Under the heading ‘Pope has not abolished sin’ an article taken from the Church News magazine was published in a number of newspapers earlier this month. It gave the Vatican’s response to an essay by an unbelieving Italian journalist. In an extensive interview with the Pope about God, this journalist had been told that “his mercy and willingness to forgive never cease.” This led him to deduce that as far as the Pope is concerned sin actually no longer exists.
That has now been contradicted. But whatever was or was not said about sin, the fact remains that there is a direct link between how we perceive sin, and the image we have or make of God.
Sin in the eyes of the world
What does the world of today still regard as ‘sin’?
Nowadays, the word ‘sin’ is useful for something that is ‘a pity’, for something that has come to nothing. A plan that unfortunately failed. The sudden loss of money. A vase that was accidentally dropped. A job that seemed up for grabs, but you awkwardly failed to secure.
Sin does then not necessarily mean guilt. It rather indicates that you are ‘sorry’ about something, because you would have liked things to have been different.
There is yet another category of ‘sin’ that nowadays is linked to guilt. Sins that even deserve punishment. They are such things as ‘sin against humanity’, terrorism, genocide; but also discrimination, fraud, corruption, environmental crime and paedophilia.
Their characteristic is that they are an immediate threat to the rights and environment of man himself. It is not guilt before God, as Creator and Sustainer of this world, but guilt against society. When people feel threatened, short-changed or affected, common opinion is that such things must be punished.
Standing up for ‘the oppressed’ also belongs to this, as a matter of ‘justice’. And even then God’s Word is not the standard, but people’s own human feelings and judgment.
Things we have to reject as sinful on the basis of God’s Word can thus be assured of the approval and protection of society. Think of abortion (the interest of the mother), euthanasia (the interest of an older person or patient) and homosexuality (the interest of those involved in it). It is especially the rejection of such issues on the basis of God’s Word that the world will regard as sin!
Lot in Sodom
Apart from these issues, the world regards many things which God’s Word especially labels as sin so normal that we run the risk of easily becoming accustomed to them. So that it no longer shocks us that much when, for example, we see all kinds of perverse images on TV, or hear around us cursing or other God-dishonouring language.
In this regard we ought to ask ourselves in all sincerity whether we really feel what Lot felt about Sodom, as recorded in 1 Peter 2:7. Or has the indignation over sin in our and our children already been dulled by familiarisation? It is especially depraved Sodom which the Lord Jesus compares with the time of His second coming, when everything in society follows its daily routine (Luke 17: 26-30).
Let’s take a random sample of what we encounter every day as sins against the Ten Commandments of God’s law – sins which society has already widely accepted.
- 1st Commandment: denying and refuting the existence of God, including in beautiful nature films
- 2nd Commandment: self-willed worship, at times under the umbrella of ‘reformed’ or ‘christian’; the pursuit of false ecumenism
- 3rd Commandment: offensive blasphemy, which on 3 December 2013 was also legalised when the Dutch Senate adopted a bill repealing Article 147 of the Penal Code; divorce (breaking of marriage vows)
- 4th Commandment: Sunday trading in shops, permitted throughout the nation from 1 July 2013, and practised in almost all regions
- 5th Commandment: The right to strike for better wages and the right to revolt aiming to overthrow a legitimate government
- 6th Commandment: Active termination of life, either by abortion and/or overt euthanasia
- 7th Commandment: unallowed divorce; cohabitation; sexual promiscuity and homosexuality; also in films, TV programs and on internet sites
- 8th Commandment: ‘Black’ and ‘grey’ labour
- 9th Commandment: gossip, slander
- 10th Commandment: Gambling-, internet-, smoking- and sex-addiction
We know that God hates sin and that His judgment comes upon us if we practise and persevere in it. For we cannot lay claim to Christ’s sacrifice if we wilfully continue in sin. This makes clear how in its practices the world without God is one of our three mortal enemies.
But let us not forget that our own flesh, our old nature, is also one of these mortal enemies (HC, Lord’s Day 52). Satan connects by way of the world to our own lusts (James 1: 14, 15).
