One of the newspapers I read publishes a weekly advice column that is always entertaining. A few weeks ago, the advice columnist was asked a question with far-reaching consequences.
A gentleman had been criticized for being overly fastidious; he asked the advice columnist for an opinion about the issue. The issue in question was the behavior of the man’s girlfriend who works in a bakery. One evening, the girlfriend mentioned that she had enjoyed eating a few “floor cookies” during her work shift. The boyfriend asked about the meaning of the term “floor cookies.” The girlfriend explained that any baked goods that fall onto the floor fall into the ownership of the employees. On that particular day, the bakery was making cookies and she had helped herself to some floor cookies.
It occurred to me that floor cookies make a good metaphor for sin. Sin is something that is free and readily available to all; it looks attractive and seems, in the moment, to have no negative consequences. Sin is best enjoyed with few witnesses because it is very likely to be condemned by most observers. Sin is easy to rationalize but difficult to explain. When judged reasonably, sin is thoroughly offensive; unfortunately, sin is rarely judged reasonably.
Today’s second reading is taken from Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this section of the letter, Paul refers to the “new Adam,” a common image used to talk about Jesus during the first few centuries of Christianity.
Paul wrote, “through one man, sin entered the world.” (Rm. 5:12) The “one man” was Adam who rationalized disobedience to God for the sake of personal gain. Paul draws a contrast between the consequences of Adam’s sin and the consequences of Jesus’ obedience to God. Paul wrote, “if by the transgression of the one the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many.” (Rm. 5:15)
Jesus created a remedy for human nature’s destructive behavior and tendency to deny the consequences of destructive acts. The remedy was the result of Jesus’ willingness to make a sacrifice.
Very often, Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross is portrayed as being like a price that had to be paid to God or a punishment that Jesus suffered on our behalf. This line of reasoning says that only God’s Son could pay such a price, or endure such a penalty, because human nature is incapable of satisfying God’s desire for justice. While this line of reasoning is very compelling, it is also self-contradictory. If human nature is incapable of satisfying God’s desire for justice, then forgiveness is meaningless because there is no culpability in someone who in incapable of just behavior.
This irrational contradiction lies at the heart of the Reformation’s notion of forensic justification. In Lutheran and Calvinist theology, human nature is totally corrupt and incapable of righteousness. Salvation, then, consists not in anything that human nature is capable of doing, but in grasping the righteousness of Christ that is foreign to human nature. The inherent contradiction of “getting saved” is that it is solely an act of a human person. If human nature is incapable of any righteous act, then even our grasping the righteousness of Christ fails to be righteous.
To be fair, Catholic neo-scholastic theology is no less a contradiction than Calvinism. The neo-scholastic obsession with “getting graces” by saying prayers and performing meritorious acts amounts to the same irrational contradiction as forensic justification. If human nature is so far from God that extraordinary prayers and practices are necessary in order to win God’s favor, then there is little to be gained from those prayers and practices: finite acts will never bridge the gap between the finite and the infinite.
On the other hand, if Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross was a sacrifice performed willingly as an act of faithfulness to God’s will, then the remedy for sin is both proportionate to the offense and within the grasp of all human persons.
Jesus remedied our sinfulness by sacrificing all the sinful possibilities that faced him. He refused to abandon faith in God. He refused to take his destiny into his own hands. He forgave those who persecuted him. He passed judgment on no one. He died rather than betraying his vocation from God. His sacrifice undid the sinful consequences of Adam’s self-serving behavior. Jesus is the “new Adam” because, in him, human nature has been given the opportunity for a fresh start of being faithful to God’s will. Like Jesus, our faithfulness to God’s will requires sacrifice; this is why, I think, that sin is more often portrayed as a crime deserving punishment: most people prefer to wallow in the self-pity justified by punishment rather than to love their neighbor as Jesus commands.
These opinions above might be troubling to some people. For that reason, I encourage you to make up your own mind about the issues of sin and forgiveness. Before you make up your mind about sin and its remedy, however, please try a thought experiment. Try to see the temptations that afflict you and the sins you commit as being like floor cookies: attractive but destructive, easy but repulsive, a free choice that restricts your freedom permanently. Then, try to see faithfulness to God’s will as being a sacrifice that is fully worth the effort because its short-term cost is negligible when compared to the blessed freedom that is its result.
It is a sacrifice to trust in God rather than our own abilities. It is a sacrifice to forgive those who harm us. It is a sacrifice to be avoid being judgmental. It is a sacrifice to do what benefits others rather than to do what benefits ourselves. Jesus taught his disciples to make the sacrifice of doing what is right and just. Compared to Jesus’ teachings, the punishment of bearing shame over wrongdoing does not equate to having adequate faith in God; it equates only to having great faith in one’s own strength.
If you want my advice about sin and salvation: don’t eat the floor cookies; life is blessed only when you make the sacrifice to take home something pure and unstained.