We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).
We are continuing within chapter 4 on ‘The Gravity of Sin’ and, in particular, Rutledge’s discussion of what Sin actually is.
That ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Cor. 15:3) is the core of the gospel.
But what is Sin? And why did Jesus have to die to somehow ‘deal’ with Sin?
This is a big chapter. Again, it’s worth repeating that these blogs only give a flavour of the book and do not do justice to Rutledge’s prose and argument. For that you need to go to the book itself – you could do a lot worse, it’s excellent.
Rutledge goes even higher in my estimation by bringing in Calvin and Hobbes:
Rutledge sees 4 issues here: (180)
1) What’s Santa’s definition of good and bad (What’s God’s definition?)
2) How good to you have to be to qualify as good? (And who makes the determination?)
3) Maybe good is more than the absence of bad (which raises the issue of evil as the absence of good)
4) Such philosophical questions lead to worry which only a theological answer can resolve.
Sin is much more than failing to be as good as we might have been. Nor is Sin a comparison game – ‘at least I am not as bad as x’.
Sin is a power under which all of us are enslaved (Rom. 3:9; John 8:34). Only a greater power can liberate us. The Cross is that which liberates from Sin and Death.
Sin is responsible guilt for which atonement must be made. The Cross is sacrifice for sin.
Human solidarity in bondage to the power of Sin is one of the most important concepts for Christians to grasp. But it is not enough to say that we are in bondage to Sin. A result of that bondage is that we have become active, conscripted agents of Sin. (178-79)
So, Rutledge argues,
Unless we are to abandon the New Testament witness altogether, we much acknowledge that the overcoming of sin lies at the very heart of the meaning of the crucifixion’ (185)
A Cosmic Struggle
The story of the Bible then can be seen as
‘a cosmic struggle between the forces of Sin, evil, and Death … and the unconquerable purpose of God. (184-85)
This battle is seen in every book of the New Testament (see examples pp 186-90, with Paul in particular seeing Sin as a power that enslaves). It is framed in light of the story of Sin in the Genesis: the Fall as the story of how all humans are in a vast rebellion against God.
And, just when you think Rutledge can’t get any better, she brings in Bob Dylan – ‘You Gotta Serve Somebody’ – we all live under one dominion or another, the dominion of Sin or the dominion of Christ. (191)
Sin-Lite: Sin as bad deeds
We come back here to how a watery theology that attempts to speak of the gospel only in terms of God’s love or grace, without a robust account of Sin is, biblically and theologically speaking, incoherent.
It arises from a discomfort that to talk of Sin is somehow a ‘negative’ or ‘downbeat’ message. It cuts across American optimism but is far from confined to America.
But the Bible, and the OT in particular, gives serious attention to the ‘great weight’ of Sin. Rutledge comments that
‘Christian attempts to moderate or minimize it are anti-Hebraic.’ (191)
Another way the seriousness of Sin is minimised is by seeing it as some sort of catalogue of ‘bad deeds’. Rutledge comments on a humourous People magazine survey in which various actions were rated on a scale of badness – a ‘Sindex’.
Really bad Sins: murder, rape, child abuse.
Pretty bad: parking in a handicapped space; cutting someone off;
Not so bad: smoking, swearing, masturbation, copyright infringement, unmarried and living together.
Corporate sin was not mentioned.
Most telling for our purposes here, “Overall, readers said they committed about 4.64 sins per month.” We may laugh at this, but clearly, our sense of sin as specific actions is deeply ingrained. (194)
Which all brings to mind The Good Place – which is all about Sin and how to get a score good enough to get into heaven. I’ve watched and enjoyed all three series.
But while amusing – and The Good Place is very amusing – this trivializes the Bible’s realistic and weighty diagnosis of Sin.
Here’s scoring of ‘good deeds’ in The Good Place just so you know what to focus on!
We will come back in the next post to how the Bible’s view of Sin confronts and contrasts to that of American sentimentality and superficial optimism about human nature.