Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hellfire and Brimstone

Sin is both far less and far greater a thing than we make it. Far less, for there are many things that are sins that we rarely think of as such. Far more, for it is a far more hideous thing than we have made it out to be.

Our concept of sin misses the mark by a wide margin. The concept of sin in the Bible is rather different from the concept that we have labeled with the word in American Christianity. We conceive of sin as being some egregious violation of a moral code, something beyond a mere mistake to a great ethical failure. On the other hand, we have little sense of sin as something truly terrible. It is simply a bad mistake, a larger error that is significant enough to earn punishment rather than forgiveness.

And so we have set the bar too high in qualifying sin and far too low in evaluating its worth.

Sin is any deviation from the will of God, any variation - no matter how infinitesimal - from a life perfectly reflecting the glory of God. Our purpose, in so many words, is to rightly reflect the image of God, and when we fail in even the slightest of ways to do so, it is sin. The word in Greek which we translate as "sin" is a technical hunting term (hamartía; ἁμαρτία), meaning simply, "to miss the mark." While many of us are aware of this, we rarely stop to consider the meaning strongly suggested by the use of this word - especially in a language that has words corresponding to moral failures of the sort we more frequently associate with sin. The New Testament authors, and before them, the translators of the Hebrew Bible from whom they took many of their cues, chose to use a word that means not moral failure but simply missing the mark. One might strike near the target or far away from it, but if one did not perfectly strike the center, it was a sin. The qualification for something to be a sin is simply any imperfection in our reflection of God. That means that any act, no matter how small, that we do not for God's glory but for any other reason, that any even good act that is not in accord with God's will, that the best act in the world done without God in mind, is sin.

Even this, however, does not sufficiently impress us of the need to take sin with greater seriousness. Without a conception of the magnitude of the evil of sin - any sin, no matter how "small" - we can neither appreciate the necessity of Christ's sacrifice nor take the true measure of its great worth. It is as though someone turned the Taj Majal into a house of prostitution, or the Pyramids into casinos. It is as though someone shattered Michelangelo's David, as though someone smeared dung across the Mona Lisa and then baked it in. It is though someone made pornography from the Odyssey. It is every great work of art desecrated and set to the most horrific of purposes, in complete opposition to the original ends of their maker. And it is worse. The horror of every great work of art turned against its maker's intent is still but a fraction of the infinite evil that is one, little sin. The most awful desecration imaginable is infinitely less than the worth of a little white lie.

For God is the great artist, and we are his great art. Our purpose is the reflection of his glory, the showing forth of his image. And when we sin, no matter how little we might in our fallen human wisdom deem that error, the consequences are incredibly grievous: that most incredibly precious image of God in us is broken, shattered and warped. This horror - I can think of no other word - ought to rock us to our core. Though we cannot now conceive of the depth of the evil that sin is, we ought to daily seek to deepen our understanding thereof. Few of us understand the evil of sin deeply enough to feel that it does indeed deserve death. That "little white lie?" It deserves death. That one piece of candy in the store? It deserves death. That single lustful glance at a woman's body? It deserves death. Because it is not "just" a lie, not "just" a piece of candy, not "just" a glance: it is a desecration of the very image of God.

To desecrate the image of God, to defile the picture of his glory placed in us, is a terrible thing indeed.

When we know this, when we in our heart of hearts recognize that daily, hourly, minutely, we deserve death and many times over, then we begin to first rightly conceive of why a just God is so very wrathful over sin and how utterly incapable we are of saving ourselves. Not only are we deserving of death so many times over that we could never repay, but even our ability to reflect God has been damaged in such a way that we are incapable of repairing it. And so God, in his great mercy, to display not only his wrath but his compassion and love, has done the impossible for us, knowing we could never do it for ourselves. And he thus shows himself the great and awesome God: we who are evil are saved not only from evil but to good, and are not only saved from death but raised to life. We can once again display the excellencies of the glory of God, and when perfected we will once more perfectly bear the image of the great King.

Going before us is our great high priest, Jesus Christ, who has suffered under every temptation but without sin, and who has suffered not only the great humiliation of taking on human flesh but further suffered death - and who has risen again to life to prove that sin and death are conquered. The lamb that was slain now stands the triumphant victor who daily destroys evil and will one day demonstrate the fullness of his conquest. And this is a conquest not like any we have seen, for it involves not merely the destruction of the enemy, but also many enemies' redemption.

We must know the horror of sin, and must recognize the depth to which it penetrates our lives, so that even many seeming trivialities are desecrations, before we can at last offer to God an acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.

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