What Does God Mean By ‘Sin?’

November 19, 2011

For the Indiana Yearly Meeting Facebook Page:

My devotions over the past few weeks have been focused on trying to understand what God means by “sin:” what is the nature of sin, and how does it arise.

Last Sunday at church, the pastor preached from Colossians 2:1-7, verses encouraging us to follow Christ.  (“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him.”)  Later, I found myself reading further into Chapter 3 in Colossians because it is one of the clearest statements we have from Paul about what it means to live a faithful life.  Colossians doesn’t say anything about homosexuality directly, but I think it can help us read those passages in the Bible where same-sex sexual relations are mentioned.  Here are the verses 5-10 of Colossians 3 (NIV):   “5Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”

I find here a clear teaching about what are the sins we should try to avoid, and for which, when we succumb, we should humbly seek forgiveness.

This passage, for me, gives helpful specificity to the two Great Commandments of Matthew 22:36-40: 36  “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Sexual immorality, lust, greed, anger, malice, lying, filthy language: all these involve not loving God with all your heart and soul and mind, or not loving your neighbor as yourself.  The two Great Commandments provide a framework for making sense of Colossians 3:5-10.

Could homosexuality find a place in this list of sins?  Only, I think, if I believed that homosexuality, by its nature, involves licentiousness or lust or malice, and I don’t believe that at all.  I think all of us, straight and gay, are tempted to lust and malice (etc.), but lust and malice (etc.) are the sins, and they aren’t necessarily more tied to one sexual orientation than another.   Of course I know that Paul does describe instances of same-sex sexual activity as sinful behavior in Romans 1:21-32, so perhaps homosexuality does belong on the list, even though Paul doesn’t include homosexuality in the list in Colossians 3:5-10.

But then I read further in Colossians 3.  Paul says in verse 18: “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.”  And he says in verse 22: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.”

Both of these passages take my breath and sadden my heart.  The Holy Spirit working within me tells me to set these to one aside. Neither guides my behavior.  I don’t expect my wife to submit to me; I think a fully loving relationship between us asks that we be equal partners, not one dominant and one submissive.  And I would never take human slavery to be an acceptable practice.

I set these passages aside because neither finds a place in the broad teaching of the two Great Commandments.  I don’t think either stems from the deep teaching of Jesus.  Why do I think Paul says these things?  I’m not sure.  I take both male domination and human slavery to be features of Paul’s world.  They may have been practices to which he never gave much thought as inspired by his new life in Christ as he may have been.  (As some people put it, they are part of the “cultural husk” in the Bible as opposed to the “theological kernel.”)  I can and do set these instructions aside, even as I find much from which I learn in Colossians.

Right here in Colossians is a good example of why I don’t take each separate Bible verse as fully instructive in a self-contained way about what is and what is not sinful behavior.  And so that takes me back to Romans 1:21-32: is that a passage more like Colossians 3:5-10 or Colossians 3:18 or 3:22?

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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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