The Bible’s View of Sin

January 27, 2012

I continue to read and think and pray about the nature of sin. What is sin, and how do we know it? It’s clear that God doesn’t want us to sin, and that God will forgive us our sinful behavior if we truly repent of our bad behavior. But first we have to know what is and is not sinful behavior.

“Go and sin no more,” says Jesus to an accused adulteress in John 8:11. The Gospels give us some passages where Jesus describes some particular behavior as sinful. And there are several places where Jesus in conversation with others (often those seeking to trap into saying something that will expose Him as a heretic) comments on Hebrew Scriptures that identify sinful behavior. But I can’t find in the Gospels a comprehensive understanding of sin. There are several useful passages in the Letters where Paul considers sin (for example Colossians 3:5-10, which I discussed in a post on November 19), but these are generally lists of behaviors Paul urges us to give up in our new life. I’m looking for a deeper understanding.

When I was about eight, some impish urge led me to pull open all the mailbox doors that lined the street where I lived. When my parents found out, they sent me back out on a bone-chilling, windy night to close them all again. I felt aggrieved. “I didn’t know it was wrong to pull open all the mailboxes,” I wailed, “Why don’t you just tell me all the rules, all the things I’m not supposed to do. Then I’ll know and I won’t do any of them.” I was serious then, but later, of course, I realized that was silly. You couldn’t begin to write a list of all the things a boy shouldn’t do. You could write hundreds of pages of specific rules, and still not cover everything. You want a boy to learn some basic principles that mark out what is and is not sinful behavior. That’s the deeper understanding I’m seeking.

Today I have an eight-year old son who I’m trying to grow up in goodness. Emerging out of many conversations we’ve had about his occasional flights of misbehavior, he now has three index cards stuck in his dresser mirror. They read, “always be kind,” “always tell the truth,” and “always do the right thing as I know it.” Those principles don’t cover everything, but I find them useful touchstones for talking about what he might or might not do.

I think we often are tempted to look at the Bible as providing lists of dos and don’ts such as I was seeking that cold night when I was eight. But I don’t think we can find any such comprehensive list. A list of specific sins would be much too long to be useful and it would still be incomplete.

The Bible is a complex work, a book of books, but most of it certainly doesn’t come off as an instruction book. Rather, most of it tells stories of God’s unfolding relationship with human beings. The stories and parables provide much material for us to think and pray and worship over to understand what God wants of us, but little of that material consists of specific dos and don’ts. It’s treacherous to latch on to a bit of text in a story and say, “here’s a rule.”

There is one place in the Old Testament where God does provide powerful broad principles. It’s a dramatic moment in a story. God appears to be very frustrated with the Israelites when Moses descends from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments God has given him. What makes these commandments useful is not their specificity, but rather the guidance they provide about how to think about sin. So there’s a special list be taken seriously because God intended it to be direct instruction – so direct that he inscribed it on stones.

At one of those attempted gotcha moments in His life, Jesus is asked about which commandment is the greatest, and he surprises and instructs by reducing the Ten to Two Great Commandments (Matthew 22:36-40): to love your God with everything you have in you, and to love your neighbor as yourself: that is, to embrace God’s love and to turn away as much as possible from selfishness. Most arrestingly, he says these two are closely related (“and the second is like unto it”).

Where is homosexuality in all of this? To latch onto the five ambiguous Bible passages as declaring homosexuality a sin, you have to be looking to the Bible to provide the comprehensive list of bad behaviors I was seeking when I was eight. The voice within me, the one that gives me unfailing guidance if I’ll listen, doesn’t find that helpful or clarifying. When I look, there are always too many such apparent rules scattered throughout the Bible – and yet not enough. When I instead remember Jesus’s distillation into the Great Commandments, I find the clarity I’m seeking: here is a way of understanding sin.

This way of understanding sin does not mark out homosexuality as sin. It does mark out lust, infidelity, exploitative or abusive behavior, and lack of commitment all as kinds of sexual sin, but not homosexuality. Gay and lesbian relationships have all the potential to be as loving and committed as heterosexual ones. They often are all those things, but the unwarranted stigma we place on them by declaring homosexuality a sin can undercut the possibilities of lesbians or gays finding a glimpse of divine love in a faithful relationship with another.

With the 1982 Minute, we are in the wrong place, failing, I believe, to be faithful to God’s will.



About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to The Bible’s View of Sin

  1. Pingback: Homosexuality as a Sin: The View from the U.S. Public | River View Friend

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