The Problem with Sin
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about--but not before God. What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:1-3 NIV).
I used to be a teenager. True, it was a long time ago, but I still remember vividly some of the questions about the Bible that troubled me back then. This may come as a surprise, but teenagers have a spiritual life and they really do think about God. Moreover, their questions are important to them. Sad to say, they are too often left unanswered. Faith may survive, but it often gets badly bruised along the way.
I remember as a teenager wondering about some of the stuff I heard from the pulpit and in Sunday School. For example, I heard that it was impossible for man to keep the law of God perfectly. Then I wondered (but I never asked anyone), why would God give man a set of laws he cannot possibly observe, and then punish him for not observing them? Don’t think that is a straw man. That assertion is still rattling around in the minds of many.
I understand grace. I understand what Paul meant when he said, “by grace are you saved.” But if you think about it long enough you will realize that doesn’t answer the question. Why do you even need to be saved? Why doesn’t God just write your sins off the books with the observation, “Oh well, they couldn’t have kept the law anyhow”?
My parents didn’t punish me for not doing something I couldn’t do. If they gave me a rule and I broke it, at least it was a rule I could have kept if I tried. And the punishment fit the crime. They weren’t cruel to me. The worst I ever got was a few swats on the behind. I survived.
But my question about God remained over the years: “Why would God give man a set of laws he could not possibly observe, and then punish him for not observing them?”
I don’t remember when the answer occurred to me, but in time I came to realize that my question made the assumption that the Law of God was arbitrary. That is to say, the law depended on the individual discretion of God for enforcement and for punishment. But then I realized there were, in fact, two assumptions. One, the law was arbitrary and could just as easily have never been imposed. (It follows naturally from the assumption that the law could be set aside). Two, the enforcement of the law depends on a sovereign act of God. In other words, God can let me off or punish me at his sole, subjective discretion.
But what if my assumptions were wrong? If they were, then there were two conclusions that might follow. One, the law is not arbitrary after all but arises from the nature of things, the nature of man in particular. Two, the violation of the law has inexorable consequences, great and small, that do not depend on the action of any enforcing authority. One of the consequences can be death, but even that doesn’t require an act of God. It can come about as a result of alienation from the source of life.
There is a biblical word for this. The word is “sin.” John defined it in simple terms: “Whoever commits sin transgresses also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4).
Paul, I think, clarified the issue somewhat: “Now we know that what things soever the law says, it says to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Romans 3:19). Now at first blush, this sounds a little like my first assumption: i.e., God placed everyone under a system of law designed to ensure that everyone becomes guilty. But that doesn’t make sense, and I don’t see that Paul means that. He went on. “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”
Now it begins to come clear. The point of the law is not to create sin, but to make us aware of sin. There are a lot of issues in life that have negative consequences that we might not know about, so God tells us what they are. Paul continued: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify” (Romans 3:21 NIV).
That is a surprising statement, when you think about it. Not a few Christians assume that righteousness “apart from the law,” is a New Testament thing—that righteousness prior to the New Testament came by the law. But Paul said that righteousness “apart from the law” is witnessed by the law itself (and, incidentally by the prophets). How does the law do that? It presents us with two steps.
Step number one: Faith. You have to believe God. How hard is that? Here is an Old Testament witness from the Book of the Law:
And God brought Abraham outside, and said, “Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.” And he believed the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness (Genesis 15:5-6).
You can’t get any more Old Testament than this, and it is stunning in its simplicity. God makes Abraham a promise of incredible scope, and Abraham does something almost as incredible. He believed the promise. The implications of this are that Abraham, believing that what God said was true, would order his life to align with that belief. This is what led Paul to write what he did:
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:21-23).
So, step one is to believe God, in particular the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Step two is to restore the relationship with God that was damaged by sin. Somehow, in the process of thinking this through, it became obvious to me that the law is about life. Thus, the law is complicated and difficult because life is complicated and difficult. The law was given, not arbitrarily, but as a description of the things that hurt people and destroy relationships.
Is the Law of God beyond our reach? No, not in any of its parts. We don’t have to steal, but we do. We don’t have to lie, but we do. So what is it about sin that is so bad? The problem with sin is that it is a relationship killer. It alienates. Take adultery as a classic example. An indiscretion like adultery is like taking an axe to a tree and cutting great chunks out of it. Even if the adultery is undiscovered, the relationship is damaged, sometimes beyond repair. And it isn’t only the relationship with the mate that is damaged. The relationship with God is damaged as well.
Sin involves alienation from God. There is no better illustration of this than the story of Adam and Eve. The happy pair were placed in Paradise, and given very simple instructions: You can eat of all the trees in this garden except one. Leave it strictly alone. How hard could this have been? All they had to do was believe God. Think about it. God said that if you eat of this tree, you will die. If they had really believed that, would they have eaten of it? Would you? What they did was a breach of trust. What is your reaction when someone won’t believe you, won’t trust you? Doesn’t it damage the relationship? Or at least reveal that the relationship is already in trouble?
