In many of St. Paul’s letter’s he talks about how Christ is the foundation upon which the church is built. In 1 Corinthians 3 he provides a very vivid image of how this plays out. He talks about how teachers and workers in the church are building on top of the foundation of Christ. The work of some is like straw and wood. The work of others is like gold and precious gems. On the last day the refining fire of God’s judgment will burn away the wood and straw leaving only the gold and precious gems. However, the workers who laid the straw and wood will themselves not be burned away because they still built on the foundation of Christ. The foundation is everything.
Now, the purpose in me bringing this up is that in many ways what we teach about the nature of sin is the foundation for the rest of what we say about the gospel. After all, why does God need to create for himself a covenant people and send his son to proclaim the coming rule and reign of God? Because of sin. Why is the forgiveness that Jesus won on the cross even necessary? Sin. Why does the church exist continually preaching the word, forgiving sins, and administering the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper? Sin.
Sin is the problem and the gospel is the solution. But if we misunderstand the problem, then our understanding and appreciation of the solution will be diminished or distorted.
What Sin is Not
Now before I start talking about how we misunderstand sin, I want to say at the beginning that I am not merely saying that we need to understand the magnitude, greatness, seriousness, or depth of sin. This is important, but this isn’t my point. My point is rather that we don’t understand what sin actually is. We don’t understand the nature of sin. I’m after a qualitative distinction not a quantitative distinction.
Jeff Mallinson has often discussed in the podcast he co-hosts, Virtue in the Wasteland, how when people hear the word “sin” they often think of old, conservative pastors shaking their finger telling people not to do naughty things. It usually revolves around things like alcohol, sex, bad words, etc. It’s less about a love of goodness, about what is good, right, and just, but about obeying certain traditional (arbitrary) cultural prohibitions. Now, any Christian is going to cringe at this description of sin, and rightly so. It’s a caricature of what most Christians believe about sin. However, this is what many people who are not a part of the church (perhaps even some people who are) think about when they hear this word.
There’s a lot going on here, but one of the reasons for this is that we tend to think of sin as breaking the rules.
This image of sin goes something like this: God has a list of rules, like the Ten Commandments, and he wants everybody to follow them because he says so (He’s the creator and everything so he gets to do this). If you break one of the rules that he’s made up, then you’re going to get punished, except… Jesus came and followed all of the rules that God had made up and even took the punishment that we deserved for breaking all of God’s rules. #Gospel
Hopefully this image strikes you as hopelessly shallow and inadequate. You can see how a qualitatively deficient view of sin gives us a qualitatively different gospel. The sad part is that most presentations of the gospel sound something like this. They’re usually not as obviously bad, but they’re often pretty close.
One of the problems with this is that it turns God’s law into something that’s arbitrary. Sin is sin basically because God says it is. The gospel feels weird in this system because God is merely saving us from a problem that he created in the first place.
Now, the solution to this is to understand the doctrine of sin not as an independent topic in theology, but as part of the larger story of the scriptures and God’s action in history. So to understand sin, we need to go back to creation.
Sin is Rebellion Against God’s Creation
It’s important to remember that when we are talking about theology, we’re not talking about abstract metaphysical principles; we’re talking about a comprehensive story of everything. Take the Apostles’ Creed for example, it’s not so much a list of doctrines as it is a confession of a particular theological narrative. And that theological narrative begins with creation.
Creation is the first and most foundational act of God in the Scriptures. And when you analyze the way that God’s creation and shaping of his creation is described in Genesis, you’ll see (among many other things) that it is very ordered and structured. He separates the light from the darkness, the waters from the waters, the waters from the lands. Each category of living being is given its own domain in the creation in which to live: land, air, and sea. The narrative is specific that plants bear fruit according to their kinds. There is structure and order here. And this structure is good. In fact, by the time that God is done with the whole thing, it’s very good.
Furthermore, this structure is not imposed as a way to control and limit, but the structure exists to preserve life and encourage its flourishing. For example, if you live on the coast, the sea is a beautiful and wonderful thing. Yet, it is incredibly important that the sea remain in its boundaries. When the sea goes past its boundaries like with a tsunami or flooding, this causes massive damage and loss of life. Structure and order is an essential part of creation and creation goes to ruin when this structure is overturned.
This means that sin is not disobeying God’s random list of rules, but sin is taking God’s very good and structured creation and turning it over to chaos. Instead of living in accord with the deep structure of God’s creation that preserves life, sin lives in accord with instability, suffering, hardship, and ultimately death.
And of course this is exactly what happens when the first humans choose the chaos of sin instead of the life-giving structure of creation. They rebelled against God’s design for his masterpiece.
This then means that all of the rest of the law in the scriptures, whether it’s permanent injunctions against idolatry and killing or temporary commands like dietary laws and clothing, is ultimately designed to help God’s people live in an alternative way that points the way forward away from the death and chaos introduced into God’s good creation.
This of course changes how we view sin in our own lives. It’s easy to view sin as the things that we’d really like to do, but we know that we really shouldn’t since we’re Christians. But this isn’t the picture. Instead, if we have a right understanding of what sin really is, we realize that we don’t really want any part of it at all. We may be tempted by it, but that’s only because we ourselves have been twisted by this power of death and chaos. We’re drawn to it like a dark magnet. In other words, sin is not merely thoughts, words, or actions that we commit, but sin is a sickness that has infected all of us.
The solution to this cannot merely be the cancelling of debt (mere forgiveness) as if the problem of sin were only an accumulation of heavenly demerits that God in is good pleasure has wiped away with the divine cleansing agent: the blood of Jesus. (Forgiveness is certainly necessary, but the biblical picture is even bigger).
Likewise, the solution cannot be just getting our act together and removing ourselves from sinful behaviors and influences. No matter how much we control and how much we cut off from our lives, the sickness is still within us. There is no running from it and no amount of outside tinkering will fix it.
The only solution that will work is re-creation. This is what Ezekiel talks about:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses.
We need to be remade and given new life. We need to be healed of our rebellion. Our loves and desires are disordered and so we need God, the one who brings order to chaos, to come and bring order to the chaos of our desires.
And while this re-creation is found in the here-and-now in hints and shadows, we need to wait to be fully remade until Jesus returns and remakes all of creation, restoring everything and setting everything right, even our own hearts.
In this narrative the Gospel takes on a lot more meaning. Jesus’ death and resurrection is not merely paying the debt that God demands of us because we broke his rules, but it is the Son of God coming and bringing new life to his creation through his own death and new life. The resurrection of Jesus takes on a much more obvious and central place in the story. God no longer seems arbitrary, but he actually seems loving and merciful.
Finally, this view of sin gives us a new way of looking at our new identity in Jesus. In the rule-centered view of sin, it’s not entirely clear why we still need to obey God’s law. After all, aren’t we forgiven? But a right view of sin sees that the gospel does not merely free us from the curse of the law, but it frees us so that we can begin to live in accordance with God’s good life-giving design for his creation (i.e. his law).
This is the way of Jesus. It’s a way of new life that not only cancels our debt, but frees us to finally live real life, to be fully human, the way God always meant it to be.