Fleming Rutledge on Sin

“you have not yet considered the weight of sin”—Anselm, Cur Deus Homo? 

Sin appears to be making something of a comeback*. Consider that over twenty five years ago, Alvin Plantinga could write, “The awareness of sin used to be our shadow…but the shadow has dimmed. Nowadays, the accusation you have sinned is often said with a grin, and with a tone that signals an inside joke”.** Most of us would agree that the heightened awareness of sin that Plantinga spells out seems to be returning, even if the places where that moral impulse is emanating from has shifted in perhaps surprising ways. The last two years, to say nothing of the last ten, have seen society rocked by public debates over race relations, the climate and public health. The language of justice, sacrifice and public wrongdoing have returned to our public vocabulary. Nevertheless, despite sharing a common language, we have fallen, even (or especially) in the church, into entrenched camps. Cultural conservatives have tended to deny the reality or existence of certain sins altogether. Cultural progressives have seen these sins everywhere and the hope for redemption nowhere. 

All of this makes it easier, in a sense, for me to write a blogpost on the subject of sin. It is still a challenging task, however. For while sin is back as a topic that we discuss, there is no denying that it is also a topic that we greatly misunderstand.

This applies on a very personal level. I have multiple degrees in biblical studies and yet when it comes to defining (never mind tackling!) sin, I find myself in spiritual diapers.

I often think of sins as “bad actions”, and sinning as doing “bad things”. This is not so much wrong as inadequate.

This is the conclusion Episcopalian priest Fleming Rutledge comes to in her book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Christ. Over against the “sin as misdeeds” paradigm, Rutledge defines sin in two ways (pp. 179-182):

  • First, sin refers to responsible guilt for which the individual and a corporate body of people is responsible and for which they incur a penalty. “Sin is a verb which we engage in (Rom. 3:23)” (p.189). I would emphasise here the transgressive element; sin is to go beyond (this is what is meant by the verb “to transgress”) the good bounds of what God has set for me, those right and proper limits and boundaries within which I flourish, and outside of which I die. 
  • Second, Sin is an objective force or power that is outside of ourselves and that enslaves the human person. “Sin is a dominion under which humanity exists (Rom. 3:9)” (p.189).   

How do we put these two definitions and realities of sin together? I personally believe that “willfull transgression” holds something of the answer in bridging these two definitions of sin. Let me explain what I mean. The constant transgression of the good bounds God has set for me takes the form of a continual handing over of my will to the Alien Power of Sin—whether Greed, Lust, Envy or Anger. I am not simply “doing bad things”. I am handing over my will and attaching myself and my heart and desires to a Force that overwhelms me. Over time, I imperceptibly but in a very real way begin to lose the power of choice as my will weakens to the Alien Power that I make my Master. The problem is not that I am bad, or not merely bad. It’s much more severe than this. I am ill in a radical way (literally, “to the roots”). I am diseased to the core. I can confidently say with the authors of the Prayer Book: “there is no health in us”. Whereas framing sin as personal moral infractions can lead me to avoid the weightiness of sin, this twofold defnition captures the profundity of the human plight.

When the problem of sin is seen as both guilt and dominating force, the solution also appears more clearly. Under the “sin as misdeeds” model, we readily clutch at wrong-headed and futile attempts to remedy our situation. When I have thought of sin in purely moralistic terms—I am bad, trying to be good—it hasn’t really got me anywhere. I either think of myself as bad and so try to pull myself up by own bootstraps. But if Sin is a Power that overwhelms me, “trying to be good” is a fool’s errand. Alternatively, I might imagine that I am in fact good, at least some of the time, and that I have succeeded and so can succeed again. Again, if Sin is a Power greater than I am on my own, then this line of thinking will only end in more misery and despair. Simply put, conceiving of sin as “bad deeds” has not really aided me and, in many cases, has led me deeper into the bondage to Sin. We need both forgiveness from guilt and liberation from a Power that has overwhelmed us (p.209). Together, both capture the profundity of the human problem. And both capture the solution more richly: we do not merely need to be good***, but made well. We do not simply need to be made well, but made new.

As Rutledge shows, this twofold definition of sin is true to the biblical images. Forgiveness from responsible guilt is seen in the depiction of the crucifixion as sacrifice, sin offering, guilt offering, expiation and substitution, with the biblical authors using the motifs of the Lamb of God, scapegoat and Suffering Servant. And freedom from the power of Sin is seen in the Exodus and Christus Victor motifs and the language of redemption and deliverance from slavery and bondage.

Finally, Rutledge’s twofold definition of sin also resonates with personal experience. In my best moments, I recognise that I have lost the power of choice through continually choosing to hand over my will to a Power, thus transgressing the good bounds which God has set for me. Sin as both responsible guilt and Alien Power captures the profundity (the depth) of my ailment. And it leads me to cry out to God, who alone can make me well and new.

*We can speak of a comeback in the Western imagination. It’s not clear, to me at least, whether sin ever went away in the imaginations of those in the majority world. 

**Alvin Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p.1.

***The language of being made right (or justified) is closer to the biblical witnesses.

Image: by the author

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