Sin: What it is and what to do about it—Paul’s message in Romans 6

Ted Grimsrud

A sermon preached at Shalom Mennonite Congregation—Harrisonburg, VA, June 14, 2015, Romans 6:1-23

Sometimes little things are powerful—the most dangerous spiders are those little brown recluses. The hottest chili peppers are the tiny Carolina creepers. And the word “sin”—with only three letters—has all kinds of significance for religious people, and those who know religious people.

Problems with “sin”

One of the problems in North American Christianity is that the word sin is used mainly by people on one side of the theological spectrum. It feels like a harsh and finger pointing kind of word. So good peaceable progressives tend to avoid it. The result is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy where everybody cedes the meaning of sin to those who do use it in hurtful ways.

We all do know that to call something a sin is to say it’s very bad. It’s like the famous story about President Calvin Coolidge back in the 1920s. He was notoriously a man of few words. One Sunday he went to church and later met with some reporters. “What was the sermon about,” he was asked. “It was about sin.” “What did the preacher say about sin?” “He said he was agin it.” … What more is there to say?

Well, a few decades later, the Louvin Brothers, one of the great country music brother singing acts , recorded a song called “Broadminded” that did say a little more: “That word broadminded is spelled s-i-n. I read in my Bible, they shall not enter in. Depart, I never knew you. That word broadminded is spelled s-i-n.” The song goes on to list the really bad sins—to “gamble now and then for pleasure,” to “drink a little whisky to please a friend,” and to go “dancing with friends.”

Of course we can think of even more hurtful ways the label sin is used. If it’s people others want to exclude or silence or marginalize, they can be accused of being sinful, of “living in sin.” One of the reasons this hurtful use of sin language is too bad is that many of us tend to react against using it at all then—and that makes for a challenge when we want to find language to use to talk about things that are genuinely wrong—like war and environmental exploitation and racism. We don’t find it meaningful to say those things are sinful—but we don’t have other words that work, either.

But there is another problem with the way “sin” is used among Christians. If it’s used as a word for the evils of “broadmindedness” or if it’s a word we refuse to use—in both cases we think of “sin” mainly as rule violations or moralistically objectionable behavior. To think of sin in these ways makes it harder to understand one of the Apostle Paul’s use of sin language—and we miss Paul’s helpful contributions to how we might approach life in healing and creative ways.

At least I think Paul actually has helpful things to tell us about sin. And I will try to explain why. But first, let me read a condensed version of the sixth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, one of the places where he goes into the most detail talking about sin. As I always like to do, I ask you to think as you hear these words and maybe make a comment or two when I’m done. My prompt today is to ask you to do word association. What comes to mind for you when you hear the word “sin”? You may have a thought triggered by this passage. Or maybe more generally. First listen.

So, in light of the depths of God’s mercy, should we continue in sin so that this mercy may abound even more? By no means! Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We have been buried with him by baptism and share his death, so that, just as he was raised from the dead, so we too might walk in newness of life.

We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. So, consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. No longer devote your lives to injustice, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life and live as instruments of justice.

We inevitably serve something. We may be either a servant of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to justice. Thanks be to God that you, having once been servants of sin, have become obedient to God’s mercy. Having been set free from sin, you have become servants of justice.  

When you were servants of sin, you were free from the obligation to practice justice. And what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and freed to serve to God, the advantage you get is wholeness. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:1-23)

So, what comes to your mind when you hear the word “sin”?

Paul’s agenda—The call to neighbor love

Well, I want to start my reflections with some framing—you know, try to set a context for thinking about what Paul might have in mind. If I were to boil Paul’s main agenda in Romans as a whole down to a short statement, I would actually quote Jesus, like Paul himself does in Romans 13—“the commandments … are summed up in this word: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (13:9). Paul’s goal in all his theologizing in Romans is to encourage his readers to follow that word. His statement about love completes the theology discussion of chapters one through thirteen. Then it is followed by chapters fourteen through sixteen that get concrete about what love of neighbor would look like among the Roman Christians.

