One man’s traitor is another’s patriot; one man’s table delicacy is another man’s disgusting refuse; a terrorist is a hero in one nation and a vile coward in another; a particular human act may be a sin to one person and an innocent pleasure to another. And yet, most people in the world assume that they should refrain from sin.
Clearly, the dilemma posed for us is defining sin. To a Muslim, polygamy is not sin, though Muslims are prudish about sexual morality and view the loose sexual and marital mores of the West as morally disgusting; to a Tantric Hindu or Buddhist virtually every manner of sexual experimentation is morally sanctioned; to a politically correct, twenty first -century American the consent of two adults is the only requirement for lawful sexual behavior. So, we ask, what is sin?
In the eighteenth century, the western world, entranced by the rise of empirical science and its body of rationally verifiable truths, entered an era known as the Enlightenment. Shedding the superstition and backwardness of the preceding centuries when the Roman Catholic church dominated intellectual life, Enlightenment intellectuals viewed the universe as an orderly creation of God, governed by the predictable and rational laws of nature. American political philosophers such as Thomas Jefferson, and American religious thinkers, including Alexander Campbell, assumed that human progress was inevitable as men learned more and more about the natural laws that governed both the physical and moral universe. Nineteenth century religious leaders wrote much about a “natural religion” and “natural theology” which they believed ran parallel to the natural laws of science. While these nineteenth-century preachers believed firmly in revelation, they were convinced that basic laws of right and wrong were as natural as was the law of gravity and that rational human beings would ultimately see the wisdom of this higher natural morality.
I am not a fan of natural religion—it ran its course and served its day—but it was not pure nonsense. Human beings are uniquely rational, and God does appeal to that rationality. The natural world should lead us to God: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge” (Ps. 19:1–2). Who can deny that every human being exits in a material world that proclaims the humanity and finiteness of man and the divinity and infiniteness of creation? This natural panorama exposes man’s presumptions of wisdom as inexcusable arrogance: “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse …” (Rom. 1:19–29).
But does nature teach us more? Is there, as enlightenment thinkers believed, an a priori natural order of morality that is clear to all rational creatures? One can read that view into Paul’s parenthetical insertion in Romans Chapter 2: “… For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another …” (14–15). Even more clearly, it seems to me, Paul appeals to an innately understood moral principle—the natural appropriateness of gender distinction—in 1 Corinthians 11 (see, particularly, 13, 14).
Nonetheless, even if human beings everywhere naturally perceive certain moral truths, it is a risky endeavor to try to define those laws which rest on the natural order of things. Jonathan Edwards, a seventeen century Puritan theologian who saw clearly the dangerous rationalistic tendencies of the Enlightenment, insisted that no “nation under the sun emerged from atheism or idolatry, into the knowledge of adoration of the One True God, without the assistance of revelation.” In many ancient societies, Edwards noted, revenge and self-murder were “esteemed heroic” and other societies encouraged trickery and stealing (VIII, 186–87). Most people would agree that the principle of one man being wedded to one woman is a law of nature, and yet many societies past and present believe in and practice polygamy, polyandry or some other form of sexual promiscuity with no sense of moral remorse. The sanctity of human life seems a principle so basic as to be axiomatic to the nature of things, but diverse cultures approve the taking of human life for revenge, self-defense, law-enforcement, or national defense.
All appeals to natural law, then, must be hedged in by two critical limitations. First, even if we believe that there was a primordial time when people were accountable to God for violations of natural rather than revealed law, we know with certainty that all men are now judged by revealed law (Acts 17:30). Second, appeals to natural law are perilous in any time because human beings, becoming “vain in their own imaginations,” create Gods in their own image and declare natural that which is unnatural (Rom. 1:21–32).
Never have appeals to natural law been more dangerous than the twenty first century. In the late nineteenth century western thought divorced the wholesome natural law of the Enlightenment from its connections to Christian thought and granted supreme authority to a rational moral order based on the values of humanism. In modern times, causes and crusades both bad and good derive their moral authority from appeals to a natural law that has no relationship to revealed truth. In the twentieth century, sin has been defined by such humanistic principles as the sanctity of human life and the equality of all human beings. Thus, whatever the question—political freedom, gender roles, sexual lifestyles, racism, ecology, family values—right behavior is determined by appeals to the natural laws of human rights. The “natural law” of a humanistic society is far removed from the “natural law” honored by a nineteenth century Christian. Western dependence on humanistic appeals to natural law has moved us steadily down a path of self-indulgence and narcissism that has caused every developing society in the world to view the West as a wasteland of decadence and sin.
