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.

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