God and Sin

The empire of evangelicalism is built on the idea of a holy God who cannot allow sin in his presence. It then uses fear and control as mechanisms to convince people that only they have the solution to this dilemma.

But… as we read about Jesus in the pages of Scripture, we see Jesus, who was God, do exactly that: allow sin in his presence. Furthermore, he not only allowed sin in his presence, he went out of his way to welcome sin into his presence.

Therefore, one of two things must be true: either Jesus is not God, or God can and does indeed allow sin in his presence.

We are so focused on the the holiness of God that we forget the very essence of God: that he is sacrificial love. God’s holiness does not demand that sin be cast out of his presence because his love demands a relationship with the sinner.

Sin is not the main problem or the ultimate enemy; death is. We are not fighting to overturn and end sin, we fight to overturn and end death. Even if there were miraculously no sin in the world tomorrow, death would still exist. And so we aim not to convince with fear and control, but to set free with life and love.

Because that is what we see Jesus doing on page after page of our story, and what we, as his disciples, are to imitate.

Sin Isn’t the Problem

Today, we “celebrate” Good Friday – the day (traditionally) that Jesus was hung on a cross to die. Forty-eight hours from now we will celebrate Easter, the day he rose from the grave, alive. (Insert requisite “zombie Jesus” jokes here.) But why did it matter that he was resurrected? Why, as the apostle Paul wrote, is our faith “in vain” if Jesus didn’t in fact rise from the dead?

What difference does the resurrection make?

In church, I’ve heard some people try to explain the importance like this: Jesus proved he was who he said he was by rising from the dead. It displayed God’s power. And it points to the day when his followers will be resurrected.

Okay, that’s all well and good, but I’ve long wondered if there wasn’t something more to it than that. Those “answers” don’t seem to satisfy. And as I’ve been processing that I started wondering if we might be missing the power of the resurrection because we are focused on secondary things.

We talk all the time about sin. We were born into sin, we have a sin nature, we are sinners, we need forgiveness of sins, sin, sin, sin, sin, sin. In fact, most of the time, religion and church and living a “good Christian life” becomes almost completely about sin management. We try to sin less. We pray to sin less. We need Jesus because we sin. We judge others for their sin. The totality of our expression of the Christian faith becomes wrapped up in this notion of sin.

But here’s something I’ve been processing for the past several weeks: What if sin isn’t the problem? What if there’s more to it than that? More to Christianity… more to faith… more to the resurrection… more to the story than just sin?

What if we’re missing the point?

As I’ve been pondering those questions, I’ve been noticing that there is a different focus throughout the pages of Scripture. Instead of focusing like a laser beam on sin, like we are apt to do, the major theme throughout the ancient histories, poems, and letters of the Bible seems to revolve around the dichotomous relationship between life and death.

In the beginning, there was the Tree of Life that God encouraged humankind to eat of. But when we instead chose to eat from a different Tree, we died. “Sin” isn’t mentioned in the first three chapters of our story at all, but “die” is – three times. God created a beautiful world and offered us life. We chose death. The Jewish people referred to that death as “the curse” that all creation was brought under. And that story at the very beginning sets the thematic tone for the rest of the narrative.

When the Israelites are about to enter into the Promised Land, Moses stops and gives them several speeches – reminding them of their time in Egypt, their time in the wilderness, and the Law they had been given. He concluded his speeches by saying, “This day I have set before you life and death… now choose life, that you and your children might live.” Ancient Hebrew proverbs echo this dichotomy: wisdom is a fountain of life, turning a person from death – or, alternatively, the fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, turning a person from death.

Our story is replete with references like this, references to the beginning. Back to when we had the chance to choose life. Urging us to choose it now.

So it would make sense to find that the writers of the New Testament view the apex of our story – Jesus being crucified and resurrected — through that lens. We find something entirely compelling in Paul’s letter to the Romans, for example. He notes that there was no Law from Adam until Moses, and that “sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no Law” — but that even in the absence of sin death still reigned. In fact, death still reigned “even over those who did not sin”.

Paul goes on to write that death came to the world through one man, Adam, and that life was now being brought to the world through another man, Jesus. It’s a thought he echoes in many of his writings, including most prominently in his letter to the Corinthians we mentioned at the beginning of this blog post.

In the beginning was life. Then, through Adam came death. Now, through Jesus comes that life restored. The curse has been broken. The world is being put back together. Jesus even said at one point in his ministry that the “thief” comes to kill and bring death, but that he came so we might have life – and have it abundantly.

That’s the crux of the Easter story and our entire narrative. Death is the ultimate enemy, not sin. Sin is a vehicle that brings death into the world (one might say then, for instance, that death is the wages of sin). But sin isn’t the root problem, it’s just a symptom. Focusing on sin as much as we do is like a doctor having a pneumonia patient and focusing on their runny nose. It’s a piece of the overall picture, but it’s not at the heart of what’s going on.

Even if we could all stop sinning – completely stop sinning – there would still be death. That was Paul’s point. The goal should not be to limit sin. The goal should be to defeat death and increase life.

And here is where the importance of the resurrection comes: Jesus did not just die for our sins. He was resurrected in order to defeat death. If death is the ultimate enemy, the root of the problem, then Jesus’ ultimate act must have addressed it. Challenged it. Defeated it. This is how Paul writes, “The last enemy to be defeated is death.” Or later, “Death has been swallowed up in victory! Where, oh death, is your victory? Where, oh death, is your sting?” And to his friend Timothy, he writes that Jesus “has destroyed death and brought life…”

So this Sunday I encourage you to not just view the Easter story through the lens of sin, but to view it as the triumphal moment in the eternal struggle of death and life. Ultimately, sin isn’t the problem. Death is. And it seems to me that’s what gives the resurrection its meaning and power.