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Posts Tagged ‘complexity’

sin

One area where I fear I can reduce the complexity of Scripture into soundbites is in the definition of sin. Certainly there is some value in teaching children some memorable soundbites – e.g. that sin is a three letter word with ‘I’ in the middle. But I’ve been struck recently by how multifaceted the sin problem is in the Bible and how important it is to see something of that complexity.

To go back to basics, look at Genesis 3 and ask the question (as we did with the iServe Africa ministry apprentices a couple of weeks ago) what exactly is this sin; what is at the heart of what is going on here and why is it so bad? And you get a lot of different answers, which are all true:

  • It is disobedience. Transgression of a clear command.
  • It is rebellion against God’s kingly rule and authority.
  • It is unbelief in God’s word, goodness and judgment.
  • It is wrong belief – in the words of the devil and in a false view of God.
  • It is being deceived by the devil and coming under his power.
  • It is (culpable) foolishness.
  • It is turning from the Creator to the created for pleasure, wisdom, truth.
  • It is discontent.
  • It is coveting.
  • It is an ungrateful spit in God’s face, trampling on his grace as a cheap thing.
  • It is abdicating from the responsibility of being vice regent, steward and high priest, allowing a snake into the garden tabernacle.
  • It is grasping at self-rule, self-sufficiency and denial of creaturely dependence.

Go on a chapter into Genesis 4 and there we find sin pictured as a kind of wild animal, crouching at the door, ready to spring and overpower a person.

Similarly, look at a passage like Isaiah 1 and you find a complex description of the sinful state of the nation, using a range of different words and metaphors:

  • Rebellion – especially grateful rebellion against a parent
  • (Culpable) ignorance
  • Forsaking, spurning the LORD
  • Sickness and degradation
  • Hypocritical religiosity
  • Dirt, defilement
  • Evil deeds, bloodshed, injustice
  • Omission – especially of justice
  • Scarlet
  • Resistance against the LORD
  • Prostitution
  • Pollution
  • Loving and chasing after evil and idols

Why is it important that we take account of this complexity?

  1. It stops us getting stuck on a single dimension of sin and stops us getting into needless controversies. Throughout church history and in different schools and traditions up to the present time there has been a tendency to reduce the complexity down to one particular aspect of sin. So for example, some parts of the Reformed tradition tended to emphasise sin as transgression of the law (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q14 (I know that other streams of the tradition were far broader)). In conservative evangelical circles we have tended to focus on rebellion (2 Ways 2 Live, part 2). In recent years many have rediscovered the importance of the categories of worship and idolatry and what is going on with the affections of the heart and how these themes can connect well in a post-modern culture. There has also been a huge renewed interest in defining sin in heavily relational terms – spurning God’s love. Others have returned to Augustine’s idea of sin as man curved in on himself or evil as negation/absence or to Luther’s emphasis on our condition as helplessly under the power of the devil. The problem is that these emphases often get set off against each other. The Reformed tradition (rightly) fears that sin as legal transgression and disobedience is in danger of being lost in what is sometimes rather mushy and man-centred talk of relationship and worship. Others assert (rightly) that the Bible’s strong themes of sin as spiritual adultery are in danger of being frozen out by a rather sterile presentation of sin as law breaking. Perhaps a way forward is to see that (almost) all these definitions have a biblical basis. Sin is pride. Sin is unbelief. Sin is idolatry. Sin is pushing away the grace of God in Christ. Sin is rebellion. Sin is slavery. Sin is a disease. Sin is straightforward law breaking. It’s complex. But let’s try to keep that complexity together and not just get fixed on one narrow definition.
  2. It addresses the whole person and the whole range of the human condition. Looking at all these different aspects of sin helps us to see how the Bible describes the totalness of our depravity – that every part of me is fallen: my affections are disordered and loving the wrong things; my will is unsubmissive; my behaviour is rotten and evil; my thinking is foolish and darkened. Also, seeing (and preaching) the whole range of descriptions of sin makes it more likely that some will stick on the hearers. We are all rebels but some of us know we are rebels more than others. We are all chasing the wrong things but some know that more than others. We are all law breakers. We are all idolators. We are all proud. We are all dirty. We are all deceived. But because of our different personalities and cultures and life histories it may well be that one or two of those descriptions will hit home harder than others. Ultimately, however, we need to know that all of those things describe the natural man and as we build up that biblical picture of who we are outside of Christ we get a true, 3D picture of our true state.
  3. It means being more faithful to the Bible. This is a key one if we want to be expository preachers. Instead of just seeing something about sin in the Bible and pouring in our favourite bit of systematic theology on sin, we need to stop and hear what this particular passage is telling us about sin. It may well be saying a few things (like Isaiah 1). We want to let the Bible speak – let God speak – and tell us what we don’t know and what we have forgotten about the darkness and depravity of sin in all its horrible colours and textures and tendencies and tragedies.
  4. It allows us to see the sinfulness of sin and the greatness of the atonement. Perhaps most importantly, seeing the complexity of sin allows me to see it for all its sinfulness. Each of these aspects of sin is immeasurably weighty – just ponder any one of them in relation to a holy God – but combined they are overwhelming and devastating. I am guilty. And foul. And a fool. I have offended my creator. And my king. And the fountain of life. But, wonderfully, this also makes me appreciate what Christ did on the cross all the more. As Jonathan Edwards and many others have noted, if we have small thoughts of our sin (we might say simple thoughts) we will have small thoughts of our saviour. He dealt with all of this multifaceted sin. He took the guilt and punishment. He cured the incurable. He washed us clean. He overcame the devil. He won back the prostitute and paid her dowry. He smashed our idols and pride and took us for himself. Which makes me think – maybe the atonement is complex too…
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It’s complicated…

