Sin & Grace: The Definition of Sin

If laws and prohibitions only serve to intice the desire of sin rather than free us, what is the next step? How are we to define sin in the life of a believer?

Have you ever been gaslighted by someone? Gaslighting is the act of purposefully or naively crafting a false narrative wherein the other person starts questioning their own experience and what is true. This malicious practice often happens within an unequal power dynamic between two or more people and/or where the vulnerable fears the loss and rejection of questioning the narrative.

As a Christian under the watchful eyes of a holy God, I would often question the rightness of my standing with Him. Losing my salvation was a very real threat and anything I did to “satisfy the lusts of the flesh,” in other words sin, would take me a step further from the presence and purity of God. It was one step forward, three steps back. Obey one law and ten would follow. Are you still not seeing that freedom you thought you’d see when you gave your life to Christ? When you were baptized? Ah, let’s see what deeper problems you have to overcome, they would say. 

Let’s talk about “The flesh.” “The flesh” is something that is vehemently opposed to God and to all that is good. Everything the flesh desires is an affront to God’s perfect design. In some Christian circles during Paul’s ministry, the flesh was so opposed that listeners were taught that anything that gives it pleasure was a sin. This teaching was known as Aestheticism, and it taught that the abstinence of earthly and fleshly pleasure was the path to righteousness. The rejection of any and all lust was the way to Godliness. Is this how sin is defined for us?

Paul had another idea (yep, he’s at it again!). The Colossians were infamous for their, shall we say, puritan ways and they were guiding listeners into a world of fleshly imprisonment and bondage (remember, prohibition inspires rebellion and desire). Paul dedicated an entire book telling these featherbrains what Christ had accomplished for them.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. (Colossians 2:8-10 NIV)

How are we seen in the eyes of God? Paul diverts from Israel’s gospel in a major way,

In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead….having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.(Colossians 2:11-12, 14 NIV bold mine).

Paul tells the Colossians that their righteousness was not a process, but a completed work. The moment Jesus took His final breath we were made complete. But the Colossians did not believe in the finished work. They still believed one had to work towards it and unnatural abstinence was the key. Paul had something to say about that immediately following. The Message words it in a way that is too hilarious to ignore,

So don’t put up with anyone pressuring you in details of diet, worship services, or holy days. All those things are mere shadows cast before what was to come; the substance is Christ.

Don’t tolerate people who try to run your life, ordering you to bow and scrape, insisting that you join their obsession with angels and that you seek out visions. They’re a lot of hot air, that’s all they are. They’re completely out of touch with the source of life, Christ, who puts us together in one piece, whose very breath and blood flow through us. He is the Head and we are the body. We can grow up healthy in God only as he nourishes us.

So, then, if with Christ you’ve put all that puffed-up and childish religion behind you, why do you let yourselves be bullied by it? “Don’t touch this! Don’t taste that! Don’t go near this!” Do you think things that are here today and gone tomorrow are worth that kind of attention? Such things sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice. They even give the illusion of being pious and humble and austere. But they’re just another way of showing off, making yourselves look important. (Colossians 1:18-23 The Message. bold mine)

As the NIV concludes, “they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence,” Paul puts a stamp on his closing thoughts before detailing the ways we glorify Christ in that freedom in the following chapter.

The question is if the flesh has been crucified with Christ, why is religion still at the war against it? Since we died with Christ why, as if we still belonged to the world, do we continue to submit to its rules? (It’s interesting to note how Paul implies “religion” as equal with “the world.” Some food for thought). And why, if we have been made a new creation and the cross has uprooted our old humanity, do we still treat our flesh as something filthy and not behold it as if it were glorified? In doing so the church has been placing chains upon congregations for centuries, gaslighting them away from the reality of grace and freedom. It is ironic then that battling the flesh is itself “fleshly,” but we’ll touch more on that in a later post.  

Those who are rich in the current eon be charging not to be haughty, nor yet to rely on the dubiousness of riches, but on God, Who is tendering us all things richly for our enjoyment; (1 Timothy 6:17 CLNT)

We are not living for this world. We are not giving ourselves to things that are “here today and gone tomorrow,” but God has given us all things richly to enjoy while we are here. It is using the world but not using it up (1 Corinthians 7:31). It is bringing some small sense of physical relief in a world of suffering and trial.

Are we arguing that sin is allowed in the life of a believer without consequences? Notice how Paul words things. Nowhere does Paul say that sin is permissible, and neither does he ever encourage sin. Paul goes to the length to imply that unnatural religious prohibitions are not themselves a sin. Paul defines sin as something that is against God’s written law and misses the mark of it, for “where there is no law there is no transgression.” (Romans 4:15). Where is there law? In murder, adultery, deceit, theft, idolatry and so on so forth. Sin defined in the life of a believer is anything that attempts to hurt another person or stand in defiance of the name of God. Let us not believe that doing these will reverse the work of the cross and render one “unsaved.” We have been justified apart from works of the law (Romans 3:28). However, there remain natural consequences for wrong actions and necessary disciplinary corrections.

It is believed that if one harmless pleasure is allowed (perhaps some erotica or a glass of wine or whisky) then one will spiral into a life of sin and destruction. However, perspective makes all the difference. We can experience the pleasures of this world in responsible moderation (trusting that God’s sovereign hand over us will keep us from destruction) while avoiding harmful (and we shall add sinful) overindulgence, hedonism, and idolatry simply by having the freedom to enjoy them without worry or fear. If the Holy Spirit lives in us then it is He who directs our steps and cultivates His fruit (this is why it is called the Fruit of the Spirit, not the Fruit of Paul or James or Lucas). Freedom is what breaks the chains of bondage and it is for freedom Christ has set us free. (Galatians 5:1)