So all that Paul writes before this conclusion about love, including his discussion of sin, all that is meant to serve the conclusion: Love your neighbor. Paul writes about sin to help his readers better to love our neighbors. He’s not trying to provide a rationale for controlling or condemning people. He’s not trying to provide ammunition to help insiders feel superior to the sinner outsiders. He’s not trying to push his readers to feel guilt and shame about their own sinfulness. He’s not trying to reject “works righteousness” so that believers understand that Christian faith is simply about trusting in Jesus as one’s personal savior so one might make it to heaven.

Rather, to say it again: Paul writes about sin to help us better love our neighbors. How does this work? First, let’s think. What keeps us from loving our neighbors? This may be the best starting question for imagining what sin is about.

What hinders neighbor love?

One of our main hindrances is a sense that many of our neighbors are different, they are other, they are not like us. So that automatic sense we have of some people, of yes, this is a brother or sister that I want to share life with, that is weakened with those we see as different.

What are some of kinds of differences that fuel this sense of otherness? One of the big ones, of course, is national difference. I grew up in the shadow of World War II, probably the greatest failure of neighbor love there has ever been. And I was taught (not by my parents so much as by my surrounding culture) that as an American I was superior to the German and Japanese enemy that my people had to defeat. Nationalism is huge—though that’s ironic, because nations are artificial, they are recent inventions. They certainly are not an inherent part of our human makeup. It’s like someone wrote: First human beings make borders, then borders make human beings.

We can think of many other obvious differences that seem to separate us—race, class, gender, sexual identity, religion. Each of these may contribute to our failure to recognize the “other” as a fellow human being deserving of love and not disdain or stereotyping. There are other less obvious examples as well. Maybe I don’t treat my neighbor with love more because I am afraid of what others might think of me if I do.

I remember as a teenager going along with my friends in hazing a new kid after basketball practice. I feel as much shame about that incident as just about anything I can remember from those days. The thing is, I actually liked the new kid. We were neighbors. But I cared more about not having my friends think less of me than I did about standing with this vulnerable kid.

If we link sin with the factors that undermine love of neighbor, we will see that sin has a lot to do with the social dynamics of classism, racism, and the like. It also has a lot to do with the social dynamics of peer pressure, cultural blinders, and group biases. These are all things that act on us from the outside. They are not about the dark spots on our individual hearts. They are about social beliefs, assumptions, worldviews.

As it turns out, at least as I read him, this is precisely the kind of thing Paul has in mind in Romans. In chapters one and two, he describes what I call the “idolatry one” of trusting in the Roman Empire and the “idolatry two” of religious legalism and self-righteousness. He has in mind sin as a power, sin as a social force, that is given a hold in human life by the presence of idolatry—when we trust in human institutions, human constructs, human social structures as the arbiters of our moral values and priorities. And the outcome of such mislaid trust is all too often violence and injustice. The idols push choices that limit neighbor love. For Paul, idolatry and sin are the biggest threats to neighbor love—and neighbor love is the most fundamental purpose for which God has created human beings.

Freedom from sin

So, let’s look quickly at Romans 6 and its discussion of sin in light of these points about its context. We know that God is merciful—even towards God’s enemies. God’s mercy is boundless. God forgives, God accepts, God seeks to heal, God welcomes. So why don’t we then sin all the more so that God’s mercy can be expressed even more? By no means! This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of sin.

One of the problems with the Louvin Brothers’ notion of sin—drinking and gambling and dancing—that is it could be understood to be saying that part of what makes a sin a sin is that it is fun, that it gives us pleasure. Or, that it breaks a rule—for someone like me with anarchistic inclination, there is pleasure associated with the very idea of breaking rules, too. So, maybe we sin more—have fun—and increase the amount of God’s mercy?

But this isn’t at all what Paul has in mind. Paul has in mind sin as a power that controls us and binds us and pushes us toward hurtfulness and death. God wants us to enjoy life—perhaps one of our key signals for when we enter into the realm of sin is that there is no joy, there is no creativity, there is no liveliness. It could be that we lose our joy; it also could be that we take someone else’s joy.

To identify with Jesus is to identify with his relentless love of his neighbors—love that led to conflict with the social forces that other and stereotype and oppress. There is a kind of death in this identification with Jesus, death to nationalism, death to racism, death to being controlled by what others think. And that can be painful because part of what dies are the patterns of thinking and living that have been based on those idolatries. The promise, though, is that there is life underneath the veneer of the false understandings of reality; there is life when we are freed from othering and self-righteousness. Then we may be freed no longer to devote our lives to injustice but to present ourselves as instruments of justice. And in that is deep joy, deep meaning, profound creativity.

