"Must" we sin?
The question repeatedly arises if humans can be sinless. We hear some excusing of our sins because "we’re only human." The frivolous teeshirt claim The Devil Made Me Do It suggests the sort of thing I’m talking about. Others, much more serious, rant about God giving us certain drives and then condemning us for following them. I suppose a lot depends on the spirit in which the excuse is made; don't you think so? I don't mean that the spirit of the remark makes the excuse true or untrue; I mean it affects the way we hear it and very often affects the way we respond to it. If it sounds like it's excusing or making light of sin we find it more difficult to give it a balanced hearing.
If this response seems to meander quite a bit that might be because I'm that kind of thinker but it might also be because the question is rich and complex and I need to touch on related issues as I go along.
I'm one of those that think sin is inevitable. A view like that generates some questions that need answering; but to say that sin is not inevitable (that it's well within our ability to live sinlessly—to be holy within so that we fulfil all righteousness as well as avoiding all sinful doings)—that generates difficult questions also.
If we make the question abstract I'm sure it's theoretically possible for us not to sin. But as soon as we take into account several texts, the drift of the biblical Story and the existential reality I think we're (well, I am) compelled to say that we will sin. [There’s a fundamental difference between saying that we must sin and that we will sin. Where the element of choice exists (however weakened we might think it to be) there is no absolute must. We will not be able to determine the limits placed on our capacity to choose but we recognise there are some and He who knows everything knows how to judge in matters too great for us.]
In Matthew 18:7 Christ speaks of the inevitability of situations that "cause people to sin". (Compare 1 Corinthians 11:19.) It's inevitable, he says, that people (will sin in) causing others to sin. As surely as there will always be poor among us there will always be sinners.
But in saying sin is inevitable he doesn't excuse people. "Woe to him/her by whom they come." He didn't think inevitability destroyed responsibility. The inevitability (in part) rises out of our self-shaping. Our environment and other elements work against us and we succumb and that in turn shapes us so that before the picture is fully drawn we're habituated.
Christ would say, "This is how it will be"; not "This is how it must be." Our life-situation is made up of many factors—many of them chosen and probably many more of them not chosen. When speaking of actual humans we can't isolate any of these factors. We isolate elements when thinking things through (for good reasons and so we can get clarity and understanding, etc) but in real life—life as it's lived by actual humans abstractions don't work.
It isn't unreasonable to say that a human can say no to a single temptation and from there to say, "If one, then ten, if ten then a thousand. If for a day then a week and if for a week a year, a lifetime." A human did that. Jesus Christ. But we need to bear in mind Pascal’s observation that it’s a mistake to say we can always do what we can sometimes do.
So to excuse our sin merely on the basis that we're "human" is the wrong way to put it. A human can say no to sin as well as yes. We certainly want the praise for the good we do (I mean nothing sinister in that) and we should be honest enough to take the blame for the evil we do. (Both these situations need developed—no one is good alone or sinful alone.)
But if sin is inevitable, is God righteous to hold us responsible for it? When we think of God's attitude toward us and toward our sin we usually think of our sin in terms of moral law and God as the moral Governor. We say that moral law demands flawlessness and if someone should say that we aren't capable of that then the issue of God's justice is raised. Does he demand what we (as actual humans) can’t possibly give? Might as well hold us responsible for not creating worlds as hold us responsible for not being sinless (if we aren't capable of it). But I don't think that's how the biblical Message presents our situation or the gospel case.
There was only one Adam and Eve; no one has ever been in the same situation—the world after sin entered in not the world into which they were placed. God does not hold people responsible for their sin in the same way he held Adam and Eve responsible for their sin. (That thought needs developed.)
God's eternal purpose and his coming to redeem us in and as Jesus Christ makes it clear that our sin does not damn us without the possibility of redemption in Christ. That is, if God had construed human sin to be utterly unforgivable then he would not and could not have offered us forgiveness via Christ. He held it (in line with his own holy love) both forgiveable and in need of forgiving.
I don't believe he deals with people on the basis of, "You aren't sinless therefore you are damned." I believe he says, "You are sinful and in need of redemption" and in holy generosity and grace he provides redemption and those who would wish life with him gain it through God’s grace unveiled in Jesus Christ.
But sin is not legal—it is relational. It is relational infidelity. The issue is not: "Have we fallen short of sinlessness in the eyes of the moral law?" The issue is: "Have we grieved the Holy Father by our sin? The scriptures don't teach about sin as an abstraction—they don't line humans up with a moral code that in the abstract demands nothing less than flawlessness if they are to be approved. They relate us as actual humans to a personal God who made us in his image and who in holy grace and generosity offers forgiveness and acceptance to those who have sinned against him.
It's true that this only changes the question from "can humans be sinless?" so that it becomes, "Can humans live without grieving the Holy Father?" The answer (in my view) remains: "It's inevitable that we will grieve the Holy Father." But it's an important change of perspective. In sheerly legal terms there is no forgiveness; but there can be forgiveness in a personal relationship if (as in this case) the Holy Father chooses—and he does choose.
He insists that our sin is in need of forgiveness—it isn't a light matter, something to be excused as "not our fault". The cross (among other things) makes it clear that God takes human sin as an inexpressibly serious matter because he views humans as worth bothering about. This leads me to say that our damnation lies not in our missing a quota of righteousness (required by moral law). Our problem is not that we don't give to some moral law what we can't give but that we won't give to God what we can give.
God offers us life with himself and the justification for that offer is found in himself; as he has shown in and as Jesus Christ. If God were not as Jesus Christ has shown him to be there would be no need for redemption nor would there be an offer of redemption. On the one hand sin wouldn't matter (because God is not the Holy Father) and on the other forgiveness would not be offered (because God is not the Holy Father).
My view, then, is that God is righteous in holding us responsible for our sins though it is inevitable that we will sin. Because, in my view we aren't held responsible for not being sinless; we are held responsible for not giving to God what we can give. We need to construe sin as a life’s direction and not merely as specific acts of evil. As responsible adults standing before God we sin because we’re sinners.
In construing all this (in my view) we are to think of it in light of the work of Christ and God's self-revelatrion in him and not apart from it. To begin reflecting on it all apart from the gospel is to abstract it from its biblical roots.
I think if we went to God and said, "It wasn't possible for me to live sinlessly through my long life," I think he would agree. If we went on to say, "Therefore it is unrighteous of you to condemn us for not being sinless," I think he would say, "But I don't condemn you for not giving me what you couldn't. I condemn you because you refused to give me what you could."
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.
Many thanks to brother Ed Healy, for allowing me to post from his website, theabidingword.com.