That’s how I opened a staff meeting at my church some months ago. Everyone got nervous. Some smiled and laughed anxiously awaiting my next move. Others began shifting their weight in the chair. And still another simply sat quietly and uncomfortably in their seat. Finally, I broke the awkward silence and asked, “how does that word make you feel?” Conversation gladly resumed as we discussed our experience of that word.
You don’t have to be a Christian for that word to make you feel a little uncomfortable. Another, related word makes us equally as uncomfortable and that’s the word “sin.” Both of the words “sin” and “repent” have a mostly negative view by most Christians and non-Christians alike. Some Christians have left the church because they were told to repent from acting a certain way. Some people will not return to the church because they felt they had gone too far in regards to their sins. No matter how you look at it, the words sin and repent are by no means happy, positive words for the majority of people.
Today we address the question regarding “what is sin” and the question posed for us today: “why doesn’t the church talk about sin anymore?”
What is Sin?
According to The Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary, sin is “in essence, the failure or refusal of human beings to live the life intended for them by God their creator.” For many this is translated into our 21st century view as ethical or moral failings, such as an action or non-action contrary to God’s purpose. Basically, this understanding of sin is boiled down to mean right and wrong actions. These actions called “sins” are when we flip-off someone on the highway for cutting us off or we steal money from the IRS by not paying our taxes. Others may label these actions of “sins” systemically like institutions that proffer racism, sexism, or impose taxes that hurt those who are in need.
Sin is “the failure or refusal of human beings to live the life intended for them by God their creator.” – Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary
These are all manifestations of sin but not the root what sin is. A more prominent understanding of sin in the biblical witness may be defined as the chasm between God and creation. In Genesis chapter 3, humans deliberately disobeyed God (act contrary to God’s intention) which put all creation in a state of sin, which in theological terms has been called “original sin.” The primary understanding of sin in both the Old Testament and much of Paul’s writings of the New Testament is original sin, not individual acts of transgression against God’s purpose.
Where did sin come from?
You may be thinking, if God is good then how did God allow sin to exist in the first place? This is a wonderful question, to which I do not have the ultimate answer. I do however have a kind of theory that began percolating in my mind with the help of a systematic theology professor, Noel Erskine. If God is good, and all that God creates is good, then sin must be non-creation. Rather than sin being created and brought into existence, sin exists as a corruption of the good God created. Like a cancer, the good of God’s reality was mutated and perverted, leeching away life rather than providing life and it is in that world of mutated goodness we live.
Sin is a non-creation, like cancer that mutates the good of God’s creation.
According to Daniel Migliore in his book titled Faith Seeking Understanding, sin is a “universal condition” that “insinuates itself into all human action” and corrupts both individuals and “corporate structures of life.” Whether sin is like a cancer or simply a possibility due to the freedom of human will, it is an inescapable reality for humanity in Judeo-Christian thought. The universality of sin in human life accounts for not only what is labeled by cultural standards as immoral, but also anything that may be deemed good or acceptable yet does not draw one closer to God. Furthermore, the fracture of sin in creation accounts for travesties that are outside of human control as well.
What to do about sin?
There are two steps in which Christianity resolves the sin-issue. The first is that humanity is completely dependent on God’s grace. Because of the state of sin in which we find ourselves, we are unable to break free on our own accord. God offers a prevenient grace that allows us to see that we are in need. Without this kind of grace we would be unaware that anything at all is contrary to God’s plan and purpose. Without a prevenient grace there would be no radar for even the most vile of actions against one another and creation. This grace most powerfully prevails with the example of baptism. Before we are able to choose for ourselves, God gives grace to sustain us through the waters of baptism.
The second step follows prevenient grace and brings back the first word of this post: repent. Repentance is not a mere task of the will to stop doing bad things. Is that implied? Sure, but repentance is much more than a change in behavior or ethics. The late Marcus Borg defined repentance by looking at the Greek root of the word in the New Testament metanoia. Parsing out “meta” which means transform (think metamorphosis) and “gnosis” which means knowledge, Borg claims that to repent means “to go beyond the mind you have.” Repentance will often involve behavioral change but the essence of repentance is the transforming of one’s entire self.
To go beyond the mind we currently have is to look at the world with new eyes. And the way in which we receive new eyes is through the revelation of God through Jesus Christ. Take time to read the gospels of the New Testament. Read about how Jesus flips the world upside down by the way he teaches. Especially read the beatitudes when Jesus tries to orient the minds of those gathered near the mountainside to see that the blessed are those whom we would least expect. When we realize that we have been looking at our world while standing on our head, we then can flip upside-down in order to truly be right-side up and begin living in line with God’s purposes.
What does the church say?
It is true that many mainline protestant traditions have begun to remove “sin” from their rhetoric. Oftentimes popular psychological terms are used like “brokenness” or “fallen nature” or “sickness.” But even those ideas are used less and less as we strive to paint a picture of only uplifting, happy Christianity. But I think Christians and non-Christians alike are tired of being told by faith leaders that Christianity is pure happiness. We know that it is much more as we struggle with untimely deaths, illness, mental health issues, etc. Sin exists and is manifest in the tragedies, pain, suffering, and numbness so easily found in our lives. Sin is less about you being a terrible, terrible person, and everything to do with being separated from the God who brings wholeness.
Through the faithfulness of Christ, the state of sin which created the chasm between God and creation is repaired and through baptism and repentance we begin the journey to be made whole and complete, lacking nothing. The Church has been given a gift to reveal the existence of sin. In exposing the corrupting cancer of sin and the remedy through Christ, the Church touches on the deepest levels of human experience. And the good news is that the brokenness of our world will one day be remedied. There will be no more hurt or pain, sorrow or grief, mental health or physical health issues. All will be made right in all of creation.
Let us embrace that kingdom as it breaks into our reality today and as we long for its completion.
Sources of Interest: