[Today’s Christian, November-December 2002]
The Economics of Sin
Q. I have a tough question for you. I was asked this in my Acteens Class and I need to know how to answer it next time. (1) Once we become Christians, why should we ask God’s forgiveness for sins we commit, if he has already forgiven our sins? (2) What is the use of asking God’s forgiveness for sins that we know we will continue to commit, and keep on committing, because we like to? Both these questions are hard to answer, and I’m not sure I did it well enough in my own words. —Ann P.
A. Some of the "hard questions" we’re faced with are actually bent questions; there’s something wrong with the question’s premise in the first place. When we try to answer them we get confused, because we feel like there’s something wrong with the whole picture, but we can’t put our finger on what it is.
The problem with these questions is that they are *legalistic*. They presume that our whole relationship with God is based on getting a debt paid, or getting a penalty covered. Kids can’t be blamed for operating under that assumption, because often when we present the Gospel, those are the terms we use. If we stress that our sins are like financial debts or crimes, and present Jesus as the one who paid for them, it’s natural for new believers to think that their part consists of saying a hearty "Thanks!" Then they can get back to whatever they wanted to do. After all, if God gets a kick out of forgiving us, let him. Why hold back? Why not sin so grace may abound?
The idea that we should go on asking for forgiveness can seem kind of strange. If someone paid your credit card bill you’d be very grateful, but you’d think it was kind of creepy if they kept expecting you to grovel about it. This is especially true when we stress to new believers that they bring nothing to their own salvation, that Jesus did it all. Well, if that’s the case, they think, why bother to try? Our sin is inevitable, and his forgiveness is guaranteed, so just accept it.
In all this we may have put too much weight on the legal aspect of sin and salvation. Jesus never taught us to pray, "Our Banker, who art in heaven." The motivation for our salvation was love, and when we respond with an eye to the bottom line, we drastically limit the relationship. We remain polite strangers to God, rather than daughters and sons.
It’s always a good idea to balance our other teachings about the nature of salvation with the image of the Father of the Prodigal Son. When the son came home, the Father didn’t say, "I’d like to take you back, son, but who’s going to pay these bills?" The son didn’t say, "OK, Dad, I *said* I was sorry. When do we eat?" We can imagine instead that the Father’s boundless, unmerited love provoked profound love in the son, and a desire to change. The son was no doubt glad to have someone draw a bath for him, and to scrub up and get into nicer-smelling clothes. He was willing to be different from how he comfortably was before, because he wanted to be a fit dweller in his Father’s house. He was prepared to show his gratitude by seeking to know his Father’s wishes and cooperating with them, even if that meant giving up his former carousing. The son was willing to change, *longed* to change, because he wanted to live close beside his Father and look into his beloved face with joy every day.
It should be clear that this desire to change has nothing to do with "earning" salvation; the son doesn’t remain in the Father’s house because of his "merits." There were no conditions laid on his welcome home, and the free gift is truly free. But a son who took the Father’s gift for granted and went on living a dissolute life would be suspected of not really getting it. More to his own hurt than the Father’s. The Father would be sad, but the son would be depriving himself of the deeply-healing possibilities of coming home.
Why should we ask for forgiveness? Because sinning is a lousy thing to do to the Father who welcomed you home, when you had nothing to offer and so much to regret. Because you are dismayed that your old stinky ugliness is coming to the surface again, and you always want to be part of the harmony of your Father’s house.
Why ask forgiveness for sins you enjoy and intend to go right on committing? Because those sins are going to ripped away from you one way or another, and it’s wiser to go along quietly. "Our God is a consuming fire," and only those who have used this life to get acclimated, fireproofed, are going to enjoy that presence.
Q. My seven-year-old daughter Sarah continually asks me why God made mosquitoes. Care to address that question? —Susan W. G.
A. Sarah, imagine an orchestra made up of all the creatures in the world—a bear on the kettledrum, an octopus on the piano, and a mosquito is playing a little tiny flute. Adam and Eve share the podium and conduct the symphony according to the sheet music God has given them. Everything is going melodiously when they start thinking about how nice it would be to have a little bit of apple—and you know what happens next. When the podium is empty, what do the orchestra members do? They saw along as best they can, but they’re not in tune any more. Some of them even attack each other, and us. The mosquito thinks, "To heck with obeying and serving Adam. I’m hungry."
Don’t be too angry at mosquitoes. They’re doing the only thing they know how, because we failed to stay at the podium. One day the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the mosquito with the kid in a wading pool, and the music will be harmonious once more.