It is impossible to live the Christian life, to follow Christ, without talking about sin. To the extent that the church forgets to discuss sin–to define it, explore its intricacies, to unpack the devastation it does in our hearts–to that extent, the church fails in one of its most essential tasks, making disciples.
It’s difficult to image why there is such a silence about sin. It’s not as though there is nothing bad happening in the world. Far from it. It’s not as though the Christian church neglected to provide a substantial body of writing, reflection, practice, and counsel on the matter. The Bible itself contains explorations of the sin–what it is and how it is part of the life of Christians and those who are not Christians.
Emerging from that we have the reflections of the Fathers of the Church–their thoughts about sin, self, and Christ issuing from the battleground of the human soul. We Protestants have the writings of Luther–extolling the liberating power of free grace–and the fiery logic of Puritans like John Owen who remind us precisely how fundamental sin is to the human condition.
One possible reason for our silence about sin is our faith in technology. Jacques Ellul, the french Reformed philosopher, wrote extensively about the impact that technology and technique have upon the human experience. In his book The Presence of the Kingdom he explores the way in which technology over-promises and under-delivers. In short, our blind faith in technology leads us to believe that sin is not real or, to the extent that it is, it can be overcome.
Everything evil in the world is, in some degree, a product of sin. And that the world continues to exist in its fallen state means that, at least for now, God actually wishes that we do battle with sin and with temptation. It could be otherwise should God wish it. This recognition is important because it reframes our lived experience of following Christ. We tend to think of the Christian life as a journey, and it is, but its a certain type of journey. It’s not a walking holiday in the countryside. Instead, it’s a quest. An against-the-odds errand to reach the Celestial City, the life which is to come.
So what is sin? The best definition I have uncovered comes from the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” [Q/A 38] Sin then finds its very definition in relationship to God and to revelation rather than in its relationship to culture or to norms.
Central to understanding sin then is God. Not just any God, but the God who has chosen to reveal himself in Holy Scripture. The Bible explains sin certainly, most often in the context of showing us what the results of sin are in the lives of saints and of the covenant community.
One of the most helpful treatises on sin is that of John Owen who was Dean of Christ Church, Oxford and later Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford. It’s original title was, I believe, Indwelling Sin in the Life of the Believer. Since its original publication, it has appeared in various forms. The version I’m referring to is Sin and Temptation: The Challenge of Personal Godliness. James M. Houston, ed. (1986).
Especially pertinent to any discussion of sin is Owen’s reflection on Romans 7:21
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.
Owen points out that indwelling sin is a law. That is, sin is a “directive rule” or “operational principle” that works effectively in believers causing us to do evil, especially when we wish to do good. Sin is an inclination–like the buckled floor of an old house. Place a ball anywhere on the floor and the incline will pull the ball in the same direction. So sin tends to exert a force on us pulling us in the direction of that which is contrary to the law of God. (Owen, 4). While sin is present in the life of the believer it is not an absolute law:
Although the law of sin is in believers, it is not a law to believers. Nevertheless, even when the rule of sin is broken, its strength weakened and impaired, and its root modified, yet it is still of great force and efficacy.
It’s important for Christians to know this about sin. If we ignore this then we will tend to think that sin is simply a concept, a theological construction and one that may be outdated. Instead, sin is a principle that is at work–albeit in a limited and ultimately futile way–in us. As Christians we are given the Holy Spirit (who is said to “indwell us”) in order to provide the remedy to this sin that is also at work in us.
How often do you think about sin? How to you understand sin and how to work against it?