This is the eighth part of a series I’m calling Blogmatics. It’s an attempt on my part to lay out as best I can in as brief a manner as I can all the theological assumptions behind my blog posts.
There are a lot of things we don’t like to talk about in the church. Always have been, always will be. These taboo topics tend to shift with the cultural sands. Things that once were taboo eventually become acceptable to speak about and vice versa.
It could just be me, but sin seems to be an increasingly taboo topic in the church. Of course, there are still plenty of fire and brimstone churches out there, but outside of a depravity obsessed tradition, sin isn’t something many of us are comfortable talking about. It doesn’t put butts in the seats the way it used to, it’s awkward to talk about with people outside the church (and many inside it), and public image is a powerful force in the church, so we don’t talk about sin.
It’s just easier that way.
But why don’t we talk about sin?
Is it just because it makes us uncomfortable?
But I wonder if part of the reason we don’t talk about sin is that many of us don’t have a clear handle on what sin is, or at least the understanding of sin that we do have is confusing and, if we’re honest, seems absurd – a child stealing a cookie from the cookie jar is equivalent to genocide? Really??
So we don’t talk about sin because we don’t know how to or at least we don’t know how to talk about it in a way that makes much sense.
But sin is a central issue in the Bible. We can’t escape it. It’s the very reason for the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. Which means we need to do our best to try and understand it and why the Bible seems to find it so problematic.
So what is sin?
Missing the mark?
Breaking God’s law?
A willful transgression against the known will of God?
I’ve heard all sorts of definitions for sin, but generally speaking I find most of them to be lacking. They either don’t take sin seriously enough or they frame in such a way that it becomes an inevitability that we are inexplicably held accountable for even though it was impossible to do otherwise. For example, of course we are going to “miss the mark.” We’re only creatures. If we “made the mark” then we would be God. So how can we be counted guilty for not being God?
Like I said, I think our definition of sin needs some work.
So what do I think sin is?
Like most everyone who has come before me, my understanding of sin begins in the Garden. Unlike some, I don’t believe that story needs to be a historical account in order for us to understand how sin “came into the world” and continues to affect our lives because historically accurate or not, sin still exists.
That being said, I think we make a categorical mistake if we think the sin of Adam and Eve was stealing or simply breaking the law.
If we, once again, look to one of my favorite passages in scripture, Philippians 2, Paul tells us exactly what the sin of Adam and Eve was and why it was and continues to be so catastrophically problematic for us today.
In verse 6, Paul describes Jesus’ life by making the point that he “did not consider equality with God something to be exploited.” A better, more literal translation would read “something to be grasped.” Why does that matter? Because Paul, as he does often in his writing, is comparing Jesus, the new Adam, to the old Adam. The old Adam quite literally grasped at equality with God when he and Eve stole the fruit from the forbidden tree for in doing so they believed, or so the serpent told them, they “would become like God.”
Which means the sin of Adam and Eve wasn’t theft.
The sin of Adam and Eve was trying to put themselves, mere creatures, in the place of the Creator as lords of their own lives.
The sin of Adam and Eve was their attempt to become God.
The sin of Adam and Eve was idolatry.
This is why Paul writes in Romans that the wages of sin is death. It’s not because God is mean or vindictive. Nor is it, as some would have us believe, because the sin of a child stealing a cookie from the cookie jar is worthy of death. If that were true, God would indeed be cruel, petty, and quite foreign to the Jesus we encounter in the gospels.
The wages of sin is death, because sin isn’t simply about breaking the law. It’s about a way of life. It’s about declaring, like Adam and Eve, that I know better than God how best to live my life. Because sin is the act of becoming lord, or god, of one’s own life and yet God, as Creator and Sustainer, is the only source of life, when we remove God from our lives, the natural result of removing that source of life is death.
Likewise, it’s not because Adam and Eve committed an act of divine usurpation however long ago that we suffer and are held accountable for sin today. Sin is not a genetic condition that we inherit upon birth. If it was, not only would it be profoundly illogical and disturbingly unfair for us to be held accountable at birth for actions we did not commit, but more problematically, we would have to declare that Jesus, being fully human, must therefore have also been a sinner. While we could debate Jesus’ perfect humanity ad nauseum, let’s just assume for the time being that Jesus being a sinner would create all sorts of problems for orthodoxy Christian understandings of atonement.
The point is, we don’t suffer and are held accountable for sin because of the actions of two strangers eons ago, we suffer and are held accountable for sin because we continue to repeat the actions of those two strangers eons ago – we continue to deceive ourselves into believing we know better than God how life should best we lived. We continue to grasp at the forbidden fruit of divinity and place ourselves on the heavenly throne as if we, mere creatures, are capable of being God.
We grasp at divinity when we decide that taking care of “me and mine” is more important than serving others.
We grasp at divinity when we trust in money rather God as if wealth would give us the control we desire.
We grasp at divinity when we oppress others through violence, manipulation, and exploitation.
And we grasp at divinity whenever we use fear as a weapon of manipulation, rather than love as a means of grace, hope, and liberation.
It is this way of life, this idolatry of the self that is so catastrophically problematic for all of humanity. For in doing so we disrupt and destroy the life God intended for creation and all of us, to one extent or another, at one time or another participate in this destruction.
Which is why the wages of sin is death.
Not because of the law as if legalism still reigns.
Rather, the wages of sin is death because in rejecting God, we reject the life God has given us and no matter how much we may want to deceive ourselves otherwise, we are not capable of sustaining life on our own.
Ultimately, sin in all its forms is an act of idolatry in which we usurp, exploit, manipulate, and oppress the world for our own gain.
And it is that idolatry that Jesus came to atone.
But just how that happened will have to wait until tomorrow.
Grace and peace,