Advent: 2. Sin
This post follows on from the one last Monday. It is the second in a series for Advent on salvation. I will pick up the personal journey series tomorrow!
Advent: 2. Sin
Salvation is not something we feel the need to seek nowadays, largely, of course, because we do not think we need saving in the first place. We are very proud of ourselves and of our achievements; the old Christian stress on getting and being saved is, frankly, embarrassing. It suggests that we need help and, worse, that help must come from outside ourselves.
‘If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ (John 1:8), said St John in a verse that is often read before confession in Church services. If true, we are thoroughly deceived. We have absolved ourselves from any need to talk about sin. It is not exactly that we won’t admit to things being wrong. There is far too much evidence that there are things that are wrong for that: wrong on a personal and individual level and wrong on a social and political level. But the language of sin seems to imply blame and responsibility, and it is this that we don’t like the sound of.
We do like the idea of forgiveness. But forgiveness has been subtly redefined. Forgiveness once meant that we first admitted we had done wrong, took responsibility for it, and accepted the blame. In other words that we confessed our sins and confessed that they were ours. Now forgiveness is a term which means more like saying something doesn’t matter, couldn’t be helped, and wasn’t our fault. It is more like overlooking or ignoring what is wrong.
But the Bible is quite clear that as far as God is concerned, we stand indicted as sinners. To put it bluntly: we do things that we should not do and that we know we should not do. Things which are no-one’s doing, but our own. We are personally liable and to blame.
St John continues, ‘but if we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’. Confessing to sin means more than simply saying sorry. It means taking responsibility. It is saying, ‘Yes, I know what I have done was wrong. I did it. It was my fault. Mine and no-one else’s.’ It is this that society is less comfortable with. We talk instead about mitigating factors. How we couldn’t help it. We look for excuses in our past, in society, or in our lifestyle. We talk of pressure and stresses and factors beyond our control. We justify our sin. And so because we will not confess our sins, they remain unforgiven, and we live with the burden of guilt and shame, which, whether we like it or not, are the inevitable consequences of sin, thus missing the forgiveness that could be ours if we only let go of our self-deception.
God offers not only to forgive us our sins, but also to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. St Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that human beings suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, that is, the truth about themselves and the truth about God. He writes that what can be known about God is plain. We like to find excuses for our unbelief and lack of faith. We take refuge in atheism and agnosticism claiming that we cannot know if there is a God or not. But God himself will have none of it telling us straight that the evidence of his existence is there for all to see. But to admit to it is to admit to the possibility that this God may hold us accountable for our behaviour, and it is this that we want to avoid at all costs. But we cannot avoid it. We are, again as St Paul puts it, ‘without excuse’.
We all stand condemned by the evidence of our own lives and the evidence of creation, evidence which ought to have driven us to seek forgiveness from our Creator: forgiveness for the damage we have done to ourselves, forgiveness for the damage done to each other, and forgiveness for the damage done to God’s creation. What is to be done? How are we to find help?
We need to learn again the language and meaning of salvation.