Sin: You’re Doing it Wrong

Romans Front CoverReligion isn’t about sin.

Thinking that religion is about sinning (or not sinning) is like thinking basketball is about fouls. You should stop fouling but you can’t make the game be about fouls. That’s an impossible way to play basketball.

And, more, it’s an impossible way to be religious.

But once sin claims center stage and starts hogging all the light, everything else gets murky: love, grace, law, faith, etc. Sin distorts them.

As a sinner, though, this is natural. Sin thinks everything is about itself. And so, since I’m a sinner, it comes natural to me to think that religion is about sin.

But the truth is that not even sin is about sin.

Recognizing this is an important part of my being saved from sin.

Sin isn’t about sin.

Sin is about grace.

Grace is a name for what God is trying to freely give me. And what God is trying to give me (even right now) is the world itself—especially as the world is always imposing itself on me, always pressing in on me through the doors of my senses, through the doors of my heart, through the doors of my mind.

No doubt, this is a lot to be given. And so much of it is more (or other) than what I want.

It’s no wonder that, as a sinner, I flinch at these gifts and run. It’s no wonder I’m in full flight from God’s grace.

But sin, when it bothers to consider grace, always starts from itself. And then, distorted by this inversion, sin understands grace as a name for God’s response to its own sinfulness.

Now, once we’ve come this far—once we’ve agreed that grace is about sin—we’re all set up for the classic Mormon/Protestant debate!

It goes like this: Is grace God’s limited (works dependent) response to sin or is grace God’s unlimited (works independent) response to sin?

But this whole “works vs. grace” debate takes sin itself as the undisputed starting point! We’ve all agreed from the start—Mormon and Protestant alike—that grace is about sin! No wonder we run each other in circles.

This is part of what makes Paul’s letter to the Romans so important. There, Paul makes (among others) two crucial points about grace and sin:

(1) In Romans chapter 1, Paul argues that sin is a response to God’s grace. Grace comes first, sin comes second. Paul characterizes sin as a rejection or “suppression” of God’s grace as it is already and undeniably manifest in the gift of the created world.

(2) In Romans 3-7 (but especially in chapter 7), Paul offers a kind of reductio ad absurdum in which he demonstrates the absurdities that follow when we try to think about God’s law (or our own works) starting from the perspective of sin. Sin, works, and law can all be understood if we start from the perspective of grace. But all of them become hopelessly confused if we start from the assumption that they are all about sin.

Let’s take an Easter cue from Paul.

Sin is real and sin is a problem, but religion is not about sin.

The law is not about sin. Works are not about sin. God is not about sin. Not even sin is about sin.

Everything is about grace.

Religion is about grace. The law is about grace. Works are about grace. Sin is about grace. God himself is about grace.

This is the good news.

Happy Easter!

13 comments for “Sin: You’re Doing it Wrong

  1. so… we shouldnt have people publicly shamed by not taking the sacrament? cuz it sounds like the mechanics of being mormon stay the same no matter how you rearrange the philosophies behind it.

  2. In my experience, perceived shame is usually extrapolated by the owner of guilty feelings. When one stops being self-absorbed enough to think about Jesus instead of what others think, that is the moment where they are empowered to change.

  3. I want to say that you are a gift, but I won’t. These ideas that you have beautifully conveyed are a gift. Thank you for this.

  4. How would you explain grace to someone who doesn’t believe there are sins?

  5. Here may be a response for someone who does not believe in sin.

    Sin is how to live unhealthily. To separate us from the relationships we value most. When we horriblize the behavior of our spouse, we inflate her faults and minimize her virtues. We also separate ourselves from close, intimate, fulfilling love.

    Grace is the universal possibility of forgiveness. That your wife can see the real you and be willing to forgive you. That I can change my heart and behavior and by degrees who I am. So that I can live more fulfilling. So that I can pay it forward to help others to live wholeheartedly.

    If you are familiar with any of the following resources, the above may be easier to understand.

  6. Richard,

    Thanks for the explanation. But why would one feel the need to forgive someone? Doesn’t that still presume they can sin?

    What if one has never experienced the desire for someone to be apologized to? Restitution yes, but apology no. Does grace bring about it’s own definition?

    If one sees no value in relationships does grave create the desire for relationships?

    Some of this seems to depend on the term perfect also. Isn’t a bit chicken and egg also where to know what perfect is one must know what a sin is?

    Is Adam saying that grace allows one to understand that there was a fall?

