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Crucial words in the Christian Vocabulary: SIN


Mark 7:14 -23        Genesis 3:1-7     Romans 1:28-30     Ephesians 2:1-10

Some people enjoy restoring antique automobiles. Some people enjoy driving them. Most of us enjoy watching others drive the antique automobiles which they have restored. We smile when we see an antique car chugging along in the village parade. But none of us would want to contend with rush hour traffic or a highway trip in an antique car.

Yet this is what the church persists in doing, many people tell us, whenever the church speaks of sin. Surely the notion has been antiquated, we are told. Surely it belongs to the era of the Model “T” Ford. Let’s be honest: outside the community of faith the notion of sin, the word “sin”: these are out of fashion. How did it all come to be unfashionable?

   For one, thanks to some zealous but uninformed Christians sin came to be associated with innocent pastimes, like card playing or dancing or theatregoing. To speak of such matters as sin is ridiculous.

For another, sin became associated with lurid immorality, with a degradation (admittedly) that was also secretly coated with juicy, lurid lewdness. Since very few people are luridly immoral, and since no one will admit to finding it juicy, few people today understand sin as pertaining to them at all.

Finally, sin was rendered unfashionable by the self-confident secularism of our society. Years ago a European who thought autosuggestion to be the key to self-improvement urged people to say repeatedly, “Every day in ever way I am becoming better and better.” We smile at the naiveness, even the arrogance. Yet we smile too soon, for any society that worships the myth of progress (and the myth of progress is the mirage that North Americans chase) most certainly believes that it is getting better and better. We shall progress, we are told, only as we jettison such antiquated encumbrances as sin.

Nevertheless, the church, in her singing, preaching and praying continues to use the word. Profounder people among us won’t let it drop. Karl Menninger, internationally known psychiatrist and founder of the Menninger Clinic in Kansas , has written a thoughtful book, Whatever Became of Sin? Paul Tillich, philosopher and theologian, said in an interview for Time magazine, “For twenty-five years I have tried to find another word for ‘sin.’ There is no other word.”


[1] Since the community of faith isn’t going to drop the word, we should be sure we know what it means. Sin, at bottom, is as simple as it is dreadful: sin is simply telling God to “buzz off.” The telling may be explicit and conscious. More often, in fact nearly always, it is implicit and disguised because unconscious. It makes no difference. God is told to get lost. He claims us for himself. We say, “Leave me alone.” He insists that he wants only our blessing, and the obedience he wants from us will prove to be our blessing. We reply, “Everywhere else in life obedience is something we have to render a boss we can’t stand. Why should we think you are different?” He grounds his claim upon us in his love for us. We say, “I didn’t ask for your love. Furthermore, I resent your love; it’s an intrusion; I want my life to be mine.” The root Sin (and the fountain of all concrete sins) is a self-important, proud posture of defiance, of rejection, of disdain and disobedience. The posture pretends to be a sophisticated looking past God born of a sufficiency without God. Our sufficiency, however, is only a ridiculous figment of our imagination, and our innocent sophistication in fact culpable contempt.

We read children’s stories where someone highborn, aristocratic, sets out on a walk. He steps around peasants and paupers, disdaining them. From his position of aristocratic aloofness he never really sees them, never takes note of them, never engages them, so far beneath him he does he find them to be. As the children’s story unfolds one of the peasants or paupers was in fact a prince or a princess. The aristocrat’s proud aloofness, his groundless superiority, has caused him to forfeit something precious. Men and women strut like aristocrats disdaining the God who in his Son is lowly and humble, the God whose condescension to us for our blessing we regard as weakness in him. In our posture of proud aloofness we do not apprehend the God whose coming among us at Christmas and Calvary through peasant woman and cattle poop and criminal justice system is so very ordinary. When he does plant himself in front of us and presses both his love and his claim upon us we dismiss him: “Out of my way, ordinary fellow.” At bottom is our self-important posture of repudiation, rejection, dismissal – of him.


