We Need a New (Testament) Definition of Sin


canstockphoto36135661Message given May 29, 2016 by Larry L. Eubanks

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, for “the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.” If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.                        

(I Corinthians 10:23-33)

This is one of those passages which is hard for modern Christians to know how to apply to their daily lives. Meat sacrificed to idols? Meat not sacrificed to idols? Idols? These aren’t real issues for us anymore.

In the church I grew up in, I remember the pastor teaching on this on a Wednesday night when there was audience participation. I don’t remember a whole lot of the details. I remember that he talked about “convictions,” that different Christians had different convictions about things, and how we ought to respect other Christians’ convictions.

But I honestly can’t remember what “convictions” other Christians might have that we didn’t have that we didn’t have.

We had a lot of convictions. We were fundamentalists, and fundamentalists have a lot of convictions.

There were some Christians who thought it was okay to drink alcohol on certain occasions in moderation.

We didn’t think it was ever OK to drink alcohol on any occasion.

Or smoke. We had some church members who smoked out in the church parking lot between Sunday School and worship, but I got the feeling that everyone kind of looked down their noses at them. They laughed about the men who were “on fire for the Lord.”

Cussing wasn’t allowed for Christians, even “Dad-gummit” which was just a work-around for the “GD” one.

I think the examples of convictions we came up with that Wednesday night had to do with playing cards and dancing. You know, in the Fundamentalist creed you avoided drinking, smoking, cussing, playing cards and dancing, along with any women who did these things.

So we were less fundamentalist than other fundamentalists because the group allowed that it was OK to play bridge or rummy or hearts, as long as no money was exchanged. So the way you applied this passage was if you were with a young Christian who thought that it was a sin to play cards at all, then the proper thing to do was respect their convictions and not play cards when you had them over.

And then never invite them over to your house again.

On the dancing thing there was more debate. Some thought it could be OK. The kind of stuff that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did was OK, it was beautiful even, but dancing to that demonic rock and roll—well, that was sinful! It would lead to sex! And drugs! And demon-worship! The seven-year Tribulation!

My youth group had an annual event, the big event of the year, called Dusk to Dawn. We’d start off with a formal dinner at the church. Guys would wear suits and ties, girls would wear long formal dresses. There would be a program. Then we’d all change to regular clothes and we’d go play putt-putt, then go bowling, then swimming—girls only in one-pieces—through the rest of the night, ending up back at the church at 6 a.m.

I learned that this event was conceived in the sixties as an alternative to prom. It gave the Christian teenagers in our church something formal and fun to do instead of prom, where there would be that evil dancing.

But by the time I got to youth group in the mid-seventies the original purpose lost, and we went to homecoming and prom and still did Dusk to Dawn. We saw it as good stewardship since the girls got to wear their prom dresses twice instead of just once.

Such is the nature of religion based on rules. When I was in Georgia a Sunday School class wanted to use the church van to go eat lunch together after church and asked me to drive. The rule was that whoever used the church van returned it with a full tank of gas. When we were returning and I was getting ready to turn into a gas station one of the women said, “Larry, I’ll pay for the gas if you’ll wait until tomorrow to fill it up.”

She had a conviction that you shouldn’t buy gas on Sunday because it made the people at the gas station work on Sunday and that was wrong, that was not respecting the Sabbath. I thought that was kind of silly, especially since we had just ate at a restaurant where we had made the cooks and waitresses work on a Sunday, but I kept it to myself. I said to myself that this was her meat sacrificed to idols, and I was being obedient to Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 10.

Such is the nature of rules-based religion; it gets you into these types of mental gymnastics in order to keep within the rules. And I think doing it this way actually hides the very profound thing that Paul is doing in this passage.

Salvation by Ethnicity

We have mischaracterized the nature of the contrast between the Old Testament view of salvation vs. the New Testament view of salvation. Ever since the Reformation we have characterized it as salvation by works vs. salvation by grace. We’ve said that the Old Testament way was salvation by works, that you earned your salvation by keeping the rules that God gave you. Keep the rules, then you are saved. Don’t keep the rules, and you can’t be saved.

And the problem, as the Old Testament shows, is that you can’t keep the rules. Jesus shows, it is said, that it’s impossible to keep the rules before you are saved. Salvation is by grace, it’s a gift given to you, and all you have to do is accept it by faith and you’ll be saved.

You’ll be a new creation, and the Spirit of God will dwell within you, and now you’ll be able to keep the rules.

So Christians don’t have to do all those funky rules in Leviticus about not eating shellfish or meat in which the blood hasn’t been drained. We love our shrimp and our crabs, don’t we Marylanders?

And blood in the meat? We call that “juice.”

But that’s a mischaracterization of the Jewish understanding of salvation. The Jews have never believed that you earn your salvation; they have always believed that salvation was by grace.

It was by grace that God chose Abraham out of all the people on the earth. It was by grace that he and Sarah, old beyond child-bearing years, were able to have a child. It was by grace that Abraham’s family grew into a clan and then into a nation. It was by grace that God delivered them out of the hand of Pharaoh and led them to a land flowing with milk and honey. It was by grace that God gave them the Torah, which no other nation had.

