Thursday, July 05, 2007

What is Sin?

An action or a thought is sinful to just the degree that it impedes humanity's approach to God. The effects of some sins are primarily upon the ones who commit them. They constitute harm done to the self. The effects of others are primarily upon others, though every sin has an effect upon the self. In my case, the sin of anger seems primarily to effect myself; it does have an effect upon others, but since I largely hide my anger that effect is small in comparison to the effect upon me. On the contrary, my predilection to attend to my own work and ignore my wife and children is a sin that most effects others.

Contrast this definition of sin to one on which a sin is, in essence, a rebellion against the just authority of God. On this second sense (an illegitimate sense, say I), we treat God's authority over us as foundation, and upon it construct our definition of sin. God's authority is the fact, basic and underived. Sin is the failure to give that authority its due; it is the failure to, as it were, bend the knee to it.

Thus to justify my definition of sin, I must turn to the issue of divine authority. Is it, as the second definition assumes, basic and underived? Or is it perhaps to be explained in terms of something yet more basic? Here I think that the analogy of parental authority is helpful. Parents of course do have authority over their children, and this is not merely a fact but is how it ought to be. But is this authority legitimate simply because the parent is the parent and the child is the child (as some suppose that God's authority over us is legitimate simply because God is God and we are His creatures)? Or is it to be explained in terms of something more basic? Surely the latter. The authority of parent over child derives wholly from the need of the child for care and the parents' natural position as those best able to render up that care. But to give care is of course to love. Thus legitimate authority has its roots in love, and in the case of God's authority over us, it has its roots in our need for God and in God's desire to fulfill that need. (Do I need Biblical justification of this view? If so, it is found in those many passages where we are told that the essence and foundation of the law is love.)

Thus we return again to the first definition of sin. We need God, and God desires to fulfill that need. If not for the Fall, that need would have led inexorably and without pause to union with God. But we sin and thus fell, and our fall is a retreat from God.


C Grace said...


"An action or a thought is sinful to just the degree that it impedes humanity's approach to God."

I've been wrestling with trying to find a good definition for sin that escapes the sinkhole of the legalistic conception of God's economy. I had gotten around to seeing that God's wrath and His love are basically one and the same thing. His wrath is always wrath against that which separates us from Him, and is a working out of His passionate love for us. In fact the Hebrew word for wrath also means jealous anger. I had not yet figured out a good way to define sin. Thanks!

Franklin Mason said...

Actually the last of your posts at Contemplative Traditions put me on the trail of this definition.

I would suppose that God's wrath is like the good parent's wrath. A good parent becomes angry at a child only when she does something she knows is harmful, either to herself or to others; and that anger is an expression of the parent's love. The wrath of the parent might seem terrible to the child. I would suppose that if the child's act was sufficiently dangerous, it should seem terrible. Only then will it make a deep impression. But this does not change the fact that it is an expression of love. Love sometimes hurts; it hurts so that a far greater pain might be avoided.