The most important truth about sin is the one least recognized in our day. It is this: all sin is primarily sin against God. Where sin is understood as merely a moral concept rather than mainly a religious one, where it is seen primarily as a person-to-person problem rather than as primarily ‘theocentric,' motivation for fighting sin is decreased and confusion about the character of God is increased. While recognizing the ‘horizontal’ (person-to-person) nature of sin, the Bible consistently presents sin as mainly a ‘vertical’ (person-to-God) offence. My purpose in this article is to promote a God-centered understanding of sin by outlining the biblical evidence for the vertical nature of all sin and then reflecting on the manifold pastoral implications of this view. If we are to understand the seriousness of sin and to help ourselves and others think about and fight sin the way we ought to, we must have this God-centered view of sin.
1. The vertical direction of all sin
The claim that sin is mainly a vertical problem is emphatically not the view of our culture. On the contrary, a lack of reference to God when thinking about sin is evident everywhere. Two recent books illustrate this reality. In Morality Without God?, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, a professor of philosophy and legal studies at Dartmouth College, argues that morality has nothing essentially to do with God or religion. We can justifiably hold that there is such a thing as objective morality, and we can determine right and wrong, with no reference to God. The entire project of Sinnott-Armstrong’s book is to divorce morality from God: according to Sinnott-Armstrong, objective morality exists, but God does not. Joseph Epstein’s witty and learned book Envy is also symptomatic of the problem I’m highlighting. Although the book is packed with helpful insights into the sin of envy, not once does Epstein talk about envy as having any kind of vertical component, as having anything to do with God. He treats envy purely from a horizontal perspective, dealing solely with the way it affects our relationships with other people. Therefore, whatever Epstein’s religious beliefs (he implies in the book that he is not ‘in a state of full religious belief’), his book does in practice what Sinnott-Armstrong’s book argues for programmatically. Morality and immorality are understood in both books without reference to God.
Sinnott-Armstrong and Epstein, together with many other people (including many Christians) are living in a kind of moral/ethical ‘Flatland,' with a two-dimensional view of sin. On this view, sin is something you do to another person or something another person does to you. Granted, most Christians recognize that some sins are sins against God, but the sins they think of as falling into this category are usually those aimed directly at injuring God, such as the worship of other gods, idolatry, or taking the Lord’s name in vain. Of course, breaking the first three commandments is sinning against God. But so is breaking any of the Ten Commandments and so are the many sins not mentioned in the Decalogue. The Bible suggests that all sin is sin against God, even when we’re not consciously trying to offend God by our sin; even when, in the moment of our sin, God is the very last one on our minds. In order to present the biblical evidence for the vertical direction of all sin, I will focus on three seemingly horizontal sins: adultery, envy, and despising those less fortunate than ourselves.
The vertical direction of adultery
According to the Bible, adultery is primarily a sin against God. In the course of Abraham’s travels, he twice did a despicable and cowardly thing. Because he was afraid the kings of the countries he was visiting would kill him and take his wife, he told them Sarah was his sister. Consequently, Abimelech, the king of Gerar, took Sarah in order to make her his wife. But God came to Abimelech in a dream and told him that if he slept with Sarah he would die because Sarah was another man’s wife. Abimelech protested his innocence to God and God agreed that he was in fact innocent: ‘Then God said to [Abimelech] in the dream, „Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her”‘ (Genesis 20.6). According to God, if Abimelech committed adultery with Sarah he would be sinning against God. Other passages offer the same God-centered perspective on the sin of adultery. When the wife of the Egyptian Potiphar tried to seduce Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph, he refused and said, ‘How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?’ (Genesis 39.9). According to Joseph, sleeping with his master’s wife would be sinning against God.
