Just What Is a Sin, Anyway?

Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

We Christians interested in evangelization are in the business of explaining to people how they can gain salvation from sin. And this is a problem, because it seems that few people in our culture have a robust sense of sin, or a robust notion of what sin is. It’s like trying to sell Propainex 21, the miracle cure for galldanders. It might effect a cure in a matter of seconds, leaving the sufferer free of the heartbreak of galldanders forever, but if no one in your sales region has ever had or heard of galldanders you’re going to have an uphill battle getting them to buy it.

But Leah Libresco points out that it’s not just that people don’t know what “sin” is; it’s that in common parlance “sin” has a meaning that is distinct from and different than the traditional Christian meaning of the word. She quotes Francis Spufford:

Everyone knows then that “sin” basically means “indulgence” or “enjoyable naughtiness.” If you were worried, you’d use a different word or phrase. You’d talk about “eating disorders” or “addictions”; you’d go to another vocabulary cloud all together. The result is that when you come across someone trying to use “sin” in its old sense, you may know perfectly well in theory that they must mean something which isn’t principally chocolatey, and yet the modern mood music of the word is so insistent that it’s hard to hear anything except an invocation of a trivially naughty pleasure. And if someone talks, gravely and earnestly, about what a sorrowful burden one of those is, the result will be to make that speaker swiftly seem much, much more alarming than the thing they’re getting worked up about. For which would seem to you to be the bigger problem, the bigger threat to human happiness: a plate of pralines, or a killjoy religious fanatic denouncing them?

In other words, in common speech “sin” means “something genuinely good in itself that maybe I shouldn’t over-indulge in.” And even if I do overindulge, I’m only hurting me, right? Not anyone else.

It’s easy to see why it’s hard to get traction on that basis. “Come to the Lord Jesus and he will save you from chocolate!”

But that definition leaves off a great deal of what sin is. Leah takes an intriguing approach to explaining what sin is and why it’s a problem. Instead of discussing the kind of sins that we’d mostly hate to give up, she talks about mistreating others:

Every day I punch about 7-9 people in the face.

So, every day, I get up and try to not do that. Or at least to blunder into punching people differently, because I managed to successfully recognize one of my prone-to-punch-people situations and avoid it, and now have new errors to learn from. Now, some of the time, I’m punching the people intentionally, with nearly full-knowledge of what I’m doing, sometimes I’m clumsy or careless, and I trip on something and land with my fist in someone’s face, and sometimes, I’m so blind to someone else that I don’t realize I’ve walloped them til a couple days, weeks, months later.

Of course, I’m sure she’s not punching other people in the face; she’s talking about her words and other actions that hurt other people, whether she’s aware of it at the time or not.

I think she’s got a good point; when trying to explain why sin is bad, start with the sins that most people would agree are bad, even if we prefer to call them mistakes, or slips of the tongue, or “I lost my temper,” or “I couldn’t help myself.” And in fact, that last one is exactly what sin is all about. “I couldn’t help myself. I knew it was wrong, and I didn’t really want to do it, except that I did want to do it and I did it.” When the Bible talks about about “slavery to sin,” that’s what it’s talking about; and that’s exactly what Christ came and died and rose to save us from.

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