On the Nature of Sin

What is sin?  After the Leaders Debates last night, I’m tempted to say “politics” and move on.  But this is my last paper of the year, and it’s due tomorrow, so let’s pound it out, shall we?

We spend a lot of time in the Church talking about sin; sadly, we Christians probably spend even more time outside the church talking about sin.  We all know what sin is: doing wrong, crime, evil.  We have all sorts of sin lists, and we imply that there’s a hierarchy of sin – killing someone is really bad, but being gay?  That’s way worse, right?  Perhaps it’s all a bit more complicated than that.

There are several words used in the Bible that we translate as “sin”; in the New Testament, the words literally mean “to miss the mark”, “to be without righteousness”, and “to be without the law” (Class notes, lecture #8).  All of these words imply a standard against which our actions are measured.  For the last word, the standard is clear: the law.  For the first two words, we need to dig into the context.  As with all things in the Bible, the context is the covenant between God and Israel.

God made a covenant with Israel, comparable to a wedding contract today: both sides make promises, recognizing each other in a special ceremony, and those vows are never to be broken.  He promised to be their God, and they promised to be His people; He later fleshed out what their side would look like through giving them the Law.  Even in the New Testament, then, “to be without the law” is in the context of the covenant that Israel has with God.  “The mark” that we miss is obedience to God, and “righteousness” comes from such obedience.  In a very simple sense, sin is breaking covenant with God (ibid.).

How do we break the covenant?  The prophets of the Old Testament compared it to adultery (again, using a marriage as a metaphor for our covenant with God).  We break our promises, and do so in two ways: sins of commission (doing something we’re told not to) and omission (not doing something we ought to).  We live in a society today based on rights and responsibilities, so let’s use that framework for a moment: sometimes we go beyond our rights, infringing on the rights of others (e.g. I don’t have the right to kill a person, and that person has the right to life); this is a sin of commission.  Other times we shirk our responsibilities (e.g. I must pay my taxes, and if I have medical training I am obligated to perform first aid when necessary); this is a sin of omission.

Not all of our laws today correspond to the covenant, but after all, “law” is a rather poor word to describe the covenant, as our concept of law is very Greek/Roman and not at all what Moses was talking about when he mediated the covenant.  All of the “laws” of the covenant are aimed to show people what life in relationship with God and each other should look like – and this issue of relationship is key.  In our concept of law, breaking the law is an offence against an abstract principle; but breaking the covenant is a breaking of relationship between me and God, and between me and the entire community.  With that in mind, Jesus expanded the Law of the covenant to include the inner motivations that lurk behind outward sin: not just murder, but hatred; not just rape and adultery, but lust.  These things break relationships even when they don’t become manifest in a sinful action, and to allow hatred to fester so long as it does not break out of us in the act of murder is an exercise in missing the point.

So every time we do something that breaks our relationship with God or with each other, we sin.  Also, every time we fail in our obligations to God and to each other, we sin (sins of omission).  By those standards it’s pretty clear that every single person on this earth is sinful; we all have broken relationships, and our most difficult relationship to steward is our relationship with God.  We seem incapable of being sinless.  But why?

Why we sin is another matter.  Temptation and deceit would be enough to cause us all to sin, as it did for Adam and Eve, but theologians have understood that the story of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin also shows a deeper aspect of our fallen state.  They call this “Original Sin.”  The basic idea is that, contrary to some theologians and philosophers who claim that human beings are morally neutral (like Pelagius) or morally good by nature, the doctrine of original sin claims that we have been inherently damaged by sin, so that we are, by nature, sinners.  We are incapable of doing good on our own, as even our good deeds are done in the context of broken relationships, and often with wrong motives.  As Shuster puts it, “works not done out of whole-souled love for God and trust in him continue to be sinful works at bottom, even though they may contribute positively to our common life”  (Marguerite Shuster, The Fall and Sin: What We Have Become As Sinners (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 219-20).  It’s enough to take the wind out of your sails.  I found it helpful to look at original sin through the framework of the 7 Deadly Sins.

