Monday, June 27, 2005

Naming Problems "Sin"

"When we think of naming problems 'sin,' we tend to react in one of two ways. One reaction is to punish sin. We become moralistic and condemning, morbidly curious about others' failings, morbidly depressed about our own failings. When we assume a punitive stance toward sin and assume that others do the same, then calling something 'sin' necessarily involves condemnation of self or others. We all know, however, both by Scripture and instinct, that those who would help others need to love them, and that those who would find help need to know love. In the interest, then, of bringing sweet necessities - grace, kindness, gentleness, patience, acceptance, tender solicitude and sympathetic understanding - we must come up with categories other than sin. The unexamined and ultimately bizarre logic of this reaction is that we assume that we can be Christlike toward others and ourselves only if we define a problem as something other than sin - as a psychological problem, a mental illness or an addiction.

People who would understand a problem as sin must presumably be punitive. But how curious it is that Jesus, whose gaze was utterly conditioned by the sin analytic, brought grace and kindness! In fact, to be conscious that sin is the problem is the only way to experience grace for oneself and the love as Jesus loved. When we know ourselves accurately, we become recipients of spectacular grace that we are able to give away freely and patiently. Because he knew his own sins and God's grace, the high priest was able to 'deal gently with the ignorant and wayward' (Heb. 5:2; cf. Heb 4:12-5:3). May we learn to know and do likewise.

The second reaction is to excuse sin. We euphemize, whitewash, re-label, evade, rationalize and blame. We get defensive about ourselves and we try to excuse others. This strategy is at work throughout the modern psychologies. It is part of their allure that they pretend to reflect deep and determinative knowledge about the human soul, yet they evade the essential problem of the soul. But when we know grace, we have no reason not to look in the mirror frankly and no reason not to help others look in the mirror. Indeed, we look in the mirror so that our hearts might be remade as we shout with exultation."
- David Powlison, "Questions at the Crossroads: The Care of Souls & Modern Psychotherapies" in Care for the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Psychology & Theology, ed. Mark McMinn and Timothy Phillips (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2001), pp. 50-51.


Anonymous said...

Keith, what does Powlison mean when he says "Because he knew his owns sins and God's grace, the high priest was able to 'deal gently with the ignorant and wayward'" (End of paragraph two) But Christ never sinned...did He? Can you explain?

KP said...

Hi, Anonymous. You're right, Christ never sinned. Powlison is referring to the Levitical high priest under the Old Covenant. Hebrews 5:2, to which Powlison refers at the end of the sentence you asked about, is describing the Aaronic high priest (see v. 4). That Christ is not in mind is evident by the fact that this high priest is said to offer sacrifices for the people as well as for his own sins (v. 3). But the author has just previously said that Jesus was "without sin" (4:15).

This is a good illustration of the importance of context. We can't assume that every occurrence of "high priest" in Hebrews is referring to Jesus but must allow the context to determine the intended meaning in each case.

I hope this helps. Thanks for asking.

Anonymous said...


When we think about "sin", is there ever a corporate or even systemic dimension to that term? Is sin always ACTIVE individual participation in known, intended activity that is against God's purposes? Or can sin actually be passive individual participation in sinful structures that is unintended, undesired, and perhaps even unknown?