For most Christians I know, the doctrine of sin has a significant impact on how we view ourselves, others and God’s interaction with us: sin is breaking God’s moral code; sin separates us from God; all of us have sinned; Jesus died to forgive our sins; and on and on. Yet I am not entirely sure that most of us really understand what sin is and how it impacts our relationship with God.
It is easy to understand sin as violating a statute of some divinely mandated moral code. And that has a certain amount of appeal. So long as I know the code and am obedient to it, all is well. If I violate the code then I am guilty and am on God’s bad side. Unless of course I only violate a minor statute, or one that everyone else also does. But is it really that simple?
The divine moral code that most Christians like to point to is the Law as defined in the Torah, the first 5 books of the Old Testament. That none of us even make any attempt to follow it is besides the point. We, I believe correctly, eliminate the sacrificial aspect of the law as something fulfilled by Jesus. We also eliminate the dietary laws, many of the social regulations and the holy days; claiming that only the moral component has any relevance for us today. But I suspect that few who really know the requirement of the ‘moral’ part of the law would really want to be under it. After all, who is in favor of either killing a rape victim or making them marry their attacker? When it comes down to it, we really only follow the parts of the Law that fit within our current ideas of right and wrong.
James further complicates the issue of sin when he says, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (James 4:17 NIV) According to James, sin is not just doing something wrong. It is also not doing something that you should have done. If I have it in my ability to help someone, and don’t do it, then I have sinned. We sometimes call this a sin of omission, and while acknowledging it as being bad, we generally don’t pay nearly as much attention to that as to the sins of commission. Actually, for the most part we ignore the omissions, and hope that God does as well.
To make this even worse, Paul tells us, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23 NIV) While Paul is specifically talking about eating meat sacrificed to an idol, in more general terms he is addressing what he calls ‘disputable matters’, things that are neither moral nor doctrinal issues. These things are generally OK to do, unless you have some doubt about them, in which case it becomes sin. So, something that is just fine for me to do, might be sinful for you to do.
Clearly this issue of sin is more complex than simply failing to follow a specific set of rules. Is it possible that God is looking for something more from me than just living a ‘good’ life? Jesus answers that, at least in part, when he says
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23 NIV)
Many will stand before God at the time of judgement and express to him how good their lives were, only to be sadly, and eternally, disappointed. Doing good things is not enough. From what Jesus says, he is looking for those who do the will of the Father. Following a set of rules, or laws, is not sufficient. Submission to the Father is what he expects from us. In many ways submission is much harder than following a checklist of rules. With the later, I know what is expected of me and, so long as I follow those rules, I am free to be who I want to be. But with the former, my life is no longer my own; I have surrendered it to another, to do whatever they want me to do. And finding out what that is may be challenging, especially since it may not be the same for me as it is for you.
Now, to be sure, living a good life here is a part of submission to God’s rule. Peter tells us to, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12 NIV) But here, living a good life is not just following the rules; it involves doing good deeds. Lots of people do a pretty good job of faithfully following the rules provided to them. We are to distinguish ourselves from them by making a real difference in the lives of people we come into contact with. So much so, that those we encounter will ultimately glorify God because of us.
The primary Greek word used for sin in the New Testament writings is hamartia (ἁμαρτία), an archery term that means missing the mark. When I fall short of full submission to God, I have missed the mark, I have sinned. Now I will be the first to admit that I fall way short of full submission to God; that is so contrary to my own selfish nature, and I sincerely doubt I will ever manage it. So it is hopeless; am I doomed to be rejected by God? I don’t believe so. Paul gives me hope when he says
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14 NIV)
Paul was striving for the righteousness that comes from faith, but recognized that he had not yet reached his goal. But that was still his goal and he was striving to attain it. And that is mine as well. Don’t let your past failures or successes impede you. Keep your focus on the prize set before us. And when you fall, get up, put your hand in his, and press on.
One final note. Submission can leave a bad taste. Too often it implies being under the thumb of another. And while submission to God is indeed the surrender to one who is much greater than ourselves; the purpose is to develop relationship with my creator and God. It is by submitting that I truely come to know him. Sin destroys that. Submission restores it.