The 7 Deadly Sins are so-called because they have the ability to “kill grace” – to turn us away from a place where we can receive the grace of Christ.  None of them are discreet acts: they are all “inner dispositions and modes of behaviour from which individual sins flow” (Class notes, lecture #8).  In no particular order, they are: Lust, Gluttony, Sloth, Greed, Wrath, Envy, and Pride.  A few notes about these will clarify their nature.

Lust is not merely sexual, though sexual lust captures the sense of it quite nicely: the Deadly Sin of Lust is disordered desire of any type – something early theologians saw as the primal sin.  Similarly, Gluttony is not just about food, but about consuming for the sake of consumption,  habitual excess.  Greed is very similar: wealth for wealth’s sake.  Pride’s definition is more well-known: self-centredness, or the inability to refrain from putting oneself before others.  These are not actions, but dispositions: they are not even things that we can will ourselves to do, but things outside of our will that twist our application of our will.  I cannot simply choose not to be greedy; rather, my greed influences my will, justifying my greedy actions and thus limiting my will.  If we are to make informed choices in life, the seven deadly sins present us with biased fact sheets.  This is one of the things that makes sin so utterly sinful: we do not choose evil, but rather see evil as good.

A few of the definitions caught me off guard, and really emphasized how deeply ingrained the 7 Deadly Sins are in me, and how powerless I am to stop them.  Sloth is not laziness, but “the inability to accomplish” (Class notes, lecture #10); it falls somewhere in between boredom and depression, somewhat akin to apathy – and it hits me every single semester when it comes time to write the last paper for each class.  I lose all motivation, stop caring about marks, and it takes a concentrated effort just to sit down to work.
Envy is not desiring what someone else has (that’s covetousness, another sin), but desiring someone else’s place in life.  It implies both a dissatisfaction with one’s own place in life, and the illusion that having someone else’s place will bring me happiness, rather than simply improving my own place.  When I look at my life, I know that I have absolutely nothing to complain about: I’m so incredibly blessed!  Yet I still dream about what other people are doing, and I become incredibly dissatisfied with my own life.
And Wrath is not simply anger; it’s okay to be angry, if you stay in control.  Wrath is a type of anger that is inherently out of control: it’s the knee-jerk reaction of anger in response to a frustration of desire.  Last week I was sitting outside the cafeteria, which is usually kept locked between meals, and I saw a student try all of the doors until he found one that was unl0cked.  He went in and helped himself to a big bowl of ice cream.  As he came back out, I thought I’d bust his chops a little bit, give him a bit of a hard time for sneaking ice cream; I said “Hey man, ice cream is for meal times.”  I didn’t even have a chance to make a joke of it; his immediate response was “I want it now,” before he completely dressed me down.  I was speechless; I haven’t had such a strong response from someone…well, probably ever.  Over ice cream.  But I know that, even if I don’t say it out loud, I often react like that to the frustration of my desires – safely in the recesses of my own mind.

I’m sinful, and there’s nothing I can do about it.  Sure, constant discipline can help me to control my outward expressions of the 7 deadly sins, but even if I manage to keep them all inside, they’re still in there.  On our own, there’s nothing we can do about sin.  On our own…

Through his life and death, Christ has defeated sin.  We are no longer guilty for sin, even though we continue to commit sins: by identifying with Christ, we identify with His sinlessness.  To put it another way, Christ is the representative of all humanity – and because our representative is sinless, in the sight of God, so are we.  Good news!  The effects of sin (suffering and death) are no longer permanent; we look forward to being resurrected, just like Christ was, into a new world where God will “wipe away every tear”, and there will be no more mourning or death (Revelation 21:4).  We are counted as righteous now (even though we aren’t), and one day we will have new natures like Christ’s, and so will actually be righteous.

Unfortunately, I think that Shuster and our course content have both neglected an important element of our understanding of sin: the way in which we face it today.  Both of our sources in this course do an excellent job of explaining how we are incapable of overcoming the power sin has over us on our own, yet neither of them makes any mention of the work of the Holy Spirit in making us to be like Christ here and now, typically called Sanctification.  John says “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin” (1 John 5:18), and Peter quotes God who, speaking in Leviticus, says “Be holy, as I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16).  While it is true that Christ gives us the status of holiness (called Justification), Peter is talking about the everyday conduct of Christians, and speaks about “the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance” in the past tense (1 Peter 1:14).  Paul talks repeatedly about how we are being transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in us, so that the glory of Christ might be revealed in us.  He talks about it in terms of “being transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2), while in other places he (and many other New Testament writers) talk about it in terms of God’s disciplining of us – which is how they counselled the Church to see the persecution that they faced from their neighbours and the state.  There is a very strong message throughout the New Testament not only that we will be transformed, but that we are already being transformed to be like Christ!

