To write a book on sin is definitely on my list of things to do in life. This is not the appropriate moment for that, so here I will only share some ideas that I find important and relevant. I’m borrowing loads from Augustine and other fathers, as well as Tillich and Rahner here.
The doctrine of sin is one that is a bit different in the various Christian traditions. As with doctrinal differences in general this is a difference in language, (there, I said it!) and one can use whichever one want to, as long as one is aware of the differences. Protestants – if they know what they are talking about – tend to talk about sin as something in the human person, while Catholics and Orthodox tend to use the word for the an act or choice. They do not, however, teach that a sin is to brake moral code. This is not a Christian idea.
A proper doctrine of sin is a matter of balance. What one is trying to balance is the individuals freedom: On the one hand we are responsible for ourselves, on the other hand we are limited by our nature and history. Christian theology has gone to far in either direction many times. To over-emphasize responsibility is called Pelaginaism, and to over-emphasize dependence is somewhat misleadingly called Manichaeism.
In its essence sin is about turning away from God. But to understand sin one have to realize that to turn away from God is at the same time to turn away from oneself. This is, to me, the key to understanding sin – and at the same time, redemption. Sin causes us to be something else than we really are. And here we have another key point: sin is not our true nature: deepest down in our selves we are not sinners, but the Image of God. Sin is a layer above this image that distorts it, but does not destroy it. This means there can never be a conflict between what God wants me to be and what I want to be myself. Sin is what hinders me from being who I in “my heart of hearts” want to be.
So sin is about identity. But this could easily make us think that sin so defined has little to do with our day-to-day life. This is not the case. Sin in its essence is about who I am, but I am who I am only in my day-to-day life. Thus we are talking about choices and acts that are very ordinary, very practical. It can be anything, and everything. When we start to define certain acts as sins we are always missing the point, because there are no acts that are sins in themselves. They are only sins if they are betrayals of our true identities.
In an earlier post I said that God is against us as a culture that is on the way towards ruining the culture. If we understand ourselves as individuals as the Image of God in our innermost, than it should be clear that to take part in such a destructive culture is not to be in accordance with our true identities. When we, as we do, take part in a culture that lives on destroying the environment and creates human suffering in poorer countries, we are betraying ourselves and God in us.
According to Christian doctrine it is beyond the power of the individual to overcome sin. Only God can overcome sin and help us become ourselves.
As I said, I’m basing this to a degree on Tillich and Rahner. I would be intrigued to know what your favourite theologian has to say on the subject, as well as your own thoughts, of course!