Tag Archives: forgiveness


Jesus Forgives Our Doctrine

I heard Scot McKnight on a podcast the other day where he made an interesting observation. “I grew up in a Paul church,” he said, and went on to explain that in America there are “Paul churches” and “Jesus churches.” I hadn’t thought of it in exactly those terms, and I may not parse it out exactly the same way McKnight does, but I realize that he’s right. This is not to say that some churches openly worship Paul instead of Jesus (though a few come close). The difference is between churches that worship and celebrate Jesus according to ideas about Jesus, especially those gleaned from the writings of Paul as interpreted by the church fathers and reformers, and churches that seek to follow the teaching and way of Jesus himself. This isn’t really about Paul vs. Jesus, it’s about the often shocking disparity between our doctrinal beliefs and the kingdom ethos that Jesus taught and embodied.

Even though I’d never considered the “Paul church/Jesus church” rubric before, I have been meditating for a long time on the glaring disconnection between the Protestant church’s doctrines of sin and grace and the attitude and behavior of Jesus toward “sinners” in the gospels. In a “Paul church” setting, the tendency is to focus on legality and guilt, and to treat sinners like offenders and defendants. When there is talk of forgiveness and atonement, it is usually reserved for those who have entered into a process of confession, conversion, and belief. But is that how Jesus dealt with sinners? Jesus urged his hearers to repent and turn from sin, to be sure, but did he withhold blessing and salvation until his subjects proved sufficiently contrite or devout?

In my opinion and experience, stories speak much louder than doctrines and axioms. Stories are interactive, designed to engage and provoke thought. And the Bible is full of stories and testimonies, especially about Jesus. So here are three stories about Jesus interacting with sinners that a “Jesus Christian” might take to heart.

Jesus Versus a Blind Man (John 9)

Wait a minute, you protest, a blind man isn’t the same as a “sinner!” And in your cozy, enlightened, twenty-first-century context you may be correct. But in this story and in the larger ancient world, the overwhelming belief was that anyone with an infirmity or disability was obviously being punished for some violation of God’s laws and/or the natural order. Jesus’ followers spell it out: “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” (9:2) Jesus responds, “He didn’t sin nor did his parents; this happened that God’s works could be seen in him!,” (9:3) and then proceeds to heals the man. For Jesus, pain and brokenness are not signs of divine punishment but opportunities for divine blessing. And this is why I include this particular story on this list. In a Jesus-based view of humanity, the category of “sinner” has a radically different shape than it does elsewhere. Before we talk about how to deal with “sinners,” we might need to radically rethink the label itself.

Jesus Versus an Adulterous Lady (John 8)

OK, this is more like it. A real live sinner, caught in the act, even! Spicy! In this famous incident, a crowd of extremely religious gentlemen are set to stone a woman they caught in adultery (I guess the man she was with had to get to jury duty or something). They’re super excited to put their Bible-based doctrine into action and “deal with sin” when Jesus crashes their party and ruins everything. He exposes their hypocrisy, disperses the crowd, and sends the woman on her way to continue being alive. In a “Paul church” environment, Jesus’ admonition to “sin no more” (8:11) is the instructional takeaway. But really, “sin no more” is the least radical aspect of this story. This woman, guilty beyond doubt of a top-ten sin, is pardoned and rescued by Jesus with no lecture or ceremony, without so much as a word of contrition or devotion from her. What does this story tell us about Jesus and sin? In this account, like so many others from the gospels, the danger of punition and violence comes not from heaven but from the human religious establishment. Jesus’ only role is to invade and disrupt that system and advocate for the “sinner” that it seeks to victimize.

Jesus Versus His Own Murderers (Luke 23)

I’ve talked about this story many times here on the blog, because it always gets to me. In fact, if I was tasked with summing up the message of the New Testament in a single short passage, it might have to be this one. Jesus has been betrayed and abandoned by his followers, taken into custody, tortured, and is being executed, all on trumped-up charges. The son of God hangs there, degraded and mutilated, the victim of wicked collusion between religion and empire. And with his dying breath, what does he do? Does he call fire and death upon his persecutors? Does he speak ominous prophecies of vengeance and vindication? No, with his last breath he simply and bafflingly pronounces pardon upon his killers: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing!” (23:34)  Is there a more moving and powerful sentence in all of world literature? Not only does Jesus forgive his oppressors – unrepentant pagan murderers who will never believe in him or embrace the kingdom of God – he dies advocating for them. In a stunning and prescient sociological insight, Jesus recognizes the systemic and environmental forces behind the heinous deeds of his executors and looks upon them with inexhaustible understanding and compassion.

