One word that crystallizes the essence of the Christian faith is the word grace. One of the great mottos of the Protestant Reformation was the Latin phrase sola gratia—by grace alone. This phrase wasn’t invented by the sixteenth-century Reformers. Its roots are in the theology of Augustine of Hippo, who used it to call attention to the central concept of Christianity, that our redemption is by grace alone, that the only way a human being can ever find himself reconciled to God is by grace. That concept is so central to the teaching of Scripture that to even mention it seems like an insult to people’s intelligence; yet, if there is a dimension of Christian theology that has become obscured in the last few generations, it is grace.
Two things that every human being absolutely must come to understand are the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man. These topics are difficult for people to face. And they go together: if we understand who God is, and catch a glimpse of His majesty, purity, and holiness, then we are instantly aware of the extent of our own corruption. When that happens, we fly to grace—because we recognize that there’s no way that we could ever stand before God apart from grace.
The prophet Habakkuk was upset during one period in Jewish history because he saw the enemies of the people of God triumphing, the wicked prospering, and the righteous suffering. He raised a lament, saying: “Are you not from everlasting, O LORD my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof” (Hab. 1:12). He went on to a affirm the holiness of God, and how God cannot tolerate evil: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong … ” (Hab. 1:13a).
This is anything but characteristic of the human condition. We can tolerate what is wrong. In fact, if we don’t tolerate what is wrong, we can’t tolerate each other or even ourselves. In order to live with myself as a sinner, I have to learn to tolerate something that is evil. If my eyes were too holy to behold iniquity, I’d have to shut my eyes anytime I was with someone else—and they would see in me a man who has besmirched the image of God.
Habakkuk then asked, “Why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (v. 13b). He couldn’t fathom how God could endure and be patient with human evil. Yet, we can’t tolerate the idea of God’s being upset about human evil; we become antagonistic toward the idea of a God who is so holy that He might turn His back from looking at someone or something that is sinful. That is the dilemma that Scripture sets before us: we have a holy God whose image we bear and whose image it is our fundamental responsibility as human beings to mirror—yet we are not holy.
I once discussed the holiness of God with a group of pastors at a theology conference. One of the pastors said he appreciated my teaching about the holiness of God, but he disagreed with what I taught about the sovereignty of God. I said that, though as Christians we should strive to live together in peace and not be argumentative or divisive, the two of us couldn’t possibly both be right when it comes to how God’s sovereignty works. And furthermore, whoever is wrong is sinning against God at that point of error.
When we sin, we want to describe our sinful activity in terms of a mistake, as if that softens or mitigates the guilt involved. We don’t think it’s wrong for a child to add two and two and come up with five. We know the answer’s wrong, but we don’t spank the child and say, “You’re bad, because you made five out of two and two instead of four.” We think of mistakes as being part of the human condition. But as I said to that pastor, if one of us is wrong, it would be because he came to the Scriptures while wanting it to agree with him, rather than wanting to agree with the Scriptures. We tend to come biased, and we distort the very Word of God to escape the judgment that comes from it.
But to err is human—which is to say, “It’s OK.” We are so accustomed to our fallenness and corruption that, while our moral sensibilities may be offended when we see someone involved in gross and heinous criminal activity such as mass murder, normal, everyday disobedience to God doesn’t bother us. We don’t think it’s that important, because “to err is human, and to forgive is divine.”
This aphorism suggests that it’s natural, and therefore acceptable, for human beings to sin. It’s implied also that it is God’s nature to forgive. If He doesn’t forgive, then there’s something wrong with His very deity, because it is the nature of God to forgive. But this is as false as the first assumption; it is not necessary to the essence of deity to forgive. Forgiveness is grace, which is undeserved or unmerited favor. We are so accustomed to sin that we do it all the time. We can’t define a human being without defining our humanness as fallen, and we can’t possibly maintain life itself apart from grace.
How is sin to be understood? Is it accidental or essential to our humanity? The term accidental refers to those properties of an object that are not part of its essence; they may exist or not exist without changing what that object truly is. For instance, a moustache is an accidental property. If a man shaves off his moustache, he does not cease to be a man.
On the other hand, essential properties are those that are part of the essence of a thing. Remove that property, and it ceases to be that thing. Sin is not essential to humanity, unless someone believes that God made humanity sinful at the beginning. If sin is essential to humanity, then that would mean Jesus was either sinful or not human. So, sin is not essential. Adam had no sin when he was created, yet he was still human. Jesus has no sin, but He is still human. Believers will have no sin when they get to heaven, and they will still be human.
Sin is not essential, but neither is it merely tangential or on the surface of our humanity. Rather, the portrait that we get in the Scriptures of man in his fallen condition is that he is utterly and thoroughly infected by sin in his whole person. In other words, sin is not an external blemish, but something that goes to the very core of our being.