3-9 Sin is Serious
For those living in an ecclesial environment, it is inevitable that over a period of time, we will be inclined to adapt our view of God, His Truth and our commitment to it, of right and wrong, to the general consensus view held by the brethren and sisters with whom we regularly meet. The spiritual environment in which we live will tend to affect us, and affect our personal growth in understanding of our Heavenly Father. Our judging of issues becomes a function not only of our personal, prayerful study of the word, and the personal revelation of it's truths which the Lord grants us, but also of the consensus opinion in the ecclesia which surrounds us. It would be as well to point out this tendency to the newly baptized, and encourage them to read and study the word for themselves daily, always.
We all know- or we ought to by now- that our moral judgment is inevitably incorrect. Things we feel are very wrong may not be seen in the same way by God, and things we see little harm in may be gross in His sight. Because of this, it is almost certain that our perception of how God will judge us at the judgment is not totally correct. Think of how Israel so loved the temple and God's law; and yet in effect they defiled that temple just as much as the Babylonian invasion did (Ezekiel often makes this point); and they " cast away the law of the Lord of Hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel" (Is. 5:24). I want to consider a number of examples of where God's attitude to sinfulness is somewhat different to our own.
On a personal level, we tend to think that we are only guilty for what we actually do. Yet the theology of the N.T. implies that in AD33, at the time of the Lord's death, we were seen as " sinners" (Rom. 5:8); we were forgiven for the quarrel that we had with Him (Col. 3:13 implies); " we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God..." , even though at that time He was dying for our sins (Is. 53:4,5). These are just some examples of many, where sinfulness is attached to us personally apart from the things which we now do wrong. Sin is serious. Another example of this occurs in the fact that the last generation of Israel were judged for their sins not because they had sinned more than any other generation, but because the collective, unforgiven sin of Israel had accumulated with God to such an extent that His judgments fell (2 Kings 17:2,13-18; Ez. 9:9). God is not passive and overlooking of unrepented sin, even though His patience and the high threshold level He sets before releasing judgment may make it look like this. The Amorites were likewise only judged once the cup of their iniquities reached a certain level (Gen. 15:16). Herod " added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison" (Lk. 3:20), as if God was keeping a cumulative record of one man's sinfulness, without apparently showing this. We tend to think that God ignores the sin of such pagans; but not so. He even saw the people of Jericho as " them that believed not" , just as the people of Israel are described (Heb. 11:31; 3:18). The sensitivity of God to pagan sin, whether or not He raises them to account at the last day, is far higher than we would think. He even notices " the eye that mocketh at his father" (Prov. 30:17); even body language is analyzed by Him, as are our unconscious thoughts as we sleep (Ps. 17:3). And His sensitivity to our failures, as those responsible to Him, is even greater. The responsible who are rejected at the judgment will be characterized by " murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters" (Rev. 21:8). I wonder how many of them will have literally done those things. Surely it is more reasonable to suppose that this is how their other deeds and attitudes were counted in God's sight.
I don't want to make a theological treatise on the nature and seriousness of sin; but the more you realize it, the deeper our sense of grateful response and the finer our appreciation of the extent of our great salvation. This sense is also heightened by a realization that sins of omission are reckoned to us as much as sins of commission. Thus the Lord Jesus saw as parallel the commands to honour parents and also not to curse them. These two separate commands (from Ex. 20:12 and 21:17) He spoke of as only one: " the commandment" (Mk. 7:9). He therefore saw that not to honour parents was effectively to curse them (Mk. 7:10). Omitting to honour parents, even if it involved appearing to give one's labour to God's temple, was therefore the same as committing the sin of cursing them. To just have an attitude that we haven't sinned, is read by God as stating that He is a liar (1 Jn. 1:10)- even though we would never dream of saying this. And similar examples could be multiplied.
New Testament Ecclesias: Corinth
But we want to concentrate on our perception of sin in an ecclesial context. Think of the Corinth ecclesia. They had cases of gross immorality, even incest; some got drunk at the memorial meeting, and some even denied Christ's resurrection. There can be no question that such belief and practice was not ultimately tolerated either by Paul or God. Yet notice the first thing which the Spirit 'takes up' with Corinth. It wasn't any of these more obvious things. It was the fact there was a spirit of factionism within the ecclesia. Paul repeats this emphasis in 1 Cor. 11:18, where in the context of rebuking them for drunkenness at the memorial meeting, Paul emphasizes that first of all (i.e. most importantly, Gk.), there are divisions among them (1 Cor. 11:18). This is also what the epistles conclude with (2 Cor. 13:11); Paul doesn't tell them 'Now don't forget what I said about adultery and having concord with Belial'. Instead: " Finally, brethren...be of one mind, live in peace" . Likewise Gal. 5:20,21 lists anger and divisiveness along with adultery and witchcraft- as all being sins which will exclude from the Kingdom. Indeed, the list in Gal. 5:19,20 seems to be in progressive order, as if one sin leads to another, and the final folly is division between brethren. Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that divisions in the sense of separation from error are always wrong. But a spirit of jealous factionism most certainly is.
The Lord Jesus had " somewhat against" six of the seven ecclesias in the Lycus valley. He had " somewhat against" one ecclesia because they allowed prostitution to go on within the ecclesia. But exactly the same rubric is used in the letter to Ephesus; Christ had " somewhat against" them because they had left their first agape, they no longer had a spirit of true love within the ecclesia as they once did- even though they were full of zeal in other ways. The similarity of the rubric is surely intended to teach us that lack of true love is just as obnoxious to the Lord Jesus as those other sins which appear so much bigger in human eyes. Indeed, sin is serious, in all its guises.