What if our doctrines of sin and grace were based on the words and deeds of Jesus in stories like these instead of the musings of philosophers and theologians? What if being a Christian meant being like Jesus rather than believing Christian things about Jesus? And what if God looked more like Jesus the lover of sinners than any of our shame-based doctrinal formulas? 


Harm Is Not Justice On Earth Or In Heaven

This year Holy Week generated more than the typical number of articles and debates about the nature of atonement and the meaning of the cross and Easter. I was happy and gratified to add my voice to the growing chorus of Christians rejecting theologies of wrath and punition, embracing instead the essentiality of divine peace and nonviolence.

Throughout the comment threads and Twitter debates, however, it was clear that traditional perspectives are alive and thriving. A not-so-surprising number of times I saw this response to the proposal of a nonviolent God and/or atonement:

“If you remove violence from God, you remove justice. If you remove justice from God you remove justice from the world, then people will do whatever they want.”

This is not one cranky strawman taking up a contrary position, this is a tried and true axiom espoused routinely by legions of committed Christian theology nerds. And to be honest, as deeply as I disagree with this statement today, it still gets stuck in my throat because, well, I used to think this way. Yes, I used to be that guy.

Here is a paraphrase that I think reveals the problematic assumptions in this formula: The point of justice is to punish people who won’t behave properly, the only way we know to achieve this kind of justice is through violence, and so if God does justice it must also be accomplished through violence.

Can’t we do better than this? If not, can’t God do better?

The False Dilemma of Punishment vs. Doing Nothing

From a conservative Christian perspective, the worst thing we can do is to give people the impression that they are OK as they are, that their sin is not a problem, and that God forgives their sin apart from any mechanism of sacrifice or punishment. This will just encourage them to sin more, denying them the opportunity to “get right with God” and putting them in real danger. Thus the caricature of a progressive/nonviolent theology that shrugs off sin while imagining God as little more than a loving, doting grandfather (or grandmother, sheesh!).

While I’m personally on board with the grandma metaphor, I reject the false binary offered here. God as a violent punisher of sin on the one hand and sin as not a big deal on the other are not the only two options available to us, nor are they mutually exclusive.

What if sin was a big deal, a huge deal, in fact; an undeniable epidemic and an oppressive slavemaster over all of humanity, but God was ALSO good and merciful and eager to pardon our sin apart from any requirement of punishment or sacrifice? This still puts the onus of repentance and righteousness on every one of us, but the threat of harm comes not from God’s hand but from our own commitment to violent and self-destructive habits and agendas? God’s role being only to bless and heal, never to hurt?

Wait, where have I heard this before?

Jesus, Sin, and Justice

I’m just one idiot blathering on the Internet, but isn’t this nuanced view more in tune with the way Jesus talked about sin?

I agree with my conservative friends on this: Jesus did not “look the other way” or downplay the problem of sin. In fact, he was on about it. But that’s also where Jesus departs from the evangelical party line on the issue of sin and justice. Jesus tells people they are guilty of sin and implores them to repent, but he does not tell them that they are depraved, or that God’s wrath burns against them, or that they need a blood sacrifice to cover their sins.

In fact, Jesus preached mercy over sacrifice, rejected the idea that God punished people for sin in this life, and his main metaphor for judgment was a fiery garbage dump where humanity destroys itself with war and violence. For Jesus, sin is an ungodly plague from which we need to be healed and delivered, not a trespass for which we must be harmed for God’s satisfaction.

Maybe God’s Better At Justice Than We Are?

Here on earth, violence is still the tool of choice for enacting justice. We have yet to apply our collective, God-given imagination to the task of discovering more compassionate and restorative ways of responding to danger and sin. But let’s give God some credit. Christians, let’s give Jesus credit for his vision of a God whose posture toward humanity is not threat and punishment but mercy and pardon.

For too long the church has mitigated the theology of Jesus because of its theology about Jesus. Theories of atonement predicated upon divine wrath and sacrifice have overshadowed and supplanted the peaceful and beautiful gospel of Jesus. We should repent of that sin and get back to God.

