In the previous post (“Why We Really Need a Savior”), I defined sin as a condition of the will in which we assert ourselves against our Creator. We prefer our own judgment about what is good and bad, possible and impossible, and wise and unwise to God’s judgment about these things. In sin, we reject our place in God’s creation and put ourselves in the place of the Creator. We try to reorder creation so that it centers on us and serves our private interests.
According to the Christian message, God acted in Jesus Christ to save us from sin. This message is called “the gospel” or the good news. But do we hear it as good news? Aren’t believers as well as nonbelievers tempted to ask, “What about sin is so bad that we should want to be saved from it?” Whatever its motivation, this is a good question and deserves a good answer.
Sin Attempts the Impossible
The first step toward grasping the badness of sin is understanding that the sinful will and the act of sin attempt to do the impossible. God is the Creator, and we are God’s creatures. A creature cannot make itself the Creator by an act of will or imagination. God gave creation existence, order, purpose, and destiny. We cannot change it. By preferring our own private wishes above God’s will for us, we won’t change our nature. But we can divide ourselves by superimposing an imaginary image of ourselves over the person God created. In our image of ourselves we become alienated from our true nature and destiny.
Likewise, our attempts to make creation fit our preferences and go according to our wishes cannot defeat God’s plan. God is the Lord, and God sustains the order he created. We too are creatures in God’s created order and we have no power that God does not give us. We can do nothing God does not permit. Attempting to defeat God’s will aims at the impossible.
Sin Destroys the Self and Implies Death
If you try to do the impossible, you will fail. And this failure is destructive. When we imagine taking God’s place as the Creator and Lord of creation, we entertain a false image of ourselves. And what is appealing about that image is a lie, an impossibility. We imagine attaining a greater abundance of pleasures, a feeling of power, dignity, security, and many other good things. In reality, however, we cut ourselves off from the Creator who is the source of everything good. God freely gives us life and power, the dignity of being in his image, and the security of his care. Since we are not the Creator, we cannot supply these things for ourselves. Apart from God we are nothing. Sin implies only death and destruction. If God cooperated with our sin, if he gave us what we say we want, he would stop giving us life and all good things. We would die. More than that, God would forget us, and we would never have been.
But God does not cooperate with our sin! He keeps giving us life and all that sustains it. And this gracious act has a double effect. God wills to save us from our foolish, absurd, and self-destructive wish. But God’s gracious preservation—for the sake of our future salvation—also sustains us in our self-contradictory condition. And this condition is painful in two ways. First, we experience division, self-alienation and frustration within ourselves. Our true nature and destiny keep coming into our consciousness reminding us that we are not what we should be. We cannot seem to remake ourselves to our liking, and this is a source of great unhappiness. We bounce back and forth between pride and shame, both of which are attempts to escape from what we are or what we think we are.
However, the greatest suffering we endure is felt hardly at all, except as a huge emptiness. Something very important is missing. Since we have cut ourselves off from God, we do not have fellowship with God. What an infinite loss! We give up the Source of all good, true, and beautiful things and leave home for the “far country” in search for something better. We lose confidence in our worth and our sense of place in the world fades. Since we possess a dim awareness that we are empty and powerless, we can never feel secure and in control.
In this case, as we can see clearly, sin is its own punishment. There is no need for God to add any suffering to the suffering we inflict on ourselves. Indeed, in view of his love for us manifested in Jesus, God protects us from receiving the full consequences of our own choices. And the merciful suffering we endure may awaken us to the truth and motivate us to turn toward home and begin to seek God.
Sinful Acts Cause the Sinner and the Whole World to Suffer
Our sinful wills drive us to endeavor to force creation conform to our selfish wishes. Whatever its nature, every act expresses the will of the actor. A sinful act attempts to express the sinful will of the actor. The sinfulness in the sinful act is the will to substitute the private wishes of the sinner for God’s will. But there is a sense in which no sinful act can succeed in achieving its true aim, because we cannot defeat God’s will.
