The Problem with Sin

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In christian ministry and evangelism there are few things that cause people to glaze over, shut down and check out as much as talk about “sin”. Especially if we are referring to them having any sin or being a sinner. 

Sin is an offence to modern sensibilities because it stinks of repression and accountability to something beyond ourselves. Sin no longer makes sense to our modern ears! It makes no sense to people who have been told they are the masters of their own destiny, the arbiters of their own truth and creators of their own identity. How on earth do you talk about the seriousness of sin and the offence it is to God in a way that cuts to the heart of the modern hearer. 

For me this is no academic conversation - it is a constant source of wrestling. Particularly now in the run up to easter as I prepare a sermon series helping the church to understand the nature of the atonement i.e. what did the cross of Christ achieve? But here’s the rub - the cross is incoherent without a robust understand of what sin is and why it matters. So how can I help people see that the sin they deem as insignificant and of little consequence actually sent Jesus to the cross of calvary? 

Sin as Lawlessness or Idolatry

When it comes to articulating the essence of sin people have tended to fall into one of two camps. Sin is lawlessness or sin is idolatry. On the one had sin can be seen as rebellion against God, breaking his laws and not meeting the objective standards of morality that he has set. In my experience this has tended to be the line more preachers have taken and to be honest it has a lot to commend it. It’s biblical (always a good start), the man and woman are commanded NOT to eat of the fruit tree in the midst of the garden and yet they do - they contravened God’s law and are deserving of punishment. We might call this the OBJECTIVE aspect to sin. 

And yet there is more going on isn’t there? Sin isn’t merely law-breaking, it is an attitude of the heart. It is wrongly ordered love. The woman saw that the fruit was a delight to the eyes and good for food. Here the woman has a desire; dare I say, a good desire - the desire for food and nourishment. However this desire has become corrupted and directed away from God and what he says. 

I am not making the case that Gen 3 makes a comprehensive case for idolatry but I think the seed of that poisonous tree is planted in these verses. Clearly as we move through the Bible we see that wrong actions come as a result of disordered affections. We love, esteem and value (that is, we worship) created things more than the creator (Rom. 1) and what is the result? We suppress the truth because of our unrighteousness, calling evil good and good evil. Or in Jeremiah 2:13 God’s people are longing for something to quench their thirst (a right desire) and yet they turn to cracked pots instead of the fount of living water. 

This is the SUBJECTIVE aspect of sin. Why subjective? Because it damages the subject - You don’t get your thirst quenched. Idols promise life and deliver death. Porn addiction promises intimacy and delivers isolation; it promises potency and delivers weakness. Why turn from sin in this view? Because it’s killing you, it’s killing your relationships with others AND your relationship with God. 

This is what we see in Romans 1. Our truth suppression and idolatry result in a kind of de-creation. We no longer think rightly (debased mind), we no longer love rightly (contrary to nature) and we no longer do what is right. The effect of our sin is that we become less human. 

However, here’s a potential problem with the subjective view of sin - coming from a young pastor who has been banging that drum for years. People can lose sight of the fact that sin is first and foremost an offence against God (Psalm 51:4 against you, you only have I sinner and done what is evil in your sight). Why? Because it robs God of the glory he deserves. Back to Jeremiah 2, HE is the fount of living water - he WILL satisfy the longings of your hearts (subjective) and he DESERVES to be recognised (worshipped) as the only one who can do that (objective). 

It is necessary to view sin as both an offence against God (objective) and dis-integrating to us (subjective) in order for the Atonement to fully make sense. If we diminish the objectivity of sin too much we begin undermine the cornerstone of the atonement - that is - Christ punishment-bearing, wrath-diverting death. “He bore our sins in his body on the tree”. He drained the cup of the wrath of God reserved for me. As a result we are objectively justified, declared innocent. Moreover the dis-integrative effects of sin have been shattered and a new man is being made in place of the old. 

As we think about how we communicate what sin is I think it is important to reflect on the question, which do you emphasise more? The objective or the subjective and perhaps it needs to be tempered with the other? 

Sin as self-love

When talking about sin most people default to actions - doing “sins”. But the Bible categorises sin not in terms of actions rather in terms of a condition. It is a state humanity finds itself in that results in wrong action. 

