There can be no gospel without sin. Whereas God’s grace is preexistent to all creation (because grace is an attribute of God’s own being) the gospel is God’s graceful declaration to people that, because of Christ’s work, forgiveness is theirs. Grace is in the very nature of God, but the gospel is occasioned by human perdition and Divine unmerited grace. The gospel speaks and declares sinners righteous; it is not just arbitrary good news—“God loves you”—but Good News to sinners. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”1
This distinction is important, for if the gospel is news about and for sinners then a rich and full understanding of the gospel would necessitate a deep understanding of sin. For while it is true that one can be saved with a child-like faith, we are still called by the writer of Hebrews to desire meat, not milk.2 This becomes clearer the more you entrust your heart to God’s words about you. This is what “exercising your faith” means: Trusting God’s words instead of the twisted and mendacious whispers of your heart.
Many people understand sin as simple trespass: God says “no,” you do it anyway—that’s sin. Others go further and see sin in terms of a nature or condition, what we often call “original sin.” And sinfulness occupies both these views. But there is a third sense of sin that is rarely discussed. This third sense is horrifyingly terrible for it says that, not only are we trespassers and fallen, but we are in league with the demonic.3 In other words, it is not enough to say humans are bad people; humans are bad people working with the demonic, usurping God and destroying his kingdom.
This puts us in a most pitiful place. Sin originated before us. Humans are not the cause of evil’s existence.4 But the Bible also says that Adam sinned.5 The devil may have tempted us, but we soured ourselves. This is only part of the story; the Bible paints a graphic picture of humanity as victims of the demonic powers with whom they are allied. Our situation is not just that we are good people, gone bad, but we are good people, gone bad and handed over to Satan, our new “father” who cares for us with deceit, oppression and domination.6
John’s Gospel most directly confronts this cosmic struggle of kingdoms and loyalties. In chapter one he uses the metaphor of darkness to describe our condition, with Jesus as the Word bringing light and life to creation. John’s opening chapters have been recognized as paralleling the creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 where God’s creative Word casts away the primordial darkness of pre-creation. Also present, the “Spirit hovers over the waters”—involved and engaging in the creative work. In John it is the Logos, the Word,7 who creates (or remakes) creation by redeeming it from the clutches and powers of evil and darkness. The Logos is the light casting out the darkness which cannot overcome him. By his Word God speaks things new.
Our condition as sinners is curiously and graphically displayed, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”8 John is talking about the results of darkness, a type of blindness where one cannot even recognize friend from foe. In such a state where eyesight is useless, the power of the voice becomes prominent.9 In the New Testament, seeing is always less valuable than hearing. Eyes are worthless in darkness, rendering sight a less valuable sense than hearing.
John’s point takes a profound turn when applying our three aspects of sin—sin as trespass, a condition and an alliance with the demonic. We are so blind that we cannot tell friend from foe. Our eyes, given to help us discern the outside world, are shrouded in shadow. All that is left is blindness parading as sight; our eyes aren’t working, but the Enemy is contented to make us think they are. Reality is not seen, it is heard. But who are we listening to? Many times it is the dark circumambulations of our human hearts and the tempting voice of the Evil One.
Theologian T.F. Torrance has summed this up powerfully:
“Engulfed in an abyss of fearful darkness, too deep for men and women themselves to understand and certainly too deep for them to ever get out of it—a pit of bottomless evil power. Mankind is entangled in sin not wholly of its own making, enmeshed in the toils of a vast evil will quite beyond it, it is chained in terror and is dragged down and down into the poisonous source or pit of evil. It is evil at its ultimate source, evil at its deepest root, in its stronghold, that God has come to attack and destroy.”10
John says that it is into this darkness, this pit, this Sheol, that God-as-Christ enters. And he enters this menacing darkness with the intent of dying the sinner’s death. Christ tramples over death by death. The Light comes into the darkness to see if the darkness can overcome it, but the darkness cannot.
Easter celebrates Jesus’ defeat of death by death, with his rising from the grave authenticating this new reality. Death’s finality is sometimes personified in Scripture as a weight that keeps people anchored in their death-ness from which they cannot escape. Christ in his human-ness dies a real death but, once dead, in his Divine-ness he lifts the weight of death off himself and tramples over it—dancing as it were, on the chains and fetters that imprison us all. And the Bible shows this trampling as a victory over Satan and the demonic.11
So friends, if we walk in darkness and blindness, are law-breakers, and in league with darkness, then pause to consider the feelings of our hearts, the doubts of our minds, the interpretations of what God is or isn’t doing in our lives. Might it be that all the anxieties and anguish of our souls’ inner narrations are somehow not to be trusted at face value? What we think is “real” and what we call “experience,” the false contrast of faith versus reality becomes a matter of what we are listening to, not what we are seeing. Our feelings are real, but they are the words of our hearts—they are not God’s Word(s). The words of our heart are not to be trusted. They are duplicitous, specious, an ersatz of truth.
Theologian Karl Barth once said, “Doubt cannot be reasoned with, it must be preached to.” Barth’s point is correct—it is not by our own reasoning we trust in God, but by hearing the preached Word. The gospel is a word to sinners, people in darkness. The darkness we so often feel, the questions, the doubts, the anger and the pain of life-lived—this is all the pain of stumbling around in blindness.
But!…the people who walk in darkness have seen a great Light. That is the voice you need to hear today. Not the spurious voices of heart, head and hell telling you who you are, should be, have been, will be and so on, and certainly not the “sight” of the world at face value. How can blind voices in darkness say anything accurate about you? How can blindness describe color? In the face of sin, the gospel teaches us that it matters what voices you believe, what statements of identity you appropriate and in what place you find your hope. “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.”12
Indeed…so who are you listening to?
Pastor Bruce Hillman serves Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church in Succasunna, NJ.
1. Romans 8:1
2. Hebrews 5:12-14
3. see, Mueller, John, T. Christian Dogmatics. 1934, pg. 220, and: Romans 8:7, Ephesians 2:1, John 8:44, Romans 6:17,20, Hebrews 2:15.
4. Ibid, pg. 214. “According to the Scripture the external, or remote, yet principle cause of sin is Satan, who sinned first and then seduced man into sin…while the internal and directly efficient cause of sin is man’s corrupt will, which permits itself to be enticed by Satan.”
5. Romans 5:12-21
6. John 8:44, Romans 1:24,26,28 and 1 Corinthians 5:5-6.
7. Logos is Greek for “word,” think “logic” and “corporate logo.” In early Christian theology and the Gospel of John, Jesus is said to be the “Logos” or Word of God—in short, God’s disclosure or revelation of himself—because communication happens by words and allows us to know one another.
8. John 1:10-11
9. John 20:29 and 1 Corinthians 13:12
10. Torrance, T.F. Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ. InterVarsity Press. 2008, pg. 241.
11. 1 Corinthians 2:8, Colossians 2:15, Ephesians 1:19-21
12. Romans 10:17