Ten thoughts on the subject of sin

Simone wrote about a post church conversation last night (in real life) that was a continuation of a couple of posts from Simone and Kutz (part one), (part two). I’ve spent today trying to articulate my position on sin. It’s not like Simone’s (looking to the new creation to resolve sinful desires) nor is it like Kutz’s (looking to the original created order to salvage the good thing that sin twists). I don’t tend to analyse my sin. I find that can be pretty crippling.

Here are some of my thoughts about sin in list form…

  1. I think sin, by definition, is our expression of autonomy. It’s our rejection of God’s rule. It’s disobedience. It’s not meeting God’s standards. I think the last one is the key – if we do something that doesn’t meet God’s perfect and holy standards – as he as described them to us – then we have “sinned”.
  2. I think there are different values to different sins – I know some have interpreted passages to suggest that all sins are equal. I think all sins are equally deserving of condemnation – but I don’t think all sins are equal in badness. There are sins with external victims – these sins require an extra level of repentance because you should, I think, repent to the victim as well as to God, and there are sins that are essentially internal matters for you and God to deal with. Let me give an example, when you commit some form of idolatry, putting something else in God’s position – you are wronging God, but no necessarily other people. But when you murder someone you not only commit an act of disobedience to God, you not only commit an act that effects the victim, you commit an act that has multiple effects for the victims family – you cause them to sin as well – they will no doubt feel malice, they will probably curse God for letting you take their father, husband, or son (or mother, wife, or daughter). You rob these people of a significant other. Some actions carry with them many sins, others do not. All sin is worthy of death and judgment when God, the holy, holy, holy God sits in judgment and judges by his holy, holy, holy standards. The accumulated sin of a lifetime is a pretty massive barrier between us and God.
  3. I think the language of conflict between our new nature and our sinful nature, our flesh and the spirit, our slavery to sin and slavery to righteousness, are all Biblical analogies for the same internal struggle that occurs, and will continue to occur, until the new creation. We’ll never – no matter how mature we become – rid ourselves fully of the taint of sin. Which I think even spreads to our good, righteous and obedient actions.
  4. I think trying to determine whether an action is “sinful” or “Godly” in and of itself is almost a complete waste of time. A conversation sprang up about whether being drunk is a sin the other day. I think it is. I think eating fatty food is probably a sin. I think drinking instant coffee is a sin. I pretty much think that everything we do, stemming from our sinful nature, is a sin. We can eat fatty food for God’s glory, but I tend to think if we’re not eating it specifically for his glory, but rather for our own purposes, then that’s an expression of our autonomy. I’d pretty much say that I think everything we do is tainted by sin. Even the good stuff… even the God stuff. I think this is part of the battle between our sinful natures and our new spirit enhanced natures.
  5. I think it is more helpful to think of sin in terms of nature than actions. Sinful actions are those things we do that are born out of our sinful nature. The Bible certainly spells out that certain actions are sins. Both sins of comission and omission.
  6. Almost all “Godly” actions can be sinful. I’m thinking of the way Jesus talks to the rich young ruler – even keeping the rules isn’t enough. We’re sinful by nature, and we never meet God’s holy standards. We can not possibly do so. We’re wired to sin. I think sinful actions are actions born out of our sinful nature – and I think Godly actions are actions born out of the spirit working within us (and those “good” actions performed by non-Christians are as a result of God’s spirit working throughout humanity in the guise of common grace).
  7. I think even when we are obedient to God we are obedient in an incomplete way – I think this is the picture we see with Israel and its inability to ever meet God’s standards completely. It’s important that we, as God’s people, seek to be obedient. Even if we know we’ll do it generally, but not specifically.
  8. When confronted with a decision our job is to try to discern the obedient, or most obedient option. Some decisions will in fact be decisions between two equally tainted options. An extreme example would be a choice between lying to save the life of one’s child (or an innocent) or giving them up and becoming complicit to whatever happens as a result of your taking the moral high ground. Life is full of impossible decisions, because everything is tainted by sin.
  9. Sin sucks. I hate its effect on the world, on relationships between people, and on myself. I don’t wallow in my sin because I realise it has been paid for in full. I realise it’s inevitable. And I realise we’ve got a job to do. So I’d rather just get on with that job. Without distractions. Without paralysis by analysis. My job is to try to be obedient to God wherever possible – and I think the point at which this obedience is most important is the Great Commission. I think any Godly living is Godly living for the purpose of winning the lost, more than for the sake of redeeming myself (either bringing myself closer to the pre-fall or new creation versions of me).
  10. Because I see sin as an inevitable product of our sinful nature I’m not keeping score as though God is Santa Claus. I’m not wracked with guilt. My debt has been paid. While I am pursuing holy living, maturity and ongoing “sanctification” (though I think technically sanctification is part of the package with justification that occurs at salvation) I don’t do this by dwelling so much on the times I miss the mark, I do this by getting on with the job. I love Luther’s “sin boldly” quote from a letter to a guy named Melanchthon (included below). This translation is slightly different to the one I’d originally heard.