No, sin does not stop at the church doors. We should continually hunger for the awareness of our sins in order to pray for forgiveness in the blood of our Saviour Christ. Our struggle against it shall have to be an ongoing one in the strength of Christ’s Spirit, by the standard of His Word.
We may at the same time look forward with longing to Christ’s return. Because then all sin will have disappeared in the new heaven and on the new earth. All consequences of sin shall then also have disappeared for those who trusted in the blood of Christ and followed Him wherever he went.
Sin and Forgiveness
Until that time our struggle of faith shall still have to target sin and temptation to sin. This demands our awareness of a number of pitfalls which arise if we do not do justice to God’s Word.
The first threat is always the neglect of our self-examination and the carelessness in our obedience to God’s commandments. In this context you will hear people say: We do not ‘have’ to, but we are ‘allowed’ to. Their idea is that, since Christ has overcome the power of sin, there should no longer be the obligation to keep God’s commandments. Has Christ not fulfilled everything in our place? We fail all the time ourselves, it is said, but now we may live out of Christ’s victory; we cannot add anything to it.
But this is a false doctrine which just takes us away from Christ and from the sanctification He seeks. For our communion with Christ may not lead us to continue in sin, with the notion that grace should increase accordingly. That trap has been very clearly identified in God’s Word (Romans 6).
There are also anabaptists and evangelicals (among them the Chinese Watchman Nee) who believe that a Christian is able to rise to such a level of unity with Christ that he does not sin anymore. But that is really in conflict with Romans 7: 24 and 1 John 1: 8-10.
The danger for believers can also be the notion that if we live a decent life and faithfully do our duties we will no longer do real big sins – possibly under the pretence of ‘yes, we are all sinners and no one is perfect.’ Yet in His Sermon on the Mount the Lord Jesus revealed the depth of God’s law especially over against people who also thought that they excelled in keeping the law, the Pharisees. The Heidelberg Catechism also shows this depth in its Scriptural treatment of the Ten Commandments.
It must be, and continue to be, our heartfelt intention to live in accordance with all the commandments of the LORD (Form for the celebration of Holy Supper). We will have to know them in that way from Scripture, and always be willing to test our lives on them. This also requires the gift of the Holy Spirit. He will be willing to hear our prayer for guidance to know our sins.
We shall want to confess also those sins which we still gladly nurture, or commit in secret. We shall even want to grow in this (see HC, Lords Day 44).
Bible criticism and new hermeneutics
It is especially the Bible criticism that is advancing in the garment of the new hermeneutics that obstructs the Scriptural view on sin. People want to adapt the content of God’s Word to today. They want the account of the Creation, too, to become credible by no longer accepting it as factually historical, but rather interpreting it symbolically, metaphorically. In paradise it should not then be a matter of sensory observable things about the two trees and the talking snake but more about its message.
The new hermeneutics thus obscures the reality and plainness of the first sin.
God’s Word in Genesis 1-3 presents, however, a factual and historic event. It does this in order to honour God as Creator, and to give us a clear view on our Fall into sin. This Fall entered God’s creation by way of the human senses (hearing – seeing – touching – tasting). This fact is essential for the understanding of the nature of sin!
The reality in which Satan enticed man in paradise to sin is the same reality in which he has always been busy seducing people. Thus he also played up to man’s real desires when he tempted the Lord Jesus in the desert.
We too must in the real situation of our life (‘they ate’, ‘they drank’, Luke 17: 27, 28) still make the right choices. Our living in covenant obedience is also as real as when Adam and Eve received their test command (see Prof. C. Trimp, For the clearness of truth, De Vuurbaak, 1967, p. 41 and 42).
Another pitfall is that people have problems with the judgment of God at Christ’s return. You see that final judgment disappear more and more from the testimony of churches, as for example in the Credo of the last National Synod in October 2013.
It is in particular the teachings of theologians like K. Barth and D. Bonhoeffer (which are given much attention at the theological universities in Kampen and Apeldoorn) that do not accept the historical fact of the Fall. These teachings do not regard daily sins as disobedience and rebellion against God.
God then becomes a God of reconciliation, without recognition of His justice. The final judgment is missing to make room for universal reconciliation. Their teachings have therefore no room for a Christ according to the Scriptures, who apart from returning as Saviour will also come as Judge. But is that not being revealed to us for our comfort (HC Lords Day 19 Q & A 52)?