For a while now my go to definition of sin is that it is “self-love”. This comes originally from Augustine and later Luther who both talked about humanity has being incurvatus en se - “turned in on ourselves”. For me this encapsulates well both aspects of lawlessness and idolatry. Our love of self leads us ultimately to contempt of God which is expressed in disregard for his decrees and wrong worship. 

It is easy to think of self-love simply as pride. Humanity’s over-reaching and grasping to be “like God”. This is true and we see signs of this hubris everywhere in the world around us. Self-aggrandisement is obvious and noxious to those around.

However, not so obvious but just as toxic is that sin is not just pride but sloth - i.e. a failure to fulfil our duty as human beings to God, one another, and the creation. Sin isn’t just arrogance it’s self-loathing. It’s not just loving wrongly but failing to love rightly. Failing to be moved by the plight of another because of our own introspection or even self-abnegation. 

We might think about it in terms of the fight or flight reflex. 

Fight is railing against God, arraying ourselves in hostility against him and his anointed (a la Psalm 2). This warfare manifests itself in lawless deeds, celebration of evil, injustice, oppression or simply the steady cold self-determinism. But it is also flight. Running from God, hiding from his searching call and from our obligations to love him as well as our neighbour. 

So, you see both our prideful grasping to be “like-God” and our abdication of responsibility as human beings are expressions of what it means to be turned in on ourselves.  

Sin as moral vandalism  

Recently someone asked; why is my sin so bad that Jesus had to die for it? 

Here is my attempt at an answer:

Sin isn’t just what you do or think or say - it is a condition of the heart, a disposition of the soul. We are turned in on ourselves, often failing to see beyond our own desires, needs, pursuits. Sin causes us to gaze inwards both in love and in loathing. It convinces us that we are better than others but it can also paralyse us with fear and self-doubt. It stops us from truly, selflessly, loving one another. That is why sin is self-love. It is what causes us to use people for our own sense of self, approval, pleasure or success. It blinds us to their needs, makes us envious, apathetic or inert in the face of their suffering. It means we give our time and our money to things that don’t fulfil us - we chase pleasure only to be left empty, we pursue escape only to be discovered once again. 

But this is not what we were made for. We were created by God of selfless love in order that we might selflessly love him and others. It is under his good rule that we are made to live and to find in him the satisfaction of the deepest longings of our hearts. But we have corrupted that love by turning it inward, shunning God’s good rule, seeing it as oppressive, cruel and unjust. Our self-love has led us into contempt of the one in whose likeness we are made. This contempt is expressed in our valuing, esteeming, worshiping something created more than him - the creator. This can be our own intellect, sex, money, power, comfort, success. In the end we look to earth for the things only heaven can give us. This drive away from our creator turns each of us into moral vandals. SIN IS MORAL VANDALISM. We have been placed in a world that God owns and in a body he crafted but instead of flourishing by listening to him and living in accordance with his good rule, we have become vandals. We wilfully damage ourselves, our world and those around us and it is precisely because God is a God of love that his wrath is kindled against this. 

God loves the world he has made and so is justly angry at our vandalism. 

God loves other people, made in his likeness, and when we harm them his anger is aroused as an expression of his love for them. 

God loves us but we are like addicts wilfully destroying ourselves. God, because of his love is angry at that destructive behaviour in the same way that the parent of an addict might be angry. 

But what does the God who is love do when he sees the beloved in this condition? 

He bends towards the earth and becomes and man. He lives the life of perfect love that we could never live. Not just to show us how its done but to do it for us. More than that, he says: 

  • I will take your alienation and give you connection

  • I will have my identity obliterated so that you might know who you are in me

  • I will bear the punishment for your vandalism in order to bring you back to your God

  • I will die your death and give you life 

This is what Jesus does on the cross, he takes our self-love, our noxious pride, our self-loathing, our railing against the God who is worthy of our worship and he dies. He takes our sin and plunges it down to the hell it deserves and then rises again to give us newness of life.

May God renew our minds to grasp the depths of our sin and the heights of his grace toward us in the cross of Christ. 


Mark Smith