Thinking that religion is about sinning (or not sinning) is like thinking basketball is about fouls. You should stop fouling but you can’t make the game be about fouls. That’s an impossible way to play basketball.
And, more, it’s an impossible way to be religious.
But once sin claims center stage and starts hogging all the light, everything else gets murky: love, grace, law, faith, etc. Sin distorts them.
As a sinner, though, this is natural. Sin thinks everything is about itself. And so, since I’m a sinner, it comes natural to me to think that religion is about sin.
But the truth is that not even sin is about sin.
Recognizing this is an important part of my being saved from sin.
Sin isn’t about sin.
Sin is about grace.
Grace is a name for what God is trying to freely give me. And what God is trying to give me (even right now) is the world itself—especially as the world is always imposing itself on me, always pressing in on me through the doors of my senses, through the doors of my heart, through the doors of my mind.
No doubt, this is a lot to be given. And so much of it is more (or other) than what I want.
It’s no wonder that, as a sinner, I flinch at these gifts and run. It’s no wonder I’m in full flight from God’s grace.
But sin, when it bothers to consider grace, always starts from itself. And then, distorted by this inversion, sin understands grace as a name for God’s response to its own sinfulness.
Now, once we’ve come this far—once we’ve agreed that grace is about sin—we’re all set up for the classic Mormon/Protestant debate!
It goes like this: Is grace God’s limited (works dependent) response to sin or is grace God’s unlimited (works independent) response to sin?
But this whole “works vs. grace” debate takes sin itself as the undisputed starting point! We’ve all agreed from the start—Mormon and Protestant alike—that grace is about sin! No wonder we run each other in circles.
This is part of what makes Paul’s letter to the Romans so important. There, Paul makes (among others) two crucial points about grace and sin:
(1) In Romans chapter 1, Paul argues that sin is a response to God’s grace. Grace comes first, sin comes second. Paul characterizes sin as a rejection or “suppression” of God’s grace as it is already and undeniably manifest in the gift of the created world.
(2) In Romans 3-7 (but especially in chapter 7), Paul offers a kind of reductio ad absurdum in which he demonstrates the absurdities that follow when we try to think about God’s law (or our own works) starting from the perspective of sin. Sin, works, and law can all be understood if we start from the perspective of grace. But all of them become hopelessly confused if we start from the assumption that they are all about sin.
Let’s take an Easter cue from Paul.
Sin is real and sin is a problem, but religion is not about sin.
The law is not about sin. Works are not about sin. God is not about sin. Not even sin is about sin.
Everything is about grace.
Religion is about grace. The law is about grace. Works are about grace. Sin is about grace. God himself is about grace.
This is the good news.