Sin and Lostness
A paper prepared for the Plenary Session of the Lausanne II Congress on World Evangelization, 1989.
By Dr. Stephen Tong
Sin is A Fact
The unconsciousness of danger is a greater danger than the danger itself. Likewise, the indifference to and misinterpretation of sin are greater dangers than the sin itself. Our Lord does not divide mankind into two categories when he says, “I come not to call the righteous, but the sinners to repentance.” It is simply an irony to the sinners who are not conscious of their own status. The Bible teaches insistently that sin is a fact, a fact revealed by the righteous God to sinful men. Hence, the difficulty lies in, “how can sinners rightly understand it?”, for sin also has already deprived them of the aspect of human understanding. The Bible continues to teach that the only way to become conscious of human sin is through the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
Throughout history, men have always tried to ignore the fact of sin, tried to interpret that man is free from any bondage of evil power. Yet, it has proven itself to be a self-deception, which is shown clearly in the existence of strife, both cultural and personal. Since the days of the Renaissance, the anthropocentric worldview of natural man has been trying to interpret “God” and “soul” through the sinful “self” of man as the central point of the universe, by lifting up reason as the absolute tool for discovering truth, and considering nature as the final aim of achievements to solve all human problems. Yet, history bears faithful witness to human failure. Underneath all superficial achievements in science, economics, politics, education, psychology, philosophy and even religion, there is a common and consistent cause of imbalance and problems. Our societies are full of empty souls in spite of material abundance, full of anxiety of wars in spite of unceasing peace talks, full of insecurity in spite of the most powerful weapons produced, increasing rate of suicides inspite of better standard of living and brokenness of families inspite of more freedom in sex and love. We have been dreaming from the Renaissance to the twentieth century for human autonomy without the interference of God. Especially since the nineteenth century, so many ideologies have been raised up to create a modern naïve optimism, including liberal theology, evolutionism, and communism. These have all ended up in the terrifying wars of the twentieth century. Then follows international revolutions, of communism and nationalism politically, and existentialism philosophically. All of them try to solve the human problems, yet we are still living in a chaotic situation, without knowing where history is heading. The search for man’s identity remains, to this date, a key issue. We are still fighting for democracy, freedom, justice, and human rights.
Does not this keep telling us that sin and lostness is an undeniable fact? It is no wonder that Karl Barth fought against his two liberal professors, Adolf von Harnack and William Hermann, who taught the “brotherhood of mankind” on the one hand and agreed with the German invasion on the other hand. It is no wonder that a liberal leader, Dr. Fosdick, had to acknowledge that the liberals had neglected the teaching of sin, which is so concrete, and conservatives understand it better. It is no wonder that Niebuhr had to re-insist on the Biblical teaching for the understanding of sin as inspired by the World War, in his book The Nature and Destiny of Man. This is the same reason why Tillich wrote in his diary, in his First World War military service, “I see not the ruins of the buildings before me, but the ruin of the culture.” Our cultures seem dead, and even Russia and China, after their victory over the old political systems, and after practicing communism for decades, their leaders feel the urgency of renewal. They have yet a lot of difficulty yet to be fought within themselves.
What Sin Is Not
Even though man has tried to escape the fact of sin, to dilute and reinterpret it, man still can’t escape the witness of God to it in the Bible. The Bible teaches so clearly that sin was started from the historical fall of Adam, the first and the representative of mankind, and thus entered into the world. Before we think about what sin is, let us first see what sin is not.
First, the Bible leaves no room for the concept of eternal preexistence of sin. Sin is not an entity of eternal self-existence. Neither sin nor evil are self-dependent realities. Nor are the Devil and the demonic powers. Nothing and no one but God himself is the only self-existent and eternal reality. Only God is without beginning and ending. The Bible simply rejects ontological dualism in religion.
Second, the Bible leaves no room for the concept that sin is created by God or caused by Him. God is neither the cause nor the source of evil. The word “evil” in Isaiah 45:7 (King James Version) must be understood as the punishment of God in history, as the manifestation of his righteousness and sovereignty to the sinful world, not ontological or moral evil.
Third, the Bible leaves no room for God to be held responsible for sin. Concerning this, the only light we can see from the Bible is the mysterious permission of God for the occurrence of evil as the result of the misuse of the freedom that is created within spiritual beings, which is both an aspect of God’s image and likeness and also a necessary foundation for morality, yet to be accountable to God’s justice and judgement. So, sin emerges from the creatures themselves. It is simply a creation of created ones against their Creator. On this subject, Jesus said, “When he [the Devil] speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it” (John 8:44, AV).
