Sin: Offense or Blockade?
Updated: Feb 14, 2018
When my husband and I were in our late twenties, we moved from the Bible Belt South to the pagan Northwest to plant a church. We had more than a few presumptions about what people out here actually needed to hear, most of which were wrong. One of the notions we were most wrong about was the need to come down hard on sin. We falsely assumed that we were leaving a “Galatian” culture, where legalism was the main target of cultural critique, and entering a “Corinthian” culture, where abundant and overt sin required sharp censure. We were half right. The Northwest tolerates behavior that would offend genteel southern sensibilities. (Just take a walk down the street in Seattle, and compare it to Houston or Charlotte.) The half we got wrong, though, was how to attack the problem. A year or two into our church plant, it became apparent to us that at least the Christians here didn’t need to be convinced they were entrapped by their desires. The consequences of sin were keenly felt in their every day lives. They did not need another finger wagging lecture from the pulpit, they needed an escape plan.
I recently read an article by Kevin DeYoung about the dangers of the #Enneagram personality test. The article was warning against the philosophy in one particular book, The Road Back to You which I haven’t read. I have taken the test and it has deepened my understanding of self, but I don’t want to spend this post defending the Enneagram, or refuting Kevin’s whole piece. I want to focus on one phrase from the article:
“…Cron and Stabile give this definition of sin (from Rohr): ‘Sins are fixations that prevent the energy of life, God’s love, from flowing freely. [They are] self-erected blockades that cut us off from God and hence from our own authentic potential’.* To quote their definition is to refute it. There is nothing here about sin as lawlessness, sin as spiritual adultery, sin as cosmic betrayal against a just and holy God.’”
Which definition is correct? Is sin lawlessness, spiritual adultery, and betrayal, or is sin anything that blocks us from receiving and giving God’s love? Both are correct, and both are needed. DeYoung’s definition focuses on how sin offends a holy God. Rohr’s definition focuses on how sin obscures the Imago Dei. They are both biblical and necessary components, but when it comes to emphasis, balance is crucial.
Sin Offends a Holy God
Mr. DeYoung’s definition of sin only focuses on one half of the problem of sin – how it offends a holy God. This was the focus of all sermons on sin I heard growing up in my fundamentalist church. God cannot tolerate, whitewash, or excuse sin. There is plenty of Scripture to back this up.
I John 3:4 Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.
James 4:4 You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God?
Romans 3:23 All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Romans 3:10 There is no one righteous, not even one.
Isaiah 64:6 All our righteous acts are as filthy rags.
Romans 2:5 Because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.
As unpopular as it is to point out in this age of positive self-talk, we can’t throw out the verses about how our sin is offensive to a holy God, or about how God’s wrath is stored up against those who do not repent. If we focus only on how sin clouds God’s image in us, and not how sin offends God’s holiness, we will tend to minimize the need for the violence of the cross to pay the price for our justification.
Sin Obscures the Image of God
In the beginning, God fashioned the ideal man and woman after himself. His image was stamped on them, and they were given the supreme privilege of imitating, representing, and glorifying God on earth. Adam and Eve before the Fall are the prototype for all humanity, imbued with dignity and worth, glory and prestige.
When the first humans tasted the fruit, their Imago Dei was not stripped from them, but rather shrouded and clouded. The cancer of sin crept into their bones, organs and cells, was woven into their genetic code and passed on to their babies. We are under a curse. No matter how hard we try to impress God with our goodness on earth, we will have to wait until we wake up in heaven to get back to our Edenic selves.
Here are some verses which emphasize how sin obscures the image of God in us.
Hebrews 12:1 …let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Romans 6:6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.
I Peter 2:11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.
Romans 7:24 Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?
When all we focus on in our teaching is how our sin offends God, we will produce an entire generation of self-flagellating, shame-filled, chronic repenters who see themselves more like beggars grateful for crumbs than beloved children at the honored table. This is how so many of us experienced God in the churches of our youth, and this is why we absolutely need to hear more about God’s Fatherly heart of compassion towards our sinful bondage.
Which Approach Reveals God’s Heart?
An approach which focuses on God’s offense at our sin paints a picture of a God who is against us. An approach which focuses on God’s Image being marred by our sin paints a picture of a God who is for us. I know of no Bible teachers, writers, or pastors who would want us to believe God is against us. In emphasizing our unworthiness and God’s boundless mercy in saving our wretched souls, however, that is the subtle message received over time. Truly, we are needy sinful creatures, but we are also made for greatness, “a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5). When we focus on God’s desire to free us to live into our created potential, we are painting a picture of a God who is “slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8).
Which Approach Aids Change?
Besides feeling perpetually horribly about ourselves, another result of sitting under years of teaching about sin’s offense to a holy God has been, well, a lack of results. A treatment of sin that ignores our original identity as Imago Dei gives us no hope for change. If we only focus on repentance without looking behind the action to see how it conflicts with our original design, we will get the same results as the patient in Bob Newhart’s “Just Stop It” comedy sketch. The familiar cycle of sin, guilt, and repentance can never be broken unless we peel back the layers of the sin, examine the motive, and ultimately the broken identity it came from.
I love this quote from an excellent article by Derek Vreeland refuting DeYoung’s:
“Sin is disobedience and rebellion towards God—but it is so much more than that. Sin has fractured the image of God in us, shattering our understanding of who we are supposed to be.”
There are Christians sitting in our church pews every week who have confessed the same sin a hundred times and still cannot change. They hear about their spiritual adultery and lawlessness and feel horrendous guilt and shame, but they don’t hear about a compassionate God who holds the blueprints to their hearts, knows how they were designed to operate, and longs to set things right. Shame is weaponized by preachers to keep people coming back, but many shame-weary people are calling it quits.
Pastors should not fear that giving people a plan of escape rather than a lecture on Sundays is caving to social pressure or minimizing the message of the Gospel. I would argue that the power of the Gospel to change hearts is greatest when presented as a road map back to our Imago Dei which dwells deep beneath layers of sin.
*The only part of Rohr’s definition I take issue with (besides the unfortunate use of the word “energy”, which sounds too New Age-y for me) is the word “self-erected,” which seems to disregard our sin nature. If I erected the blockades, I can take them down myself. This eliminates the need for a Savior, and falsely presumes humans have everything we need to find our way back to God.