I wrote this for Camille Lewis, because she asked for me to explain this all in one place. So here we go.
To echo the esteemed Dr Mike Barrett, nothing I say below is new. “Novelty is not a virtue in this business,” he said to us in seminary. Orthodox teaching on the subject of the Fall and its effects on Creation isn’t hard to find.
Yet people keep asking me to codify what I find myself repeating in so many different contexts, that we Christians tend to mis-define sin (usually by “hedging” the Law) and then apply those fuzzy, imprecise decisions and do much harm.
So, for Camille & others, here is my first, oh-so-brief sketch of the issues, to be fleshed out “later” …
1. Sin is not a THING.
It doesn’t “exist” as its own entity somewhere, rubbing off like black tar on “good things” … so that we can simply keep ourselves away from the tar…. Sin is a twistedness, a perversion, a brokenness, a falling short. It exists only as the perversion of what is good….
2. and more precisely & biblically, sin exists IN ME. Not in objects. This point is well established in orthodox theological literature.
Paul writes in Titus that “to the pure, all things are pure.” Jesus says in Matthew (and He was speaking in that context of physical things, and in a conversation with the law-loving Pharisees), it is not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out from the heart that defiles a man. Jesus locates the problem of sin within humans, not outside of them. We are “drawn away by our own lusts and enticed” (James 1).
Jesus then goes on to name a representative short-list of sins as His examples. “Going in” were things like food (reminds me of Paul’s meat discussion). His “coming out” examples are all sins of the heart — envy, hatred, lust, etc.
The sin problem is INSIDE ME.
This is foundational to biblical thinking. As soon as you define any particular thing as sinful, you’ve missed the point…. because we must agree that God Himself sees all things yet does not sin.
So, a test case:
Is the photo of a naked woman sinful?
Well, lusting certainly is.
The sins of the heart are the point. You can commit the sin of lust without ever opening a Playboy magazine.
Is it the physical photograph of the naked woman in her sensual pose that is the sin?
Jesus could have picked up a porn magazine, flipped through it, and wept over the exploitation of those girls (whether they realize it or not) and such blatant perversion of God-granted beauty… yet never lust.
Don’t misunderstand my point: I’m not suggesting that men go look at porn. I agree with 100% of the godly ministers I know who argue that porn is a huge problem for Christian men. But my point stands that the sin is taking place inside the heart, and the object that stirs up the illicit desires for a wrong kind of sex isn’t the sinful part of this equation. If an unfallen man (or a glorified one) saw a Playboy centerfold, he would not sin.
We sin because we are sinners.
The sin is not in the object.
3. Mature, growing Christians experience a growing freedom of conscience as their knowledge of God and His Word grow. (At least, as the Spirit applies the Word to our hearts, we ought to.)
Paul never commends the “weaker brother” for his weakness. All of the protections Paul mandates in our interactions with one another (Romans 14, I Corinthians 8-10) are there to prevent the weaker one, the man with the tighter conscience, from being “destroyed” by his uninformed understanding of biblical boundaries.
Implicit in these passages is the expectation that the weaker brother should grow into a mature faith, one that realizes that meat offered to idols is okay; that no day is more important than another … that our external expressions of liberty are NOT where sin resides…
Sin is in the heart.
If I do something despite believing in my heart by conviction (whether I’m right or wrong) that it’s sin, Paul says I sin against my conscience. And THAT is the sin. Not necessarily the activity itself.
4. The battle is never about the top-level, external, surface issues. When it comes to defining sin, the gray areas are actually very small.
You cannot play a game to create some “gray area” which you label “not-sin” yet “still bad.” The Bible never goes there.
Wisdom is justified by her actions, yes, but you’re dealing in different categories (sinful vs unwise). It would not be wise for me to play heavy metal for you at dinner, or in your church service—for one thing, we would have a hard time having a conversation over dinner or paying attention to the message, and that’s unloving. But that action alone wouldn’t be a sin (other than maybe my transgression of the command to “love your neighbor” and “do unto others…”).
If you can’t enjoy screaming heavy metal, fine. Don’t listen.
But understand: NO particular style of music is sin in itself. Period.
If you can’t look at Michelangelo’s David without being bothered by the nudity, fine. But understand — nakedness is NOT a sin. If you can admire and not sin, great. You’ll weep at the incredible beauty of the sculpture.
5. So…judging someone’s spiritual status by their list of favorite music … movies… TV… books… businesses… where they buy their socks — it’s just silly.
We are justified.
We are sanctified.
We are made holy solely through the blood of Jesus Christ and the work of the Cross…. nothing else.
I cannot trust God for my salvation and then try to “work my hardest” to “keep Him happy” during the rest of my Christian life! (Read Galatians)
Yes, we are “to be holy” — to be “set apart” indeed. One might argue that Jesus helps us understand that holiness when He calls us to see that the Law’s demands are inward, and not just outward. And that we are to be known, as His followers, by our LOVE. Not by what music we eschew.
We are losers. Gone. Hopeless— APART from God’s redemptive work.
And THAT is Grace:
you are totally sinful, yet totally loved by your Father.
Your actions will never make you any more or less holy. “Righteous Lot” was tormented in his conscience outside Sodom — but God terms him “righteous.” Unbelievable.
Understand what sin is and educate your conscience. There’s no righteousness in judgment OR license. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6)