I figured Ash Wednesday would be a good day to meditate upon the meaning of sin. One of the most important fault-lines in Christianity today falls between two very different ways of defining 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.
A legalistic understanding of sin is the understandable product of a Christianity shaped primarily by the New Testament book of Romans where Paul talks heavily about “the law” and its relation to sin. Within this “Romans Road” Christianity that I was raised with, “legalism” is often a pejorative term for people who think they can earn their salvation by following the rules, which true Christians recognize to be impossible since we’re all sinners who have broken the rules at one point or another. But I would define “legalism” more broadly to say that a true legalist is anyone who thinks that the primary problem with sin is its disrespect for God’s rules. I don’t think any serious Christians are actually “legalists” in the sense that they think they have kept all of God’s rules and deserve to go to heaven on that basis. No serious Christian would claim not to be a sinner. That kind of “legalist” is a five century old straw man that the Protestant Reformation has never stopped defining itself against.
In a legalistic understanding of sin, the problem with sin is that a rule has been broken and a penalty must be paid for it. Whether or not anyone was hurt by the sin is irrelevant. Sins that don’t seem to hurt people are just as sinful as sins which obviously hurt people, because what matters is whether or not God’s law has been violated. According to the 11th century monk Anselm of Canterbury who decisively shaped Western Christianity’s understanding of sin, violating God’s law is an offense against God’s honor. The offense is infinite because God is infinite, so the punishment for the mildest violation of God’s law must be infinite. Anselm took this to explain why Jesus, as an infinite divine being, had to die on the cross as punishment for humanity’s sin. Modern evangelical Christians, following their predecessors in Puritan Christianity like Jonathan Edwards, have extrapolated from Anselm’s logic that the mildest of sinners deserve to be punished infinitely in hell forever unless they have officially appropriated Jesus’ sacrifice for their sins in a convincing enough way to put them in God’s “yes” column.
A legalistic understanding of sin dovetails with the nihilistic view of human nature in many conservative forms of Christianity known as the doctrine of total depravity. Total depravity describes the belief that every aspect of our humanity is corrupt and untrustworthy due to the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Because we are totally depraved, we cannot reason what is right and wrong for ourselves. Our only hope is to read the Bible and do what it says. A legalistic Christian who believes in total depravity understands the Bible to be a set of clear rules that we are to obey and not question. If the Bible is unclear or allows for more than one interpretation in any of its teachings, then we are utterly lost and God is unspeakably cruel. People who claim to have a different way of interpreting scripture are presumed to be twisting up its clear and obvious truth because they just don’t want to obey it.
Christians who understand sin in humanistic terms are coming from a very different place. We don’t deny the corruption that sin has caused humanity, but we believe that God is proactively reaching out to us and teaching us through the Holy Spirit in ways that go beyond the static words of the Biblical text. When we read the Bible, we find some rules but mostly stories and poetry from which we have to extrapolate teaching that is applicable to our lives. Sometimes what the Holy Spirit reveals to us through a psalm or an enigmatic phrase of Jesus is not a meaning that could be in any way universalized though it is absolutely true to our spiritual journey at that moment in time. The possibility of this “relativistic” interpretation of the Biblical text is terrifying to Christians who believe that we are always trying to weasel our way out of obeying God, which is why they need for every Bible verse to have only have one established meaning. But I feel like flattening the Bible in that way puts a severe limit on the Holy Spirit’s ability to speak into each of our lives.
A humanistic understanding of sin takes its definition from the two great commandments that Jesus relates in Matthew 22:36-40: love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. People who are rightly oriented towards God through worship will also be rightly oriented to other people through justice because worshiping God satisfies all of our cravings which otherwise express themselves in selfishness that hurts other people. Thus, the two categories of sin are idolatry (violating love of God) and injustice (violating love of neighbor). It doesn’t matter whether the Bible talks explicitly about a particular idolatry or injustice or not. It’s sinful to worship something as god that isn’t God and it’s sinful to treat other people in any way that we wouldn’t want to be treated ourselves.
So when I read the Bible as a sinner, I’m looking for deeper insights into ways to purify myself of idolatry and injustice. The great saint Augustine wrote in his De Doctrina Christiana that if I can’t relate a Biblical teaching to love for God or love for my neighbor, then I haven’t understood it yet. This also means that I recognize some rules in the Bible were relevant to love for God or neighbor in a social framework from the past that is no longer in effect today. For example, it was very important at a particular point in Israel’s history for the Israelites to refrain from eating certain foods and intermarrying with other tribes of people, even though the Biblical commandments setting these boundaries are not applicable to all times and places.
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. The more that I am empty of idols, the more I am able to gain synchronicity with God through the Holy Spirit. That’s what I take Jesus to mean when he says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). I believe that I was ultimately saved from a legalistic understanding of sin in which I’m supposed to be afraid that God will punish me for my mistakes. 1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear which has to do with punishment.” I want my motive for avoiding sin to be love rather than fear.
I believe that the real message of Romans 1 which has been misinterpreted by so many Christians is that sin reaps its own natural consequences. Insofar as God punishes sin, it happens organically and naturally even if some verses in the Bible use a judicial metaphor for this process. When people sin, they dehumanize themselves by being “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Romans 1:29-31). It is this corruption and dehumanization that makes sin evil, not God’s offended honor at the violation of one of his rules. What this also means is that people who plainly aren’t “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, and malice” by what they’re doing might actually not be sinning even if they seem to be breaking the rules as we’ve always understood them.
I realize that my bias as a more progressive Christian may have prevented me from doing justice to the “legalistic” understanding of sin, but I do think that however you parse out the details within this distinction between “legalism” and “humanism,” it does explain why so many Christians are completely talking past each other in conversations about sin.