Thursday, August 6, 2009

Understanding sin and biblical viewpoints

I've been writing quite a bit about how to read the Bible and truly understand what is being said. There are two problems with modern readers, 1) they have an incomplete approach to the scriptures, where they are just seeking validation of their opinion and not genuine overall enlightenment and 2) modern society has blotted out much of people's understanding of the context of times during the life of the Biblical authors, and thus they don't even understand what would have been obvious to the previous generations (who were agricultural, for example). So here is another "context setting" explanation regarding the vast topic of sin.

I want to make a simple point in this particular posting, since it is such a huge topic, yet their is a fundamental modern mindset problem that is a barrier to understanding much of what is written about sin in the Bible. Modern people forget that the Israelites were a theocracy, that is to say, a religious government. Not a government comprised of a bunch of people who happened to be religious, but their religion WAS their government. This was true throughout the Bible, even when there were no kings, when they were in exile, when they were ruled by Romans, etc. Israelites as a whole in the Old Testament, and Jews individually throughout the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus, viewed themselves as one entity in front of God, not a bunch of individuals. Thus there are times that the Bible is referring to individual sin (a specific person does a bad thing), but there are also times that the Bible says "sin" but means collective sin, of the entire people being in a sinful state.

You need to understand that there are kind of three layers of sin. The first layer is the one that everyone thinks of today, it seems, which is "individual" sin and "personal" responsibility. While this is obviously a fact, I must caution you that it is a delusion to think of sin ONLY as being individual. I'll give you a specific example in a moment.

The second layer of sin is the realization that every single human being is a sinner. Jesus Christ, obviously, is the only one who was totally without sin. Furthermore, the Catholic Church asserts that when Gabriel addressed Mary by the name "filled with grace," that Mary, in order to be the perfect vessel for Jesus Christ, was preserved from sin throughout her life. My point is, however, that modern people do not think enough of the God given truth recorded in the Bible that everyone is sinful. I don't mean the modern translation, said with a shrug, that "No one is perfect." I mean that humans, if you want to really be "reality based," must be constantly aware that there is a shared commonality among all people of being sinful and in a state of sin.

Romans 3:19-20 ...and the whole world stand accountable to God, since no human being will be justified in his sight by observing the law; for through the law comes consciousness of sin.

I am certain that very few modern people understand what St. Paul is saying. Much of the reason they miss the point is that people scour St. Paul's writings for "instructions" about how to run a church, how to be "saved," and what of the previous Law given to Moses can now be disregarded. So they are thrilled at the "no human being will be justified in his sight by observing the law," but, oops, they miss two equally important points in the same sentence.

The first point is that "the whole world" stands accountable to God. NO ONE has a "free pass" and is not accountable to God regarding sin. St. Paul is saying the whole world and he means the whole world, so he means Jews, non-Jews, people in the known world, and people who have yet to be contacted in the far reaches of the world in those times (yes, pagans). So St. Paul sets the stage for this very important scripture by pointing out that everyone is accountable to God because obviously everyone is flawed and has something to be accountable about! Sure, yes, St. Paul is referring to Jews when he immediately follows with the statement about the Law, which applies to Jews (and converts who followed the Law). But you have to slow down when you read this to understand it with the same eyes and ears that a reader of the time would have understood what he or she was hearing. Let's use the deductive reasoning approach that I have been introducing to you.

1. The whole world is accountable to God.
2. Thus we know that everyone has something to be accountable for.
3. How do we know this? "We know what the Law says" (3:19).
4. Reading the Torah and the Law it is obvious that it is filled with Do's and Don'ts.
5. The Law, therefore, even if no longer followed, is proof by God to humans that all humans sin.
6. This is why St. Paul concludes "for through the law comes consciousness of sin."

Pause to marvel what a brilliant scholar and logician St. Paul was, someone who really came out of nowhere and yet, not having been a follower of Jesus Christ when Jesus actually lived, but only later when confronted by the Resurrected Christ from heaven, is able to articulate a holistic understanding of God as the faith transitions in two generations from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant!

