SIN – It’s Not Just a Little Boo-boo

It is amazing the extent to which we humans have gone to protect our self-esteem. Take, as just one example, the topic of sin. Sin is something other people do. Better yet, sin is something that people used to do, but now, thankfully, we have moved beyond such Victorian concepts. Regardless, no one wants to consider themselves a sinner. While others might be lazy, I am thoughtful. While others are angry or violent, I am justifiably responding to injustice. While others are narcissistic, rude, selfish, I am asserting my rights. As I said, it is remarkable how no one sins anymore.

This thought occurred to me as I have been working through the book of Ephesians. I have exhibited a certain degree of naïveté regarding the book of Ephesians – I have never really studied it in depth or, to the best of my knowledge, preached through it. Okay, let’s be a little more honest and say I have been ignorant about much of Ephesians. Doggone it, let’s call it what it is – I’ve been pretty stupid regarding many of the key issues regarding Ephesians. Ephesians has been for me what it is for many Christians – the go-to book if we want to emphasize grace, or the seven “ones,” or the spiritual gifts given to the church. Everything else is pretty much just background noise.

It took me three weeks to wrap my mind around how much importance the apostle Paul puts on the church in chapter one. And, I’m not really sure I did a very good job at that. Those who disparage church membership, or the importance of the church, are in for a real shock when they meet Paul – if they get a chance to, that is.

So, this week it was supposed to be chapter two. I’m all of three verses in, and already I am swimming in molasses.

I am, like I dare say virtually all of us, a child of my culture. I have been taught, and have basically worked with the idea, that sin is a matter of moral lapses – little boo-boos from which we are called to abstain. Sin is saying a naughty word, or violating that sacrosanct childhood song we were taught in Sunday school, “O be careful little eyes what you see…” As we age the examples of sin get bigger, such as having sex with someone who is not your spouse, or maybe shooting the person who slept with your spouse, but fundamentally sin is committing a moral no-no.

I don’t think that is exactly what Paul meant by sin, or at least what he meant by SIN. As the first three verses in Ephesians 2 makes clear, SIN is something much larger. Infinitely larger, in fact.

Notice Paul can use the word sins in the plural, but he moves immediately to the real issue – that of SIN. For Paul SIN is following the Ruling Power* of this world, the “prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” (Eph. 2:2, ESV) Paul confesses that we all “once lived” among this power, and gave into the passions of our flesh and desires of the body and mind. So, the specific, individual sins are present, but they do not constitute the totality of SIN.

Let me digress just a moment. In our technological, scientific worldview, evil spirits (or The Evil Spirit) no longer exists. If we have a flat tire, it is because we ran over a nail, not because the evil sprite of travel has turned against us. If we get cancer, there must be a medical explanation, not that we are being singled out by an evil, deceased ancestor as punishment for some unconfessed crime. We are thoroughly, completely, and irrevocably scientific in all we say and do.

As I study the apostle Paul, I am not at all sure that he would agree. SIN is not just violating a little children’s song. SIN is systemic, it is the presence of a malevolent being under whom we all live (or, for Christians, lived). SIN is following the prince of the power of the air. And, read in context of chapter one, a person is either IN CHRIST or IN SIN. There is no middle ground, no neutral field.

This is significant – critically so – for one very important reason. If sin is just a moral boo-boo, if it is just not averting our “little eyes” when they see something naughty, then sin is purely within our human power to overcome. We can rationally analyze it, make the necessary adjustments to avoid it, and then, with all of our mental and emotional powers fully under our control, eliminate it from our lives.

For Paul this is all just humanistic hogwash. SIN is way beyond anything you or I can control, or even more ridiculous, eliminate. SIN is a spiritual reality, controlled by a malevolent personification of the “Prince of the Power of the Air,” for which there is only one cure – the grace of the all powerful God (Eph. 2:5, 8). And, as Paul will later argue, it took Jesus dying on the cross to effect that cure. As Paul will go on to say, Christ has defeated these powers through his death on the cross, and chapter one has already made clear that the principalities that carry out the orders of the demonic Prince have been overcome and now lay at the feet of Christ, but they have not been eliminated! The powers have been defeated, but are still present!

If we dismiss this reality, if we read Paul with twenty-first century eyes (as I have tended to do) we reject a fundamental truth of Scripture – inspired by the Holy Spirit. In doing so we moralize sin and make it something we can control, even overcome. And, in so doing, we utterly and completely underestimate the power of SIN. (And, not to make this post too long, we thereby completely minimize the event of the cross. If all it takes to overcome sin is to “be careful little eyes what you see” then the death of Jesus was totally unnecessary, and an utter waste.)

We might be able to avert our eyes when we see something naughty. We might even be able to learn how to bite our tongue and not verbally abuse a front desk clerk who fully deserves every syllable of our attack (mea culpa, I was not, and don’t ask). Agnostics and atheists alike can be, and often are, more “moral” than the little widow ladies sitting on the “amen pew.” But we will never, no how, and no way, be able to overcome the power of SIN. The only way to walk in the realm where SIN has been defeated is to live in the realm IN CHRIST, and that is one of the main points of the letter to the Ephesians.

I think I have a lot more to learn about the world view of Paul, and that points to a lot more than just naïveté. That points to laziness, sloth, indolence. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

*As my study today revealed, the word translated “course” in Eph. 2:2 in the ESV (otherwise translated “age”) can have the meaning of “ruler” or “power.” In this sense it would be parallel to, and a synonym of, the word translated “power” in the phrase, “power of the air.” So, I have chosen to follow this line of thinking, in which Paul is simply being redundant for the sake of emphasis. Paul is saying that, prior to becoming a Christian, a person followed the Ruling Authority, or Ruling Power, of this world, and in a parallel idea, followed the Prince of the Power of the Air. This, I believe, more powerfully conveys Paul’s underlying message – we are hopeless against such power without the overwhelming power of the redeeming death of Jesus on the cross.