Have we really believed that a God who can calm storms, heal the sick, transform lives, and even raise the dead cannot forgive sin apart from acts of wrath, whether against guilty sinners or an innocent scapegoat? This might make sense if all we knew was the punitive justice of human tyrants, but we have met Jesus! We have glimpsed a better way, and now we have no excuse.  

Atone Deaf Part One: Sacrifice in the Ancient World and the Hebrew Bible

First in a new series of posts exploring the topic of atonement, the question of theological meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

For many western Christians the death of Jesus is not only the most theologically significant event in the Bible or the church calendar, it is the most significant event in all of human history. And for conservative Protestants in general and evangelicals in particular, an understanding of Jesus’ death as an atoning substitutionary sacrifice is more essential to faith and hope than his life, his message, or even his resurrection. As kids we learned that believing in the efficacy of Jesus’ sacrificial death in our place was the only way to be reconciled to God and saved from His wrath. We learned that this view, labeled Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), was the only true and biblical one, anticipated fully by the ancient Jewish sacrificial system and explicitly taught in the New Testament. We’ll deal with the New Testament in upcoming posts, and today we’ll focus on the Hebrew Scriptures. The major question of today’s post is whether or not the offering rituals of ancient Israel constituted substitutionary sacrifices for the satisfaction of God’s wrath. But first, a general word about sacrifice and human history.

Where Does Sacrifice Come From?

In terms of history and anthropology, sacrifice is the communal sacralization or ritualization of the killing of animals (and/or the consumption of resources in general). Most ancient cultures, not least those in and around the Near Eastern setting of the Bible, developed frameworks in which sacrifices were understood to be interactions or exchanges with gods and supernatural forces. Killing animals, burning or cooking their flesh, and using their hides and bones as raw materials is what ancient hunters and farmers were already doing long before it was codified into any kind of religious system. In its most appealing expressions, sacrifice was an appreciation of divine providence and a show of respect for the animals and plants which gave their lives so the tribe could survive. More severe systems took “blood sacrifice” to unsavory extremes and offered up human victims to purge their tribes of impurity. Being one Near Eastern culture among many, Israel reflected some of these sacrificial characteristics while emphatically rejecting others.

Blood Sacrifice and Sin in the Hebrew Scriptures

The texts of the Hebrew Bible imply the ubiquity of sacrifice in the ancient world. In the early Genesis tales, for example, figures like Cain, Abel, Noah, and Abraham perform various sacrifices centuries before there were Levitical laws or a temple in which to practice them. The ancient Hebrews also demonstrate distinctly polytheistic tendencies, such as their use of pagan names for God and their penchant for “household gods.” These stories (written down as late as the post-exilic period) indicate that Israel’s sacrificial system represents a later stage in the evolution of Hebrew religion, an evolution in which they moved further and further away from the practices of their polytheistic neighbors. Noah and his family are portrayed as the first humans to kill and eat animals. The story of Isaac’s “binding” dramatizes the Hebrews’ rejection of the common ancient practice of child sacrifice. And the Torah laws themselves reflect the specific religious and agricultural realities of Israel’s life in the “promised land,” not some generic or timeless setting. All of this suggests that sacrifice did not fall out of heaven all at once as a divine decree, but that it developed and changed over time as a human endeavor according to Israel’s religious beliefs and experiences.

For the purposes of this series, we are most interested in those sacrificial traditions in Israel which dealt with blood and/or sin, as these are the images most often invoked in Christian discussions of atonement. We will briefly examine three such traditions, with special attention to the way they worked and the problems they were intended to address. These are pesach (Passover), the korban khatta’at (sin offering), and the scapegoat of yom kippur (the Day of Atonement).

The Passover story, narrated in the book we call Exodus, features a blood sacrifice at its dramatic climax. The children of Israel, slaves and captives in Egypt for generations, must kill a lamb and wipe its blood on their doorpost so that the “angel of the LORD” will pass them by as it unleashes a deadly plague against their Egyptian overlords. The event will be commemorated in an annual festival (in fact, a festival of lambs predates the Exodus experience), and marks a decisive moment in the formation of Israel’s identity as a unified people destined to become a nation. We note that there is supernatural danger in the story, but it is temporal and local and directed against the Egyptian villains. We also note that there is no “substitutionary” element to this sacrifice. The Israelites’ problem is not that they are guilty of any sin, in fact they are innocent victims of oppression. The blood is an identity marker and a harbinger of liberation.

