What is the essence of sin?
In some evangelistic presentations it's all about falling short. God demands perfection. We do our best - some more so than others - but none of us reach God's standard. And that's sin. Essentially.
Within such a framework it seems that the effort to earn salvation is laudable. What's sinful is precisely our failure to establish a righteousness of our own. I hope I don't need to spell out the problem here!
Other presentations try to go a bit deeper and get to the attitude of the heart. That's certainly preferable to a behaviouristic definition. So in these presentations sin is the rebellious spirit we display towards God.
It's climbing onto the throne of your life
It's stealing the crown for yourself
It's shaking your puny fist in the face of God
It's saying "Shove off God, I'm in charge, No to your rule"
Here sin is basically self-rule as opposed to submission to God.
I'm not doubting for a second that these statements of rebellion describe sinful attitudes. But are they describing the essence of sin? Is this what sin is at its root?
Before we think about it theologically, just think of it practically. Don't such definitions of sin strike you as quintessentially western? Don't they seem particularly aimed at the children of the Enlightenment, rather than the children of Adam more generally? I mean...
What do you say to the Iranian refugee working his fingers to the bone, sending back every penny to the family, seeking no identity of his own but in constant fear of what his community thinks?
And even in the West...
What do you say to the woman serially abused by the terrible men she invites into her life?
What do you say to the drug addict whose only remaining desire is the hell-bent drive to throw his life away?
What do you say to the down-trodden mother who's completely lost herself in her family?
What do you say to the self-harmer consumed by self-loathing?
All these people are sinners. But is their sin best captured by a definition of "self-rule"? Surely not.
If you want to convict people of sin, "rebellion" will speak to a good number of teens and to many confident, middle class go-getters. But it completely misses the Muslim, the mother and the meth-head.
So practically "self-rule" doesn't work as a definition (unless you want to confine yourself to youth work and ministry among western, middle class professionals. But no-one wants to limit their ministry so narrowly, right? Right??)
But besides its practical failures, the position is theologically untenable.
To characterise our sin as basically self-rule is far too flattering a picture of human nature. Biblically speaking we are dominated subjects in Satan's kingdom (Ephesians 2:1-3). We are captives in the strong man's house (Mark 3:27). We are helpless slaves to sin (John 8:34). We are whores besotted with terrible lovers (Ezekiel 16). We are sheep following after bad shepherds (Ezekiel 34). We are thirsty beggars drinking from broken wells (Jeremiah 2:13-14). We are lost and must be found (Luke 15). We are snake-bitten and need healing (John 3:14f). We are dead and need raising (John 5:24f). We are famished and need Bread (John 6).
Our problem is not that we are little kings and queens, ruling our miniature kingdoms! Our problem is - as Luther has said - we are beasts ridden either by the devil or God. We don't stand between Christ and Adam, sovereignly choosing who we will emulate. We stand in Christ and/or in Adam. Our destiny is determined by their choices not ours. In other words we have not climbed onto the throne of our lives! Someone is already on the throne - and it's not us!
It is of course foolish and blasphemous if someone declares themselves the captain of their soul and master of their fate. But such a "declaration of independence" is not the essence of their sin. Because in fact no such independence exists.
Our problem, most basically, is not that we are competing sovereigns with Christ. Our problem is that we are subjects in the wrong kingdom. Now obviously, some subjects have delusions of grandeur, fine. But A) let's not agree with their delusions but unmask their true condition and B) let's realise that there are many, many subjects who make no pretence of self-rule. But they share in the same problem and qualify for the same solution. We are not rulers, we are ruled. The only question is, By whom?
Think about the beginning and end of the bible: One powerful perspective on the fall is to see it as man's abdication! I'm not saying this is my bedrock definition of sin but I can't help thinking that Adam should have ruled more in Genesis 3. A kingly edict rather than an impotent silence might have saved us a lot of trouble!
And at the end of the bible, we're not looking forward to man getting off the throne. Precisely the opposite. Salvation involves being invited onto the throne, to rule with Christ (Revelation 3:21).
The "gospel" of submission ends with the challenge "Get off the throne". Isn't it pause for thought that the bible finishes with "Get onto the throne"?
What's gone wrong with the "gospel" of submission? Well it begins with a monadic doctrine of God (more here). And it continues with a definition of sin as rebellion against the Almighty. Such a definition doesn't work practically and it doesn't work theologically. Certainly we are rebels. But sin as rebellion will capture only some of our hearers and only part of the story.
In John 16, Jesus actually gives us a definition of sin. He tells us why His Spirit will convict the world of sin. What is the bottom line for humanity?
They do not believe in me. (John 16:9)
The world has not received Jesus (believing = receiving cf. John 1:12). This is the world's great evil, for which it is rightly condemned (John 3:18, 36). Humanity has refused the Fountain of Living Waters and, before it has dug any of its own broken wells, it has first refused to receive from the Giving God (Jeremiah 2:13-14). For more on Jeremiah 2 see here but note that every instance of idolatry is in fact secondary. Originally we forsake Christ's Gift, then we "look for love in all the wrong places."
Our great treachery and our great tragedy is our disconnection from God. In Him we live and move and have our being. And yet we don't know Him! Not naturally. How can this be!? How can we be estranged from Him who is our life? But we are. We don't want Him. We're dying of thirst, drinking from every other poisonous well in the desert, but refusing His life and love. This is our problem. And therefore, having defined our problem thus, the solution should be obvious... We have refused Christ, we must receive Him. This makes sense once we have defined sin properly.
But if sin is fundamentally "self-rule" then Christ becomes sidelined in salvation. He may be important for taking the punishment which rebels deserve, but the real work of reversing the sin-problem remains in our hands. If the problem is self-rule then the solution is submission. And thus, in this kind of evangelism, the "business end" of proceedings is not Christ and His self-emptying but us and ours.
And the irony is this - when self-rule is defined as the problem we are thrust into the centre of the gospel. Suddenly, we are not lost, enslaved, needy beggars. We are bold, self-directed rulers who happen to be misusing our powers. And so the evangelist treats the hearers as free sovereigns who need to rule wisely. Now they need to choose salvation rather than damnation. So the evangelist (maybe) speaks of a redemption by Christ, but it can never come across as the central act. If the sinner is on the throne then Jesus might command, cajole, and "clear the path", but He can't actually do the saving. It's all down to the sovereign chooser. And if they decide to submit we can all praise... um... them. We can praise them for avoiding the punishment due to rebels. Of course now they no longer are rebels. They have made themselves subjects and solved the whole self-rule problem. All through the exercise of their... um... their self-rule.
The whole position is riddled with contradictions. You'd think that a "gospel" of submission would attack pride wouldn't you? Actually it fuels pride. Horrifically. The power of the sinner, their wisdom in choosing, their piety in submitting - all these things come centre-stage when sin is defined as rebellion. In other words, such a gospel does not exclude but excites "boasting in the flesh". And all the while it fails to reach the sinners who know that they are lost - the "sick" for whom the Doctor actually came!
For more on a true definition of sin, see Mike Reeves' two talks