In this series of posts I’m applying Jesus’ call to repentance (i.e. radical rethinking) to the central ideas of the Christian religion as it is typically formulated and practiced in the modern West. In previous posts we revisited “the gospel,” salvation, and repentance itself. Today I want to look at our concept of sin and forgiveness. For many Christians this is the very heart of the faith, and ideas this integral and pervasive often evolve into unexamined assumptions.
The question of sin and forgiveness is ultimately the question of obligation, guilt, and hope in relation to human failure. What are the causes and nature of our misdeeds, and what is the remedy? Religion has traditionally understood this to be a purely vertical phenomenon, a technical matter strictly between individuals and God. I’ll contend that the bible itself presents a much more organic and human way of conceptualizing sin, one that is as horizontal as it is vertical.
The Problem: A Strictly Legal Framework
The default mode of thinking and talking about sin and forgiveness in the Western church has been the legal or “lawcourt” framework, wherein “sin” constitutes a technical infraction against an established law, and forgiveness is a mechanism for clearing the record of guilt. And to be sure, biblical authors sometimes employ this language in their discussions of sin and forgiveness. Paul, the author of Hebrews, and even Jesus himself according to the gospel authors occasionally appealed to the lawcourt metaphor. If you commit a trespass, it is counted against you and you stand in violation until you can procure forgiveness to wipe the slate clean.
This language, when it is used, is helpful in illustrating certain dimensions of obligation and consequence. But it’s just one way of talking about sin, and like all metaphors it can only shed a certain color of light onto a complex reality. Absolutizing one metaphor can be dangerous as it oversimplifies our thinking and eclipses other important dimensions of a thing. I believe this has happened with our concept of sin. By absolutizing this metaphor – the legal framework of sin and forgiveness – we’ve trapped ourselves (and God) inside a small, incomplete, and ultimately unhelpful paradigm. We have imagined that we actually live inside a giant courtroom, a rigid grid or a game board, instead of a living and breathing universe.
The major shortcoming of this paradigm is the way it conceptualizes (or fails to conceptualize) relationships. Just as legal structures in human society, necessary as we might consider them to be, tend to emphasize law and letter over humanity and circumstance, so the legal concept of sin has little room for context or experience. It turns the “sinner” into an isolated agent and God into a judge and record-keeper. Surely we bear responsibility and guilt for our misdeeds, but we are also products of history, society, family, genetics, etc. Surely God (as envisioned/revealed in scripture) is holy and just and omniscient. But he’s also a “Father” and our loving creator and friend. Absolutized lawcourt language (ironically) does not do justice to either reality.
The worst implication of all of this, however, has less to do with our concept of God and more to do with the horizontal axis, with human relationships. Legal “sin” is such because it is a technical violation of a rule or prohibition, not because of the damage it wreaks in the interconnected lives of the sinner and his human neighbors. It sees sin as “against God,” but not against brother or sister. As a result, we focus on “sins” that are easy to see – obvious violations, behaviors, or things in others that make us uncomfortable – but we are prone to overlook insidious corporate and systemic sins that do more far-reaching damage. We collude with harmful and poisonous ideas and programs, but they don’t fit our definition of “sin” so it’s easy to ignore them. This is the heart of the problem. And this is where the bible itself can actually help to open our eyes.
Rethinking Sin: Relationship Not Rule-Breaking
Even in the world of Ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible, where they believed that God had given them an actual, written law, their understanding of sin was more organic and human (more horizontal) than ours often is. To demonstrate this we need look no further than the very first “sin” recorded in the pages of the Torah. No, according to the Hebrew text, Eve and Adam committed no “sin”; the word is first used to describe Cain’s murder of his brother Abel in Genesis Chapter 4.
Granted the allegorical function of this story (it’s not important to our discussion that this is actually, literally the first occasion of human sin), there is great insight in this short text about the nature of sin and guilt. (I speak about Cain and Abel at length in this podcast, but what follows is a quick summary.) This story does not present sin and guilt in a legal framework, but as the messy and tragically natural byproduct of broken human relationships. Cain’s act is not premeditated, it is the punctuation on his confusion and pain. We get the sense that it surprises him as much as it does Abel. Three major causes/effects of sin are dramatized:
- Victimization/Abuse of the Other – Cain’s internal resentment of his brother manifests as physical violence. “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”
- Isolation/Alienation of the Self – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain’s self-conception as isolated and disconnected from his brother is tragically realized.
