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On taking sin seriously

In my recent, and utterly long sermon I quoted from Robert Jenson about the nature of the Gospel’s morality, a quote that I find vital and illuminating in many ways:

The gospel’s specific morality is a matter of opened opportunities, of what we may reasonably do because Jesus lives, that otherwise would have been foolish. The normal morality is a matter of imposed constraints, of what we must do, that otherwise we would have liked not to. [. . .] the gospel’s specific morality is a morality of freedom. Insofar as the gospel moves us, we do what we do because we may, not because we ought. And a good act is one which finds the way to love, to the affirmation of the brother’s freedom.

We hear the from the gospel what we may do, when the gospel affirmatively interprets the hopes and fears that move our lives. The gospel makes our hopes possibilities by making them hopes for the love that is indeed coming. When the gospel is spoken to a [person] or a community, it speaks to the particular inhibitions that keep that [person] or community from [. . .] their own humanity. The gospel dismisses those inhibitions. It’s pattern is: “You may . . . because, if Jesus is risen, there is no need to fear . . .” [. . .]

Thus the specific morality of the gospel is not a mater of “laws.” The gospel’s moral discourse does not say “Do this and do that because you ought/must/would be best advised/will be rewarded.” It does not have the “if . . . then . . .” form. It imposes no conditions whatever, on anything at all. It does not say “Do . . . , because otherwise you won’t get into heaven.” It does not say—with a bit more religious sophistication: “Do . . . , because, although of course God will accept you anyway, that is what good Christians do.” It does not even say: “Do . . . , because virtue is its own reward.” The moral discourse of the gospel says only: “You may do . . . , because Jesus lives” (Robert Jenson, Story and Promise, 81, 82).

Obviously this approach to ethics is extremely liberating. The divine word does not impose constraints, make demands, and level requirements. Rather it simply frees. The Gospel forbids nothing, it merely liberates us for lives of true fullness.

Of course to many this will seem woefully inadequate. Is this not simply a cover for moral libertinism? Does not all this fanciful talk of “opened opportunities” merely mask a maneuver that seeks to use “freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence” (Gal 5:13)?

Actually, no not all. In fact this resurrection-centered understanding of the nature of the Gospel’s morality is the only way I can possibly imagine to take sin seriously. This notion insists that all sin is never a matter of some “thing” I can do that I ought not to do. Rather sin is always and everywhere a falling into slavery. The Gospel does not, therefore “forbid” us to sin — what real sense would it make to say that we are “forbidden” to enslave ourselves, mutilate ourselves, denigrate ourselves? — rather the Gospel frees us from sin.

The problem with the traditionally “serious” way of talking about sin and ethics is that it ends up simultaneously not taking sin seriously and making it far too interesting. If we view sin simply as bad, but nearly always seductive and at least fleetingly pleasurable things we ought not to do, we at once make sin interesting and rather unserious. If however we take the logic of the Gospel seriously we must understand sin always and only as slavery, as domination, denigration, and futility. We are not “forbidden” to be enslaved, we are freed from our slavery. We are not “commanded” to no longer dominate and denigrate ourselves and one another, we are freed from that infantile and dreadful compulsion.

This, it seems to me is the only way to really take sin seriously and to recognize how uninteresting it is. Sin is simply the slaveries we subject ourselves and one anther to. It is a world of striving, suffering, and death. God doesn’t come to us with commands not to do such things, God in Christ breaks the power of these forces and frees us from them. The Gospel closes down no true opportunity for anything interesting, rather it always on only opens opportunities and creates new possibilities. It is always and only a liberation. Nothing more, nothing less. Anything else simply doesn’t take sin seriously.

24 Comments

  1. kim fabricius wrote:

    Jenson would say that – he’s a Lutheran! (On the next page he goes on to write: “That what moves us … is the ‘law,’ is not only a heresy, it is also a commonsense, facts-of-history blunder. The only thing that has ever moved men to creative historical action has been utterance taken, rightly or wrongly, as unconditional promise.) But clearly Jenson has also sat at the feet of Barth (who sat at the feet of Luther as well as Calvin).