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I vividly remember hearing the following warning 13 years ago:

If there is one mnemonic which irritates me more than any other it is the K.I.S.S. mnemonic – Keep It Simple Stupid. I want to say that I think that it is profoundly unhelpful. It has deeply penetrated many churches and their expectation of preaching. What it comes to mean is that everything has to be reduced to soundbite level: a few mantras that can be reassuringly reiterated and chanted in our songs and in our teaching. They tend to reduce the inexhaustible riches of Scripture… There is a cult of simplicity.

Now people will say at this point, “The simple gospel is all we want to hear. We don’t want any complicated stuff. We don’t want doctrine. We don’t want to be stretched in our thinking.” All the teaching has to be kept easy and reassuring so we come out with our egos massaged… And so many of us pastors are tempted to go in that direction to ‘buy customer loyalty’ and keep everyone happy…

Now please don’t mishear me. I’m not asking for complexity and confusion. That is a very easy thing to produce. Lack of preparation won’t produce simplicity of the right sort it will produce complexity and confusion. It’s very easy to be long, confusing and perplexing. Nor am I advocating what people are pleased to call barren intellectualism. You know the adjectives: abstract, cerebral, impersonal. No I’m not advocating that because the Bible is never like that.

But brothers we do have to tackle, graciously, prayerfully but persistently the refusal to mature that is endemic in the evangelical church and characterises so many congregations and parts of our congregations… I wonder if sometimes it begins in the approach to evangelism which focuses on the ‘basic minimum’ idea. How little do you need to believe to be saved?

…But the Bible writers and their inspired manuscripts are not simple in the sense of superficial. They are not grasped without effort… Of course we want to be understandable. We want to be clear and lucid… but there is a cult of simplicity that is actually fatal to the growth and development of the church. (David Jackman, speaking on ‘The Enduring Word’ at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, London, 2004)

Peter Mead talks similarly of the need for preachers to aim for a simplicity on the far side of complexity. So instead of staying with a quick superficial simplicity on the near side (which will be very thin soup to offer God’s people), we need to head into the forests of complexity and explore the depths of Scripture and wrestle with (or rather be wrestled by) that complexity, before hopefully emerging out the other side with something clear and presentable but much more rich and deep and satisfying (like a good Thai dish – fresh, healthy, colourful, arresting, integrated, complex).

No short cut. We need to face up to the complexity and enter the forest.

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