ordinary sin

The doctrine of Sin has been something I’ve had an interest in for a while, and some of my research and writing has touched on both sin and the forgiveness of sin.  I think it’s a very important doctrine, and thus very important to understand with clarity and balance.

Scholars of Aristotle and Aquinas will be able to articulate it better than I, but I find the concept of the ‘mean’ or middle to be helpful here as at many points (nod to Aristotle).  Just as a ‘virtue’ seems to be flanked on both sides by two opposing ‘vices’ (nod to Aquinas), so also a healthy view of a doctrine (or dogma) seems to in between two extreme distortions of it.  Here’s a quick attempt to sketch this with regard to Sin.

The extreme of “totally evil” 

At one extreme, the “totally evil” view is based on the persistent and tragic experience of everything from indifference, busyness and rudeness to violence, terrorism and death.

The positive of this view is its ability to summarize (though perhaps generalize) and account for all of this activity with a single concept.  All of this ‘bad stuff’ is eventually the result of ‘sin’ at the personal level, and ‘Sin’ at a cosmic level.   Humanity and all of creation is ‘fallen’.  Like it or not, there is a great deal of accuracy for this view, both in terms of experience of reality and interpretation of Scripture.  A patient and discerning assessment of human nature can see past the cosmetic self-righteous and moralistic posturing that masquerades as ‘goodness’.  The best statements of so-called “total depravity” are about the full sweep and scope of Sin, reaching to every part of nature and human nature.  There is no ‘part’ of creation that is free from the influence of Sin and evil.  The brokenness and rebellion goes ‘all the way down’.   And the irony is that trying to deny one’s sinfulness and assert one’s goodness is itself one of the surest examples and breeding grounds for sin.

The negative of this view is… well.. its negativity.  In extreme form (hence me calling it an extreme view), it doesn’t appreciate or recognize any goodness to human nature.  And a thoroughgoing doctrine of Grace is thus undermined, because Grace creates and sustains at least some good in all people.

The extreme of “basically good”

This leads to the positive “basically good” view.  In a way, the very presence of the word “basically” is illustrative.  Philosophically, it can signal a nod to Locke’s notion that the ‘basic’ or original state of human nature is a ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate.  In terms of modern usage, it can also signal a tempering of what could be seen as an absolute rejection of any evil in human nature.  Few people would want to say that humans are “totally good” and I’ve yet to meet anyone who serious defends human perfection.  So the “basically good” view is a very attractive option for those who wish to assert the dominance of human goodness, whilst not totally denying the ‘accidental’ circumstances of human ‘wrongdoing’.

The positive of this view seems to be the fact that it inherently avoids the absolutism of saying that humans are perfect.  It allows us to enjoy the widespread acceptance and agreement of modern society, which is quite nervous and concerned about those who think that there is something ‘wrong’ with us.  After all, that kind of talk makes people feel bad, and feeling bad is of course what makes people (accidentally) get tripped up into doing bad things, whether to others or to themselves.  Surely the way to fix things is to avoid this talk of ‘sin’ and restore people’s self confidence!

And here we see the weakness of this view.  At its core, this view is basically a way to justify oneself, and avoid responsibility for the ‘bad things’ that happen, either in the world or in one’s own life.   It is a ‘weak’ view in that it is not strong at helping to understand, account for, or of course do anything to change, the very real and tragic things that people do.  And wise therapists, social workers and addicts will testify that taking responsibility for one’s actions is the best way to work for change.

It seems that these extreme ways of looking at human nature tend to feed off of one another, rather like (and probably not unrelated to) right wing and left wing politicians. The more one person asserts human evil (more need for government and legislation?), the more another will assert human good (less need for government and legislation?); and vice versa.  What is needed is a view that avoids the extremes and includes the positives.

The Doctrine of Sin

It could be true that the biblical content on human nature may tend towards an emphasis on human guilt rather than human glory.  But the first thing to say about the Judeo-Christian notion of Sin is its remarkable breadth.  Humans are “very good” (Genesis 1), and “crowned with glory and honour” (Psalm 8).  To be a human is a glorious thing.  But at the same time, there are “none righteous” (Psalm 14 & 53), and too often it is true that we continually think evil in our hearts (Genesis 3).

The second thing to say is that there is something quite ‘ordinary’ and everyday about sin.  Every week at my church (Anglican/Episcopal), we are led by the worship leader or the priest in a confession that includes that we have sinned “in ignorance”, “weakness” and “through our own deliberate fault”.  That seems true to my life and the lives of people I trust to be honest.  Another great local Anglican confession prayer observes that “some sins are plain to us, some escape us, [and] some we cannot face.”  I’m thinking here of the vast spectrum of ways in which we all “get it wrong”.  We walk past one another without giving the human acknowledgement we all deserve.  We steal and cheat.  We parade our acts of charity on social media.  We lust after power, sex, status, moral standing, theological achievements, acceptance and a thousand other things that may be fine to pursue, but not lust after.  Even the ‘best’ person we can think of, if they are honest, has all manner of ‘ordinary sins’ the would admit to.

