Is the Concept of “Sin” Still Relevant?

We can’t talk about the relevance of Christianity, faith, church, etc without talking about one of the cornerstones upon which this all sits – the idea of sin. So today I’m taking a quick look at whether or not this word still has a place in the modern world. Breathe in, breathe out, lets go. 

“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Okay then, what next.

I first heard about “sin” pretty early on in life. I was raised the child of evangelicals, who began pastoring when I was 8. Thus my “sin” radar was pretty well-tuned.  In truth, it became a thing so big as to become a boogie monster of sorts – the shadow that chased me into a deep pursuit of Christianity, rather than being taken along that journey by the guiding light of who Jesus is/was. Hey look – my faith might have been a lot more fear-based back then than it is now, but I’m still grateful for it. These days I accept that every human (including me – gasp!) is flawed and that’s ok. I do my best and thank God for grace that covers the rest. I pursue a faith that is about running towards the good things, not running away from the bad things, but that doesn’t mean I have erased the concept of sin from my brain.

In the modern day, we might ask ourselves whether the word ‘sin’ is even necessary. Its very presence in the modern lexicon is something some may find offensive. We have ethics. We have crime and punishment. Atheists, agnostics, humanists and Christians (and all the other belief systems too innumerable to list) alike can all pursue a high standard of ethical, altruistic living with or without the word ‘sin’. Is it therefore still relevant? I’m going to say that yes, it is. But it is our attitude to it that needs attention.

I guess we need to start with what “Sin” is. When you trace it back to the Hebrew and Greek origins of the word, there are two big concepts: one is that of a transgression (stepping across a boundary or limit), the other is that of missing the mark (so perhaps think of an athlete shooting for a goal but missing it.) “This view of sin includes the concept of our going in one direction but straying off course to the side and not continuing in the direction we intended to go, with the result that we don’t reach the goal we intended. We miss [Scott Ashley – on how the Bible defines sin].”

There are two types of sins: sins of commission and sins of omission. The first is pretty well spelled out in Scripture. Take the 10 Commandments for instance –  idol worship, adultery, theft, murder, covetousness, dishonouring your parents, blasphemy, not remembering the Sabbath (incidentally, almost the whole gentile population is guilty of this one! Ooops). Galatians 5:19-21 (in some weird translation!) goes on to list a few others: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery (interpret those the way you will), idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkness and orgies. These appeared in a letter penned by the apostle Paul, who was raised a pharisee and spent his pre-conversion life as a dedicated anti-Christian pharisee. His was a theology informed by the religious system of the day before being interrupted by a revelation of Jesus. So who knows how much this influenced his look at sin.

We know that Jesus came to transcend the law of Moses, and that He called us to a higher law of love. But that doesn’t mean that debauchery and orgies aren’t sin. *shrugs* Who knew?

Then there are sins of omission: the sins you commit when you see something that requires action, but you do not act (James 4:17.) I’m absolutely sure that this is something nearly everyone is guilty of. I don’t think sin is something we can avoid. The big things we can avoid. Its pretty easy to not murder. Just, you know, don’t murder. Its pretty easy to not rape. Just, you know, don’t rape. But envy? Fits of rage? Not speaking up when you should? That’s where it gets hard. Factions? Ask anyone involved in politics – they’re hard to avoid. (Hmmm, is politics sin then? *strokes chin thoughtfully. I jest. Of course. Mostly.)

John Calvin was one of the theologians whose ideas have survived into modern Christianity. One of his big ideas was that of Total Depravity. Sounds bad! Right! Here’s the sum of up that doctrine: there is no part of us which hasn’t been affected by the “taint” of sin. Its in our mind, will, emotions and physical body and has been ever since Eve ate the fruit of the forbidden tree. (I’m not going to go into every aspect of Calvinism and the doctrine of Total Depravity. If you want that, go here). What I will say on the matter is that it underpins the idea that man is lost without God, and the only way to please God is through Jesus. Both things are found through-out scripture. It also inspired a common persuasive evangelistic approach – to lay out the power and pervasiveness of sin before they bring in the saving power of Jesus.

