Monday, August 2, 2010

Hamartia: take 2

by John D Ramsey

These questions came to my phone this afternoon, and it was great to think through them tonight.
Thank you for responding to my question about "whats it mean not finding repentance" I was reading your blog about hamartia, my other question is do you know or have an idea what the sin unto death is in 1 John 5:16? in the same letter he says if we confess our sins or our missing the mark, and then he says if we see a brother sinning a sin not unto death, pray for him and there is sin not unto death, so what will be the nature of this sin unto death? By they way I am growing alot from your blog articals, thank you so much.  

Blog posts are compact (even some of my long-winded posts), and so sometimes the brevity of the medium means that ideas are incomplete. Blog topics are not exhaustive. My point in writing "Hamartia" was to examine the word we commonly translate as "sin" from a more accurate perspective. That is to say, sin is more a condition, than an action.

That doesn't remove man's responsibility his actions, rather it points to the source of the actions rather than on the actions alone. Because sin is a condition, a baby can be born into sin having never acted sinful. When we think of sin as a condition rather than specific sets of actions, we realize that God is most interested in our hearts.

When my oldest daughter was very little, and we would see some outlandish fashion on someone in public or on television, I would tell her, "If you never dress like that, I'll give you a dollar." Of course, it didn't take her very long before she realized she would never be able to collect. I tried to bribe her with a million dollars, but again, regardless of what I promised, she realized she would never collect because she could never (as long as she lived) attain the standard of "never" doing something. As long as she lives, there remains the possibility. In a similar way, we can never, by acts of obedience to God, undo the fact that we have been disobedient to God nor can we overcome the fact that we inherited Adam's sin. We can never attain sinlessness by our actions or lack of actions. Paul says, "All sinned and lack the glory of God." It was from this condition that we are justified by his grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

This all said, I think that in 1 John 5:16, you cannot separate the condition from the action. A literal translation from the Apostolic Bible: "If anyone should see his brother sinning a sin not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give to him life, to the ones not sinning to death." Now the John's pronouns and antecedents may need sorting out (most English translations help out adequately here), but the word "sinning" in the context indicates a continuing condition and the word "sin" indicates behavior. So in this passage, I concede that John is using the word sin (hamartia) to indicate behavior. In truth, it is difficult to separate attitude from action. In fact, the next verse John says, "Every unrighteousness is sin." Perhaps he sees the distinction between the words and drives home the point that from his perspective attitude and action are the same thing.

The hardest part of this passage, then, is inferring what John meant by a sin unto death and a sin not unto death. To answer this, I defer to James, who wrote about lust or evil desires saying, "once desire conceives it gives birth to sin, and when finished sin gives birth to death." There is an escalation from evil desire to sin and eventually to death. But James is not fatalistic about sin and death because he closes his letter saying, "Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover a multitude of sin." There is hope that someone can be turned back to the truth.

John's "sin not unto death" and "sin unto death" seem to be in agreement with James. Sin will lead to death, but there is time to turn back. It isn't that there are lists of minor and major sins. It is that sin, like a disease, progresses until it accomplishes death. Sin destroys man's relationship to God. In fact, sin always, in some capacity, supplants God in our lives. John drives this home in the last sentence of this letter, saying, "Sons, guard yourselves from idols."  Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul talks about overcoming temptation saying, “Flee idolatry.” Paul told the Colossians that greed was the same as idolatry. Sin effectively replaces God’s will with our own, and this leads us away from God and ultimately to death. The nature of sin is still attitude even when it is played out in our actions.

James talks about turning a sinner back to the truth, but John tells us how, ". . . pray, and God will give him life."

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