Passive Sin

I’ve been leading a study of Romans for a little over a year now (we’ve made it about half way through the eighth chapter). Reading Romans 4 pretty closely made me wonder. For years I’ve read the chapter as simply pointing to Abraham as an example of faith. Abraham has faith and is justified. Paul explicitly quotes Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Here’s the picture. Abraham discovered he was a sinner. Feeling guilty, he sought forgiveness.

We tend to associate these things with salvation – with forgiveness of sins. I wondered: What sins is Abraham accused of here that make him a necessary recipient of righteousness? Since we don’t see any in the text, we’re forced to depend on the general theory of sinfulness. Everyone is a sinner, everyone needs righteousness. Well, yes. But is that all? Paul keeps going back to talking about Seeds, and heirs and Abraham’s faith. What is Abraham described as having faith in – which promises of God did he believe? Promises regarding forgiveness of his sins? Promises about being declared righteous in the sight of God? My guess is that Abraham would have thought these good things. But curiously those are not the promises Abraham is believing. Rather, he’s believing that God will overcome his childlessness. Is it possible then, that righteousness – at least in Abraham’s case – includes a son?

This seems to connect well with Tom Wright’s claim that when Jesus preached the forgiveness of sins, his audience didn’t merely hear what we hear, i.e., “My individual sins will be forgiven” but rather a proclamation of return from Exile. Wright’s claim has been extremely controversial, but if he’s right, might it be an instance of God’s desire to deliver his people from the consequences of sin – and thus analogous to his desire to deliver all people from the consequences of sin (through faith)?

I call this sin that we need deliverance from passive sin. Unlike active sin – which includes both the traditional categories of sins of commission and sins of omission – passive sin is not connected with our own action (or non-action). We suffer from passive sin simply by living in a sinful, broken world.

Back to Abraham. What salvation – or righteousness was Abraham looking for? Eternal life? Heaven? A heart strangely warmed? As far as I can tell, all he wanted was a son. I also see no evidence that God thought this desire misguided. In fact, Abraham’s having a son was part of God’s grand plan to bring deliverance from sin – righteousness – salvation – to the whole earth. Thus considered prospectively, the birth of Isaac was a victory over sin. Could it also be seen as a victory over sin when we look backward? Can we see Abraham’s childlessness as an effect of sin in the world – sin that Abraham and Sarah were suffering the consequences of? So when God declares Abraham righteous, one of the things that comes with that is Isaac.

The notion of passive sin – sin that we suffer and need deliverance from, but don’t actually do can be hard to grasp, especially when something as painful as childlessness is associated with it. It’s easy for people to think, “Here we are in great pain and anguish, unable to have children. And you want us to believe it’s our fault because we’re sinners?”

There are several reasons that it’s tough to grasp the notion of passive sin:

  1. We’ve been taught for generations that sin, forgiveness and salvation are all about “merit” – what we deserve. As good bible protestants, we know that our problem with God is sin. We can each say, “I am a sinner, separated from God by my sin.” We also know that forgiveness is purely of grace. It’s not something we deserve (or merit). Rather, so the story is told, Jesus supplies the merit (the deserving) that we lack. Because he loves us and died for us, he’s happy to share what he’s earned (forgiveness, eternal life). We’re saved (and forgiven) not by works, but by faith.
  2. We’re taught that it’s our individual sin that is the problem. So when something is observed to be a problem (a ‘religious’ problem – or one pertaining to God stuff anyway), it’s natural to think that it’s our ‘fault.’ If we’re ok with God (i.e. a practicing and observant Christian), actively avoiding sinning (except for some little stuff here or there, or the theoretical, “Sure I’m a sinner. Everyone is.”) and yet have a problem, we are sometimes inclined to define it as a ‘non-religious’ problem, one not pertaining to God stuff. The upside of this strategy is that we don’t go through life feeling condemned, thinking all the stuff that happens to us is our fault. The down side – and I think this is a big one – is that we have an unsolvable problem of “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.”

What I’m trying to do that’s different is this:

  1. I deny the place of merit. It’s not simply that we don’t deserve forgiveness or salvation – deserving (or meriting) is completely irrelevant. It’s not even the case that we don’t merit it but Jesus does so he, after receiving what he’s earned, gives it to us. I recognize that when I say this some folks seem to hear me saying either that we aren’t sinners in need of salvation, OR that I have a low view of Jesus and his work. But I’m saying neither.
  2. I am a sinner. That’s a problem. BUT: Even if I weren’t a sinner, sin would still be a problem. Consider Jesus. The NT clearly teaches that Jesus was not a sinner. But look what sin did to him. Sin was very clearly a problem for Jesus. Sin was not a God-problem for Jesus. I don’t think sin so tainted Jesus that the Father said, “Eeeuuuuwww Yuck!” and looked away, wanting nothing further to do with the Son. While some may theorize this from Jesus’ use of Psalm 22 (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” – God forsakes Jesus [temporarily, it is stressed] because Jesus has “become sin”), I theorize that (the omniscience of the Second Person of the Trinity aside) Jesus’ experiential perception here does not accurately depict reality. That is to say, though Jesus perceives himself to be forsaken by God, this is only a matter of perception. God has not in fact forsaken him.
  3. This mistaken perception is part of the suffering of Jesus. Another term for the ‘suffering of Jesus’ is the ‘passion’ of Jesus.
  4. Passive sin is sin that we suffer. While on the cross Jesus was not suffering [from] his own sin, but [from] the sin of others. The suffering was very real.
  5. Unlike Jesus, we do suffer from our own sins. Not only do our own sins harm us directly, they also have consequences that harm us. LIKE Jesus, however, we also suffer from the sin of others. Sometimes this is clear and obvious. When Saddam Hussein persecuted and killed the Shiites and the Kurds, they suffered the consequences of his sin. That’s pretty easy to see. What may not be so easy to see is that sin (my sin, your sin, everyone’s sin – stretching back to Adam) has messed things up big time. There have been (and still are) cosmic consequences of sin. Because of sin, we live in a broken world. I realize this is a controversial claim, but by my reckoning things like hurricanes, earthquakes, cancer, heart disease, – and even childlessness – can be seen as effects of sin. We suffer the consequences of this sin even though it is not technically our sin.
  6. Why talk about passive sin? Not merely because we suffer from it, but because I believe the salvation Jesus offers is salvation from all sin. While we frequently stop with salvation from our sin – with forgiveness – Jesus’ intention is to do more. In fact, his goal is nothing more than the renewal of all creation.
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3 Responses to Passive Sin

  1. Donald W. Haynes says:

    Just came across your website. Thanks for reading my column in United Methodist Reporter! Your comments were very helpful critique.

    Where are you? Is this your parish paper or a published periodical?

    Love to hear from you,

    Grace and peace,

    Don Haynes
    North Carolina

  2. Yoel Ben David says:

    Hi there. Enjoyed your thought on this. I just wrote a paper on the same subject and I was wondering if you have done any further thinking in this direction. I am interested in its applications for mission…

  3. rheyduck says:

    I haven’t done any writing on the subject lately. I have thought about the need to simultaneously hold on to “active” sin, lest we lapse into the victim mentality so prevalent in American culture today. Holding on to both can be a challenge for folks who like to simplify into one OR the other.

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