Friday, February 19, 2021

The principle of sin

The Scriptures give us a number of ways in which sins can be distinguished and classified.  Numbers 15 gives us the distinction between unintentional sin and sinning with a high hand (translated here 'defiantly').  That same distinction crops up throughout the Pentateuch.  Perhaps 'unintentional' is not the most useful translation; it is more like sin which is wandered into, sin which is not deliberately premeditated.  To sin with a high hand, by contrast, is to sin with a knowing disregard for the will of God.  There is sin into which we are almost surprised - in the aftermath we think 'where did that come from?' - and there is sin which is planned, sin which despises the threat of God's judgement.  In Numbers 15, the former is to be dealt with by sacrifice; the latter results in excommunication and perpetual guilt.

Something similar to this distinction is perhaps at work in Psalm 19, where the Psalmist prays to be delivered from 'hidden faults' and kept from 'wilful sins'.  This seems to envisage sins of which the Psalmist is even unaware, which makes sense - sometimes when someone confronts you with your sin, it's the first you consciously knew of it.  (And of course, that doesn't make it any less sin).  Wilful or presumptuous sins, on the other hand, are committed knowing them for what they are, either in defiance of God or on the assumption that his forgiveness will be cheap and easy to obtain.

Psalm 32 gives another distinction - between sin kept secret and sin openly confessed.  The former is destructive and ultimately leads to death, but confession can bring forgiveness and healing.  We don't know when this Psalm of David was composed, but it is interesting to note that the categories introduced here cut across the others - unintentional sin could be hidden and therefore deadly; by contrast, high handed sin could be confessed and forgiven, as with David's terrible sin against Bathsheba.

Some of the Scriptural distinctions between sins are less easy to understand - for example, 1 John 5 introduces a distinction between sin which leads to death (which should not be [or perhaps need not be] prayed for) and sin which does not lead to death, for which a brother or sister can intercede for forgiveness.  Taking the whole of Scripture into account, it is tempting to map this on to the unconfessed/confessed paradigm from Psalm 32 - but that doesn't seem obviously correct to me from the scant context of 1 John.  I'm not sure I know for sure what this means.

Perhaps the most troubling New Testament distinction is between all the sins and blasphemies which can be forgiven, and the blasphemy against the Spirit which will never be forgiven (see Matthew 12 and parallels).  I think we do here have to see the distinction between sin of which one repents and sin in which one (wilfully) persists - with the added burden that this is sin against light, sin in the face of the Holy Ghost.

Outside Holy Scripture there have been various other attempts to distinguish between sins.  The classic division of sins into 'mortal' and 'venial' tries rather too hard to classify wickedness by acts rather than attitudes, and therefore seems to me to miss the target aimed at by the Biblical distinctions.  The well-known confession speaks of sinning 'through weakness, through negligence, through our own deliberate fault', which seems a more helpful classification.

Anyway, the point is: sins are not all the same.

That seems an important point to make in the current climate of evangelicalism, where the egregious sins of prominent leaders are being dragged into the light.  Sins are different.  There are sins into which all people by weakness stumble from time to time, and there are sins which call into question one's salvation.  There are sins into which even leaders can be expected sometimes to fall and yet not be beyond recovery, and there are sins which disqualify from ministry.  There are patterns of 'minor' or unintentional sin which speak to the ongoing need for sanctification, and there are patterns of deliberate sin which indicate gross hypocrisy and an unwillingness to repent and come to Christ for life.  There are sins, and there are sins.

We have to recognise that so that in the face of Christian leaders who turn out to be abusers we don't just shrug our shoulders and say 'hey ho, everyone sins'.  Not like that they don't.

But there is another point which I fear we're in danger of missing, perhaps because we're rightly trying very hard to make the distinctions evident.  There are sins and sins, but all sin is sin.

There is a principle to sin, a heart to it.  The heart of sin is rebellion against the Lord.  The heart of sin is turning away from the gracious Creator to serve other things.  The heart of sin is elevating self to the place rightly occupied by God.  When we see terrible sins - sins committed seemingly with a high hand and without repentance, sins which have hurt so many and brought disgrace to the cause of Christ - when we see those sins, we recoil.  Here is sin in its full ugliness.  Here is sin shown for something like what it is, in its true colours.  Sin is foul and vile.

But without making the mistake of flattening the distinction between sins, without implying that 'this is just like that', we do need to see that the principle which is operative in those great and terrible sins is also at work in the small and 'inoffensive' sins of our everyday.  No, these sins are not like those sins, not in their severity, nor in their consequences for victims, nor in the reactions which they ought to call forth from God's people.  But whilst there are sins and sins, all sin is sin.  The little sinful habits we indulge, the character defects we choose not to curb or rectify, the minor lapses and falls - they are not those sins, but they are of the same species.  This is what sin would like to make of us.  Those great sins are what these little sins would like to be.  They are not the same, but they are energised by the same principle.

Therefore, fight sin.  Therefore, pursue accountability and repentance.  Fear sin; fear it appropriately.  Have a horror of it.  Detest it.  Look what it would do to you if it could.  Get that sin into the light; it will wither and die there.  Better to be shamed now for your sin than to carry it to the Judgement Seat of Christ.

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