A Brighter Path #3: Sin

By Steve Flowers

Successful-based beliefs/practices in the church today continue to undermine Jesus’ desire to bring about “the kingdom of God.”  And the successful-based belief/practice on sin has arguably had the greatest negative impact on that. Because of that impact, it is critical to understand as fully as possible what we mean when we use that little ‘ol three-letter word that is at the root of so much difference between successful-based and faithful-based churches.  We will therefore spend three posts on sin (or you could say we’ll be “sinning” for the next few weeks).  In this post we will engage in a brief overview of the concept of sin and a related spiritual concept, holiness, and introduce how successful-based and faithful-based churches differ on them.  The following two posts will each explore in more detail how each side views and lives those concepts.

Sin

HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (2011 ed.) defines sin as “that which is in opposition to God’s benevolent purposes for creation.”  Scholars contend there are a number of terms in both the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament that outline the concept and related aspects of sin.  Each is relevant to unpack and discuss but the word on which we will focus is the predominate word translated as “sin” which comes from the Greek word hamartia.  

Hamartia has a word opposite in Greek just as we have word opposites (or antonyms) in English (e.g., hot and cold, short and tall).  Its opposite in New Testament Greek is teleos, but they do not appear to be opposites in our English translations.  Teleos is typically translated as “perfect” as in Matthew 5:48— “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Hamartia is typically translated as “sin” as in Matthew 1:21— “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  However, the opposite nature of the terms is seen when their etymology is understood. Both terms are derived from military usage in archery. Teleos literally means hitting the mark, as when an arrow hits the target.  Hamartia literally means missing the mark, as when an arrow misses its target.

Holiness

The Old Testament law ties holiness and sin together in a relationship— to honor and be connected to God (i.e., be holy), one must strive to stay pure (clean) by not violating acts defined as sins.  HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (2011 ed.) includes the following about holiness:

…a biblical concept associated with separation from the ordinary or the profane, on the one hand, and connection with God or the divine, on the other.  God is supremely or definitely holy and people, things, and actions may be considered holy through association with God. Holiness may also include the ideas of consecration to God and of purity from what is evil or improper.

The notion of pursuing holiness is found in the Old Testament law:

You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean; and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them through Moses. (Leviticus 10:10-11)

For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy… For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy. (Leviticus 11:44a, 45)

The purity laws (e.g., Leviticus 11:1-47, Deuteronomy 14:3-21) and other commandments from Genesis through Deuteronomy were scrutinized by ancient rabbis and priests as to how one remains holy.  Specific actions were inferred from the commandments in these scriptures as to what kept followers holy and clean and what made them unclean. These rules were adopted over hundreds of years as rabbinic and priestly interpretations and became known as the oral tradition.  The oral tradition included ritual cleansing (e.g., hands, purchased food, and cooking and eating utensils), what was acceptable and unacceptable to eat, exactly what actions constituted work on the sabbath, and how people were to associate (or not) at various times with each other and with foreigners.  In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees (one of the dominant sects in 1st-century Judaism) upheld the authority of the oral tradition.

The Early Church also embraced the concept of being holy as evidenced in 1 Peter 1:15-16— “Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”  The relationship between holiness and sin also carried into the Early Church.

Successful-based and faithful-based communities

In general, successful-based and faithful-based communities would likely both affirm the above definitions of sin and holiness.  Both would acknowledge sin is real and that we need to separate ourselves to God (i.e., holiness). But each takes a very different approach in how they do that.  

The first occurrence of the word “sin” in the English Bible can help illustrate this contrast.  It appears in the story of God’s response to Cain after accepting his brother Abel’s offering but rejecting Cain’s offering.  God’s words are both nurturing and foreboding as God warns Cain that “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7).  Immediately after that in the story, Cain kills his brother. From the very beginning, sin is a choice between two actions— to either follow through on what God desires or give into our own.

Faithful-based communities focus on the first action in how they address sin (i.e., follow through on what God desires) while successful-based communities hyper-focus on avoiding the second (i.e., not giving into our own desires):

  • Successful-based communities consecrate themselves to stay pure and avoid sin by focusing on not doing what God does not desire.  This emphasizes punishment from an aggrieved God.  Punishment avoidance becomes the primary motivator as individuals strive to avoid retribution that might be brought on themselves both in this life and for eternity.
  • Faithful-based communities consecrate themselves to stay pure and avoid sin by doing what God desires.  This emphasizes actions borne out of love both from and to God— “since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11).  Love becomes the primary motivator.

The difference becomes apparent as each community’s emphasis produces a cascading effect of contrasting beliefs and practices.  The next two posts will more fully explore the contrasting views on sin between successful-based and faithful-based churches.

Reflection: How do you define sin and holiness?  What, if any, is their connection?

Next post: Successful-based view of sin

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