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What happened to the idea of sin?

We don’t hear much about sin these days. Certainly, the culture of our day seems to reject the use the word. This is understandable because the idea of sin requires acceptance of the existence of God. Even within the Church, increasingly, there is some hesitancy about using the word.

So, let us pose the question: What is sin?

It is wrong doing, yes. But it is more than that. When we consider the sin of Adam and Eve, the original sin, we can say that they did not appear at first glance to do something that was particularly evil, or at least gravely and materially harmful to others – they ate fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was not eating the fruit that constituted the sin, but rather it was the disobedience that constituted the sin. They defied God who had instructed them not to eat the fruit. What did not seem grave in itself, the eating of fruit, was actually very grave indeed. It was a direct rejection of God’s authority.

This original sin impacted not just Adam and Eve and their relationship with God but the whole of creation. It caused the fall of humanity and is the reason for our current predicament, that of living in a sinful world. The third chapter of the Book of Genesis expresses the far-reaching consequences of this act of disobedience.

Sin is relational. Sin has sometimes been called an “offense against God”. It is not just doing the wrong thing. When we sin, we damage and may even destroy our personal relationship with God.

Western societies are increasingly rejecting the central Christian theological and moral principles which have guided and structured them for the best part of the last 1500 years.  Here in Australia we are advancing quickly in this rejection, to the point that in Victoria now it is illegal to pray for a person seeking relief from same sex attraction or desiring to overcome gender dysphoria.

Where once what was gravely sinful was also viewed as morally wrong and something to be legally sanctioned, it is now protected by the law. This disconnect between the law and Christian morality, what we regard as sinful, is very advanced.

The new morality being imposed to replace the former Christian ideals is one which is radically subjectivist and emotivist. There is no objective standard of morality, no objective right and wrong, rather it is just about letting the individual pursue their subjective desires as long as they are not physically harming others.

An example of this is the push to promote the concept of consent among young people engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage. There is no mention of objective sexual morality, whether certain sexual acts are morally right or wrong in themselves, or indeed a discussion of whether sexual intimacy is something that properly belongs to the marriage covenant between a man and a woman.

The dominant standard of sexual morality relating to human beings now is whether such acts were consensual and the individuals involved were of the legal minimum age. It is believed that this is really the only moral standard for sexual relationships. Any attempt to promote the notion of sexual self-discipline or the virtue of chastity is simply ridiculed at best or viewed as outright dangerous.

Once God is forgotten or rejected the only moral standard is that of radical moral subjectivism, and ultimately ‘feelings’. Morality is now simply an exercise in harm minimisation. We do not address the deeper levels of objective moral right and wrong.

Our society no longer looks to any objective basis for moral thinking. It no longer draws upon the truth, beauty and wisdom offered in the Christian tradition, particularly in Sacred Scripture. It rejects the notion that there is a natural law which provides an objective moral standard.

When we buy an appliance the manufacturer offers instructions to ensure its best use. The manufacturer knows the strengths and weaknesses of the appliance. In a similar way, God knows us intimately. He knows the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. Thus, we should, as the manufacturer says, “For best results follow the maker’s instructions”.

The believer has an immense advantage when it comes to moral thinking and action. Not only do we have clear principles to guide and inform our moral decision making, but we also have the sacraments, particularly the sacrament of confession, to help us when we fall into sin.

It is significant that in St John’s account of the first appearance of the risen Lord to his disciples he gave them authority to forgive sins. This is a remarkable moment. The fact that this was the focus of his first appearance reminds us that Jesus himself understood that the heart of his mission was to effect the redemption of humanity, such that sins could be forgiven.

Jesus understood his mission as restoring the relationship between God and humanity. He came to redeem humanity from its alienation from God. He powerfully taught, in parables like the Prodigal Son, that God longs to restore relationships damaged by the wilfulness of humanity.

We know from our experience that when we offend someone by our actions, we need to restore the relationship and the way to achieve this is to ask for forgiveness. And the relationship can be healed when forgiveness is granted.

As risen Lord, Jesus wanted the redemption of humanity won by his death on the cross to be communicated to the whole world via the ministry of his apostles. He desired not only that the message of forgiveness be conveyed but that people had a means to make this forgiveness effective in their lives. God alone can forgive, but now this forgiveness can be mediated through his Church.

The Christian understands that sin is not only wrong doing but damages our relationship with God. We can repair this damage such that sin does not have the last word. Sadly, when a society loses a sense of sin it not only loses its orientation towards what is objectively good and bad, but it also loses its path by which forgiveness heals and restores.


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