The Levitical law prescribed several types of sacrifices, including burnt offerings, grain offerings, and offerings of peace and thanksgiving. The sin offering (detailed in Leviticus 4) involved the sacrifice of a bull for the acknowledgement and forgiveness of sins, particularly for “unintentional” misdeeds (4:2). This sacrifice was not conceived as a substitutionary killing but rather as a gift to God of an unblemished specimen as an offering for sins. And while the aim of such a sacrifice was to seek divine forgiveness, the framework was one of covenant faithfulness and blessing, not eternal salvation, afterlife, or the appeasement of God’s wrath.

Likewise, the sacrifices of the annual Day of Atonement (also described in Leviticus) were offered for the sins of the people, intentional and unintentional. The Hebrew word we translate “atone” literally means to “remove” or “wipe away.” The corporate guilt of the people was to be confessed and relinquished. Among the many rituals of the day, two goats were prepared: one for slaughter as an unblemished sin offering, the other as a “scapegoat.” The scapegoat was symbolically imputed with the sin guilt of the people (the closest thing we’ve got here to a “substitutionary” animal) but it was not sacrificed. Instead it was led into the wilderness to physically remove the people’s sin from the land. (According to rabbinical tradition, in order to avoid the embarrassment of a “sin goat” accidentally wandering back into town, it was usually led off a cliff to its “accidental” demise. Still, we note that this was technically not a sacrificial death, and was not a part of the official yom kippur observances.)

In summary: The offering rituals of ancient Israel served various functions and occasions, including matters of sin and forgiveness, but substitutionary punishment, soul salvation, and appeasement of divine wrath were not their context or intention.

Prophetic Critique of the Sacrifice Traditions

A question which arises later in Israel’s religious tradition and which speaks directly to our study of atonement is whether or not these sacrifices represented the only and mandatory methods of dealing with human sin guilt. For the theology of PSA to make sense, blood sacrifice must be the only possible way for God to be fully satisfied in the face of human sin guilt. But according to Israel’s poets and prophets, this was and is not the case. For one thing, Hebrew Bible texts routinely feature individuals and groups who attain forgiveness by repentance and prayer, without the help of sacrifices or the shedding of blood (eg. David in Psalm 32 or the entire city of Nineveh in the book of Jonah). If those inferences aren’t strong enough, however, Israel’s prophets offered a more direct challenge to the notion of blood sacrifice as the path to God’s heart. Consider these well-known passages:

And Samuel said, “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to his voice? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” (1 Samuel 15:22)

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat the meat! For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. But this is what I commanded them: ‘Obey my voice, that I may be your God, and you may be my people. Walk in all the way that I command you, that it may go well with you.’” (Jeremiah 7:21-23)

“For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; Obedience to God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)

According to the prophets, God is not particularly impressed with heaps of unblemished animal carcasses, and in fact (according to Jeremiah) He never asked for any blood in the first place. In light of these passages and our observations above, sacrifice looks more and more like a concession at best, like something God tolerated from humans who would rather negotiate forgiveness than walk in the light. 

But, since humans are utterly unable to obey God and walk in the light, doesn’t blood sacrifice become necessary to pay for our sins? God may not prefer it, but He has no choice! That is the logic of PSA, but it is difficult to reconcile this formula with the spirit of Jesus, who echoed these same prophetic words and revealed a God who forgives sin freely. Why would a God who rejects sacrifice in the name of mercy and love demand a blood sacrifice (a human sacrifice!) in order to forgive sin? It is inconsistent with the gospel of the kingdom and the divine character revealed in Jesus. 

Sacrifice: Human Gesture, Not Divine Demand

Some are perhaps uncomfortable with the anthropological approach to sacrifice I’ve outlined above, so consider a more “theocentric” version of the story: God calls Israel from among the tribes of the world, insists that they stop sacrificing human lives – especially children – and instructs them in the appropriate way to offer good gifts and offerings. But later God reminds them through the prophets that sacrifice is no substitute for love and obedience, and He wishes people would seek Him in the wellbeing of their neighbor instead of the spilling of animal blood. In what possible universe would this same God go on to require and even to orchestrate the human sacrifice of His own beloved Son?

The Passover lamb, the sin offering, and the scapegoat were symbols of liberation, forgiveness, and covenant, not punishment or the assuaging of divine wrath. Likewise, God is not a petulant, bloodthirsty deity in need of pacification. God’s heart and disposition are not swayed this way and that by the spilling of guilty or innocent blood. We will explore the positive and compelling ways in which the death of Jesus might be described in sacrificial terms, but substitutionary punishment is a fundamental misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Israel’s sacrificial traditions and the God they meant to honor and delight.

