Sin: the Lost Language of Salvation

I borrowed this title from Barbara Brown Taylor. It’s her way of talking about sin in her fine little book, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation.

In these helpful essays, Brown Taylor explores the scriptural models and traditional Christian theology that frequently use medical or legal language to describe sin. If we think of sin as sickness then its solution is a healing. If we think of sin as crime then its solution is a punishment. But in her effort to recover “the lost language of salvation,” Taylor prefers a third way that acknowledges the core problem is broken relationship.

“In theological language, the choice to remain in wrecked relationship
with God and other human beings
is called sin.
The choice to enter into the process of repair
is called repentance,
an often bitter medicine with the undisputed power to save lives.”

The powerful story of Les Misérables demonstrates this “bitter medicine with power to save lives” just about as well as any story I’ve ever read.

In the past 25 years since the musical has been on the stage, 60 million people have experienced the Gospel according to Victor Hugo. It is gospel. While the story breaks your heart with its dark picture of human brokenness, the gospel breaks our hearts wide open with its promise of unlikely redemption and amazing grace.

The 2012 movie shows Jean Valjean wrestling with his choices in a small chapel under a crucifix: an image of the body of Christ also broken by the brokenness of the world.

valjeans-soliloquyIt’s a powerful scene as Valjean comes to repentance and gives himself over to redemption. But this grace, he discovered, must be lived day by day, moment by moment and his choice for redemption needed to be made again and again.

Valjean found that he must repeatedly reorient himself to forgiveness in order to remember who he is: a broken man made new, a lost man redeemed. In his life after the priest’s redemption and after his own repentance, he continued to commit himself to stand in that grace in order to find the wisdom and power to  truly live in redemption; in order to live as an agent of reconciliation for others.

This is not easy. We humans are naturals at self-righteousness and we have such excellent skills at self-deception. Martin Luther (and Augustine before him) talked about sin as the self curving in on itself. (‘Homo in se incurvatus’).

images-4This “curving” I think is part of what it means to be human. Each of us individually. All of us together. The nations we build, the societies we form, even the churches that are supposed to offer a radical alternative to this human tendency for self-sufficiency – even the Church all too often is a self curving in on itself.

When Paul wrote his letter to the church at Rome, his description of human sinfulness is stark. Something like the Genesis description of the downward spiral of humanity in the days of Noah. Something like the heart breaking, gut wrenching cry of the Psalmist. Something like the systemic brokenness of the world of Jean Valjean. Something like the news coming out of Somalia or Syria or Newtown.

The human condition is shot through with a sense of separation from God, with a reality of estrangement from one another, and with a deep awareness of fragmentation within our own souls. Our bending in upon ourselves is an embedded pattern that perpetuates itself from generation to generation.

Awareness of these realities can spiral us down into despair. Or it can be the soil within which grace finds life and redemption bears fruit. Like our friend Valjean, we all need the shocking injection of grace into our vicious cycles of self-seeking.

The Gospel according to Paul stands against our human tendency to try to fix ourselves, remodel ourselves, save ourselves. Salvation is not our work; it is God’s.

Here is what Paul says:

There is no distinction,
since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;
they are now justified by his grace as a gift,
through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood,
effective through faith.

Romans 3

Grace and redemption, justice and right-making are God’s work in the world, and it is all for the purpose of realigning, recreating humanity so that we might truly reflect the image of God in whose image we are created.

Surely Paul writes Romans in conversation with the Adam and Eve story. “Where are you,” the Creator calls, walking in the garden in the cool of the evening. “Where are you? I miss you.” But this sad story tells us they were hiding, their eyes opened to the estrangement that had now come into existence. Their eyes opened to their new independence that felt a lot like isolation. The humans were now untethered and set adrift from the Source of their life.

That’s what broken relationship looks like, feels like. These broken relationships are everywhere we turn, and they break our hearts. Or at least, I hope this breaks our heart; I daresay it breaks God’s heart.

Even so, I think the Creator created this world knowing full well what pain was in store. I think God created this world knowing full well the cross was in view. The stories from Genesis tell us God calls out “where are you?” and God’s own people hide themselves. The prologue from John tells us the Eternal Word became flesh and came to his own and his own people did not know him.

The opening chapters from Romans tells us:

But even though people knew God,
they would not honor God as God or give thanks…

Romans 3

The story of judgment in Genesis 3 used to trouble me but I still remember the grace of epiphany when I recognized how the story is telling us truth about how actions do have consequences. The Creator didn’t need to impose punishment on these hapless creatures; they themselves had opened the Pandora’s Box so that now the natural consequences of their brokenness and stubbornness began to have their way. That is not God’s doing; we humans do this to ourselves.

Barbara Taylor says it this way:

God’s judgment is not so much some kind of extra punishment God dumps on [us] as it is God’s announcement that we have abandoned the way of life. Like some divine jiu-jitsu master, God simply spins the rejection of life around so that we can feel the full force of it for ourselves.

