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The Preposterous Concept of Sin

We humans have a trait, that when we don’t like something, we either pretend it’s “fake news” or we pour scorn on it, ridicule or deride it. The idea of “sin” is very unpopular today. It seems to conjure up everything that puts people off religion. It has been distorted into everyday use by applying the term to small indulgences like chocolate torte, or denigrated as the offensive terminology of the intolerant. A doctrine of sin, rather than being a reality check, is viewed as the antithesis of wholesome self esteem. To be fair, the church has not done itself any favours over the centuries by focusing on particular offenses as being inherently "more sinful than others." This is especially true in issues of sexual morality. Someone who didn’t know the Bible very well could be forgiven for thinking that the Bible only classifies sexual misdemeanors as “sin,” but nothing could be farther from the truth. Jesus had more time for repentant prostitutes than he did for hypocritical legalists. The New Testament does not actually provide a definitive catalogue of sins. Certainly, in a number of places it lists and discusses specific sins, but every list is slightly different, because they are all just typical examples.

The Bible also makes it clear that the human heart is essentially wicked and deceitful and will always find new ways to sin; it could never list them all. Here are a few that might surprise you; enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, greed, drunkenness, reviling, swindling, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk; selfish fixation on eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building; selfish ambition, neglect of the poor and needy, oppression of sojourners and aliens, oppression of the poor, or of widows, children and other vulnerable people. It’s all very well to campaign against, say, promiscuity, but if someone is prone to losing their temper, or has any hint of selfish ambition, or a love of money, or is not generous toward the needy, then they are just as much a sinner. In fact, probably more, because if the Bible does single out any sin for special condemnation, it would be hypocrisy.

Jesus did not just uphold the “thou shalt"s and “thou shalt not"s of God’s ancient laws, but he actually set the bar much higher. He identified the common problem we all have that leads us to sin, to regard our own faults as less than others, and to deceive ourselves. “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19). In fact, he said that lusting after someone was as good as committing adultery, and hating someone was as good as murdering them, because the sin had already been committed in the heart. It was as good as done.

No one likes to be branded a sinner. No one likes to be told that they are wrong, or inadequate or not nice. We have built up barricades of indignation and self justification around ourselves. We are told not to critique behaviours or cast aspersions on motives, because that would be “intolerant.” But this is to fool ourselves. The Bible tells us the harsh truth that, despite deep down having some innate concept of right and wrong, none of us are actually “good.” “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one" (Romans 3:10–12).

This passage puts the finger on the problem; we have turned aside from God and the way he has designed us to live. When did this happen? It happened right in the beginning. As the saying goes, God gave human beings “one job.” They were to imitate him in whose image they were made, to reflect his glory, to nurture the creation over which they had been made regents of the Creator. But this wasn’t enough for the first humans; they decided they didn’t want to be in the number two position, they wanted to be like God to a greater extent that they already were. They wanted to determine for themselves what was right and wrong, to have moral autonomy. So Adam and Eve extended the middle finger to God, and went about claiming that autonomy. The result was disaster. They appreciated right and wrong alright, and they now understood the horror of guilt. The beautiful and privileged relationship they had with God was shattered. Just like with the infidelity of a spouse, the relationship could not be the same.

Imagine how a parent feels when their son or daughter rebels. I mean really rebels against parental authority, rejects the parents’ love as “restrictive” or domineering, casts aside the values taught, the sacrifices made, and runs off to lead life in antithesis to what their parents had hoped and wished for. In human families perhaps there is always error on both sides, but not with God. He had given his children everything they needed for their well being, as only their Maker could, and yet they threw it back in his face. And so we, their descendants, continue to do the same. It’s the way we are, and no effort of our own can change it. We have no brownie points with God; even the best we can do is tainted by pride, selfishness and hypocrisy. We have made ourselves pathetic kings and queens over a wilderness of our own making, and furthermore, we continue to usurp the place of God. How do you think he feels about that?

Well, here’s the amazing, preposterous answer. God still loves his broken and wayward humanity. He did not look at sinful humanity and simply press DELETE. No, instead he pressed SAVE. To what lengths would God go to undo the self-destruction we have wrought, and turn our hearts back to him? Could he just overlook sin? No, that would be out of keeping with his justice; calling evil good would bring God down to our level. Instead, he took our sins upon himself, becoming human in the incarnation of his Son Jesus, and destroyed our sins in a brutal act of crucifixion. That simultaneous act of love and justice struck at the heart of the problem, defeating sin in the very nature in which it had normally reigned. By associating ourselves with Jesus Christ, we share in that destruction of sin, receive unqualified forgiveness and become clothed with his perfect goodness. This is a free gift, it is not something we can earn. It is the preposterous response of a God who loves us despite who we are and what we have done.

Here’s what the apostle Paul had to say about this in Romans 5:6–11:

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation."

Reconciliation... not just with each other, but with God himself. The relationship has been restored if we will only take up the offer of grace. The concept of sin might be unpalatable, counter-cultural, preposterous. But even more counter-cultural and preposterous is that God did not treat us as we sinners deserve.

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