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 ]