Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Sin (Page 2 of 2)

On sin and responsibility

Jesus nailed to crossIn yesterday evening’s post, I suggested that it may be much more helpful to think of sin as a kind of sickness than simply as wrongdoing.

One of the issues I touched on is that when you suggest that sin is a form of sickness, some people get very nervous because they feel that this diminishes personal responsibility for sin. I suppose the logic goes that if sickness is a sin, then just as you can’t blame a child (or anyone else) for catching a sickness to which she is exposed, neither can you blame a sinner for “catching” the disease of sin.

I’d like us to think about this in light of some words that Jesus famously spoke as he went to the cross. Consider the following passage:

And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. Then Jesus said,“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

(Luke 23:33-34)

Jesus utters these words as his executioners are going about their grisly business. Since everything Jesus says and does reveals the Father’s heart (“I only do what I see the Father doing“), these words clearly demonstrate that even amid the horror of the murder of Jesus, God’s heart is to forgive his murderers. That alone should be enough to stop us in our tracks.

But what I’d like to focus on is the next part of what Jesus says: “they do not know what they do”. I used to think what Jesus meant by this was that if the Roman soldiers had known who they were dealing with – the Son of God – they would not have proceeded to kill him. I now think that’s a nice theory but one that doesn’t really hold water.

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On being, doing, sin and salvation

Christ healing

A few weeks ago I suggested that it is perhaps time for us to find some new ways of understanding sin. Today I want to take that thought a little further.

Many believers understand that the Christian life is about being, not doing. In other words, it’s not the things you do or the actions or duties you perform that make you a Christian; it’s your status in Christ that makes you a Christian. Your status as an adopted heir of God is given to you as a free gift, and cannot be earned by any amount of performance.

With this I wholeheartedly agree.

On the other hand, however, many believers seem to understand sin primarily as something we do or commit. After all, sin is by definition wrongdoing, isn’t it?

It seems to me, then, that there is often a contrast between how we understand sin (doing bad things) and how we understand salvation (being made right with God/given a new standing before God). This divergence doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

The basic problem is this: if sin is simply the bad things we do, then all we need do to be saved from sin is stop doing those things. Yet Jesus made it clear that sin goes much deeper than external actions: sinful words and deeds flow out of a sinful heart. It follows that the remedy for sin is not behaviour modification but heart transformation.

This is why I find it much more helpful to think of sin as a kind of sickness than as simply offences that we commit.

Why then is the view of sin as “crime” so widespread and the view of sin as sickness so relatively shunned? Allow me to suggest two reasons:

1. The whole notion of God as a retributive judge requires us to maintain this primary view of sin as crime (against God and our fellow human beings). What do we do with criminals, especially those who keep on offending? We catch them, drag them to court and sentence them to punishment. Now, as a Christian, you might well believe that Jesus took God’s punishment in your place; but the fact remains that what you have is a penal/retributive understanding of God and his justice.

However, if we start to see sin not as a crime but as a sickness, it’s immediately clear that retributive justice is both unfair and unhelpful. We don’t punish people for being sick; we treat them so they are freed from their sickness and all its evil effects. I would say the same goes for sin: if salvation is simply a courtroom transaction in which our deserved punishment for wrongful acts is dealt with by Jesus, this does absolutely nothing to heal us of our underlying sin-sickness. But if salvation is something that heals the sickness of sin with which our hearts are infected, then we are both made whole on the inside and freed from the compulsion to keep doing sinful things on the outside.

2. Many people feel that understanding sin as a form of sickness rather than as a crime somehow lets us off the hook and means we are not held responsible for our sin. While I understand this concern, I don’t think it’s very well founded.

Think about it this way: imagine a person infected with a highly contagious disease that is deadly but treatable. Now imagine that this person refuses all offers of treatment. The consequences are twofold: not only do they condemn themselves to death, but in the meantime they go around infecting everyone around them. They live in a way that knowingly spreads death to everyone they come into contact with. The fact that they are sick through no fault of their own does not in any way diminish their responsibility for hastening their own demise and passing on their sickness to others.

Of course, we could choose to punish this imaginary person for their crime of spreading a deadly disease. That would certainly remove the immediate problem (i.e. the risk of them infecting others). But we could not honestly say that punishment would address the underlying issue, which is the fact that the person is sick in the first place. Ultimately, what this person needs is not punishment but healing.

The conclusion I’m coming to nowadays, then, is this: seeing sin as forensic in nature – i.e. primarily a legal offence that requires a legal response – is unhelpful to the sinner’s actual condition, tends to make salvation into a legal transaction and helps maintain an understanding of God as a divine dispenser of retributive justice. Conversely, seeing sin as ontological in nature – i.e. a matter of being rather than doing – enables us to understand God in Christ as first and foremost a healer rather than a judge, with salvation as an invitation to open ourselves up to God’s healing and transformative love rather than simply the offer of a legal certificate bearing the words “not guilty”.

To me, there is a stark difference between these ways of looking at sin. It’s the difference between saying “I do bad things that deserve punishment” and “I’m sick and I really need to be healed”. The first of these approaches is likely to leave me feeling even more condemned by my sin and failure than I already feel, while the second gives me hope and inclines me to submit myself to God’s healing work, however painful that may be.

[ Image: Lawrence OP ]

New ways to think about sin


In the wake of the World Vision controversy last week, I’ve had a number of conversations about homosexuality and how we should respond to it as Christians. Nothing gets Christian passions aroused like a good morality scandal. (Relax, I wrote that with my tongue in my cheek.)

This has got me thinking not just about homosexuality, but about sin in general, and specifically how we understand it and talk about it.

We could argue about whether or not homosexual practice is sinful, but that’s not where I want to go today. What I’m concerned about is how, as Christians, we talk about sin, both intra muros and, in particular, in the public sphere.

I’ll state my case up front: I contend that the word “sin” is becoming less useful and even problematic, particularly when used in a public forum (including social media).

Now, before you write me off as a moral relativist, you need to know what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that sin doesn’t exist, or that it’s somehow less of a problem today than it used to be, or that we should stop talking about it. What I am saying is that I think we need to give serious consideration to how we talk about sin, because talking about sin tout court might not be helping anyone.

Let me try to explain.

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