The third thing to say about Sin has to do with the implications… the ‘so what?’ of Sin.  So we are sinful.  So what?  Well, if we are sinful, then we ultimately need forgiveness, and need Ultimate forgiveness.  The forgiveness on offer through the gospel of Christ is something that is both a single once-for-all Act that cannot be repeated, and an on-going continual work that we must enter into more deeply.  Another bit of local Anglican brilliance announces that “God forgives you”, as a once-for-all fact.  But the stark announcement is followed by a gentle admonition: “forgive others… forgive yourself.”  This is an ongoing process to deepen for the rest of our lives.

the uncomfortable freedom of Grace

I just finished a job at work, and not only did it take longer than I thought (I had to return to the job site to fix things), I didn’t do as good a job at it as I would have liked to.  The clients are satisfied and will pay the invoice, but the workmanship was not my best.  My errors involved trying to same time and effort: a.k.a. rushing and being lazy.

I was doing another follow-up job last week and I noticed a mistake that had been made by another team member.  It seemed that he had also tried to save time and effort.

It is so much easier to focus on the mistakes that others make than my own.  My tendency is to maximize and catastrophize the seriousness of others’ mistakes (“Wow, that’s pretty bad…“) and minimize and normalize the seriousness of my own (“Ahh, it’s good enough…” or “It’s not as bad as…“).

Grace is good news.  We are loved as we are in spite of our mistakes.  Grace covers our sin and shame.

But that’s not all Grace does.

Grace-powered love casts out and frees us from our fear, saying with the authority and voice of Christ, “Fear not.” (Me phõbos)  One type of fear we can let go of, thanks to Grace, is the fear of not being perfect.  When we don’t have to be perfect, we can admit our mistakes (or sins), even the serious ones; and we can be a bit gentler on the mistakes (or sins) of others.

This may be one example of the less “comfortable” work of Grace.  After all, Grace “teaches” (paideuousa) us (Titus 2:12).  This word for teaching is diverse enough to include usages concerning discipline and punishment or training.

I can’t speak for others, but I am grateful for the ‘uncomfortable’ help of Grace in assisting me to admit my mistakes and accept the failings of others.

human sin: an example

The sinfulness of humanity is nothing I am ‘proud’ to believe in.  Sin is tragic.  But, rather an illustrate this with a list of actions that are easily diagnosed as harmful, it’s more interesting to give an example where sin may not be so obvious.  Whether it’s an Olympic opening ceremony, a corporate philosophy or a debate over gun legislation, I am continually reminded of how easy it is to forget how deeply flawed we all are.  Human history and nature, business goals, or one’s ability to handle immense power are not as flawless as we may be tempted to imagine.

One simple example is giving a gift.  How selfless, generous and wonderful, right?  But, speaking honestly about my own experience of giving gifts, our motivations can be very often quite mixed.  Giving a gift can be motivated, partly or even mostly, by a desire for the benefit of the other.  However, other motivations can settle in among this, including but not limited to: being the best (generous/lavish), being the most (creative), being first, being included (“people like being around people who give gifts”), etc.

Our motivations tend to show up when our gift is refused, disregarded or otherwise received in a way we did not expect.  I recently found myself giving something that I’d hoped would be received and recognized in a particular way, and when it wasn’t, I had to check my motivations in giving it.

It can be confronting to face our mixed motivations, especially if/when we take pride in being a ‘good person’.  Of course, the point of this reflection is not to deny that we have any goodness, but that the very  notion of human sinfulness, particularly in the Christian theological tradition, is that we are not only flawed in obviously ‘bad’ ways, but even our ‘good’ actions and characteristics can be hindered, blunted and shaped by the influence of sin.

And if you don’t know me well, you need to know that my understanding of sin (from Scripture and theology) has less to do with us feeling constantly like a failure for breaking a significant amount of a very long list of specific actions which are ‘wrong’, and more to do with us being beautiful-and-broken all the way down to our motivations and identities.  And more importantly the great thing about the Gospel of Jesus is that God has eternally decided to love and work on, in and through us anyway.

May this work of transformation be something that we surrender to and collaborate with.

development in divine dealings with sin

Progressive revelation is the theological understanding  for hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) which acknowledges the way in which themes that emerge early in Scripture go through development and change.  The big framework for this is the Old and New Covenants/Testaments, where it is often said that Christ is “in the Old concealed and in the New revealed”.

