Sin in the New Testament
Somewhere in a small mountain village of Austria I once read on the façade of a house the following impressive words: “praestat milies mori quam Deum vel velissime offendere” — “it is better to die a thousand deaths than to insult God even in the least”.
It is a remarkable, poignant phrase, in which the profound seriousness of sin is shown. Sinning against God is to insult him. It is a violation of his Majesty, worse than dying a thousand deaths. And this approximates also the language of the New Testament. The Bible — and certainly this includes the New testament to which I have to limit myself — comprehends human sinning as something that is profoundly serious. It is always connected to the breaking of a relationship, in this case the breaking of the relationship with the Creator, and that is something that is essential for the meaningful existence of man. Breaking the relationship with the living God is in the Bible the same as rebellion, insurrection against God. It also means that in doing so man ruins himself and digs his own grave.
The Radical Character of Sin
In the New Testament sin is in the first place something radical. It touches the root of our existence. It ruins man’s relationship, of such foundational importance, with God and with the neighbour. It emerges in each sinful act that man commits (Mark 2:5; Luke 11:4). John the Baptist points very concretely to that existence of sin in man when he tells the Roman soldiers in his audience that they should no longer extort money (Luke 3:10f). Also in the synoptic gospels this sinning of man is shown in practical terms. For instance, in the Sermon on the Mount it is said that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt. 5:28). Just to give another example, it is also well known how James writes about sin: the sin of desire, of greed, the grand lives of the rich (James 1:13f; 5:1f). Anyone who calls himself a sinner will constantly discover in himself sinful deeds, words and thoughts. A sinner in the Bible does not need to search out sin in his own life the way someone would be looking for a needle in a haystack.
Lack of Insight?
However concretely sin is dealt with in the New Testament, it is especially the existence of the sin of man that receives full emphasis. When man is sinning he does not just simply make a mistake, or innocently takes a step in the wrong direction. That is roughly how the Greek philosopher Plato spoke about sin: a lack of insight by which you end up with an unjust action, in the sense of, “It’s stupid I could do something like that...” Plato assumed that sin is actually a mental error in man. Lead a man to better insight and he will do what is right. The wiser he will be, the more he will improve. Deep in our hearts, that sounds rather attractive.
However, the testimony of the New Testament is squarely opposed to this. Here man is placed over against the living God and his holy justice. Here the sinful existence of man is pictured in all its radicalness: man as a lost son; someone who walks away from the house of his Father. That is how Jesus pictures the situation for us in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15). The younger son was quite finished with the idea of living any longer under the reach and influence of his father’s love, or of living under his father’s authority. And that was the reason why he demanded his share and left home in order to live a happy and splendid life in the world out there.
Sin, in its radical sense, is saying farewell to God, to his Fatherly love and to God’s Fatherly authority. It means a break with God, choosing instead one’s own autonomy. All of this does not apply to just anyone, but it applies to you and to me. I am that prodigal and lost son. And I do wrong because I am wrong: walking away from God, closing the door behind me. I am a man now who is on his own.
Jew and Gentile
The apostle Paul addresses this radicalness of sin in his letters, particularly in his letter to the Romans. It holds true for both Gentiles as well as Jews that there is no one who is righteous, no one who seeks God. The entire world is worthy of being doomed by God, without the law or under the law (Rom. 2:12; 3:9f; 1 John 3:4; 5:17). The Jews have always maintained that God at one time went with his Torah to the peoples and that all nations said “No thanks” when God asked them whether they would accept his beautiful Torah, but that only Israel accepted the Torah.
To Paul it hardly makes any difference whether as heathen one says “No thanks” to a life according to God’s law, or whether as Jew the law is being ignored. For in both cases we are dealing with the self-autonomy of man over against the living God. This is certainly true also when as a Jew one is trying to establish his self-righteousness before God through works of the Law (Rom. 3:38-4:25). That shows just how much sin is at the apex. For one fails to see how much the human heart is at enmity against the Father’s command of love. Man is attempting to lift himself out of his pit by the strength of his own fingernails.
There is a profound basic difference between Paul and the Jewish perspective of his day regarding man’s sinful existence. The Jews were convinced that the innate evil desire in man could be conquered only through the Torah. Instead, Paul pictures this as a dead-end road. It is exactly man’s “do-it-yourself” mentality that reveals that man is at enmity with God. He is “flesh”, i.e., he displays pure rebellion toward God.
The apostle John speaks in a noless radical manner about the sinful existence of man. Anyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. One thing results in the other. From running away from the fatherly home comes the life of passions for the things of the world. That pleases man enormously, until God comes to pick him up. John proves the fact that this is the true situation with us men in the rejection of Christ. Saying “No” to the Son implies saying “No” to the Father (John 8:34; 9:41). Therefore unbelief toward Christ is the breaking point. Anyone who rejects Jesus Christ out of hand as his only Saviour proves thereby that he is (or: wants to be) hopelessly lost.
