There are some rote answers students like to give when I ask questions in my various theology classes. Even when their answer has nothing to do with the question I’ve asked. It’s as though they think I’m looking for the same answer they were catechized with in Sunday School, that because it’s the “right” answer they’ve always known, it will be the right answer now, too. Two of these answers have given me something of a mission with my students to break open their understandings of reality.
The first answer that students like to fall back on has been consistent at the Catholic, Wesleyan, and now Reformed schools at which I’ve taught. Regardless of the strand of Christianity or even a different faith or sometimes no faith at all that students come from, I so often hear something along the lines of “I’m/We’re saved because Jesus died for our sins.” It’s not usually even in the realm of what I’m asking for or what’s being discussed, but this answer runs very deep among students who have grown up in the church, any church. They seem to think it answers any theology question, sometimes saying things like, “Jesus died for our sins so we’re saved, and that’s why we’re forgiven and we go to heaven,” when I’ve asked, “How does Ambrose think Christ makes us more virtuous?” My stock answer when students tell me this—that Jesus died for their sins—is “Yes! And he rose for your life!” I want them to know how much bigger salvation is than their “I’m forgiven and therefore I’m okay.”
The other thing I’m hearing from more students now that I’m teaching at a Reformed school is that “Humans are sinful. It’s our nature.” I don’t disagree, but these students seem to forget that, again, there is more going on. These students are somehow stuck on the worthlessness of humanity and think it is not possible for us to be good. My Wesleyan catechesis screams, “Yes, we are sinful, and the Holy Spirit is also sanctifying us so that we don’t have to stay that way forever!” We were created good, and by the grace of the Spirit, we can do good things and become more like Christ.
On the one hand, I am glad that these students have an awareness of sin. We need an understanding of sin. Most of my students need a greater awareness of sin. We especially need to remember that sin is absurd. We are so shocked by the depravity around us, by every new instance of murder and racism and molestation. When we don’t acknowledge the presence of sin, the warping of our nature, we are shocked by these things and can forget to have compassion for others. We can forget that we ourselves are just as warped and require just as much compassion. We are also unable to work to heal the sins until we see the wounds.
On the other hand, we also need to remember that our nature is wounded, not evil from its creation. We also have to remember and affirm the created goodness of human nature. Even more importantly, we have to remember that we are being sanctified. That human nature is being restored. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation is my go-to description of salvation, and Athanasius explains that salvation is cosmic in scope, not merely a “Jesus forgave my sins by dying on the cross” moment. Athanasius says that salvation is about God becoming flesh in order to renew human nature and the cosmos. The union of humanity and divinity in the person of Jesus Christ makes our own union with God possible. Jesus’s death was the extremity of human sinfulness, and his death fulfilled a necessary consequence for sin. And then Jesus’s resurrection undid everything. The resurrection means that we live anew.
To acknowledge our sinfulness is important. To say that Jesus forgave my sin on the cross is important. But to stay there is to say nothing about what happens after that forgiveness. It is to say nothing of the possibility to become better. It is to say nothing about rising with Jesus and being transformed into his likeness. That we are sinful means we will often get things wrong and need grace. And the graces God has given us mean that we will not always get things wrong. God’s grace is also about the work of transforming us so that, by the grace of God (and only by the grace of God), we can sometimes do things right.
May we spread this good news to our churches, to our catechumens, to our children in Sunday School. Perhaps the answers I hear will begin to change.