I was listening to an excellent sermon at church a couple of weeks ago, and the following progression or development occurred to me, so hence I had to blog about it.  It reflects how I understand Scripture’s progressive revelation of how God deals with humans when they sin.  I’ll list them first, and then offer comments on each one:

Seek Them Out
Wipe Them Out
Spread Them Out
Straighten Them Out
Lift Them Out

First, the response is seek them out.  This is key.  In the garden, God responds to direct disobedience by looking for them.  God seems to want to maintain relationship with them, and wants them to grow.

Before long, the next response is wipe them out.  This is severe.  Leading up to the flood, humanity is described as being continually bent on evil.  It’s as though humans have become like an animal so riddled with disease that the only thing left to do is put it out of its misery.  Or one thinks of how a farmer will set fire to a field so it can grow fresh new grass.

Soon after, the response becomes spread them out.  This is unexpected.  The story of the Babel tower portrays humanity as arrogantly trying to ascend to the heavens.  Taking God’s place.  Human languages multiply and the people divide, being scattered all over the earth.  It’s as though human arrogance is like a heap of manure that smells horrible when concentrated into one heap, and so must be spread out.  This response finds an early hint in the expulsion from the garden.

Summarising a huge amount of remaining content in the Old Testament, the response progresses on to straighten them out.  Through everything from Law codes and prophetic instruction to exodus and exile, the message is to live according to the ‘straight and narrow’; to live in ways that ‘choose life’.  I cannot help but think of how I like to re-use nails that have been pre-used and bent.  I take them over to a hard surface and bash them (sometimes gently) with a hammer until they are useful.

Finally, the response matures and comes into focus as lift them out.  The image here is of God stepping into the pit (Psalm 40) that we’ve got ourselves into, laying his hands on our exhausted bodies and lifting us out.  This is embodied (deliberate pun) in the incarnation of Christ, who we may imagine as stooping to the lowest and most sinful levels of human nature, and raising it to new life.

One final thing to say about progressive revelation is that the final and full revelation seems to be hinted at early on.  The lifting of Grace is seen as early as the clothes that God makes for the pair in the garden.  God’s dealings move from justice (harsh!) to mercy and then to Grace.

the truth about us

I know what self-justification and self-protection looks like, because like all of us, I do it far too often.  Into a world of self-justifiers (like me) where we defend ourselves from any responsibility for any specific wrongdoing, the words of Jesus by the hand of John’s gospel cut through to the basic motivations behind such self-protection:

19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:19-21)

My simple observation here (which I don’t want to clutter up the sermon for this Sunday night) is that Jesus is not contrasting ‘evil’ people with ‘good’ people, as if life were so simple.  Instead, the one who “knew what was in humans” (John 2:25) contrasts those who do “evil” and those who live “by the truth”.  The words used to describe their actions are also contrasted.  Those who do evil stay in the darkness not wanting their “deeds” to be exposed, while those who life by the truth can cope with “what they have done” being in the light of day, as well as the sight of God.

So the point of difference Jesus is making between these two kinds of people seems not to be that some have been naughty and others have been nice.  Some seem to see God as a God who is out to condemn the world, while others seem to trust that God, as Jesus says a few verses earlier (3:17), did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Fear drives some to hide their sin, while faith/trust (Greek: pistis) enables others to confess it. Johannine material elsewhere in the New Testament agrees.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9)

a more free will

Physics, chemistry and biology (and culture) seem to set up a kind of bell curve of freedom over the course of any individual human life.  The capacity for self-determination seems to emerge from invisibility, develop, climax, decline and disappear as we journey from zygote, foetus, infant, toddler, adult, mature adult, and finally at death.

The bodily equipment we possess does not provide us with complete and total freedom.  We will never be free to do anything.  Being fully human doesn’t need that anyway, it only needs freedom to do things that embody full humanness.  But at any rate, human nature and human culture have not combined to get us to perfect freedom.  The top of the bell curve may be a bit higher in some lives than others, but it never gets to perfection.

In this context, the question ‘do we have free will’ is easily answered: of course not.  We are slaves – at least to some degree – to all manner of things, both in our nature and in culture.  Processes, limitations, desires, needs, others, etc.

In Christianity, there is the tension between slavery to ‘sin’ and slavery to ‘righteousness’ (or Christ).  The great irony is that the more ‘enslaved’ we are to the latter, the more free and truly human we are.  The more you ‘chain’ yourself (through practicing and creating habits of mind and heart) to, for example, loving others as yourself, the more free you are to be human.  Like all kinds of growth, growing in slavery to Christ is a process.  Freedom, like all other aspects of salvation, is not experienced fully in the here and now.  Every habit created, every neural pathway nudged – and re-nudged, is one more step toward the hope and goal of full freedom in a freed and recreated cosmos.

