Y’all, we need to talk about sin. We need to talk about not only what sin looks like, and what it doesn’t, but also how we must respond to sin.
In Matthew 5:48, Jesus challenges us to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” But, can we as Christians truly ever be perfect? John Wesley would say yes. As a Wesleyan, obviously I agree with his sentiments. I will not reiterate what Wesley has already clearly stated (see the links above). However, it is important to understand sin and how that relates to our pursuit of perfection.
At the creation of humanity, God created us in God’s own image (Gen. 1:26-27). There is debate among scholars about what exactly it means to be created in the image of God, and it is a multi-faceted concept, but there is no doubt that it is a quality unique to humans above the rest of creation. One dimension of this is our ability and desire for relationship with others and with God. At creation, God was dwelling among God’s people, God’s people were governing the earth as God’s priestly representatives, and we (humans) were living mutually dependent on one another as coworkers with God.
The Fall, as we have come to speak of Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit of the tree and therefore the entrance of sin into the world, caused broken relationships. The relationship between humanity and God, humanity and humanity, and humanity and creation was broken. The first interaction between God and humanity has humanity hiding in fear of God. The relationship between God and humanity is broken. God can no longer dwell alongside humanity, effectively separating God’s space and human’s space. Adam blames “the one whom you (God) gave to be with me” for giving him the fruit. The relationship between human and human is broken. Humanity no longer mutually serves and helps each other and instead rejects the other and thinks of their own interest. The woman blames the serpent. The relationship between humanity and creation is broken. Humans no longer govern and create but dominate and control. Adam names the woman, as he did with the animals, and Adam now becomes master of Eve. The relationship between man and woman is broken. Women now exist to submit to men instead of both mutually submitting to one another.
These broken relationships are the backdrop for what we call sin. Sin, then, is that which fractures our relationships and rejects the image of God within us. The thing which makes us human is the thing which uniquely connects us to God– God’s image within us. When we break that connection to God, we reject that image. When we break the relationship with other image bearers, we reject that image. Sin separates us from God because we deny that which makes us like God– God’s own image within us.
So, on a practical level, what is sin? Does drinking alcohol, getting tattoos, swearing, or listening to non-Christian music make me a sinner? Well, no. But also, yes. If we define sin as that which fractures our relationships, then most, if not all, of these fundamentalist ideas about what is “right” and “wrong” become nothing more than a relatively arbitrary moral code. I won’t address the Law and fundamentalist legalism here, although that is an important, and relevant, discussion which I would be happy to have at any time. To keep it in this discussion though, the previous actions are only sins if they fracture a relationship. Which, of course, opens up space for nuances and incorrect conclusions, which will have to be addressed.
Things like drinking, tattoos, and swearing, are personal convictions but are not, as isolated actions, themselves sins. In other words, they may be sins for some and not for others, and may be sins in some contexts but not others. Paul lays this point out in 1 Corinthians 8. To put it in this context, anything which causes a brother or sister to stumble, or fractures a relationship, is a sin. For instance, if I were to invite a friend who has struggled with alcoholism over to my house and offer them drinks or put them in a place to be tempted to drink, that would be sinful, as would inviting them to a bar. For that individual, their drinking has already fractured relationships and doing so again would further fracture those relationships. For me to ignore that would not be acting out of love. Love is at the heart of perfection. If someone feels a strong conviction against swearing, or is a new Christian for whom swearing would harm their view of God or Christianity or otherwise negatively affect their faith, me swearing would fracture that relationship and therefore be sinful. So, for me to be of legal age and enjoy a drink in my own home, or have conversations with my friends where we use some words I may not say from a pulpit, would not be sinful. Were I to be someone for whom God’s Spirit has convicted me of these things, doing so would fracture my relationship with God and would make these sins. Of course, there are also actions which are unintentionally sinful. We do things with the right intent or are just ignorant to the circumstances of others. These are the sins that make me especially thankful for both grace and community.
This is all relative, and is something which should be discussed at length with your pastors and those close to you. Because of course, I would never want to condone anything which you have held in your heart is a sin according to God’s Spirit. Nor would I want anyone to compromise their beliefs because I don’t follow the same convictions– that would fracture our relationship. So know those examples are personal and only account for part of the story. Believe what you want to believe about such things, they are not salvation issues and I, nor would I hope others, will never judge or look down on anyone else because we disagree on these points. In short, sin, is the choice, both intentional and unintentional, to not act out of love for neighbor. That is what breaks relationships and that is what it truly means to sin.