It was by grace that they were born a Jew, one of the Chosen Ones, and not one of those filthy, pagan, idol-worshiping Gentiles who don’t have the Torah and wouldn’t know what to do with it if they had it.

It wasn’t salvation by works; it was salvation by ethnicity. The rules were there not to make you into one of the Chosen, but to show that you were one of the Chosen. They were to distinguish Israelites from non-Israelites.

They eat shrimp, we don’t. They work on the Sabbath; we don’t. They are uncircumcised, but we circumcise our boys. They rape the people they conquer, both men and women; we don’t.

We’re us, they are them.

We’re better.

Salvation by Love

Jesus came, and he brought salvation. He brought forgiveness of sins. God forgives because he wants to, and chooses because he wants to. It’s all gift; it’s all grace.

But here’s the distinction: you are saved by grace, and the way you show it is not through keeping a bunch of rules that only a few people have, but by loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself.

And who is your neighbor? Everyone.

Even your enemies? Even your enemies.

Love is something anyone can do, Gentile as well as Jew. Even Canaanites and Romans can love others.

You don’t need a rule book to love. Love is something we were born to do. It’s in our DNA, our human DNA. Shoot, even non-Christians can love. People of other religions can and do love. It’s how God created us.

Do you see how this view of salvation throws open the doors to everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity or even religion? It’s all about love.

What’s interesting is that while our understanding of salvation changed, our understanding of sin didn’t.

Rule-Based Sin

We still define sin as the violation of some kind of rules. God says to do something, and we don’t do it. That’s sin. Or God says don’t do something, and we do it, and that’s sin.

That’s how we define sin. Breaking the rules. That’s in every definition of sin. Missing the mark.

But there are still rules. The problem is that you can’t keep them before you are saved, but now that you are saved you show evidence of your salvation by keeping the rules.

And there’s even a new set of rules. We’ve done away with the stupid shrimp-eating rules and come up with a new set of rules.

Rules in the form of doctrines to believe if you are going to be a Christian. Rules in the form of sins that are too sinful for you to do if you were truly a Christian.

We’ve even made accepting Jesus as your savior as a set of rules that you must follow. They are rules about what you believe, but rules nonetheless. You have to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he was born of a virgin, lived a perfect death, died on the cross as a substitute penalty for our sins, and was raised on the third day. Leave any of those things out, and you haven’t really accepted Jesus. You aren’t really saved. You aren’t one of the chosen.

In the new version of the old way, sin is still breaking the rules, it’s just that we’ve been forgiven because we’ve followed a new set of rules, one of which is believing in Jesus and accepting him as savior. You either do it, or you don’t.

Then we mischaracterize what James says about faith and works, that he is saying that we show our faith by our works—by our rule-keeping. That’s not what he is saying at all. For James, works is not about keeping rules; it’s about loving the person in front of you, whether that be a hungry person or a fellow church member.

The Problem with Rules

Here’s the problem with defining sin and salvation by rules: whether it’s the old Jewish way or the new Christian way, either way, you can get real judgy.

The problem with the Pharisees was their judgmentalism, and the problem with Christianity is judgmentalism. You ask most people in America about Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, and the thing that we most consistently hear from them is that Christians are judgmental, and they don’t want anything to do with it.

And it’s not a mischaracterization or a misperception: we really are judgmental. I see what Christians write and hear what they say, and we really are judgmental, especially toward non-Christians and people of other faiths, even people of other Christian denominations. Those Liberals! I’ve lived my entire life within evangelical Christianity, and no one is more judged and condemned by them than Liberals, whether political or Christian Liberals.

But it’s not just people outside the church that we judge. We judge each other. Last week I spoke about the Dones, the Christians who are really committed to Christ and were once committed to the church, and the main reason they are Done with the church is that they saw mission get bogged down by rules, and they saw and received judgmentalism among the most committed members of the church.

And they are Done with it. And good for them.

What Paul is saying here in 1 Corinthians is to not get bogged down in rules about eating meat sacrificed to idols or anything else.

Get bogged down in love. Paul is saying that he is not going to be subjected to the judgmentalism of someone else, but he is going to love. If that means not eating a certain type of meat with someone, then he is free to do that because he loves that person.

But he is not going to get bogged down with rules. He’s been freed of that, and he’s not going back to that slavery.

See, the other problem with rules-based sin and salvation is that you can you can keep the rules, and not love.

Those who know the rules also know how to get around the rules. It’s like taxes. Those who are wealthy know how to get around the rules and the laws so that they pay very little in taxes and still be legal. In fact, there are ways to get around the taxes that are only available to the wealthy.

And so they avoid paying taxes, avoid helping to educate children and assist the poor and pay for the roads they use, and they do so legally.

That’s the problem Jesus had with the Pharisees: they kept the law, but they didn’t love. They didn’t love, yet everything they did was legal.

We need to change our definition of sin. Sin isn’t a failure to keep the rules.

Sin is a failure to love. It’s that simple.

It is by grace that we are saved, and it is by love that we accept Jesus—loving God and loving others.

Because that’s how God deals with us.

Not by rules, but by love.

Photo by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / ChristianChan

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