Law Defines Sin
The futility of such self-direction was eloquently expressed by the prophet Jeremiah: “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (10:23). In the autobiographical soliloquy in Romans the seventh chapter, the Apostle Paul cites a general principle that is central to our discussion: “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (7).
There are interpretative subtleties in this verse and the passage that follows, but I think that Paul’s statement establishes beyond question the relationship of sin to law (Rom. 7:7–14). Our trained consciences may tell us that covetousness is naturally sinful, but in many societies a covetous desire is approved by moral law. Indeed, in our own society inordinate acquisitive greed is often passed off as healthy ambition. Covetousness is sin because it violates the law of God, not because it seems right or wrong. John states the principle without equivocation: “Whosoever committeth sin trangresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law” (1 Jn. 3:4).
I can think of three important truths that rest on this definition of sin.
1. If God’s law defines sin, we are freed from the moral relativism based on individual and societal assumptions. I may agree with the modern, politically correct, social obsession with the evil and sinfulness of racial hatred (as did many Christians who lived in the early twentieth century South), but my moral abhorrence (and that of other Christians) depends not on recent western concepts of human rights but on the biblical teaching that “Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11; 1 Cor. 12:13). My disapproval of all social and personal immorality rests on the same foundation. Our society gives legal protection to many types of sexual behavior that are unlawful in the sight of God (we must remember that Christians have always lived in societies that tolerated and condoned sinful behavior), and many people in our society give moral approval to any liaison between consenting adults. But a Christian believes that it is “vile affections” when “women change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another” (Rom. 1:26–27). This moral judgment has nothing to do with political rights, or tolerance, it is a question of law. Sin never becomes sin because of societal perceptions, whether those perceptions are right or wrong.
2. If God’s law defines sin, all unlawful behavior is equally hideous and blameworthy. Sin is singular, though its manifestations are many; every sin is transgression of the law of God. To stratify sins into large and small, important, and unimportant, reveals our own social prejudices. New Testament listings of sins are startlingly undiscriminating, clustering together fornication, covetousness, maliciousness, murder, debate, deceit, whispering, covenant breaking, homosexuality, foolish talking, whore mongering, idolatry, lying, malice, and filthy communication out of one’s mouth (Rom. 1:29–32; Eph. 5:3–5; Col. 3:5–9). It is a grave heresy to magnify one of God’s laws above others, insinuating that the violation of some laws results in sin but that other biblical instructions may be violated with less serious consequences. Disobedience of God’s marriage law as stated in Matthew 19 is a sin; disregard for the instructions regarding gender behavior in 1 Corinthians 11 is a sin; any departure from God’s instructions in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 regarding the selection of bishops is a sin. When God speaks in His Word, sin is defined. Human beings must regard with awe every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God and seek to learn and do His will.
3. If sin is defined by God’s law, it follows that ignorance kills and knowledge gives life. Ignorance is the foundation of and justification for a life ruled by lust (1 Pet. 1:14–15); ignorance darkens the understanding and alienates from the life of God (Eph. 4:18). Ignorance has never been an excuse for violation of the law of God (nor of the laws of men), and the culminating revelation of God’s will in the life and message of Jesus Christ heightens the responsibility of all to repent and come to a knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 17:30).
Contemporary Americans live in an intellectual and social environment that pays little more than lip service to the rule of God and the authority of His law. While almost all Americans (more than seventy percent) claim to believe in God, most have short attention spans and little real spiritual curiosity. Serious Bible study seems to have little future in a world lost in the mindless and boundless world of mass media and cyberspace. Is it possible in a world so distracted by the frivolous to find anyone interested in growing in knowledge? Most of us share, I suspect, the pessimistic view of a well-known scholar whom I was recently reading: “Today all sorts of subjects are eagerly pursued; but the knowledge of God is neglected.… Yet to know God is man’s chief end, and justifies his existence.” It is with some comfort that I point out that the “today” of the preceding quotation was the sixteenth century of John Calvin (lxxi).
