When You Say “Sin,” What Do You Mean?

When You Say “Sin,” What Do You Mean? November 9, 2011

I wrote a piece recently that appeared on the Red Letter Christians site, and the discussion that followed in the comments section was particularly interesting to me. The article considered the Biblical scripture when Jesus calls the Canaanite woman a dog and, at least at first, denies her request for help.

I and some fellow contributors to my most recent book, Banned Questions About Jesus, considered what was going on when Jesus did this. After all, it seems pretty out of character for Jesus to act this way toward anyone. Was he being a bigot? Had he been having a bad day and was kind of a jerk? Or was there some underlying test, pushing the woman to stand behind her faith? Maybe he intended to help her all along but felt for some reason that he had to put her through this humiliation for her own good.

It’s not surprising that such questions raised the ire of some readers, particularly on a site like Tony Campolo’s Red Letter Christians, which tends to attract a more conservative readership than my typical audience. But what was most curious to me was that people jumped directly from the questions about whether or not Jesus was prejudiced or even just rude to surmising that we were suggesting Jesus had sinned.

For the record, I don’t know if he did or not, but in my own theological reality, where I don’t require Jesus to have died for my sins, his perfection (whatever that means) is not such a central issue to my identity as a Christian.

But it is for some. Big time.

The problem is, I’m not sure we’re all talking about the same thing when we use the word “sin.” I’ve discovered in talking with other ministers and authors that the understanding of sin varies widely, and not just from one denomination to another. I’m not even talking about the difference between “Sin” with a capital “S” which generally refers to humanity’s overall state of sinfulness, and little-s “sin,” which we all commit on a pretty regular basis.

But can we say for sure which things we do, think or believe are sins and which aren’t?

Yes, we can generally agree on some basics, like killing, rape and the like, although the first one is even tricky. What about war? Capital punishment? Abortion? Is the commandment not to kill or not to murder? And precisely how do we define murder? If I eat a hamburger, am I breaking this commandment? some might say yes, while others wouldn’t.

The problem is there’s simply no standard by which we can absolutely define sin, regardless of how we interpret scripture.

This is particularly evident in some of the moral codes outlined in scripture, like how to treat slaves or concubines. Were slave owners sinful in Biblical times? Why aren’t they called on it? Do we believe it’s a sin now? What changed, other than cultural norms? How about marrying teenage girls off to older men? A man would go to jail for this now, but it was common practice in Biblical times.

It’s easy to label violations of laws or cultural standards as sin, but this makes sin a moving target. And to some degree I think it has to be. After all, it’s not really possible for anyone in scripture to speak to cyber-bullying or other cyber crimes. So how do we ever comprehensively define sin to the point that we can make claims about a person’s sinfulness or sinlessness?

I think that one reason Jesus urged people to focus on their own “back yard” with respect to sin is because of the slipper nature of it. One person’s selfless act of generosity could be another’s nefarious plot. The sin isn’t necessarily entirely in the act, but in the heart of the one performing the act.

Each person’s heart, and its true contents, are the purview of the heart’s owner and God alone.

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