Christians imagine a sinless world in which there is, well, no more sin. Bad, harmful behavior simply doesn’t occur. Everyone is kind, and no one succumbs to base desires like lust or greed or gluttony. The sun comes up at the same time every day and we sleep the peaceful sleep of the saints every night. It sounds a bit like Camelot, only better: instead of being ruled by King Arthur, we are ruled by the King of kings. Of course, in this vision, there is a standard for what constitutes harm and there are definitions of right and wrong. For those trying to live into the Biblical worldview, these standards and definitions are codified in the Bible. Some of these definitions are clear and unambiguous. For example, adultery, mentioned as the seventh of the ten commandments, is definitively wrong. It breaks a fundamental expectation of fidelity in all relationships. These fundamental principles are implicit in the ten commandments and outline a worldview in which we are expected to treat each other with the same values we treat God: fidelity, trust, honesty, and an acceptance that the reality given to us by God is in fact real. But some other standards are less clear. For example, the Levitical ban on eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:9-12). This may have been meaningful in 1000 BC, but it is rarely followed in modern times where the harmful effects of eating shellfish have been mitigated. Does eating shellfish violate a fundamental principal of a Biblical worldview? Something for you to ponder the next time you serve lobster thermidor.
There is, however, another version of a sinless world. In this alternate version, the standards and definitions for what constitutes right and wrong are not based on transcendent fundamental principles, because in this view there is nothing that is transcendent. It’s a what-you see-is-all-there-is kind of world. In effect, this world is sinless because there is no such thing as sin. This is sometimes referred to as naturalism, in which the “you” that is you is hard-wired in at birth, so any desires you experience and any way you want to express yourself is just as valid as the next guy’s because you, after all, are you. Naturalism sometimes gets glued on to a Christian point of view like one of those fake tattoos, and is exemplified by the statement, “God made me this way,” inferring again that God made you to be a monolith – unchangeable, immutable, set in concrete. It is, of course, a marvelous excuse to do anything you like because everything you do was ordained by God at the moment of your birth. Naturalism works particularly well if a) you pay absolutely no attention to the Bible and b) are a dedicated narcissist. In other words, a Christian in name only.
But even Bible-faithful Christians are faced with some challenges when it comes to really honing in on what exactly constitutes a sin. One of the first comes when trying to figure out the relationship between the Old Covenant of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the New Covenant of the Gospels. The Old Covenant is actually multiple covenants: the Covenant of Noah, the Ten Commandments, and The Law of Moses. Some Christians over the centuries have believed that the New Covenant of Jesus Christ supersedes all of the Old Covenants, and therefore all of those many rules don’t apply to Christians. This is called antinomianism if really want a long and hard to pronounce technical term. Both early and later Christian scholars, including John Wesley, rejected antinomianism out of hand, particularly emphasizing the Noah Covenant and the Ten Commandments as being foundational to Christian teachings. But the Law of Moses – the many rules and regulations found on lists in Leviticus and Deuteronomy – still can be problematic. So many sins, so little time. And many sins, like the previously mentioned lobster thermidor, seem silly in the modern age. But it also seems silly, and downright dangerous, to pick and choose which sins we can ignore and which sins we should worry about, since all were handed down by God. It can be quite a pickle, but this indecision can and has been weaponized to selectively prosecute sins by prosecutors who benefit from the action.
It is this kind of hypocrisy that infuriates Jesus like nothing else throughout the Gospels. The Pharisees, and others, use a double standard to cement their power, whereas Jesus reminds them, sometimes quite forcefully, that the purpose of the Law was to guide the people closer to God. Like a horse that needs to be broken, the Law put a halter on the Israelites in order to lead them towards their own best interests, which of course align perfectly with God’s interests. But the Israelites, later referred to as the Jews, refused to be broken, and violated the Law either in pieces or in toto over and over again, much to their own detriment. As described above, the abandonment of God leads to a society so full of sin that the word ceases to have any meaning. And so God, perhaps surveying the wreckage or, more likely, simply moving to phase two, incarnates as Jesus Christ and gives humanity the New Covenant.
It’s not as if God didn’t tell folks this was coming. As far back as Ezekiel hints are made about a New Covenant, and in Jeremiah, as the Exiles are restored to Jerusalem, the prophet explicitly outlines the coming New Covenant, not to be written on stone but written into the human heart. God is telling the horse that the halter will come off, and it would behoove the horse to not only remember what it learned while under the halter, but to consider the consequences of its removal.
