In N.T. Wright’s newest book, The Day the Revolution Began, to be available in about a month and one can find a course being developed about it here, is setting the cross in the Bible’s narrative or story line (about which Wright has some refined remarks). But he knows that cross and atonement resolve a problem, and that problem is often defined as the sin problem. So, one must know the problem to make sense of the resolution, or at least once one knows the resolution then one can discern the problem.
In addition, one has to know the creation story and the consummation story to know the sin story. God’s mission then is central to understanding human sin. Or is it sin? Remember CS Lewis once said the essential sin is Pride. What then of Wright?
But what is sin? I believe NT Wright’s statements in DRB will become both a central point of affirmation as well as something that will garner some pushback. What is sin? Is it missing the mark? is it violating the law of God? is it besmirching the honor of God? is it failing to love God, self, others and the world properly? I want to collect here today a few important observations by Wright about the nature of sin.
For many there is a “covenant of works” upon which humans are measured by a perfect God; Wright calls this the “contract of works” (the term “contract” — at least to me — evokes the schemes at work in the studies of Douglas Campbell). But…
What the Bible offers is not a “works contract,” but a covenant of vocation. 76
If the mission of God for humans is to be image bearers, if the mission is to worship and serve God, then the fundamental sin is about allegiance – that is, it is idolatry.
Humans are called not just to keep certain moral standards in the present and to enjoy God’s presence here and hereafter, but to celebrate, worship, procreate, and take responsibility within the rich, vivid developing life of creation. According to Genesis, that is what humans were made for.
The diagnosis of the human plight is then not simply that humans have broken God’s moral law, offending and insulting the Creator, whose image they bear—though that is true as well. This lawbreaking is a symptom of a much more serious disease. Morality is important, but it isn’t the whole story. Called to responsibility and authority within and over the creation, humans have turned their vocation upside down, giving worship and allegiance to forces and powers within creation itself. The name for this is idolatry. The result is slavery and finally death. It isn’t just that humans do wrong things and so incur punishment. This is one element of the larger problem, which isn’t so much about a punishment that might seem almost arbitrary, perhaps even draconian; it is, rather, about direct consequences. When we worship and serve forces within the creation (the creation for which we were supposed to be responsible!), we hand over our power to other forces only too happy to usurp our position. We humans have thus, by abrogating our own vocation, handed our power and authority to nondivine and nonhuman forces, which have then run rampant, spoiling human lives, ravaging the beautiful creation, and doing their best to turn God’s world into a hell (and hence into a place from which people might want to escape). As I indicated earlier, some of these “forces” are familiar (money, sex, power). Some are less familiar in the popular mind, not least the sense of a dark, accusing “power” standing behind all the rest. 76-77
Some of Wright’s critics will mistakenly jump on this next sentence or two for failing to set idolatry in his more robust context.
Over the last generation or so, therefore, the Western world, including the church, has found the language of “sin” sorely inadequate, not least because, as Jesus said about the Pharisees, it often cleans up things on the surface while hiding a deep rottenness within. But we haven’t yet decided what to put in its place. 98
Actually, the Bible has several different words for sin: “wickedness,” “transgression,’ and other terms for inappropriate or illegal behavior. These words) all converge on the idea we sketched in the previous chapter: that humans were made for a purpose, that Israel was made for a purpose, and that humans and Israel alike have turned aside from that purpose, distorted the vision, and abused their vocation. 99
In the Bible, “sin”—for which there are various words in Hebrew—is the outworking of a prior disease, a prior disobedience: a failure of worship. 100
When humans sin, they hand to nondivine forces a power and authority that those forces were never supposed to have. And that is why, if God’s plan is to rescue and restore his whole creation, with humans as the active agents in the middle of it, “sins” have to be dealt with. That is the only way by which the nondivine forces that usurp the human role in the world will lose their power. They will be starved of the oxygen that keeps them alive, that turns them from ordinary parts of God’s creation into distorted and dangerous monsters. 101
What do you think? What is the essential sin? How to relate your view of the “essential sin” with the Bible’s story line?