What is “Sin”?

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5 Responses to What is “Sin”?

  1. Ken Kroeker says:

    liberation at last….. freed from sinful notions of sin. Thanks Michael, well said.

  2. Michael Pahl says:

    I had a comment from a friend on Facebook that I thought offered a good question, so I’ve copied his question and my response:

    His comment: “Nice piece. The times I’ve read arguments like these they often feel motivated by a hidden goal, like altering the traditional list of sins. Including some more, or excluding previous understandings. I trust this isn’t your motivation, but simply to have a more biblical view. What do you make of biblical notions of sin that don’t neatly fit into your suggested sin-as-harm model (eating strangled meat, eating meat sacrificed to idols, forms of sexual immorality where there is consent).”

    My response: “Thanks for the comment… I hope it’s evident from the blog post that I’m not trying to get humans off the hook for sin. I’m simply trying to give an account of sin that is both “biblical” (in quotes because it’s such a slippery, oft-abused term) and fits with common human experience. Tradition is also in there – as I was writing I had conversations in my head both with “traditional lists of sins” (not sure if you meant biblical lists or things like the “seven deadly sins”) and with notions of sin like Augustine’s “disordered desire/love.” As for your question, I think this idea of sin-as-harm actually helps illuminate some of these things. For example, eating meat sacrificed to idols: Paul is clear in 1 Cor 8-10 that this is not in itself sin, since idols are really nothing in the world and meat is meat; yet it becomes sin when that action causes harm to another believer, encouraging them to eat idol meat against their conscience. Or the sexual immorality where there is consent: adultery, for example, is between two consenting adults, yet there is harm caused at least to their married partner(s). Of course, this idea of sin-as-harm does create questions about some things we have traditionally identified as “sin,” and at the very least can force us to think carefully about what is actually “sinful” in some of these instances.”

  3. Michael Pahl says:

    Another comment on Facebook worth reproducing here: “[You say,] “‘Sin,’ then, is really about ‘harm’—harm to oneself, to others, to the rest of creation, and ultimately, to God.” I had trouble with the inclusion of God in this statement. The way it reads to me, is that God is harmed by our sin. I know through Christ’s suffering and death, he endured harm, but it was by his choice, and to fulfill the requirements of the law. Also, to harm, is to cause an effect or change. Our sin cannot change God, not like it changes us. I must have a different definition of the word harm.”

    My response: “I understand—I had trouble writing that! I debated whether to describe God as “harmed” by our sin, but decided to keep that in. A general definition of “harm” is to “have an adverse effect on.” It’s hard for me to read biblical descriptions of human sin “grieving” God (e.g. Gen 6:5-6 or Eph 4:30), or of the pathos of God’s pleas to Israel in her sin (e.g. Hos 11), or of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44), and not think that our sin “has an adverse effect on” God. I imagine this as the “harm” experienced by an artist when her creation is damaged, or the “harm” a parent experiences when her child is harmed by another—or does harm to another in defiance of the parent’s wishes. The notion that God is not affected by things we say or do, neither experiencing pain nor pleasure because of our actions, is called “divine impassibility,” and the idea that God does not change is referred to as “divine immutability.” It seems to me that if we’re going to take these biblical descriptions of God seriously—not to mention the incarnation and the cross—then at the very least extreme notions of divine impassibility and immutability don’t work. God in Christ became something that God previously was not, and God is affected—adversely—by our sin.”

  4. Michael Pahl says:

    Another comment on my Facebook post questioned my description of sin, pointing to several biblical texts that together could be taken to indicate that for sin to have occurred the following must have been present: 1) There must be a law of God (Rom 4:15); 2) we must know the law by having been taught it by others, by the light of Christ, or by the Holy Spirit (Acts 17:24-30); 3) we must have the ability to keep the law – we must be free of constraint and have the mental capacity to understand the meaning of our actions (John 9:41); 4) and then, knowingly, we must do the forbidden act or fail to perform the action we are commanded to do (1 John 3:4; Jas 4:17).

    Here was my response: “Some good thoughts there, especially on “culpability” for sin. And I agree that we are only culpable or blameworthy for our sin when we have freedom to act/not act and knowledge of what our actions/inaction could bring about. Intentionality plays a part in there also, though in at least some instances one can still have a degree of culpability for one’s sin even when the sin is unintended. My concern was more with the “inner workings” of sin itself, not how we determine whether or not someone is culpable for their sin. And I should say that not all of those biblical texts are the most helpful for your point… For example, on the first item with Romans 4:15, Paul is speaking there about the Law of Moses, and he’s pretty precise with his language: without law there can be no “transgression,” no “overstepping of bounds,” no “crossing the line” of the law. Sin cannot be called “transgression” if there has been no “law” to transgress. However, as Paul goes on to say in Rom 5, there was in fact “sin” before the Law of Moses – e.g. 5:13, “sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law.” Paul’s statements in Romans are part of a much larger argument regarding justification and (especially) the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God, so they need to be read in that larger context.

    “I could add that this kind of approach to “sin” is in fact one I am concerned about – tying “sin” to a list of specific divine commands and then leaving it there. But we need to make a distinction between “sin” and “culpability” or “guilt.” Focusing on our culpability for sin, as if that is itself what sin is, can make us obsessed with “guilt” (both avoiding it ourselves and assigning it to others) and make us blind to the wider harm our sin can cause and blind to the full and flourishing life God wants for us (which is not simply a “guilt-free life”!). Many Christians live as if Jesus only came to deal with the guilt of our sin, when in fact he came to deal with sin itself.”

  5. Great discussion, Michael. I really like what you say. My reading of Romans 5 is similar to yours. Thank you!


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