    Barth on sin is exhilaratingly superb. For instance, Barth observes that Jesus is interested in sinners only as they are sufferers, which is why he does not denounce poor sinners but heals and liberates them. Barth also acutely observes that we can only know ourselves as sinners when we know ourselves as forgiven sinners, which is why repentance can only be joyful, not doleful. Only grace takes sin seriously – by sending it packing.

    Thanks for the post. Story and Promise – what a little gem, with one theological bon mot after another.

    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  2. Jeremy wrote:

    This idea of sin as the antithesis of freedom is something I find really liberating. Especially, when sin is communicated in such a way that it often feels as if it’s the most freeing possible option as opposed to the restrictive “Christian” moral teachings. This makes me want to write a post about sin as repetition-compulsion in the psychoanalytic sense. This sort of traumatic compulsion is the enemy of freedom and “Yes-saying” to life.

    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  3. Tiny Fat Kiwi wrote:

    Very heady stuff. So where does the Sermon on the Mount fit in this schema? How do you talk about obedience to the will of God? What’s going on in the antitheses? If we “may do” because Jesus lives, what may we not do because Jesus lives?

    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  4. Austin wrote:

    I like this approach for dealing with sin because the seriousness of slavery puts this in real perspective (and thus enables a critique on larger levels than “personal” sin).

    However, I do have one question in the way Jensen puts this out: what about the experience of wrestling with sin? Isn’t the experience of sin more complex than a simple “freedom” vs. “slavery”? How do you actually take this thinking to specific situations, like sexuality, for instance?

    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Austin, obviously its a very complicated pastoral matter to actually “deal” with the temptations of sin. For my part I’ve lately come to think of it as a sort of Stockholm syndrome or slave mentality. We like to sin because we have come to sympathize and identify with the very reality that enslaves and dominates us.

    Vernard Eller used to always ask people “How much freedom can you stand?” Being free is hard work and many is the time when we think that serving the Egyptians is better than dying in the wilderness.

    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 11:28 am | Permalink
  6. John wrote:

    Sin, or missing the mark, or the non-Realizatio (of God) is the worst cancer in the universe. It is the worst sickness. It is the most horrific disease. Its implications cover the entirety of everyone’s life. The world is filled with its symptoms and reeks with its torments and potentials, coming from all directions, most of which people cannot even see.

    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 9:43 pm | Permalink
  7. Dom wrote:

    “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery… walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.”

    “If, by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live”

    Halden, I really like this. I mean really. The one thing I’d like to press you on a little further is the “do not be subject again…” and “put to death…” part. You say that we are not forbidden to enslave ourselves, but I’m not sure I buy that quite yet. Isn’t the negative “do not” implied by the positive exhortation to walk in resurrected freedom? Isn’t that a constraint of a sort?

    Thanks for the great quote.

    Friday, May 7, 2010 at 6:10 am | Permalink
  8. Brad A. wrote:

    Halden, I’m sympathetic, but I don’t know how far it can really go with Scripture. If sin isn’t seductive, then why does Paul talk about it in terms of “enticement”? “God doesn’t come to us with commands not to do such things…” – Really? What, then, is the point of the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount (specifically, the “I say to you, do not…”)? In the wilderness, what Scripture does Jesus recall when tempted? “You shall NOT live by bread alone,” “You shall NOT tempt the Lord your God,” etc. Frankly, why would slavery even be an issue if it weren’t seductive and interesting? I just don’t think your argument works.

    Saturday, May 8, 2010 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  9. Matt Elia wrote:

    Paul Griffiths has a recent blog piece which may be relevant to these questions, or perhaps offer an alternative way to “take sin seriously.” It also may be more of a return to the lively talks here a month ago on privatio. In any case, he’s always worth a read:

    “Sin might be construed as the sinner’s attempt to bring herself to nothing, to remove the habit of being. Sin might then be defined as establishing the habit of nonbeing. There’s much in the tradition that suggests this, and exploring it might permit better understanding of the logic and meaning and goal of sinning.”
    http://pauljgriffiths.com/2010/05/06/ad-nihilum-ex-nihilo-toward-nothing/

    P.S. Halden, your Easter sermon was powerful. Thank you for sharing.