Suppose I wish to take your money or your car. Or perhaps I want to diminish your sense of self-worth by cursing you or lying about you. Of course, these acts are possible. Thefts, murders, lies, and all sorts of other sins occur in the world, and they have destructive effects. And they are forbidden according to God’s law. But they do not defeat God’s will and replace it with the sinner’s sinful will. The sinner intends to take God’s place as the sovereign over the course of the future. This cannot happen. God works out his sovereign will whatever creatures do; God can work through natural causes, through chance events, through free human actions, and even through sinful acts. God negates the sinful imagination that inspired the sin and defeats the sinful intention in the act. It comes to nothing. It fails utterly because it is impossible. But God uses the physical motion and results of the act for his own purposes. “God works all things for the good of those who love him…” (Romans 8:28).
Even though God uses sinful acts for his good purposes, they still cause great suffering. They cause suffering in those to whom they are directed. Murders cut short the lives of those they target and cause deep grief in those left behind. Out of the sinful condition of the will—which itself implies death and nothingness—come actual death and destruction, pain and suffering, loneliness and heartache, war and hatred. Just as the sinful act arises out of the sinner’s internal misery and death, it returns to plague the sinner once more. When sinners externalize the sin festering in their hearts, they are made that much more aware of their miserable condition and this awareness compounds their misery. The anger, condemnation, and scorn of others fall on them, making them even more aware of their unworthiness and ugliness. The human community seeks revenge. Hatred excites hatred. Violence provokes violence. And the isolation and selfishness expressed in sin finds itself rewarded with exile. Sin is its own punishment.
“What about sin is so bad that we should want to be saved from it?”
Answer: the nature of sin is absurdity, death, emptiness, wretchedness, isolation, despair, and destruction.
And that is why the gospel of Jesus Christ is such good news!
If only the church more clearly expressed this definition of sin in day-to-day church life instead of listing vices and threatening divine punishment. It is no wonder that people stray away from the church, thinking, “If all I have to do is not murder, avoid sexual immorality, and tolerate the people I encounter, well, gee, that doesn’t sound so hard. God will realize I’m a good person.” This flips the whole “good person” argument upside down. It also makes God’s gracious interactions with us that much more incredibly loving.
True. The main reason I chose to write my dissertation on the doctrine of sin was just this kind of trivialization of sin and the human condition. If sin is not so hard to avoid, it must not be so bad. Who needs a savior?
The last section here reminded me strongly of Matthew 26:24 about Judas Iscariot—”The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” How can Jesus affirm (potentially hyperbolically) that it would have been better if Judas were not born when the betrayal was necessary for the redemption of humankind? I believe Dr. Highfield’s post has paved a good foundation towards answering this question.
One more note—I’ll sometimes hear secular speakers say that God can’t be loving and send sinners to hell and draw analogies to earthly parenthood to demonstrate this. Even when a child acts out or disobeys, they say, the parent still loves and forgives the child. But along the lines of C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, the above post clarifies that sin is its own punishment, and sinners enact their own alienation from God. The sin creates its own hell. And the most insidious toxin of sin’s claws is that it convinces many people that it really is what they should seek.
I too thought of The Great Divorce. At one point in my life the book had a profound impact on me. At some point I want to talk about whether or not, in order to be just, God must add punishment to the natural consequences of sin. Specifically, must sin be thought of in juridical terms in which some sins are weightier than others. The most weighty of all is offense against the infinite dignity of God. Does such a sin (all sin, actually!) deserve “infinite” punishment? The natural consequence of sin would of course not be infinite. God would need to add additional pain, infinite pain, whatever that might be. Additionally, salvation from sin would also be salvation from God’s additional punishment. There is something that does not seem right about this line of reasoning. I hope to ferret out what is sound and what is unsound in this logic.
