My PhD dissertation was on the subject of sin. During this series I’ve tried to incorporate the bandwidth of my studies as they appear within our study of Galatians. Summarizing the bible’s deeper teaching on sin takes us way past the “bad thing we do” into a discovery of our anthropology and theology. For most of us, sin is the endless banjo string that religion continually strums to guilt us into compliance and behavior modification. It’s time we see beyond this and begin living the promised life of freedom not from sin, but despite it.
Sin is very real. We don’t need a PhD to see that it’s effects are devastating. Every religion acknowledges this reality and offers an antidote. Even non-religious people understand it using other names and frameworks but still work to prevent or punish the effects of sin. Most call it “trying to be a better person.” As you know, sin goes deeper than behavior.
The bible has many words for sin. Hamartia means to “miss the mark” as an archer misses the target. Paráptoma means to “fall by the wayside” like a wagon wheel being pulled into a rut. Like all sin, falling by the wayside is a transgression or a violation of the law of love, but it connotes a less intentional violation. Like most sins, we get “sucked into” them. Even when we run headlong into sin, it’s only because we have been lured (hook) into its promise to fulfill us. James describes the magnetic pull and the process. I detail the mechanics of sin HERE.
“But each person is tempted when he/she is lured and enticed by his/her own (over)desire. Then (over)desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown (teléos–completed its action) brings forth death (loss of self).” James 1:14-15
Before we examine Paul’s approach to dealing with sin, I want to first ask you how you or your institution of faith has dealt with sin. Did they condemn you? Did they threaten you or use a scare tactic like Hell? Did they make you feel like a failure? Was there a strict religious protocol required to get in good standing with God and expunge your stain from your record?
“Brothers (sisters), if anyone is caught in any transgression (paraptoma), you who are spiritual should restore him/her in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” Galatians 6:1-2
Praútes is the Greek word here for gentleness. It’s the negation of harshness or severity. Is this how you see the church dealing with sin? That was not my experience. Most pastors and teachers never cease talking about sin because it’s become the universal segue into talking about Jesus who has been reduced to problem solver. The more severely we deal with sin, the lower we can push our anthropology, and the higher we can elevate Jesus. Most see this as a good thing and some see it as the only thing. People bad, Jesus good–is about as far most teachings go. The point of Paul is that Jesus was treated severely for the sins of the world, therefore we can afford to be merciful with each other as he is with us.
In fact, the only time Jesus is severe in dealing with sin is when he addresses the sin of prideful certainty (pharisees, rich young ruler). The prostitutes, adulterers, tax collectors, non-religious, thieves, and outcasts are treated with an amazing amount of compassion, mercy and human dignity. Jesus knows that we’ve all fallen by the way side and will continue to do so. He gently pulls us out each time. I can’t find one place where Jesus is diminishing anyone’s humanity. I think it’s time the church’s anthropology mirrored that of their founder.
This was also the case for Paul. He was a religious zealot who hated Jesus and the early believers. At Paul’s conversion, the spirit of Jesus treats Paul gently and kindly (Acts 9:4-6). Restoration doesn’t require severity. Afterward, Paul had no more threats for the church. Jesus used restorative justice not retributive justice. No scare tactics. Just a voice gently asking “What are you doing?”
Paul wasn’t restored to perfection. I’ve proven in this study that the work of God is to restore us through our sins, not punish us for them. Remember our sins don’t keep us from God, (there is no gap anymore) they keep us from wanting God. Our sins don’t send us to Hell, they keep us from wanting to leave Hell by preventing our ability to see ourselves there. Like Paul, once it hits us that God does not deal with us according to our sins as religion sells it, the motivation of love displaces all lesser motivators.
If God accepts us even though we’ve done horrible things, then certainly we can learn to accept each other as well. There is always a back story that helps explain the worst of our humanity. This is why Paul instructs us to “bear one another’s burdens” (v.2). Paul knows that sin is a heavy weight to lug around, thus we are to help each other with our loads. The picture here is not that we can drop sin and go on, but that we lift the loads of each other. All sin has been treated, so we can treat the sinner gently, and there can be a collective lightening of its weight.
This is important because clearly sin is to be carried not removed. Yes Jesus will carry our burdens, but he does so through each of us. We need sin for the sake of each other. I need my propensity toward the flesh because struggling against it helps me lighten your propensity for the flesh and your struggle against it. In doing so, I become Christ to you and you become Christ to me. That’s the design. That’s the practice. By not judging one another, we liberate one another. This only works if we are open about our sins and quit trying to “out-holy” one another. So often, the world treats sinners with more compassion than our religions do.
But there’s a catch. Our understanding and acceptance of our sins is not the same as an endorsement of it. The goal is restoration not adoption. That is where we err by going too far. That is precisely the fear of our fundamentalist brothers and sisters who treat sin severely. We are to carry one another burdens, not promote them. This is why Paul warns us to be gentle but watch ourselves so that we are not sucked in as well (v.1). He’s referring to going too far. Watching ourselves becomes easy once we stop pretending we are better than we actually are. Honest self appraisals usually reveal we fall short but we must not go too far the other way and play the flunky card which helps no one.
For example, divisions was in the drawer of naughtiness last week, but is so common that there is rarely a voice seeking to correct it. In one sense its great that creating divisions is not treated severely, but it’s a total failure when there are over a thousand denominations. How are orgies any worse than “otherness”? Another example: The sin of gossip blinds us to seeing gossip as sin and we just live in communities that devour and provoke one another (v.15, 26). If we lose sensitivity to sin, we’ve lost step with the Spirit (v.25), and humanity is diminished. We all hate places like this, but fail to take personal responsibility for our part.
The gospel is a message that says we are both far worse and far more loved than we can possibly believe at the same time (not binary). Paul’s message here is that transformation requires something between giving everyone a pass and taking everyone to task. Don’t be the police officer that always writes a ticket, but don’t be the cop who never writes one either. There is wisdom in the warning (sobriety) because our humanity hangs in the balance.
This is what it means to love others as yourself or fulfill the law of Christ (v.1). Of course this is much easier to do once we deeply believe in our hearts that God has “let us off with a warning.” Overtime we’ve felt forgiven that is what we believed. Therefore, show yourself and others some understanding and compassion. Recognize that we’ve all fallen by the wayside. The goal is to accept one another’s sins without endorsing them nor judging each other. This liberates each of us to make the incremental progress despite failures which restore our humanity and the world by the power of God within us.