Every Christian knows that being forgiven from our sins is Christianity 101. But if you ask most Christians what it means to be forgiven from our sins, I would wager that very few could answer with any confidence. I think a common answer would be something like a tautology: well, being forgiven from our sins means we’re forgiven from our sins. This was kind of how I felt having attended a church for many years where a corporate confession was done weekly, and it was always announced after that our sins were forgiven. I always appreciated that this was included in every service because I don’t think it’s done in a lot of Evangelical churches, but I always wondered why it was never explained that there was more to the point than just forgiveness.
I didn’t realized just how much was missing until I heard Dr. Kim Riddlebarger, Pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, CA, say on a White Horse Inn broadcast something I thought I already knew. Having a masters degree from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, I surely should have known it, and did, but for some reason it wasn’t at the forefront of my understanding of my relationship with God. Keep in mind that the key word in the phrase is almost invisible in most Evangelical circles. It is implied because of the centrality of the cross to our religion, but it is rarely spelled out. Dr. Riddlebarger simply said, and in passing:
God’s wrath is fully satisfied in Christ.
I’ll never forget the jolt that went through me when I heard it; the proverbial old million watt light bulb had gone on. So that’s it! Me and God, we’re good. What a relief!
I think I’d been living a bit like a minor league Martin Luther did before his conversion when he finally understood he couldn’t pull off living a life pleasing to a holy God. In his study of Romans Paul saying the just (or righteous) shall live by faith was his light bulb, and his changed the course of Western civilization. Like Luther, I was finding perfection a difficult thing to attain. It’s rather obvious I couldn’t get close, not a million miles close. So even though I “knew” I was forgiven because Jesus died on the cross for me, I didn’t fully get it because I didn’t know what I was forgiven from. So for years I was on a low-guilt simmer, “knowing” I was forgiven, but not always feeling terribly forgiven. Sadly, I think this is a common experience for many Christians because Christianity has become more about moralism (how to be a good, better person, etc.) than about the gospel, rightly understood.
I was thinking about this as I read a long book recently by a widely respected, conservative Evangelical scholar (since died), and he talked about the gospel over and over again, but he never once defined what the gospel is. This was so frustrating for me because he was saying a lot of valuable things, and had some tremendous insights, but he missed the very heart of the matter, the thing that makes Christianity, Christianity. It was like he assumed every Christian just knows what the gospel is, and now we’ll get to the important part, living the Christian life. I’m afraid that has it exactly backwards.
And what is this gospel? Dr. Riddlebarger’s simple statement gives us a hint: It is God saving us from himself! I had never thought of it in these terms until not too long ago. I’ve been reading and writing may way through the Bible (one of the best things I’ve ever done) for several years now, and this phrase came to me because I’d immersed myself in the Old Testament for so long (over three and a half years). I will explain in more detail what I mean by it, and how transformational it has been for my walk with and relationship to God, in my next post.