Linus, after passing by a banner reading “Jesus is the Answer!” turns to his friend Charlie Brown and asks, “What was the question?”
The word “gospel” comes from the Greek term euangelion, literally meaning “good news.” But “good” news makes sense only when seen in contrast to “bad” news.
So what’s the bad news?
The Bible uses a wide variety of words for “sin:” roughly 33 words in the Greek Testament alone (If you want a more thorough approach, you can read this article by John Walvoord).
Among these words we find several prominent metaphors, including:
(in the Hebrew scriptures)
transgression (‘abar, parabaino)
becoming dirty (tum’ah)
(and in the Greek text)
a fall (paraptoma)
unjust, unrighteous (adikeo)
The most prominent metaphor we find is that of hamartia (and its related verbs), a word stemming from the concept of “missing the mark” (as is its use in ancient literature). Mark Biddle, in his study, Missing the Mark, describes sin as the “basic mistrust” of the character of God.
Martin Luther, the German reformer, described sin as the “inwardly curved soul.” It’s no wonder, then, that Freud would later (and independently of Luther or any other theologian) describe clinical depression as “anger turned inward.”
Others, throughout history, have sought to describe sin culturally. Schleiermacher, for example, described sin in terms of “sensuality.” H. Richard Niehbur would describe sin as basic “selfishness.” Most recently, Cornelius Plantinga has described sin as being both “fertile and fatal,” that sin is everywhere, and spreads with reckless abandon.
THE SICKNESS SPREADS
To describe sin as being “fatal and fertile” means to recognize its impact beyond the individual and to see its dramatic effects on humanity and the world that he and she inhabit.
Francis Schaeffer described sin as having the effect of separation and alienation:
man is separated from himself
separated from his fellow man
separated from the created world
the created world is separated from the ideal beauty it was designed to embody
All of which stems from the most alarming separation of all: the separation from God.
“WHAT I’VE DONE”
And so in Linkin Park we find a band who, to my knowledge, never intended for their song to reflect these theological categories, yet they are unmistakably present.
In the opening few seconds, the green grass of creation recedes to the desolation of the desert. This arid wasteland is given further shape through the images that flicker between the bands performance: images of war, genocide, poverty, pollution, environmental calamity, militant nationalism, religious conflict and political extremism.
Through music and image, Linkin Park has offered a snapshot of the “fertility” and “fatality” sin, a problem that is environmental, social, and personal.
“There’s no alibi,” the singer intones, “’cause I’ve drawn regret from the truth of a thousand lies.”
Most Americans today still believe in some form of sin – Lee Strobel describes his life before finding faith as one plagued by a “free-floating sense of guilt.” For many, guilt hovers over them like a low-grade fever, one that we yearn, as we hear in this song, to “wash away.”
“LET MERCY COME…”
In the chorus we find a man calling for redemption:
“Let mercy come,
and wash away,
What I’ve done.”
The language of “washing away” is not foreign to the subject of sin. Culturally we understand the idea of “dirt” and “shame.” We have “dirty” bookstores. “Dirty” movies and “dirty” pictures. We can “talk dirty” with one another. And such activity can often make us “feel dirty.” The most extreme and horrific case of all is rape – after which the woman feels the impulse to take a shower.
In the movie glory, Denzel Washington plays a slave-turned soldier who describes the culture of racism as being “dirty.” “We all covered up in it too,” he says. “Ain’t nobody clean. Be nice to get clean, though.”
Into this culture of dirt and shame theology breathes the word “expiation.” Expiation refers to the washing away of the stain of guilt and corruption.
“I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me,” God says through the prophet Jeremiah, “and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me.” (Jeremiah 33:8) Isaiah describes God as the one “who blots out [our] transgressions,” (Isaiah 43:25).
WHAT HE’S DONE
How is this expiation accomplished? Through the cross. That’s why the hymnwriters of old would sing of the blood of the cross as a “precious flow” that makes us “white as snow.”
So we may join our voice to that of the band Linkin Park, though with one crucial difference: we know that mercy has come, and promised to “wash away what I” – what we “have done.”
We can “start again,” thanks to a grace that has reconciled us – putting back together our relationship with God (2 Corinthians 5:17-21) as well as putting us back together with one another (Ephesians 2:11-15).
Which means the final words of our lives are not “What I’ve done.” Instead we look to the cross, and find the final words of Jesus: “It is finished.” The work to remove the stain is done.
And so the gospel, the “good news” I spoke of earlier, is that in this life we will bear a mark: the question is can we choose to be marked by
- What I’ve done
- What others have done to me
- What Jesus has done for me.
The only question is…
…which will it be?