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I think perhaps the key to sidestepping that slippery slope is in the Great Divorce quote “there are two kinds of people: those who say to God ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom He says ‘thy will be done.'” Sin separates us from Him, as you have written. Separation from the source of infinite good is a condition of infinite evil. When a person has chosen his or her final decision to be that of separation, God confirms such a person in that free decision. Thus, there is both a self-destructive and a judicial aspect to this final terrible outcome, and the outcome is infinite in its gravity. Accordingly, I find it inappropriate to speak of God dishing out “additional pain” or “additional punishment”—what more could be added to the terror of separation from all good?
I am also very curious to understand wether or not God adds additional punishment to the consequences of sin. I really appreciate your analysis of the nature of sin and the corresponding pain it carries. I also like how this view paints a very compassionate and merciful picture of God.
I have, however, heard people argue fervently that sin stirs God’s wrath and that God actively takes out his wrath on the unbeliever in hell. They will cite a number of bible verses mentioning God’s wrath in support.
This leaves me with the question of how to understand biblical references to God’s wrath? It certainly makes me much more comfortable to think of sin’s consequences coming solely from the nature of sin itself, but I am unsure if that is the whole story as presented by scripture. I imagine one could consider God’s wrath as being manifested indirectly by allowing the necessary conditions for humanity to harm itself, but I am not sure if that does justice to the text either.
Good questions. Lactantius, an early church father, wrote a book with the title “The Wrath of God” in which he criticized the pagan idea that God is driven by emotions as are the pagan gods. If God is driven by emotion, God is not totally free and rational; and God is beset by evil. References to divine wrath involve passionless judgments but not emotions. That is not exactly the issue raise (or that I raise), but it is relevant. Does, as you conjecture, God’s wrath refer to God’s choice of allowing sin to take its course? But this raises another problem. The gospel grace and divine intervention is about God’s decision NOT to allow sin to have its destructive effects but to absorb them–the message of the cross and suffering of Christ. As for biblical interpretation, that is another important issue, which I deal with a bit in The Faithful Creator.
To me the issue really boils down to an enjoyment of creation founded upon a correct understanding of desire. Human beings are created with desires that are meant to be fulfilled by the highest good. Sin nature, that is human beings perverted by sin attempt to substitute other things for the only true good. This is of course an impossibility. If the source of all true good exists than the byproducts it produces cannot be enjoyed without also enjoying ture good itself. God is good. For this very reason, that he is good, everything he creates is also by nature good. So our experience of all pleasure is also itself good. When we substitute the created for the creator it produces sin because we are ordering pleasure incorrectly. The Christian is placed in right relation with his creator because he recognizes God and gives him glory. With God’s grace we can have life–and have it to the full.
Very well said! I believe that the idea that human nature possesses an inner telos that aims at God as the sum and source of all good things is one of the most important principles in Christian theology. It sheds insight on the important issues of sin, freedom, salvation, providence, and a bunch of others!
This post reminded me a lot of the last book in the Chronicles of Narnia, specifically the ape’s sinful pursuit of power and divine status over all the other animals. He earned separation from Alan–ironic as he paraded about with a false Aslan at his side–and wrought major destruction and pain in Narnia. But Aslan was working it all for the good of his people all along. I hadn’t quite realized until reading your explication of sin that Lewis was probably using the ape in Narnia as a caricature for sin nature.
I love The Last Battle! Good observation.
I read this refreshing mindful article and I will be all means live as Jesus would without sin to the best of my ability with the help of God.
Contemplating the self-destructive effects of sin does make one long from freedom from sin. “Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 7)
I really enjoyed this post and found the idea of sin stemming from our image, the image being seen as greater than God in our own eyes. The concept of the creations desire to be like the creator is not, in my opinion, a bad desire, but becomes warped by another internal desire to experience and gain more. If we were to know God fully for who He is, there would be no need to rebel. If only we truly understood, we would not attempt to defy a will that is already pleasing and perfect, regardless of our existence. I also found the part “If God gave us what we want…” interesting, because in a sense, I would argue that the Garden, and the fall was exactly that. God gave free will, knowing full well that there was a choice, and in that choice Eve chose what she wanted. To be like the creator. The creation desires to be the creator. We don’t believe that, “in the image of God” is enough. That’s why we must strive to know God, to find true satisfaction for our desire to know and be like the creator.
