Answering Tim Farron’s Questioners (2) – What is sin anyway?

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Tim Farron continues to be asked whether he believes that homosexuality is a sin. The question is of course meaningless until we have defined what sin is. I started to answer this in my post last week, which you can find here. Today I want to look a bit more at that question. What is sin anyway?

The assumption of the questioners is that sin consists a list of certain actions which God disapproves of, and which (by implication) many people are innocent of. This seriously misunderstands. Christianity (in any of its mainstream historic forms – Eastern, Roman or Protestant) has always understood that while sin may be expressed in actions what it is describing is an attitude. It is first and foremost not about whether something is right or wrong but about how we think we should decide whether something is right or wrong.

This is plain in the Bible’s archetypal sin: Adam and Eve’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. This event is narrated in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, chapter 3. It is quite plain that there is nothing inherently wrong in the fruit itself: it is a ‘delight to the eyes’, we are told. So why did God forbid eating it? The clue is in the name he gives the tree it hangs on: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The issue which God puts at stake by placing this tree here is the simple one: who gets to decide what is good and what is evil? Who has the knowledge of what is good and what is evil? God gives the command not to eat from it. So now the question facing the man and the woman is this. Will they accept that God knows what is right and what is wrong – or will they decide that they are competent to make that decision?

That is why eating the fruit was so offensive to God. It was not a minor foible but an attempted coup d’etat against God. It was a decision of human beings, made in God’s image, to seize the crown from God and place it upon their own heads. It expressed an attitude to God which was, ‘We refuse to accept rules handed down by a so-called God. We are able to make up our own minds about what is good and evil, thank you very much.’ Sin is believing that we are better at being God than God himself is. The heart of sin is, if you like, to believe that we can redefine sin. Sin is declaring moral independence from God.

This is what ‘sin’ fundamentally means in the Bible all along. First-time readers of the Bible are often surprised to discover that it is full of deeply dysfunctional people acting in abominable ways. This is because the Bible is all about showing us the full horror of a world gone wrong, identifying for us what has gone wrong, and showing us God’s spectacular intervention to put it right. The thing that has gone wrong is sin. It is the sheer hubris of humanity in thinking that we are fit to make our own moral codes to live by that underlies all our problems. That is why Jesus condemned the rigorously religious and meticulously moral Pharisees, because the commands they followed were invented by men (Mark 7:6-8). It is this sin principle, this assumption by human individuals and human societies that we can govern ourselves, draw up our own moral codes, decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, that underlies all of the evils of human society. All the social problems of abuse and neglect, all the horrors of war, even the miseries of sickness and death, stem from this.

So now let’s fast forward to 2017. How, today, are we to decide whether given actions are morally acceptable or not? Leave aside the question of whether gay sex is a sin. Ask the question, how will we decide whether any action – sexual or otherwise – is right or wrong? The secular answer to that question is, of course, that we human beings are to make that decision for ourselves. We certainly will not take the decrees of a so-called God into account in making our decision. Well, if that is your position, in one sense we Christians shall say fair enough. But you might as well know that the position you are taking is the one which Christianity calls ‘sin’. That is what sin means. In asking Tim Farron to make his own declaration about the sinfulness or otherwise of something you are asking him, in fact, to sin. In assuming that it is in the power of human beings to do that you are sinning yourself. For that is not the universe we live in. The real universe is one created by the good, perfect God, and defining good and evil is his preserve alone. It is in our arrogant attempt to seize his throne that Christianity says the root of all human problems is to be found.

Let us return to the question of homosexuality. Tim Farron rightly said in Parliament last week that being gay is not a sin. That is correct, inasmuch as being gay is not even a category that Christians, if they are being consistent, can recognise as having meaning. People are not defined by their sexual desires (which are disordered to some extent in all of us) but by the vastly higher value of being made in the image of God.

But the philosophy of the gay movement is one which Christianity certainly has an opinion on. There is an ethical principle which has underlain the entire gay liberation movement from its inception, which is that no external constraints to the fulfilment of sexual desires are to be allowed. Each individual is to be allowed (provided other parties involved consent) to decide for him or herself what sexual practices to pursue. I don’t think I am saying anything here which anyone who supports gay rights would disagree with.

