Fully Human, Fully Free
How Jesus Restores the Joy of Being Human
If you had to explain to someone the gospel, and in particular why Christ became a human to save us, what would you say? If someone had asked me as a child why Jesus had to be human, I’d have replied something to the effect of, “So He could pay for our sins. Only a human can pay for human sins.” And already then I’d also have an answer for the question that would likely follow, “And He had to be God because He had to be sinless, and because only God could survive the punishment for all of our sin.”
What I didn’t realize as a child was that my answer wasn’t simply the timeless Christian explanation of the gospel, but a particular interpretation or emphasis known as “penal substitution atonement theory,” a theory that describes what happened on the cross primarily as a legal transaction. In this explanation of the gospel, Jesus endures sin’s penalty, which God’s justice demands, as a substitute for us, allowing us to find forgiveness and restored fellowship with God. This summary of the gospel highlights the truth that sin comes with unavoidable, serious consequences, and so salvation from sin requires someone able to carry the consequences we cannot. As both fully human and fully God, Jesus could carry those consequences to bridge the gap between God and humanity.
But looking back, I can see something is entirely missing from this summary of the gospel: God’s love and purposes for creation. And although it might seem subtle, there are profound consequences to a portrait of the gospel that begins with the problem of sin instead of God’s deep love for creation, for the world He created good.
I can see those consequences already in my worldview as a child. Beneath the surface of my confident recitation of the formula (fully human + fully God = us, fully forgiven), countless questions were beginning to build, and the roots of something else: shame, a pervasive sense that there was something terribly wrong with me. In the doctrine I was taught, I got the impression that I was fundamentally a problem for God, my very existence so repulsive to Him that His own Son had to go to hell just so God could put up with me. I learned that every mistake I made so bothered God that an eternity of suffering was required as payment.
And so the unexpected consequences of a presentation of the gospel in which the goodness of creation was neglected was that I came to believe a Christianized version of shame and perfectionism, in which I was fundamentally bad rather than good, and in which God—not unlike an abusive parent—found it easier to hate me than to love me, unwilling to let go of an impossible standard He knew I was incapable of meeting. Though I was also told Jesus died out of love, I was left with no explanation for why, no reason to value myself as a human being. In the end, I was left doubting that Jesus even paid for my sin, since I experienced little of the freedom I was promised faith in Christ would bring.
I share that story because I’ve found it echoes the stories of many Christians who today are urging the need for the Christian to reclaim a more holistic picture of the gospel, one that doesn’t begin with condemnation but, as famously put in John 3:16, with God’s unconditional, passionate love for all of creation, including us. When we begin with God’s love for creation, the gospel is not first of all a story about how my sins are forgiven, but about the drama of God’s total commitment to healing the creation He loves. And God begins by conquering through Jesus the disease of sin and death, since humanity, created in God’s image to steward and care for creation, is instead trapped in a way of being that deeply harms not only themselves but the world (Romans 8:21–23).
The difference may seem subtle on the surface, but, to use the metaphor N.T. Wright offers in Justification, it’s a difference as critical as whether the sun revolves around the earth or whether the earth revolves around the sun. When the gospel’s reduced to being only about the good news of Jesus’s payment of our sin-debt, we’re left with a narrow version of the good news that at the end of the day really offers only solace from guilt. And when we don’t tell the story of God’s love for material reality and for the peculiarities of human beings, we reinforce shame that, in some cases, we actively pass on to our children, tragically suggesting to little ones that their natural joy and self-worth should perhaps be supplemented with a constant element of guilt and self-rejection in order to better appreciate Jesus’s death for them.
The gospel looks entirely different when we start and end with God’s unconditional commitment to and love for His creation, a creation that remains good even after humanity’s fall into sin. Theologians sometimes attempt to capture this idea using the terms structure and direction, suggesting that each element of creation (structure) is good, but the disease of sin pulls us all away from the joy of life with God into the opposite direction, a way of life that destroys.
Like Adam and Eve, we are all seduced, in varying ways, to turn away from the joy of being creatures dependent on God and each other toward futile attempts at securing self-sufficiency and control. On our own, we simply repeat empty patterns of life passed down by our parents from their parents, a way of life that destroys true joy and freedom (1 Peter 1:8), but the only way of life we’ve known.
And it’s into this reality that the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus can be heard as very, very good news. In Jesus, God insists that we are more than the life we were born into, more than what’s happened to us, and more than the worst things we’ve done. Though the gift of Christ, God assures us that no matter how broken and alone we feel, we are still God’s precious children, still utterly valued and loved (Romans 5:8).
And in Christ God promises us that what may seem lost—our innocence, hope, and sense of purpose—can truly be restored. Being both fully human and fully divine, Jesus could carry the struggles of all humanity and unite them to the bottomless life of the Spirit, through His resurrection carrying all that’s broken, even death itself, around into new life (Colossians 1:19–20). And because Jesus carried all of humanity’s brokenness (1 John 2:2), we can tell anyone, no matter where they’ve been or who they’ve become, that nothing can destroy their worth or God’s love for them (Romans 8:38). Through Christ’s Spirit, we can all be reborn into the life we were meant to live (Colossians 2:12), a life “filled with love” (Ephesians 5:2 NLT), celebrating the goodness of God’s creation.
In the person of Jesus—fully, gloriously, human—God established once and for all that it is good to be human on this earth, good to be fully human and fully alive (John 10:10), glorious to find our strength in vulnerable dependence on God’s boundless love and grace (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).
Today, if someone asked me why God became human, instead of answering with a formula, I think I might tell a story, about a God who lifted me up from self-hatred and despair, insisting with boundless patience that I was cherished and loved, that my life mattered, and that there was nothing I needed to fear.
How might you tell the story?