…because the creation itself also will be delivered from the slavery of corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Romans 8:21)

dust in the wind?

“All we are is dust in the wind”, said Socrates.

In reading about sin and human nature for my mini-thesis, I’ve dipped into the nature/nurture and determinism/free-will discussions.  I tend to think that the biblical view of humans takes both sides of these conversations quite seriously.  We are limited by our nature/genetics in what we are capable of, and yet we are capable somehow of transcending our current neuro/bio/physio-logical states.

In other words, the biblical view of humans is that we are continually taken from pretty raw material (the dust of the ground) and formed and freed to be human by the Spirit (the breath of life).  Perhaps Socrates would agree.

human sin, then human death

I’m reading a recent interview with Jonathan Sarfati, a well-known anti-evolution Christian author.((Australia’s Reformed Evangelical Periodical, Autumn 2012, 3-6.))

I’m not going to critique the scientific statements he makes, I just wanted to pick up on a theological/biblical claim that he makes, which I hear very often.  He claims:

The whole gospel of Jesus Christ depends on a literal happening in the Garden of Eden where Adam sinned against God and brought God’s curse upon us.  Evolution undermines this account of our origins by putting death before sin.

That’s a big claim.  He presents a choice between a) believing the gospel of Jesus Christ and b) affirming the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection in biology.  For Sarfati, there is no both/and.  He refers to Paul as telling us that “Adam brought death into the world”, and refers to Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.  So what do these passages say?  And are they appropriate to bring to bear on conversations about animal death before humans?  What would Paul say about us doing so?

Well, it turns out that neither passage is talking about animals at all.  What they are talking about, however, is humans.  Both passages present us with two distinct representatives for, not animals, but humans.  We can either be ‘in Adam’ or ‘in Christ’.  The point is that human sin brings human death.  Adam, no doubt assumed to be the first human by Paul and the rest of his Jewish contemporaries, becomes the representative of all who sin and die, because he (whose name means ‘human‘ funnily enough) was the first human to do so.  Christ, on the other hand, did not sin.  And although he too died, he pioneered the way into a new, un-dying, eternal, glorified state of life that we call the Resurrection.  The physical death and suffering of animals before humans has literally no bearing on either passage.

Sarfati laments that “theistic evolutionists would have us believe that God used [evolution which involves the ‘last enemy’ of death] to create things which then became ‘very good’ “, but even ‘perfect and young earth’ folk like him have not only to recall that creation is brought from ‘tohu va vohu’ (formless and void) to a state of formed and filled by God’s very good ordering and creativity, but also to explain how a ‘very good’ creation can have a deceitful, crafty and lying serpent in it.  The Sunday-school picture of a ‘perfect’ creation doesn’t hold up, and it isn’t the point.

Sarfati continues:

Christians who believe in evolution also have to face the problem of restoration.  If Christ is going to restore or ‘regenerate’ the world, what will He restore it to?  …millions more years of death, suffering and disease? …evolution is opposed to the biblical ideas of creation, fall and redemption.  We undermine the entire message of Scripture if we try to introduce the idea of evolution into it. (emphasis mine)

Again, if a literal Eden is the prototype of the final restoration – the goal for all things – then it must have a lying snake in it, and we must be able to sin again, and it also might be formless and void and in need of forming and filling.  But in Scripture, it is not Eden that is the prototype.  It is Christ.  Our great hope is not to simply be like a pre-fall Adam, but rather that “we shall be like Him”, that is, Christ.  Our hope is not to be brought back to a state of posse peccare, posse non-peccare (possible to sin, possible not to sin), but to be brought forward to a state of non-posse peccare (not possible to sin).

“Restoration” in the sense of ‘going back to Eden’ is not the right concept.  We don’t go back to the beginning (for another replay?), but forward to the goal, our telos – Christ.  “Transformation” or “translation” or “metamorphosis” is the better image, and that given by the picture of Christ (not Adam) as the “firstfruits” of what is to come.  Moreover, to quote 1 Corinthians 15:49, “Just as we have borne the likeness of the man who was made from dust, we will also bear the likeness of the man from heaven.”  We don’t look back to Adam, but forward to Christ, who has come into human history as the ‘archetype’ of humanity.  We don’t look back to Genesis 1&2 and a ‘very good’ creation, we look forward to Romans 8 and Revelation 21-22 to a liberated creation, and a “new heaven and new earth”.  Or as the great maxim says, “more is gained in Christ than is lost in Adam.”

old/new both/and

Two terms in the single verse of Romans 3:21 evidence both the continuity and the discontinuity of the newness of the righteousness-revealing gospel of Jesus with the oldness of the sin-revealing Law.

But now, the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from [χωρὶς|choris; in discontinuity with] the law , although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to [μαρτυρουμένη|marturoumene; in continuity with] it-