There are, of course, lots of consequences, but as our topic today is sin, one consequence of the removal of the halter – The Law – is that it is no longer the measure of sin. And, halter or not, the horse still needs to get where it needs to go. This view on the change of status of The Law is born out Biblically in the New Testament, and by Jewish scholars writing in the Talmud. Their logic seems irrefutable: if you agreed to the Covenant of the Law, you should abide by the Covenant of the Law – it is a covenant with God. Gentiles, who did not agree to the Old Covenant, are not bound by it. This is the foundation of Peter and Paul’s discernment that Christians drawn from the ranks of Gentiles are not bound by the Old Covenant. Another interesting point made by Talmudic scholars is that the Ten Commandments and the Noahide Laws, a sort of subset of the Ten Commandments, were universal, so Gentiles are bound by them. But The Law of Moses was made only for the Israelites.
The New Covenant in Jesus Christ does not spell out a list of does and don’ts. Its primary requirement is that one truly and sincerely believe that Jesus is the Son of God and trust in him completely. That belief opens the door for the Holy Spirit. The scriptures are illuminated by the Holy Spirit, as Luther so eloquently put it, so that we might see clearly the path laid out by Jesus. So, without a list of rules, how do we know right from wrong? How do we know what is a sin and what isn’t? Led by the Holy Spirit to understand the scriptures, the really easy ones aren’t hard to define. Violating any of the ten commandments are a good place to start. These commandments cover everything from our relationship with God to interpersonal relationships to matters of equal justice. Violations of foundational principles like fidelity, trust and faithfulness still apply as sins. But the New Covenant also brings in a more holistic approach. Instead of trying to focus on the sins of others, the New Covenant calls us to align ourselves and our purposes to the purposes of God. The more we can walk the path of Christ, the more we can lead others to walk that path. The inevitability of sinning by wandering off the path – O, broken humanity! – is mitigated by the acceptance of God’s grace granted unfailingly when requested by true repentance. To put it another way, when you’re off the halter you have complete control of whether or not you will sin, but you have also been given a clear and unambiguous path to follow in order to steer clear of sin.
In the Old Covenant, many sins are mitigated by the taking of some kind of penitential action by the sinner. Sacrifice a dove or say a certain prayer and you will have paid the price for that sin. As with all penitential systems, if you’re someone who can repeatedly pay the price, the door is open to repeatedly committing the sin. The New Covenant has different payment method. Christ destroys the penitential system of the Old Covenant on the cross by paying for all sins, past and future, with his life – the ultimate penitential price. In its place there is a more transformational system of repentance. In this system, it is impossible to repent of a sin you intend to commit over and over again, because repentance isn’t the price – which has already been paid by Christ anyway – it is the impetus to transformation and the rejection of sin. You can look at the repentance and forgiveness system as another doorway for the Holy Spirit to get you back on the path and keep you there. It is this system that puts the ultimate kibosh on the idea that you are immutably the way God made you at birth. You were made to be transformed and have been given a clear choice: be transformed by the ways of the world, or be transformed by the ways of God.
Christians are not called by Christ to take the easy and simplistic route of simply pointing to a passage in Leviticus and declaring that activity to be a sin. Christ actually means it when he calls us to remove the log from our own eye before worrying about the mote in another’s. This is not to imply that every listing in Leviticus is no longer a sin and that you are free to eat lobster thermidor wily-nily. But the Old Covenant should now be evaluated through the lens of transcendent grace rather than one of simple rule-breaking. The ability to evaluate sin, once completely externalized by the Old Covenant, has been shifted to an internal covenant, a New Covenant written on the heart. It is a new covenant that encompasses a way of being, integrated with the Spirit and thus making it much harder to break than the Old. And while we humans can and will wound that New Covenant all too often, our insurance policy now includes a grace clause that, activated by true repentance, puts us back on the right path. This can and has been a difficult shift in point-of-view for humanity, and we all too often find ourselves falling back on the easy legalisms of the Old Covenant. To fully encompass the redemptive grace of Christ we must first trust in that grace and also accept that we have a part and a responsibility within the New Covenant.