Tag Archives: sin

What is sin?

Sin Separates?

Sometimes you hear it said that the most horrible thing about sin is that it separates you from God.  Along the same trajectory, the most horrible thing about hell is that it is eternal separation from God.  It makes sense if hell is the eternal consequence of sin, the ultimate punishment for sin.  But is it true?  Does the Bible actually teach that sin separates the sinner from God?

You could be tempted to think it doesn’t.  After all, God is omnipresent.  In Jeremiah 23:23-24, God says, “Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God far away?  Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD.  Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD.”  If God is present everywhere, how could sin separate you from him?  Moreover, doesn’t David say in Psalm 139:7, “Where shall I go from your Spirit?  Or where shall I flee from your presence?”  If God is inescapable, then how can you ever be separated from him?

Moreover, when it comes to hell, there too we’re confronted with God’s inescapable presence.  Christians are saved by Jesus from the wrath of God (Rom. 5:9).  That wrath is expressed with unbearable fury in hell.  God is present in hell to punish unrepentant sinners.  So, how can anyone say that hell is eternal separation from God?  The worst thing about hell is that God is present confronting sinners with his justice.

It might seem like an open and shut case.  However, we do have to reckon with everything the Bible teaches on such things.  As it happens, the Bible does teach that sin separates the sinner from God.  It also clearly tells us in what sense this is true.

First, Isaiah 59:2 says:

…your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,

and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.

The language of separation here is unambiguous.  Now there is a feature of Hebrew poetry that helps us in discerning what it means:  parallelism.  The first part of the verse is explained by the second.  “Separation” means the hiding of God’s face in such a way that he does not listen to the prayers of the sinner.

Second Thessalonians 1:9 speaks about hell and the punishment awaiting unrepentant sinners:

They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might…

This passage links hell with separation from the Lord.  However, it too qualifies this separation by adding, “and from the glory of his might.”  In the following verse, the Holy Spirit speaks about the glorification of the saints.  Witnessing “the glory of his might” in this context is meant to be a positive thing, a blessing.  That blessing will be missed by those in hell.

Obviously Scripture teaches that there is some real sense in which sin does separate sinners from God.  That sense is this:  sin separates you from friendly fellowship with God.  Sin separates you from a relationship with God whereby he will listen to your prayers and bless you.  The ultimate expression of that separation is indeed in the eternal fires of hell.  There unrepentant sinners are permanently separated from any positive relationship to God.  Sin separates by alienating and creating hostility.  That said, sin will never separate the unrepentant sinner from God as Judge.  Sin will never separate such a person from God’s justice or his wrath.

The gospel addresses this problem of separation caused by sin.  It does so with the reconciliation worked by Jesus Christ.  Reconciliation brings the alienated and hostile back together into a harmonious relationship.  Through Christ, our separation is bridged and we’re brought back to God in fellowship.  It was all because he endured the separation we deserved – he bore our hell on the cross.  God hid his face from Jesus.  He ignored his cries.  Jesus was “away from the glory of his might” – all blessings were snatched from him.  Since that happened in their place, Christians can be confident that absolutely nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39)!

Stockholm Sin-drome

Oftentimes we don’t see sin the way we should:  as a major problem.  Instead, we have a love affair with sin.  We’re bewitched and entranced by it.

On August 23, 1973 a man walked into a bank in Stockholm, Sweden.  Jan-Erik Olsson was a convicted armed robber and that day he was intent on doing it again.  Things didn’t go the way he planned and he ended up taking four hostages.  A stand-off with police lasted for five days.  It finally ended when police launched a gas attack into the vault where Olsson was holed up with his hostages.  What was remarkable was that afterwards the hostages seemed to sympathize with Olsson.  They were critical of the police and felt bad for the hostage taker.  Psychologists took an interest in this case and it led to observations of similar behaviour in other kidnapping and hostage situations.  People who are kidnapped or held hostage sometimes get emotionally attached to the kidnapper or hostage taker.  This became known as Stockholm Syndrome.  It’s exactly what sin does to all of us.  It enslaves us, it threatens to kill us, and then we become attached to it.  We may defend it, rationalize it, and even love it.  If we could see things rationally, we would see that what enslaves us will later kill us.  If we could see things the way they really are, we would see that we need deliverance.

Moreover, the world tells us lies that help keep us from seeing things the way they really are.  The world tells us that our captor is loving and kind, looking out for our best interests.  The world tells us that our captivity is not a problem, in fact, there is no captivity.  Slavery is freedom.  How can you have a depraved nature when there is no such thing as good and evil?  Or, if someone is inconsistent and does maintain the reality of good and evil, they’ll tell you that we’re all basically good.  “We all have good hearts,” they’ll say.

It should be clear that the Bible calls this what it is:  falsehood.  It’s all lies and snake-think.  It’s what the devil wants you to think so that he and his minions can keep you from finding hope and salvation in Jesus Christ.  If you don’t have a sinful nature, if you’re not enslaved by sin, you don’t need deliverance.  If you don’t need deliverance, you don’t need Jesus Christ.  Those are lies.  The truth is we all have a sinful nature, in the raw we are all enslaved by sin, and therefore we all need deliverance.  1 John 1:8, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  We have sin, we need rescue.  Because we all need rescue, we all need Jesus Christ.  This is the truth the Bible lays before us.

(The above is an excerpt from a recent sermon with Lord’s Day 3 of the Heidelberg Catechism as the lesson – you can find the video here)

A Different Calvin

As noted yesterday, I’m reading Cornelis Van Dam’s The Elder: Today’s Ministry Rooted in All of Scripture.  So far, it’s a good read and I would recommend it — I hope to post my full review of it here in the next few days.  A couple of weeks ago, I posted my review of the biography of Calvin by Herman Selderhuis.  I was troubled by his characterization of Calvin’s relationship to God.

In The Elder, Van Dam discusses the approach that elders should take to sin in the congregation.  He advocates graciousness and patience, especially when sin is committed out of weakness and ignorance.  Along the way, he quotes Calvin:

In Calvin’s words, as children of God we offer our best to God without fear of condemnation, “firmly trusting that our services will be approved by our most merciful Father, however small, rude, and imperfect these may be.  Thus also he assures us through the prophet: ‘I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him’ (Mal. 3:17).”  Calvin goes on to note that the word “spare” is used in the sense of “to be indulgent or compassionately to overlook faults.” (187)

That sounds more like the Calvin that I’ve come to know.  We can firmly trust our most merciful Father.