    In your terms how would one explain health to someone who didn’t believe in disease? Can masochists want grace?

    This may seem abstract and absurd but 50 shades of gray sold a lot of books. How does one explain grace to people who experience pain as pleasurable?

  7. Troy (and also Martin), I think,

    I am not Adam and it’s possible I still don’t get grace, but maybe this can help:

    I think that one easy problem to get into (don’t know if it applies to you, but it was something that, when I figured it out, helped me get to this perspective) is that when we talk about “the law” in a Romans/Pauline sense, it’s not just talking about particular systems of commandments espoused by certain religious denominations. So it’s not just talking about the kosher or the Law of Chastity or the Word of Wisdom (which many people obviously don’t find to be valid). As a result, “sin” also has to be much broader than a violation of these particular rules. (This is important, as Paul talks about a certain manifestation of sin as arising precisely from following the law…but in an incorrect way.)

    Rather, the “law” is meant to be anything that we hold ourselves up to, or hold anyone up to. For me, I am a bit of a perfectionist at school and work. I didn’t assign a moral dimension to it, but I realized recently that that perfectionism still has the relevant qualities of “law” and an incorrect interaction with it is still a manifestation of sin.

    So, what is that incorrect interaction?

    Sin manifests in my story that my or others’ worths are based in how well they adhere to the law — in this case, my and others’ worths are based in how educated or how competent they are in certain educational and professional domains. To this extent, I view myself as only deserving of certain things (recognition? reward? respect?) based on my earning them through adherence to this law (e.g., being competent at my job, being sufficiently educated, etc.,) But I also view others through this same dimension in a way: if someone isn’t competent at their job (whatever that is), I view them less highly. Whether their job is being a restaurant waiter or anything else, if I witness what I view as their incompetence, I am annoyed or upset at their incompetence.

    But grace is a gift, in the sense that it is unearned, unwarranted, undeserved. My “sin” is a rejection of grace in that it rejects the unearned, rejects the unwarranted, rejects the undeserved. For example, when I view my or others’ worths in how educated or competent I/we/they are, I am rejecting the fact that my intelligence is unearned. My genes? Unearned. I was thrown into this body, with these parents. My opportunities? Unwarranted. If I grew up in a different time or different location, things could be different. Even my ability to work hard (and my actually going through with that)? Undeserved. There is no way that I can say that I deserved the ability to be able to work hard (even if I try to argue that I had to make choices to actually do that, make choices to reject other things, defer gratification, whatever, in order to study, prepare, etc.,)

    (P.S., this is basically what Paul is talking about when he says the law can sell us into sin. Because when we see the law as a way to talk about people getting what they *deserve* or what they *earn*, then we are rejecting the givenness…the gift-ness of it.)

    So, when Paul says that the law is written on everyone’s hearts, I don’t see of this as meaning that a particular understanding of morality or God is written on everyone’s hearts…but rather that everyone has — in some way, shape, or fashion — some system of rules and some penchant to judge based on adherence to those rules.

    I think that masochism is probably a little more complicated, but remember that if someone views pain as pleasure, that is still pleasure. There are definitely rules about safe words, rules about consent, etc., etc., in those sorts of communities. It’s not necessarily anything goes. So I don’t think that would establish that someone doesn’t believe in disease — rather, that would be an example of someone who may very well believe in disease, but doesn’t believe a particular something should be considered a disease.

    Is grace opposed to action? With grace, we should be grateful, we should be grace-ful, we should be gracious. So, we should follow the law not because it’s how we “earn” stuff, but because we recognize it as a gift and we appreciate that gift. We love our fellow man as ourselves not because it is a commandment or because this is how we “deserve” heaven or whatever, but because we recognize that as we have been given much, we too must give — and as our gifts were freely given, we should freely give to others.

    If you are suggesting someone who never judges himself or others under *any* metric, who never judges who has “earned” or who is “deserving” (and, conversely, who has not earned/who is not deserving) in *any* way…then I would say that this person probably does not need grace explained to them, because they are already living gracefully.

  8. I just read the book and loved it.
    I have a question about Romans 11:6. It’s the verse that makes an equal argument for grace and then works. Or at least it does in the KJV. I noticed in the NIV it only has the first half of the verse, and there’s a footnote, and the rest of the verse is in the footnote. In GinGBP you put the second half in parenthesis. So I’m curious about why does that verse get chopped up like that?

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