How Christ’s Victory Over Sin Is Ours to Share Today
As I reflect on the events going on around us, I often find my thoughts drawn to the Lamb’s War, as Friends traditionally name the struggle to resist sin and remain faithful to God’s call in an often hostile world. However, discussing this spiritual battle between good and evil with other Liberal Friends can be difficult. Many of us exist in a world where concepts like “sin” and “evil” seem anachronistic. In this world, basic needs are unquestionably met, addictions are discreet, and violence is unthinkable. In this world, people may be confused or misguided or dysfunctional but “sinful”? What a backward concept! Isn’t it enough, such Friends might say, to try to be good and to recognize that there is that of God in every person, without getting caught up in superstitious nonsense?
That might be the case—if the vast majority of humanity didn’t inhabit another world entirely: a less privileged and far more dangerous one. In that world, failing to “turn the other cheek” doesn’t just lead to gossip or estrangement but to drive-by shootings in retaliation. In that world, a man’s decision to leave his family leads not just to the complex logistics of joint custody but to hunger and homelessness and generational anger in the children left behind. In that world, addiction doesn’t mean an excessive fondness for after-dinner cocktails but to children coming home to ﬁnd that Daddy has sold their treasured toys for a ﬁx or that Mommy is too busy entertaining her “friends” to give baths or prepare meals. In that world, the decisions we make are not neutral lifestyle choices but seismic shocks that reverberate in the lives of those closest to us for good or for ill.
In that world, the many ways we harm others—either by deliberately putting our desires above our duties or as prisoners of compulsions, such as anger, attraction, and addiction—can have immediate and devastating effects. To the person whose life is in tatters after abandonment or abuse, just saying, “there is that of God in everyone,” doesn’t explain how someone with “that of God” in them could behave in such a devastating way or how a good and loving God could allow it. To the person who is tortured by the effects of their actions but can’t seem to make different decisions, just saying, “try to be good, and remember there is that of God in everyone,” doesn’t explain how they can relate to God when they know in their heart that they are not, in fact, good. It also doesn’t explain how if there is that of God in them, there is abundant evidence for that of evil in them as well.
This is the soul disease that early Friends called sin: the weakness and sickness and destruction that disorders our lives and leads us to harm ourselves and others.
And if we honestly consider our own lives—how we often justify our pride and our prejudices and everyday acts and omissions that amount to spiritual violence or callous indifference—we are likely to realize that sin isn’t just “out there” in the world but in our own hearts as well, no matter how conventionally “good” or respectable we may be.
Sometimes, sin is a choice: the supervisor gives a bad review not due to poor work quality but because she ﬁnds a perverse pleasure in inﬂicting harm on someone she doesn’t like. Sometimes, sin is compulsion: the torture faced by the conscientious husband who can’t seem to put a stop to his late-night pornography sessions, even though he knows that his marriage, his parenting, and his job performance are suffering as a result. Sometimes, sin is the result of distorted perspectives handed down through the generations: the devoted mother who berates and humiliates her cherished children because—in her experience—that is what loving mothers do. Though the word sounds old-fashioned, the reality of sin confronts us every time we open our newspapers to read stories of one ethnic group oppressing another, of faith leaders preying on their ﬂocks, of coaches abusing their players, or of public ofﬁcials betraying the trust of their constituents. And if we honestly consider our own lives—how we often justify our pride and our prejudices and everyday acts and omissions that amount to spiritual violence or callous indifference—we are likely to realize that sin isn’t just out there in the world but in our own hearts as well, no matter how conventionally good or respectable we may be.
