The questions we ask shape the answers we receive.
- Copernicus stopped asking how the earth was the center of the universe and instead asked if perhaps the earth circled the sun.
- Einstein stopped asking how gravity was a force in space and instead asked if perhaps gravity was the bending of space.
- Other scientists stopped asking how big the universe is and instead started asking if the universe was expanding and contracting.
In each case, all the data stayed the same.
All the facts remained the same.
But a different question re-arranged the data, re-collected the facts, and created a better, broader, and more effective explanation.
The same happens with our understanding of God’s work of salvation.
If Jesus Is the Answer, What Is the Problem?
If you asked the average Christian over the last 500 years what problem Jesus solves, you would probably hear, “The problem of sin, of course.” If you pressed further, the person might say, “The problem is guilt and death, caused by sin.”
In this view, Jesus’s death is the answer to the sin problem as a “penal substitution”—taking our penalty in place of us.
More recently (if the responder is uncomfortable with the “penal substitutionary” view), you might hear, “The problem is captivity/slavery to sin and death.”
In this view, Jesus’s death and resurrection is a victory that frees us from bondage to sin and death.
But is this the right question?
Is this the most fundamental problem?
Where Does the Gospel Start?
By “Gospel” I mean the four gospels—the books describing the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And I particularly want to start with the first gospel—Matthew.
The Gospel of Matthew is bookended by two important stories. The first is the angel’s visit to Joseph. After finding out that his bride-to-be was already pregnant, Joseph planned to break off his engagement with Mary. But an angel intervened to reassure Joseph that Mary’s pregnancy is all part of God’s plan.
Then, like a narrative voice-over movie, Matthew explains to his readers that Mary’s pregnancy is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that a virgin would bear a son whose name would be Immanuel. And just so we don’t miss it, Matthew tells us what that name means: “God is with us” (Mt 1:23).
This might seem like an insignificant detail at the beginning of the book. But let’s go to the end of Matthew’s Gospel. The last chapter ends with what is often called the Great Commission. Jesus sends his followers to all nations to make disciples, baptizing and teaching them all the ways of Jesus.
But notice the last thing Jesus says to his disciples.
Wherever his disciples go, whatever they might face, Jesus tells them, “Remember, I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20).
I am with you always!
These are the last words in Matthew’s Gospel. It’s can’t be a coincidence that Matthew begins by describing the birth of Jesus as Immanuel, “God with us,” and ends with Jesus announcing, “I am with you always.”
Matthew is making crystal clear that the answer around which the question of salvation circles is God with us.
The Problem is Presence.
If the answer is Jesus, God with us, then the problem must be the question of God’s presence. Or rather, our problem is our lack of access to God’s presence.
Access to God’s presence is the fundamental problem we find in the story of Scripture—once we begin to look for it. Access to God’s presence is the fundamental problem we find in the story of Scripture—once we begin to look for it. Click To Tweet
In fact, the two bookends of Scripture—Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22—both assume that humanity has perfect access to God’s presence. “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev 21:3).
Dwelling in God’s presence is what humanity was made for. This presence of God is what is lost in the fall. And finding the presence of God is the main problem that salvation seeks to solve.
Indeed, when Paul summarizes the result of Jesus’ ministry he says, “For through him we both [Jews and Gentiles] have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Eph 2:18).
(For more on finding the presence of God, take a look at our recent book, Does God Really Like Me? Discovering the God Who Wants to Be With Us.)
What Does This Mean for Us?
The problem with starting with sin as our problem is that the solution doesn’t necessarily include God’s presence. So often discipleship carries on as an attempt to overcome sin inside of us (personal/individual), or sin outside of us (corporate/systematic).
Jesus’ death and resurrection can be seen as the overcoming of the guilt and penalty of sin (penal substitution) or overcoming of slavery and captivity (Christus Victor). But when sin is the problem to be answered, we might not ever get back to the theme of God’s presence.
However, if we begin (and end) with God’s presence, then we will necessarily deal with sin.
- Sin is what keeps us from God’s presence.
- Sin is our abandonment of God’s presence.
- Sin is us replacing God’s goodness for a counterfeit.
- Sin is walking away from God’s paths of life and entering the way of death.
Certainly God deals with our sin. The story of the Bible is exactly this—God dealing with sin in order to offer his presence to humanity again, to re-establish the unity of heaven and earth.
(This post was partially adapted from the introduction of Does God Really Like Me? Discovering the God Who Wants to Be With Us.)