[2] What are the consequences of this posture? The first consequence, obviously, is estrangement from him. God isn’t indifferent to our postured superiority. He reacts. He thrusts us away from him. He won’t allow us to denounce him, defy him, and at the same time remain on casual terms with him. On account of his judicial reaction to our disobedience an abyss opens between God and us. The one who is eternally Father now looks upon alienated sons and daughters. The rightful ruler sends away rebellious subjects. Created to be God’s covenant-partners and co-workers, we relentlessly conspire against God and his truth. We sabotage God’s work. We deafen ourselves to God’s word. We trade on God’s kindness – or think we can.

The second consequence is estrangement from our fellows, those who were given us to be our brothers and sisters. When I was very young and warring with my two sisters my mother would say in exasperation and bewilderment, “Why can’t you just get along?” Why couldn’t we? Why can’t people throughout the world, in any era or culture, “just get along”? A Samaritan woman says to Jesus, “You are a Jew. I am a Samaritan. Samaritans and Jews: we get along like cobra and mongoose.” The first question in scripture is addressed to Adam and Eve, every man and every woman, after they have alienated themselves from God: “Where are you?” God says. The second question in scripture is addressed to Cain after he has murdered his alienated brother: “Where is your brother?” That’s a question God is forever asking all humankind all the time: “Where’s your brother? Where’s your sister?” An abyss has opened up between those given us to be brothers and sisters with the result that we are all hauntingly estranged from each other.

If the sociologists could eliminate the social conditions that are the occasion of human conflict (I said “occasion” not “cause”) would we then be living in a utopia? Tell me: if the Garden of Eden were reconstructed and repopulated would we all then be living in Lotus Land – or would we wreck the garden (again)? There can be no utopia just because improving our social environment may change the expression our sin takes but it won’t change us profoundly; it may change the manifestation of our sin but won’t eliminate sin itself. For the cause of humankind’s wrecking itself is that profoundest inner disorder rooted in our defiance and disobedience concerning God.

The third consequence of God’s judicial reaction to our root sin is alienation from ourselves. An abyss opens up, somehow, between me and myself. You see, God can always be refused. Still, our persistent refusing him doesn’t change the fact that he has made us for himself and therefore we are going to be most authentically human, most authentically our “self” only in him. To refuse him is always somehow to refuse ourselves. To be estranged from him is to be estranged from ourselves. To think we can get rid of him but continue to possess our “self” by means of our “self” – this is folly twice over. The self we’ve lost can’t be the means to possessing a self we are trying to find. It’s no wonder we are chronically discontent, dis-eased, ill-at-ease, self-alienated. It’s no wonder we keep asking “What’s wrong with me?” when in fact everyone is suffering from the same ailment for the same reason. It’s no wonder we keep trying to anaesthetize ourselves with adult toys and trinkets and playthings. Yet every so often the anaesthetic breaks down and we are startled to find “it’s still there” – the haunting, non-specific but undeniable apprehension that there’s something of the innermost “me” that I’m missing yet can’t quite find.


[3] Do you think this sermon is a “downer?” Have the last ten minutes been pessimistic and therefore depressing? Then what I’m going to say next should send you home rejoicing: “Today’s sermon is the most optimistic I have ever preached.” Why? Because the most optimistic thing to be said of any of us is that we are sinners.

If we don’t say that we are sinners then what expression are we going to use to describe, ultimately explain, the outer and inner wreckage we can’t deny? Are we going to say that humankind is sick? But “sick” has dubious connotations today, and they aren’t going to help us at all. Besides, if humankind as a whole is sick, then are there some among us who are considerably less sick than the rest and can therefore “cure” everyone else? The history of the world tells us that whenever a group in any society thinks it can “cure” everyone else it behaves with conscienceless savagery. On the other hand, if we say that there’s no privileged group in the society that can cure the rest of us, then there’s no physician adequate to our disease; there’s no physician with curative powers equal to the disease.

At this point someone will want to say that the problem lies with the word “sick” as a diagnostic tool. Instead of regarding humankind as sick we should regard ourselves as socially maladjusted.   To speak of ourselves as socially maladjusted, however, is to invite social engineering. The last ninety years, from the October revolution in Russia to the current situation in China and North Korea , from Germany of 1933 to Apartheid’s South Africa ; this period alone has told us as much as we want to know about social engineering. In any scheme of social engineering the “engineers,” the “answer” people, will insist upon the right to enforce their social solutions. They can only put us on the road to totalitarianism. The safest thing to say, because the truest thing to say, is also the most optimistic thing to say: we are sinners.

