Salvation. Freely given, through grace. But, what does that really mean? From what are we being saved? And do we need to be saved from whatever it is? In this essay I will explore from what humanity is being saved, to which I argue, is sin. I will do so by examining what sin is, the language used to understand sin and salvation, and finally how systemic injustices impact our understanding of sin and salvation.
If it is sin that we are saved from, what then is sin? The 10 Commandments leave much to be desired in the description of sin and has left society to simplify it into actions that are bad or wrong according to the Church however, it is more complex than that. Martin Luther explains that, "The word “sin” in the Bible means something more than the external works done by our bodily action. It means all the circumstances that act together and excite or incite us to do what is done; in particular, the impulses operating in the depths of our hearts. [...] Even where nothing is done outwardly, a [person] may still fall into complete destruction of body and soul” (Luther and Dillenberger). Sin is not simply action, it is part of who we are. This gets at the core of the human situation. We are people made in God’s image, fearfully and wonderfully made. Yet, we are faced with the reality of our existence due to our humanity – we will fall short of God because we are human. Sin is inherently that which is not of God, therefore it is separation from God, our being is that of sin. Without the actions of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we would remain in that separation.
The concept of our inherent humanity is known as original sin, which Karl Rahner defines by explaining that, “’Original Sin’ does not mean of course that the original, personal act of freedom at the very origins of history has been transmitted to subsequent generations and its moral quality. The notion that the personal deed of “Adam” or of the first group of people is imputed to us in such a way that it has been transmitted onto us biologically, as it were, has absolutely nothing to do with a Christian dogma of original sin […] We are a people who must inevitably exercise our own freedom subjectively in a situation which is co-determined by objectifications of guilt, and indeed in such a way that this codetermination belongs to our situation permanently and inescapably” (Rahner). This experience of original sin is difficult for us to appreciate because we are attempting to understand sin from a place of sin, this idea is known as the Noetic Effect. Our thoughts and comprehension of sin is directly impacted by the sin in which we exist. So, when speaking about something beyond human comprehension, something so intangible, it is common to use forms of imagery to help grasp a hold onto something real.
Throughout the Bible, salvation and sin are described through imagery, Paul does that in the following verses by comparing Jesus’ salvific action as a gift to humanity, as well as comparing Jesus to a sacrifice. Paul writes in Romans 3:23-25 saying, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (NRSV). The authors of the New Testament books of the Bible knew it was vital to explain sin and salvation, but it needed to be done in a way that was tangible for the communities and peoples they were writing to.
In doing so the accessibility of these major theological concepts were opened to more people, starting with the Early Church. Gary Anderson explains that, “sins are like stains that require cleansing, burdens that must be removed, or debts that have to be repaid. All of these metaphors can be found in the Bible” (Anderson). Over time, our imagery used to describe sin and salvation have grown. Anselm of Canterbury wrote in the 11th Century about Jesus’ death and resurrection as satisfaction for humanity’s debt of sin (Anselm). This atonement motif puts humanity’s sin at the forefront of our salvation because our sin has led to disharmony and injustice in the world. Jesus’ death does not fix these injustices, but does provide humanity a chance to have God’s grace and show it to others.
While many of the Biblical metaphors of sin are still used, new motifs continue to enlighten Christian leaders. This is not random, theologians have related sin to their own contexts and experiences because, “sin is always changing, assuming ever-new forms and traveling into ever new terrain of human experience. In our day-to-day activities, sin takes shapes particular to each individual and each community. Sin therefore never wears a universal face but instead takes contextual form as it travels” (Jones). By changing our conversation around atonement to match the contexts in which we live, we make salvation personal. However, no one specific metaphor for atonement will fully encompass the magnitude of our salvation. And the exhaustive number of metaphors can leave Christians blind to the all-encompassing nature of sin. If it is sin that we are saved from, we as Christians must recognize the depths to which sin exists in our world.
Sin is not solely personal. The human situation is complex, we are made in God’s image, yet we are sinful in nature. If our sin exists personally, then it must also exist in the organizations, politics, and structures that we live within. This includes our governments, Churches, places we shop, schools we attend – everything exists within sin. Anselm’s Satisfaction motif for atonement recognizes the sin of humanity, but not the existence of sin in everything we do. Nancy Pineda-Madrid explores Anselm’s Satisfaction motif’s shortcomings in her book Suffering and Salvation in Cuidad Juárez through the examination of the missing and murdered girls and women in Juárez, Mexico. She explains that, “while sin, for Anselm, is the cause of all suffering and death, he did not consider how the sin of some results in the oppression of the many. It simply was not his concern. Suffering was not a distinct problem but was subsumed into sin” (Pineda-Madrid). In many ways, the context in which we exist affects how we understand sin, and the systems in which we participate affects how we understand salvation. Pineda-Madrid states it well, "Nonetheless, an exclusively individual understanding of salvation distorts the meaning of the doctrine of salvation and is, in the end, inadequate. We must affirm both individual and social salvation. Liberation theologians, like Gustavo Gutierrez and Jon Sobrino, have extended our understanding of sin to include social sin. If sin is both individual and social, then so must be salvation" (Pineda-Madrid).
When we ask the question, from what do we need saved? the answer is not cut and dry. While sin is from what we need saving, the salvation that comes will look different for each and every context in which someone lives. Although humanity is bound together by our connection in sin, we often fail to understand the realities of those whom we do not know. Sin must be recognized as communal and intersectional to truly appreciate the magnitude of the salvation we are freely given by God.
Anderson, Gary A. “Chapter 1: What Is a Sin?” Essay. In Sin: a History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
Anselm of Canterbury. Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Human). Italy and England, 11AD.
Jones, Serene. “Sin: Grace Denied.” Essay. In Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace, 94–125. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2010.
Luther, Martin, and John Dillenberger. “Preface to Romans.” Essay. In Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, 22–22. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1962.
Pineda-Madrid, Nancy. Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juárez. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011.
Rahner, Karl. “Man as a Being Threatened Radically by Guilt.” Essay. In Foundations of Christian Faith, 110. London: Crossroad, 1978.