- Invitation to Retribution – Cain must be protected by God (not penalized!) lest he become the subject of victimization and violence from others. Sin spreads like yeast throughout dough.
Note that each of these is fundamentally relational, and specifically undermines a view of the “sinner” as an autonomous individual.
Confronted by his deed, Cain exclaims, “my aven is too much for me to bear!,” and here’s the thing: this Hebrew word means “sin,” “guilt,” and “punishment” all at the same time. Heaven heaps no burden of guilt or penance upon him – there is no need. He is trapped in a hell of his own making. God comes along to guide and protect, not to punish (more on that in a moment). In this framework sin is not about measurable, technical breaches of law. The bible story invites us to become aware of ourselves as interconnected beings, and of our decisions and deeds as opportunities to either victimize or to bless. The “sinful” act is only a symptom of a deeper sickness, the sickness that makes us think we’re on our own in this world. Sin is a posture, an attitude, a hidden personal pain, long before it spills out into our behavior. Do we really want to suggest that none of this matters, as long as we stay within the lines and manage not to break any specific rules?
Rethinking Forgiveness: Acceptance Not Acquittal
How then should we think about forgiveness? The traditional paradigm (informed by the legal framework) says: the technical guilt of our legal infractions hangs over us and compromises our status before God. We must confess our sins to obtain forgiveness so our account can be balanced and we can regain a positive status. In this arrangement, forgiveness is a scarce and precious substance that is withheld from the sinner and can only be procured through a religious mechanism (faith in Jesus, confession, baptism).
And at a glance, scripture seems to uphold this model. Jesus announced the “forgiveness of sins” to those who repent, and the refrain of the apostolic writings is “confess your sins and be forgiven!” The legal framework knows exactly what to do with these words. But how do these same proclamations look through the relational lens, the Cain and Abel framework?
As we’ve seen again and again in these posts, Jesus’ message of repentance is not about contrition or penance. It’s not about technical guilt and technical acquittal, it’s about abandoning dead-end agendas, policies, and programs and embracing the life of the kingdom, the Way of peace and selfless love. Those who confront their own bad ideas (who repent), will discover to their horror that they are like Cain: consumed by hate, prone to victimizing others, burdened by guilt and fear of retribution. When you face this disturbing reality, says Jesus, you will discover to your relief and amazement that God’s posture toward you is not the expected condemnation or retribution, it is acceptance and blessing. It is forgiveness. And it doesn’t need to be purchased or earned, it is already there.
Jesus declared forgiveness as a sign of the kingdom, not as the object of it. He even carelessly handed out forgiveness of sins to random individuals, like the paralytic man in Matthew 8, who wasn’t even seeking it (he just wanted to walk!). Many Jews in the first century believed that the curse of Exile was still upon Israel, and that pagan empires would continue to rule over them until the curse was broken. According to prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, this wouldn’t happen until her national sins were forgiven. Jesus’ bold claim was that this had already happened.
Forgiveness isn’t the prize at the end of the race, it’s the pistol shot at the start.
Conclusion: Posture Not Performance
I’m not advocating that we completely abandon the legal framework. It has a place in our understanding of sin and forgiveness. But I am eager that we should not over-emphasize or privilege it, and that we might seek a bigger, wider, and deeper way of thinking. Lawcourt language imagines sin guilt a technical status to be managed, while the relational model leaves us with all the consequences of sin, but the assurance of God’s love despite our failure.
In scripture we discover that “sin” is a posture, an orientation toward selfish living, exploitation, and isolation. More so than any legal understanding of sin, this model cuts us to the heart. It is a brutal and damning prognosis. But in those same pages we discover the amazing revelation: that God has a posture too, and it’s one of hope and salvation, of reckless forgiveness and blessing. Jesus invites us not only to discover this divine orientation, or to simply believe in it, he calls us to live inside it, and to make it our own.