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What is sin?

Started by Dan Fienen, December 04, 2023, 01:12:21 PM

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Dan Fienen

In the Bible, and in Christian theology, sin can refer to a number of distinct but related concepts. The problem when we speak about sin is determining which of these meanings we have in mind and not indulging in concept drift.

A thorough discussion of the various ways that Scripture talks about sin would be worthy of at least a researched paper if not a book. Far beyond the scope of a forum post. So without any pretense of being comprehensive, some observations.

"Sin" can refer to specific actions that in themselves violate God's revealed will for our actions. Thus murder, stealing, lying, etc. are sins. Generally speaking, they also harm our neighbor, ourselves, society, or our relationship to God. In this sense, if what I do does not violate some such revealed rule or standard, it is not a sin. People do all sorts of things throughout their days that are not sins, may even be praiseworthy.

"Sin" can also refer to the basic corruption of our nature that induce us to commit sinful acts that violate God's revealed will for us and taint even the good things that we do. I make a donation to a worthy charity. In itself that is a good thing to do. But because I am a sinful human being, my motivation for doing that is not pure. While I may sincerely wish to support a good cause, I likely also desire (take your pick, some or all of the following) to look good to others, derive satisfaction for having done a good deed, score points with God or others, assuage some guilt feelings, could have reasonably given more, etc. My motivation is most likely not entirely altruistic, and even at my best, I end up doing only what I should have done - no bonus points or extra credit. Thus, no matter what I do, my sinfulness adheres to my actions and taints them with my sin.

See especially Romans for Paul's discussion of his sinful nature and our impossibility in this life to escape it.

So in one sense it is quite true that everything we do is sinful. But that is only one aspect of sin. Some of my actions may be virtuous and I can feel good about that (but not too good).

When we talk about sin, and how everything we do partakes of our sinfulness, we need to keep in mind that sin can mean several things and an action may in one sense be sinful but in aspect, virtuous and praiseworthy.

Another topic for discussion could be how the various aspects of our sinfulness (sinful nature and sinful actions) impinge on our relationship to God.
Pr. Daniel Fienen
LCMS

John Mundinger

Quote from: Dan Fienen on December 04, 2023, 01:12:21 PMIn the Bible, and in Christian theology, sin can refer to a number of distinct but related concepts. The problem when we speak about sin is determining which of these meanings we have in mind and not indulging in concept drift.

What is sin?  At the basic level, sin is selfishness.  Humans are created by a loving God, created in love to love God and love neighbor.  However, sin has corrupted all of God's good creation.  Humans are shapen in in iniquity and born in sin - Original Sin.  We wrap all of God's love around ourselves - selfishness.

Original sin manifests in various ways.  The sin of unbelief breaks our relationship with God.  Our selfish behavior breaks our relationships with neighbors.

God has given us the gift of God's Word - the written Word/God's Incarnate Word - a Word of Law/Gospel as the solution to our sin.  The Law shows us our sinful nature and calls us to repent, to turn away from ourselves, to turn to God.  The Gospel shows us our savior, repeats the call to repent, to turn away from ourselves, to turn to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, and to trust the promise of forgiveness and eternal life, fulfilled in Christ Jesus.

Apart from calling us to repentance, (2nd use), the Law informs the ordering of society in a way that promotes the welfare of all, without distinction (1st use).  The Law also informs repentant sinners in sanctified living, as thanksgiving for forgiveness and eternal life (3rd use).

One specific way that sin manifests is the human - and, in my opinion, the reason that conversations about sin are confused by different meanings - is that humans are prone to prove themselves worthy and often do so by comparing themselves to others.

We are prone to rank-order sin on the scale of egregiousness.  And, we are prone to justify ourselves because we don't commit egregious sins.  Certainly, some sins are more harmful to neighbors than others.  But, that is a consideration of sin relative to the 1st use of the Law.  It has no relevance to our standing before God, relative to the 2nd.

