Monday 1 February 2010

Exploring Biblical Themes (4): Sin

[This is a lightly edited transcript of an LICC podcast segment, first uploaded to the website of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity on 1 February 2010.]

In 1973, the American psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, published a book called Whatever Became of Sin? Menninger was voicing a widespread suspicion that the idea of ‘sin’ was slowly evaporating from everyday life. Over a generation later, there’s very little evidence that that trend has reversed.

Interestingly, we’re acutely aware of evil in the world – brutal regimes, harsh dictatorships, extensive famine, social injustices – but there appears to be much less talk about personal morality. We see it mostly in the headlines of the tabloids as the course of the latest celebrity affair is tracked, or we see it in something like the sense of outrage expressed over MPs’ expenses – someone else’s failings, not mine.

But, almost from the very first page, the Bible everywhere assumes the reality of sin, and that it is not only real but also pervasive, affecting every part of life. Men and women whose worldview is formed by Scripture know that something is broken in the universe – us, apart from anything else – so that everything is marred, cracked, damaged, and distorted in some way. So yes, it is seen in the examples of evil we’ve just mentioned. But it’s also seen in the way our bodies get diseased and eventually give way to death. And it’s seen in the way we relate to each other – from the petty squabbles between kids in the playground to the emotional manipulations in the bedroom to the snide innuendoes around the water cooler to the power politics of massive nations.

Beyond all these, most importantly of all, is our relationship with God…

Sin is described in various ways in Scripture – as rebellion, infidelity, disloyalty, ingratitude, getting dirty, wandering, trespass, transgression, failure, and more besides. And the Bible also provides many examples of specific sins. Writing about men and women in Romans 1, Paul says that ‘they have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity’, that ‘they are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice’, that ‘they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy’ (1:29-31). Like other biblical writers, Paul is aware that sin is seen not just in particular acts, but in our very being, with the whole of life tainted. So, as much as these acts are often directed against fellow human beings, they are fundamentally a mark of our ruptured and rebellious relationship with God.

And sin leads to judgment. At the end of that catalogue of acts in Romans 1, Paul says that ‘although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them’ (1:32). Paul makes it clear several times, not just in Romans 6:23, that ‘the wages of sin is death’.

That’s completely of a piece with the rest of the Bible – whether we immerse ourselves in the stories told in Genesis or Judges or Samuel, or wrestle with the laws in Leviticus, or reflect on the folly of living without God in Proverbs, or listen to the preaching of the prophets, or pray with David, ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge’ (Psalm 51:4).

It’s perhaps seen most clearly of all in Genesis 3, which nicely describes the dynamics of sin, the move from temptation to disobedience to consequences.

We have the crafty serpent who begins by questioning God’s word – ‘Did God really say…?’ (Genesis 3:1) – before contradicting God’s word – ‘You will not surely die’ (3:4). Not only does he remove the threat of judgment, but puts something positive in its place: ‘For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’ (3:5).

It’s not easy to say exactly what is meant by that phrase, ‘knowing good and evil’. The best guess is that it means not merely knowing, but deciding what is good and evil. God made things and pronounced them good. But now, humans make their choice as to what will be good and evil, and so take on themselves the prerogatives of God. They are tempted to be like God, to put themselves in the place where they decide what is good and evil, so that they can follow their own direction rather than God’s direction. Adam and Eve were created to be God’s vice-regents, to exercise rule over creation on God’s behalf. But now they rebel against that commission, asserting their own authority to rule as they see fit.

And there are consequences to that as the passage goes on to show. With their objective guilt before God comes the subjective sense or consequence of guilt – shame (3:7). There is broken relationship with God (3:8-10), and they adopt a victim mentality, trying to duck responsibility for what’s happened (3:11-13).

God curses the serpent (3:14), but not Adam and Eve – although they do suffer the judgment and consequences of sin, including death itself (3:15-19).

Of course, on the whole biblical landscape, their sin was not an isolated act; it carried consequences for the rest of humanity. Romans 5:12-21 shows that Adam has passed on his sin to his posterity, bringing death not just on himself but on the entire human race. Romans 5:19 seems quite clear, where Paul says that ‘through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners’.

We see that even in the stories that follow Genesis 3 – in sibling rivalry, murder, warfare, and the wickedness that leads to the judgment of the flood, the pride of the builders of Babel.

That’s why Christians have said that sin is not merely this or that bad thing we do, which perhaps can be removed by more knowledge or moral effort; rather, it is the whole orientation of human existence. Sinful men and women are hopelessly lost, incapable of doing anything to save themselves. We are ‘enemies’ of God, as Romans 5:8 says, and so grace comes completely from the outside, and is done for us, not by us.

But there is grace!

There is grace from the garden of Eden onwards as God promises that the serpent will be destroyed, as he supplies Adam and Eve with clothes, puts a protective mark on Cain, establishes a covenant with the whole of creation after the flood, begins his plan of salvation with Abraham, liberates his people and provides a system of sacrifices so that he might dwell with them, shows himself determined throughout the history of Israel to keep his promise to bless all nations, a plan which comes to its culmination in Jesus, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:19, ‘that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them’.

Repentance and faith are necessary, of course, but these too are only possible because of God’s grace. We come to our senses, turn around and make the journey home, to discover the lavishly rich welcome of a loving father, along with the promise of Jesus that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15).

So, God does not leave humans or the world in sin. He promises to restore them and it, and he acts to restore them and it. And it’s a restoration which extends to the whole of creation. As Paul says in Romans 8:21, ‘the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God’.

Where sin pollutes and distorts and destroys our relationships with God, with others, and with the created world, God will – on the basis of Christ’s work on the cross – make all things new (cf. Revelation 21:5). Meanwhile, we look forward to that new heaven and new earth where there will be ‘no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’ (Revelation 21:4).

Further Reading
Most books on Christian doctrine will contain a chapter or section on the doctrine of sin, and these could be worth checking out. In addition, the following books, written at different levels, will allow those interested to explore a biblical theology of sin in more detail.

G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008).
A full and focused study of idolatry in Scripture, arguing that we take on the characteristics of what we worship.

Henri Blocher, Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Leicester: Apollos, 1997).
Densely argued, but a significant work.

James E. Davison and Sara Covin Juengst, Journey Through the Word: Exploring Biblical Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 29-36.
A brief treatment.

John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology Volume 2: Israel’s Faith (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 254-349.
A lengthy chapter (under the title of ‘The Nightmare’) in a lengthy book by a significant Old Testament scholar.

Alistair McFadyen, Bound to Sin: Abuse, the Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin, Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
An academic work and a demanding read, which takes up the task of showing how a theology of sin can help explain the reality of contemporary society and the self-understanding of Christians in ways that secular analyses of social relationships cannot manage.

Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 147-58.
A mid-level treatment from an Old Testament perspective.

W. Eugene March, Great Themes of the Bible Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 34-44.
A brief overview at an accessible level.

Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 509-45.
A helpful discussion of what the New Testament says about ‘the problem of sin’.

Mike Starkey, What’s Wrong? Understanding Sin Today (Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2001).
Probably the best overall introduction to the area; light, but well written and closely argued.

No comments: