Most Christians do not have the temerity to claim they do not sin. Yet, many continue to think of sin in terms of behaviours which somehow they manage to avoid, but which they lament in other people. To say it another way: It is common for Christians to define sin by reference to a list of things that no one should do. This list has varied throughout church history. In Scotland after the Reformation, Sabbath-breaking and sexual misconduct were the offences most subject to church discipline. During the Inquisition, heresy was the direst form of wickedness. In England of the 18th and 19th centuries, drunkenness was the prince of all evils. Today, if a questionnaire was circulated throughout the church in search of a definition for sin, the sheer variety of responses would show that Christians for the most part think of sin in terms of specific acts which they think are very bad indeed.
In Christ’s time, the religion of Israel was largely defined by the strenuous effort to be free from sin. People were helped in their goal by laws covering every aspect of life. If one could obey all the regulations, he/she would achieve a kind of freedom from sin. In one way this made Judaism very attractive, because if you obeyed the laws, you always knew you had God where you wanted him; you knew you had paid your dues; you owed him nothing; he could ask no more of you. You also knew how to quantify other people’s guilt.
Clearly this understanding of sin has serious deficiencies. It leaves love out of the reckoning. The door is left ajar for persons to think well of themselves simply because they have met a standard decreed by their definition of sin. Once a relationship with God is defined in terms of laws or rules it is a simple matter to judge and exclude people from that relationship.
Jesus shocked his generation by revealing a God not bound by such conventional values. He showed that people remain sinners no matter how scrupulously they obey their moral teachings and codes. In the gospel men and women are invited into a relationship with a God whose love is so expansive that it penetrates to every part of human existence; embracing them even at the most seedy and shameful corners of their being. The only appropriate response to such generosity is to love in return. Better to just admit that sin is too heavy for us to bear, too unwieldy for us to control, and accept that God loves us in spite of it. To confess as much, begins and sustains the life of faith.
“If we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8)