We know how this dynamic works from Paul’s own story. As a young man he got his meaning in life as a zealot religionist who devoted his energy to opposing what he thought was “sin”—fellow Jews who were broadening their sense of the covenant by welcoming outsiders who had met Jesus into their fellowship without forcing them to conform to all the trappings of the supposed true faith. Paul thought he was doing God’s will when he fought violently, even to the death, against these sinners. He was shaken to his very core when he met Jesus himself on the road to Damascus and realized that indeed he was the one bound by sin. He had utterly misunderstood God as a God of scarcity and restrictiveness rather than a God of welcome and inclusion.

Paul’s sin was to trust in cultural and religious powers and ideologies that denied the centrality of love of neighbor—of all neighbors, of even those neighbors he didn’t like or agree with. To be free from the power of sin, in Paul’s sense, is not about avoiding the evils of drink or sex or loose living. Now, Paul would have seen excessive drink, out of control lust, or generally unhealthy living as problematic. But the power of sin is about the social dynamics that lead to injustice and oppression, prejudice and ruthlessness.

Examples of resisting sin’s power

To be free from the power of sin is to be like Huckleberry Finn, when he finally came to realize that his friend Jim, the escaped slave, was a full human being. Huck decided that he was willing to go to hell if that’s what it took to protect Jim’s freedom. What he did was embrace his freedom from bondage to a kind of Christianity that taught that slavery was God’s will.

To be free from the power of sin is to be like Daniel Ellsberg who came to the conclusion that the American attack on Vietnam was profoundly immoral. So, though he was an “insider” in the military-industrial complex, he was willing to risk his professional status and even his own freedom by revealing the “Pentagon papers.” These documents in key ways undermined the stated rationale for American aggression and helped turn the tide of public opinion against that war.

To be free from the power of sin is to be like so many Vietnamese people who in the years following that terrible war offered profound hospitality to visiting Americans, even visiting American military vets who had been part of the American aggression. My sister Sally spent a couple of years teaching school in Ho Chi Minh City recently and raved about the kindness and warmth she, an American, experienced there.

A final example, to be free from the power of sin is to be like Diane Nash, one of the great heroes of the American civil rights movement. As a college student barely 20 years old, she faced jail, physical violence, and intimidation in order to confront the dehumanizing dynamics of the segregation regime—first in Nashville where she mustered the courage to confront the mayor in front of thousands of people, appealed to his humanity and got him to concede that discrimination on the basis of race was wrong. Then, when the first Freedom Riders were viciously attacked in Alabama and, in disarray, considered abandoning their effort, Nash insisted that the movement could not risk losing its momentum and recruited dozens of her young colleagues from Nashville to join her in providing reinforcements—knowing they would risk their lives by doing so.

Paul’s message about sin is all about empowerment. “Having been set free from sin, you have become servants of justice” (6:18). This freedom is the ability to see the Powers that separate and other our neighbors as agents of death, not of life. They are agents of domination, not agents of genuine security. These are the Powers that killed Jesus—and in raising Jesus, God shows them for what they are. False claimants of meaning and success.

“The free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord” (6:23). The point of this gift is not simply that we might go heaven when we die. The more central point is that we might live life now in light of God’s eternal message of generosity and compassion, free from the power of sin and free for the power of love. Amen.

1 thought on “Sin: What it is and what to do about it—Paul’s message in Romans 6

  1. Berry Friesen

    Interesting how this sermon takes on an increasingly political tone as it proceeds. That tone is appropriate, IMO, as Romans begins with and focuses throughout on the justice of God.

    So what we seem to have in Romans is Paul’s view of the church as a political community clearly separated from and opposed to the imperial ethos and worldview and lifestyle (see chapters 1 and 6), holding to a highly unconventional understanding of justice (chapters 3-5), and committed to the best interests of the neighbor (chapters 13-15).

    Try as I might, I cannot boil all this down to “love”; however right that might be in some poetic or mystical sense. So I for one am glad that you didn’t stop with the boiled down version.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s