Discussing my novel, In the Mission with fellow Christians in America frequently ends up feeling frustrating for all involved. On one hand, the novel’s main characters are in many ways sinners and unrepentant; on the other, the novel points out where in the Gospels it says they are justified in doing so.
The disagreement usually is about the meaning of specific passages of the Gospels. How they are taken out of context, or whether the translation used is appropriate. This goes both ways. The devil is in the detail with a book that is as old as the Bible!
But the core of the issue is not linguistic or exegetical. It is a very fundamental question that sits behind the entirety of Christianity: Is the goal of Christian life not to sin?
What Jesus Said
Each religion has a special flavor or emphasis. Islam focuses on justice, Buddhism on peace, Shinto on respect. There is obviously more to each religion than this focus, but I find this emphasis important to understand the commandments and practices of each.
Jesus’s religion, let’s not call it Christianity, is focused on love. This love manifests itself in many ways during Jesus’s ministry, and Jesus himself teaches how to love other by example. He is kind , he is generous , he is self-sacrificing (both literally and metaphorically , he is forgiving .
The Judaism of Jesus’s time had an entirely different focus, which was worship. The tension between love (emotion) and worship (actions) is in plain view throughout the Gospels. Jesus is constantly confronted with accusations of being too lenient, too forgiving, too uninterested in the text of the Law, while Jesus replies consistently that it’s intent and not action that matters. Jesus is even called a glutton and drunkard by his own admission and brushes off the accusation.
Because the contrast with contemporary religious thinking was so stark, Jesus explains the point several times. How much you give doesn’t matter , but how hard it is for you. The Sabbath was made for man , not man for the Sabbath. Jesus consorts with sinners .
At the same time, Jesus points out that the sects obessed with formal worship, most importantly the Pharisees, were filled with hypocrites that taught one thing and did another. He even goes on a tirade against them, ending up declaring that they will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven because they shut the door in other people’s faces with their absurd demands.
Who Is the Second Man?
One of characteristic things about Christianity is that it barely survived the death of the founder, several times. For the first hundred years or so, it was tough going. The Jews of the time were not fond of this heretical sect, and the Romans (who occupied Israel until it was taken over by Islam) considered swearing allegiance to the goddess of Rome mandatory, and the Christians’ refusal to do so was punishable by death.
One very important step in the rise of Christianity as a world religion was its growth independently of Judaism. Jesus and his main disciples (the Apostles) had all been Jews and Jesus’s teachings all reference the Bible and Judaism. While there are a few stories of Jesus interacting with non-Jews and even praising their faith , there are also explicit references that the disciples should not go outside Jewish circles.
One single person was responsible for Christianity’s spread and survival, in the end. The man know at the time as Saul of Tarsus. At first, Saul persecuted Christians and the Christian Church, even showing up for the first time in the Bible at the stoning of the Church’s leader. Eventually, though, he converted to Christianity thanks to a divine revelation.
Saul, also known by the name of Paul, became an indefatigable organizer of the Church, spreading it far and wide wherever there were Jews. Eventually, he landed in Rome, getting things started in the capital of the empire. And here he hit a snag: the Romans loved the ideas of Christianity, but they didn’t quite like Jewish customs. The one they seem to have particularly disliked was circumcision.
Saul, realizing that was a real road block on the path to world religion, pleaded with the other leaders of the Christian community to make circumcision optional. There was long debate, everybody had to go back to Jerusalem for a big conference on the matter, and it was decided (by Jesus’s brother, now leader of the Church) that Paul was right and that you didn’t have to be a Jew to be a Christian.
That was quite momentous and Paul’s missionary activity went into overdrive. He started writing letters to all the bands of Christians in the big cities of the empire and spread the Gospel of Jesus far and wide. Where Gospel means “the things Jesus said” and not the books by that name we now have. Because those books didn’t exist until much later.
Early Christians far and wide - especially far and wide from Jerusalem - only had these letters as reference for what Jesus said. Jesus himself seems not to have left anything in writing, and his disciples were also given the gift of tongue, not pen. To compound on the misery, Christians were always at risk of disappearing due to persecution. Paul himself died in the 50s, about twenty years after Jesus, along with a large number of early Christians in the Neronian persecution. Without his letters and the account of the early Church written after he died, we would know virtually nothing about the man.
This account, known as Acts of the Apostles (Acts for short) tells us what happened: Saul was on the road to Damascus, a still very important city in the Middle East, when he had a vision of Jesus asking him why he was persecuting Him. That was the moment Saul converted to Christianity. On order from God Himself, Saul was then integrated into the Church and became an honorary Apostle, spreading the Good News of Jesus.
There is a little problem in this series of events, which is that Saul never seems to have met Jesus while alive, and that all he knew about Christianity came from the people he persecuted. Jesus certainly doesn’t mention that someone was going to come after he was dead that would reorganize the Church, and Paul never quotes Jesus directly. He also sometimes gets details wrong, which the Church glosses over.
The main difference between Jesus and Paul is that Paul is not as forgiving. While Jesus was fine being called a glutton and drunkard, Paul decides not to have sex with his wife permanently, because asceticism is better for salvation. He will famously tell women they should cover their head and shut up in assembly, he says that slaves should be beholden to their masters, he says that “the wages of sin are death.”
In short, Paul is the source of the idea that a good Christian is a sinless Christian. And if the Christian cannot be sinless, the Christian should at least try to be.
The Christian Dilemma
The main issue with sinlessness is not really that Jesus didn’t care if you committed sin. It’s much bigger than that. Jesus explicitly said he didn’t care for the righteous. He was only there for sinners.