You know what it's like? Here's an analogy. It's like suppose that human beings drank regular fresh water and then suddenly after Jesus Christ they all drank salt water. It's still water, given by God, but suddenly everything changes YET nothing changes about God himself. St. Paul navigated that awesome and life changing "sea change" of "before Jesus" and "after Jesus," without ever taking his eye off of the unchanging true nature of God himself, and the reality of human nature in life.

Why is this point, so important, so "subtle" to modern eyes and ears in this passage? Two reasons, my friends. One is that they are asides to him making the main point in his letter, which is to guide Christianized Jews into understanding what of the Law to retain and what has changed. But my point to you at this time is the second reason, which is that the shared accountability and sinfulness of the entire world of all humans was hardly a news flash to either the ancient Israelites or the Jews and Christians of the time when St. Paul talked and wrote! This is what I mean, that modern humans have "individualized" their understanding of sin so much that they have forgotten the God given "layer of sin" that encompasses ALL who live, continually. God would not have to forgive sins if people were not riddled with sin and constantly in a state of sin and committing sins, I mean, duh!

St. Paul was not writing a "sin primer" or admonishment in this passage since he, obviously, was focused on instructing about being justified. But you must share with him the background understanding that all people had (including recent generations, before modern times) that there is still the human condition of being sinful and everyone guilty of sinfulness on a very frequent basis. Here's another analogy. Suppose years from now someone read an ancient preserved IPOD manual and since they found only one copy of it they assumed that only one human being had an IPOD! They would totally not understand that millions of people had IPODS, and just because these future archaeologists discovered just one copy doesn't mean that only one person had one! Likewise, modern people tend to, erroneously, think that sin is a singular thing.... that a few people do a few sins and that it's an individual matter and that is that. They have forgotten the God given Biblical understanding that human beings are fraught with sin and that sin is universal.

1 John 8-10 If we say, "We are without sin," we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, "We have not sinned," we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

St. John was one of the Twelve Apostles and lived to be one hundred years old, and thus kept the word and the teaching of Jesus Christ accurate and fresh as several new generations came to become Christians. Thus you must understand by this statement that the Apostles knew and transmitted that just because Jesus Christ came to save, the basic human sinful nature of human beings as a whole had not changed one iota.

1 Peter 2:21-25 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps. "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." [Peter is quoting Isaiah]. When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you have gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

Here is where moderns have created for themselves a huge understanding with their "individual" view of sin AND their lack of understanding of shepherding and other real life imagery of the time, which is needed for full understanding.

First, St. Peter is writing this to comfort those who are being persecuted for being Christians, and that is his primary focus of the writing. Once again I'm going to show you not only the purpose of the writing, but the backdrop against which it takes place. St. Peter is not writing this to explain that Jesus alone was without sin, he is writing 2:21 to comfort people by saying, "Hey, if the only one who ever was without sin was persecuted and suffered like Jesus did, can you not carry the burden of your own persecutions by following his example?" Here is my point: by citing that passage of Isaiah St. Peter was saying a huge amount in a short sentence to those of the times who understood. Peter was packing into this sentence "We know because Isaiah told us that the only one who will be without sin will be the Messiah who will be persecuted...Jesus was that Messiah and just as Isaiah said he was without sin and persecuted..." All Jews would have understood that with great clarity. Citing from Isaiah during those times was like code words, or a text shorthand or acronym, for speaking about the Messiah. So St. Peter's first purpose was to comfort the persecuted new Christians, most of whom were Jewish converts.

Now, many moderns are eager to point to "He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness" as some sort of statement that Jesus' dying on the cross forgave all individual "layer one" sins! Goodness, NO! This is an example where St. Peter, like other references in both the Old and New Testament, are referring to the state of collective sin, the group of sinfulness that humans occupy due to original sin of Adam and Eve and the falling away of the Israelites, NOT individual sins, such as murder, theft, blasphemy, etc.

