A central feature of the Christian message is the justification of the ungodly (Rm. 4.5; 5.6). In this, Christianity differs radically from every other religion. Every other system assumes some sort of distinction between the godly and ungodly, righteous and unrighteous, the spiritual and unspiritual. Even some Christians – such as right-wing Evangelicals and Liberals – think in terms of those who are in and those who are not. But, as Paul says, when quoting from the OT, none is righteous, no not one; no one understands, no one seeks God and there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Rm. 3.10-11, 22-23).
No religion makes this offensive claim. The claims of all other religions are, in a sense, similar to the claim of the earliest temptation: You will be like God (Gn. 3.5). Religion instructs its adherents in spiritual development, offers means of approaching the divine, teaches us how to become godly, and promises blessings to those who succeed. This may sound more hopeful than Christianity’s negative estimation of human nature. But remember, there is no good news in religion for those who have not turned to God. The Christian Gospel may be called foolish (1Cor. 1.18, 23), a stumbling block (Gal. 5.11), or an obstacle (Rm. 14.13, 20) because it offers no human pathway to God, but what happens to you if you don’t make it to God, or if you are not good enough? When we say, I’m a good person, we’re comparing ourselves to someone who is not a good person. What are we saying to such a person? I’m in and you’re out!
But the Gospel teaches that everyone is a sinner? But if everyone’s a sinner, what about justice? Certainly, some people deserve more than others? Consider what happens in the controversial parable of labourers in the vineyard (Mt. 20.11-15). The workers who are in the field all day are paid no more than the latecomers. The former grumble when they receive their wages because they think it unjust. But Jesus reminds them of their prearranged agreement and tells them, why should I not be free to do what I wants with what belongs to me? Why are you upset that I’m so generous with these people? It’s significant this parable is immediately followed by a passage foretelling Jesus’ death (Mt. 20.17-19). This link between the parable and the cross tells us that God’s generosity means the crucifixion of the Son. I guess we don’t like God’s sense of justice. It’s so offensive to us that we kill him!
That’s why Religion does not define all human beings on the same level of need before God. In any religion, everyone has spiritual potential. But the Gospel does not teach that because it is not about human potential. Even the great Abraham, Paul teaches us in Romans, had nothing to bargain with; his election by God was ex nihilo (out of nothing). For Paul, there is no distinction when it comes to our need for God’s justification (Rm. 3.22-23). Everyone equally needs it!
But in religion, as in every other human enterprise, there is always some underlying distinction. Mainline Churches have sought to oppose this by speaking about inclusion and radical hospitality. Several decades of this emphasis have taught us – rightly so – to reject any sort of discrimination or separation of race, class, creed, nationality, gender, ability, sexual preference and so forth. However, there is a subtle difference. Congregations are claiming something that is only possible for God. No congregation can include everyone no matter how hard they try. Many a person who has attended a Church advertising radical hospitality has come away from a church coffee hour without being greeted by anyone. Despite the good intentions of congregations that proclaim themselves to be diverse, welcoming and inclusive, the fact remains that no one group can be, in this life, all-embracing. It is part of the human sinful nature that this is so.
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ put an end to all these religious categories that separate people from one another. There is no one who is not guilty of perpetuating something evil or sinful that requires judgment from God. But how can this be? Surely, we must be different from archetypal evil figures such as Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, or unrepentant serial killers? Their time of judgment will come. But that does not dismiss the network of sin and evil ordinary people like you and me get involved in: men who use their power to take advantage of women, high school kids who tease and bully the vulnerable, corporate executives who encourage and cover up practices that lead to disastrous consequences for the economy, or the evil thoughts we think about the person next to us in the pew on a Sunday morning. These everyday events are easily brushed aside, and are passed over more often than not, because we’re willing to make allowances for circumstances, culture, or tribe.
So, what needs to happen? We must turn to Paul’s proclamation (that we see in all of his letters), the power of God for salvation (Rm. 1.16-17). For Paul, salvation is not understood as simply an individual choice, the rescue of one individual and another as each one puts her faith in Christ. For if we think this we, again we’re making distinctions. What is needed since we are all under the power of sin and death, is a Power independent of this world that can come in and overcome the Enemy (or, as Paul calls it in Philippians, the powers and principalities of this evil and sinful world), of God’s purposes for his creation. That power is Jesus Christ who in his inhuman and godless crucifixion overthrew the demonic power of sin and death over humanity. In this act of God, He made right what had been wrong in the world. It was the faith of Jesus Christ, not our faith, that has the power to save us from this evil world. That does not mean we do not have to have faith. But human faith is merely the acceptance of what the faithfulness of God has accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus. For even our faith is a gift from God.
Lent, Good Friday and Easter teaches us this Gospel. The joy of Easter can only be sought and experience after we experience the sorrow of Good Friday. Unless we contemplate and accept during Lent that there is no distinction when it comes to our sin, that that is why Jesus died on the cross for us all, only then can Easter be a joyful experience of our salvation thanks to God’s faithfulness.