Nor, of course, is this saying anything which is particularly different from what the rest of mainstream western society is saying either. The gay liberation principle is one example of a much broader one, which we might call the libertarian principle: we as modern human beings are able to, indeed we must, decide for ourselves without reference to any so-called God what is right and wrong. Again, I don’t think I’m saying anything here which any atheist in 2017 would find offensive.

So if that is where you stand, then, in a sense, fair enough. You are simply agreeing with where mainstream culture in 2017 is. But you need to realise that this attitude is exactly what Christianity means by the word ‘sin’. Jesus Christ takes not one or two sexual practices and condemns them, but casts the entire understanding of morality which our world operates on into the balances and finds it wanting. Christianity does not condemn one or two groups of people we particularly dislike. Rather, Jesus shines a fearsome spotlight on the failure of the whole world – Christians included – to recognise God as God, and pathetically (and wickedly) to attempt to substitute ourselves in his place.

Which leads us to a final question about sin. Why do the authors of the Bible – why does Jesus in particular – shine this spotlight at all? Why identify an attitude in the hearts of all individuals and societies and give it the name ‘sin’? Jesus’ answer is simple:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’

Jesus came not to condemn us for our sin but to cure us of it. For this commitment to judging for ourselves what is good and evil, rather than accepting that such things are already defined for us by the God who made the universe, is not only an offence to God (though it certainly is that) but is also disastrously damaging to ourselves. It destroys our happiness, our relationships, and our society; it alienates us from the God who alone can satisfy us; and it ultimately leads us to unending destruction. For each and every one of us our belief in our moral autonomy is the cause of all the miseries we experience in life, and unless and until we give up on it they will only ever grow and will never end. To name sin as sin is not a jibe at people unlike us whom we dislike; it is a diagnosis of a disease which is devouring us and all those like us from the inside out.

And Jesus’ mission is to save us from that. He alone has the cure, for cultures, nations and individual people. His cure was to take the devouring power of sin in his own body as he bore God’s righteous wrath on a sinful world. We are Christians because we have heard Christ’s description of what sin is, realised that he is perfectly describing us, and have thrown in our lot with him as the only one who can rescue us from it. He has shown us that there can be no ultimate peace, justice and security in ourselves, our families or society while we persist in believing that we mere humans have the wisdom to create those things. Only in submitting ourselves to the rescue and rule of God’s perfect, sinless Son is there hope for ourselves, our communities, and our country or any other.

Answering Tim Farron’s Questioners

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Not many Christians would envy Tim Farron’s task in answering the questions he was asked on Tuesday night on Channel 4 news, and yesterday in the House of Commons. Does he believe Homosexual sex is a sin? Does he believe it is a sin to be gay? Those are not the same question, but they are fair questions in themselves, and Christians owe a clear answer to those who ask them. So here goes.

We need to ask what the questioners in fact meant. Is it a sin? That presumes we know what a sin is, so let’s start by considering that.

We Christians hold, without any shame whatsoever, that there is such a thing as a sin. That is, there is such a thing as an action which is, objectively, morally wrong. For that to be the case there must be a fixed moral order to this universe, such that certain actions are in line with it (they are good) and other actions cut against it (they are bad). Sins are the latter. It is part of the glory of Christianity that we are able to say that some things are, in fact, bad. Rape, murder, pride, genocide are all wrong, in all circumstances, regardless of the opinions of any of those involved. And we are privileged to be able to hold this because it is not at all obvious how anyone who does not believe in the Christian God can say the same. If right and wrong are not an original part of the structure of creation – because they originate in the character of the God who stands behind it all – then they cannot exist at all.

So we note a peculiarity in the questioning that Tim Farron has received. It is quite obvious that the questioners – Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News and Nigel Evans in the House of Commons – believed that it would be wrong to have answered ‘yes’ to their questions. They would have considered that morally unacceptable; a ‘sin’, to borrow Christian language. But if the universe really were what atheists imagine it to be, how could that possibly be so? What makes those who approve of homosexuality morally superior to those who do not? If there is no moral order to this universe that stands in judgment over us and predates us and to which we much conform, then why is the ‘liberal’ position superior to the Christian one? The very asking of the questions appears to display a secular atheism stealing the moral categories of the religion it is seeking to disparage. Be atheists if you wish, but if you do, then you have no business implying that anyone else of any views at all are morally inferior to you. All views, even those you find the most odious, are merely brain states of certain accidentally-formed lifeforms on one of countless planets in the universe. And the same would go for actions as well as views. Murder, even genocide – not to mention rape and paedophilia – are just things which certain lifeforms do. Perhaps to considerable Darwinian advantage. Morality doesn’t enter into it. So if you are going to ask us questions about sin – which we are perfectly happy to answer – you need to ask yourselves whether you believe there to be such a thing. Because if you do, you’d better ask yourself what that belief is based on. If it’s just the consensus view of a large number of people in a certain society in a certain age (in this case, ours) then that is not good enough. And if you don’t, then why are you asking the question? Why do you care?

