Tom Wright: Talk of ‘sin’ has become the moral equivalent of an overly fussy Health and Safety culture

This is a great passage about sin, that I am reading in Tom Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began.  I warn you, it’s three thousand words long, but it’s a good wholesome read.

The word “sin” is not only sad and ugly as it stands; it is much misunderstood. In Western culture it has come to be associated, rightly or wrongly, with a killjoy, finger-wagging, holier-than-thou moralism, with a fussy, nit-picking concentration on small personal misdemeanours that ignore major injustice and oppression. Talk about “sin” is regularly associated with a dualistic rejection of the “world,” with a smug “otherworldly” pietism, and with a severe story line that cheerfully sends most of the human race into everlasting fire. There are of course many preachers and teachers who have spoken wisely and biblically about “sin.” It remains an enormously important topic.

But what I have just described is how a great many people, both inside and outside the church, perceive the language of “sin.” One of the reasons some former “insiders” are now “outsiders” is because they have reacted against such perceived teaching. There was a time when the people who worried about “sin” were impenitent wrongdoers. Today, the wrongdoers aren’t worried any more.  The people banging on about “sin” are those who think it’s someone else’s problem. Over the last generation or so, therefore, the Western world, including the church, has found the language of “sin” sorely inadequate, not least because, as Jesus said about the Pharisees, it often cleans up things on the surface while hiding a deep rottenness within. But we haven’t yet decided what to put in its place.

Some critics have suggested, with a certain amount of justification, that the whole point of talking about “sin” was really a way of controlling people. Sin talk is a power game, people have said; it is the moral equivalent of an overly fussy “health and safety” culture. It is designed to quench free spirits and to play a safety-first game with other people’s lives. It reflects an outdated and probably neurotic refusal to embrace the random indeterminacy of life and the radical freedom for which humans are born.

Some in the churches, fearful of moral anarchy, have tried to cling to the old rules. Others have switched attention to newer, more fashionable issues, still thumping the pulpit, but now warning against fossil fuels rather than fornication. The older “sins” have been replaced by newer ones; the fierce energy of earlier moralisms has been transferred now to issues like ecology, feminism, and international debt. Others again have thrown away the whole idea, so that self-righteousness—the idea that “our way of life” is superior to “theirs”—is the only “sin” left. (This, of course, produces an infinite regress in which we congratulate ourselves because we are not self-congratulatory.)

We cannot here go into the question of how we got into this muddle. Far more important for our present purposes is to see how to get out of it. Fortunately, the answer lies close at hand, and it offers a direct route to what the early Christians meant when they said that the Messiah had died “for our sins in accordance with the Bible.”

As always, words mean what they mean within the larger story that is being told. In this case, the word “sin” means what it means within the story the Bible is telling. Taking it out of that context generates the difficulties just outlined. Actually, the Bible has several different words for sin:  “wickedness,” “transgression,” and other terms for inappropriate or illegal behaviour. These words all converge on the idea we sketched in the previous chapter: that humans were made for a purpose, that Israel was made for a purpose, and that humans and Israel alike have turned aside from that purpose, distorted the vision, and abused their vocation.

The normal Greek word for “sin,” namely hamartia, means “missing the mark”: shooting at a target and failing to hit it. This is subtly but importantly different from being given a long and fussy list of things you must and mustn’t do and failing to observe them all. In the story the Bible is telling, humans were created for a purpose, and Israel was called for a purpose, and the purpose was not simply “to keep the rules,” “to be with God,” or “to go to heaven,” as you might suppose from innumerable books, sermons, hymns, and prayers. Humans were made to be “image-bearers,” to reflect the praises of creation back to the Creator and to reflect the Creator’s wise and loving stewardship into the world. Israel was called to be the royal priesthood, to worship God and reflect his rescuing wisdom into the world.

In the Bible, “sin”—for which there are various words in Hebrew—is the outworking of a prior disease, a prior disobedience: a failure of worship. Humans are made to worship the God who created them in his own image and so to be sustained and renewed in that image-bearing capacity. Like many scholars today, I understand the idea of the “image,” as in Genesis 1:26–28, to mean that humans are designed to function like angled mirrors. We are created in order to reflect the worship of all creation back to the Creator and by that same means to reflect the wise sovereignty of the Creator into the world. Human beings, worshipping their Creator, were thus the intended key to the proper flourishing of the world. “Worship” was and is a matter of gazing with delight, gratitude, and love at the creator God and expressing his praise in wise, articulate speech. Those who do this are formed by this activity to become the generous, humble stewards through whom God’s creative and sustaining love is let loose into the world. That was how things were meant to be. The purpose of the cross is to take us back, from where we presently are, to that intended goal.

