With Christmas approaching, our pastor preached on Jesus as Saviour. After all, this is what is announced at Christmas time. “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Both Mary and Joseph receive separate instructions that he is to be called Jesus, which means ‘Yahweh is saviour’, and in Matthew 1:21 the reason is given: because he will save his people from their sins.
When we talk about sins in my Christian tradition we talk about it in terms of sin separating us from God. Jesus is Saviour because he repairs that rift by being the acceptable sacrifice for sin. There is a legal problem: our wrongdoing and guilt, and there is a legal solution: Christ’s payment for our sin by taking our punishment. Because of that, we are forgiven, and our relationship with God restored.
None of this featured in Pastor Dondo’s sermon. Instead, he talked about people whose lives are not in good shape: one example was people who are drunk at Christmas. They need Jesus to save them.
Save them from what? I wondered. Is it that they need God to forgive them for their drunkenness, or pardon the guilt that might lead them to seek oblivion? He didn’t mention pardon though; his emphasis was on being rescued out of a situation. Is Jesus a saviour from a situation, or a saviour from sin as the angel announces?
Then he gave his theological workings. He spoke about who Jesus would be when he grew up: the One who was raised from the dead, and still lives today. The One who has power. Jesus is Saviour from sin because He is able to break the power of sin.
Unlike many agnostic westerners who believe it is possible to be a good person, Tanzanians do not see themselves as so free. In a fear/power context, you have little control of your life or power to change it. Passivity is a way of life. You are at the mercy of the gods. If sin rules, you have no choice but to give in to it. A person who drinks to the point of drunkenness cannot simply wake up one day and decide to be sober. They are trapped by sin.
This means that a message of the broken power of sin is tremendously empowering. It cuts against determinism: this isn’t all that your life has to be! You may not be able to change your life, but there is One who can. He can break this stranglehold that keeps you captive. Furthermore, He continues to be an effective and protective force in you. The pastor got a huge response from the congregation when he said that this Jesus is not only among us but in us, with his power made available to us. This is why it is inappropriate to call yourself a sinner. You are not identified with sin, but with Christ.
Theologically, a common framework to talk about salvation from sin is penalty, power and presence. Jesus has paid the penalty for sin (justification), he is setting us free from the power of sin (sanctification), and one day we will be saved from the presence of sin (glorification). Those of us for whom a legal worldview paradigm looms large major on justification. We may even be tempted to claim this as the central truth of the gospel. But in a fear/power context, it is the setting free from the power of sin which is so compelling.
The hymn ‘O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing’ says:
He breaks the power of cancelled sin
He sets the prisoner free;
The ‘cancelled’ bit is backgrounded in Tanzanian theology, as the breaking of its power is foregrounded, and the Saviour is the one who sets you free from sin. The message of Christ as Saviour from sin – announced by the angel as Christmas – is that sin has not won the day. You are not stuck in your sin after all; there is One who has victory of sin and his power is made available to you because He comes to live with you.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.