But Christianity, wonderfully, is able to look evil in the eye and call it evil. It is able to say with absolute integrity that some things should happen and other things shouldn’t. It is able to have a vision of what is good that is, truly, good. Because we know that goodness was here before us, that there are moral laws to this universe as fundamental – in fact, more so – than the laws of gravity and electromagnetism. For this is God’s universe, God was here first, and God is good.

So now, let’s answer the question. And we need to first recognise that there were in fact two different questions. On Channel 4 news, Cathy Newman asked whether homosexual sex was a sin. In the House of Commons, Nigel Evans MP asked whether being gay was a sin. The fact that much of the media, including the BBC, appeared to think that these two questions – one about an action, one about an identity – were the same question is revealing. For it is precisely this assumption of a gay identity which Christianity denies.

So let’s take Nigel Evans’ question first. Is it a sin to be gay? The only consistent Christian answer to that question is that it is a non-question. For the idea that people are defined by their sexual desires is, to us, a tragic denial of the extraordinary value of every human being. To consider a man or woman, made by the infinitely good God to be his image – to reflect his glory, to model and act out his goodness, and to declare his praises – to be defined by nothing more than the urgings of his or her loins is to us an appalling and miserable misrepresentation of what he or she is. God does not look at you and see a ‘gay’ person, or a ‘straight’ person, for that matter. What God sees is one of his creatures, endowed with his very image, designed to display and share his infinite glory in thoughts, words and deeds. That is your identity, and mine. That is who we are.

But that is not all God sees. For he also sees in each and every one of us our refusal to accept that this is who we are. He sees our attempt to redefine ourselves as something other than his creatures made in his image. He sees our determination to define for ourselves what a ‘sin’ is, despite that fact that (as we saw earlier) that can have no meaning unless it is defined for us by God. And so he sees us as both designed for infinite value, but dreadfully spoiled and indeed guilty of treason before him. That is what sin is. That is what it means to be a sinner. And that is what God sees when he looks at all of us. He sees people he made for himself trying to deny what they are – their very existence – and live as something which they are not.

And so to Cathy Newman’s question. Is homosexual sex a sin? Unequivocally, the answer is yes. Indeed, as she correctly quoted, God calls it an abomination. But before you scream ‘bigot!’ and stop reading, remember what a sin is. It is a denial of the very order of reality, the goodness of God stamped across all that he has made and particularly embedded in the nature of human beings as his images. And in the matter of sex that good order has a particular, and glorious pattern.

We are designed to be like God. And at the centre of God’s good character is his love. His love is his absolute unchanging faithfulness. God is love, and has been love within himself, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for all eternity. It is in his nature to love another, different to himself, as himself, and for that love to form a perfect unity.

At the centre of God’s purposes for his creation is that he should bring his love to bear upon those whom he has created to be his images. He made humanity with the intention that he and us should come to a complete and permanent union forever. That intention centred upon his Son Jesus Christ. God’s plan for all of history is for a wedding: for his Son to become human flesh, and at the cost of his own life to rescue his bride from the clutches of her own sinful false self-definitions, and bring her to himself. God’s love consists of the  unbreakable vow of Christ to love his bride forever, and to become one flesh with her for all eternity.