I went on for years accepting a simple equation from the Garden of Eden. God gave Adam one commandment. Don’t eat of that tree. Adam broke the commandment and God expelled the first couple from the garden. Then one day, I was studying the Book of Hosea and found that God, through the prophet, condemned the men of that generation and saying this of them: “Like Adam, they have broken the covenant—they were unfaithful to me there” (Hosea 6:7 NIV).
A covenant is not mentioned in the creation story, but it is implied. God gave Adam a commandment and presumably Adam agreed. Then, he broke covenant with God. This seems to be a much more serious matter than for a person to sin when not in covenant with God.
So Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And they died. But here is what is interesting about this story. God did not kill them. He simply separated himself from them—and incidentally, cut them off from the Tree of Life. What this says to me is that the result of this sin was not punishment from God, but the consequence of being alienated from God.
This is underlined by what happened when Cain killed his brother Abel. God did not kill him either. He exiled him. And Cain, and all the rest of the children of Adam and Eve, died. They died because there were away from God—the source of all life. This is what the “fall of man” is all about. The result was, I think, not so much a change in human nature, but a change in man’s environment and a loss of man’s relationship with God. If you read the Genesis story with that in mind, it is clear enough right there. There is not a word about a change in the nature of man, but much about the change in man’s environment—particularly his alienation from the source of life.
So, we return to the Apostle Paul to see how he develops his theme of sin, law, and reconciliation. Here again is where we started:
Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:19-20).
Christians need to understand that this is not merely a New Testament idea. Men were not justified by works of the law in the Old Testament, and then by faith in the New Testament. Remember, Abraham was said to be righteous because he believed God. This is justification by faith. The evidence of that belief and the covenant that grew out of it is described thus: “Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Genesis 26:5). First came faith, then came obedience. Paul went on:
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:21-22).
There is an important distinction to be made here. We don’t need Adam’s sin to make us guilty. We have all sinned. But there is more:
Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God (Romans 3:23-25 KJV).
All die because all have sinned, and the way back is closed. What is needed now is reconciliation—a reconciliation we cannot accomplish on our own. Remember, there are two different results connected with sin: consequences and punishment. Justification, by definition the remission of sins past, occurs through the forbearance of God. Because we believe, he restores the relationship and punishment is suspended.
But that says nothing at all about the consequences of sin. Let’s suppose you go out on the town with the guys and have too much to drink. Then you compound the error by driving your car. On the way home, you go to sleep at the wheel, veer off the road, and roll your car. In the accident, you lose your left arm and nearly lose your life. Where are you now before God? You sinned. You alienated yourself from God (no one likes to be around a drunk except perhaps another drunk). You broke man’s law and will be charged with a DUI. Upon repentance, God will forgive you. But he won’t give you your arm back, and he will let the courts deal with your DUI offense. Justification, then, is the forgiveness of sin and the restoration of the relationship with God that was severed by your sins. But justification has nothing whatever to do with the natural and civil consequences of sin. There is no promise from God to deliver you from the con-sequences of the things you we do. Jesus said as much:
Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing (Matthew 5:25-26 KJV).
And so, Paul summarized his argument thus:
Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law (Romans 3:28-31 KJV).
That makes a great deal of sense. Just because God forgave you for driving drunk, does not suggest that it is now okay for you to do it again. No, if you believe God, then the Law of God is established in your eyes. This section of the letter to the Romans is a comprehensive theology of sin and justification. To make his point, Paul went to Abraham.
What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness (Romans 4:1-3).
At first blush, it seems strange to think of Abraham as needing any justification, but he did. Paul said so. And how was he justified? He believed God. There is nothing new at all in the idea of justification by faith. There has never been any other way. Paul continued to explain why it must be so:
Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness (Romans 4:4-5 NIV).
Paul then called on David for a further explanation, but when he did, he raised yet another issue. He cited David thus: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him (Romans 4:7-8 NIV).
I am often asked about this last statement. To some, it seems to say that sin does not matter for some men, because God doesn’t impute sin to them. But sin does matter because the consequences of sin are not repealed. A man who is in a faithful covenant with God, who believes God, may sin through error or weakness. The grace of God will cover that. But it is a terrible error to presume on that grace and thus break covenant with God.
When David is brought into the story, we learn some interesting things. David is described as a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). Yet David’s sins and errors are prominent all through the story. As if that were not enough, there is this statement of God to Jeroboam: “Yet thou hast not been as my servant David, who kept my commandments, and who followed me with all his heart, to do that only which was right in mine eyes” (1 Kings 14:8 KJV). Anyone who has read the story up to this point is likely to get whiplash. David? Kept the commandments? He did a fairly thorough job of breaking the seventh commandment, and that wasn’t all he did.
