From “On Liberation”
by Ignacio Ellacuría, 1930-1989
Paul himself presented salvation essentially as a liberation from sin, from death and from the law. Clearly, none of these three Iiberative dimensions of salvation has a mere individual or exclusively individual sense. Sin, death and the law doubtlessly do affect the interiority of individuals, but they also affect their totality and fullness. Moreover, they affect people, in this case, the Jewish and Christian peoples.
It is fine, then, to speak of liberation from sin, once one keeps in mind the totality of sin and the depth of its essence. Of course, there is original sin (natural), personal sin and historical sin (social). These do not have the same personal or interior transcendence, although none of them fail to possess some because they proceed from persons and affect them. Liberation from original sin begins with the incorporation into Christ in baptism, but it culminates only when the person takes on the life of Christ, and with it, its death, its crucifixion, and its resurrection (Rom. 6:1—23). This liberation from sin does not automatically mean liberation from the consequences of sin, from the great concupiscence of humanity that is at the origin and many times the principle of many other sins and forms of oppression. Liberation from original sin is thus a progressive and historical liberation. No sin, not even the most individual or interior, fails to have repercussions of some manner over the formation of the person and the course of history. This liberation from personal sin is, above all, the work of God the saviour, but it also presents itself at the same time as a liberation of the sinful person as an active being in history.
Liberation from historical and social sin, as the sinful and sinning configuration of structures and historical processes, is also a process in which God and the human intervene conjointly because of the very social and historical character of that sin. Insofar as sin is social and historical, it is not attributable directly and immediately to any human in particular, but this does not keep it from definitely being the concealment of God's truth and the intention to annul the fullness of life that God wants to communicate to humanity. It is in this dimension of sin where the transformation of structures are most necessary, as these structures are, both, the effect of sin and cause of new sin.
These three types of sin, the original, social and personal, are, in effect, dominators and oppressors of the human being and of humanity. They are the negation of the divine image in the human and are the fundamental obstacle between the human and God, between human beings and between humanity and nature. Stated in classical terms, they are the fundamental disobedience to the design of God for humanity, history, and nature; they are the negation of the faith in all of its rich fullness and in time the negation of love. Sin should not be understood primarily as an offence against God that has been made personally, but rather as the real straying from, or real annulment of, the divine plan as it is glimpsed in nature and as it manifests itself in salvation history.
Liberation from sin is closely connected to liberation from death and liberation from the law. Death is, in some sense, the effect of sin, and the law is its cause. There is no integral liberation without liberation from death and the law in connection with liberation from sin.
The death that Paul speaks of is at once both a theological and biological death. The human being is called by God to life, above all the divine life. Yet this life is not possible without the life of each person, the integrity of each person's life. For that reason, resurrection is necessary, one with the fullness of liberation from sin, death, and the law, not stemming from a presumption of the immortality of the soul, but the revivifying strength of the Spirit. However, definitive death, as a consequence of natural (original) sin, emerges in many forms in history. The overabundance of sin in history carries with it an overabundance of death in history, in which the struggle between life and death, both understood in all their fullness and extent, is made present. Liberation theology, following the most profound theologies in this line of thought, contemplates God as the God of life and, consequently, contemplates sin as an agent of death. In light of this, one of the best ways to struggle against sin is to struggle against death in all its forms, but initially in the form of human survival. Because of misery, hunger, lack of basic necessities and sickness caused by oppression and repression, the majority of human beings die before their time, that is, life is taken from them and with it, the very possibility to be the glory of God. To whom this occurs, because of social sin, because of structural injustice, they are the ones who should be called the poor “par excellence” and they are the ones to whom God's preferential love is directed
From this reality, liberation from death, in all its forms, becomes an essential part of the Christian message, above all when, with death, the integral development of the person is taken away along with the very possibility to live or the capacity to live in fullness. Liberation from death will appear in its total and definitive form only after death, in the enjoyment of an eternal life where the emphasis is not so much on eternity, but on life, life in which there would be no oppression, crying, sickness, division, but rather fullness in the communication of God who is life and love. However, this definitive liberation should be anticipated now. It is empirically evident that if the sin of the world and the causes of sin disappear, human life, from its biological roots to its fullest culmination would appear for the majority of human beings in a much richer form. Life, as liberation from death, is thus one of the essential elements of liberation.
Finally, there is, according to Paul, liberation from the law, the great midwife of sin. That the Pauline texts speak specifically of the Jewish law does not prevent one from developing the liberation from any law imposed on human beings along the same lines. This does not mean preaching anarchy or diminishing the necessity of law, at least as a necessary evil. Yet in the church, and, above all, in the life of the people, the law becomes a restraint from which liberation is needed. When in the church the law and the Sabbath are put above humans (and in the concrete and effective, not just the abstract and universal) instead of placing the human above the law and Sabbath, one sees a return to the practice that Paul and Jesus criticised. Yet the problem appears, above all, in the structuring and governing of nations, where many times the law is the institutional justification for the habitual practice of oppression and repression. It is this law that, in great part, makes for a world in which there is an exploitative life for some and an exploited life for others. It is this law that legitimates social sin, proposing unreachable ideals negated in practice while protecting the established disorder favourable to a few and disadvantageous to the great majority. This law rules not only in the social-political sphere but also in the moral, where the letter is imposed upon the spirit, where legality is imposed on justice, where the defence of one's interests is imposed over solidaristic love. All of this goes against the revealed message of the Old and New Testaments, where, with total clarity, we can discern the different hierarchy between the principal and secondary, between the fundamental and the instrumental, between the generous, well-intentioned heart and the formal law, between grace and the law.
Therefore, liberation is not, as some would like to object, merely liberation from social evils that because of moral reasons must be attended to, as one should dedicate oneself to those secular works that are demanded by faith. When the discussion over whether the promotion of justice is an essential or integral part of the faith or whether it is merely a fundamental demand of it has taken place, it has run the danger of framing the question idealistically or dualistically. Without confusing them, faith and justice are inseparable dimensions, at least when both are given in their fullness within a world of sin. Christian faith in its fullness is not only the conveyance of God, the acceptance of God‘s revelatory communication, and the putting in motion a supernatural dynamism, but it is a new form of life that necessarily includes doing justice. For its part, doing justice is already a form of knowing God and giving oneself to God. What is certain is that the full truth of justice and, consequently, of justification is not reached except by faith. For example, only from faith can one affirm that the preferential option for the poor; the partiality in favour of the most needy, is from (Christian) justice.