If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.


AndrewFinden says:

in regards to #3 – even if we were to determine that something is good or godly, like helping the homeless or something, unless we do it out of faith in Christ, then it's sinful. That's the ironic thing about it – as soon as we try to do good things for the sake of being good, it becomes sinful.

Nathan says:

I'm a fairly late arrival to the Queensland scene. And I think (other than geographically) I'm about as Sydney Anglican as they come…

I agree on the emphasis thing – I didn't like the "rebellion" language, I think the barrow I'm pushing is that sin is "natural" to us. It's our default. And it is so default that it actually taints even our righteousness. I don't look at bad acts to understand where the good bit is that has been frustrated (like Kutz and Simone) – I think part of maturity is recognising out sin, and its consequences in others (and repenting) – but my starting point isn't trying to salvage something from every action, it's just getting on with the job of trying to glorify God (through obedience and pursuing righteousness), trying to "make disciples" and expecting that I'll have to fight my sinful nature every step of the way.

Stuart says:


I think you've gone wrong at point 1, and most of the other errors flow from there. Point 1 is an important one to make in a cultural context where you've got a bunch of religious or nominal Christians. It's the point we needed to make when John Chapman was out evangelizing people in the bush in the latter half of the C20 — the same time Two Ways to Live was written. We've focused on sin (or rather, one image of sin, among the Bible's dozens), and forgotten about sins.

The problem is, once you've got a Christian subculture who believes this, it seems to become almost impossible for people to repent of any specific sin (e.g. "I lied to you. But I don't need to repent and make restitution — I repented back in 1986, and Jesus has forgiven me.").

And the flipside is that people won't commit to specific acts of righteousness, even though that's why God saved them (Ephesians 2:10). As 'sin' becomes an abstract, metaphysical thing, so 'righteousness' becomes an abstract, metaphysical thing — (merely) something we have in Christ, and not something we do.

If you'd like a Biblical defence of this, I've done a brief one here: http://www.matthiasmedia.com.au/briefing/library/

Stuart says:

P.S. I think point 7 describes a very unusual situation in the world :) Mostly the hard choices I have are about which good thing to do, not which bad thing!

Nathan says:

Actually – Stuart – your first comment reminds me of a pretty key point that I missed. This will now be ten thoughts on sin.

Also, I'm glad people out there disagree – it means this position is not as obvious as I assume it is…

I don't think that your flipside necessarily follows the starting assumption that we can't help but sin.

I think righteousness is a natural result of the spirit and we are called to fight the sinful nature. And avoid committing the actions that the sinful nature leads to. And we should be living by faith (which is the basis for any righteous acts).

I think your flipside only applies if you take the example of a really dumb, fundamentalist approach to this understanding of sin. That position, to this doctrine of sin, is to this position what hyper-Calvinism is to Calvinism.

I got in a bit of trouble the other night because I was forced to defend my position at the extremes – I don't think this is helpful. I don't think there is any position that can healthily be taken to an extreme except a position that makes me smaller and God bigger by comparison. This is one of the problems I have with both Simone and Kutz's positions – the way I read the positions (and I might be wrong) makes the individual's significance greater in the scheme of things.
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Stuart says:

You and I have come out of different church cultures, so I'm not assuming that our errors (and sins) will be the same. But in my church culture, at least anecdotally,* I've spoken to a number of people who think that they are miserable sinners who can never change, and so they feel no need to fight against the flesh in the concrete details of daily life. They can correctly answer the Evangelism Explosion questions about being allowed into heaven, and that's the main thing. (I had one of these conversations just yesterday.)

Correspondingly, the only real way to love people is to preach the gospel to them. So we don't talk about loving unbelievers; we talk about 'pre-evangelism'.

In this context, 'godliness' is exhausted by reading the Bible, praying, church attendance, and speaking to people about Jesus. If you're a really keen Christian, you go to Bible college and become a paid pastor.

There are no doubt a bunch of theological errors in this view, but I think a big part of it comes down to an exclusively voluntarist or attitudinal (and hence metaphysical) view of sin and righteousness.

