Most of the American culture is at odds with each other; those who consider themselves to be Christians versus those who do not. Nonbelievers resent the Christian consensus that ‘sin’ is a definable thing. Some disagree with setting boundaries around what is right or wrong while others disagree with forfeiting any of their personal authority to an outside being. Either way, the concept of ‘sin’ resides at the center of these war of wills, defenses go up, and the conversation ends.
The Christian picketer proclaims, “Forsake your sin or go to Hell.” And the nonbeliever shouts back, “Who are YOU to tell me what I should do with my life choices.” The Christian activist wins no one and the nonbeliever runs away faster. It is truly unfortunate.
I wish I could appeal to the nonbeliever’s resistance by telling him that Christianity does not require sin to be defined the same for everyone. Would that make Christianity more attractive? Yet most have been inundated for so long with the opposing message that it is hard for them to listen long enough to hear it. The Bible does not define sin the same for everyone. This is what I wish more Christians knew about our faith. It would make us more humble, approachable, and gracious.
See, our God is a God of three persons. As with any three persons, there are distinct differences. Herein lies the custom design capability of the Christian religion.
First, there is God the Father who defines when sin is the same for everyone. God the Father penned the Ten Commandments. He is the voice that resonates, “Thou Shalt Not Steal, Murder, Commit Adultery, etc.” God the Father is the Creator who designed the law of gravity, time, and aging, and bound every living thing to it. You may just as well defy His authority as you may defy needing to breathe to live. He is the author of order, of causes and their effects. He is uncompromising and permanent. But because of the trinity, neither the Christian faith nor God Himself ends in God the Father stand alone.
The second person of God is Jesus Christ who is completely human yet completely divine. As an illustration, I invite you to visualize three people in a row holding hands; God the Father on the left, Jesus in the center, and a man on the right. Jesus is the adapter, the mediator between a Holy God and a sinful man. Without Him in between there would be nothing but distance between God the Father and the man. Jesus permits there to be unity. Jesus translates God the Father’s black and white commands into a functional message that man can understand and realistically live by. Jesus’ version says,
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
In Jesus’ interpretation, where is the central focus on sin which resounds from God the Father’s proclamations? The focus on sin is gone. It has been nailed to a cross and buried in a tomb. I wonder if the Christian picketer remembers this or if he ever fully understood it. We no longer have a sin enemy to wage war against. We have the Lover of Souls to introduce to people! It’s like Jesus has loaded down our pockets with Valentine’s Day cards and has told us to give one to every child in the classroom. Everyone gets a Valentine! Everyone! The commands of thou shalt and thou shalt not have been engulfed by grace, but the reason why they originally existed has not gone away. If you are stealing, murdering, and committing adultery then you cannot be loving God ultimately and people secondarily. The what-not-to-dos are merely the how-to guide.
Loving God first and others second is a lot harder than it sounds. Why? Because that puts me in third place. It’s not always apparent how to rise above the inclination toward selfishness. Jesus personified, “I know it is hard to live life in a godly manner as if you were not human. Let me show you. Watch and listen.” He teaches us in the New Testament how to be a Good Samaritan, how to forgive seventy times seven, how to be about our Father’s business at all times. He taught us how to respect the sanctity of the church, how to seek out the needy, and how to cling to our Heavenly Father when this world is too much for us.
Jesus didn’t spend the majority of His time on Earth warning man about the consequences of sin. To Him, sin is a moot point; it won’t be an issue for those who know Him as Savior. Why do Christians spend so much energy splitting hairs about what is judged a sin rather than celebrating the victory over sin which Jesus accomplished?
God is three persons; not just God the Father who informs us what bad is, or only Jesus who shows us what good is, but also the Holy Spirit who reveals when good is bad in disguise and therefore a sin for some but not for all. Would you mind returning to the visual of God holding hands with Jesus who then holds hands with you? If God were to transfuse his blood wrist to wrist with Jesus and then Jesus wrist to wrist with you, then you would share enough of the Father’s likeness that you two could join hands and the circle could be completed. The Holy Spirit is the unifying life-force within who binds you unanimously to God, to His goodness, and His purpose for this world. He enables your mind to comprehend wisdom and your body to prevail over a sin nature which would otherwise be impure. He transforms your emotions and will, motivating you to replicate the actions of Jesus. Because you are alive through Christ, this rejuvenation is perpetual. God the Father never runs out of initiative, Jesus never runs out of love, and the Holy Spirit never runs out of conviction. They live and operate in unison accomplishing God’s will through you.
God personalizes His works. There has only been one Jonah, one Billy Graham, and one Corrie ten Boom. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, but Jonah headed to Tarshish instead. And that was a sin because He disobeyed God. But God never told me to go to Nineveh and I have not sinned because I haven’t been there.
On the other hand, I once prayed for God to show me a clear financial need which I could meet with my annual bonus money. But God didn’t make anything clear before my patience ran out, so I dropped the money off with a Christian not-for-profit organization. Guess what happened next? An obvious $2,500 need became apparent to me that no one was prepared to meet. My good deed was a sin in disguise because it was a gesture of impatience and faithlessness. God had specific intentions for that money but I stepped outside of His will and disposed of it.
Romans Chapter 14 explains how God handles these gray topics – Is this a sin? Or is it not a sin? The answers are yes, and yes, depending on how the Holy Spirit directs you to best love God first, people second, and yourself third in every situation.
“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them." (v. 1-3)
- Accept others. You will have different opinions about what are acceptable behaviors. The Holy Spirit convicts people differently for a reason, or for a season, in order to cover broad territory.
"Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died." (v. 13-15)
- Sin has been defeated; therefore nothing possesses the same condemnation that it did before Christ was crucified.
- We have a new priority. Anything is sinful which brings hurt, harm, or offense to another person.
- Therefore, always make your decisions in the best interest of the weakest person among you. For example, you don’t watch a horror movie in front of a four-year-old.
- Conviction is key. The Holy Spirit is deliberate with the intuition He places on your heart.
- If peace (the Holy Spirit’s impression on you) permits you to participate, then you are free to follow. If peace forbids you, then it would be a sin to disobey Him.
"Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” (v. 19-23)
- Everything that is not done in full confidence that your conscience will permit it, is a sin.
- The Holy Spirit calls out different requirements under different circumstances depending on who is vulnerable. Sometimes the person being most influenced is you. Sometimes there is a future pitfall which God is protecting you from by convicting you now.
- Do not belabor whether or not you have God’s permission. If there is doubt, then you don’t.
- With maturity and wisdom, your convictions may change over time. God knows when it is safe for you to experience more freedom. Walking on coals would destroy the feet of a child, but an adult with tough skin may be safe from that harm.
James 4:17 says, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (James 4:17)
See how personal the definition of sin is? It is fully contingent on the Holy Spirit’s conviction on your heart. When you know to do good, it is the Holy Spirit who has made that opportunity apparent to you. Because the leading of the Holy Spirit is a personal exchange, the sin committed by disobeying Him is a personal violation as well. You may be called to a higher requirement than your peers. Sin is not the same definition for everyone. God has made known His intentions to lead us individually.