Romans 14:23 — the big picture: “whatever is not of faith is sin.”
Sin is a word that leaves a burning sensation if applied to oneself — like a big red S seared on our forehead. For me, labeling myself a “sinner” cuts deep with the blade of shame. However, in a sermon a few years ago Northland’s Pastor Dr. Joel Hunter said sin was more properly translated from the Greek as “not hitting the mark”– as in archery– and that had a much more benign feel to it than a big red S branded on my forehead. It’s okay to be a poor shot. That doesn’t make you evil. That sure sounds better than willful rebellion against God.
The very Gospel itself, God’s good news, narrowly defined, is the forgiveness of sins. But I personally believe that the “forgiveness of sins” is really about much more — no less than the restoration of a perfect Creation — the world, the universe, all of God’s Creation before it was defiled by Satan’s heavenly rebellion and by Adam and Eve’s in the Garden. It’s more than just allowing our myriad dishonesties and transgressions to be cancelled out — but more about the restoration of a flawless Creation.
Convicted of Sin
For whatever reason, of the five underlying tenets of Calvinism “Total Depravity” has always been the easiest for me to remember and accept — as in the whole human race, including me, being evil and totally depraved. Is that how its supposed to be? Is the church’s focus on sin the result of the Holy Spirit’s convicting power or Satan’s propaganda infesting the noosphere, his kingdom of the air? Supposedly, the HS’s conviction leads to repentance, whereas Satan just drives us deeper into despair — and more sin.
The Spirit of Truth
Ah, but the HS’s function is not primarily to convict us of sin but to be the “Comforter” (John 16:8) and to be the Spirit of Truth and to testify about Jesus as the beloved Son of God (John 3: 19-21). It seems to me that the Accuser (Satan) is the one who convicts us of sin and he propagates this greatly thru religion. However, if the HS connects us to Jesus, then maybe it’s really the Jesus living in us who’s doing the convicting. To me, it’s all rather perplexing. But for me what’s most off-putting are those who opine on these hermeneutic issues with absolute certainty.
Repent and Repeat
Pretty much within minutes of sinning, I’ve repented — which means admitting to God I need to change, and then within the same moment been bracketed by and overwhelmed with shame. I certainly have a lot of faults (sins). Like the errant archer, I miss the bullseye all the time. Anger, purveying gossip, judging and condemning others are high on my list — and not being generous and loving enough too. But the sin which plagues and preoccupies me most is sexual sin. It has always seemed that enjoying the feeling of lust and ogling woman is far and away my most persistent sin. It’s like an old friend, and when the demon of lust is gone for more than a couple days I feel like something essential is missing in my life.
Now well into my golden years lust plagues me somewhat less. I may miss the feeling at times, but I certainly don’t miss feeling the shame that usually accompanies it. I’m frequently tormented in recollecting of all the stupid, dishonest things I’ve done in the pursuit of “love”– not genuine love but mere copulation. These are not a happy memories.
But sadly, sometimes lust is the only comforting sensation that I’ll feel in a given day. Various psychophysiological events accompany lustful thoughts that makes it difficult to extinguish them. There have been times when fantasizing about something sexual has caused a headache to ease off, and quite obviously the sensation of lust is concomitant with the propagation of endorphins, oxytocin and neurotransmitters like serotonin, GABA and dopamine.
Sexual obsession is certainly the downfall for most young males. I’m no longer young and so I’m only sexually obsessed about 20% of the time. When I was 13 or 14, it was about 90% of my waking thoughts, and throughout my adolescence and adulthood lust likely stayed in the high-70s. My generation was a product of the Playboy Magazine ethos. A total capitulation to my lustful urges was the biggest reason why at the age of thirteen I declared myself an agnostic.
Sexual sin seems to be an engine that drives many people–but especially young males– away from God. And I wonder how does this fit into the big plan — in God’s perfect economy. Did God set it up that way? Or is preoccupying us with sex and shame another trick of the devil? The paradox of sexuality was the engine which propelled a young St. Augustine into the meditations that became his Confessions.
And yet, once I get past the shame, and repent again and again it does make me humble. It gives me cause to cry out to God. And presumably that is a good thing. Is it better to cry out as a miserable sinner or to be smug in our self-anointed “purity?’
I do not have any definitive answer — but it all makes me wonder.
Paul’s focus in Romans 14 is on judging others and on eating foods that your brothers and sisters consider unclean — and then perhaps leading them astray by example. However, I think that over the years it’s meaning and intent has been extrapolated to embrace a lot of dogma. But what Paul is basically saying is that to fit in and be a better witness we should go along with the eating habits of those with whom we are dining. Then comes the bombshell in the chapter’s last verse: “And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatever is not of faith is sin.” Throughout this chapter he almost seems to be saying that if you think something’s a sin, then it is, and if you don’t think it is a sin, then it isn’t. And, broadly speaking, that appears to render some sins a subjective experience. And that is a mind bending thought.
Quite obviously, things mentioned in the Ten Commandments like murder, adultery and lying about others are sins. But what about acts not mentioned in scripture like masturbation? Is that a sin if you are convicted that it is, but not, if you’re not?
As for things not done by faith being sin, it seems as though most of my adult born-again life has been beyond the purview of faith. Maybe that’s why I’ve struggled so much. Maybe it’s not sexual sin but the lack of faith that really torments me. Scripture says it’s impossible to please God without faith. I have faith in the sense that I believe in Him, in His existence and ultimate good plan for the universe (and me). But where I get lost is my trusting Him to work out all the details. And then too I wonder if I really believe in God’s grace, in the finality of atonement of the Cross? Our past sins are covered but what about present and future ones? That’s a heated topic. Also, when we worry about the details are we impugning God’s goodness? — and God’s primary characteristic is that He is good. When Moses asks God to show him His glory what God allows Moses to see is His goodness (Exodus 33:19).
Maybe the church’s preoccupation with sexual sin is one of Satan’s tricks. For example, to the secular world Christians appear to be judgmental fools when railing against same sex marriage. Then somehow abortion becomes conflated with same sex marriage. But one sin murders millions of human lives created in God’s image and the other merely outrages some sensibilities. But Satan and the media causes them to be seen as equal.
Trust v. Lust
As for trusting God, I’m a lot better than I used to be but still quite far from where I think I ought to be. And I continue to struggle with the myriad implications of “whatever is not of faith is sin.” But as best I can figure, my major idolatrous sin is lust. And I think that Idolatry is the sin God hates most as He puts it first in the Ten. But in any event, lust is what consciously torments me, not trust.
Sin Living in Me
However, Paul seems to give us a break in Romans 7:17 when he says it’s sin living in him that causes him to do wrong. He makes sin sound like an alien intruder, a parasite, residing in our redeemed born again bodies and souls. As if in some sense we’re not dirty low down sinners but mostly just vessels. I hope so. I hope it’s sin in the hands of Satan that causes our self-loathing — and not the Holy Spirit. Hopefully, like the hymn says: “Jesus paid it all” and we don’t need to worry about ongoing judgement and punishment.
And around and around it goes in some strange recursive dance: lust begetting sin; sin begetting shame; shame begetting grace; grace begetting trust — but sin living in me begetting more lust. And so I wonder if my sin, especially my persistent sexual sin, is just some great grace generator?
I’m not saying that excuses it. It just makes me wonder.