“They all seek some remedy for their sins, but the true remedy, Christ, they do not acknowledge.
You will find in the word of God, no other remedy for your sins, than the one we have pointed out to you, which is Jesus Christ
He is our only and eternal Propitiator, Reconciler, High Priest, Mediator, Advocate, and Peace-maker with God.”
- Menno Simons (founder of the Mennonite tradition)
Disclaimer: All dialogue is based on my best recollection and could not possibly be word-for-word exactly what was said. But it’s dang close. Unfortunately, I do not record every conversation I have and my memory is that of a thirty-eight year-old with poor diet and exercise habits. Keep this in mind.
A young man stood at the microphone asking the most astute questions.
“You say people are sinful. How do you define that?”
The bible says we not only do sinful things but we are sinful. Our minds are broken. Our thinking is “futile” (Romans 1:21) and we can’t understand what God is saying to us (1 Corinthians 2:14). We’re all born with emotions that can’t be trusted – they get cluttered by anger and envy and all sorts of “passions” that cause us to desire things for ourselves that God doesn’t (Titus 3:3). We all “turn” away form God and choose to do things our way and not His (Isaiah 53:6). “Every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21).
“So being sinful is not just what we do but who we are. Because I’m with Mennonites I want to go to the Sermon on the Mount,” I said. Thankfully, there was a little chuckle form the crowd and a break in the tension. The Mennonites read all of scripture in light of Jesus, specifically his words in the Sermon on the Mount. The further I got from the Sermon on the Mount at EMU – say quoting the apostle Paul – the less common ground I found.
“Jesus says it’s not only sinful to commit adultery but also to lust. Not only sinful to murder but also to burn with anger. Some theologians say there is sin of the flesh – the stuff we can see – and sin of the spirit – the stuff we can’t. We sin and we are sinful.”
“What does it mean to be made in the image of God?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said, and I gave a few theories that much smarter men have taught. “I don’t know though.”
He argued that because we’re made in the image of God, we’re inherently good. Not sinful. But, he said, we make choices along the way that are sinful. But we can make right choices and not be sinful.
“So why did Jesus come?” I asked.
“The Romans had enough of him and killed him,” he said. He explained that Jesus was sent to earth as an example to us. His death was also an example.
“So, tell me if I’m understanding you correctly, OK? I really want to understand what you’re saying. Jesus died because he made the Romans mad.”
“I agree with you on that. They killed him for the crime of sedition. But the bible says he also died because sin has to be paid for with death. God is just and will punish sin so Jesus took that punishment for us. So, John 3:16, whoever believes in Jesus now will not have to die but will live with God now and forever. What you’re questioning is the atonement. That’s a very serious thing. A non-negotiable for me. So let me ask you as plainly as I can – Did Jesus die for your sins on the cross?”
“Yes, but,” he said. “He didn’t have to die.”
“I wouldn’t scrape my kid’s knee if I didn’t have to. Why would God sacrifice his only Son if he didn’t absolutely have to?”
“But God has always had a relationship with people. We aren’t separated from God in the Old Testament,” he said.
“I did my best to explain the special relationship between the Israelites and God in the Old Testament, the turning point in Ezekiel 36 when God promised to expand that relationship to all nations. He promised to “cleanse” people from all their “transgressions” and to give them a “new heart” that desired to do things His way. Then, in the New Testament, the book of Hebrews was written to Jews, explaining how on earth Gentiles – non Jews – could now be in right relationship with God, no longer separated. It tells us that Jesus was the once-for-all sacrifice, our High Priest who tore the curtain in the temple separating Gentiles from Jews. Jesus gives all people the possibility of relationship with God.
“The cross was necessary to accomplish all this. Am I making sense?”
Another student, a friend of the first guy, asked politely if he could respond. (Mennonites are nothing if not polite.) The first guy stepped aside.
I was thrilled to see that the young man at the microphone held a bible. But instead of reading from it he reasoned. He reasoned that because we are finite beings we cannot understand an infinite God. He reasoned that there is nothing we can know. It seemed to him that I was too certain of too many things. I was stating as fact what were really just my interpretations.
I read from Ephesians 2:1-9 again.
1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
“That seems to be saying that because human beings are sinful we deserve the wrath of God, but because God loves He sent Jesus instead of wrath. Because of Jesus we can be forgiven and reunited with God forever. We’ve been saved.”
“But that’s your interpretation,” he said.
“I agree that we often interpret scripture without even realizing it but I don’t think I’m-”
“You have to remember that when Paul wrote those words…” He interrupted. I smiled. I hadn’t seen that kind of passion face-to-face at EMU yet. Passion is good.
“…he was writing to a certain group of people at a certain time in certain circumstances and to understand it we have to-”
“I understand hermeneutics,” I interrupted. “The importance of contextualizing, understanding the history, the schism or problem being addressed at that time. I get that. But how does that change our understanding of Ephesians 2?”
“When Paul wrote that letter – ”
“If he wrote it,” a young woman in line at the microphone interjected.”
“Yes,” he said, “if Paul even wrote it. The bible was, first of all, written in Greek and Hebrew and then translated and there were mistakes – lots of mistakes made so that we can’t be certain really…”
“Can I read Ephesians 2 again?”
“I have it right here,” he said.
“Well maybe you could read it for us and tell us when you get to a word that’s been translated poorly. Where are the errors in Ephesians 2?”
“You know,” he said,” this isn’t something I’m confortable discussing outside of relationship. This is impossible to dialogue about without knowing more of your story and where you’re coming from.”
I invited him to stay afterward and talk one-on-one or to e-mail me through my website. We haven’t talked yet, but I’m hopeful. He is in the middle of midterms right now, after all.
“Maybe this is a generational difference,” I said. “It seems like it’s become cool to be uncertain. Seems like sometimes even the most tolerant people don’t tolerate certainty. And there’s a lot I’m uncertain about. There’s even stuff in Ephesians 2 I have questions about. But there are some things so basic to Christianity that we’ve believed them for two thousand years. Mankind is sinful. We are separated from God because of it. He loves us. He sent Jesus to rescue us from death and to have a relationship with us now and forever. I’m certain of this. That’s foundational to Christianity. Non-negotiable for me.”
The tension was high. I didn’t know what to do. Breaking a long pause, someone said, “Sing a song.” So I sang about a broken world. About a Son who heard our cries and came to live with us and die for us down here.
There was still a third article in the newspaper to respond to and singing bought me time to pray about how best to do that.