The Disappearance of Sin

It has been a long time coming, but I think we can safely say that “sin” is hardly a functional concept in our culture. As early as 1973, Dr. Karl Menninger published a book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin? In this book he explores why “sin” became obsolete. He promises

… to review the events in the recent rapid decline and disappearance of the word “sin,” not because any particular word is so important in itself, but because its obsolescence may be a clue to fundamental changes in the moral philosophy of our civilization (p. 27).

While the world has lost the notion, the Bible retains a rich vocabulary for sin (at least ten words in the OT alone). The Hebrew word most commonly used for sin in the OT means “to miss the mark.” When use of archery, the word referred to missing the target. In religious contexts, the word described actions which fell short of some divine standard or goal. Paul picks up this image in the famous passage from Romans:

This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22–24)

There are several other passages that get close to defining sin in the NT as well. For example, Paul writes later in Romans: “…and everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23) which touched on doing something about which a person is unsure. The apostle John will identify sin as “lawlessness” and “unrighteousness” (1 John 3:4; 5:17).

The problem with sin is not so much the inappropriate behavior (which can be more or less serious due to the consequences) but how it functions to keep us away from God. The longer we are away from God, the less clearly we can think about our sin. Therefore, it is important for the church to remember that we have been called to “interfere” in the lives of sinners. Paul said it this way: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1).

Whatever the world does with the notion of sin . . . it will remain in the church’s vocabulary. When we totally lose the vocabulary of sin, we will have finally arrived at the place where no one is responsible for anything.


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