Now here is one subject that can get a little uncomfortable for people. That is, the reality of sin and the knowledge of its consequences. Now in our western society we can have a hard time with this topic because we are constantly messaged that feelings of guilt are bad and that with the right medication you can get assistance in chasing these guilty feelings away. Unfortunately, these mind-numbing tactics are simply a band-aid approach in the overwhelming reality that we say, do, and think things that hurt people and separate ourselves from them. We also do the same in our relationship with God.
Before we get too far into this topic we should define what we mean by sin because perhaps there are some reading this that do not understand what sin entails and why sin matters at all. In Jewish history, namely the book of Genesis in the Bible, the first mention of sin is in Genesis 4:7 when the Lord speaks to Cain about his offering to the Lord. The Hebrew word chattaah or chattath from the root chata, means to miss, an offense. It’s been used as an archer’s term for missing the mark. Of course if you miss the mark, that implies there is a bullseye. Interesting that the same Hebrew word for sin can also mean sin offering, implying for every sin there must be an offering for it. An offense requires a penalty. This is important to remember as we continue.
We have knowledge of this in our own lives with our interactions with others. In fact, if you are anything like me we end up hurting the people we love the most. But is it just socially unfashionable behavior, or is sometimes our behavior truly wrong? And if it is, do we come to a knowledge that we’ve committed an offense, a trespass of that person? Is there anyone reading this who hasn’t asked for forgiveness for something you’ve done? Why on earth would you do that? I would venture to say if you are truly sorry for something you’ve done, you know at heart you’ve committed an offense on that person, a trespass. What are some of the consequences of this? I’m sure we can think of many. So why does this trespass matter and why is there a penalty associated with it? The answer fortunately is very simple. It is sin, and for humans, it is in our nature and not something we can shed from us. It is with us every day, in all the decisions we make when we put ourselves first over others. Think about this, if you have never thought you have sinned in your life, then you will hopefully have never asked for forgiveness or said you were sorry. If you have done this, you are a sinner and there are consequences to this. Again, as we continue let’s try to be honest and imagine what a world would be like without consequences for bad behavior.
The first recorded act of sin is in the first book of Genesis where Adam and Eve both sin against the commands of God, thus inheriting a penalty for their actions. Now it’s not important at this time whether you believe in the literal, historical story of Adam and Eve or not. Let’s take an agnostic approach and say it’s just a story to teach a lesson. Fair enough? Why is understanding sin and the penalties associated with it important? What does it mean?
Being able to understand what sin is and the penalties associated with it are going to be vital in your journey for truth.
Being able to understand what sin is and the penalties associated with it are going to be vital in your journey for truth. Namely, if sin doesn’t exist, and there is no penalty for something that doesn’t exist, then nothing is truly, objectively wrong. By objective here I mean something that is independent of how you and I feel, and binding. Now think about what a world would look like if nothing was truly, objectively wrong. No justice (why would there need to be?), no boundaries (why would there need to be?), no accountability (again, why would there need to be?), and so on. In essence, anything goes. Think about this…Think about who or what would set the rules to the game if it wasn’t God.
Let’s face it, as much as a person loves to be different and exotic (there’s a reason restaurants serve numerous entrees), we all want these things (like justice, boundaries, accountability) deep down and at some level; all of us. But just because we want it doesn’t make it true, remember? Maybe a different lens for us to look thru is if any of us is willing to call ourselves perfect. Anybody willing to do this? My hope is in all seriousness that you would say you aren’t perfect. But what does that imply? That implies there is a standard for perfection. Okay, what is this standard? We know this standard cannot be made from human hands, because all of us fall short. In fact, how many times in casual conversation do you hear talk of ‘being better’ or ‘getting better’ at something.
Maybe a different lens for us to look thru is if any of us is willing to call ourselves perfect. Anybody willing to do this? My hope is in all seriousness that you would say you aren’t perfect. But what does that imply? That implies there is a standard for perfection. Okay, what is this standard?
In my daily life I work in an organization that strives to be a high-performing organization, striving constantly to ‘get better’. But better is meaningless without some sort of a standard of what better or best is. Now certainly, the best organization out there that we are striving to be like, is itself open to debate, as it is a human institution. But we have an idea, based on the ideals of that organization, what would be best, even though it’s a human institution, open for disagreement as to what best is.
Morality is similar but still very different. It differs because we know right and wrong exist. We know there are moral behaviors that are clearly wrong, regardless of space, time, and culture. For example, it is and always has been evil to rape a child, even if other cultures have thought it was right. In fact, C.S. Lewis said it very well when he said ‘(T)hink of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to-whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.’ (1)
Just knowing that aspect means God exists. If you think this example is open to debate, I am all ears as to why you think in some cases it might be good to rape a child. Remember, objective morality as we are discussing here is about moral ontology, not moral epistemology (please see moral argument under Evidence). Moral ontology is the foundation of what is good and evil, not how we come to know good and evil (epistemology). This gets confused a lot. How we come to know whether something is good or evil can be any number of avenues. Why we can even call something good or evil is what we are striving for understanding here, i.e. the foundation or standard of what is good. Be mindful that it’s not a standard of evil, because evil cannot exist without good. Good has to be in place in order for us to understand evil, because evil is a deviation from the standard of good.
