It used to be easy to say what is sin. Then Jesus came along and messed it all up.
What is sin? In the old days it was easy. There was Hebrew law, and whatever was against Hebrew law was sin. The end. Theoretically, if you knew the law, you could follow the law and poof! No sin. If you didn’t
follow the law, there were human consequences— anything from offering a sacrifice to stoning at the city gate. By the time Jesus was born, the teams were well established: sinners on the left, self-appointed righteous on the right, and let’s not think too much about the parts of scripture that say things like, “they all have turned away” and “no one does good; not even one.”
But then, everything changed.
Suddenly there was a prophet running around performing miraculous signs and wonders, only instead of saying the things he was supposed to say— like, “The love of God is upon the righteous, the pharisees; but the tax collectors and prostitutes will know the bitterness of his wrath,”— it was just the opposite. To the righteous he was saying, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” while to the sinful it was, “Then neither do I condemn you.” To make matters worse, he said, it’s not just about human consequences any more, now it’s about all eternity, and once again, the worst news is for the A-students: “How will you escape being condemned to hell?” and “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
What happened? What about those super clear bright-line laws, given to Moses, enduring for thousands of years? A big part of the last 23 books in the New Testament are an extended effort to try and thrash out an answer to that very question. Christ exhaled grace and truth together as naturally as the air he breathed, but the rest of us have been struggling with it for thousands of years now. Here are three things that, in our times, I think we tend to forget:
- The law isn’t “whittled down”; it’s all or nothing
- Sin still exists and does damage
- There is no more bright line
Not whittled down
I sometimes hear Christ described as if he were some sort of “book-keeper in chief”. Like his coming to earth, his sinless life, his death and resurrection, all amount to some grand simplification of the tax code: strike a few confusing line items over here, close a few loopholes over there, shake out the dead wood, and there you have it: the “new law”. It’s basically the same arrangement as before, but now it’s non-Christians on the left and Christians on the right, and list of stuff we gotta do is somewhat shorter.
He didn’t come so we could go on condemning others and congratulating ourselves: he came to show us that in God’s eyes, we are all the same.
The problem with this line of reasoning is, Christ didn’t come to shake up and simplify the tax code: he came to abolish taxes. He didn’t come to whittle away at the law and make it easier to comply: he came to set us free from the law. He didn’t come so we could go on condemning others and congratulating ourselves: he came to show us that in God’s eyes, we are all the same.
That the whole law is still in effect, we have abundant evidence in scripture:
- For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law. (Matthew 5:18)
- For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (James 2:10)
- Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ. (Galatians 5:3-4)
That we are free from the whole of it is also well supported:
- It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)
- Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:2)
Many of us live as if we are free from certain sections of the law, yet hold condemnation in our hearts for those who transgress against other sections of the law. In so doing, if we believe that only certain sections of the law are still “in effect”, then we ourselves are transgressing pretty seriously against one of the major points of Christ’s message.
The sin is still out there
The Hebrew laws are a favorite objection to Christian faith, because the world has changed a lot since they were written and few take the trouble to ponder how they would have sounded, or what they would have meant, to the original audience against a backdrop of Hammurabi and Draco (of “draconian justice” fame). But what’s clear to me when I read them are the grace notes of protection from the things that can harm us here on Earth.
Even though most of us no longer live under those laws, the potential for sin to harm us still carries all of its full force. For me, the entire initial draw of Christianity was the news that another way was open to me than the one I’d been on, that I could be free from the monkey of sin on my back. When scripture records Christ talking to a sinner about their sin, I’ve been there, and I can sometimes feel the waves of their relief rising from the page.
Far from the antagonistic talk of damnation and hellfire that many of us imagine, when done the way Jesus intended, a talk about freedom from sin should be a time of rejoicing for all concerned, as it was for Zacchaeus the tax collector, or for the woman at the well, or for the woman accused of adultery, or for me.
In my view, Christ urges us to help our brother remove the speck from his eye, not to make him more acceptable to God, but because having a speck in your eye is painful. And the process of having it removed is, in the main, a tremendous relief. If it turns into a combative process fraught with resistance, antagonism and hostility, it might be time for the doctor, not to blame the patient, but to question whether she’s doing it right.
No bright line
So, back to the original question: how do we know what is sin? So many of us want to answer this question with reference to Hebrew law, or some subset thereof. We have been trained to think that way by our culture and our pastors and our own study of scripture. But there are only two ways to reference Hebrew law:
- Certain whittled-down parts of it, which scripture does not support as discussed above, or
- All of it, which none of us live by.
Instead, the same New Testament scriptures that free us from the law give us some new ways of understanding what is sin:
- Sin is whatever causes damage
“By their fruits ye shall know them,” says scripture. It’s talking about false prophets in Matthew, but it’s just as applicable to us (Luke 6:45) and our actions (Galatians 5:19-23). If something in your life is producing a harvest of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, then you want to think about that when evaluating whether it is a sin. Contrariwise, if it is producing hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like… well, then you want to think about whether it needs to go, no matter how outwardly pious it might seem.
- We each determine what is sin for us, and it’s nobody else’s business
People get really mad about this one. You hear terms like “accommodating the culture” and “being lukewarm for the gospel” and “moral relativism” and so on. But for people who are mad about this way of defining sin under the new covenant, your beef is with folks like Paul and James:
– “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God… everything that does not come from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:22-23)
– “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (James 4:16)
I think the point of all of it is, there’s no more room for the pharisees among us in God’s not-so-new economy. If you want to know what is sin, it’s many thousands of years gone by since it was as simple as finding a verse and then pointing a finger.