Old Testament Israel
Many of the prophets' criticisms of Israel's behaviour were in terms which the people would have laughed off as extreme. Thus Ezekiel (16:33) described their giving of money to neighbouring kings to provide mercenaries to fight for them as them being a desperate whore who was so crazy for contact with men that she even gave money to them rather than vice versa. But this was how seriously God saw the sin of their behaviour. In Malachi's time, Israel had greatly slacked in keeping the Law: " What a weariness is it!" , they grumbled to each other. They divorced faithful wives so they could marry Gentiles, they practised sorcery and sexual perversion (Mal. 2:14-16; 3:5). But the first problem which the Spirit addresses is their lack of appreciation that God really did love them deeply (Mal. 1:2).
Isaiah's prophecy is another albeit more extended example. Israel had lost their hold on true doctrine, many scarcely knew the Law (Is. 57:4,5; 59:3). They got drunk at the temple feasts (36:10-12; 58:3,4), like Corinth they had an " eat, drink, for tomorrow we die" mentality (22:12,13); they committed all manner of sexual perversions, along with almost every other form of doctrinal and moral apostasy (5:11-13,24; 8:19; 9:15; 22:12,13; 24:5; 27:11; 28:7; 30:10; 31:6; 44:8-20; consider the similarities with Corinth). This list is worth reading through. And consider the terrible implications of their perversion in 66:17. But the early chapters of Isaiah sternly rebuke Israel for their pride- there is not a whisper of all these other things until later (2:11-22; 3:16-20; 5:15; 9:9). And even throughout the later rebukes, there is the repeated criticism of their pride (13:11; 16:6; 23:9; 24:4; 25:11; 26:5; 28:1,3,14; 29:4; 30:25; 50:33; 57:15). This is why Isaiah's prophecies of Christ stress His humility (Acts 8:33), and the " lofty" , " high" , " exaltation" of God. These words, common in Isaiah, are those translated " pride" in Isaiah's condemnations of Israel's arrogance; as if to say that God was the only one who could be 'proud'.
Will We Learn?
Now we really ought to be learning from all this. Divisiveness, not bothering to appreciate God's great love towards us, lacking a true love and humility etc. are all as fundamentally evil as the apparently grosser sins which Scripture rebukes. Consider those things which Israel and the New Testament ecclesia were guilty of: prostitution, drunkenness at religious meetings, incest, the perversions of idolatry etc. These are all things which strike many in the world as wrong; and therefore we too react in the same way. Yet a bit of pride, being unmoved by the love of God, a church splitting into factions- the world doesn't see those things as very serious. Our problem, both collectively and individually, is that what seems wrong to the world seems wrong to us, and what they tend to ignore we tend to minimize. Yet sin is serious.
Will I Learn?
But there is another, similar problem. What seems (or has seemed) acceptable to other believers may seem acceptable to us: our sense of right and wrong is influenced by the perspective of our community. To give a personal example. I'm aware of (at least!) two commandments concerning sisters:
1) They should cover their heads at ecclesial meetings;
2) They should not smother themselves in " outward adorning" .
If a sister sat down to break bread one Sunday without a hat, I would react strongly- far more strongly than if she came wearing a hat but caked with cosmetics. Why? Both those commands are categorically stated, both are based on Old Testament typology. I react to the breaking of 1) more strongly simply because our community has chosen to emphasize that rather than the equally important 2). I'm not right in this. The word alone should form our perception of sin and righteousness, not our spiritual background.
If we are doctrinally or morally apostate, our salvation is in question. There is therefore, quite rightly, an outcry at any move towards apostasy in these areas. But these other things, the things which our background both in the world and even in the Christian community tends to minimize, we don't react so strongly to. It may really be that we are placing our salvation on the line by being (e.g.) proud and factious, by being unmoved by the love of God, just as much as we would be if we turned away doctrinally or morally. To do anything, anything that handles our salvation lightly is logically crazy. We mustn't let the moral judgment of the world or even Christians influence our sense of right and wrong. Increasingly, " this present evil world" cannot tell right from wrong. If we continue to be influenced by their attitudes, this is where we will end up. If, by contrast, we are daily studying the word, we really can find the correct sense of balance and awareness of sin's seriousness. We will see sin and righteousness in their Divine context and perspective. We will personally grasp the implications of the Lord's arresting statements concerning His perception of sin: that, e.g., just an angry thought is enough to be dragged along to the local court for. Then we will find the basis for a true appreciation of our sinfulness, and thereby God's grace. We will marvel the more deeply that He has blessed us when we railed at Him (1 Pet. 3:9), even though that may not be how we see our apathy towards Him (cp. how sin is likened to violence in Is. 53:9 cp. 1 Pet. 2:22). Idolatrous Israel never consciously tried to provoke Yahweh to anger with their apostasy; the words of the prophets must have seemed to them a gross exaggeration. But this was really how God saw it (2 Chron. 34:25). We are only forgiven on account of the fact we truly sorrow for our sins, knowing them as our own sore and our own grief (2 Chron. 6:29,30). The Lord carried our sorrows, i.e. our sins. It is only these sins, for which we have sorrowed, that He carried. This is why we need to appreciate that sin is serious. We can be active enemies of the Lord's cross (Phil. 3:18) unless we carry it, no matter how soporific and unaggressive our lifestyles may be.
But this appreciation of sin's ultimate seriousness will not come overnight. Giants like Paul, Job, Jacob and Moses only progressively came to this appreciation (see Study 9). Likewise, the ecclesia of God has had to be taught progressively over time how essentially sinful we are. Eliphaz thought there were only a few very sinful people in the world (Job 15:35); but His words are quoted by the Spirit in Is. 59:4 concerning the whole nation of Israel; and this in turn is quoted in Rom. 3:15-17 concerning the whole human race. This same path of progressive realization of our sinfulness must be trodden by each faithful individual, as well as on a communal level.
Related study: Our Desperation.