Because, of course, we have all failed in this vocation. When humans turn from worshipping the one God to worshipping anything else instead, anything within the created order, the problem is not just that they “do wrong things,” distorting their human minds, bodies, hearts, and everything else, though of course that is true as well. In addition—and this is vital for grasping the meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion—they give to whatever idol they are worshipping the power and authority that they, the humans, were supposed to be exercising in the first place. Worshipping things other than the one true God and distorting our human behaviour in consequence is the very essence of “sin”: the Greek word for “sin” in the New Testament means, as we saw, not just “doing wrong things,” but “missing the target.” The target is a wise, full human life of worship and stewardship. Idolatry and sin are, in the last analysis, a failure of responsibility. They are a way of declining the divine summons to reflect God’s image. They constitute an insult, an affront, to the loving, wise Creator himself. The Great Playwright has composed a drama and written a wonderful part especially for us to play; and, like a spoiled and silly child, we have torn up the script and smirked our way through a self-serving but ultimately self-destructive plot of our own.

As we know in other walks of life, when people duck out of their assigned responsibilities, someone else will take them over instead, and no good will come of it. When humans sin, they hand to nondivine forces a power and authority that those forces were never supposed to have. And that is why, if God’s plan is to rescue and restore his whole creation, with humans as the active agents in the middle of it, “sins” have to be dealt with. That is the only way by which the nondivine forces that usurp the human role in the world will lose their power. They will be starved of the oxygen that keeps them alive, that turns them from ordinary parts of God’s creation into distorted and dangerous monsters.

You can see this in the obvious examples: money, sex, and power itself. Like fire, these “forces” are good servants but bad masters. Not for nothing were they treated as gods and goddesses in the ancient world—as indeed many people treat them today (though without using that language), sacrificing to them and obeying their every command. These “powers” need to be overcome not so that we can live disembodied lives in which they play no part, but so that we can live fully human lives in which they make their contribution as and when appropriate. They stop being demons when they stop being gods. But behind all specific “powers” or “forces” many Jewish and Christian thinkers have recognised a darker, more nebulous power that drives ordinary people to do horrible things. It is not surprising that many liberal-minded Western thinkers who had stopped believing in the old medieval caricatures of the “devil” found themselves reaching for very similar language by the end of the twentieth century. The horrors of that century, never mind our own so far, are hard to explain simply as the sum total of foolish human behaviour.

Sometimes the Bible refers to this dark force simply as “sin” (singular) as opposed to the “sins” (plural) that humans commit when they behave in a less than fully human fashion. Sometimes it uses the semipersonal language of “the satan” (a Hebrew term that means “the accuser,” the one who lures people into error and then blames them for it). But the point is this. The reason we commit “sins” is because, to some extent at least, we are failing to worship the one true God and are worshipping instead some feature or force within the created order. When we do that, we are abdicating our responsibilities, handing to the “powers” in question the genuine human authority that ought to be ours. And that is the somewhat more complex, but fully coherent, scenario that has to be addressed if God’s new creation, the promised “new heavens and new earth,” is going to come at last. The early Christian writings leave us in no doubt: if we reduce the problem to “our wrong behaviour” and try to explain the cross simply as the divine answer to that, we will never get to the heart of the matter. Nor, in fact, will we fully understand how the cross dealt with sin itself.

To recap, then, humans were made to be “vicegerents.” That is, they were to act on God’s behalf within his world. But that is only possible and can only escape serious and dangerous distortion when worship precedes action. Only those who are worshipping the Creator will be humble enough to be entrusted with his stewardship. That is the “covenant of vocation.” (The word “covenant” is not used explicitly at that point, but it sums up neatly the sense of divine purpose in which human creatures are summoned to play their part.) That is what is lost when humans decide to rebel and take orders instead from within the world itself. That is why, in the developed view within Israel’s traditions, the basic “sin” is actually idolatry, worshipping and serving anything in the place of the one true God. And, since humans are made for the life that comes from God and God alone, to worship that which is not God is to fall in love with death.

Here is the fundamental truth that generates the inner logic of 1 Corinthians 15 and many other passages in which Paul and other early Christians are explaining the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection. We have all too often imagined “sin” as the breaking of arbitrary commandments and “death” as the severe penalty inflicted by an unblinking divine Justice on all who fail to toe the line.  We have then tried to insert Jesus and his death into this picture, so that an unblinking divine Justice kills him instead. This doesn’t look good. More important still, it doesn’t look biblical. It is not “in accordance with the Bible.” It may invoke a few odd proof-texts, but it snatches them out of the much larger context of Israel’s scriptures as a whole. They mean something different as a result.

So what happens if we understand the human vocation as bearing God’s image, of reflecting God’s wise authority into the world and the glad praises of creation back to God? What happens if we see “sin” in that context?

