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Chapter 13: What Sin Is and What It Is Not

Question A: What does Scripture say about sin?

1. Scripture never identifies sin with the state of being a creature as such.2 All creatures come from God, and as such all are good. Otherness from God, limitations, the need to develop, even the capacity for sinning—these are not sin. At the same time, sin is no illusion but a terrible reality. It arises in the abuse by created persons of their power of free choice (see Sir 15.11–20).

2. Apart from a very few passages in the Old Testament arguably suggesting a more primitive view (see 2 Sm 6.6–7), Scripture never regards sin as the mere breaking of a taboo. There is more to sin than forbidden behavior.

3. The Old Testament teaches that the act of sin involves a personal, inner, and enduring wrong (see Ps 51). As Jesus himself confirms, sin is in the heart (see 1 Sm 16.7; Jer 4.4; Ez 11.19; Mk 7.20–23). To sin is to be stiff-necked and resistant to God (see Ex 32.9; Dt 10.16; 31.27; 2 Chr 30.8; Is 48.4; Jer 17.23). St. Paul fully develops the implications of this understanding of sin and shows that legalism means slavery; only the holiness of living faith liberates one from sin (see Rom 7.7–8.2; Gal 3.19–29).

The dimensions of sin and redemption are marked out in the Miserere (Ps 51). Sin offends God and spoils a person’s true self. Repentance depends upon God’s love and one’s own sincerity. Redemption requires not merely the washing away of a superficial stain, not only a thorough cleansing of ground-in dirt, but even a re-creation of the entire, inner self. Created anew by God’s saving act, the sinner gives thanks and praise, communicates God’s ways to others, and offers God acceptable outward sacrifices which manifest the renewed inward relationship.

The description in Genesis of the paradigmatic sin contains important elements representative of sins in general. A known precept of God is violated (see Gn 3.3–6). The violation in outward behavior proceeds from an inner act of disrespect. The inner act is motivated in part by suspicion concerning God’s disinterestedness, in part by impatience with the limits imposed by the norm, and in part by desire for the immediate good to be realized in the sinful act. The sin engenders its own negative consequences in the sinners themselves (see Gn 3.7).

It also damages their relationship to God (see Gn 3.8–24). (One often hears today that sin breaks one’s relationship to God; this is not entirely accurate, since the sinner remains God’s child, though a prodigal one.) In defense, sinners rationalize (see Gn 3.8–13), but these rationalizations help not at all to forestall the disastrous consequences which follow from their sin (see Gn 3.14–24). Still, God cares for Man and Woman; his care foreshadows redemption (see Gn 3.15, 21; DS 3901/2331).

4. As a result of communal solidarity, there is a sense in which the sins of ancestors affect their descendants; this is most striking in the case of original sin. Responsibility for sin is nevertheless a personal matter. One may not escape personal guilt by passing it on to the larger society (see Dt 24.16; Jer 31.29–30). The rich treatment of this subject in the prophets (e.g., Ez 18) makes it clear that each person is responsible for his or her own heart and acts.

5. Even when it primarily takes the form of injustice to other people, sin is still more basically against the Lord (see 2 Sm 12.13). A psalm has David, repentant for his sins of adultery and murder, praying: “Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight” (Ps 51.4). Within the context of the covenant, all sin is hatred of God, while all upright life is love of him (see Dt 5.9–10).

6. Still, sin hurts not God but sinners (see Jb 35.5–8; Is 59.1–2; Jer 7.8, 19). Insofar as one sinfully chooses to act in opposition to the will of God, one is a fool (see Prv 1.7). Conversely, the fool, characterized by denial of God, seems inevitably to sin (see Ps 53.1–4). God’s commands are given for the good of his human children (see Dt 6.24; 10.13; Sir 16.22–28). The persistent suggestion that God’s concern for morality is self-concern is a typical aspect of temptation (see Gn 3.5) and must be firmly set aside.

