Sin isn’t just a series of errors or poor judgments with momentary consequences. Sin is taking you somewhere. It’s leading you down a path of decay, a path that ends in spiritual death.
Hyperbolic, isn’t it? “Sin is death” sounds like something you’d hear echoing from a bullhorn in a city that embraces noise as part of its culture. Philadelphia and New York come to mind (no offense, by the way; it’s just that I hail from a quiet fishing town in Canada). In the context of so much physical turmoil and death in our world, calling sin “death” seems almost offensive, as if we’re insulting people struggling with leukemia or COVID, the real death threats. How can we claim something so serious about a problem that seems more conceptual than physical?
It all depends on how you define life and death. What is life? If life is measured only in blood flow and heart beats, then “Sin is death” sounds ludicrous, like a misinformed battle cry of pre-modern street preachers. Sin might be a hindrance, a nuisance, or even a threat to moral flourishing in society at large, but death? Hardly.
But what if life has more to do with bonds than with blood? What is life is more deeply about a relationship than it is about our respiratory system? What is life is about an active (even if neglected or forgotten) bond of communion between us and the God whose breath gave us our breath? That would change our perspective on the whole “Sin is death” thing, wouldn’t it? And doesn’t Jesus refer to himself as the life (John 14:6)? Living would thus be a relationship with him, not a set of physical and mental animations.
And what is death? If it’s not just about the stillness of the body, the absence of animation, or the fading pulse beneath your skin, then what is it? Maybe if life is all about relationship, then death is really about the ending of that relationship, or at least the most dramatic change imaginable.
Sin as Death
Now, what struck me as I read Romans is just how direct Paul is in linking sin with death. He clearly views sin as more than a behavior problem that can be remedied by a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. Sin is far more serious. Sin is lethal.
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.
For Paul, sin kills. It brings death. This doesn’t mean that sin is an actual substance, some soul disease that spreads like wildfire. Sin is ethical, and it has no independent existence. It’s parasitic; it can’t exist on its own, so it follows around the good things of God’s creation and distorts them, deforming us in the process. As Bavinck put it in The Wonderful Works of God, sin is “a manifestation which is moral in character, operating in the ethical sphere.” Sin is moral and ethical. Yet, the fact that it’s moral and ethical doesn’t mean it’s not lethal. Paul’s language makes it clear that sin brings death. It destroys us.