Of course, this leaves us with some false assumptions I must take the time to address. For starters, this is not to say that every sin is subject to nuance. Sins which always directly and unquestionably affect others negatively are sins. Assault, sexual misconduct, manipulation, and abuse are all examples of sin regardless of how you spin it, though they are not the only examples. These always fracture relationships because they always endanger the life, livelihood, faith, and experiences of others. Second, this does not mean those fundamental, moralistic laws don’t matter. They do, but they are not the ultimate indicator of sin. They are outward expressions of our love for God and neighbor. But even people who follow these moral codes perfectly can still be living in sin. Because what Christ had in mind in Matthew 5 when he told us to be perfect is a wholeness of our lives oriented toward God. The Greek word τελειοι used for perfect comes from τελεοις, (teleios) meaning finished, not lacking anything needed to be complete. It speaks to our deeper understanding of the intent of the law rather than our ability to follow the law. It’s the same word used in 1 Kings 11:4 to describe the heart of David, who we know was far from perfect, but whose heart was oriented toward God, even if his outward actions were not always without sin. So, we can strive toward perfection both of our hearts and of our actions, but perfection starts in our hearts.
So if we are beings made in the image of God and this image is tied to our relationship with one another, how do we address sin? Earlier today, I posted a status on Facebook based on an earlier Tweet. In it, I addressed the recent comeback of Christian comedian John Crist and the racist words of Eric Metaxas. It was met with mixed reviews, but what surprised me most were the people arguing that these two should not be judged, they have never looked to them as leaders, and their sin is between them and God.
You can read the post and the comment thread if you wish. I am not going to address specifics here, but I will tackle these points generally. First, yes, these two should absolutely be judged. Not condemned, not excommunicated, not shamed, but judged. Judged in terms of calling them out and reminding them of their failure to maintain wholeness. It’s like we are the jury– we decide if they have sinned or not. God is the judge– God decides what penalty they face. Thankfully for all of us, God is a gracious and merciful judge who never gives us the sentence we deserve. Within the context of a believing community, it is acceptable, and necessary, for us to call each other out on sin. This is a Scriptural call. Since the giving of the Law, Israel was given instructions for judging one another (Exodus 18). Even in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 5), Paul reminds us that we are to judge those within the church, though not outside of it. We are required to make restitution to those we have wronged, and we are required to seek forgiveness from God and others. This is our job as a Christian community– call one another out on our sin and do what we can to help each other make it right and restore that relationship. Now of course, in order to call anyone out on their sin, we must be called out on our own. Which is why community is important. We have to mutually depend on each other to point out sin, make restitution, seek forgiveness, and restore relationship. In a broken relationship, both parties must be involved in healing. While truly only God knows the heart, and is therefore the only one able to judge its perfection, it nonetheless remains the responsibility of the community to point out ways in which we do not orient our hearts toward God and don’t act in love toward others.
This leads into this idea that sin is between an individual and God. This presents a problem for reasons I stated above. But it is also another example of the individualistic culture of today creeping its way into the communal nature of Christianity. In the Old Testament, we see the communal address of sin played out clearly. First, when someone committed an intentional sin which directly affected another, restitution and sacrifice was required (Exodus 22, Leviticus 5,6). You had to both actively seek forgiveness for your wrong and somehow give something to the wronged party in return. That relationship can only be restored through intentional repentance. Second, sacrifice was communal thing (Leviticus 6,7). While one person brought a sin (or other) offering, many people in the community participated in the sacrifice. The purpose of these sacrifices was to preserve the holiness of the community. It always goes back to holiness, which can only be found in relationship with God by being in God’s presence. Even while someone was unclean, which did not exclusively mean they had sinned but just that they were impure and unable to be in God’s presence, anyone who touched them was unclean. They were unfit to be in the presence of a holy God, and for them to participate in worship or festival celebration would make the entire community unclean. They were isolated from the community until they could be clean via cleansing and sacrifice. Then, once they were clean, they could again participate in the life of the community. One bad apple ruins the whole bunch, as they say. This concept still applies to sinfulness within Christian communities. Just because Christ became a once and for all sacrifice, does not mean we only have to be accountable to ourselves.
This idea of community sacrifice and holiness stretches back to the Old Testament. But how does it relate to Christians today post resurrection? Well, first, Jesus is our high priest and our sacrifice. (This is a basic rundown and it still gets complicated, but bear with me. It’s really cool and one of my all time favorite things to talk about so I can go a little off the rails). The high priest in the Old Testament is less a person or job, such as king or judge, and more a role which is performed, like an actor performing a character. When they enter the Most Holy Place to sacrifice for the sins of themselves and the people, they are entering God’s presence as representations of Israel. They are no longer an individual but rather an entire people. The sins of the many are taken by the one who offers a sacrifice for the all. When God’s space separates from our space in Genesis, we can no longer be in the presence of God. But the high priest bridges that gap by standing in God’s presence, as Israel, representing the true image bearer of God, and joins the two together. Obviously a post-fall human can never truly be the perfect image bearer of God, which is why Christ’s incarnation and death mattered so much. Christ now stands in front of God as simultaneously the sacrifice for our sins and a representation of us, saying “I have become what they cannot and have restored all the broken relationships.” He does this for all of us as individuals, but in keeping with the role of the high priest, he preserves the holiness of his people by connecting God’s space to our space and allowing us to participate together in the sacrificial life of the community in God’s presence. Put simply, sacrifices in the Old Testament were a communal act where holiness was restored within a community by an individual seeking repentance through the support of the community. In the case of the guilt offering, this could only be accomplished through the high priest, who takes the sins of the community upon himself as his own, and enters God’s space as an image-bearing priest, as was intended at creation, and offers a sacrifice. In the case of Jesus, he is both the priest and the sacrifice–both the one who has taken the sins upon himself and the one who is offered as a sacrifice for those sins. The atonement for sins is still celebrated in community. Christ covers all without limits, but this one for all sacrifice does not do away with accountability. Christ still bridges the gap indefinitely, but we have a responsibility to help others become clean and participate in our atonement celebration.
