What Did President Obama Say About Sin and Grace During the Easter Prayer Breakfast?

On Monday, the first day of Holy Week, President Obama hosted his fifth annual Easter Prayer Breakfast. One hundred and fifty Christian leaders joined the President in the White House to celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

During his remarks, President Obama quoted from Pope Francis’ recent encyclical “The Joy of the Gospel,” saying, “Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. Jesus did not rise in vain. May we never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope!”

In this passage, we hear echoes of Paul’s remarks in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

Although the Los Angeles Times summary of the prayer event referred simply to “the life and death” of Jesus, President Obama noted that, during these holy days, we remember not only “the scorn of the crowds and the pain of the crucifixion,” but also “the glory of the resurrection — all so that we might be forgiven of our sins and granted everlasting life.”

As Paul emphatically states in 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection is the crux of our faith, “for if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ was not raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your trust in God is useless. … And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless, and you are still under condemnation for your sins. … And if we have hope in Christ only for this life, we are the most miserable people in the world. But the fact is that Christ has been raised from the dead. He has become the first of a great harvest of those who will be raised to life again. So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, Adam, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man, Christ” (v. 13, 14, 17, 19-21).

According to Paul, if Christ did not rise from the dead, then we would still be under condemnation for our sins. Interestingly, in an age in which the word ‘sin’ is rarely invoked (mostly in order not to offend listeners), President Obama made use of the word twice in his short speech.

First, after praising Christ’s inspiring message, his timeless teachings, and his eternal example, President Obama noted that we all fall short — that “none of us are free from sin [sic].” Second, after expressing great sadness because of the recent shootings at two Jewish community centers in Kansas City, which resulted in the death of innocent people, the President said, “We recognize that there’s a lot of pain and a lot of sin and a lot of tragedy in this world, but we’re also overwhelmed by the grace of an awesome God.”

President Obama’s surprising usage of the word ‘sin’ at the Easter prayer breakfast is a reminder that an awareness of sin, which is the cause of Jesus’ suffering, is just as important as an awareness of Christ’s resurrection, by which he conquered both sin and death — the primary problems plaguing humanity.

During Holy Week, it is important to meditate both on the sin that led to Christ’s suffering as well as the grace God bestowed upon his creation by sending his son to bear the burden of sin and rise victoriously over death, thereby reconciling humans with their Creator.

Commenting on the strange disappearance of the word ‘sin’ from pulpits and the public square alike, Philip Yancey authored a post on OnFaith earlier this month titled “What happened to the word sin?

Writing about his negative childhood experience with sin, when he learned to think of God as an Enforcer spying out his secret sins and eager to catch him in the act of wrongdoing, Yancey says he thought of sin all wrong — as do many Christians and former Christians today.

In the minds of many, the Christian emphasis on sin is simply a way to prevent people from having any fun — a method by which to make people feel guilty and repress their inner urges. In a culture in which those primal urges are considered to be representative of the genuine self, any repression of those desires is considered to be the true sin. As a result, the Christian community, which sets boundaries for human action, is the greatest transgressor in the country.

The cultural effort to refuse to admit the existence of sin within humanity — to picture sin as something “out there” rather than residing in the human heart — has been assisted by what author Joseph Bottum refers to as the post-Protestant mindset. “In their view,” he writes, “the world is filled with malignant social forces — bigotry, power, corruption, mass opinion, militarism, oppression. These horrors are the constant theme of history. They have a palpable metaphysical presence in the world. And the post-Protestants believe that the best way to know themselves as moral is to define themselves in opposition to such bigotry and oppression, understanding good and evil not primarily in terms of personal behavior, but as states of mind about the social condition.”

If sin is truly a social condition, then redemption comes as freedom from social evils. But if sin is a personal condition — one that affects all of us and that prevents us from having a proper relationship with God — then redemption comes only through the sacrifice of Christ, through whom our debts to God are nailed to the cross. Jesus, the one who died and rose for us, “is sitting at the place of highest honor next to God, pleading for us” (Romans 8:34). Christ is our anchor and our hope, saving us not from social evils, but immense personal failings that are the root cause of all other social evils.

Sin is neither an outmoded means of stifling self-actualization nor an external power that merely manifests itself in social evils. Sin is the absence of the goodness that God wants us to experience. Sin is a diversion from the path of righteousness that lands us in an inescapable pit of our own making. Sin is a transgressing of God’s law that prevents us from fulfilling our design as God’s divine image-bearers. Sin is what keeps us from experiencing the life, truth, and goodness of our Creator.

Yancey writes, “I realize that I completely missed the point of the Christian concept of sin. I envisioned God as a frowning Enforcer rather than a loving Creator who desires the best for us in life, with sin as the main obstacle preventing it.”

Still, Christians must remember to speak of sin together with the grace that is made so overwhelmingly evident during Holy Week. “At various times,” Yancey writes, “the church has hammered away at ‘original sin’ while ignoring the presence of an original grace in which God provided the cure for sin even before it occurred. That risky act of rescue — ‘the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world’ — lies at the heart of Christian belief.”

Biblical Insights:

Christ died for us so that we can die to our old selves and lead new lives marked by holiness and grace.

“Whatever we do, it is because Christ’s love controls us. Since we believe that Christ died for everyone, we also believe that we have all died to the old life we used to live. He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live to please themselves. Instead, they will live to please Christ, who died and was raised for them. … What this means is that those who become Christians are new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun!” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15, 17)

Sometimes it becomes easy for Christians to preach about the depravity of humanity, while giving short shrift to the grace of God manifest in Christ. Similarly, it may become easy to preach the grace of God, while forgetting about the depths of human sinfulness.

But, during Holy Week, sin and grace work together. The same sinful human beings who put to death the only perfect man to ever walk the earth, are offered new life through Christ on resurrection Sunday, so that all who believe in Him might put away the old self — characterized by sin — and put on the new self — characterized by the love of Christ.

Our culture may need to revive the word ‘sin.’ But we ought not to do so without maintaining the word ‘grace.’ During this Holy Week, let us contemplate both, rejoicing that, through Christ, we can be redeemed from a life of sin. “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).