Is "sin" still a viable way of referring to… well, sin? The term conjures up such staunch resistance in the minds of most people that I have sometimes wondered if we would better off calling it something else. Not to avoid the offense of the actual facing of sin and repenting, etc. It’s just that it sometimes seems like we never have a chance to get to that repentance point because of what people think "sin" is. I’ve sometimes wondered the same thing about the term "Christian".
But (today at least) I think we ought to keep both terms. N.T. Wright has argued in Simply Christian that "Christian" remains a good term for those who follow Jesus Christ and claim him as Lord. It requires definition, of course. I am thinking that "sin" is the same way: it’s still a good term to use. Of course it too requires definition, because of how it has gotten distorted over the years.
I won’t attempt a comprehensive definition right now, but one of my pet peeves has been how sin is so often perceived, even by Christians, as "fun", and righteousness as "boring." This is completely pervasive in our culture, and I think it stems from the idea that God is some kind of Sadist In The Sky whose main goal in life is to ruin our fun. So of course if we think that way we’re going to try to "sneak" a little sin in here and there so we don’t die of boredom. But it’s a flat-out lie that a sinful life is the "good life". Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest, has an excellent discussion of sin in his book The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective. Here are a few choice quotes:
The word “sin” means our separation from God, but also from our fellow human beings and from ourselves. Sins are fixations that prevent the energy of life, God’s love, from flowing freely…
In our [sins] death becomes concrete: they destroy our psyche, our relation to God, our interpersonal relationships, nature, and the world. That sin “brings forth death,” as the Letter of James says, is more than an image. Our lack of moderation kills animals and forests, our aggressiveness and fear has led to gigantic arsenals. The poor pay for the envy and greed of the industrialized nations with their death. In our laziness we allow all this to go on, as if it didn’t affect us.
[Sins are] the self-erected blockades that cut us off from God and hence from our own authentic potential.
If we understand sin in this way, it becomes obvious why God doesn’t want us doing it. It’s the same reason we don’t want our kids playing in the middle of a busy street, the same reason we put safety caps over every outlet in our house, the same reason we don’t allow them to drink poison, or touch fire. Obviously God warns us against sin: it’s a killer.
But there’s a stronghold in our thinking that must be dismantled: a stronghold that says sin isn’t so bad after all and I’m not really hurting anybody and no one will ever know and I deserve this and God’s just trying to ruin my fun. But when we come face to face with our sin, and we realize how disastrous it has been in our lives, when we realize how deeply we’ve wounded those around us, how severely we’ve distorted our relationships, all excuses fall away. Then repentance and "conversion", as the Catholics put it, becomes a possibility.
Sins aren’t simply the breaking of arbitrary rules, like going one mile per hour over the speed limit. It’s much more serious than that. When we sin we destroy ourselves and our loved ones and God’s world, we separate ourselves from God and neighbor, we poison the relationships that were designed to nourish us. And that’s why I think we keep the term around. It may cause resistance in some, but if in those moments a more truthful definition of sin is offered, it may just have the effect of dismantling that stronghold and allowing someone to come a step or two closer to dealing with God.