    Saturday, May 8, 2010 at 6:58 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Dom, the whole matter is tricky because of the language involved. What I’m trying to get at is the “deep structure” if you will of what goes on in sin and holiness. And in fact, I think the verse you quote from Galatians gets at the matter just right. So yes, there is a “constraint”, namely the constraint of being free from slavery.

    So there is indeed a “No”, a “Do Not.” But its always a very odd sort of “do not” because it isn’t “really” forbidding anything. What it forbids is precisely the “things” that make for nonbeing, for destruction, slavery and death.

    So are things forbidden? Sure. But talking about it that way doesn’t do justice to the whole picture of what is really “going on” there. What’s going on is liberation from slavery into the freedom which makes possible not doing the old things that slaves do.

    I don’t think we disagree about this, and indeed, the point is really to penetrate deeply into the language and logic of sin and freedom. How we talk about it is important, but its less important than actually grasping and entering into that liberating movement of the Spirit.

    Saturday, May 8, 2010 at 11:04 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Brad, see my comments above to Dom and Austin, which I think answer your concerns. Sure sin is enticing — precisely because we’re used to slavery (what I describe as a sort of Stockholm Syndrome). But that doesn’t mean it isn’t simply a slavery from which we are liberated.

    The Sermon on the Mount and even the Ten Commandments are really all about being free. The hard work of being free. I know that it stretches the imagination and even language at points to talk this way, but I really think its important to enter into that sort of work for the sake of understanding the deep structure of sin and salvation and what that means for how we live into that.

    Saturday, May 8, 2010 at 11:07 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Or to take another analogy, consider addiction to hard drugs as a metaphor for how sin works. Is it seductive and enticing? Sure, especially once it permeates our system and drives our minds and bodies.

    Does someone then come and “command” us not to do the action of taking drugs? Well, maybe in a sense that happens, but what’s really going on when someone intervenes in that situation is liberation, not constraint. We are constrained by what holds us in bondage, not by what frees us. Sure it may feel like a constraint, especially in detox, but in reality it isn’t. In reality it is the hard, painful process of being set free from a slavery that we’ve internalized.

    So after being freed from such an addiction there may be all manner of “prohibitions”, like never take a drink, be around drugs, etc. But those are only constraints and prohibitions in a superficial sense. Really they are the (sometimes very hard!) actions of being free, of living in the opened, liberated space that has been created by being delivered from one’s addiction.

    Saturday, May 8, 2010 at 11:13 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Thanks, Matt. I’m glad some people found the sermon helpful. Those posts never seem to generate the slew of comments, but those are the ones where my heart is really invested.

    Saturday, May 8, 2010 at 11:16 pm | Permalink
  14. It shows, Halden. It was a great sermon and really challenges me to the hard task of being free, Your metaphor (above) on sin as addiction helps, too.

    Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 12:42 am | Permalink
  15. dylan wrote:

    You want to respond to posts with deep investment with a similar level of engagement which takes time and effort. But I think those long posts and sermons give the blog its backbone. When I first came across the blog, it was after reading a couple of them that I decided to bookmark the blog and have been returning ever since.

    Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 5:51 am | Permalink
  16. kim fabricius wrote:

    I concur, Halden, and would only add two points to your insightful and helpful analysis.

    (1) If subjectively sin is to be enslaved, objectively sin is the slave master, i.e. a power that takes control of us and against which we are finally impotent (cf. Romans 7). (Paul, of course, seldom speak of sins, or repentance, but often speaks of Sin and liberation.) To take sin seriously is to see that it can only be overcome by a greater power, i.e. by Jesus Christ.

    (2) One’s enslavement includes feelings of shame, self-disgust, and desperation.

    (3) Sin, though enticing, is not only uninteresting, it is boring, absolutely boring.

