Why Sin Goes Beyond Rule-Breaking
Sit up straight, eat your vegetables, do your homework, use ten sources for your paper. Don’t smoke, don’t swear, don’t text and drive, don’t plagiarize.
Rules – some people view them as providing reassuring order and stability, and others see them as creating stifling restrictions. In reality, rules play a necessary role in essentially every area of life, but they also possess inherent limitations.
One of the biggest limitations regarding rules derives from their inability to cover adequately any area of significant complexity. For example, a marriage relationship cannot be reduced to a list of rules. A second major limitation relates to the first. An excessive focus on rules can cause them to become an end in themselves, drawing attention away from the bigger picture they were intended to serve. Think of some of Jesus’ charges against the Pharisees, such as tithing herbs to the neglect of weightier matters of the law, or dedicating something to God and thus neglecting to care for their parents.
The Bible contains many rules, of course, and not just in the Old Testament. The most common word for these rules in the Old Testament is torah, normally translated “law,” but more literally meaning “instruction.” Both testaments contain plenty of instruction, most notably due to the perspective found in the following proverb:
There is a way that appears to be right,
but in the end it leads to death.
Due to this deficiency, the Old Testament praises the law highly, sometimes even effusively (see, for example, Psalm 19; 119; Deuteronomy 1-11). Both Jesus and Paul, despite their legitimate conflicts with the Pharisees over the law, make it clear that the law is good when approached properly.
These general observations about rules serve to introduce an exploration of the meaning and nature of sin in the Bible. The common tendency to reduce sin to the violation of rules can trivialize the biblical notion of sin. In addition, it distorts our understanding of how we combat sin in our lives and in the world.
I plan to explore the more substantive aspects of sin according to the Bible, with a goal of understanding better the roots of the human “problem,” as well as the path by which we draw closer to God’s will for our lives.