As a pastor, I am regularly asked about the Bible. Questions can range from “Where in the Bible does it talk about church membership?” or “What does the Bible have to say about the end of the world?” There are many great questions, and the Bible is ready to answer them. Though there are many worthy of our time and effort, when considering the Bible there may be none as important as this: How can one escape the penalty of sin?
The very question is already draped in a worldview that is at odds with our present moment. What is entailed? First, that there is such a thing as sin. Second, that sin is met by a penalty. Third, that such a penalty can be avoided.
Our modern world pretends that such concepts of sin and penalties are the products of a far less advanced age. “Perhaps” they might say, “such ideas were useful in an older era because people did not have the same know-how that they do today. People were brutish then, but we have arrived, and this present moment is elevated above every moment that has preceded it.”
Rubbish! The same problems of yesterday have been repackaged. The same ills draw close to us. We may not be offering a thigh piece to Apollo, but we are still willing to sacrifice our best to that which our hearts worship. We may not be toting spears and sandals for war, but we are nonetheless at odds with one another over land, prosperity, and pride. Much to the chagrin of our pride, we are not that different after all.
But far from this being a bare sociological cyclical maelstrom from which we can never emerge, Scripture provides another alternative. The Bible does not pretend that our tendencies towards sin are merely an outworking of bad genetics, or even of bad models for behavior. There is an inescapable dynamic that humanity by nature is enslaved to sin. We are enslaved to our passions, we are enslaved to making something of the created order our chief point for living whether it be ourselves or another. In short, though we have technological savvy, we are still idolaters, only now we are idolaters with smart phones and work boots instead of papyri and sandals.
What are we to make of all this? Seeing that this problem is as old as human history, it behooves us to consider that perhaps the solution is also quite ancient. From the Garden of Eden onward, the only hope of humanity was not the effort of our own hands. It was not social action. It was not organizations and committees. It was not by better intentions. It was not by better models of parenting, or alternative educational models. It was not anything we ourselves could produce which is for many one of the most crippling aspects of the Gospel. Why? Because it cuts our pride off at the knees. The very thing we need most to escape the penalty for our sins we ourselves cannot provide.
In short, we need Jesus.
For some reason, that answer comes across as trite to those who have vastly overestimated their own abilities and proportionally underestimated God’s demands and Christ’s worth. But just like the law of gravity, such realities are not contingent upon subjective acceptance. No amount of good vibes will halt a hammer from crushing one’s toe.
Sin’s penalty can only be escaped by abandoning sins in repentance, and believing in the Lord Jesus Christ for a right standing with God. This is the heart of the Christian message. You need Christ, and until you can acknowledge that in all of its fullness, you are bound to despise Him as Lord and Savior.
The Gospel of Mark, bombastic and fast paced though it is, does not miss this note. Christ’s very first words in the Gospel of Mark contain this central aim of his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
The Gospel or good news of Jesus Christ is not merely about information transfer, nor is it about reshaping community. The message of Christ consequentially entails those items but only as secondary consequences of that initial heart transformative dynamic, which is that we are commanded to repent and believe in Him. God does not invite you to do so, but commands you.
The only means of fleeing from the coming destruction against sin is by abandoning every ounce of self-reliance and admitting our own inabilities and failures. We are called to believe that Jesus truly is the Son of God who comes to take away the sins of the world. How can we be pardoned? By trusting that we one day will be accepted by God because of Christ. There is no other way. There is no other savior. There is no other end than the judgment of God. (cf. Colossians 3:6) Run from your sins into the arms of our savior for He is “gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29 ESV)