Good observations. Perhaps our desire to BE God is a perversion of our God-given end…to be in the most intimate fellowship with God, united to God by way of being united to Christ. In that case we have every good we could possible imagine. Every evil is a perverted good.
“Our sinful wills drive us to endeavor to force creation conform to our selfish wishes. Whatever its nature, every act expresses the will of the actor. A sinful act attempts to express the sinful will of the actor. The sinfulness in the sinful act is the will to substitute the private wishes of the sinner for God’s will. But there is a sense in which no sinful act can succeed in achieving its true aim, because we cannot defeat God’s will.”
I wonder if there is a difference between defeating God’s will for creation, and defeating God’s will for our individual lives. I grant that even Lucifer could not defeat God’s will for the life, work, heroic world-saving sacrifice, and glorification of Christ in redeeming creation. No mortal therefore has the ability to defeat God’s will for the fulfillment of God’s creation.
For choices to be meaningful, and for sin as rebellion against God to have meaning, I would think that in choosing self-destruction even unto eternal separation from God, the individual has to in some way be subverting the perfect will of God for their individual life. Certainly God allows the subversion in some passive sense. If the action of sin in the individual however can only perfectly align to the movements of God’s will, then I believe we arrive at a guided rebellion where the rebel is guided to rebel in a way that strains the definition of rebellion and drains the sin of its very real significance.
This is a very important question with far-reaching implications. For example: if God wills all to be saved but all are not saved,is God defeated from some of those people? Or, if God is never defeated and some people are lost for ever, does this mean that God willed for those people to be lost for ever?
It is interesting to consider how redemptive healing acts of love are (what God commands us to do, ie Luke 10:27) in contrast to the devastating effects of sin (what he commands us not to do). I think living within the bounds of Christianity and experiencing fullness of life and be equally revealing of the way we ought to live, in contrast to the consequences of sinful living.
A common objection I always have to the emptiness claim (the greatest suffering we endure is emptiness) is this: if the Christian life is so fulfilling, what am I to make of people that leave the church or live seemingly fulfilling lives outside of Christian faith? It seems like a bit of a cop out to claim that under the mask of a seemingly fulfilled life style, people are secretly unhappy and unfulfilled and maybe they do not even realize it. There is no way to know this. I know plenty of atheists, agnostics, and non-christians that live life with equal vigor as I do, they have love, goals, aspirations, mutual respect for humans, and they believe in equality. Is this idea of sin, self inflicted by being raised in a christian household–does the burden of guilt manifest itself in a way that those coming from a christian environment that guilt guised in sin? If an atheist told me that he was living a completely fulfilled life, would I as a christian, be mandated to believe him to be a lunatic or a liar? Would I have to completely claim that his self-perception is impossible? Because I do not know quite yet if I am ready to do so, I do not have the utmost faith in the Christian Faith as the only way to experience blessings that are life giving.
Is it possible to experience the life-giving effects of love, while being immune to the negative effects of sin if one lives life outside of Christianity?
This is a refreshing discussion not only about the necessity of the gospel, but about the intention behind our sin as well. It is easy to define sin as that which is against God’s will or law, and that sin can harm our personal well being and the lives of others. It’s hard to admit that the driving forces behind our sinful acts are fundamentally attempts to usurp God’s authority and will for our lives and those of others. The need for redemption then becomes necessitated not simply because of the existence of sin in our lives, but because of our own implication in it.
I completely agree with Sacha, the part that stood out most to me is the light you shed on why we sin and what we are accomplishing in doing so (rejecting our place in God’s creation and placing ourselves in the place pf the creator).
“By preferring our own private wishes above God’s will for us, we won’t change our nature. But we can divide ourselves by superimposing an imaginary image of ourselves over the person God created. In our image of ourselves we become alienated from our true nature and destiny.”
I’d never thought of sin as attempting to do the impossible before, but now it seems so obvious. Thank you!