Good News! You’re a Sinner and Lent Is Here

During the season of Lent, Christians are reminded of their sin. That makes it the most wonderful time of the year.

Lent is that time when we all-too-worldly ones learn and relearn the great scandal that lies at the heart of the Christian faith — Christ came to save sinners, only sinners.

Much of the time we get away with the fiction that we are, after all, down deep, rather nice people who have no need of salvation. We know we may not be the best people in the world, but we are not the worst. We are making spiritual progress, lifting ourselves (by ourselves) out of the muck and mire of what once was called “sin.”

And then comes the church smearing ashes upon our foreheads, forcing us to our knees in confession, teaching us to say, “Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy upon us sinners.”

That’s not something many of us want the church to do anymore.

Years ago, we had the popular spiritual writer Thomas More come to speak at Duke. More is a very nice man who believes that we are all rather nice people, and if we just learn to think about ourselves as he thinks about us, we would be ever so much happier. On the way out of More’s rather vague self-help homily, I encountered a woman who said to me, “I’m so glad next week is Ash Wednesday.”

Glad for Ash Wednesday? I pressed for more. She responded, “You don’t know me that well, but I was the victim of sexual abuse by a relative when I was a young teenager. Spent years in therapy trying to get over it. Pop-spirituality and feel-good religion were just no help to me. That’s why I’m glad that we are coming to that time of the year when the church makes us put all the injustice, sin, blood and guilt on the altar and forces us to look at it and let God deal with it.”

Rejoice. It’s Lent. This is when the poor, old, bumbling church courageously reminds us of the joy of letting go of our illusions about ourselves. We offer our lives not to a God with high standards of conduct, but to a God who loves us as we are and forgives the worst in us.

My favorite theologian, Karl Barth, said that “only Christians sin.” He meant that only Christians know the joy of a God who forgives and thus can be frank about their sin. There is a sense in which awareness of God’s grace comes before, and not after, true and honest repentance. The person who doesn’t know a gracious God can never be truly honest about sin.

Sit quietly for a moment and dare to delve into today’s horrific headlines – or, if you really want to be bold, consider your own selfish, cheating little heart — and you are liable to be overwhelmed, defeated by guilt and shame. An honest look at yourself leaves you only one option: self-deceit.

That’s when Christians give thanks that, in Jesus Christ, we know the truth about God. We know that God loves, forgives, and embraces sinners.

The great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis was once asked why so many people who are atheists are such really good people.

Lewis responded, “Well, they have to be good, don’t they? If you don’t believe in a God who forgives, you are damned to unrelenting goodness.”

In our lamenting of our sins, there is also room for joy. In the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, Matthew 6:16-17, Jesus instructs us (strangely) that when we fast, when we repent of our sin, we are not to show sad, remorseful faces and make a big deal of our mournful repentance. Jesus tells us that we are to prepare ourselves as if for a party. We are to rejoice that the God whom we presumed to be our enemy is really our best friend.

Give thanks that the God whom we presumed to be unwilling to do business with sinners such as us has embraced us, forgiven us, even died for us sinners, only sinners.

“Why should men love the church?” asks T. S. Eliot. “Because she tells them of sin and death and other unpleasant facts of life they would as soon forget.”

We don’t think of Ash Wednesday as one of the happiest, most joyful services of the year, but maybe we should.

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Will Willimon
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  • Vic Christian

    Sorry – Lent has nothing to do with the method God wants us to worship Him. Rather, it is another of man’s ways he prefers to worship God, and is not necessary for a Christian who already recognizes that the only hope of salvation from our sin is Jesus’ righteousness and His substitutionary death on the cross.

    • Rational Conclusions


      “Moreover, an atonement theology that says God sacrifices his own son in place of humans who needed to be punished for their sins might make some Christians love Jesus, but it is an obscene picture of God. It is almost heavenly child abuse, and may infect our imagination at more earthly levels as well. I do not want to express my faith through a theology that pictures God demanding blood sacrifices in order to be reconciled to us.”

      “Traditionally, Christians have said, ‘See how Christ’s passion was foretold by the prophets.” Actually, it was the other way around. The Hebrew prophets did not predict the events of Jesus’ last week; rather, many of those Christian stories were created to fit the ancient prophecies in order to show that Jesus, despite his execution, was still and always held in the hands of God.”

      “In terms of divine consistency, I do not think that anyone, anywhere, at any time, including Jesus, brings dead people back to life.”

      (from Professor JD Crossan’s book, “Who is Jesus” co-authored with Richard Watts

      • saneandreasonable

        Liberal theologian . Easily dismissed.

        As are you, CCNL, who has been posting here for a decade.

        • Rational Conclusions

          As a good student, you have read the reiterations of being responsible humans Therefore, the seeds have been planted in rich soil. Go therefore and preach the truth to all nations, reiterating as you go amongst the lost, bred, born and brainwashed Christian, Muslim and Jewish “souls” as Rational Thinking makes its triumphant return all because of you!!!!

    • robin

      I don’t know..if we take liturgy away then we are left to pick and choose our readings, prayers, worship and we tend to pick the things that reinforce our likes, I think that the Spirit works though man’s ways and sometimes guides it to better things. It’s good for me to live my years in a cycle that matches the flow of scripture, to have a day where I can realize, along with he rest of believers, that I am dust – mortal and needy of God’s grace.

  • Mark Edwards

    There’s not much of a humble spirit among conservative Christians (or any Christians) these days – pretty judgmental and dismissive. Probably saddens Christ all the more.