It seems we tend to understand the words in Scripture based on our own cultural understanding. I have found that true in my own life as I have tried to make sense of sin and why Jesus died on the cross. I’ve learned through my seminary courses that there are many ways to view the reason behind the cross, the atonement. I’m not intending to go into great depth in that full area but just a bit about both the Jewish and Greek understanding of sin. What is it?
I have always understood sin as a behavioral issue, doing something wrong. The way it was described to me was that sin was an archery term. It meant missing the mark or bullseye of perfection which was required to please God. So for me, that meant trying to do right, failing, repenting, and trying again. The problem was even though I lived a “right” life, I wasn't able to understand a love from a God who based my acceptance on performance. As I look back now, I can see that I tried to believe my acceptance wasn’t based on performance, but it was based on my ability to believe right. Isn’t that performance? I really came to a place where I struggled with this idea but was actually afraid to admit it.
I came to understand that this view of sin was from a Greek cultural understanding. It actually fits our cultural understanding as well. We tend to define sin based on how we would define perfect, flawless. So given our own cultural understanding, the command “to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48),” would mean to be flawless like a flawless God. Tying sin to that kind of understanding is a difficult one, given our inability to follow through. It also makes our relationship with God centered on the individual, me. It makes it about what I do and what I choose.
The Jewish understanding is different. It opens up a deeper understanding of grace, offering a different way to navigate these questions. Judaism understood a relationship with God through a covenant with Abraham. A covenant is different than a contract. A contract is an agreement which lists the obligation of each party based on the condition that each fulfills their responsibilities. A covenant is more like a marital relationship. It was a Jewish understanding that active obedience was an expression of a serious commitment to the covenantal relationship with God. Obeying God’s Law was motivated by love and not from a desire to be flawless.(1)
If we consider the view of a relationship with God as relational instead of transactional, it opens up our concept of faith and sin. In the past, I have often defined faith as accepting and believing a particular set of beliefs. A Jewish understanding would view faith as trusting in the covenantal relationship. They were God’s children based on being born into Abraham’s covenantal relationship with God. So their trust in their relationship was based on their genealogy and in God’s righteousness, defined in God being faithful to his promises. Later, Paul calls them out on this understanding to a fuller relationship through Christ. This shows God's intention to be inclusive instead of excluding those outside of Judaism.
Perfection, as we spoke about earlier is understood not as flawless, but whole, complete, mature.(2) These are relationship words. Sin, then, would be viewed as a break in relationship regardless of behavior. We see this ring true in the ten commandments, Jesus’ view of the greatest commandments, and in Paul's writings; all of the lists are relational actions. These relationships are between God, self, and others.
Does this matter? I believe it does. When I view sin as behavior, I tend to see God as demanding and angry. One I am unable to please and find hard to trust. From this place, my acceptance is uncertain, so I tend not to feel safe. It means I have to pretend to be enough and to seem worthy. It makes my faith focused on me and what I do and what I believe.
Yet, when I view sin as a break in relationship, I can see God as one who desires a relationship with me, regardless. For me, this is a God I can trust and open myself up to being vulnerable in relationship. I don't need to pretend to be something I am not. This relationship doesn't depend on my behavior or what I know. It allows my faith to be focused on God because what I do doesn’t impact how God views me.
This has been my own journey and I also hear it with others I work with in direction and in spiritual formation groups. It is a story often repeated and I believe it matters very much. What we believe about God matters as we live our lives with a loving God. Walking alongside others, in community, is a gift God has given us. It is in relationship with God and others that we can begin to understand that God is actually for us. We can begin to understand beloved may be a more accurate label than sinner.
(1) Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith : A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 78.
(2) F. Wilbur Gingrich, Frederick W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and Walter Bauer, Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, 2nd Ed. / Rev. by Frederick W. Danker. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 198.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!