Sin and the Prophets

Sin, biblically defined is not exclusively, or even primarily a horizontal offense. It is primarily an offense against God.

It is for this reason that most moderns seem to be uncomfortable with the biblical prophets. They spoke much about sin, but not in our terms. They were concerned with the horizontal affects of sin. But they were far more concerned with the vertical effects of sin. They were profoundly aware of the depth of offense their sin, and the sins of their people, brought against God. Sin, in the prophetic view, was an abomination against God. It was a stench in his nostrils.

 
It may be simply my impression and nothing more. But it seems that modern evangelical discussions of sin focus on what sin has done to us. The cultural factors of addiction, pornography, climate change, and the recent news items about the prevalence of sexual assault have tended to focus our ideas of sin on the awfulness of the way humans treat one another and the planet we occupy. This explains in part the prominence of “brokenness” in our considerations of sin. This is certainly an important aspect to the doctrine of sin. The relationship between Adam and Eve was damaged, broken, if you will. Without the restraining work of the Holy Spirit, our treatment of one another would be far worse than it is.

The problem with this approach to the doctrine of sin is that it appears to make of sin something outside of us, some external evil influence that does damage to the soul in the way that mustard gas damages the lungs. This view finds its expression in the bumper-sticker theology of “Hate the sin. Love the sinner.” It separates the sin from the sinner. But this is not the biblical doctrine of sin. The biblical doctrine has it that “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Sin is not some external force or power, but a part of our character, an innate corruption of soul. Adam fell, and we are fallen, and that fallenness expresses itself in all aspects of our lives.

A further difficulty with our modern conception of sin is that we see the effects of sin as primarily horizontal. Dr. Nassar’s abuse of the gymnasts under his care was a profound offense against them. Sex trafficking is a profound offense against those who are its victims. But sin, biblically defined is not exclusively, or even primarily a horizontal offense. It is primarily an offense against God. It is this truth that seems to be lacking in many modern discussions of sin. It may be mentioned, but the profundity of the offense appears really to be ignored.

It is for this reason that most moderns seem to be uncomfortable with the biblical prophets. They spoke much about sin, but not in our terms. They were concerned with the horizontal affects of sin. But they were far more concerned with the vertical effects of sin. They were profoundly aware of the depth of offense their sin, and the sins of their people, brought against God. Sin, in the prophetic view, was an abomination against God. It was a stench in his nostrils.

We don’t share that view. We understand that the being of God is not affected by our sin. God is complete and perfect within himself. But we think, therefore, that sin has no effect on God. The prophets understood how wrong that is. So, they depicted sin in the most awful categories, with the ugliest, most repugnant images they could set out. They understood how ugly and repugnant a thing it was to offend against the thrice-holy God. We need to regain their understanding, or we will continue to redefine sin until is means only that which we find offensive.

Benjamin Shawn is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This article was originally published at GPTS Rabbi and is used with permission.