It has certainly had its place in the past. Perhaps it still does. In years gone by, the church has acted as a moral guidepost of society. In a post-modern world, and what some would call a post-Christian world, this is not a place we occupy anymore. Does it mean that preachers should no longer use sin as a means of converting people to the gospel? Certainly not.

Does it mean the word ‘sin’ no longer belongs in the modern vernacular? Also, I’d say, certainly not. I have three reasons for this:

  1. The word ‘sin’ is related to ‘wrongdoing’, ‘crime’, ‘evil’ and ‘unethical.’ These words cover, in part, what sin is. They are very present in the modern world, as is a (largely) shared concept of what is just and unjust. For the life of me, I can’t find the most perfect CS Lewis quote that summed up how this, rather than a look at nature or the stars, was a better proof of the existence of God – that this idea of right and wrong is engraved deep within all of us. But it was a beautiful and poignant quote that showed just how the knowledge of good and evil, fruit of the first sin, is still with us and thus the latter is still pervasive – even when one does not believe in God. You don’t need to believe in God to know when something is wrong. You don’t need to believe in Him to feel guilty over not standing up for a bullying victim, or for cheating or stealing. Its there in all of us.
  2. The other part of sin’s definition is simply not measuring up to the standard of a holy, perfect God. By virtue of this, by virtue of our very humanity, we are sinful. I don’t believe we should feel shame over this. We should just accept it, that there’s no way to be superhuman, and to thank God for the grace that covers our sin and allows us eternity with God anyway. So we need to stop thinking of sin as pure evil. We need to start thinking of it more as a fact of life, a part of humanity – one remedied by Jesus and only Jesus. So sin doesn’t just mean the heavy things (like evil). It also means imperfect. It also just means human. We aren’t God. Who knew?
  3. The presence of sin (the second part of the definition provided in the first paragraph – that of not measuring up or of missing the mark) does not exempt us from doing our best, even though it will never be as perfect and superhuman as God. It simply means we do what we can, knowing Jesus is the One who covers the shortfall.

I don’t think we should be offended when others take issue with the presence of the word ‘sin’ in the Christian vocabulary. Ask them for their definition of right, wrong, good, evil, success, failure, ethics – you’ll see that sin consciousness is there. The rest, I believe, is just semantics.

The preachers of old used to use ‘sin’ as the thing to illustrate our need for God. For me, there is a fine line between illustrating how Jesus is the only one who bridges the void and scaring people into a fear-based Christianity. When I look around me these days, I see enough fear. I don’t think we need that. But if some people feel lead to preach fire and brimstone, good for them. There’s a time, a place and a scenario which calls for that (I’m sure!)

It’s not my call. You won’t find me on a street corner reminding the world, yet again, what my read of the Bible condemns. You’ll find me loving people and doing the best I can when it comes to showing the love of Christ while examining my own faith and making sure I do the best I can when it comes to emulating the red letters.

The last thing I’ll say is this: “For we know that our old self was crucified with Christ, so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” Romans 6:6-7

If you are a Christian who, like me, found yourself fumbling through a fear-based faith – breathe easy. According to Romans 6:6-7, you’re exempt. You aren’t exempt from doing your best to ‘bear fruit worthy of salvation,’ but you are exempt from the penalty of sin. Do your best. Live a good life, knowing Jesus sacrifice both covers you and empowers you (Matthew 3:8, Philippians 4:13) But don’t stress out if you fumble. You are free.

But still. No orgies, okay.

One Comment Add yours

  1. I think this is such an important question, because I think how we think about sin influences how we interpret Jesus and the cross, and as a result, shapes how we respond to others. If it is true that we can be known by our fruit, then I think the violence and bigotry and judgement that so many have and are experiencing, and which is legitimised under the banner of the Christian church, speaks ultimately to an erroneous definition of sin.

    It seems to me that when Paul wrestles with the idea in Romans, he treats sin as an anthropological principle more than individual acts of transgression. Sin, for Paul, I think, is not so much a problem about individual moral consciousness as it is a problem about how society configures itself, as that plays out in individual relationships. I like Denny Moon’s definition of sin, which I got from one of my favourite theologians, Michael Hardin: sin is the destructive way in which we handle our pain.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You are inspirational.


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