It is primarily reconciliation with God, from whom, apart from Christ’s atoning work, we are estranged because of our sin.
Although my words are a bit more polished now, this is the essentially the same answer I would have given as a Southern Baptist teenager. Isn’t that funny—even after 16 years of being Methodist, several Disciple Bible studies, a Master’s degree from a mainline Protestant seminary, and a whole lot of reading and studying? It’s still the same answer! What a relief!
Do you think my definition is too simplistic? Does it leave too much out? Then let me point you to an unexpected ally: Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI. As part of his powerful little book about the first Christmas, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, he reflects on the angel’s words to Joseph in Matthew 1:21: “Mary will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
While the “lofty theological task” of forgiving sins immediately identifies Jesus with God, who alone forgives sins,
this definition of the Messiah’s mission could also appear disappointing. The prevailing expectations of salvation were primarily focused upon Israel’s concrete sufferings—on the reestablishment of the Davidic kingdom, on Israel’s freedom and independence, and naturally that included material prosperity for this largely impoverished people. The promise of forgiveness of sins seems both too little and too much: too much, because it trespasses upon God’s exclusive sphere; too little, because there seems to be no thought of Israel’s concrete suffering or its true need for salvation… Certainly it does not match the immediate expectations of Messianic salvation nurtured by men who felt oppressed not so much by their sins as by their sufferings, their lack of freedom, the wretched conditions of their existence.
I’m glad he said this! As a preacher, I worry that we twenty-first-century Americans, like first-century Jews, don’t feel especially oppressed by our sins. Meanwhile, I’m the wet blanket, reminding people that they are, indeed, sinners. In fact, our sinfulness is the main problem that God needed to solve by sending his Son.
And sometimes I worry: Does this message sell? I don’t know, but it’s the only message I’ve got.
Benedict goes on to relate this understanding of salvation to the four men in the gospels who lower a paralyzed friend through the roof of a crowded home in order for Jesus to heal him. They expect, of course, physical healing. Instead, Jesus pronounces his sins forgiven and seems happy to leave it at that.
This was the last thing they were concerned about. The paralytic needed to be able to walk, not to be delivered from his sins. The scribes criticized the theological presumption of Jesus’ words: the sick man and those around him were disappointed, because Jesus had apparently overlooked the man’s real need.
On the contrary, Benedict writes, Jesus is doing precisely what the angel told Joseph he would do. Jesus goes on to heal the man physically, but only as a demonstration of his authority to forgive sins. “[T]he priority of forgiveness for sins as the foundation of all true healing is clearly maintained.”
Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed—his relationship with God—then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else, he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady, and to show him—if you are not healed there, then however many good things you may find, you are not truly healed.
1. Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, trans. Philip Whitmore (New York: Image, 2012), 42-43.
2. Ibid., 44.