Within that story, “sin” becomes the refusal of humans to play their part in God’s purposes for creation as a whole. It is a vocational failure as much as what we call a moral failure. This vocational failure, choosing to worship the creature rather than the Creator, is the choice of death over life. This is why “sin” and “death” are so inextricably intertwined in biblical thinking. The former is not the breaking of arbitrary rules; the latter is not the inflicting of arbitrary punishment. To be sure, they can often be spoken of, not least in the prophets, as a legal code to which appropriate penalties are attached. That is a natural way, on the surface, to refer to the whole sorry state of affairs. But deep down underneath there is nothing arbitrary about sin or death. Choose the one, and you choose the other. Worship idols, and you’ll go into exile. Obey the serpent’s voice, and you will forfeit the right to the Tree of Life. You can’t have it both ways.

When, therefore, the biblical writers see the story of Israel as Adam and Eve writ large, they are making the same point on a grand, historical scale. Despite repeated warnings, Israel as a whole commits apostasy, worships idols, and copies the lifestyles of the non-Israelite nations all around. The result, predicted in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, is exile. Genesis 3 is inscribed into the pages of history. Again and again Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel insist on the point: exile has come about because of sin, the sin that fundamentally consists in and then grows out of idolatry. The people’s sins have been stacked up higher and higher, and they have finally paid the price. Exile is therefore to be understood as a kind of corporate national death. Leaving the land is leaving the garden; leaving the ruined Temple means being debarred from the Tree of Life. Israel is, after all, no better than the pagan nations.

This is made abundantly, embarrassingly clear in Deuteronomy 32, the great “Song of Moses,” predicting the ways in which Israel would spurn the covenant God and behave like the nations all around. (It is significant for understanding the first century that both the apostle Paul and the historian Josephus seem to have thought that Deuteronomy 32 was coming true in their own day.) If, therefore, exile is eventually undone—whatever precisely that will mean—this will be both a “forgiveness of sins” and a new life the other side of death—and the restoration of the life-giving divine Presence. A  resurrection, in fact. Ezekiel 37 makes exactly this point, using resurrection as a glorious, if somewhat lurid, picture for Israel’s rescue from Babylon.

Nor is this simply a metaphor or a type that would point forward, like a signpost, to something quite different. (A signpost may offer a symbol of a particular building, perhaps a hospital or a restaurant. The symbol doesn’t need to look at all like what you will see when you arrive at the destination. By itself, the signpost will give you neither medication nor food; but it will point you in the right direction. That is how many Christians have seen the biblical story of exile and the promise of restoration: a truthful signpost, but a signpost to something essentially different.) Western culture has been so wedded to the platonic idea that God’s purpose for humans is to leave this world and go to “heaven” to be with him—as opposed to the biblical idea that God’s purpose for humans is to reflect the praises of creation back to him and to reflect his image in the world, so that ultimately heaven and earth will be one—that many who hear and understand the point I have been making will still try to see it as an “illustration” rather than as part of the story in which Jesus and his followers were still living.

Such people, perhaps the most frustrating of dialogue partners, will at once insist on “translating” the Israel-specific historical and biblical context into an abstract idea, as though Israel itself were simply an example of something else rather than the people through whom the divine project of restoration was to be taken forward. Such readers will then have to create a new context for Jesus and his death. It will only be “in accordance with the Bible” in a thin, twisted sense. The new context will distort what the Bible itself—both Old and New Testaments—actually says. This has happened time and again. But if we keep our nerve, we may perhaps be able to get things straight at last.

If exile is the result of Israel’s sin, and if this exile is therefore to be understood as death, it is not simply that Israel happens to have done on a grand scale what the human race, symbolised in Adam and Eve, had done all along. Israel—the people called by God for the unique role in his purposes— could never be merely an example, even a large-scale example, of something else. Israel’s idolatry and exile, Israel’s sin and death are seen in Israel’s scriptures themselves not just as the quintessence, but also as the radical deepening of the human plight. It is as if the lifeboat sent to rescue drowning sailors from a stricken ship has itself been submerged under a giant wave before it has reached those in need of it.

But the project continues nonetheless. When the early Christian formula says that Jesus’s death happened “in accordance with the Bible,” it really does mean, as Jesus himself indicated in Luke 24, that the single great narrative had now come forward to its long-awaited goal. Somehow, Israel’s sins must be dealt with so that the project of global restoration—including dealing with the sins of the world in general—can go forward. The larger biblical narrative indicated that the fate of humankind as a whole was hanging upon the rescue operation that had been launched in the family of Abraham, but that was now itself, it seemed, in peril. What was then required, in both the focused personal sense and the national and cosmic sense, was the “forgiveness of sins.” This would take the form of the real return from exile, which would have its full effect not only in Israel, but in the whole world.

This is more or less exactly the point of Isaiah 40–55. But when we get to those chapters, we find another vital theme awaiting us. Exile will be undone, sins will be forgiven, and new life will be offered to the world—through the personal Presence and the powerful rescuing action of Israel’s God himself. This belief stands at the heart of the early Christian understanding of Jesus’s death.

From The Day the Revolution Began, Tom Wright


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