How do we know this? What you ought to be asking me is how did the listeners at the time understand that this is what St. Peter is saying? They knew because he used the analogy of, yes, the shepherd, sheep and guardian: "For you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls."

Friends, you need to understand that Jesus and the Apostles used agricultural and pastoral analogies not because they lacked better words, because they were poetic or quaint, or for "dummies" to understand. Jesus and the Apostles used agricultural and pastoral examples because they were a perfect match for total accuracy of what they were trying to convey.

Suppose that St. Peter was trying to say what too many moderns misunderstand, which is that Jesus provided "advance forgiveness" for all "individual sins." St. Peter would have said something like this, "When Jesus died on the cross and you found him, it's like you found in a mine a hunk of gold that is so big and so long lasting that you never have to work another day in your life since you can just live off of that hunk of gold." People sure would have understood that! They would have viewed, then, forgiveness of individual sins (one's own individual hunk of gold) as being, yeah, sure "once for all" and applying to their past, present and future "individual" sins!

But St. Peter did not use that analogy or any like it because it simply is not fully true and correct! Instead, St. Peter says (and let's use our deductive reasoning model here):

1. "You have been healed".... one wonders, of what?
2. Answer: "For you had gone astray like sheep."
3. The problem with being astray is not only that one's food is lost in the hills somewhere, but also that sheep easily are hurt or killed by predators.
4. People therefore understood that there is a continual living being (sheep) with continual peril (danger that comes from being astray and in unsafe places).
5. "But you have now returned to the shepherd"... the people are both safe and under the command of Jesus, who knows what to do, like the good shepherd.
6. "And guardian of your souls" where Jesus is on guard, vigilant, watching over the safety of each sheep/person's soul.

Hey, but wait a minute. If Jesus makes all sins forgiven in advance, what is this ongoing shepherd and guardian image about? If people are forgiven in advance, what exactly does St. Peter mean by using an analogy that all listeners would have understood as being "constant maintenance?" It is extremely obvious through the use of the sheep analogy that Jesus' death brought people (the sheep) back to the safety of the shepherd, but this means that they are placed in correct circumstances, not that the reality of sheep, danger, life spans, temptations, sin have gone away! If they had gone away then what the heck is a "guardian" of "your soul?"

Those of you with burglar alarms. The first time your alarm goes off for a genuine security breach, the police have come, and you have taken care of your first burglary or home invasion incident, which of the following do you do? Do you 1) have the burglar alarm company remove your security system because it "did its job the one time it was needed?" Or do you 2) be grateful that the alarm system is there, you dutifully reset the alarm, maybe even using it a bit more faithfully, and/or adding more protective features? That is how it is with sin. What kind of logic says that Jesus dying on the cross forgave "in advance" all (individual) sins? That is such a distortion that it would be silly if it were not so awful an error.

The blog of the man who brought a gun to a dance class this past week, killing three women and himself, in a town outside Pittsburgh, has his thoughts on the subject. He explains that he has been taught IN CHURCH (not Catholic by the way) that if he believes in Jesus, then even after he commits mass murder, he will be forgiven and in heaven because Jesus died for all sins. No, this misunderstanding is not funny.

So you need to understand the third layer of sin (and relax, I'm using analogies with the word 'layer') which is the sinning of the entire body of the faithful. In the ancient days the Israelites understood that they sinned 'as a people' when they did things like worship false gods. As I've explained before, it does not matter on this level of sin if a few people were not actually dancing around the gold calf while it was those "other people" who did the "sinning." God treated the Israelites as a whole when the body of the faithful sinned. Why is this? So that people understand quite clearly that there should not be (as, unfortunately there is so much today) an acceptance of sinfulness as a whole. This is different than shunning or "tsk, tsk" directed by those lovely church goers against individual "sinners." This means the weaseling of God's word into accepted levels of group body of the faithful behavior that is, actually, not acceptable.

Here is the classic presentation of that problem.

Isaiah 53:6 We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; But the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all.

