I recently had to write a short 3-4 page paper on sin for theology. It is such a vast and complex topic that I really felt inadequate writing on the subject. This is the tension of being a seminary student and future graduate. A certain level of authority is/will be given to you, even though your learnings have lead you to a realization that you know absolutely nothing. You realize you are no authority, and yet by title, people will treat you as though you are. Anyways, I’m still waiting to get the paper back, and I’m fully expecting the TA to dissect it thoroughly while providing lots of feedback and questions. Here are my humble offerings…
There is an old Hungarian proverb a friend of mine shared with me a few years ago. Adam ate the apple, and our teeth still ache. The topic of sin has troubled humanity ever since the fall. As culture continues to shift, each generation is left to make sense of a definition of sin handed down by its predecessors in a new context. For centuries, theologians have debated on various aspects of sin in their efforts to develop a definition. However, despite their disagreements one common theme continually shows up in their writings. At its core, more than moral and value judgments, sin is an assault on God and the calling into the relational fullness we experience with him. By examining the language surrounding sin, the activity of sin, and how sin affects the human condition, we can arrive at a view of how sin attacks the very nature of our being as people in relationship with God and with each other.
In Sins of Praise: The Assault on God’s Freedom, Alistair McFayden argues, “Sin is an essentially theological language.” In other words, the language of sin becomes irrelevant when discussed apart from God. In order for someone to have sinned, there needs to be someone or something to have sinned against. As a result, the language of sin and any subsequent discussions involving sin must inherently refer to the Holy One. In doing so, the language of sin is held in conversation with the language of relationship, namely, our relationship with the triune God.
The understanding between the connection of sin and relationship forces one to reexamine their understanding of freedom. Traditionally, freedom has been described as one’s will to choose. However, such language places our will in opposition of God’s will. In this view of freedom we move away from relationship with God, which results in a “distorted worship” of our own autonomy that can be viewed as idolatrous. Thus, human freedom becomes an attack on God’s freedom and sovereignty.
McFayden suggests a reinvented understanding of freedom can begin with the incarnation. The incarnation demonstrates God’s active involvement in our lives. McFayden writes, “We may have willed to be without God, but God does not will to be God without us.”
Christ’s death and resurrection demonstrates God’s unwillingness to cut off connection with humanity. Thus, freedom becomes highly personal and relational. God freely chooses to be with humanity, and affirms humanity’s freedom by inviting us into relationship and dialogue with him.
The relational characteristics that must be held in conversation with the language of sin demonstrate clearly how sin is a denial of God, and hints at how such a denial negatively affects our own being. The relational nature inherent in the discussion of sin is further understood when we look at the activity of sin.
An examination of God’s law demonstrates how the activity of sin results in an assault on relationship between God and humanity. Marguerite Shuster writes, “The law is the way that the will of God confronts us.” Shuster’s interpretation of the law suggests that there is a relational nature inherent in it. Her suggestion is further reinforced through her use of scripture. In Matthew 22, Jesus declares the greatest commandment to be “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Therefore, the breaking of the law is the breaking of relationship with God and consequently the breaking of relationship with other people.
In this light, sin’s attack on relationship leads us to the discovery of its affect on our condition, that is, the breaking of relationship signifies the denial of God and choosing of the self. Dr. Matt Jenson uses the Augustinian imagery of being curved in on oneself. He writes, “Instead of ordering everything to its fulfillment in the triune God, humanity curved in on itself short-cuts that flow and re-wires things for its own ends.” Shuster describes the bending in on oneself as “self-centeredness.” Our self-centeredness results in a failure to love. As we choose in favor of our own ends, we fail to love God and we fail to love others.
Another consequence of our self-centeredness is a failure to live into the glory of our humanity. Shuster argues our humanity is defined by the relational need we were designed with. To be in relationship with God and relationship with other is what makes us human. The curving in on oneself results in the loss of our humanity. Thus, sin diminishes us. Jenson elaborates on this point by arguing our self-centeredness creates a greed for things that were never ours to begin with. As a result, we miss out on the blessings God has in store for us and we lose the opportunity to be a blessing to others.
By examining sin in conversation with our relational nature, I might suggest that the beginnings of a doctrine of sin should be three-fold. First, sin is a denial of God. In a relational context, sin is disobedience. It views our freedom in opposition with God’s, and prefers our way to his. Second, sin is the denial of others. Sin involves the process of turning in on oneself. It creates a self-centeredness that voids our humanity of a love for our neighbors. Finally, sin is a denial of us. The preference of our way over God’s is a contradiction to the relational nature we were created with. As we draw into ourselves, we cut off relationship with God and each other. In doing so, we deny God’s blessings for us and rob ourselves of the ability to be a blessing to others. As a result, we fail to live into the glory God intended for his creation.
Traditionally, conversations about sin have devolved into conversations about morality and values. An understanding of the relational implications as a result of sin, elevates the discussion above such pitfalls. Ironically, such a strength can be viewed as a weakness when conversations on sin are held in tension with conviction. In order to navigate this topic, it might be beneficial for further work on sin to be held in conversation with Christology. By holding sin in conversation with an understanding of our relational nature as well as an understanding of what it means to be Christ-like, one might begin to understand conviction’s place as it relates to sin.
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