Moral ontology is the foundation of what is good and evil, not how we come to know good and evil (epistemology).
In his book, The End of Christianity, author William Dembski says ‘(I)ndeed, all our words for evil presuppose a good that has been subverted. Impurity presupposes purity, unrighteousness presupposes righteousness, transgression presupposes a boundary which we’ve departed, sin (the Greek hamartia) presupposes a target that was missed, etc. To see evil as parasitic is not to deny or trivialize it but rather to see it for what it is. Evil does not create. It only deforms'(2).
Morally speaking then, what could be the standard of moral perfection? Here the theist and deist would submit that God is the standard because God’s nature is good. The atheist or agnostic have a much tougher time with this objective standard. For the atheist, i.e. a person who does not believe God exists, who believes that everything that matters is matter working in accidental, random ways, towards no order, there is no supernatural (nothing beyond space, time, matter); so the standard of moral perfection gets a little tricky. The standard would have to be something else. But what would it be? It couldn’t be a human because that would be subjective, for why would any human have moral superiority over any other? It would just be your opinion versus their opinion, and who would be right? What about a society? Can a society have better morals than another? Sure, and human history is full of it, but what is the foundation of that society’s morals? Some might say that’s easy, it’s what’s best for human flourishing. Well what’s best for human flourishing? And why should human flourishing be important, especially if we’re all going to be dead in a few years and not remember any of our experiences or be rewarded (or punished) for our moral behavior?
Reflecting on what a moral standard is if God does not exist is where many atheists start to confuse moral ontology with moral epistemology. And one of the favorite defaults is the prior example, what could be best for human flourishing, or personal well-being. Well who is going to set the boundaries for what is best for human flourishing or personal well-being? An example that is used quite regularly, perhaps too regularly, but is valid because it is more recent in human history, is the Nazi ideology. The Nazis clearly thought their ideology was best for the flourishing of their people, and the well-being of their people. So why was it considered wrong? In fact there are some who didn’t consider it wrong. Remember, it doesn’t matter what we think, it matters what is true. If human flourishing and the personal well-being of others is how we define our moral standard, then whose idea of human flourishing and personal standard do we adhere to? And why?
So for the sake of the rest of this tract we are going to assume God is the standard for morality because God’s nature is good and that seems to be where most of the logical and physical evidence speaks to. As the Christian apologist Frank Turek has said many times, if even one thing is truly morally wrong, God exists. If this is true, then everything matters as far as our behavior. Our offenses matter, not just relative to our time on Earth, but eternally. Now none of this that we are talking about points to the Christian God, but let’s see what the Christian scriptures can offer us in regards to what sin is, the consequences of it, and how God has or has not dealt with it.
The apostle Paul goes to great lengths to speak about sin in the book of Romans in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. He sets the stage in Chapter 1 speaking that the evidence of God’s design and creation has been visible since time began, so that none are with excuse, and that instead of honoring God and His creation, man worshiped the creature rather than the creator (Romans 1:25 (KJV)). He goes on to say in Romans 3:23 that ‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’ (KJV). Essentially reiterating what we’ve already spoken about that none of us has the wherewithal to think we are perfect. He then goes on to speak very clearly about the penalty for sin in Romans 6:23 when he says ‘the wages of sin is death’ (KJV). In essence, what we have earned from our decisions to fracture our relationship with God is death. Paul isn’t talking about physical death here. There is debate among people as to whether humans, such as Adam and Eve, were ever immortal (I think the evidence points to no). Regardless, Paul is speaking about spiritual death. Complete and total separation from God. The Bible is very clear about the two potential deaths for humanity. The first being physical and the second being spiritual (Gen 2:17, Eph 2:1, 5, 4:18-19, Rev 2:11, 20:6&14, 21:8).
There are some who would ask isn’t death a little harsh for a few shots at God? Well, no, it wouldn’t be if you believed in a just God. For when you break the law here on Earth and get caught, you pay a penalty. If that law-breaking is severe enough, you pay with your life. Where did this idea come from? Maybe even more appropriate to ask is who are we to argue this? What kind of standing do we have? When it comes to God we have little standing, however our God has provided us grace through the person Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ (christos in Greek, means anointed one). What does Paul say about this to the Romans? In chapter 5, verse 8 he says, ‘but God commendeth his love towards us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (KJV). Okay, that sounds nice, but what does that mean? In essence, it means that despite what your wages earned you in your sin account, Christ has forgiven the debt with His death on the cross. You no longer have to die spiritually. It’s what the believer calls having peace with Christ, or salvation. A powerful verse which makes this clear is Colossians 2:13-14 where Paul says”(A)nd when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” (NRSV)
In essence, it means that despite what your wages earned you in your sin account, Christ has forgiven the debt with His death on the cross.
