Sometimes the “Cross-Centered Life” can become a sin-centered life.
“Hi, I’m Alex, and I’m the chief of sinners.”
I’ve been in small group meetings where that would probably have been a fitting way to do introductions. Unfortunately, I’ve led meetings like that too! You know, where the purpose of the group meeting seems to simply ferret out sin, so we can theoretically confess it and move on. Then do it all again next time. But a small group meeting doesn’t have to sound like an AA meeting, does it?
Now, it is certainly appropriate and necessary to confess our sins to each other. But what I’m talking about goes beyond that into the kind of naval gazing sin hunt that can eventually bog down the soul. I mean, seriously, doesn’t that get depressing after a while?
Sometimes an evangelist might really try to drive home the point by saying that my sins nailed him to the cross. And there is truth in that for sure. We must come to the grips with the depths of our sin if we’re to repent and if we’re to fully appreciate the riches of grace.
And this emphasis on “I’m the worst of sinners” is ultimately meant to magnify grace.
I am a great sinner, and my sins separated me from holy God. But God, because of his rich mercy, sent his Son to bear His wrath for my sin. (Eph 2:4 ) And so, indeed, my sins were put upon Him that God’s justice might be satisfied AND I might be forgiven (Romans 3:24-25).
The fancy theological term that we’ve just defined is “propitiation.” It’s a wonderful truth and a word worth knowing!
This is the Gospel… but not the whole Gospel.
And, too often, this is where our understanding of the Gospel and appropriation of the Gospel often ends.
You see, the Gospel is a great exchange, and we’ve just defined one part of it. But both parts are important, and when we focus exclusively on one half, we do so to our detriment.
The exchange looks like this:
(1) My sin was put on Christ. (1 Peter 2:24; Isaiah 53:6)
(2) His righteousness was put on me. (Romans 3:21-22?)
If you stop and think about this, it doesn’t take long before you see the freedom that this brings. If all we ever focus on is sin, sin, sin, we can’t help but become overly burdened by it. Look, it’s healthy to think about our sin and the grace of Christ — it brings a perspective that many people in our self-esteem culture need.
But if we just stay there without also dwelling on the second half of the exchange, we’ll be stunted and maybe even defeated. After all, sin is heavy, and constantly reminding ourselves of our sin can weigh us down unnecessarily.
The Other Side of the Gospel
The other side of the great exchange, though, shows us exactly what that amazing grace has provided for us: the righteousness of the perfect Son of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). Our sin was replaced with the exact opposite. The language of the New Testament pictures a garment that is put on us. We are covered in his righteousness. (See Paul’s description in Philippians 3:8-9). It is credited to our account.
The theological term to get to know here is “imputation.” It’s a marvelous, life-giving doctrine. (Romans 5:1-2)
So the doctrine of propitiation looks backward to see what became of our sin and the doctrine of imputation describes our present and our future. It helps us look forward and begins to help us flesh out what it means to live in Christ. We don’t have to focus on our sin all the time because we’ve been set free from it. While we must remember who we are and what we’ve been saved from, we must be equally mindful of the gift we’ve been given.
Our lives are no longer defined by sin — they’re defined by the righteousness of Christ. That is what is most fundamentally true of us. We’ve been transformed by the Gospel (2 Cor. 5:17).
The Tension in Between
Of course we live in the tension of having been made righteous in Christ (that is our legal standing, if you will), but not yet completely free from sin. We still sin, and we must deal with it through repentance and confession. (1 John 1:9) So we are still great sinners. But our hope is that our sin has ultimately been dealt with (propitiation) and that we have been declared righteous in Christ (imputation) – a verdict whose fruit we will see in full in eternity.
That’s the tension in which we live – what many theologians call the “already/not yet” of the Gospel. It requires that we understand both sides of this great Gospel exchange – sin for righteousness, propitiation and imputation.
A healthy view of the Gospel and of ourselves embraces both.