What sin isn’t, and why it’s important

To paraphrase Wolfhart Pannenberg, a misunderstanding of what sin is gives us a deficient and sometimes dangerous misunderstanding of the gospel. It is important to make sure we understand what sin is, and communicate it clearly, if the gospel is not to be misunderstood or even distorted. I realise this even more given a couple of discussions I’ve been in this week about whether certain actions are sinful or not without reference to what sin is, at the level of its essential nature.

The sunday-school definition of sin I learned was that sin was the bad things we do and the good things we don’t do – but I think this really is insufficient. In the Bible, sin is spoken of more often in the singular (“sin”) rather than the plural (“sins”) – the problem of human sin is not primarily ethical (in terms of some totting-up the actions we do or don’t do) but ontological – we are sinful at the deepest levels of our being and need a rescue from this. Sin is also relational – it has no meaning outside of the terms of relationship to or alienation from God. Perhaps Anselm was onto something when he defined sin as “not giving to God what is due to him”. Anselm was talking primarily about homage, but his point can be developed to include opposing idolatry, unbelief and self-worship in all of its forms. Sin is much, much more than our actions.

Ignoring this can lead to all kinds of deficient presentations of the gospel – if we imagine the problem of sin as primarily ethical then we are likely to end up with a moralistic gospel where salvation is primarily about us doing good works (or even where it is primarily about enabling us to do good works). It may lead to a legalistic approach to the Christian life where we judge ourselves and others based on our external actions, and end up in moral dilemmas when we find that certain actions we think of as inherently sinful are permissible or even necessary in some situations.

A different distortion of the gospel can be seen in the analysis of sin found in some Liberation theology: sin is seen as oppression or unjust social structures. This has the distorting effect both of locating sin outside of ourselves (sin is something done by other people, or impersonal forces) and thus failing to recognise that our own hearts are corrupted by sin; and of equating the defeat of the power of sin by Christ with social justice and political liberation. This is far too small a horizon within which to encapsulate redemption!

Both the legalist and liberationist definitions of sin also fail to be relational – in fact, they do not have to mention God at all to function as ethical or political guides for action. Our problem in these models is not shown to be as serious as it is – alienation from God and hostility towards him. We may be seen as moral failures, but not as rebels. Or we may be seen as victims only, rather than seeing God as the most aggrieved party in all human sin. When we do this, we minimize the scale of our problem and end up looking at salvation in correspondingly insufficient categories. What the proclamation of the gospel needs is a correct theology of sin which shows what it is. We need to be honest about how bad the wound of humanity is, and not attempt to treat it with moral or political first-aid kits. Only when sin is seen to be as serious as it is can the full glory and wonder of Christ’s rescue for us be seen.

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3 Responses to “What sin isn’t, and why it’s important”

  1. Sophia Marsden Says:

    I can get on board with this post.

  2. Chris Oldfield Says:

    brilliant. can you recommend some pannenberg to read?

    • agyapw Says:

      Hi Chris,
      if you can get access to a copy, his three-volume Systematic Theology is Pannenberg’s most comprehensive work. The section in volume 2 called “The Dignity and Misery of Humankind” deals with human anthropology and sin – and has some very good reasons for why we should not abandon the doctrine of original sin.

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