To the suspicion that God rules in his own interests rather than in the interests of his creatures, one of the participants in the dialectic of Job replies:

  Look at the heavens, and see;
and behold the clouds, which are higher than you
  If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against him?
And if your transgressions are multiplied, what do you do to him?
  If you are righteous, what do you give to him;
or what does he receive from your hand?
  Your wickedness concerns a man like yourself,
and your righteousness a son of man. (Jb 35.5–8)

7. Catechetical materials often call sin a violation of the covenant. It is true that, once the covenant is established, sin does violate it; the sin of idolatry now becomes a sort of adultery (see Ez 23; Jer 3.20; Hos 2). But sin is not limited to covenant violations. The idolatry of the chosen people was sin even before the covenant was established (see Ez 20.7–8). The prophets denounce the sins of pagan nations who have no special covenant relationship with God (see Am 1.3–2.3). St. Paul also makes it clear that pagans living outside the covenant know enough of God, simply by the natural light of reason, for their immoral acts to have the character of true sin (see Rom 1.18–22; 2.14–16).

God as creator, not only as covenant maker, has provided a wise order of things. Violation of this true order of reality begins by a refusal to acknowledge that God is God and creatures are only creatures, and this refusal leads to all other sins. This intrinsic connection between God and created goods leads to the great insight: “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4.20).

Immorality, then, is a self-imposed privation which blocks love of God, since he is all goodness. When God reveals himself and offers his love, those whose deeds are evil flee the light to avoid exposure. Thus the rejection of faith has a basis in prior immorality, to which individuals can cling, even when Jesus invites humankind to abandon immorality and death in favor of immortality and life (see Jn 3.16–21). The revelation of God in Jesus provides an adequate opportunity for sinners to accept divine love; the rejection of this opportunity is a reconfirmation in sin which is utterly inexcusable (see Jn 15.21–25).

8. The New Testament’s deeper understanding of the intimacy God wishes to share with his creatures underlies its similarly deeper understanding of sin as separation from God. As light and darkness have nothing in common, so neither do uprightness and iniquity (see 2 Cor 6.14). Jesus and the devil, belief and unbelief, God and idols are absolutely opposed; therefore, so also are uprightness and iniquity (see 2 Cor 6.15–16). One who believes must walk according to the Spirit, who makes the faithful believer a child of God (see Gal 5.16). One must not walk according to the flesh, which obliterates divine life (see Rom 8.1–17).

9. Thus, in the New Testament sin is much more the unitary reality of one’s single state of alienation from God than the multiple reality of one’s numerous immoral deeds. Sins are sins because they give rise to and prolong life apart from God.

To sin is to do iniquity—that is, to alienate oneself from divine life. The Word became flesh to take away sins; for him alienation from God is impossible. Therefore: “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. He who does right is righteous, as he is righteous. He who commits sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God” (1 Jn 3.6–9). To cling to Jesus is to remain God’s child, and to remain God’s child is to be incapacitated for acting sinfully. Sinful deeds express the godlessness of iniquity.3

Considered in this way, sin is to be found not so much in the millions of transgressions as it is in the one privation of divine life from a person’s heart. Thus, in the Johannine writings “sin” tends to be used in the singular rather than in the plural. The descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus reveals him to John the Baptist as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (see Jn 1.29). This sin is the alienation of creation which has separated itself from God. Similarly, St. Paul speaks of sin as a unitary reality opposed to divine life, a reality which entered the world with the sin of Adam, and which is overcome by the obedience of Christ (see Rom 5.12–19). Needless to say, these sacred writers never minimize the sinfulness of the deeds of iniquity; rather, they deeply realize the sinfulness of each single sinful act, for they see godlessness in it.

2. Still fundamental for the study of sin in Scripture: Gustav Stählin et al., “hamartanō, hamartōma, hamartia,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 1:267–316. An excellent brief treatment of sin in Scripture: Stanislas Lyonnet, S.J., “Sin,” Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 2d ed., 550–57. Although not perfect, a generally helpful introduction: Eugene H. Maly, Sin: Biblical Perspectives (Cincinnati, O.: Pflaum/Standard, 1973); for greater depth and bibliography: Stanislas Lyonnet, S.J., and Leopold Sabourin, S.J., Sin, Redemption, and Sacrifice: A Biblical and Patristic Study (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970), 1–57; Albert Gelin (Old Testament) and Albert Descamps (New Testament), Sin in the Bible (New York: Desclée, 1965).

3. See Ignace de la Potterie, S.J., and Stanislas Lyonnet, S.J., The Christian Lives by the Spirit (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1971), 174–96. For an excellent, general summary of “sin” in l John: Eugene J. Cooper, “The Consciousness of Sin in I John,” Laval Théologique et Philosophique, 28 (1972), 237–48.