The Universal Power of Sin
Can it get any more radical than this? And yet I do need to add something to all of this. Sin is something that goes to the root of our existence. But not only is sin radical, in the second place it is also something universal. It comprises the action and existence of man, and as such it is also a tyrannical power (Rom. 3:9; 5:21; 6:16, 20; 7:14; Gal. 3:22). Again it is the apostle Paul who stresses the point, especially in the familiar chapters 5 through 7 of this letter to the congregation at Rome. Paul shows here how sin entered the world through one man, namely Adam. And when Adam fell into sin, all his descendants fell in sin along with him. The entire human race was comprised in him, corporatively. To put it in a somewhat old-fashioned way, the apostle guides us into paradise in order to teach us to regret our break with God in Adam.
Quite correctly the church has spoken later of the entire human race as having fallen into sin in the doctrine of original sin. No creature comes as a “tabula rasa” (blank slate) into the world. We are guilty before God not merely because we imitate Adam’s sin, but also guilty of Adam’s sin ourselves. In this way sin reigns as an absolute tyrant in our existence. Our flesh is its domain of power, which is our weak, sin-spoiled existence. Sin operates in a demonic way; there is no stopping it. The power of sin is universal and structural (Rom. 5:12ff).
Someone might raise the question whether Paul, speaking as he does about sin as a universal power, does not come dangerously close to a fatalistic and tragic outlook of man, as can be found in the ancient Greek tragic philosophies as well as in the modern existential philosophies about man. In these views sin plays the role of something that cannot be avoided. For example in one of the Greek tragedies Oedipus appears to be so much involved in what is not permissible that at a certain moment he needs to marry his own (step-) mother.
Is evil not purely a mad force, a fate, a tragic occurrence that sooner or later affects every human being? Is human existence on earth anything more than “Sein zum Tode” (German for “destined for death”), with as the only remedy: be brave; bite the bullet; fight in desperation?
Sin and Law
Allow me to respond to this that the apostle Paul indeed sees sin working as a universal power in this world, yet at the same time he also raises the question of guilt. In his sinful existence man retains his responsibility. The apostle is not concerned to give us a highly pessimistic view of man. His aim is to make man discover his guilt (Rom. 5:13; 7:7f; 1 John 3:8).
I need to arrive at the confession; “peccavi” — I have sinned. How do I get to this confession? The law of God brings me to this realization. When I do not recognize God’s law as the authority for my life, at best I can bemoan evil as an angry and scary lot that happened to me. However, where God gains justice in my life, where the Father’s command to love dominates my life, that is where guilt will become evident. God’s law acts as a policeman, someone who regulates traffic. Because of it things can go on in an orderly way in life. Yet in the practice of my daily sinful existence (I am constantly in violation of directives) his policeman of the law functions not merely as the policeman who catches me in the act and who issues a ticket. The law reveals to me the absolute hopelessness of all my attempts to improve myself. It chastises me and drives me toward Christ. And in this way, having discovered my deeper self (in a broken state, at the end of my rope) I repeat the words of the prodigal son: “I will arise and go to my Father...” (Luke 15:18f). That is when I awake from my self-deception and the blindness of my self-seeking and prideful life of sin. Sin has uncovered me, but not as a tragic and fateful lot, but as universal guilt that is my personal guilt before God.
One more warning should be added. The Bible is not vague about the fact that sin has a miserable aftermath. God’s anger is aroused by it. His judgments stretch over the world, whether we see it or not (John 5:14; Rom. 5:1f; 6:23; 1 Cor. 15:56; Heb. 3:17). When I keep on sinning something worse can befall me than the man who was paralyzed for 38 years, as we can read in John 5.
There is a general relationship between sin and sickness. There is also a general connection between sin and death. Death entered this world by the sin of one man. Death is the soldier’s bitter pay for sin. Yes, for where a person struggles to loosen himself from the embrace of the eternal God, he cannot but die. It is his downfall, even for eternity.
The Conquest Over Sin
I will now briefly address the third point. Sin is something radical. It is universal. But something very decisive has happened: the unimaginable, namely that this radical universal power of sin would ever be broken, has in fact occurred. Not because man finally became wiser and so did not invite any further trouble (Plato). Not because man (both Jew and Gentile) clasps his hands together and improves the world according to the moral law of the Torah. For in those schemes of self-redemption the Bible offers no hope (Rom. 9:30f).
The New Testament points us to a different solution. God himself has intervened. In the fullness of time he sent the Messiah; his Name is Jesus. For he saves his people from all their sins. He makes known his salvation to them, in the forgiveness of their sin. Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. That is the glorious, and at the same time, the aggravating message of the gospel, foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament. They foretold the suffering Servant of the Lord who would give his life as a sacrifice for sin (Isa. 53); Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:77; John 1:29). Yes, sin needs to be paid for, it needs to be atoned for. The guilt of sin is not to be erased with tears of sorrow, not with improving one’s life, not with suffering and martyrdom. The guilt of sin has to be carried away. The power of sin needs to be broken.
