Posts Tagged ‘sin’

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

May 30, 2009

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.

Is a sinless Jesus truly human?

May 13, 2009

In 451 the Council of Chalcedon declared that:

“We confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity; “like us in all things but sin.”…”

The quote “like us in all things but sin” is a direct allusion to Hebrews 4:15 = “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” The Bible repeatedly affirms that Jesus, being fully human, was without sin – he “committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1Peter 2:22); “in him is no sin” (1John 3:5) and he “had no sin” (2Cor 5:21) – and Jesus himself claimed that he always did what pleased the Father (John 8:29).

But is this a contradiction of Jesus’ humanity? It is sometimes claimed that, if Jesus is truly human, he could not have been sinless (or vice-versa). “To err is human…” and Jesus can be no exception – or, if he is, he is not really human. The implication is sometimes that those who affirm the sinlessness of Jesus don’t really believe in the incarantion; they don’t really believe in his true humanity and are in fact closet Docetists.

The same principle of sin (moral error) is sometimes also charged to Jesus in respect of his teachings – might he not also be fallible in some of his views and opinions (intellectual error)? For example, in his ascription of the Pentateuch to Moses, or his teaching about hell. Is an inerrant Jesus truly human? “To err is human…”

But this is, in fact, not the case. To claim that a person who does not sin is not truly human is in fact to claim that sinfulness is an inalienable part of human nature. But then, we must logically deny that humanity in the new creation is not going to be true humanity. There will be no sin in heaven… does that mean that we will not be entirely human in heaven? No – in fact, we will be more human in the new creation. Sin is not an essential part of human nature; and in fact, to assert that it is is to measure Jesus by our humanity rather than measuring our humanity by Jesus’.

The question shouldn’t be “is Jesus as human as we are?” but rather “are we as human as Jesus is?” (Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, p.737) The upshot of all of this is that we are right to read the Bible as affirming both the full humanity and the full sinlessness of Jesus – and that imitating Christ makes us more authentically human, not less. Ultimately, when we are no longer troubled by the presence of sin in the new creation, we will be human in the way God always intended for us to be. Jesus’ sinless life is an foretaste of what that is going to be like – amazing!

Lunchbar: How can a good God send people to hell?

May 9, 2009

Lunchbar this week was on the topic “How can a good God send people to hell?“. It’s a big question for a lot of people – as we saw from the good discussion that followed in the question time. Lots of people – and lots of non-Christians in particular – are asking this question. In fact, I’ve been asked this or a similar question twice this week by two different people in general conversation when they found out that I was a Christian.

The speaker started off by explaining that a good God is also a just God. Deep down we all suspect that God must be fair, which is in fact one of the presuppositions behind the question about how God can send people to hell. The question is whether God is just: does the punishment fit the crime?

God is love – as the Bible tells us – but that doesn’t mean that God loves everything. God does not love evil – and so there is no contradiction (in fact, it may even be necessary) for a God of love to punish evil. Hell is a place where evil is punished – and because of God’s love he will not overlook or ignore evil. A few examples were given of how most of us agree that evil should be appropriately punished – for example, few people would say that sending a criminal to prison is unjust (and those who do, often say prison is unjust because they would suggest a harsher punishment!)

So the question is whether the punishment fits the crime. Is hell an appropriate punishment for sin? Often we think of sin as being trivial – something “naughty but nice”, or as only being committed against other people rather than God; or that there is a hierarchy of really bad and not-so-bad sins (the ones we commit being towards the less serious end of the scale!) and we ignore sin as rebellion against God; as treason. If we think hell is harsh it is because we do not think sin is really that big a deal. But it is!

Hell is not arbitrary or unjust, and it does not make God unloving. The most loving person who ever walked the earth was Jesus of Nazareth; and yet it is he who speaks the most often and the most graphically about hell in the Bible. Yet he did not just talk about it, but offered himself as the way of escape from hell. Jesus offers more than religious teaching – he offers himself as the way of salvation from hell: as God’s rescuer. He offers himself, and experiences the full punishment for sin, in order that we may not. The one offers himself as a sacrifice for many – and for Christians there is no need to fear going to hell, because Jesus has completely rescued them from it. So the question then becomes, why do people who have heard about Jesus Christ refuse to be rescued by him?

 

This all provoked some good questions – one of the things that was raised is whether it was indeed just for Jesus to take the punishment on our behalf – is that fair? I think one of the things that could have been said in response to this is to emphasise that Jesus was not a “third party” in all of this – a victim with no choice in the matter – but that he willingly became incarnate and went to the cross. Maybe Christians need to explain about the Trinity in answering this question – otherwise it becomes possible to misunderstand substitutionary atonement as unjust or arbitrary.

All in all though, a really good, faithful and thought-provoking Lunchbar!

Nailing it to the cross

April 12, 2009

At church this morning, as part of the Easter Sunday service, we had one of the best visual illustrations I’ve seen for a while. The minister had placed paper and pens on all the seats beforehand and encouraged us to write, draw or scribble on the paper something we have valued more than God, or, if you like, that we have done against God. Then we were to fold or scrunch them up – representing the mess sin makes in our lives. At the front he had some bags, chains and scrunched-up paper of his own to represent this – and covered it with a sheet and a (photocopy!) of a sacrificed lamb. Yet underneath the sheet the mess was still there. No – what we needed was something else entirely. He then got a laundry bag, and got the children to collect in all the papers on which we’d written/drawn our sin, put it in the bag, along with all the mess at the front, and threw in a blank piece of paper to represent our future sins. Then he actually physically nailed the bag to a huge wooden cross at the front of the church, explaining how Christ’s death takes away our sin.

I thought this was great – not only is it a hugely visual and memorable act, but it really hammered home to me (excuse the pun!) that my guilt as a sinner has been dealt with – it is nailed to the cross and dealt with there. It’s a tremendously liberating truth! It reminds me of one of my favourite passages in the Bible – Colossians 2, which just cannot be read in a passionless voice. You want to shout it:

“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col. 2:12-14)

Paul here is rejoicing in the truth that Christ has, by the cross, dealt completely and forever with the “debt” of our sin. I think he has in mind here the accusatory role of the Law (Rom. 4:15; 5:20) which shows us that we are sinners and guilty before God. This guilt is taken away at the cross forever – it is left there; it is dealt with in Christ, the one who was nailed to the cross. Paul then goes on to proclaim Christ’s victory over the demonic powers and to point out the foolishness of abandoning these truths for merely human religion, which is all show and completely powerless to deal with our sinfulness (Col. 2:23).

It’s this truth which inspires words like these, by Horatio G. Spafford. They’re part of one of the best hymns of all time, and have quite a moving story behind their composition.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

Amen!