King David evidently shared this view. After committing adultery with Bathsheba and ensuring that Bathsheba’s husband Uriah was killed in battle, he wrote Psalm 51. In this Psalm, David cries out to God: ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight’ (Psalm 51.4). For hundreds of years, careful readers of Psalm 51 have been amazed by David’s claim that he sinned only against God. What about Bathsheba? What about Uriah her husband? Surely David sinned against them? Of course he did. David’s selfish pursuit of sexual pleasure and emotional intimacy with another man’s wife was clearly a sin against Bathsheba’s husband Uriah, and against Bathsheba’s parents, and against Bathsheba herself. We know Paul would have thought so, because he said that the command to love other people ‘sums up’ the command not to commit adultery (Romans 13.9). When David says he has sinned ‘only’ against God, he means that by far the greatest offense has been against God. Consequently, all other offenses pale in comparison. Charles Spurgeon saw this clearly: ‘The virus of sin lies in its opposition to God: the Psalmist’s sense of sin towards others rather tended to increase the force of his feeling of sin against God. All his wrong-doing centred, culminated, and came to a climax, at the foot of the divine throne.'
How did David arrive at this God-centered understanding of his sin? He seems to have learned it from God himself, through Nathan the prophet. In 2 Samuel 12, God sends Nathan to confront David for his sins of murder and adultery. Nathan’s message is clearly that David has sinned against Uriah by killing him and taking his wife. But the main thrust of God’s message through Nathan is that David has sinned against God. God says: ‘Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?’ (2 Samuel 12.9). And God says: ‘Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ (2 Samuel 12.10). Nathan says: ‘Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die’ (2 Samuel 12.14). David clearly gets the message. He responds: ‘I have sinned against the Lord’ (2 Samuel 12.13).
The vertical direction of envy
I choose to focus on envy here because (as noted above) Joseph Epstein totally ignores the vertical dimension of envy in his book on the subject. The Old Testament book of Numbers tells the story of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, who rebel against Moses as the people of Israel journey through the wilderness (Numbers 16). These three, and at least 250 others, assemble against Moses and Aaron and take exception to the fact that Moses and Aaron have exalted themselves over the rest of Israel by being the only ones (together with Aaron’s priestly sons) who can minister in the tabernacle as priests. As Levites, those who are rebelling want to do more than serve in the tabernacle. They want to be priests. Their sin is envy (cf. Psalm 106.16). They want what Moses and Aaron have. And their case is clearly against Moses and Aaron; the story in fact states that, ‘they assembled themselves against Moses and against Aaron’ (Numbers 16.3).
But that is not how Moses sees it. Moses sees their challenge as being primarily against God: ‘Therefore it is against the Lord that you and all your company have gathered together. What is Aaron that you grumble against him?’ (Numbers 16.11). Later, the daughters of Zelophehad remember Korah’s sin as a gathering together of the people ‘against the Lord’ (Numbers 27.3). Moses remembers the sin of Dathan and Abiram as contending not only against Moses and Aaron, but ‘against the Lord’ (Numbers 26.9). This story therefore demonstrates that the sin of envy is not merely sin against another person. That is the way we tend to think of it, as purely horizontal. But the Bible suggests that envy is most basically sin against God.
The vertical direction of despising the less fortunate
A third example of the vertical nature of sins we normally consider ‘horizontal’ comes from Proverbs. Proverbs 14.31 says: ‘Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.’ Proverbs 17.5 says: ‘Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker; he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished.’ Leviticus 6.1-3 suggests, similarly, that deceiving one’s neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or robbing one’s neighbor, or oppressing one’s neighbor, or finding the lost property of one’s neighbor and then lying about it, constitutes a ‘breach of faith against the Lord.’