The second way in which this plays out is a lot less complicated. Our sin and repentance is not just between us and God because, though our relationship between God and ourselves has been restored in Christ, the relationship between us and others has not. If we sin by failing to act in love toward another image-bearer, we fracture a relationship. Christ as sacrificial high priest restores the relationship between humanity and God, and Christ as human restores the relationships between humanity and humanity. But in order to do so, there must be communication and relationship between the two. Christ can only heal that which he touches (metaphorically, not physically). I can’t heal a broken relationship with another unless I repent, apologize to, and converse with the other. God’s image bearer in me touching that within another. We see in James 5, specifically 5:16 the call for us to confess our sins to each other in community and pray for healing. And Matthew 18 lays out a Biblical precedent for addressing sin within the church. There is nothing individualistic about healing and holiness.
So, the sin of one is the responsibility of all. And frankly, it does not matter on a personal level if you follow certain leaders or not, because they are leaders regardless. We have chosen to make their voices heard and promote them as representations of the God we claim to preach and follow. Remaining silent is the same as promoting them. Now of course, this is difficult in the world of social media because even negative attention is attention. But perhaps the negative attention will make us think twice before believing everything they say and regarding them as a strong leader. We see Christ as our representation of God’s image bearer. The world, however, sees the leaders we celebrate as God’s image bearers. We are all collectively God’s representatives on earth, but what one says and does reflects on all of us, and who we choose as leaders speaks volumes to others about who our God is and who we see our God as. Others will never see Christ as their sacrificial image bearer if they can’t see God’s image reflected in us.
I am all for love and forgiveness and grace, but there has to be standards to which the community holds each other up. Just because we have grace, doesn’t mean we have an excuse to continue to sin. We should be holding each other accountable for our actions, demanding that we repent and seek proper restitution, and guiding each other along the path to wholeness. And when a public figure or leader sins, and those sins are made public, we can demand that we become part of that restoration process. We don’t have to welcome them back into our community until they have sought the proper sacrificial cleansing which allows them to once again participate in the flourishing life of the community. We are not their close confidants and therefore can’t demand a front row seat. But we can ask for accountability. Our leaders represent us, and we get to decide what that representation looks like. When we call them out, we take the blinders off and call others to stop ignoring their sin. And we acknowledge that we are not without sin either. And guys, I don’t want to be harsh, but perhaps there are sins which leaders in church do that should cause us to seriously re-evaluate if they should be in leadership. While all sins reject the part of God within us, some fracture relationships less, and leaders who completely break God’s image within another should not be leaders. Again, not to diminish the importance of grace. I am beyond thankful for grace. Grace not only allows me the opportunity for forgiveness when I sin, but it is also the very thing which allows me to be an image-bearer of God both in my current imperfect and future restored state. Grace molds us into the true image of God and is the reason our relationship can be restored. Every time I sin, which I do often, I am thankful for grace. And as a young and inexperienced leader, I hope my community extends me the same grace which God extends to them, but I also hope they would both call me out and hold me accountable for my sin.
This is not an easy topic, and these are not complete thoughts on the matter. There is always more to be discussed and discovered. But I hope this did shed light on some of the lies which we believe about sin– mainly that it is only an individual matter. I also hope it challenges us to examine our own sin and the sin of those around us and better live within a community. We can achieve perfection in our love toward one another, our completeness of heart orientation toward God, but in order to do so we need to recognize sin, call out sin, and be in community together. When we allow sin to fester in our lives and the lives of those around us, we begin to not only ignore it but accept it. We hide within the comfortable lies we tell ourselves. We have to dismantle those lies and be uncomfortable while we seek communal repentance and restoration. It is not easy and it is not comfortable, but is essential to the image of God within us and around us. Sin makes us human. But the image of God within our humanity allows us the opportunity for perfection.
*It is important to add that sin can be both individual and systemic. It can lie within an individual and within a system. This post only addresses individual sin primarily, but sin can be within the structures of the systems in which we live and have community. That discussion requires a whole other nuanced understanding.
Cover image found at https://images.app.goo.gl/AWRp86DAjaiGpcSLA