Let’s examine this assertion more closely. When we say that humankind is a sinner we aren’t using “is” in the same way as when we say a horse is four-legged. When we say that a horse is four-legged we mean that a horse is supposed to be four-legged, has to be four-legged. It was never meant to be anything else and is never going to be anything else. But when we say that we are sinners we are saying just the opposite: we are sinners but we aren’t supposed to be. We are sinners but we were never meant to be. We are sinners now but by God’s grace we shan’t be.

To say that we are sinners now is to say that we have falsified ourselves somehow, but by God’s grace we can recover our true identity. We can recover what we were made to be. Our capsized situation can be turned right side up. Most gloriously, it can all begin now.

Now you understand why it is optimistic to speak of humankind as sinner but pessimistic, hopeless and dangerous to speak of humankind as sick or socially maladjusted. Under God we can begin our journey toward the destination to which we’ve been appointed – which is nothing less than the overcoming of alienation everywhere in life: reconciliation with God, with our fellows, with our innermost, profoundest “self.”

Many times today we have used the word “alienation” to describe the threefold consequences of our root rejection of God. Think for a minute of what it is to be an alien. An alien is someone living precariously in a country to which he doesn’t belong, living precariously in a country of which he isn’t a citizen. Since he isn’t a citizen he lacks the rights and protection of citizen; he can be deported at any time. To be a citizen, on the other hand, is to belong, to have one’s life unfold in the security that one isn’t going to be deported. To be reconciled to God, and thereafter to fellows and self, is to know that we belong. It’s to know that life “fits.” The most optimistic diagnosis is that we are sinners, aliens, for only as the diagnosis is owned are we going to ask, “How do I become a citizen?”

How do we become citizens of the Kingdom of God ? The Apostles’ Creed gathers it all up in one pithy sentence: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” To believe isn’t to add an item to our mental furniture, even an item of furniture called “the forgiveness of sins.” To believe, rather, is to entrust our entire future to the One who comes to us as Saviour and wants only that we trust him to save us.

Let’s return to the optimism of the diagnosis. Optimism, if it is to be genuine optimism and not mere wishful thinking, has to be grounded in realism. The realism of the human predicament is that we are sinners before God. The optimism of the human predicament is that we have been appointed to embrace our Lord who is also Saviour just because the forgiveness he pronounces he also effects. As we are forgiven and know ourselves forgiven, our reconciliation with God begins to effect reconciliation everywhere in life.

Think of the Samaritan woman in John 4. As a Samaritan she’s alienated from Jesus, a Jew: ethnic alienation, virulent today. As a woman she’s alienated from him because he’s a man: gender alienation, virulent today. As a five-time married woman who is currently shacked up (what’s the point of getting married a sixth time?) she’s alienated from Jesus because he’s sinless: moral alienation, virulent today. Because of her reputation she’s alienated from her townspeople (that’s why she’s at the well by herself at high noon when everyone else indoors seeking shelter from the heat): social alienation, virulent today. Jesus presses upon her the living water, the profoundest thirst-quenching water, that he himself is. In that moment, without ever having heard of the apostle Paul (who isn’t even an apostle yet), she understands what Paul means when he comes to say that forgiveness is nothing less than resurrection from the dead.


The church is entrusted with the message of forgiveness, just because the church, the Christian community, consists of those who have tasted forgiveness themselves. We know what it is to have been an alien and what it is now to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God . We know what it is to have many-faceted alienation give way – or at least begin to give way – to a many-faceted reconciliation. We see the folly and the ridiculousness of pipsqueak human beings who tell the creator of the cosmos to “get lost.” We see the folly and ridiculousness of it, but we don’t laugh at anybody who still lives there, because we once lived there ourselves. By God’s pardon, however, we have been brought from death to life, from darkness to light, from sinner to sinner forgiven. And we know that one day we are going to stand without spot or blemish before our great God and Saviour.


                                                                                                       Victor Shepherd                                                                                             

February 2004