What Sin Is
Now we come to consider what sin is. The Bible teaches that sin is more than ethical failures. To equate sin with misconduct is simply too shallow.
First, philologically speaking, sin means “missing the target”. The New Testament uses the Greek word hamartia to indicate that man is created with a standard or target as the purpose of life and conduct. This means that we should be responsible to God. When we sin, we fail to achieve God’s standard. After the fall of man, man’s view of the target of life becomes blurred, and the criteria of conduct are missing. That is the reason God sent his Son to show forth the standard again and made Him our righteousness and holiness. The rediscovery of the aim of human life could only be found through the perfect example of the incarnated Christ.
Second, positionally speaking, sin is a removal of the original state. Man is created distinctively, in distinctive position, in order to be a witness of God, created in between God and the Devil, good and evil, after the fall of Satan. Man is created in a neutral state of goodness, yet to be confirmed through the way of obedience, created a little bit lower than God, yet in dominion over nature, created after God’s image and likeness. The true submission of man before God’s sovereignty is the secret of governing nature, and to achieve the true aim of glorifying nature’s Creator in man’s life. All the temptations come to man always in the sense of trying to draw man away from his original God-planned position. Then comes misconduct. The same happened even to the archangels. The Bible says, “They kept not their first state,” to describe their fall. This is a right concept of understanding what sin is.
Third, sin is the misuse of freedom. The greatest horror and privilege God has given man is the gift of freedom. Freedom has become an undiminishable factor as the foundation of moral values. Moral achievements can only be rooted in willingness, not generated by force. The meaning of freedom has two choices here: God-centered life or man-centered life. When man submits his freedom before God’s freedom, it is a return of freedom to the original master of freedom. This kind of return is to seek the joy of freedom within the limit of God’s truth and righteousness. Since God is the reality of righteousness itself, any departure from Him is unrighteousness, and so the self-centered life surely is the cause of sin, the self-centered intention surely is the beginning of unrighteousness. Freedom without the limit of the righteousness of God will become false freedom. It is not the freedom that Jesus speaks of when He says, “No-one can follow me without denying himself.”
Fourth, sin is a destroying power. Sin is not merely a failure in conduct. Rather than that, it is a consistent, binding power which indwells the sinners. Paul uses both the singular from and the plural form of sin in the book of Romans. The plural form (sins) indicates wrongdoings, but the singular form (sin) means the power that drives all sinful conduct. Sin seems to have been personified by Paul as a ruling power and governing principle in the lives of sinners. It has also deprived all aspects of life, to such a degree that there is not even one single aspect of life which has not been distorted or polluted. This is what has been insisted on and persisted in by the Reformers, in fighting against the incomplete understanding of the power of sin of medieval scholasticism. Sin not only pollutes the sphere of the will, but also penetrates the sphere of emotion and reason. The ultimate goal of this destroying power is to cause man to be a self-abusing and self-killing being. As Kierkegaard says, “Men are born in sin. The only power we possess is the power to kill ourselves.”
Fifth, sin is the rejection of God’s eternal will. The ultimate result of sin is not only doing harm to man, but opposing the eternal will of God through man. This is the most serious thing that relates to cosmic spiritual warfare. Calvin said, “Nothing is greater than the will of God except God himself.” The creation of the universe, the salvation of mankind, and eternal bliss are all existing by the will of God. Since sin is the rejection of the will of God, Christians should be conscious of the importance of faithful obedience to God’s will, as Christ taught His disciples to pray, “Let Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” The Bible also teaches us, in 1 John 2:17, that, “The world passed away, and the lust thereof: but he that does the will of God abides forever.”
Sin and Cosmic Relations
Sin does not stop as an event, but rather, a continuing harm within the sinner and disturbance to the whole cosmic order. Sin destroys relationship, both personally and cosmically. Sin also destroys relationship between man and nature, man and man. In a deeper sense, sin also destroys relationship between man and himself. Therefore, sin makes harmonious life impossible. Yet the deepest of all is the destruction of relationship between man and God.
From the original privilege we have, we are created higher than nature, and nature is created for man. That means, man is to appreciate, enjoy, govern over, preserve, and interpret nature as man’s prophetic function. But sin has turned man into the abuser, enemy, and even destroyer of nature. Searching nature and discovering the hidden truth of God in it is the foundation of science, yet since the appearance of sin, science has failed to function as a tool to glorify God, and has turned into a possibility of being used as a demonic instrument to destroy nature and destroy man.
