March 29, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: Atonement and redemption

John F. FinkIn a column for this series in January, I wrote that it is not sufficient for Christians to follow Christ just because he was a great man. He claimed to be God, forgave sins—which only God can do—and performed healing miracles to show that he had the power to forgive sins.

But why is the divinity of Christ so important for Christians? The answer to that question is particularly pertinent at this time of the year because on Good Friday we commemorate the day on which Jesus accepted death by crucifixion to atone for our sins and to redeem humankind.

Atonement and redemption are at the very core of Christianity. As Christians, we believe that God the Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, became human in order to die for our sins.

Through the centuries of Christianity, people have questioned why atonement and redemption were necessary. Various Christian traditions have answered that question differently, with the Catholic Church maintaining the traditional doctrine of original sin.

Original sin is the sin of Adam as described in Genesis 2:8-3:24, a sin of disobedience to God and lack of trust in his goodness. It was a sin passed on to all people as a state of the loss of grace.

Results of original sin for humans meant that they were subject to ignorance, suffering, death, and the inclination to evil. It was because of this first sin, and those that followed it, that humanity required redemption.

Most Christians accept the fact that human nature was in a fallen state prior to Christ’s death. Most Christians accept the words of the Nicene Creed: “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried.” They also accept the words of St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3).

And that is why the divinity of Christ is so important. How could any mere man, even the holiest, die for our sins? How could a mere man be crucified “for our sake”? Our redemption had to be accomplished by God.

But not by God alone. Since suffering and death were part of God’s plan, God couldn’t do it by himself since it is not in God’s nature to suffer and die. So first he had to assume our human nature. He had to become a human who could suffer and die.

And that is what he did. God the Son became a man while remaining God and, in the person of Jesus, was able to make the perfect sacrifice that atoned for our sins.

St. Paul, having already told us how sin entered the world, also told us, “Just as through the disobedience of one person the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of one the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19).

St. Peter wrote: “He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds, you have been healed” (1 Pt 2:24). †

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