ii. The Pervasive Nature of Sin
Attending the Christian delight in the goodness of creation must be an equivalent sorrow over the pervasive horror of sin. In the Christian view of the world, human beings, though made with and for an original divine goodness, have rejected that goodness and replaced it with our own lesser good. Through this act of sin we have become sinners—people marked both in our selves and in our lives with the wound of sin—bearing both its guilt and corruption.
In Christian theology, the language of guilt is fundamental to the doctrine of sin (Ps. 51). Human beings, clean and innocent by nature, are now, because of sin, unclean—marred with the shameful stain of guilt. This stain manifests itself first, in the status of guilt; the fact that we now stand justly accused as sinners before God, before our selves, before others, and before the world. And secondly, it manifests itself in the experience of guilt. That is, not only has sin burdened us with the actual status of guilt, it has also burdened us with the existential trial of it. Thus because of sin, we who were made to be clean and innocent now find ourselves plagued by both the terrible status and the shameful experience of guilt.
And yet in Christian theology, guilt is not the only consequence of sin. Added to it is what has historically been called corruption. Corruption refers neither to the status of guilt nor to the experience of it, but rather to the disintegration of the world that sin has wrought (Gen. 3). Though God intended creation to reflect the state of peaceful wholeness between God, humans, and the world—a state the Bible calls shalom—sin has broken this wholeness, splintering it into the ruin of corruption. Unlike guilt, which is both a status and an experience unique to human beings, corruption extends its sorrows to all of creation: embracing not only our broken inner lives, but also our broken bodies, our broken relationships, our broken cities, and our broken world. Thus in Christian theology, because of sin, a world that was made for the wholeness of shalom, now languishes under the grief of corruption (Rm. 8).
This view of sin—that it stems from a rejection of God’s goodness and results in both pervasive guilt and corruption—is fundamental to the Christian understanding of what is wrong with both our selves and our world.
And yet in much of the Christian church this view of the pervasive nature of sin is truncated.
On the one hand are those who take a merely spiritual view of sin. In this account, which identifies sin largely with guilt, the human fall from grace is rendered primarily as a breach of the human relationship with God. Because of sin, human beings—made for loving relationship with God—have been exiled from His presence and stand in deep need of the redemptive cleansing secured by Jesus’ crucifixion. The strength of this view is that it is deeply faithful to one aspect of the Bible’s teaching on sin. Because of sin, humanity is in fact exiled from intimacy with God and in absolute need of His cleansing redemption.
And yet the weakness of this view is the corollary to its strength—it is faithful to only one aspect of the Bible’s teaching on sin—guilt. And because of this, it tends to ignore (often with cruel consequence) the deep and equally biblical significance of corruption. The result of this curtailed faithfulness is an inclination toward an individualistic notion of iniquity, focusing on the presence of sin in the chambers of the heart, and yet ignoring the presence of sin in the structures of the world. Because of this, we must recognize that in spite of its very real strengths, the merely spiritual view of sin is unfaithful to the pervasive view of sin presented in the Bible.
On the other hand are those who take a merely systemic view of sin. In this account, which identifies sin largely with corruption, the human fall from grace is rendered primarily as a breach in human relationships, with one another and with the world. Because of sin, human beings—made for love, justice, and the peaceful stewardship of the creation—have been corrupted into selfishness, injustice, and violent exploitation of God’s world. As a result, humanity groans—with all creation—for the redemptive healing secured by Jesus’ resurrection.
Like the merely spiritual view of sin, the strength of this view is that it is deeply faithful to one aspect of the Bible’s teaching on sin. Because of sin, God’s creation does in fact groan under selfishness, injustice, and violence and stands in deep need of God’s healing power of resurrection. And yet once again, the weakness of this view is the twin of its strength. In being faithful to the Biblical vision of corruption, it fails to take guilt seriously. As a result, the brokenness of the world stands at center stage while the guilty heart from which this brokenness springs recedes from view.
These reductionistic perspectives on sin are widely held and deeply embedded in the contemporary Christian imagination. But they are mistaken. This is because each, when taken in isolation, underestimates the pervasive nature of sin. If the church is to take sin seriously, and truly labor against it as a faithful presence in this world, we must rejoin these perspectives, insisting on the reality of both guilt and corruption.