Now do you see? It is the collective guilt of the body of the faithful that will be (as Isaiah prophesied hundreds of years before Jesus Christ) laid upon Jesus. The sins are the body of the faithful going their own way and not heeding God as a whole. You cannot read this Messianic prophetic scripture of Isaiah and truthfully think that Isaiah meant, "Well, Freddy stole some sheep and Jesus will die to erase that theft, and Moishe fooled around with another man's wife and Jesus will die to erase that adultery, and Susanne worshipped a carved idol for a few years, and Jesus will die to erase that idolatry" etc.

You must understand that God views humans both as loved and intimately known individuals AND also as a group, as in "you all." Likewise sin attaches itself individually and collectively. Jesus did not die on the cross so that people can have a "sin and then get forgiven" card. The Messiah suffered and died because humans, specifically the body of the Jewish faithful, had "all gone astray."

So you need to understand sin in, to use my words, "layers."

1. Individual people perform individual sins.
2. Groups of people/society create sinful enterprises or cultures that guilty and innocent must share.
3. Bodies of the faithful (the church of God) perform sin collectively (false doctrine and hypocrisy being obvious examples).

I promised an example for simplicity, so here it is regarding the Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill."

1. A man kills another man for the purpose of robbing him.
2. A company or society that advocates the taking of life in "certain circumstances." I don't mean the death penalty here. I mean immoral approaches that cheapen life and allow some to take life in the course of "doing their job." This is also not a hit on soldiers, but I am implying that unjustified war has to be considered advocating killing. I am also implying all sorts of things like drug trafficking, glorification of violence, putting weapons in the hands of children, etc, all of which are company and society sins.
3. Churches who twist scripture to imply that the killing of some sorts of people (the unborn, unbelievers, people of "opposing sects," etc) is somehow justified.

Does anyone seriously think that Jesus died on the cross so that any of the above is forgiven "in advance" and OK with God? No. Jesus died to bring the body of the faithful (layer 3 if you will) back to God and forgiven that they had strayed from God, and to put the mechanism in place for the forgiveness of sins, and also for being saved, despite being a sinner by nature.

No less than Isaiah, one of the greatest of God's prophets, considered himself a sinner because he lived among a sinful body of the faithful (the Jews) and their society at the time.

Isaiah 6:1,2,3, 5 ...I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above..."Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!" they cried to one other...Then I said, "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!"

Notice, as I've pointed out in previous blog postings, that God didn't reassure Isaiah, that he, a holy temple priest, was separate from the sinners around him. Instead God sends a seraphim to touch the mouth of Isaiah to purify it with a burning ember from the altar. "Your wickedness is removed, your sin purged" Isaiah 6:7. Isaiah knew that even though he kept himself from individual sin, that he was part of the prevailing wickedness of speech and deed of the community and the body of the faithful.

Another great prophet, Ezekiel, gets directly from God such an explanation.

Ezekiel 9:8-10 ...I fell prone, crying out, "Alas, Lord God! Will you destroy all that is left of Israel when you pour out your fury on Jerusalem?" He answered me: The sins of the house of Israel are great beyond measure; the land is filled with bloodshed, the city with lawlessness. They think that the Lord has forsaken the land, that he does not see them. I, however, will not look upon them with pity, nor show any mercy. I will bring down their conduct upon their heads."

It's not that God is being "mean" by "punishing those who don't sin along with the sinners." You have to understand that when society is filled with lawlessness, that is an example of cultural and societal sin that drags everyone down, including those who don't sin but certainly receive paychecks from those who do, AND the body of the faithful "the house" has sinned, that this universal, church wide, societal or otherwise collective sin is what the Bible means in such passages, not Joe robbing Bob or Sue giving false witness against Tiffany, or Moische dancing in front of his own false idol.

You are totally leading yourself astray if when you read about "sin" in the Bible you do not understand when God, through the Bible authors, is referring to individual sinfulness, or the universal ongoing sinful nature of humanity, or the sin of the house or other body of the faithful, or the sin of the society at large.

I hope that this has been helpful, because it's very important to be clear about, and the Bible can only be properly understood and followed with such a context of the times and of what God speaks.