As a result of broken relationships between man and man, man has lost the potential to reflect the love of the Triune God, which is the model of human community. It makes mutual respect, mutual trust, mutual edification, and mutual accomplishment in our society impossible; instead of these, we see the absolutization of every individual “self” to reject others with the self-centered life that causes the tension and unceasing hatred in our community and even international affair.
As a result of destroyed relations between man and himself, man has become his own enemy. He has lost all spiritual peace, eternal security, and confidence of life’s meaning; hence, the existence of man has become an isolated island in the universe, others’ existence has become hell which threatens us, and nothingness seems as something existing to swallow up our existence into nothingness. These are all reflected in modern, atheistic existentialism.
Yet, the most serious brokenness of relationships is the relationship between man and God, which is the cause of brokenness of other relationships. When man is separated from God, it guarantees that no other relationships are able to be restored. It blocks all possibilities of personal peace in our spirits and universal peace on earth. The whole twentieth century is the practical field of nineteenth century ideologies, yet we see no true hope for our future, even now in the final decade of this century. We are still facing the unknown possibility of future. Is not this the right time, better than any time, to rethink deeply, and reevaluate calmly, all the shortcomings of all ideologies derived from anthropocentric humanism?
The Bible says that God is Love, God is Life, God is Light. He is also the God of truth, righteousness, and holiness! What kind of society will be ours if we are to depart from such a God as is revealed in Christ? The only possibility left to us will be hatred, death, darkness, deception, injustice, and corruption. This is precisely what we see in our world today. Should we not confess that there is a great gap between God’s cultural mandate to man and the cultural achievements of man? That is sin.
Sin and Lostness
The result of the separation from God definitely leads the sinner’s existence into the state of lostness–lost from the countenance and the presence of God. First, sin causes man to fall short of God’s glory. The Augustinian concept of sin as the lacking of good must better be understood as a result of sin in man rather than as the interpretation of sin itself. When sin occurs, the glory of God is immediately removed from man. This means the privilege of man as the representative of God and the reflector of his glory will be no more. The disappearance of the glory of God from man leaves man in a very pitiful state. Man will live without honor and greatness, education will be devoid of truth, and human right will be without righteousness, knowledge without wisdom, lust without love, science without conscience, and freedom without control. This is what has been reflected in the book of Ezekiel that the glory of God removes gradually and departs from the temple of God. It means that the judgement of God is near, the doom for the world is at hand.
The lostness of universal identity. The separation from God makes man a universal prodigal being, determined to be tired of his ungrounded existence and uncontrolled freedom.
The lostness of spiritual dignity. Man was crowned with glory and honor in the day of creation as the foundation of the moral and axiological concept, which constructs the dignity of man. When sin happens, it cuts the unity between man and God and the dignity has become only an idea with no reality.
The lostness of inner security. Men are created for God and can only obtain peace and security in God himself. When the separation occurs, our peace is no more.
The lostness of eternal direction. God is not only our origin, but also our final end. Potentially speaking, the image of God indicates that man is created to be like God. Theologically speaking, man is to live for Him as life’s final goal. When sin occurs, eternity loses direction.
Not only this, lostness happens to the sinner themselves. Men are lost from the presence of God for ever and ever. Man is lost from the source of truth, righteousness, love, and eternal blessings. The result of sin is just more than terrifying. The judgement of God will be upon the sinners, then follows the second death, which the Bible calls hell, the place for eternal doom, where love and truth, the presence and holiness of God are absent, for ever and ever.
Let all the true believers, the evangelicals all over the world, reaffirm the seriousness of the fact and the effect of sin, as it is taught in the Bible. This affirmation is more than urgent in this post-liberal and post-modern era, both theologically and socio-politically. With deep conviction of the need of sinners for salvation, and fervent affection to love the sinners, let us faithfully proclaim the gospel to the sinful world. “Repent ye, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” These great forewords of the gospel remain valid until the end of the world. Let us shout loudly, “Repent, ye people, rend your hearts but not your garment!” to the leaders and the people of the world! Let’s lift up high the cross of Christ, which is the only hope of mankind, so that the Holy Spirit will illuminate our generations to accept Christ. Let us human beings all humbly confess our sins before God, to reopen the door of heaven and regain the mercy and forgiveness of Him, which will surely cure the sinful world.
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain! Glory be to Him for ever and ever more.
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- May 16, 2007 / 07:07