An Essay

“On the Moral Condition of the United States, and the Social and Political Pressures which Prevent it from Improving.”

After yet another example of mass-murder I believe it would be safe to say that there is no one in the United States who would deny there is a serious, and perhaps even systemic, moral problem in the United States. Yet, in spite of this virtually universal acceptance of the reality of the problem, there is an equally universal lack of understanding of the cause of the problem, let alone how to repair the problem. Solutions are usually presented along the lines of liberal / conservative; Democrat / Republican, but even within these disparate and hostile camps there is not much agreement. What follows is obviously just one person’s opinion, but I also believe it to be based on solid theological and sociological foundations.

The root source of our moral collapse in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is the Constitution of the United States, and the closely related document, the Bill of Rights. Designed to be a hedge against the totalitarian regimes of the dictatorships of Europe, these documents enshrined the basic tenets of secular humanism and rationalism, both held in check by the veneer of a “Christian” worldview. That is to say, in both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the individual human is the ultimate reality; but the documents are so infused with deistic, and intentionally latent Christian, language that the conservative nature of the primarily Christian culture managed to subdue what we can now see is the inevitable outcome of these documents.

When the Constitution and related founding documents are read through the lens of at least a formally “Christian” understanding, the pervasive individualism and rationalism are muted. The deistic “creator” of the Bill of Rights is naturally assumed to be the Creating and Redeeming God of the Old and New Testament. “All men are created equal” easily becomes “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” What is so quickly overlooked is that in 1776, slaves of any race were not considered to be fully human, therefore not “men.” Neither, it should be pointed out, were women, who were denied the freedom to vote. But, while the documents themselves were not Christian, those who interpreted them were at least nominally Christian, and the force of biblical morality gave the documents at least an appearance of divine approval.

All of this evaporated when the United States shed the illusion of being a Christian nation in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In the new millennium the ability of biblical morality to restrict the inevitable results of the secular humanism disappeared. Now we can clearly see the fault lines of the founding documents of our country. When the individual is the supreme and final judge of morality – of even such basic human characteristics as his/her gender – why is is it a surprise that such a human can wantonly kill dozens of other citizens because of a real or perceived slight in his or her childhood? When the power of a community to discipline – and even physically remove such a person through capital punishment – is removed, there is no recourse for that community to discipline such deviant behavior. Even worse, when the fruit of secular humanism fully ripens, even the desire for such discipline evaporates. This is not a hypothetical statement. Even today there are apologists who speak for the monsters who murder children in their school rooms, suggesting that it is the very idea of communal boundaries that explains such deviant behavior (“he can’t be held responsible – he was abused/bullied/repressed”).

There are those who suggest that what is needed to reverse this trend is to re-establish a Christian identity for the United States. I simply do not see that cat crawling back into the bag. There is simply too much political and sociological pressure to maintain the hegemony of the individual to allow that to happen. In other words, we have become what the founders of our country destined us to become, even though they would be horrified to know what became of their grand experiment in human governance. We can argue until the cows come home by themselves about whether the Constitution is a living or dead document, about a literalist or a dynamic interpretation of the law, or of a dozen more questions. But until we understand and accept that the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, are simply human documents, and display all the frailty of every other human document, we will never have the ability to overcome the trajectory of our increasingly narcissistic and violent culture.

There are, of course, a number of issues that relate tangentially to this question: our seemingly pathological love affair with increasingly powerful weapons of personal destruction, our equally pathological unwillingness to effectively enforce laws which, at least theoretically, could circumvent some instances of mass-murder, and our innate refusal to accept any responsibility for our own feelings of anger and hate.

We are, of a certainty, all fallen human beings.

Is there a political solution? Perhaps, but as I see it that would involve a new  constitutional convention in which the existing Constitution would have to be radically altered to give the community (whether it be the nation, the state, or each community) far more authority that it currently has (basically, the justice system would have to be created from scratch, and the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” would have to be replaced with a concept of justice as a pure and impartial search for truth). Frankly this is a ridiculous fantasy, as in, it just is not going to happen.

So, is there a religious, or better yet, a faith solution? Yes, and it is here that I revert to my understanding of Barton W. Stone, David Lipscomb, and many others. Their view of the world was decidedly eschatological, and some would say apocalyptic. They knew, or at least believed, that the thoughts and plans of mankind were only evil, and that humans were not going to think or legislate themselves out of the mess that they thought and legislated themselves into. In sharp distinction from the millennial optimism of Alexander Campbell, they believed that all human governments were, and are, inherently opposed to God’s rule, and Christians should in no way, shape, or  form, put their trust in such systems. In the words of Jesus, Christians are not to cast their pearls before the swine of secular government, whether it be a monarchy or a democracy. In the face of such hostile governments what is a Christian to do? Exactly what the New Testament taught: pray for such governments in that they allow for peaceful existence, pay whatever taxes or dues are mandated by such governments, and beyond that to love the Lord your God and serve Christ’s church with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. This meant feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the poor and imprisoned, and striving in every way possible to demonstrate the presence of the Kingdom of God on earth. Imagine what would happen if every Christian church believed, and acted, as if God, and not the government, is in charge. If Christians do not believe it, why should the world?

The solution to our narcissistic, and increasingly violent, culture is not to be found in the passage of more laws. It is not to be found in the proliferation of more, and more powerful, weapons. It is not to be found in turning our Constitution into an idol. The solution to this problem is to be found in the crushing realization that we cannot solve this problem. We are the problem, and until we are transformed into the image of Christ, the problem will never be solved.