One evening Aaron and I were at a great Thai food restaurant with a couple of friends. It was quite a long time ago so I can’t really remember the exact conversation, but we were discussing sin and redemption and other fun things. Somewhere along the way I said something about how we don’t want to base our salvation on works, and yet we base our sin on them– works-based sin.
Works-based (or “legalistic”) Christianity tells us we have to do and say all the right things, and avoid all the wrong things, in order to be good little boys and girls. Most Christians will say they don’t have a works-based view of their relationship with God. But do we of sin?
I’ve been rolling the thought around in my head for a few years now and have been asked by some new friends what “sin” is. In the past I’ve described it as “missing the mark” (like when you’re shooting at a target and miss the bullseye) which is what the Greek word most often used in the New Testament technically means, although its usage brings a little more into the picture. Here are some definitions from Strong’s (I cut it down a bit but if you want to check it out for yourself there is a free tool at www.blueletterbible.org):
(a) a principle or source of action, or an inward element producing acts, e.g., Rom 3:9; 5:12,13,20; 6:1,2; 7:7 (abstract for concrete);
(b) a governing principle or power, e.g., Rom 6:6; “(the body) of sin,” here “sin” is spoken of as an organized power, acting through the members of the body, though the seat of “sin” is in the will (the body is the organic instrument);
(c) a generic term (distinct from specific terms such as No. 2 yet sometimes inclusive of concrete wrong doing, e.g., Jhn 8:21,34,46; 9:41; 15:22,24; 19:11);
(d) a sinful deed, an act of “sin,” e.g., Mat 12:31; Act 7:60; Jam 1:15 (1st part); 2:9; 4:17; 5:15,20; 1Jo 5:16 (1st part).
In my most recent conversation about the definition of “sin” I tried to describe it in terms of inner motivation rather than mere outward action. Otherwise I think we run the risk of basing too much on our “works”. Please don’t hear me say that our actions are not important– they absolutely are. They speak louder than words. God has commanded us to do many things throughout His Word. However, in this sense, I hope we can avoid limiting “sin” to our outward actions when it initially takes place at the soul level. Or, as our first definition above says, “the source of action.”
Followers of Christ believe that we cannot do anything to earn a relationship with God. We can’t do anything to wash away the guilt of our past mistakes. We can’t do anything in and of ourselves to make ourselves truly happy in this life. Left to ourselves, we can’t have a hope of a life with God after we depart from this earth. If we could do something on our own to make all that happen, why in the world would God have let Jesus die such a horrible, gruesome, devastating death?
Jesus said that He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the One Who, on our behalf, made peace with God– He had no sin, but took the punishment for the sin of the world. He purchased our forgiveness and new-found innocence with His blood. He gave us the right to be called God’s kids. He brings us overflowing life– life full of not only stinkin’ awesome moments, but also really blasted tough ones. And He will welcome us to His side when we leave our dusty jars of clay behind.
So how do we get in on this?
Throughout the New Testament we’re reminded that we cannot “earn” this grace. Grace by its very nature is “un-earnable” if you will.
But surely we have some part to play in this thing, right?
This is the part where faith comes in. I like to think of faith as a conduit, a lifeline, an aqueduct, or what have you. Faith connects us to God. To His heart. All sorts of things come to us through that conduit of faith. Grace comes to us through faith: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NASB). Faith is essentially trusting God that He is Who He says He is and that He can do what He says He can do.
So what do we do with this faith? “Salvation that comes from trusting Christ– which is the message we preach– is already within easy reach. In fact, the Scriptures say, ‘The message is close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart.’ For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved. As the Scriptures tell us, ‘Anyone who believes in Him will not be disappointed.’ (Romans 10:8-11, NLT).
Sin is doing the wrong thing. But more than that, sin is knowing the difference between the right and wrong thing, and still doing the wrong thing. Sin is also doing the wrong thing unintentionally, as we see from our definitions above; sin can have such a hold on us, such a power over us, that we don’t even realize how deep we’ve gotten into it. Sin can numb us to God’s voice. Sin can fool us into thinking that we are having a great time, when deep down we know we are drowning. Sin will keep us longer than we intended to stay and take more from us than we ever wanted to give. (And yes, I know what I’m talking about, I’ve been there– even as a Christ follower.)
So all this to say, for the follower of Christ, having been forgiven and having received all the benefits of being connected to God, what role does sin play in our newly created selves? Do we avoid doing/saying/thinking the wrong things just because we shouldn’t do/say/think them? Or is there a deeper level now, a level of our souls that knows when we do/say/think sinful things, it hurts God’s heart? Will we allow ourselves to move to a much more vulnerable place with God– a place where we allow the things that hurt Him to hurt us, too? The question then becomes not “how sinful can I get away with being” but “through God’s power, how Christ-like can I be?” We move away from a works-based view of sin and closer to the Father’s heart.
For those of us who follow Christ and yet struggle with the power sin seems to have over us, know that the same grace that God lavished on you when you first decided to follow Him is like a bottomless well. Hook up your faith pipeline to it and drink it in. Pour it over your head. Swim in it. Whatever you do, don’t allow the sorrow of your sin keep you from running into God’s arms. That’s just what satan, the one who loves to see you as screwed up as possible, wants you to do– be so full of shame that you can’t bear the thought of opening that part of you to God. Guilt is sometimes necessary because it leads us to change our course of action and choose the better path that God has for us. But once we are going in the right direction again, we have no business feeling guilty anymore (check out 2 Corinthians 7:10). GOD LOVES YOU. When you talk to Him, He smiles like a proud parent. When you come to Him, He welcomes you like a lover. HE WILL NOT REJECT YOU. Let Him free you from whatever “it” is. It may take some time and the road may seem long and painful, but trust me… it’s worth it.