All of this was charged to Jesus Christ. He gives his life vicariously as a ransom for the many. He is the true Passover Lamb who gave his blood, as we commemorate at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. He establishes a new covenant with tax collectors and sinners, and he exercises communion with them around his table. Under the authority of his Messianic mission he speaks freely, “Son, be of good courage, your sins are forgiven you” (Matt. 26:28f; Mark 2:5; 10:45; Luke 7:34).
God made him to be sin (2 Cor. 5:21), writes Paul. Golgotha has become the public mercy seat on which the High Priest sprinkled his own blood under the eyes of the Almighty (Rom. 3:25; 5:8; 1 Cor. 15:3; Gal. 1:4; 1 John 1:7). Jesus — the Scapegoat, sent into the wilderness of our estrangement from God. He — “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Sin in all its radicalness and universality (sin as the guilt of the world) has been borne by him. All lines of the Old Testament sacrificial and priestly service converge in him. In his self-surrender as the innocent One he is both Sacrifice and High Priest par excellence. Therefore the temple is no longer needed, and neither is the blood of bulls and goats; see the letter to the Hebrews (5:1f; 7:24f: 9:1f; 10:1f).
These are only some of the testimonies from the New Testament that I am quoting. In fact, the entire New Testament is a continuous song of praise for this Messiah and his cross. That is the unique character also in the message of the Bible: sin and grace; cross and resurrection. Sin has been taken away and God has been reconciled. Any place where this Messiah — who cannot be King and Prophet apart from his priestly service — has to take just one step back for the Judaized Jesus who promises improvement of life only by the Torah, means that there Christian theology has failed. The testimony of the New Testament will have been lost in the mist of Scripture criticism and self-willed religiosity.
Sin has been taken seriously, dead serious, by him who is preached to us in the New Testament as our Saviour. It is better to die a thousand deaths than to insult God even in the least. He died once on account of the thousand-fold insults with which our sins affected him. And the apostles are proclaiming that gospel. “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31).
I in Him
The greatest problem that the world is suffering from and by which this world is perishing has been resolved. Is this not putting it too simplistic? Certainly it is too simple for an unbeliever. But for anyone who has come to the end of his own tether and who has taken refuge in this Saviour in the needs of his life, for him it is the highest wisdom and the most profound secret of life. For faith may know that Jesus was hanging on his cross and that he has risen from his grave with a view to sinners. I need to put it more profoundly, more personally: that he died and rose with me in his heart.
On Golgotha I died with him when I was as yet a sinner. On Easter morning he took me through hell and death and grave to the heart of the Father, when I was as yet dead in sins and trespasses (Rom. 6:3f; Eph. 2; Php. 3:7f). And that is why henceforth sin has no more say over me. This cruel tyrant has been incapacitated and conquered. I have become dead to sin, like a corpse. “I saw it and believed it and my God pronounced me free.” By looking at the cross a load of sins falls off my shoulders as it did for Christian in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. “See the lamb of God ...!”
Again: is this not stating everything too simplistically? No. For faith this is always the reoccurring highlight of amazement and refreshment for the soul. That means it will have consequences as well. The power of sin is broken through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, through his Spirit in me, will also break the power of sin. I may not, I cannot, present my members as instruments for unrighteousness any longer. I may be — I need to be a child of the light, passed on from death to life. I will experience it by the fact that I love my brothers (Rom. 6:1,11f; 1 John 2:1; 3:8, 14). My body is not for adultery; with one woman I am more than content. I have only one passion: only him (Jesus). “Everyone who has been born of God does not continue in sin,” writes the apostle John. This does not mean that someone will not stumble daily in many instances. But it does imply that in a radical way one has said farewell to the dangerous and pernicious service of one’s own ego, to the pride of life, to the false trust in money and possessions and prestige (1 Cor. 6:18, 1 John 2:14f; 5:17f).
But if everything is to be like this, then it is vital that you surrender radically and without any reservations to Christ. If it is only partial commitment, a half-hearted effort, then one runs the danger to slide back into the old ways, and consciously to break with faith and with the faith community. Such a person has had more than enough of it. He is crucifying Christ all over again. He sins unto his own death with uplifted hand and that is an evil for which there is no forgiveness. That is how the New Testament speaks about the ultimate consequence of the life of a man who has written off Christ, one who mocks God (Matt. 12:31; Heb. 6:4f; 10:26f, 1 John 5:16f). We need to realize that we are living in a time where many have taken the ultimate consequence of denying and forgetting God in their life. May this serve as a greater incentive to be deadly serious about the message of sin and grace, as seriously as the Bible teaches it. For the time of decision is now.
“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 7:30-31).