Lesson 8: Sin in Paul

Not everyone agrees, but I think a terribly significant change takes place with Paul. He transforms the common story when he moves from a Hebraic to a universal vision. Previously it was the Exodus which remembered the Jews were slaves whom God rescued. Now it became the Cross when we all were helpless, sinners, and even enemies whom God in Christ saved (Romans 5: 6-11). He also altered the response from actions which care for those who are presently in need to faith active in love for all people, including our enemies. And, of course, in doing all this he changed the way we look at sin.
He not only captures the spirit of the entire history of salvation which proclaims God’s love rescues us from the suffering caused by humanity’s sin; he also paints a response which enables our faith to address situations millennia later. He describes it as being so caught up in Christ’s Spirit that we can not help ourselves. It is like falling in love. God so overwhelms us that we who were once slaves to sin are now slaves to righteousness (Romans 6: 20-23). Just as God’s Word gave life in creation, so the words of the Gospel make us new people. We are freed, nothing is unclean, all is lawful, although not everything is beneficial (I Corinthians 10: 23-30).

Paul calls the Spirit love. He writes, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given us” (Romans 5:5). Love is to imitate Christ, always returning good for evil. In the Christian community this means working for the common good by sharing the gifts God has granted and not always insisting on our own ways (Philippians 2: 1-15, I Corinthians 13). Paul believes this means constantly compensating for weaker members (Romans 14: 13-15:1).

Sin then is refusing God’s love for ourselves or placing stumbling blocks in the way of others receiving it (Romans 14: 13). It is also failure to love other people. Paul emphasizes this aspect by changing the Great Commandment. In the Old Testament it was to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul. Jesus added “and love your neighbor as yourself”. Now Paul reduces it to simply “love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5: 13,14, Romans 13: 8-10).

Christ’s life has become the standard for judging ones life. Because all fall short of his glory (Romans 3: 23), Christian individuals experience internal conflict that culminates in a confession acknowledging they do not do the good they want, but the evil they do not want (Romans 7: 14-24).
Paul’s fundamental message is helpful in defining modern sin. However, I find it disingenuous, if not dishonest, to pretend his definitions of particular 1st century sins can be totally applied to our 21st situation. That is to ignore the historical development which the Bible continually reports. It refuses to follow the Spirit into new understandings of love. You can appreciate the problem when modern science turns Paul’s argument against homosexuality against itself by showing it can involve a genetic condition. If that is so, neither Paul nor we can claim it is obviously against nature. (Romans 1: 18- 32).

Here are the questions Paul leaves me: 1) Is sin simply our confession that we have not done enough in Christianity’s continuing revolution against oppression? Does that become especially evident when we remember Christ Jesus’ life? 2) How far can we go in claiming “everything is lawful”? Does Paul really mean the old law is useless except for convicting us of sin?

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