That’s not to say that I’ll ever be perfect in this life; but it is to affirm that my sinful nature does not flare up as often as it did five years ago.  It is to suggest that, by the power of Christ in me through the Holy Spirit, I can do good!  This is a very important issue to be dealt with by Christian Ethics, counselling, and pastoral care.  If we are completely incapable of doing good, yet are justified by Christ anyway, then should we even try to do good?  Without a doctrine of sanctification, in which we assert that Christ has in some sense overcome sin in us, and that the Holy Spirit enables us to do good, then there is no rationale for judgment on one hand or ethics on the other.

Consider the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke.  In these narratives of the life and teachings of Christ, salvation is presented as the result of a favourable judgment upon our actions: to Matthew, the difference between sheep (those who are saved) and goats (those who are not) is what we’ve done, or failed to do.  This implies that we have moral and ethical responsibility, not only to not do wrong but also to always do whatever good we are able.  If we are not able to do any good, then Christ’s judgment is absolute: we’re all goats.  This is often shown as the reason for Christ’s death: none of us are capable of being saved, but through His death, we are justified.  However, Matthew and Mark do not present Christ’s death as an atoning sacrifice for those who believe, but for those who do good; if Luke has a theology of salvation by grace through faith, as Paul and John do, then it is presented as such in Acts, not in Luke.  According to Matthew’s theology, if I am completely incapable of doing anything good, then I am doomed.

In this sense, I think that the doctrine of original sin must be somewhat overstated.  I have a sinful nature, and therefore I am a sinner.  I’m facing Sloth right now, and there doesn’t appear to be much that I can do about it except to pray and buckle down – yet here I am, writing the paper.  For the moment, Sloth has been overcome: this is the power of Christ in me.  I can thus affirm the existence of original sin, and fully admit that I am more prone to sin than I am to do good, without having to assert that I can do no good thing – most especially with the Holy Spirit to guide and empower me.  It is tempting to downplay sanctification when we look around and see Church leaders falling to all sorts of terrible sins; yet the pastor must still tell his congregation that there is hope, that we are being changed into Christ-like people; and the ethicist must continue to point to and exhort the good.  Bonhoeffer defines “the good” as partnering with what Christ is doing, which is of course the opposite of sin, which is a broken relationship with God; if the definition of a Christian is one who identifies with Christ and continues His ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit, then the good is not only possible for the Christian but is elementary to what we are.

Humankind is sinful, there is no doubt.  We all commit sins of commission and omission, and have twisted impulses and understandings, and face temptations and deceptions of all sorts, and are completely incapable of setting aside this sinful nature on our own.  But God is making us like Him, even now, and our present sufferings under the sinful nature are not worthy of comparison to the glory that will be revealed in us.  An overstated doctrine of sin tells us that we are worms whom God loves; God tells us that we are glorious, like His Son, and that we ought to, and can, learn to act like it.

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2 thoughts on “On the Nature of Sin

  1. I enjoyed the paper (even though it is WAY too brief :-). I often remind the people that I pastor that they are “new”. The old them is done with and being done away with and the new them has been raised in Christ to the obedience of life. It is amazing to me how the NT writers can maintain the tension of being already “in Christ” (or other such notions) and yet still awaiting the consummation of all that that entails. It seems like we are the ones who don’t do so great of a job at maintaining the tension.

    • Agreed! In our last class of NT Theology on Tuesday, Dave took us through a series of passages that talks about OUR glory. Most of us had never heard of the concept, yet Paul says it pretty clearly (and in the past and present tenses!).

      We grow up being taught that we are worms; God tells us “you are all gods”, and then says “become what you are”. (the first quote is from God; the second is from Chris Holmes, heh)

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