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January 17, 2006



You seem to be hung up on the sin = wrongful act definition. This really causes no end of problems.

Martin Luther defined sin as "seperation from God". It becomes clear that we sin when we lose the place of God in our lives. Sin manifests itself in destructive acts, but the acts are the symptom, not the cause. The traditonal Western Christian concentration on the act is really a barrier to fully understanding sin.

Sin is not failing to conform to some external yardstick. It is failing to live in relationship with God.

It follows, therefore, that all of our lives are filled with sin. We are in desperate need
of God's grace to allow us to overcome our own shortcomings.

Which is why the recent emphasis on certain "sexual sins" is so far beyond the point it isn;t funny. A certain faction complains that a certain man can't be a bishop because he has a "sinful relationship". The irony is that the accusers themselves are also in sinful relationships. We're *all* in sinful relationships. If that man can't be a bishop, than no one can.


"It seems to me that, at that instant, I'm simply not grasping — literally, I'm not holding in my mind — the possible health consequences of overeating. Neither am I holding in my mind how overeating abuses an engine that rightly belongs to God and should be maintained for his service. "

Yes. Well, that's sin: we cannot hold in our minds the desire to avoid the abuses we commit. Paul said it clearly: "I do what I hate, and I do not do what I wish to do."

This is the point. It doesn't necessarily mean that we are evil, or our motives are cruel or in some other way consciously wrong. It just means we can't be who we ought to be. It means we will always fail to live up to our own wishes to serve God. We cannot do it.

These are the minor sins, of course. But human history is full of large sins also: slavery, war, imperialism, genocide, simple neglect of duty and of the widow and orphan. I agree that there are reasons for these things, likely biological or genetic in origin. That's the point. That's sin.

D. C.

Welcome, ruidh. My draft response to your comment has grown so much that I'm cleaning it up and will be posting it as a separate essay. Thanks for stopping by.

D. C.

bls, I agree completely that committing sinful acts doesn't necessarily mean we're evil. But I don't think I can follow you in the next step of your argument: I don't think we can state categorically that "we will always fail to live up to our own wishes to serve God," nor that "[w]e cannot do it."

Your essay, by the way, triggered my own; I need to link to it, because it's good reading.


The Lutheran in my blood reminds me of The second article of the Augsburg Confession on Origianl Sin: "Also they teach that since the fall of Adam all men begotten in the natural way are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with concupiscence; and that this disease, or vice of origin, is truly sin, even now condemning and bringing eternal death upon those not born again through Baptism and the Holy Ghost."

In a nutshell, then, what Melanchthon here and Luther himself in the Catechisms argue is that sin--any and all sin--is, at root, our inability to act rightly out of our love, fear, and trust in God. This is sin. Even if we do the right thing it doesn't get us any closer to God because we're doing it from twisted motives (fear of punishment, spiritual self-seeking, whatever). Only the Holy Spirit can aid us in that "love, fear, and trust of God" that we lack.

I think there's a distinction between human limitation and sin. I wrote about it a bit a while back here and here...

D. C.

Derek writes:

Even if we do the right thing it doesn't get us any closer to God because we're doing it from twisted motives (fear of punishment, spiritual self-seeking, whatever). Only the Holy Spirit can aid us in that "love, fear, and trust of God" that we lack.

Perhaps, but it sounds pretty ipse dixit to me. Here's where I deploy my favorite theological question: How exactly does one know that, and what basis do we have for concluding that it's correct?


Well, D.C.: I'm an empiricist. I look at the world, and at the history of humankind, and it seems utterly clear to me that human beings are sinful and cannot escape this condition, no matter how hard we try.

Religious movements begun with the purpose of furthering holiness end with Children's Crusades. Utopian experiments most often end in bloodshed - or simply end, defeated. The man who wrote the Declaration of Independence was a slaveholder. Mohandas Gandhi apparently treated his children with disdain. And that's not even getting into "evil" - or the "banality of evil."

Every day people do things they have to apologize for. This is why we say Confession at the Eucharist - so that we can receive absolution and move on (to the next error).

As I said at Derek's, I don't really see the difference between what I'm talking about and what you are; to me, it seems we're saying the same things and using different names. No?


(I will have to re-read Derek's posts to see what he means by distinguishing between human limitation and sin. From here, and before reading, I guess can see his point - but only if we're not including "sins unknown." Surely we err on account of human limitation, too, even if not purposefully?)

D. C.

BLS, I agree that we're not likely ever to escape our condition, namely that to one extent or another we all f*** up.

I can't go as far as you in thinking that doing the right thing doesn't get us closer to God. True, doing the right thing probably can't get us all the way to complete union with God (if there even is such a thing). But I definitely think it can move us in that direction. (I would guess you might agree with this.)

Nor can I go as far as you in thinking that only the Holy Spirit can aid us. There are plenty of atheists who live exemplary lives and seem to be quite happy. (I would guess that some Buddhists fall into that category.) Must we categorically attribute their success to the Holy Spirit? I don't know enough to say. I don't think anyone else does either.

Yeah, I too think that you and I are pretty much on the same page on this subject. What we're doing seems more like editorial refinement than substantive disagreement.


But I'd make a distinction between error and sin.

When we err because of our limitations, that's different from sin. If I have a seat in a nuclear power plant and sit on the self-destruct button then, well, I'm a dumbass, not a sinner... If I donate a million bucks to a worthy charity for the sake of feeling like a big-shot I'm a sinner... Intention and motivation are the keys as far as I can tell. And that's precisely what makes it so difficult.

D. C.

Derek, clearly there's a difference, but I haven't gotten my mind around just what that difference is.

BLS touched on an important point in quoting Paul: "I do what I hate, and I do not do what I wish to do." I wonder if it has something to do with our inner "dog brain" — I read recently (in Scientific American?) that the human brain is very much like a dog brain, but with an extra organ (whose name escapes me) "bolted on."


I've read the above string on sin with interest. A few comments:
Could I ever do the BIG sin? Or are my sins minor & manageable? What's the "dif" between my minor suburban sins and the MEGA mass murder type of sins?
In our post enlightenment era, we don't really like the grubbiness and scummy unwashed flannel shirt feel of sin up close...especially if not done with "clean hands & clean linen". But it's there nonetheless.

Are we really as bad as historic Christianity says?

Short answer - In my personal experience. Yes. I won't bore you with examples.

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