Next time: The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53.

[NOTE: After writing the first couple of posts in this series, it came to my attention that the brilliant and funny blogger James McGrath has already coined the term “atone deaf.” I just want to give him full credit and link to his post.]

The Opposing Forces in the Universe

The great opposing forces in our universe are not good and evil. Not moral conformity and moral failure. Not peace and war. Not belief and disbelief. According to a Jesus-shaped reading of the Bible, they are forgiveness and accusation.

Through his life and teaching Jesus revealed a God who is unconditionally forgiving. The God represented and embodied by Jesus is not angry or conflicted or two-faced or withholding like so many religious visions of deity. He is a loving Father (or Mother – the Bible uses this metaphor too!). Jesus called for moral reform and repentance, but never under the pretense of an angry God out for revenge. His primary rhetorical targets were powerful accusers and abusers, not their victims. In fact, he embraced and forgave “sinners” freely while denouncing those who bullied and condemned them in the name of religion. God’s character, God’s posture, according to Jesus, is endlessly forgiving and compassionate toward the bungled and the botched. Continue reading

Christian Karma

I want to give a little airtime to some teachings of Jesus that have flown under the radar in modern Christendom as they do not fit the pre-approved Protestant narrative. These are small, surprising bits of discourse from Jesus that have easily fallen prey to “yeah, but what about this other verse?” dismissal. I want to give them space to be heard and, hopefully, to ignite our imagination. Today I want to focus on two very short verses. Matthew 7:1-2 attributes this saying to Jesus:

“Do not judge so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”

This is by no means an obscure passage. Even most non-Christians are vaguely aware that Jesus said “judge not lest ye be judged.” But the truth is that within Christianity there are few verses more quickly shrugged off and swept back under the rug than these. It’s not even that we disagree with the premise that people shouldn’t judge one another, but the idea is seen as somehow dangerous, slippery, a gateway to liberalism and compromise. Disgraced Seattle megapastor Mark Driscoll routinely mocked what he portrayed as effeminate male Christians citing Matthew 7 as their excuse to get away with all manner of personal sins. “Hey, don’t judge me, man!”

Given the current religious/political climate in America, it seems urgent that we stop and listen to what Jesus is saying.  I want to give these two verses special attention, particularly the second one which is rarely discussed.

At face value it sounds like Jesus is presenting a sort of Christian Karma (sans reincarnation). Being judgmental of others will result in you being judged, and what you dish out is what you will receive. Choose to be harsh with your neighbor, and you will be treated harshly. Sow seeds of forgiveness, and you will be forgiven yourself. A more provocative way to say it might be, the God you give is the God you get.

But here a major objection pops up: “These verses aren’t about God’s judgment, they’re about people judging each other! God will still judge everyone in the end based on how well they’ve kept His law, or how much they believed in Jesus. We have lots of verses to prove it!!” But Jesus, true to character, challenges our deepest religious assumptions. Consider these additional verses, not to trump or dismiss Jesus’ words, but to add startling dimension to them:

“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19; 18:18)

“If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven, if you retain any sins, they are retained.” (John 20:23)

Right here in Matthew, Jesus tells his followers that they will have the authority to “bind and loose” anything on earth. That is, they can forbid or permit anything according to their own judgment and it will be so. Similarly, at the end of John’s gospel, he tells his followers that they have the power to forgive sins (as he did) and they will be forgiven from on high. This constitutes a radically innovative notion of God and religion. Unlike their ancestors, whose only task was to obey the ancient written Law, Jesus’ followers must come together to determine a way forward for themselves.

To put it another way, for followers of Jesus religion is an instrument of either forgiveness or condemnation.

Sadly, too many Christians throughout history and in our own day seem to have interpreted this task negatively, as if our mandate was to dole out condemnation against all deserving targets. But what if we made the effort to interpret this charge in the positive, and according to the spirit of Jesus himself? If Jesus regularly pronounced forgiveness on the undeserving, including his own unrepentant murderers, should the church not seek to emulate him in our own “binding and loosing”? What if we sowed into the world seeds of forgiveness and liberation instead of condemnation? What if we chose to project the forgiving Father of Jesus rather than the God who enforces our own bigotry and disgust?

Repent of Bad Religion, Part 4: Sin and Forgiveness

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.