While this statement is found in the Gospels several times, nowhere is it as vivid and explicit as in one story told in the Gospel of Luke. In it, Jesus is invited to dinner at a Pharisee’s place. While there, discussing what Pharisees discuss with Jesus, a “sinful woman” comes in and worships Him. She prostrates herself in front of Him, washes his feet, anoints Him with expensive perfume, and cries.
The Pharisee wonders to himself what kind of a prophet this is that can’t even tell that He is dealing with a “sinful woman.” Jesus understands what he’s thinking and replies with a story. If two people have a debt, one much larger than the other, and the debt of both is forgiven, who will be more grateful? The one with the larger debt, says the Pharisee (not particularly good at detecting logical traps). So, Jesus says, sin is like debt incurred with God, and those who have sinner more have more to be forgiven for, and hence are going to be more grateful.
In this story, it is clear that the right kind of sin is helpful in getting closer to salvation, while trying to avoid sin is explicitly condemned as making you love God less.
What is the “right kind of sin?” The story doesn’t say. It also doesn’t mention what the “sinful woman’s” sin is. It has been interpreted traditionally as prostitution, but that’s just a wild guess.
The Gospels and Sin
Sidebar: when Jesus talks about sin, the word doesn’t seem to mean the same thing that it does to us now. Nowadays, sin is a religious category devoid of secular meaning. A sin is a violation of a divine order of some kind without, and this important, a direct legal consequence.
At the time of Jesus, though, there was no distinction between religious law and secular law. That’s the main reason why the Gospels constantly talk about the Law. There was only one law, it was the law of God, and it carried secular consequences. It listed crimes and punishments very explicitly, and while the Law came from God, it was judged and dispensed by men. Hence, since the Law said that an adulterer should be stoned, there is a story of and adulterer in the process of being stoned in the Gospel.
In this context, sin is not a religious category, primarily. A sin is a violation of the Law, hence a civil infraction. When Jesus talks about sin, and the people around Him, it should be read like a traffic ticket or an indictment nowadays. A governmental act.
If we read sin in this context, we understand why some sin is forgivable and some isn’t, just as today some law-breaking is not considered punishable (going moderately over the speed limit, ahem), while other is (mass murder).
With that in mind, Jesus considers the sin that the “sinful woman” commits, forgivable. Whatever she does falls into the “traffic ticket” category. Other sin is not. The two examples mentioned explicitly are greed and hypocrisy. The former is mentioned in the famous story of the camel and the eye of the needle, the latter in the Woes of the Pharisees mentioned above.
What is the dividing line? What sin is forgivable and what sin isn’t? Fortunately for Christians, the difference is easy to tell, because Jesus tells us. Sin born out of love for others or God is forgivable, because it is this love that is the actual goal of Christianity. Hypocrisy and greed are not forgivable, because they are selfish.
What is more is that forgivable sin isn’t just optionally forgiven. God is assumed to automatically forgive it to those who love Him and/or have Faith in Him.
How Did Christianity Get This Way?
I like your Christ, but not your Christianity
This quote attributed to Gandhi is very enlightening, because it reveals the tension that exists between the Jesus and the Paul souls of Christianity. One side calls for forgiveness and openly advocates for acceptance of sin as a consequence and precondition of love. The other calls for shunning of the sinner and for the “straight and narrow path” to salvation.
The two are sadly fundamentally incompatible, because one advocates for loving sin while the other doesn’t acceot the category as possible. All sin is equally bad and salvation requires the attempt to be sinless.
Both sides advocate with Bible quotes in hand. We have seen how the Jesus side has direct quotes from Jesus supporting their view, while Paul side Christians point to the surviving letters of Paul and the Old Testament, and some generic quotes in which Jesus seemed to buttress the validity of both.
It is also important to understand that Paul was not always unforgiving. The entirely unforgiving and militant way of Paulian Christians may have stemmed from his teaching, but is deeper than him.
The Dilemma, Solved
I mentioned earlier how Paul never met Jesus, never was announced by Jesus, and never quotes Jesus (to my knowledge).
There is a very important part of Jesus’s teachings that Paul seems to have been unaware of. He doesn’t seem to have known that Jesus had fundamental beef with Pharisees.
We saw above that Jesus didn’t just dislike Pharisees. He condemned them as phony hypocrites that made others stumble with religious demands of strict obedience to the Law. He didn’t just dislike them, He condemned them to eternal damnation. This, as mentioned, is an extraordinary rebuke he didn’t have in store for other groups, not even for the people that ultimately killed him. Only the greedy are called out the same way.
Why does it matter whether Paul knew that Jesus condemned the Pharisees to eternal damnation? Because Paul was very proud of being a Pharisee, himself:
circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.
Now, in context it is obvious that Paul considered himself past this description. He still makes references to being a Pharisee long after conversion, but in Philippians he makes an impassioned confession that all that matters is Jesus now, and that there is no righteousness in the Law for him any longer, only as a witness of the Resurrection.
Still, in that same letter he also makes and important admission:
Not that I have already grasped it all or have already become perfect, but I press on if I may also take hold of that for which I was even taken hold of by Christ Jesus.
The contention here is that if there is a conflict, a contradiction between what Jesus said and what Paul said at the time of writing, clearly Jesus is right and Paul simply didn’t know, yet.
And since Paul was a Pharisee, we would have to assume he erred on the side of Pharisees. Which is why Jesus preached forgiveness and the importance of sinning out of love right in the face of a Pharisee, while Paul denied that such a thing existed.
He simply didn’t know, yet.