Theological Designations

“The word ‘sinner’ is a theological designation. It is essential to insist upon this. It is not a moralistic judgment. It is not a word that places humans somewhere along a continuum ranging from angel to ape, assessing them as relatively ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It designates humans in relation to God and sees them separated from God. Sinner means something is awry between humans and God. In that state, people may be wicked, unhappy, anxious, and poor. Or, they may be virtuous, happy, and affluent. Those items are not part of the judgment.

Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor

My friend Marty recently blogged his way through Eugene Peterson’s (must read) book The Contemplative Pastor. In the course of his blogging, Marty posted an extended version of the quote above and offered his thoughts. Today, I thought I’d do the same because that quote has stuck in my brain for weeks and something that tenacious is a good indicator of Holy Spirit’s involvement.

Peterson articulates something I have known intuitively for a long time, but never had language for. “Sin” and “sinner” are theological terms, not moral ones. For that matter, “saint” is also a theological term and not a moral one. But we are so used to thinking in moral terms (sinner = bad and saint = good) that it requires a considerable amount of conscious effort to rid ourselves of the habit and think correctly about these ideas.

Peterson says, “‘Sinner’ means something is awry between humans and God. In that state, people may be wicked, unhappy, anxious, and poor. Or, they may be virtuous, happy and affluent. Those items are not part of the judgement.”

In the town where I live I encounter an overwhelming number of virtuous sinners. They live decent lives. They pay taxes and vote. They love their families and work hard. They are civically minded and engaged. And… they are sinners, because they refuse to submit to Jesus as their Lord (ultimate authority) and Savior (the only way to the Father – aka salvation). These very virtuous sinners aren’t falling apart at the seams – in fact, they are doing quite well by any moral, ethical or economic standard you choose. But they are spiritually impoverished for they live as enemies of God, His Kingdom and His Christ.

I’m really done with the evangelistic model of trying to convince people they are no-good, dirty, rotten sinners. I’m not convinced it is effective and it isn’t something I’ve been able to make myself do, so how can I expect the people I pastor to do it? So the question I have been asking myself is this – Is there a better way?

I believe there is.

When Jesus begins his ministry, he begins with a call, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Jesus then proceeds to demonstrate God’s power, rule and reign over all the created order – over sickness, disease and death, over natural elements and over demons. Each and every demonstration of God’s power was to drive home the message that God’s Kingdom was breaking in all around them and people had better decide whether to be for God and His King or against them. The decision to “be on God’s side” was shown by a transformed life – living as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven and abiding by the laws of that land.

Much of Jesus’s message and ministry bypassed moral objections. His proclamation and demonstration showed (a) that God was very real and very powerful, (b) that God’s Kingdom was invading the sovereign territory of their experience and (c) that to submit to God and His Christ was life and to continue to remain in rebellion to God was death. Jesus’s evangelistic model didn’t rely on convincing people they were sinners or on convincing people how much their Father loved them – He simply modeled that God existed and was Good. After modeling the character of God and explaining what life in the Kingdom was like, Jesus let people make their own decisions.

I think we are called to do the same.

I think we are called to let people know what life in the Kingdom is like, according to the Bible. I think we are called to display and declare the character of our King. I think we are called to proclaim and demonstrate that God is and that God is Good.

I know of no better way to do that than what we in the Vineyard call “Power Evangelism,” that is – using the gifts of the Spirit to provide an unbeliever with a God encounter. It might be prophecy, healing or a supernaturally empowered act of compassion – but whatever it is, it lets that person know that God sees them, knows them, loves them and wants them.

Once people have encountered God, their hearts are open to receiving the Gospel message. It is at this point that a clear, concise and rational presentation of the Gospel is in order. Power evangelism is never anti-rational, it is super-rational, that is, it is rational and experiential and appeals to much more than the mind, but the spirit, soul and body as well. The reason we need to present an accurate Scriptural portrayal of the Kingdom is simple – that person needs to decide wether or not they want to follow Jesus as their King and live by His laws. Some people do. Some people don’t. Either way, that isn’t for us to decide. We are called to present the Gospel, make disciples and teach those disciples to obey what Jesus commanded. It is Holy Spirit’s job to convert. It is our job to make converts into disciples.

For me, this process is what addresses the theological component of “sin,” “sinner” and “saint.” This type of evangelism deals with the issues of allegience, loyalty and the kingliness of Jesus. In the course of this God encounter people might also get a glimpse of their moral short comings, much like Peter did when Jesus provided him with the miraculous catch of fish – that is good, but it isn’t the goal. Our goal is to accurately display the Reality of the Kingdom and the heart of our King and to invite them to “come and see” or “follow Me.”

This is what I have become convinced of and what I intend to put to the test over the next few months. I’ll be sure to write about my encounters and let you know how it goes.

Thanks for reading friends.

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One thought on “Theological Designations”

  1. This post reminds me of a saying that “you may be the only Jesus that a person encounters in a lifetime.” In that potentially one encounter, what do you want someone to experience, a demeaning categorization, or the love, power and transforming impact of encounter with our Lord? Thank you for sharing this perspective

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