In the face of human-made catastrophes ranging from the legally sanctioned horrors of chattel slavery to the bloody genocides of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the cynically engineered opioid epidemic, the phrases sometimes used in Liberal Quaker circles to speak of wrongdoing—people can’t be evil, just confused; or as long as you’re good more often than you’re bad, you’re okay; or I don’t believe in sin, because there is that of God in everyone—can feel woefully inadequate. At best, they seem unrealistic and naïve. At worst, they are evidence of a type of privileged magnanimity that is only possible for people whose lives have never been shredded by the devastating actions of others. By minimizing the very real spiritual corruption that scars so many of us in body and soul, this approach can leave us ﬂoundering when we inevitably encounter hypocrisy, aggression, and selﬁshness in ourselves or in others. It also stands in sharp contrast with the traditional Quaker worldview, which is simultaneously unﬂinching in its acknowledgment of the hideousness of evil and unwavering in its faith that God is loving enough and powerful enough to overcome that evil once and for all.
This belief is common to many Christian understandings of the “atonement,” the traditional word for the way Christ bridges the gap between God and humanity. Early Friends and others viewed “at-one-ment,” or reconciliation, as necessary because of the fundamental divide between God’s perfection and humanity’s imperfection, between God’s constant goodness and humanity’s consistent inconsistency and reliable moral failure. But there was a key difference between these early Quakers and the rest of the church: Friends believed the atonement actually worked.
The common refrain in the time of Quakerism’s origins was that no one is capable of true goodness in a fallen world. In this view, as long as we are creatures of ﬂesh and blood, wrongdoing and spiritual weakness are inescapable. Friends rejected this concession to evil wholeheartedly, deriding it as “preaching up sin” and condemning it as a rejection of God’s promise and even a trick of the Devil. Alluding to the practice of enslavement in the Ottoman Empire, George Fox wrote in Epistle 222:
Now what value, and price, and worth have they made of the blood of Christ, that cleanseth from sin and death; and yet told people that they would bring them to the knowledge of the son of God, and to a perfect man, and now tell them they must not be perfect on the earth, but carry a body of sin about them to the grave? . . . This is as much as if one should be in Turkey a slave, chained to a boat, and one should come to redeem him to go into his own country; but say the Turks, thou art redeemed, but while thou art upon the earth, thou must not go out of Turkey, nor have the chain off thee. . . . But I say you are redeemed by Christ; it cost him his blood to purchase man out of this state he is in, in the fall, and bring him up to the state man was in before he fell; so Christ became a curse, to bring man out of the curse, and bore the wrath, to bring man to the peace of God, that he might come to the blessed state, and to Adam’s state he was in before he fell; and not only thither, but to a state in Christ that shall never fall. And this is my testimony to you, and to all people upon the earth. And so the teachers of the world cried, men are redeemed, but while on the earth they must have original sin in them. . . . This is sad tidings! Are these messengers of God, or messengers of satan?
This, fundamentally, is why our beliefs about atonement matter. If we believe that atonement is unnecessary because people are essentially good, evil actions will be seen as a mistake or an aberration, rather than as a predictable feature of the human condition.
In the view of early Friends, Christ had redeemed humanity—purchased us out of slavery—by shedding his blood on the Cross. Why would we let the priests and “professors” put us back in chains?
Early Friends stood ﬁrm in the faith that Christ’s victory over sin and its deadly consequences was complete and eternal and that it is ours to share (1 Cor. 15:55–57). No longer is humanity condemned to live as prisoners of our own disordered hungers, incapable of following the Light because we are so thoroughly addicted to comfort, to pleasure, and to power. Instead of being abused and mistreated servants of sin, we are cherished and beloved children of God (Gal. 4:3–7). Instead of bondage to the ﬂesh and the desires of our egos, we have freedom in the Spirit. This freedom is not metaphorical or abstract but real, concrete, and immediate. You can stop compulsively chasing prestige—now. You can stop turning to sensual pleasures for emotional fulﬁllment—now. You can stop giving in to rage—now. You can stop letting anxiety make you selﬁsh—now. You can stop retreating into class privilege or racial privilege to make you feel safe—now. God has given you, and all of us, that freedom, if we will dare to accept it.
