One of the most common mistakes we make is thinking of sin as merely a legal matter. That is, that it sin is only about breaking a code of laws and rules and righteousness about conforming to them. But to think of sin and righteousness in strictly legal terms is to miss the point. Sin is not fundamentally legal; it is rather fundamentally relational.
Put another way, sin is a breaking of communion. It is a movement away from love into that which is not love. It is a turning away from the face of God into the darkness of the void. That is not to deny that God gives us commandments. Yet, these commandments do not form an arbitrary legal code. They rather signify the boundaries of a relationship. They are guardrails around the covenant of love which God makes with us.
Fear and Legal Thinking
One problem with a strictly legal framework is that we begin to think of God as a judge, distant and severe, waiting to mete out punishment for our every infraction of his law. We believe in an abstract sense that he is good and that he loves us, and yet we can’t escape the fact that he is ready to pounce upon us the moment we break the least commandment of the law. Fear begins to dominate our relationship with God. Sinners that we are, we can’t help but see him as an adversary to be avoided rather than as a father to be loved.
Scrupulosity is the inevitable outcome of legal thinking. We no longer trust God’s goodness but instead fear his wrath. When we sin, we repent because we don’t want to go to hell. We repent to appease God’s anger, and more importantly, to earn his love and favor.
The Father and the Prodigal
What is the alternative to legal thinking? It is to realize that we are no longer slaves, but sons. Whether or not we live like it, our entire identity is that of sons of the Most high God. To you God utters the words, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” To you, God says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” This is a stupendous reality—one we hardly meditate on enough.
There is no better illustration of the Father’s love for us than the tale of the prodigal son. The selfish prodigal took advantage of his father’s goodness. He couldn’t wait for his father to die and so demanded his inheritance immediately. Such greed, such craven disrespect. Moreover, when he finally received his inheritance, he wasted it in the worst possible way: on gambling and drunkenness and prostitutes. A larger insult could not possibly be imagined.
When the prodigal son finally came to his senses, he realized that he was better off in his father’s house. Even at this moment, however, it could hardly be said that his motives for repentance were pure. They were very much like our motives too often: Simply seeking to avoid misery and to stay out of hell. He wanted to grovel a bit and then be a slave in his Father’s house. Surely this would be better than eating from a pig’s trough. So he trudged home expecting wrath and a good shaming from his father. For how could anyone forgive such wrongs?
But then he did return home, and he received a shock. His father did not wait for him, arms crossed in righteous anger, to humiliate him and remind him of his wrongs. No, he ran to him and embraced him. He clothed him in his rich garments and prepared for him a feast.
The Heart of Repentance
Do you not understand? God loves you. He is not a policeman waiting to pounce like the ruthless Javert in Les Misérables. He is not a cold and calculating judge dedicated to a blind and impartial justice. He is a Father who has never stopped loving you and who runs to meet you the moment you turn toward him.
I believe it was only when the prodigal son received the father’s mercy that he experienced true repentance. Up until that moment, he was still thinking like a slave. He did not trust his father’s goodness and only expected the justice he truly deserved. But when he experienced his father’s radical forgiveness, when he realized he was and always would be a beloved son, everything changed.
Likewise with us. When we stop thinking like groveling slaves that have to earn God’s love, a paradigm shift occurs. We no longer fear God in the sense of expecting fierce retribution, but walk in the freedom and confidence of love. “Perfect love casts out fear,” as the Apostle says. We don’t repent because we want God to love us again, we repent because God has never stopped loving us. And that makes all the difference.