*Actually, as I think about these things, it's not just anecdotal: I can point you to articles on, say, The Sola Panel or in The Briefing which espouse these views.

Nathan says:

Stuart, I'm curious as to what you think the church culture I have "come out of" is. I suspect the differences in our heritage aren't as dramatic as you'd imagine.
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Nathan says:

Stuart, I'm curious as to what you think the church culture I have "come out of" is. I suspect the differences in our heritage aren't as dramatic as you'd imagine.
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Nathan says:

I suspect too that in order to properly cover the topic of sin I'm going to have to cover the topic of righteousness in a similar manner. To do one without the other leaves a rather anemic view.

I would suggest our efforts at each item from the following list are just as likely to be sinful as they are to be righteous:

"In this context, 'godliness' is exhausted by reading the Bible, praying, church attendance, and speaking to people about Jesus. If you're a really keen Christian, you go to Bible college and become a paid pastor."

In fact I'm pretty sure they will be tainted by sin, because I think total depravity extends (in that the taint of sin extends) to those who have the Holy Spirit.

And I don't know anybody who says godliness is exhausted by those things rather than "demonstrated" by those things.
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Stuart says:

I'm just confessing a general ignorance about anything outside my little circle, and not wanting to assume that you think the same way as the people I know. Others have told me that (at least certain pockets of) Queensland evangelicalism have been infected with some of Sydney's peculiarities, but I don't want to assume that's you.

I guess I'm just wanting to maintain the focus on the fact that different pastoral contexts are going to require different emphases. And while an emphasis on the 'rebellion' image of sin is healthy and necessary in certain pastoral contexts, I think it's actually harmful in mine because of how exclusively it is held.

Stuart says:

1. Ah, yes. This question of whether acts are sinful or not probably lies at the heart of a real disagreement over voluntarism. Sin and righteousness aren't just about the heart of the person doing them. They're not just about motivation. They also involve concrete acts. (Again, in my article from The Briefing article to which I linked before, I've cited Scriptural examples to show that God cares about what we do, not just about our motives.)

2. When you say, "I don't know anybody who says godliness is exhausted by those things rather than "demonstrated" by those things," I quite agree. That's precisely what people say — in theory. But it's as much about what people don't say. That is, if you keep giving those four 'demonstrations' of godliness in your sermons, and fail to give any other examples, then in practice you think that godliness is exhausted by those four things.

And then you meet guys whose marriage is falling apart, and they say, "I don't understand! I do my quiet times every day and I've really been trying to tell my co-workers about Jesus." (I haven't had this myself, since I don't really know any men who work regular jobs, but it has been recounted to me by reliable witnesses.)

Stuart says:

I found a germane book review I wrote a few years back of Know and Tell the Gospel. Here's an extract:

‘Receiving Christ as Lord’ is left curiously abstract throughout the book. Chapman states that it should issue in godliness and ‘doing good works’ (124; citing Eph 2:10), but this is (thrice!) concretized as reading the Bible, praying, going to church, and evangelizing (124, 145, 202). Although he states that to ‘grow like Christ is to be truly human’ (141), there are no specific examples of this in a book that is otherwise notable for its helpful use of anecdote and suggested applications. Indeed, where godliness is mentioned, it seems not to be an end in itself, but rather for the sake of evangelism (51–56); ‘living Christianly’ can even be described as ‘indirect evangelism’ (116–117); ‘doing good to all people’ is exemplified by introducing them to Christ (211); to ‘grow like Jesus is to love people and to seek ways to bring the gospel to them’ (211–212); the good order of society is for the sake of evangelism (214).

While a reader with a more extensive knowledge of Chapman’s life and preaching will know that he is personally committed to righteous living, those who come to this book without such knowledge should hardly be surprised to see the earnest endeavours of certain sectors of Sydney evangelicalism to ‘save souls’, coupled with some neglect of generosity and of broader justice concerns.

simone r says:

This is fun. I'm a little busy but will get to this asp.

[…] I’ve been reading posts by Peter (here & here), Simone (here & here), Nathan (here & here) about the nature of redeemed humans and their struggle against sin and their striving […]

[…] a little prooftext that fits in nicely with my “everything is sin” framework. Romans 14:23b in particular. 22So whatever you believe about these things keep […]

Lee Shelton says:

Paul is clear that "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (Romans 14:23b). That means even the Mother Teresas of the world are guilty before God if what they do does not proceed from faith in Christ. That's a sobering thought.
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