Our understanding of God’s unconditional love is at the heart of division in the Church over sex and sexuality, says Jayne Ozanne. Jesus’ love for us may lead us to repent of sin, but it isn’t conditional on us doing so
It seems we have two versions of Christianity being taught within our churches today. One believes in the unconditional love of God. The other seeks to add in various caveats and exception clauses, making our salvation a transactional exchange, dependent on various actions we take rather than solely what Christ has done for us.
Until we agree which version of the Christian gospel we believe in, I fear we are destined to continue in an endless Groundhog Day of tennis-match-style debates on matters such as sexuality. That is what I told the General Synod last month. And that is why I tabled my amendment to the Prayers of Love and Faith debate, asking the House of Bishops to clarify which version they believe in.
A salvation issue?
This amendment looked to name the core issue around which we are so divided. Namely, whether or not sex outside of marriage is a credal (Anglican word) or salvation (evangelical word) issue.
John Stevens set out one side of the argument in his recent opinion piece; let me briefly set out the other.
I want to start with Jesus, our living word of God, and focus in on his last few hours with us. Hanging in agony on the rough wood to which he was nailed, he lovingly reassured the man dying next to him, saying: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Repentance is important, but it is not the condition on which our salvation hinges
We know hardly anything about this man – his criminal lifestyle, his home life or even his love life. We do however know he admitted to having done something for which he deserved to die. Did he repent of it? No. But he recognised who Jesus was and asked to be with him – a request that Jesus immediately granted.
You see unconditional love is just that – Un-condition-al. The power of the Christian gospel (and its core difference when compared to all other faiths) is that it is all about what God does for us and never about what we do for God. It is ‘Amazing grace’ - totally extravagant, lavishly generous. We don’t deserve it, we can never earn it and we must never ever put limits or exclusion clauses on it.
Jesus knew this seemed unfair to those pious, religious folk who had devoted their lives to being good. He told parable after parable about this just to drive the point home, such as the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), or the last-minute vineyard workers (Matthew 20:1-16).
His whole life was spent reaching out to those who had been rejected by the religious leaders of their day and showing instead kindness and compassion. His whole ministry embodied the love of God, challenging those bound in fear by the law and encouraging them to reinterpret what they knew through a lens of unconditional love.
This same challenge remains true today.
But what, then, about repentance? Surely this is central to our salvation? Well, I want to share some good news. No, it’s not. God’s unconditional love is that radical. It’s that illogical. It’s that unfair – especially if you’re a vineyard worker who has been labouring all day in the vineyard.
Of course, repentance is important. It is something we do when we are so overwhelmed by love that we want to change, in order to become more like the source of that love. It is not, however, the condition on which our salvation hinges.We see that in Jesus’ act of abundant grace while he was dying on the cross. We know it from his proclamation in John 3:15: “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”. No caveats. It is simply what God does for us.
We have two versions of Christianity being taught within our churches today
Discerning whether or not something is a sin that needs repenting of is a different matter. The key thing, though, is that if repentance is not a salvation matter, Christians can agree to disagree on what is or is not sinful without it causing such huge ruptures in the Church.
A prime example of this relates to the question of sex between two loving adults of the same-sex who are in a committed relationship. I personally believe this is something God wants to bless and celebrate; others don’t. We are never likely to agree on this, but if it is not a salvation issue, we should be able to agree to disagree and move forward.
Ultimately, trying to frighten people into accepting some supposed ‘good News’ for fear of eternal judgement is not the Jesus way. The gospel has only ever been one of unconditional love. That is what the Church must preach. The world needs abundant grace now more than ever.