    All three points, I trust, supplement your illustration of hard drug addiction, which I have always found heuristically useful. But then, as an ex-junkie, I would.

    Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  17. Brad A. wrote:

    Halden, I’m entirely with you on the liberating aspects (that’s precisely how I teach it, too). Totally. And I realized later my comment didn’t acknowledge that.

    I was merely zeroing in on what I perceived as overstatement regarding sin not being seductive, on our not being commanded not to sin, etc.

    Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  18. Halden wrote:

    Yes, exactly, Kim. In fact the seductiveness is anything but opposed to boredom. The most boring, lifeless, banal things are what I often find most predatory on my time and devotion.

    Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  19. roger flyer wrote:

    Like rent money,

    Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 7:00 pm | Permalink
  20. Matt Elia wrote:

    Yeah, it seems inevitable to the medium that the trivial, the incendiary and the ideological generate the greatest number of comments because they demand the least of us, and allow for easy one-line zingers. Conversely, heavier posts – precisely because they’re shot through with both careful analysis and sincerity (like your sermon) – actually deter would-be commenters from slinging out another paragraph of the position everyone knows they already hold.

    At the risk of pushing it a little too far, this phenomenon of “thin” posts generating swarms of hollow comments might itself be symptomatic of the enticing banality of sin which longs to collapse into nonbeing. But maybe I’m over-thinking it… :)

    Monday, May 10, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  21. Danny wrote:

    Ought we perform actions we are freed for?

    Exactly.

    Jenson’s rhetoric is beautiful, but when you ‘rationalize’ it you wind up with absurd results, like the ridiculous separation between freedom and obligation.

    Tuesday, May 11, 2010 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  22. Chris Donato wrote:

    If we’re following Jensen’s trajectory, the it seems that the Sermon would be about the church’s kingdom life in the midst of this fallen world (two kingdoms and all that). Not that there wouldn’t be any overlap of life in the one (spiritual) and life in the other (civil), but, contra Bonhoeffer, not every detail of the Sermon ought to be lived out by Christians in their dealings in the civil sphere.

    If Jensen were to disagree with the above, then it seems to me he’d be inconsistent with some of the foundational assumptions he’s working with in the quote Halden offers in the post.

    Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 7:48 am | Permalink
  23. Chris Donato wrote:

    No doubt, freedom has its obligations.

    On the other hand, I’m reminded of what someone somewhere wrote,”If you’ve never been accused of antinomianism, then you’ve probably not preached the gospel in its fullness.”

    Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 7:51 am | Permalink
  24. Dom wrote:

    Halden,
    You’re right, I think we are basically on the same page here. I had an additional thought about this that may help to reconcile the seemingly contradictory viewpoints that sin is either seductive or uninteresting. It has to do with another way of thinking about sin which I tried to get into here and here. It is absolutely true that sin is uninteresting. However, at the very root of its nature, sin is a lie. It is deception, and its very power is found in its ability to convince us that it is interesting when in fact it is not. In this way, what you said about the gospel comes to the forefront: the gospel is truth and tells us that sin is deception, slavery, and not interesting at all. Sin is deception because it tells us it is something that it is not, namely, interesting.
    The hard drug analogy is a good one, but another one comes to mind for me as well. I had a good friend who was, shall we say, quite successful with the ladies. He and I would study the Bible together though, and there was one great conversation we had where this idea really came to light. He told me how the best part of making a conquest wasn’t the act itself, but the anticipation beforehand. He told me that it was often the case that in the act itself he would become disgusted and just wish that it was over and that she would go away. The true nature of sin was profoundly exposed for me in that conversation. It promises to be something that it is not. It promises to be interesting, hence the adrenaline rush of anticipation. But once it is grasped for, that proves to be an illusion, and sin is exposed for what it really is: boring. It is enslaving because it continues to deceive. It continues to promise us that this time it’ll be great (it’ll make us human or god), and we want it to be true so badly that we go back again and again. The gospel frees us from that lie.

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 7:00 am | Permalink

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