So that title sounds like an essay - and maybe it will become one - but I’m just thinking through some thoughts at the moment. The other day I was at a meeting where someone was talking about how their friend didn’t have a sense of sin, thought they were a good person, didn’t do much wrong, and so on. That’s a typical Japanese approach to sin.
And another missionary there suggested that the way forward was to persuade them that they really were a bad person after all, that everyone has selfish and egotistical thoughts, etc. etc. The next step, of course, being that this sin has taken them away from God, and that Jesus can put the mess back together. That’s a typical missionary approach to the Japanese.
Here’s another way to approach it.
We tend to think “sin causes separation from God”. What if it’s actually “separation from God causes sin”?
If you think about the story of Adam and Eve, what do you think? They ate the fruit after God told them not to, and then He banished them from the Garden. The rest of the Bible is an attempt to restore humanity from that state of separation.
What if, though, they were already separated from God when they ate the fruit? My understanding is that God is not going to condemn all of humanity for all time for their incompatible culinary preferences. The problem was not that they ate the wrong fruit. The problem was that they mistrusted God and put their trust in something other than God. At that point they were already separated from him, and it was this separation and misplaced trust which gave rise to the mischievous meal.
I wonder to what degree the Bible talks about individual sinful actions, versus the abstract state of separation from God. When I think of the way we use “sin” in Western culture, we could use the image of someone dragging around a set of heavy weights - their personal, individual sins - and then handing them over to Jesus to carry on our behalf. I think this has some Biblical support. But it’s a picture which appeals to individualistic societies.
Here’s another picture which may make more sense in group-oriented societies: it’s a picture of a cloud between humanity and God. Jesus broke through the cloud by coming down to us. He can break the cloud over us by taking us up with him. ” Having been buried with him in baptism, you also have been raised with him through your faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead.”
Does this idea of an abstract state of sin also have Biblical support? I think it may well do.
In the NT the verb “sin” is ἁμαρτάνω, which as anyone who has heard a sermon on sin probably knows, means “to miss the mark”. And that certainly sounds like a personal, individual failing. But there are two distinct nouns used for “sin”: ἁμάρτημα and ἁμαρτία. ἁμάρτημα is an concrete, individual act of failing. It mostly occurs in the plural - someone’s sins. But ἁμαρτία, much more widely used, is often given in the singular, as a generic.
This is particularly the case in Romans where sin is almost personified. Paul says that we were slaves of sin, not slaves of our sins. Do not let sin reign in your body - not “sins”. I think it is fair to say that Paul uses ἁμαρτία as an abstract noun to denote the state of not living in a trusting relationship with God. From this ἁμαρτία - capital-s Sin, if you like - come all the ἁμαρτήματα, sinful actions.
What about the OT? There are also two words used for sin, חַטָּאת and עָוֹן. The second one, עָוֹן, deals with the concept of doing wrong and being punished for it. Cain says “my עָוֹן is too great for me to bear!” חַטָּאת, on the other hand, is an interesting one. The first occurrence of this also comes in the Cain dialogue in Gen 4:7, where, like ἁμαρτία, it refers to capital-s Sin. Sin is personified, creeping at Cain’s door, as a force seeking to bring about separation from God, from which sinful actions would be the eventual effect.
For those cultures which do not have a concept of “sins”, perhaps this idea of “Sin” is more useful. Instead of trying to persuade people that they’re really awful sinners (which isn’t going to go far if they really are genuinely nice people and think of themselves as such, and won’t recognise themselves in the picture that you’re trying to paint) why not go back one further and tell them what they do know and can’t argue their way out of - that they’re not living in a trust relationship with God. All the rest follows on from that.
What do you think?