Sin and Forgiveness

The world of the Bible and the world in which we live are almost exactly inverted in at least one crucial way – in biblical times, the family/tribal unit was the locus of identity and assumed to be the most determinative factor in the shape a life would take. In our modern times, radical individualism is assumed to open every possible door for a person to define their life goals, values, careers, and outcomes in whatever way is desired. The difference is at least vital for any conception of sin and forgiveness.

Throughout scripture, sin is a means of breaking with the presumed order of life and relationship – missing the mark or failing to live up to the kind of life that is expected and/or laid out in front. Forgiveness is that action or process whereby order and relationship are restored. In a world that presumes a particular tribal and family identity, it is possible to proscribe both ways in which brokenness arises and means by which healing takes place. In other words, it makes a certain kind of logical sense that one can list things as sin and, on the flip side, certain actions as ways to be forgiven.

The presumption of a specific kind of life, identity, or relationship is precisely what we lack in the radically individualized modern world. Sin and brokenness are meaningless terms at this point because we no longer have the language or assumptions with which to describe the kind of life or relationships that could be broken by action called sin. Without knowing what is broken by sin, it is a further impossibility to define forgiveness as that which heals what is broken.

Somehow, we have arrived at a point where more conservative voices offer the traditional language of sin as though it meant anything in a world that does not have a presumption of identity or relationship. More liberal voices, often having experienced the devastation and harm of emphasizing sin without the safety of relationship, tend to abandon more traditional biblical language altogether to focus on the kind of identity and safety that make healing possible.

What we lack is an appreciation of the power held by the stories that write us and an ability to define the life revealed by those stories before we begin to talk about those things that might lead to brokenness. In other words, sin means nothing in a world that lacks the presumption of tribe and identity. The church cannot assume that traditional language of sin and forgiveness is meaningful or helpful without first defining and embodying the ‘life that really is life.’ Only after aspiring to create Godly community can we appreciate the power of sin that breaks community and then seek the hope of forgiveness to restore community again.

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