“I am a mess, yet deeply loved by God.” What a wonderful truth: that as I fumble through life God, who remembers my frail frame (Psalm 103:14), is gracious with me, The eternal, infinite, holy God knows that I am finite and is patient with me. While being a mess yet loved seems to capture much of evangelicalism’s understanding of the human nature, it does not fully capture the Bible’s teaching on human nature. We are more than broken; we are rebellious. We are less like a favorite car that needs restoring and more like a thief who kills the son to steal the car.
To be clear, we are indeed broken. Sin has fractured the universe and the curse perverts what should have been. Our bodies don’t function as they should. Work is characterized by thorn and thistle. Relationships are riddled with hurt and manipulation. Systems oppress the lowly. Worse yet, humanity finds itself alienated from God himself, the source of all goodness, holiness, and love. We are broken, but it is nonetheless a brokenness brought on and characterized by rebellion.
One can only rightly understand what it means to be human, and a sinful one at that, as they understand who God is and how they’re affected by the fall. Unfortunately, many Christians think about man in isolation, divorced from a proper understanding of God, disconnected from sin and salvation.
This is why Christians opt for words such as “messy” and “broken” to describe the human condition. This is why such a low premium is placed on holy living and kingdom ethic. When we begin with man and not the holy nature of God or when we neglect a full-orbed picture of salvation we inevitably minimize God’s attitude towards sin and His goal in creating for himself a holy people.
RIGHTLY UNDERSTANDING GOD
In the Bible, when men encounter God they see themselves rightly: as rebellious creatures. They fall on their faces confessing their sin in light of the holy nature of God (Isaiah 6:1-7; Luke 5:1-11). The holiness of God exposes sin. Yet, holiness (consecration from sin and to God) is not merely an attribute of God, it’s what God demands of His people and what He creates in them; His holiness begets holiness. (1 Peter 1:13-19; Hebrews 12:12-14; 2 Corinthians 3:18). Holy not only describes God, but his people (1 Peter 2:5,9-10).
Closely connected to God’s holiness is His love. These are not contrary attributes; rather, God’s love is holy and His holiness is loving. Often we wrongly understand God’s “unconditional love” to mean He is content with their sin. So, how are we to understand God’s love towards His people and his posture toward their sin?
We should first affirm that God’s love towards his people is unending, infinite, inexhaustible, and gracious. It is a love that has been merited by the obedient life, death, and resurrection of the Son. It is not hampered by our sin, and we are not in danger of losing it (Romans 8:31-39; John 10:27-30). It is a love that draws us in after we sin to feel the grace of the Father. His love also makes us holy. God isn’t content on leaving us with false our gods and fleeting joys. It is a love that conforms us to His, for our good (John 14:15, 21, 23-24).
RIGHTLY UNDERSTANDING SALVATION
There is a tendency among Christians to reduce the gospel to justification: the truth that through the substitutionary death of Christ we are forgiven our sins and because of Christ’s obedient life we are imputed with His righteousness, having right standing before God. God looks at sinners and declares them righteous, no longer under condemnation. It’s a solely forensic declaration.
No doubt, justification is glorious and is the linchpin of salvation. Yet while salvation can never be less than justification, it is certainly more. Salvation is the full-orbed act of God to save his people from the power, presence, and punishment of sin; it is the complete removal of rebellion and the curse and a restoration of humanity exceeding that of Eden. It makes rebels holy sons and daughters, both in status and ethic.
God is not intent on merely forgiving His people but on making a holy people. We have been foreknown and predestined so that we might be conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29-30). God’s work with His people is far from complete at the point of their justification; rather, it is merely the beginning of God’s removal of sin from their lives and conformity to God the Son incarnate. This is why the New Testament refers to salvation as both a past and future event (Titus 3:5; 2 Tim 1:9 Romans 13:11; 1 Peter 1:5). We have been forgiven, we will be glorified, Christians are we are commanded to work out our salvation in the present, progressively experiencing the salvation Christ has merited for us (Phil 2:12).
The Gospel is not only the ultimate display of a God who loves his people, but of a God who hates sin and is determined to rid it from His people. It was not merely the love of God that sent Jesus to the cross, but the judgment of God that demanded it (Gal 3:10-14; Romans 5:6-10; Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2). The gospel declares God loves His people, hates their sin, and is resolved to make them like Him.
RIGHTLY UNDERSTANDING REDEMPTIVE HISTORY
The biblical story moves from Adam to Noah, Abraham, Israel, and the kings of Israel; all of whom were covenanted to be holy sons of God, living under God’s rule, in God’s land, as God’s people; nonetheless, they all rebelled breaking the covenants of God. Yet God is so resolved to remove sin and the curse that God the Son became man, becoming the seed of Adam, the offspring of Abraham, the New Israel, and the Son of David to live in perfect covenant relationship with the Father, obedient to the law, and to die as our Passover lamb. Having been resurrected from the dead, Jesus is the New Adam and head of a new humanity created to image God (Col 3:10; Col 1:15; 2 Cor 3:18; Romans 8:29). The new heavens and new earth display God’s intention rid creation and His people of sin and rebellion.
The story of the bible is not merely about forgiveness; it is so much more. The Bible’s teleology—how it ends—should cause believers to call sin what it is, to hate it, to repent of it, and to live a life in consecration to God, and in accordance with the trajectory of redemptive history and the mission of God.
JUST SEMANTICS? WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
Rightly acknowledging our sinfulness protects us from thinking God is like us. God is righteous, meaning He has absolute resolve to always do what is right and just. God is Holy, meaning He is unique, morally pure, and devoted to Himself. When we opt to describe ourselves as “broken” without also admitting our rebellion, we attempt to blur the distinction between God’s holy nature and our corrupted nature. Satan is intent on telling us eating of the tree will not kill us but only make us like God (Gen 3:1-5). When we acknowledge our sin, we acknowledge we are not God, not the creator, and not the one who determines right and wrong.
A biblical understanding of sin glorifies God by rightly takes the emphasis off of us and onto God. God alone is praiseworthy, the origin of all that is good, and is free from sin. Conversely, when we do rightly image God, we glorify Him because we know that He has done such a work in taking a rebel and making him look and act like a son. We simply have no place to boast. Only with a robust understanding of sin can we appreciate the truly redemptive work of God: God has taken rebels and has declared them holy and is and will make them holy.
If we believe God’s holiness is a tolerant holiness and the goal of the gospel ends at forgiveness, we will tolerate our own sin. If we understand God commands holiness and begets holiness, we will pursue holiness in tandem with God’s work in us and in response to the gospel (Romans 12:1-2, 9-21).
For the sake of clarity, I’m not saying we work for our salvation; I am saying we work it out. I’m also not advocating mere “behavior modification.” God is looking for sincere worshipers (Matthew 15:8). But it should be noted that behavior is important. The New Testament is replete with ethical imperative, and as aforementioned, God’s goal for His people is their conformity to His image. The issue with sin is more than an arbitrary breaking of rules; sin promises joy and life but steals, kills, and destroys (John 10:10). Sin makes us less than truly human, marring the image of God in us. And most importantly, when we sin we vie with God for his status. When we rightly understand the damaging consequences of sin, the way it grieves our Holy God, and that obedience is both good for us and is an overflow of our love for God, we will make every effort in our sanctification.
We are deeply broken and willfully rebellious. But God—and this is the only hope for a broken and rebellious people—is loving and holy. He is committed to make us like Him. Let us reclaim biblical language regarding our nature, not as a step backwards but as a step forwards, that repentance, belief, and holiness can be made possible.