A recent post by Morgan Guyton portrays two very different understandings of sin.
It seems that most conservative Christians define sin “legalistically” as disobedience to God’s rules, while progressive Christians define sin “humanistically” as that which dehumanizes individuals and societies. This basic difference radically impacts how we understand our faith, scripture, and God’s nature. When we read the Bible looking for rules to obey, we see a very different text than when we read it looking for a perfect model of humanity to emulate (emphasis original).
He goes on to say, “My goal in avoiding sin as a Christian with a humanistic understanding of it is to gain the rich and perfect humanity of Jesus Christ.”
Morgan makes a lot of good points in his post about what sin is and why we should avoid it. My concern is creating a dichotomy between his two definitions that seems to say a person has to pick one definition over the other. I believe the two definitions are both true. Disobedience to God’s rules is what dehumanizes individuals and societies. God’s rules are given to us to guide us into being fully human and fully loving toward God and others. I don’t see a conflict between the two.
Of course, the Bible doesn’t contain a “rule” to govern every situation. It contains principles that we are able to apply in different contexts to extrapolate how God would have us behave. We are not as helpless as Morgan maintains when he says evangelicals believe, “If the Bible is unclear or allows for more than one interpretation in any of its teachings, then we are utterly lost.” In keeping with Wesley’s dictum that what is clear in Scripture ought to interpret what is unclear, we ought not to form an interpretation or application that contradicts what we know to be clear in biblical teaching. We ought not to allow a murky situation with our taxes to obscure the clear teaching that “thou shalt not steal.”
The way Morgan frames it, we need to choose either to obey God’s “rules” or take a more “humanistic” approach to discerning God’s will, based on whatever leads to love for God and neighbor. My answer is that we can and should do both. Obeying God’s rules will lead to greater love for God and neighbor, and acting in love for God and neighbor will not contradict God’s rules.
Morgan’s (false) dichotomy sets up the opportunity to overrule God’s rules because we want to do something that we believe is more loving. There are several problems with this approach.
- Scripture is full of exhortations to obey God’s commands. Psalm 119 is literally filled with such exhortations: “I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts” (Ps 119:44-45). The classic verse is from I Samuel: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (I Sam 15:22). Jesus’ last words to his disciples included the injunction to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). John reminds us, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The [person] who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (I John 2:3-6). This last shows that there is no contradiction between obeying God’s commands and “to gain the rich and perfect humanity of Jesus Christ” (as Morgan puts it) or to live like Jesus. Obeying the commands of God is an essential part of discipleship.
- Untethering obedience to God’s commands from discerning how to love God and neighbor also runs afoul of the doctrines of original sin and total depravity. Jeremiah exclaims, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). Our Confession of Faith puts it, “We believe [humanity] is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil” (Article VII). It appears that Morgan may not give sufficient weight to the corrupting effect of sin and evil on our moral reasoning. The point is that because of our inclination to evil, we easily distort our moral reasoning to justify behavior that is at odds with God’s commands. Going by the more nebulous “whatever leads to greater love for God and neighbor” while ignoring the commands of Scripture opens the door to such self-justifying thinking and can lead us off the track of following Jesus.
- Finally, who is to say what “leads to greater love for God and neighbor?” Morgan’s approach is a highly subjective one. Under his rubric, there is no consistent understanding of what is “right” and “wrong,” only an understanding that “is absolutely true to our spiritual journey at that moment in time” (as Morgan puts it). Truth thus becomes relative, and each person ends up doing “what is right in their own eyes” – a highly individualistic understanding of the Christian life.
We may not always understand why God commands us to do something. It may even (and often does) go against our natural inclinations. Adam and Eve did not know why God commanded them not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet, they were expected to obey God’s command, and the failure to do so unleashed the rebellion and separation of all humanity from God. If we only obey those commands that we can understand the reason for, we limit God’s authority in our lives and place our moral agency on par with God.
So sin is both the disobedience of God’s commands and the doing of things that undermine our love for God and neighbor. Where the second appears to contradict the first, we need to examine both more carefully, to ensure that we rightly understand and apply God’s command and that doing so really would be undermining love. When push comes to shove, however, given our tendency toward sin, obeying God’s objective commands has to take precedence over our possibly flawed subjective understanding of love.