And so that is what we are designed to do too. Our identity as male and female is part of how God has hard-wired the image of his relationship with us his people into our very nature. We are all of us born as men or women, and the difference between us is a mirror of the difference between us and God. So our duty to God as men and women is to live and love in the way he has designed. We are designed to marry, for the love of a husband for his bride and the love of a bride for her husband is the only form of sexual love which really is love in God’s universe. The union of husband and wife is the great image in humanity of all of God’s purposes for history. Sexual union is designed by God to follow on from and be the fulfilment of an unbreakable vow of love of a man for a woman and a woman for a man. All human attempts to extract sexual pleasure from the lifelong union of husband and wife are as violent and destructive as extracting a beating heart from a living body. True love makes vows and expresses sexual union within them. So it is the duty of men – all men – to love women and men in the ways defined by marriage: sexually for the one woman he has made an unbreakable vow of faithfulness to, if he is married, and absolutely non-sexually for all other women and men too. And it is the duty of women – all women – to love men and women in the ways defined by marriage: sexually for the one man she has made an unbreakable vow of faithfulness to, if she is married, and absolutely non-sexually for all other men and women. Our personal inclinations to other forms of sexual activity are of no significance whatsoever.

What is clear from this is that it is not gay sex alone that Christianity objects to. It is the whole spectrum of sexual licence: adultery, prostitution, child abuse, and the morasse of teenage sexual carnage, which combines elements of all of these, and which we now encourage our young people in this country to think of as healthy and normal. What is more, increasingly people well into adulthood, without the healthy structures of marriage around them, are trapped in a permanent adolescence of moments of sexual pleasure in a matrix of loneliness, betrayal and sadness. And this is without mentioning the countless children whose lives are blighted by the sexual incontinence of their parents, who may never know their fathers, or for many thousands have their lives cruelly taken away in the womb, victims of their parents’ thirst for pleasure without commitment. The belief that sexual desires define us and that their limitless fulfilment is necessary for happiness is one which, far from being good, brings untold evils. Homosexual sex is just one star in this constellation of self-inflicted human misery.

So yes, homosexual sex is a sin, a serious sin, which takes its place in the multifarious ways in which human beings try and fail to redefine themselves as something other than God’s creations. It is a denial of what we are, a refusal to be men and women made in God’s image, a determination to be something different from our true identity. But so is every other form of sin. It is a particularly stark and obvious form of that; but for God who sees the heart, the thing that it is a particularly stark and obvious form of lies embedded deep in every one of us.

But as yet we have not finished the story of what Christianity has to say about this. For Jesus Christ was sent from heaven to claim his bride. And his bride, far from being beautiful, was nothing other than the sexually broken wretch which humanity has become. But Jesus Christ loved her anyway. And his love was not in response to her beauty, but to make her beautiful:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25-27 ESV)

This is the Christian gospel. Jesus Christ came not to approve our invented identities or our indulgences of our desires, be they sexual or any other: he came to bear God’s righteous condemnation of sin on behalf of his bride. Like a bridegroom who marries a woman desperately in debt, he took the cost of our sin on himself. As a loving husband should, he stepped in front of his bride and allowed all of God’s condemnation of her sins – homosexual ones included – to land on him instead. So that when God raised him from the grave he could take her hand and raise her to share his risen life too.

So in summary: this was a question – two in fact – about sin. Yes, we believe in sin. It is part of the glory of Christianity that we can call evil by its name. But God does not highlight sin in order simply to condemn it. He highlights it in order to save us from it. If you want to see what God does with sin, look at Jesus Christ on the Cross. That is how seriously God takes sin, and that is how seriously God takes saving us from sin. That is how much Christ loved and loves his bride, the Christian church.

So if you consider yourself gay, God does not condemn you for that identity. He says it is no identity at all. He does not condemn you for what you are, he says that that is not what you are at all. You are in fact a man or woman created by him to be like him, and he sent his Son to call you out of your false identity to be remade in your true, intended identity as part of his bride, the Church, sharing the true image of God which Jesus Christ alone can give you.

And if you are guilty of sexual sin, homosexual or otherwise, that certainly is enough to condemn you on the day Christ returns, for what you have done is a terrible denial of who you are and who God is, in whose image you are made. That of course is true of almost all of us, myself included. But God sent his Son the first time not to condemn you but to save you. Listen to him, respond to him, believe in his promises and start to obey his commands, and you will find that all of God’s condemnation for your sin fell on him. He will rescue you from the futile way of life you are living at the moment and bring you into a whole new way of life, in which the effects of your and others’ sins on your life will start to be reversed, in which you will begin to taste the new life of the world to come as you join his church, and which will become complete freedom from all evil when Jesus raises you to new life the way God raised him on Easter Sunday.