence of sin is that God darkens our minds and causes intellectual confusion; by contrast, true worship is brought in by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12)
At this point I struggle to find a contemporary exemplar, and I think this is telling. I have been re-reading Francis Schaeffer lately, and I shall return to him in a later post, but for now I notice that we lack someone of his pin-sharp intellect to describe the reasons for the mess of our culture. He built an impressive foundation, which is still valid, but we need someone to guide us through the waterfall of words and images that now descend on us. he did, remarkably, predict the internet and some of its consequences, but I think he would be surprised by our captivity to unintellectual spectacle on the screen, stage, and sports field.
And Schaeffer certainly did not foresee the rise of Islam, whether militant or otherwise, with its counter gospel themes of another prophet, another definition of worship, and another legal kingdom. But Calvin certainly did – it is sobering to re-read the Institutes with the realisation that by ‘Turks’, he meant the armies and navies of Islam which were then forcing their way through Europe. He did not survive to hear about the decisive battle of Lepanto in 1571, but the first edition of the Insititutes was published a mere seven years after the siege of Vienna, and in constant realisation of Islam’s intellectual as well as military presence. Today, the triple motif of Prophet, Priest and King could have great apologetic usefulness against its anti-biblical derivatives
So we must do this work. I used to be in a reading group with a bunch of non-Christians, and one reason was that in any book worth reading properly, the gospel themes will walk off the page. In the past, the biblical background was omnipresent unless it was explicitly denied; now the reverse is the case. Nevertheless, the denial of the gospel does not mean it is untrue, and the most virulent atheists cannot escape the inconsistencies of their position, not its inevitable impress in their work.
Well, if you’re the next Francis Schaeffer, please stand up! More seriously, I think we need to stop shooting from the hip when people describe the gospel in ways that are fully biblical not immediately familiar to us. We should do some work to unearth the other categories that are there – although I think these three are foundational because, as Calvin observed, they are three messianic offices in the Old Testament, and are non-negotiable. They are also non-metaphorical.
We also need to see where they overlap: all three see God as infinitely holy, and us as not merely finite (which is not a problem) but fallen (which is); God’s reaction of pure and holy wrath against our sin is partnered by his equally pure and holy love, leading to the cross of Christ and his physical resurrection. we are now living before his final disclosure as our perfect Prophet, Priest and King, and our alternative destinies of heaven and hell. None of that is remotely metaphorical.
So, which of those three models is the one you default to? Which is the one you’re least familiar with? Which is the one that might have the greatest purchase in your non-Christian community?