Human nature has changed little through the ages. Today, as in the sixteenth century, the world distracts us, but God gives wisdom to those who seek it (Jas. 1:5). All those who will to do the will of the Lord can apprehend the truth (Jn. 7:17). But knowledge is acquired, it is not forcibly instilled. Knowledge is as essential to the Christian character as is faith or love (2 Pet. 1:5–7). The Apostle Paul repeatedly prayed for the enrichment of knowledge among the Christians of the first century (1 Cor. 1:4–5; Phil. 1:9). Where there is no knowledge, sin reigns.
The Word as a Guide to a Higher Life
The word of God is not merely an arbitrary legal system that gives technical definitions for a catalog of sins. Rather, God’s revelation is a guidebook that leads us safely past the most menacing pitfalls in life and points to a better way.
The gospel of Christ first convicts me of sin and opens to me the gracious hope of forgiveness through repentance and obedience. “The function of the law is thus propaedeutic,” writes F. F. Bruce, “by revealing their sinfulness and inability to men, it reveals to them also their need of that deliverance which only God’s grace can effect” (149). Paul’s remorseful consciousness of sin, triggered by his knowledge of the law, led him to seek deliverance through Jesus Christ (Rom. 7:24–25).
We must always remember that conversion can only follow a consciousness of sin. Most people in our society, and in other societies, feel smugly comfortable with their own morality. We all know people mired in hideous and painful sin who bristle with a sense of moral superiority because they support some reform or cause. No one can rise to a higher life unless they are first convicted of sin by the word of God. We can never take the high road if we do not know that we are on the low one.
The word of God convicts of sin and leads to repentance, but it also elevates our lives to a higher plane. Writing in the third century, Augustine of Hippo distinguished between the instructive power of the word and the enriching energy that it brings to our lives: “There are some things which are to be enjoyed, others which are to be used, others which are enjoyed and used. Those which are to be enjoyed make us happy. Those which are to be used help us as we strive for happiness …” (Gurgain 29). In short, we use the law of God to identify and avoid sin. But we also enjoy the fruits of a righteous life, finding in submission to the will of Christ the peace and contentment that every human being craves. Submitting to God’s law, we discover in revelation truths more profound and symmetrical than anything that pure science offers. “The truths of divinity are of superlative excellency,” wrote Jonathan Edwards, “and are worthy that all should make a business of endeavoring to grow in the knowledge of them. They are as much above those things which are treated of in other sciences, as heaven is above the earth” (V:383). Solomon tasted that enjoyment: “When wisdom entereth the heart, knowledge is pleasant to the soul” (Prov. 2:10).
Thus, the Bible is filled with exhortations to study: “Search the scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life; and they are they that testify of me” (Jn. 5:39); “Seek ye out the book of the Lord, and read” (Isa. 34:16); “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that understand the words of this prophecy” (Rev. 1:3). The truths in God’s word are innumerable, surpassing our capacity to exhaust them, filling our lives with happiness, and meaning. The Psalmist discovered that human study had its limits, but God’s revelation challenged the mind endlessly: “I have seen an end to all perfection; but thy command is exceeding broad” (119:96). To us is revealed the marvelous mystery that “angels desire to look into” (1 Pet. 1:12). It is understandable that the Bereans were declared “noble” because they “searched the scriptures daily” (Acts 17:11).
Let me propose seven practical suggestions that will help us use the word of God as a safeguard against sin. (1) Read the Bible. We are blessed to live in a land where most people can read, and the Bible is readily available. (2) Study the text. Jesus directed us to “search” the Scriptures, and the Bereans “searched.” (3) Procure and read good materials that will help you in your study. (4) Talk about the Scriptures with others. 5. Seek knowledge for the sake of truth, not to prove yourself more righteous, or more learned, than others. “Knowledge puffeth up” (1 Cor. 8:1). 6. Ask God’s help: “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask it of God … (Jas. 1:5). 7. Practice what you have learned. The Psalmist wrote: “I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts” (119:100). While the Apostle Paul did not claim to have attained perfect knowledge, he strove for it, and he urged us to walk carefully in those things to which “we have already attained” (Phil. 3:16; see 13–16).
A Prayer for Wisdom from Above
Help each of us to be “a wise man and endued with knowledge” (Jas. 3:13). We seek not that wisdom that is “earthly, sensual, devilish” and that creates “envying and strife,” but we seek that “wisdom from above” which is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.” (Jas. 3:15–17). Help us to do that which we know is right, and help us to grow in knowledge. Above all, help us to love and rejoice in that which is lawful, and therefore is good.