As many of you know, my first two degrees were from conservative, evangelical institutions. In those days I was immersed in evangelical theology and very much committed to evangelizing. The two approaches I was trained to use were called “The Roman Road” and “The Four Spiritual Laws.”
The Roman Road is a way of explaining the evangelical version of salvation using verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans. The first verse referenced is Romans 3:23: “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” The second verse says: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). So the presentation begins with sin and death.
The Four Spiritual Laws does a little better. The first law says: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” That is good news, but it is followed by the terrible theology of the second law: “Humanity is tainted by sin and is therefore separated from God. As a result, we cannot know God’s wonderful plan for our lives.” God’s love, then, is a carrot on a stick that in our flawed, sinful state we cannot experience, unless of course we meet the proper conditions: believe the right things, say the right things, do the right things.
While I agree that we are all tainted by sin, that all humanity and reality is flawed, it is not true that our sin separates us from God. If that were the case we could never experience God’s love, because we never get rid of our sin.
Evangelical theology begins with sin and makes a relationship with God conditional. I believe that a relationship with God is unconditional, that it is our birthright. Even the creation story that describes the so-called fall begins with God’s indwelling: “The Lord God formed man [the human one] from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man [the human one] became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). The human one is alive because God’s Spirit ignites and infuses human life. Without the Spirit – the breath of God – there is no life.
In the first creation story, whose origin mainline biblical scholarship assigns to a different period in Israel’s history than the second story, there is no fall. The human couple are created in the image of God and God pronounces the creation “very good” (Gen. 1:27, 31). Only if one reads these stories literally, which of course is what conservatives do, would one conclude that sin separates a person from God.
Human flaws, weaknesses, and sin/evil has been part of the human condition from the beginning. Sin does not separate us from God. Sin is simply part of the process of human evolution. God is vital and inseparable to this process. Without God there would be no human life.
There is a beautiful passage in John’s Gospel that bears witness to this reality. Richard Rohr has called the text in John 10:31-39 one of the most highly enlightened texts in the Bible. In the passage Jesus is accused of blasphemy by the religious leaders: “because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” Jesus, of course, never claimed to be God (Jesus, like the Jewish leaders, was a good monotheist). Rather, he claimed to be God’s son, and to act in and with the authority of God, and for that he is charged with blasphemy. In rebuttal Jesus says,
“Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods?’ [Ps. 82:6] If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – [here he is using their own argument against them for this is what the Pharisees would say] can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?”
Psalm 82 makes clear that the “gods” referenced by the psalmist are the covenant people of God. In the psalm God calls out their evil and admonishes: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps. 82:3-4). Why does God expect justice and equity in the land? Because, says the God of the psalmist, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you” (Ps. 82:6).
All of us? Yes, indeed! Even the wicked? Yes, even the wicked. We are all gods. We are all God’s daughters and sons. Do you see Jesus’ point? Jesus is saying to the religious leaders in John 10: Why would you want to kill me simply because I claim to be God’s son and be at one with God? Don’t you realize that you are gods, too? Don’t you realize that you are God’s sons and daughters? Can’t you see that you, also, are one with God, because God’s Spirit resides in you?
What good news! Of course we are sinners. But our sin doesn’t separate us from God. Of course we are human and we are going to die, but our death is not God condemning us. Our death is simply part of the human condition.
The good news is that we are gods. The good news is that we are God’s offspring (Acts 17:28), and that God loves us and pronounces us “good” simply because we are. It is God’s own life that sustains human life and that is true for both the wicked and the righteous.
The invitation of the gospel is not: Realize you are a wretched sinner who deserves to die. The invitation of the gospel is: Realize you are a beloved child of God called to reflect God’s image. Realize your value and worth. Claim your belovedness by faith. Trust God’s love and your basic goodness by living in and out of that goodness.
What a difference it would make if we read these Roman Road verses in light of our original goodness, not sin. Of course the wages of sin is death; it’s part of the human plight. But the good news is that the free gift of God is eternal life because even though we are mortal, we are gods. We are God’s children. God’s very life (eternal life) resides in us. And to live in and out of that reality, to live out (incarnate) this goodness and love all we have to do is trust and follow the way of Jesus. (Following Jesus, of course, is not the only way to realize one’s goodness as a human being, but it is the Christian way). That’s a liberating message worth sharing with others.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of several books on progressive Christian faith, including his most recent, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, has contributed to the blog Faith Forward and is a monthly columnist for Baptist News Global.