This bold and audacious claim, one of the most controversial elements of traditional Quaker faith, seems almost unbelievable to those of us who try to do the right things but still fail regularly. Who wouldn’t want to be free of the voices and pressures that drive us away from the goodness we love to instead act in ways that we hate? Aren’t we already doing our best? But there, early Friends might say, is the root of the problem: we keep relying on our own trying, our own efforts, to reform our behavior. Instead, we must turn to the Light. Fox makes this point emphatically in a passage from Epistle 46 that can be paraphrased as follows:
Those who follow their own judgment, rather than seeking God’s will, are doomed. Their glory and their crown is pride, which will lead them to destruction, disorder, and disobedience to the Light. But those who love and follow the Light are ruled by Christ, whose way is good news for all creation.
In the traditional Quaker view, freedom from spiritual confusion and corruption is freely available to us, but that freedom is available only to the extent that we are willing to set aside our own expertise, our own priorities, and our own desires, and wait to be led by the Spirit.
Early Friends believed that being brought into a new way of living through the power of Spirit is immediate when we start listening for the voice of God and obeying it.
This belief, traditionally known as “perfection,” was not meant to imply that there was no room for further growth in goodness. After all, as Robert Barclay wrote in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity, “a child hath a perfect body as well as a man, though it daily grow more and more” (“Concerning Perfection,” Section 2). Our perfection lies in obedience to the messages the Spirit gives us. As we attend to the guidance of God in our hearts, we are gradually given more and more guidance to be faithful to. Our lives are transformed as a result, with sin’s power over us weakening as our lives show the outward fruits of our ongoing relationship with the Inward Christ.
This, fundamentally, is why our beliefs about atonement matter. If we believe that atonement is unnecessary because people are essentially good, evil actions will be seen as a mistake or an aberration, rather than as a predictable feature of the human condition. For those of us who embrace this perspective, we may ﬁnd it a challenge to humbly and realistically consider our own shortcomings or to proactively engage with the practices that keep our communities safe, because we truly believe that everyone will act for the good of everyone else—despite often-tragic evidence to the contrary. On the other end of the spectrum, if we believe that the purpose of the atonement was to pardon our wrongdoings, but that our fundamental human nature remains unchanged, we will be tempted to rationalize and minimize failures of virtue and abusive dynamics as the unavoidable evidence of sin in a fallen world.
As a result, we may recognize that it is part of our calling as Friends to exercise loving forgiveness but not see that, as faithful Friends, we are also called to help each other resist evil in the ﬁrst place, and to uproot it from among us with tenderness, courage, and humility.
If we hope to tackle the problems facing us . . . we must acknowledge that evil is real and devastating, yet it can, with divine assistance, be overcome. We must face the ocean of darkness that Fox recognized in his famous vision, if we would see that in the ocean of light that ﬂows over it is the inﬁnite love of God.
The traditional Quaker view of atonement can help us avoid these extremes. The traditional Quaker perspective creates a space in which we can acknowledge the innumerable ways that our attitudes and actions hurt ourselves and each other, knowing that we already have God’s forgiveness. We can examine the aspects of ourselves and our communities that we would rather avoid with the conﬁdence that our shortcomings do not separate us from God’s love. We can confront evil with hope instead of fear, knowing that God will give us the insight required to walk in faithfulness through challenging situations, as well as the courage to do so. Many of our traditional practices grow out of this view, and work beautifully to the extent that we practice them with integrity. Our belief in the ability of the individual to be guided by the Spirit is most rewarded when those individuals are supported by strong and loving elders committed to protecting the safety and spiritual health of the meeting as a whole. Our faithful exercise of Gospel Order—the harmony and care of a community governed by the Inward Christ—cannot be fully realized in the absence of a shared willingness to be searched and disciplined by the Light.
Far from being theological sophistry, our understanding of the atonement is essential, shaping how we see ourselves, how we see our communities, and how we see God. If we hope to tackle the problems facing us, including White supremacy, political polarization, conﬂicts in our meetings, and what it means to live faithfully in a rapidly changing society, we must acknowledge that evil is real and devastating, yet it can, with divine assistance, be overcome. We must face the ocean of darkness that Fox recognized in his famous vision, if we would see that in the ocean of light that ﬂows over it is the inﬁnite love of God.
The author is featured in the December episode of the Quakers Today podcast.