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A Thing Formerly called “Sin”

Notre Dame professor Gary Anderson, in his splendidly written new book Sin: A History , tackles a subject that has gained renewed attention among scholars while it has lost its nerve among many preachers and lay folks and culture at large. In a word, that topic is sin. People have just gotten nervous about the word and aren’t sure when and when not to use it, so they don’t use it at all. It’s like the word “me” as in “she sent the package to me.” Some folks are taught not to use the word “me” so they just use the word “myself,” and they make that myself look like they don’t when to use it.

It’s about the same with “injustice.” This word has developed a proper usage. First, liberals love the term and bandy it about all kinds of things; but they don’t very often make it personal as in “I committed injustice” unless they are gathering themselves into a group of others who did the same “injustice.” Conservatives, on the other hand, don’t like that word “injustice” and tend to see it as squishy and liberal and useless, so they don’t use it for themselves. So, the term “injustice” has become something “we” do but not very often something “I” do — or, if you are so inclined, “something myself does.”
“Sin” is a good old rugged word that tells true things about “me” and about “you” and about “us.” In that order. Sin, as a word, hasn’t become unpopular because of overuse. No, it’s become unpopular because it is … hear, hear … well, how do we say this, let’s be frank: it’s so judgmental. That stammering reveals why so many don’t use it. To say something is “sin” is to sit in judgment on something, some act or some person. 


Drawing from specialists about metaphors, including Paul Ricoeur, Anderson observes (and claims) that we can’t comprehend the biblical notion of sin until we become familiar with its many metaphors. And what Anderson has learned is that there is a story to tell about sin’s development in the pages of the Bible.
He provides an opening salvo: in Leviticus, on the Day of Atonement, sin became a burden that had to be transmitted to a “pack animal” and then that animal carried it off into the heart of desert, a place he says was perceived as beyond the reach of God (6). Fasting and repenting were not enough; something had to be done.
But Jesus, in the Lord’s Prayer, in Matthew 6, sees sin as a debt and he teaches his disciples to ask God for forgiveness so they could avoid becoming debt-slaves. Thus, a very common commercial term — debt — became a very common word for sin (as debt).
His point: there’s a difference between sin as burden and sin as debt. The word “debt” entailed physical punishment, such as labor or imprisonment, and during the exile the sin of Israel was seen as punishment and the duration of that punishment was paying off the debt.
Alongside this development was the corollary: virtuous acts were depicted as credits. In Second Temple Judaism some saints were thought to have carried sufficient credits to have them stored in a bank for themselves and for Israel — thus, in rabbinic Judaism, the credits of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob counted for something for later Israelites. (See Dan 4:24).
Now a big one: almsgiving was “the” major command for many Jews at the time of Jesus. It was the way one accumulated merit. Neither in Greece and Rome were alms seen as individual tasks; they were the tasks of the State. But in Judaism and Christianity, because alms were religious deeds, it became the task of the individual.
But Anderson will show that this moral world is not a zero-sum economy. Alms were investments in a company that would eventually rise to the top. While alms and the treasury of merit were big in medieval Christianity, the Reformation undid much of this connection … and the rest is history.
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posted December 2, 2009 at 9:03 am

“Sin” is a good old rugged word that tells true things about “me” and about “you” and about “us.” In that order. Sin, as a word, hasn’t become unpopular because of overuse. No, it’s become unpopular because it is … hear, hear … well, how do we say this, let’s be frank: it’s so judgmental. That stammering reveals why so many don’t use it. To say something is “sin” is to sit in judgment on something, some act or some person.
I say amen. “Sin” is a good rugged word for me, you and everybody. In my opinion, we may also not hear the word used because the uncomfortable nature of what sin is may just cause some of our pews to empty. There goes the pastoral paycheck.

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posted December 2, 2009 at 9:14 am

Interesting thoughts about a challenging subject in a post religious world. Seems a part of the challenge is not the judgment in the world sin which can be there or not depending on the way one defines sin. Rather it is the judgment that has come from those of us in the Christian community who most often use the word.

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posted December 2, 2009 at 10:00 am

It is ironic to live in a world where “sin” is thought of as judgmental personally and then we watch the media frenzy concerning alleged scandalous behavior by a celebrity or public figure–roundly and soundly being judgmental about the “other.” The world loves sin, as long as it is not ascribed to them.

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posted December 2, 2009 at 11:00 am

I think this is one of the things which really frustrates me as a student theologian.
Scholars are very good at demonstrating why some detestable act isn’t really sin at all, and in fact the gospel is about showing us why things aren’t really sinful at all since we have been enslaved by legalism in the church.
So Jesus comes to liberate us from the church.
That went on a bit of a tangent.
Great post.

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Jeff Cook

posted December 2, 2009 at 11:28 am

The pack animal line of thought is brilliant.
Though appropriate metaphors, I don’t know if either the “sin as debt” or “sin as burden” get to the root of what sin “is”.
I will love to here how that gets played out.

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Scot McKnight

posted December 2, 2009 at 11:31 am

Jeff, stick with us … this is one of those macroscopic books with intellectual finesse … all kinds of topics will emerge.