So, how can God say that David did only that which was right in God’s eyes? There is one very important difference between David and his son, Solomon. In all of David’s life, he never had any other God than Jehovah. Thus, the way back, the way to repair the breaches, was always open to him. And when one repents and turns back, God says he will never remember our sins. But God help the man who presumes on God’s mercy and grace.
Now Paul had to deal with the burning question of his time, the conversion of the Gentiles. The people he was writing to in Rome were, for the most part, Jewish Christians, people who had perhaps been converted on a trip to Jerusalem. Paul knew a number of them by name and was well acquainted with the house churches in Rome. So, Paul asked these people, what about the Gentiles?
Comes this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision (vv. 9-10 KJV).
So justification by faith in the Old Testament did not require circumcision. Why should anyone think it does now? You would think the simple logic contained in that statement would have settled the issue at the Jerusalem conference, but for some it did not. Paul was still dealing with this issue among Roman Jews, and he had already addressed it with the Galatian Gentiles.
Circumcision, for Abraham, was a sign, a token, which followed on his justification and his covenant with God. Paul said that God did it that way to make Abraham the father of all who believed, circumcised or not. Paul went on to point out that the promise that was given to Abraham and his seed did not come through the law, but through faith.
In both Testaments, the word for “sin” is derived from a verb which means “to miss.” That is to say that one misses the standard God holds up for us. But in common English usage sin means: “Actions by which humans rebel against God, miss His purpose for their life, and surrender to the power of evil rather than to God.” It seems to me that this goes too far, because there are sins small and sins great. There are sins mortal, and sins venial. There are sins of error and there are high-handed sins. These are dealt with in different ways.
Perhaps the classic example of this is the judgment of a man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath day. What is often overlooked is that this story does not fall in a narrative of Israel’s travels. It falls within the laws dealing with sins of ignorance:
One and the same law applies to everyone who sins unintentionally, whether he is a native-born Israelite or an alien. But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or alien, blasphemes the LORD, and that person must be cut off from his people. Because he has despised the Lord's word and broken his commands, that person must surely be cut off; his guilt remains on him (Numbers 15:29-31 NIV).
This is followed immediately by an example: the man who gathered wood on the Sabbath day. Thus, one can conclude that this was not a sin of ignorance, weakness, or unintended. It was a defiant sin. Remember, no man could be punished without due process. Had he been gathering sticks because it had suddenly turned cold and his wife was in labor, the judgment might have been different.
There were sins that separated a man from the community, and sins that cut him off from God. The problem with sin is that it breaks covenant with God. Sins of ignorance can be covered by the grace of God as a result of simple belief. I found an online statement about sin that was interesting:
Sin is a term used mainly in a religious context to describe an act that violates a moral rule or the state of having committed such a violation. In monotheistic religions, the code of conduct is determined by God. Colloquially, any thought, word, or act considered immoral, shameful, harmful, or alienative might be termed “sinful.”
The word, “alienative,” is important. Sin alienates man from the relationship. God’s forbearance, his grace, tolerates the sin up to a point, but will not tolerate just anything.
In Judaism, sin is the violation of divine commandments. Western Christianity, much like Judaism, regards sin as a legal infraction. But Eastern Christianity (Orthodox) looks at sin as it affects relationships. In other words, they see it as a breach of covenant.
Sin is the transgression of the law, undifferentiated. That is to say, not this or that category of law, but law as the underlying principle of right conduct. Sin alienates man from God. Not because of God’s anger, but because we are simply drawing away from him.
In what sense is man “fallen”? Every man is fallen, as Paul put it, because “all have sinned.” I don’t think we are born fallen, except in the sense that we are born away from God. But then, we exercise our independence and draw further away from God. According to Paul, sin entered the world by one man, and death passed upon all men because “all have sinned.” Death passing on all men is what I understand by the term “fallen.”
The theologies of sin and justification are so convoluted, it is small wonder that people are confused. Is there a fundamental difference between justification and reconciliation? That long discussion of Paul’s in Romans is where the answer can be found. First, Paul concluded that no one can be justified by the deeds of the law, because that is not what the law is for. The law is intended to convey the knowledge of what sin is (Romans 3:20).
Paul then proceeded to define what it means to be justified. One is justified by grace, freely, through Jesus Christ whom God set forth as a redeemer, to grant “the remission of sins that are past.” Later, Paul will conclude:
For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement (Romans 5:10-11).
Paul commonly made a play on words, and there is one here that the King James translators obscure. “Reconciled” is a verb. “Atonement” is the noun form of the same verb. Even without a knowledge of Greek you can see the relationship between the words: katallasso and katalagge. The NIV gets it right:
For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Romans 5:10-11 NIV).
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