Wells on Sin

Here’s another lengthy quote from The Courage to Be Protestant by David Wells. Wells makes the point that there is a difference between sin and evil. He writes:

Evil is simply badness. Sin, though, is altogether more serious because it sets up human badness in relation to God. It is not just the absence of good, or corruption, brutality, oppression, and nastiness, but is all these things, and many more besides, as they are understood in relation to God. They are acts of moral defiance of him. They are a rejection of his authority over all human life. That is the Bible’s perspective.

Our perspective on sin in America is different. Only 17 percent of Americans define sin in relation to God, so for the overwhelming majority sin has become a trivial matter, no more serious than having violated some church rule about something quite inconsequential. For most Americans the more serious word by far is “evil,” though when postmoderns it out of a moral world, it has no more than a passing emotional significance. I believe “sin” has far more gravity than “evil” because of the standard by which sinfulness is exposed.

Sin, biblically speaking, is not only the absence of good. It also entails our active opposition to God. It is, then, the defiance of his authority, the rejection of his truth, the challenge to his sovereignty in which we set ourselves up in life to live the way we want to live. It is the way we wrench ourselves free from obedience to him, cut ourselves off from his grasp, and refuse to let him be God. It is therefore all the ways we live life on our own terms, to our own ends, with accountability to no one but ourselves.

This really is the point of the biblical language. Sin is described as missing the target (Rom. 3:9; 7:5), falling short of a standard, or transgressing boundaries (Rom. 2:23; 5:20; Gal. 3:19). However, the target missed, the path abandoned, the authority defied, the law transgressed are in each and every case God’s. Sin is all about taking issue with God, defying him, refusing to submit to him, and displacing him from the center of existence. We are now disaffected with his rule, resent his claims on our lives, are hostile to his truth in the biblical Word, and are determined to pursue our own values, goals and pleasures in defiance of what he has said. This “freedom” from all that God is, and all that he has said, turns out to be an illusion. When we freed ourselves in these ways, beginning with the fall, we fell headlong into a dark captivity both to our own selves and, beyond that, to the powers of darkness.

this is wonderfully illustrated in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. In a parallel universe the inhabitants of Middle-Earth are themselves struggling with evil in the form of the Dark Lord himself, Sauron. In a previous battle the One Ring was lost and then discovered by a strange little creature called Gollum. This Ring had terrible powers because it infected those who had it. This Ring was self-centeredness, fallenness, and corruption, and once these enter a soul, all freedom from what is dark is lost. So it was that Gollum, who found this Ring, came to love it. He both loved it and hated it, Tolkein tells us. He hated the darkness, but even more than that he hated the light. But even while he hated the Ring, and hated himself for loving it, he could not give it up. His love for it was too great. This Ring stole his will and made him its captive.

At the heart of this sin that holds us captive is pride. The essence of pride is finding in the self what in fact can be found only in God. So pride, as Cornelius Plantinga writes in Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, leads us to think much about the self and much of the self. We imagine that within ourselves we have power enough, wisdom enough, and strength enough to live in security, in the fullness of happiness, as we want to live, amidst all the conflicts and opportunities of life. Very finite preoccupations are therefore substituted for those that are eternal, and we then confidently take the place God once had. We therefore redefine reality. Is this not the ultimate explanation as to why life in the postmodern world has lost its center? What I am describing here, from within a biblical framework, is what others in the postmodern world are seeing without this framework. This is the “autonomous self.”

It is not hard to see how the self movement…has tapped into this by offering self-mastery through the right technique. It encourages us to think much about the self and much of the self. It is an industry that in fact lives off of and for pride! As such, it offers a way to dissolve all our internal aches and heal all our internal wounds. Perhaps it can offer some amelioration along the way, a few coping skills against life’s blows, but we might as well try to empty the ocean with a thimble than depend on these techniques to solve our deeper issues.

Nor is it hard to see that once the self has established itself at the center of reality, its own judgments, no matter how flawed, are seen as ultimate and unchallengeable. They stand as if they had been issued from God himself. And in a sense they have. They have been issued by his stand-in, the autonomous self.

This kind of pride refuses to accept limitations on its knowledge. Pride wants to make of private opinion something akin to a binding address. There are professors, Plantinga dryly notes, who have left faculty meetings more enlightened by what they said than by what they heard! Pride goes hand in hand with self-righteousness because it refuses to accept moral evaluations that are uncomplimentary. Pride will not acknowledge any flaws. Proud people are always right in their judgments as well as in their behavior. This same pride lies beneath so many other sins like indifference to others, injustice, and the many ways, some cruel and brutal, in which we live as if no one else counted for anything.

Sin, as Plantinga says, has many different ways of showing itself. It has a “thousand faces.” But all expressions of sin break apart what God has put together. Sin began by breaking apart our relation to God, and from this followed every other breach that has left life in pain, confusion, and disarray. The environment is under siege, marriages are in pain, the worlplace is rife with rivalries and deceit, nations are at war, and we ourselves, even if surrounded by all the fruites of affluence and living in the plush quite of American suburbia, struggle with emptiness and having to settle for what is superficial and fading. One might say that sin is what has dissolved the center that holds all of life together, robbing it of its meaning.

The short answer, then, to the question why life has lost its center has a betuiling simplicity to it. The center has not been lost. It has only been lost to our view. And that is because our disposition, the orientation of our nature from birth, leads us inexorably to replace God with our own selves, to substitute our interests for his, and to redefine life around its new substitute center in ourselves.

               The Courage to Be Protestant, pp 101-104.

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6 responses to “Wells on Sin

  1. Wow! That is really good. I need to read that book next.

    Great definition of Sin:

    Sin, biblically speaking, is not only the absence of good. It also entails our active opposition to God. It is, then, the defiance of his authority, the rejection of his truth, the challenge to his sovereignty in which we set ourselves up in life to live the way we want to live.

    al sends

  2. Al,
    It is a must read. I read three of the previous four in this series, and this one is far and away the most readable. He intended it to be a summary of the previous four (No Place for Truth, God in the Wasteland, Losing Our Virtue, and Above All Earthly Pow’rs), but, he says, it took on a life of its own.

    This is a very good book. Every serious Christian should read it. Every un-serious Christian should have it read to them.

  3. Just when Plantinga was finally becoming a distant memory… Can’t you just post quotes on how much God loves us? or on aliens? You just gotta keep bustin’ up the party.

  4. This is a great book, and you’ve quoted a couple of my favorite sections. Agree that this is much more approachable read that the previous four of Wells’ books.

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