We also are prone to justify ourselves by judging the failures of others to amend their sinful lives.  But, for all who confess Christ, sanctification follows justification (3rd use).  Amending our sinful lives is a conversation between the Holy Spirit and the individual.  Judging the failings of a repentant sinner is interference in a conversation in which the person doing the judging has no standing.

Quote from: Dan Fienen on December 04, 2023, 01:12:21 PMWhen we talk about sin, and how everything we do partakes of our sinfulness, we need to keep in mind that sin can mean several things and an action may in one sense be sinful but in aspect, virtuous and praiseworthy.

I think a careful self examination would lead every repentant sinner to understand that we are the source of our own sinful behavior.  We would also realize that we cannot take credit for any of our virtuous behavior.  Rather, those actions happen because the Holy Spirit is working in our lives.  I also wonder whether the virtuous behaviors of non-believers is also the work of the Holy Spirit.

I'm having difficulty understanding what you mean by actions that are both sinful and virtuous.  The only actions that I can imagine in that category would be benevolent actions motivated by either guilt of a sense of self-importance.
Lifelong Evangelical Lutheran layman

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbour, does not yet understand them as he ought.  St. Augustine

Terry W Culler

In my mind all sin is really just our desire to replace God with ourselves.  As Eve heard, go ahead and eat and you will be like God.  We are, however, pretty good at finding different ways to manifest this desire.
"No particular Church has ... a right to existence, except as it believes itself the most perfect from of Christianity, the form which of right, should and will be universal."
Charles Porterfield Krauth

John Mundinger

Quote from: Terry W Culler on December 13, 2023, 11:52:00 AMIn my mind all sin is really just our desire to replace God with ourselves.  As Eve heard, go ahead and eat and you will be like God.  We are, however, pretty good at finding different ways to manifest this desire.

I agree.  Adam and Eve did not sin by eating the apple.  They sinned when they gave into the temptation to be like God.  In practical terms, I think that expresses itself in various ways, all of which are selfish.
Lifelong Evangelical Lutheran layman

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbour, does not yet understand them as he ought.  St. Augustine

Mark_Hofman

#4
When I'm asked this question (and I do get asked this question), one perspective I've grown to appreciate is this statement:

"Although it is impossible for human thought to pierce and solve the mystery of evil, there can be no doubt that evil exists. Just a glance at what is going on in the world confirms what most people suspect on the basis of their own lives but do not want to admit. At some point or another everyone awakes from pleasant dreams with a fearful realization that something is wrong. Things have gone awry, plans have gone astray. Things are not right; we are not right with the world. The harmony and order and peace we would like has vanished. We are discontent with the way in which we shaped our identities. We are uncertain about how secure our lives may be. We are worried about how much life is worth and what it all means. We recognize that life has somehow missed the mark we would have liked it to hit. Life is out of sync, out of kilter. One Hebrew word for that is best translated 'sin'."

Robert Kolb, The Christian Faith (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1993), 87.

Brian Stoffregen

Quote from: Mark_Hofman on December 14, 2023, 04:38:01 PMWhen I'm asked this question (and I do get asked this question), one perspective I've pulled out is this statement:

Although it is impossible for human thought to pierce and solve the mystery of evil, there can be no doubt that evil exists. Just a glance at what is going on in the world confirms what most people suspect on the basis of their own lives but do not want to admit. At some point or another everyone awakes from pleasant dreams with a fearful realization that something is wrong. Things have gone awry, plans have gone astray. Things are not right; we are not right with the world. The harmony and order and peace we would like has vanished. We are discontent with the way in which we shaped our identities. We are uncertain about how secure our lives may be. We are worried about how much life is worth and what it all means. We recognize that life has somehow missed the mark we would have liked it to hit. Life is out of sync, out of kilter. One Hebrew word for that is best translated "sin."

Robert Kolb, The Christian Faith (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1993), 87.
Evil exists. At the same time, we can also look around and see goodness happening. 
I flunked retirement. Serving as a part-time interim in Ferndale, WA.

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