When God is our “judge,” God tells us the truth about ourselves; God the Judge sees and names what is real. God is the One who opens our eyes to our own nakedness and hopelessness and alienation so that we can enter into repentance, enter into grace. God is the One upon Whom we are called to bend ourselves so that our lives will be in alignment with that which is true and good and right and just.

We are the body of Christ working God’s work in the world. Like the priest who offered radical grace to Jean Valjean, we are called to be God’s partners, offering new possibilities in life’s impossible circumstances. light-in-darkness  If God’s light is going to shine in our darkness, then WE must join God to be that light. If the gospel of Jesus Christ is going to be proclaimed to those who have lost their way, then WE must BE that good news.

We are called to do God’s work in our broken communities. We are created to shine God’s light into this stubborn darkness. We are motivated to move for wholeness in this fragmented world. We are challenged to inject grace into the vicious cycles of whatever Jean Valjeans may show up on our doorstep.

And we don’t stop. We don’t stop entrusting ourselves and our families and our communities to the Creator who is still creating and re-creating goodness out of our every chaos.

Like Jean Valjean, we have a choice: we can keep on curving in upon ourselves and die. Or we can die to ourselves, bending ourselves toward God for the sake of the world – and truly live.


Living in The Story reflections for Week 3: Sin

Genesis 3-11

Psalm 5, 10, 14, 51,

Romans 3-11

John 9-12





Author: Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Charlotte lives and blogs in Paris TX. She is ordained within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and developed Living in The Story while doing doctoral work at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth. Charlotte also blogs about intersections of faith, politics, and culture at

2 thoughts on “Sin: the Lost Language of Salvation”

  1. So much of what you say here rings true, Charlotte–I totally agree that sin causes all kinds of natural consequences and we have only ourselves to blame for it. Still . . .
    It seems to me that what you’re describing here–broken relationships, separation from God and each other, self-bending–are symptoms, not causes. The original sin was not choosing to break the relationship, but choosing to exalt ourselves over God by the simple act of not believing him. Where does temptation fit in all this? (You may have discussed the temptation aspect elsewhere.) We don’t have to agree on whether Adam and Eve were historical characters to understand the meaning of the serpent’s snare: “Did God really say that? Are you sure he has your best interest at heart? Don’t you understand that his real intention is to keep you dependent and inferior?” The heart of sin is rebellion against God’s righteous authority–not acknowledging him as God, as Paul says in Romans 1.
    In the divine scheme of things, that’s not just tragic choice (though it is that too, of course)–it’s a crime. All sin is in some form rebellion against God, as David admitted in Ps. 51: “Against you, and you only, have I sinned.”
    As you said, there are all kinds of natural consequences, but judgment is not one of them. The consequence of sin is not just a question of what we do, but of Who he is. “God as Judge sees and names what is real.” That’s what God as Prophet does. God as Judge names the crime and pronounces a penalty–that’s what a judge does. Otherwise the word means nothing. The import of the flood story (which, again, we don’t have to accept as literally true in order to assess its meaning) is not only that God has a right to judge, but that he is right to judge.
    We humans do bear responsibility for this: by deciding to reject him as Lord, we made him our Judge. To be true to his own righteousness, he has to judge, and someone has to pay. That’s where blood atonement comes in; otherwise it makes no sense at all.

    1. We don’t really disagree, Janie. Or at least not very deeply, I think.

      “The original sin was not choosing to break the relationship, but choosing to exalt ourselves over God by the simple act of not believing him…” I would say the Bible calls this idolatry, listed at the top of the Top Ten List of the 10 Commandments. I still think Augustine’s definition fits here as description, not just consequence. “incurvatus in se” – the self curved in upon itself. (Do you remember C.S. Lewis used the concept of “bentness” in his Perelandra series?)

      No, I don’t talk much about temptation here. Happy to do that with you though.

      Yes, Scripture speaks of sin as “crime.” That is one way to think about it. Barbara Brown Taylor also points out the biblical understanding of sin as “sickness.” Depending on which one we humans emphasize determines our understanding of appropriate “treatment.” Sin as crime demands judgment/penalty/punishment. Sin as sickness needs diagnosis/compassion/healing. Both are valid metaphors and both are present in Scripture. (I think you would really enjoy Brown’s book.)

      I think we differ slightly in our understanding of God as Judge. I would say, within the created world the Just God has put into motion natural consequences for our sin that is indeed a kind of judgment. I would say it is God’s judgment that comes to us in the consequences. The brokenness, the bentness, the curving away from God, the rebellion, the self-centeredness all produce results in our lives (and in the lives of others) that have the power to challenge and entice us back to proper alignment. I still call that process the judgment and justice of God. That does not negate a belief in judgment as an external indictment by the Divine Judge. I just don’t see that operating in our world as it currently functions. Who knows what The End will look like? I leave that in God’s hands.

      “To be true to his own righteousness, he has to judge, and someone has to pay. That’s where blood atonement comes in; otherwise it makes no sense at all.” This is important. The way you speak of atonement is ONE way of understanding what happened/happens through the cross. I refer you to Father Richard Rohr’s brief reflection on blood atonement. This could spark more interesting conversation.


      Thanks for this. I always enjoy these talks.

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