In his famous memoir Confessions, Saint Augustine recounts how he stole pears from a pear tree. He divulges “…I had no wish to enjoy the things I coveted by stealing, but only to enjoy the theft itself and the sin…We [Augustine and his “band of ruffians”] took away an enormous quantity of pears, not to eat them ourselves, but simply to throw them to the pigs. Perhaps we ate some of them, but our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden” (Book II, section 4; translation by R.S. Pine-Coffin, 1961).
Augustine reveals how initially, sin can be fun, even enjoyable. Nevertheless, sin has consequences: he describes how sin “eats away” at our hearts and “defiles” our souls. That is, sin always ends up damaging us and those around us.
I have to wonder: do you believe that sin is real? For me, it seems hard not to when you view the headlines on the internet, newspaper or nightly news. It is pretty clear we live in a broken world wracked with war, violence, oppression and suffering.
In the Christian tradition, we attribute many of these maladies to the effects of sin. And based on my understanding of the Holy Scriptures, sin is the second foe of the Christian life (the first foe being decay and death). Sin is a foe because we battle against its negative effects in our lives and in our world.
What is sin? In his book What the Scriptures Teach, E.F. Kevan, the late Principle of London Bible College, states there are three predominant images for sin in the Bible. The first is “missing the mark.” Sin is like shooting an arrow and completely missing the bull’s-eye. Second, sin is “transgression, or a stepping over a boundary.” We sin when we break God’s law, which expresses God’s boundaries. Third, is “iniquity,” which means “crookedness, perversion, or distortion.”
Now, what is the nature of sin? Does it have its own life, personality or form? Although this has been debated heavily, I agree with Augustine’s view that “…sin is a perversion of the will and an assault on the good. Though he [Augustine] associated sin with non-being, this only meant that it has no positive ontological standing before God…Nonbeing was interpreted as resistance to being and a perversion of being” (Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology, 92).
Perhaps the best illustration is to view sin as a parasite that cannot exist without a host. It lives inside each of us, quietly attacking and destroying us.
We may wonder: where does sin come from? Genesis 3 details how Adam and Eve succumbed to the lies and temptation of Satan and rebelled against God by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Consequently, sin and alienation (from God and one another) entered the human race. The Apostle Paul describes it this way: “…sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned…” (Romans 5:12, NIV).
Now how does sin express itself in real life? Sin manifests itself both individually and corporately. If I berate my wife and children, I sin. If I lie on my income taxes by concealing income, I sin. If I spread gossip in my office, I sin.
But people sin collectively as well. If a company cooks the books to steal money, that is sin. If a bank refuses to loan money to people who live in a certain neighborhood or zip code (known as “redlining”), that is sin. If a nation attacks, enslaves or persecutes a group of people based on their race, ethnicity, beliefs, etc., that is sin.
Unfortunately, the existence of sin causes a huge problem, not least of all for God. But the good news is that God has made a way to free us from the power of sin! I will endeavor to explain more in the future!