In the above teachings the call to repentance of sins goes missing. But the apostles were sent out with precisely that command (Luke 24: 47).
Those teachings also remove the significance of Christ’s daily intercession for us as He appeals to His sacrifice at His Father’s right hand (Rom. 8: 34, 1 John 2: 1).
We think that the effect of the above mentioned influences is noticeable in the teachings of Prof. S. Paas who teaches evangelistics in Kampen. He seeks far-reaching adaptation of the Church to the culture of this world. This includes his advice to no longer speak about guilt and repentance and ethical commandments.
Shortfall or sin?
Finally, the true view on sin and forgiveness is obscured if, as Prof. A. L Th. De Bruijne does, we rather speak of the style of the Kingdom than of keeping God’s commandments. According to this professor people should give others room for growth. Someone who does not live according to the style of the Kingdom should be given more time for this growth. In that situation you should not come with church discipline.
But this ruins the confession about the transgression of God’s good commandments, ruling out the possibility of prayer for forgiveness and true repentance. In that setting sin gets a very different meaning. It is seen as a ‘shortfall’, not as violation of the law of the Lord, not as horror and crime for which we are commanded by Christ to seek refuge with Him every day (compare HC, Lords Day 51)! The denial of discipline to those who persevere in public sin is therefore merciless.
The extent to which Prof. A. L Th. De Bruijne goes in this matter is evident from the report of the symposium on homosexuality that was held two years ago in Kampen (ND Jan 21, 2012). In it he regards homosexuality today as a different kind than that described in the Bible. The current intimacy and loyalty between homosexuals should according to De Bruijne be valued as Christian assets in society. He finds it risky to put practising homosexual church members under discipline. They should be given space to grow in the Kingdom. That, he says, would do justice to the persons concerned.
The big question not answered there, however, is whether justice is being done to the Lord Himself and His Word.
Poor indeed are the sheep that are entrusted to such shepherds.
Image of God and image of sin
We come to a conclusion.
Has sin been abolished? By the world who has renounced God and His Commandments, yes. That world is a law unto itself, and it has its own ‘sin list’.
But is that not also true for many Christians who cannot live with a God who is a consuming fire (Heb 12: 29)? Or for Christians who no longer wish to take responsibility for the offensiveness of admitting sin and guilt? It is terrible how such Christians put their bond with Christ at risk and thereby their own salvation.
People’s perception of sin has to do with their image of God and of Christ. If they no longer acknowledge the LORD’s holiness, and His undiminished right to their love and heartfelt obedience, they make a caricature of Him. Then the need for sanctification by the Holy Spirit and for personal responsibility is no longer recognised. If people want to see God only as a God of love and compassion, no room is allowed for His hatred of sin. But God’s wrath on sin can only be satisfied by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Otherwise His anger will appear in the final judgment.
If people have a problem with the negative message of sin and judgment, because man of our time is no longer able to handle it, sin becomes at the most a shortfall, a matter of the brokenness of this world. Not something that angers God.
But also this is an adaptation of the image of God. He becomes a God who no longer is angry, a God who should just take the brokenness of the world for granted. But this robs Christ’s daily work as the only High Priest at the right hand of His Father of its strength.
Let us therefore keep the testimony of Scripture. It is the only way by which God receives His right and honour. It is the only way by which Christ remains the Christ of the Scriptures, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. It is the only way by which we can we show people the true salvation as the perfect redemption in Christ.
And our sinfulness which is still left in us – it will continue to be a matter for which we have to be ashamed and humble ourselves. We need to be genuinely sorry for it, because we have angered God. However, in the blood of Christ there may be forgiveness. And in this way of repentance there may be true rest and peace with God. Even though this can not be without ongoing struggle against sin.
For those who thus may persist in the power of Christ’s Spirit, and also call others to genuine repentance, a glorious future lies waiting in God’s kingdom. That Kingdom is coming in its perfection, without sin, but only through the catastrophe of the last day.
This article is a translation of “De zonde niet afgeschaft?” by Rev S de Marie, published in De Bazuin, 22 January, 2014, Vol. 8 No. 3, pp29-32.