So through Christ’s death your penalty, what you have earned, has been taken away. What does that mean for you now? Well it means the gateway to heaven and to a relationship with God is now open, and you had nothing to do with it! For Paul continues to tell the Romans what the believers’ role is now that Christ is risen (Romans 10:9-10, 13 (KJV)).
So we’ve established why God sent his son to die for us in the Romans 5 verse (also John 3:16 is a traditional favorite), but that doesn’t really explain why Jesus had to die does it? Why couldn’t God have just spanked his children and given them a firm finger-waving and resolved all of this? Why did there have to be this tortuous flogging and crucifixion?
Perhaps we can paint a scenario that speaks to the summit in regards to acts of love. I am a father of children, and when each child came into this world I knew in my heart I would die for them if it meant saving their life. And it was an instantaneous conviction, not a feeling like being warm or cold, it was a conviction in my heart and mind. And I didn’t have to wait for them to develop their little personalities or test the limits of the boundaries I would set for them. I would have done it right there. Now why would I die for a child without even really knowing anything about them? I would do the same for my spouse and I know her very well. Why?
Outside of your family, and perhaps on par, what do you value most in life? My hope is that many of you would respond that your own life is important, at least on par or near to par with your loved ones. For how could you even enjoy the love of your loved ones if you didn’t exist? So what could be a greater act of love than giving up that which is of utmost importance to you so that others may live? Jesus is recorded in the Gospel of John speaking on this in Chapter 15:13. It’s also worth reading Romans 5:6-8 again.
So in our daily lives we look at acts like firefighters running into the World Trade Center towers during the September 11th terrorist attacks, our soldiers who take the bullet or the grenade for the sake of the platoon, a teacher shielding his or her body over students to protect them from the school shooter, our police officers sacrifice on any given day of the year. Many of us look at acts like these as heroic acts, acts worthy of praise and remembrance, yet we see a Jew 2,000 years ago with claims of divinity and unexplained healings which eventually led to his tortuous death, and we are offended by it. Why is the cross so offensive? Why do people shutter when they hear the name of Jesus? Why do people curse His name?
Why is the cross so offensive?
Another aspect of the necessity of Christ having to die in our stead and not just us getting a pardon, a “freebee” so to speak, is the demand for God’s justice had to be met. Now this isn’t always palatable, even to the informed Christian, yet to be biblically faithful we have to come to an understanding that God hates sin, and that sin will be punished. Psalm 28:4-5, Psalm 37:20, Psalm 39:11, Jeremiah 14:10, and Hosea 8:13, Hosea 9:9 are just a handful of verses which speak to this. I will cover this more adequately under the “Justice” post.
And without giving too much away as far as a forthcoming “Atonement” post, Leviticus 17:11 informs us under the old covenant “…the life of the flesh is the blood; and i have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” (NRSV) Fast forward to Matt 26:27-28 when Jesus takes the cup at the last supper and says “(D)rink for it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins…” And then finally, the author of Hebrews stating very plainly in 10:4 “(F)or it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (the old testament temple sacrifices).” (NRSV). And Paul makes clear this satisfaction of divine justice, or propitiation, which means here the placating of God’s wrath, in Romans 5:9 where he says “(M)uch more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood (i.e. expiation), will we be saved through him from the wrath of God (i.e. propitiation).” (NRSV)
Years ago when I first started out on this journey for truth I had a number of people come up to me and ask if I had sin in my life. I couldn’t answer no! Of course I did, I wasn’t perfect. They told me if I was a sinner I needed a Savior. I didn’t really understand it then, but I do now. Sin is separation, an offense, and a penalty has to be paid when there is an offense, otherwise once again, what would our world look like if we didn’t at our base levels believe this? That penalty has been paid, once (Heb 9:26-28), and for all time. Jesus took it for you and for me.
So what does it mean for you to now know that your sins have been forgiven? Can you still sin? Absolutely, and you will. The point is to now live under the conviction of it through the Holy Spirit and in a right relationship with God, now knowing fully the harm of your sin. We also must come forward and confess that sin (1 John 1:9). But we must also understand the penalty of our sin has been taken care of, that is what Jesus meant when he hung on the cross and said “It is finished”. (John 19:30, NRSSV) You needn’t have to die a second death, i.e. eternal separation from God. For we are called in John chapter 3 to be “born again” (John 3:3-8 (KJV)). Once we say yes to Jesus, only then are we truly saved from our sins (Acts 4:10-12, Rom 10:9&13, 1 Pet 1:18-21).
(1) C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Touchstone Edition, 1996, p19)
(2) William Dembski, The End of Christianity (B&H Publishing Group, 2009)
(KJV) Bible: King James Version
(NRSV) Bible: New Revised Standard Version