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John W Frye

posted December 2, 2009 at 2:40 pm

I think it was Eugene H Peterson who lamented the loss of the word sin. We need to gladly accept the term both personally and corporately because that term alone qualifies us for deliverance through the redeeming work of Jesus.

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posted December 2, 2009 at 2:47 pm

How much did the “church growth” movement contribute to this? Because the term was downplayed in society, were pastors then hesitant to use it in seeker-sens. services?

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posted December 2, 2009 at 5:22 pm

I think the problem we have with the word sin has a lot to do with the secularization of society. If a brother or sister in Christ is doing something sinful, I should be able to expect that although they may not much appreciate being confronted with their sin, we will have some agreement that sin is sin. They may have reasons and excuses which they feel condone their sin, but even the fact that they see it as something needing to be justified means we are playing in the same ballpark. However, outside of the boundaries of the church, sin loses much of its meaning. It’s not just that it’s judgmental; its that it assumes a shared morality which doesn’t exist. If I have a friend who is not Christian and is committing sin, should I tell them that that what they are doing is sinful, it means nothing to them. It’s post-modernism at work, I suppose. A certain behavior is sinful for me as a believer because by virtue of my faith I am bound by a certain morality. However, for someone who is not submitted to that morality, that same behavior may well be seen as neutral or even good. For me to go to a non-Christian friend and tell him or her that their behavior is sinful is much like a Muslim trying to tell me how wrong it is to leave my hair uncovered outside the home.
What I think a lot of pastors and churches are missing, however, is the opportunity created by this disparity between Christian morality (the boundaries of sin) and what is going on in the world. This gap needs to be pointed out, not as a way of condemning the world (as well as the majority of people in the pews), but as an invitation to a different way of life. The idea of sin is an invitation to restrain ourselves in service and submission to something bigger and more important than ourselves. To be shaped by something other than the pursuit of our desires and pleasures. IE to live a life that has meaning that is so often missing in people’s lives. We need to hear more often that the life we are called to is in no way “normal” and expected, but is instead profoundly counter-cultural and unexpected. And our notion of sin is a large part of how we are called to live differently than the world around us. We Christians so often look no different than the world around us, I think, because we do not think of ourselves as actually set apart. We are victims of bad times and lowering morality and the shunning of the notion of sin. However, The Way was always about showing a new, different way of living right in the middle of bad times and base moral standards in cultures that scoff at the notion of sin. And we do it by depending on God and each other to support, exhort and encourage each other with the full awareness that we are doing something different than what is normal and expected. It’s part of not only our personal morality, but of our witness to the world.
I also think that it fits with the narrative of Jesus who said, “I came not to condemn the world, but to save it.” While there are those who would like sin to have the power to provoke fear of God’s wrath, the fact is that the narrative of the NT is in good part about moving from fear to love. Which to me means that we avoid sin and repent of sin not because we fear God’s wrath, but because our love of God compels us to strive to live in His ways. Our fear is that we will fail to obtain the prize, not that we will be punished. I have often thought that people underestimate the power of what many people will experience when they stand before the Living God and are confronted with the fact that they have wasted their life pursuing things of no worth. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth will ensue, I believe. And not necessarily because of any impending punishment, I would think.
There’s obviously much more to this and I’m sure I’m not explaining myself well. But just some ideas on the subject to put out there.

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posted December 2, 2009 at 9:51 pm

“Now a big one: almsgiving was “the” major command for many Jews at the time of Jesus. It was the way one accumulated merit.”
This sheds an interesting light on Jesus pointing several people towards giving away their possessions. Almost ironic, “you know how to gain merit, why not pursue that?” Almost a dare to identify that there is more to the kingdom than working off sin.

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posted December 2, 2009 at 11:26 pm

Notre Dame? I am curious how Anderson will base his approach to defining sin – as spiritual pollutant or obstruction to relationship with g-d (S. Chan). How does this play out in the progressive free-church’s trend toward ancient spirituality?
Relating Yom Kippur and injustice, I think of the social context of sin. It is the shared burden of sin that makes atonement necessary. We’d do well to consider sin-of-injustice not merely as some liberal social rant. But consider sin as the true burden upon this wearied world, where war, affluence, crime, greed take on a life of their own – as entities, embodiments of sin. Perhaps I didn’t read close enough, but I couldn’t help but to read each commenter as thinking about individual sin.
BTW, I didn’t check again, but wasn’t the Yom Kippur animal sent into the desert a goat? I didn’t know goats were beasts of burden 3,000 years ago.

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Jim Martin

posted December 3, 2009 at 7:03 am

I read your post and then immediately went to Amazon. :) Very good thoughts. I am thankful that the word and idea of “sin” is getting renewed attention among scholars. (Even, “…while it has lost its nerve among many preachers and lay folks and culture at large.”)
I really do think we (in churches) have lost something with the disappearance of this word. In particular, we have lost a way to accurately describe the human condition, both our own and others as well. Anyway, I look forward to reading this book.

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