The vertical direction of other sins
Throughout the Bible, we learn of many other sins that from a human-centered perspective are purely horizontal but from a God-centered perspective have a mainly vertical direction. Dishonoring and deserting one’s parents and living a debauched life is sinning against God (Luke 15.18, 21). Lying to other people is sinning against God (Acts 5.3-4). The many sins of Sodom, among which were both sexual sins (Genesis 19.5) and economic sins (Ezekiel 16.49-50), were sins against the Lord (Genesis 13.13). Undue fear of other people or circumstances is sin against God, as is presumptuous activity that moves forward without God’s blessing (Deuteronomy 1.26-46, esp. 1.41 and 1.43). Grumbling against God’s appointed leaders is in fact grumbling against God himself. Child sacrifice is a sin against God (Leviticus 20.1-5). Slander and deceit are sins against God (Psalm 50.17-22). Covetousness is sin against God (Ephesians 5.5; Colossians 3.5). Sins that fracture the Christian community, such as unaddressed anger, corrupting talk, and bitterness, are sins against God (Ephesians 4.30). Persecuting Christians is a sin against Jesus (Acts 9.4-5), as is a failure to love and serve Christians (Matthew 25.41-46).
2. The reason all sin is sin against God
This raises an important question: why is all sin in fact sin against God? There are many reasons. I’ll offer four. Sin against others offends God because he is their creator and values them, because he is your creator and has instructed you how to live, and because all sin calls God’s character into question. Finally, sin against God’s people offends God because God has redeemed them and they belong to him and are united to him.
God is their creator
First, sin against others offends God because he is their creator. This truth is clearly indicated in Proverbs 14.31, which claims that oppressing a poor man insults his ‘Maker.’ Hurting another person offends and insults God because God made that person and values them. They bear his image. An offense against the creature is therefore an offense against the loving creator, just as a great sculptor is deeply offended if someone defaces or destroys his favorite creation. Proverbs 17.5 repeats this claim; mocking the poor entails insulting ‘his Maker.' Again in this verse, God is identified as the maker of the poor, who bears his image no less than the rich. As Cornelius Plantinga has said, ‘Sin offends God not only because it bereaves or assaults God directly, as in impiety or blasphemy, but also because it bereaves and assaults what God has made.' It is encouraging to see recent evangelical works on ethics that recognize the Godward direction of sin. Walter Kaiser rightly claims that murder is a crime not just against another person but also against God: ‘Murder, then, amounted to the shooting, mugging, or slaughtering of God himself in effigy. Murder is so serious because it is a crime against the majesty of the divine image in each individual. No matter how disgraced or debauched a person may appear, they are not to be equated with disposable litter or seen simply as disheveled wretches of humanity; they are still made in the image of God and carry enormous intrinsic potential and significance.'
The Godward direction of sin includes not only harming the creature but also overly valuing the creature. Why does Paul, in Ephesians 5.5, equate the ‘horizontal’ sin of covetousness (likely to be understood as sexual greed) with the ‘vertical’ sin of idolatry? Because sexual lust, like other kinds of overwhelming desire (e.g. lust for money or power), ‘…places self-gratification or another person at the centre of one’s existence, and thus is the worship of the creature rather than the Creator…'
God is your creator
Sin against others also offends God because God is your creator. Sin inhibits our ability to display God’s image as we were designed by God to do. Moreover, the biblical doctrine of God as creator teaches that God continues to sustain his creation and hold it in existence. In sinning, we misuse and abuse the existence God has given us and in which he sustains us moment by moment. C.S. Lewis expressed these truths clearly: ‘…indeed the only way in which I can make real to myself what theology teaches about the heinousness of sin is to remember that every sin is the distortion of an energy breathed into us – an energy which, if not thus distorted, would have blossomed into one of those holy acts whereof „God did it” and „I did it” are both true descriptions. We poison the wine as He decants it into us; murder a melody He would play with us as the instrument. We caricature the self-portrait He would paint. Hence all sin, whatever else it is, is sacrilege.'
As our creator, God has established rules for how we are to interact with our fellow human beings. When we resist those rules, we resist his authority as creator. Therefore, sin offends God. Note that the phrase ‘I am the Lord’ is repeatedly inserted into the legislation about sexual relations in Leviticus 18.1-30. The implication of this repeated phrase is that sexual sin involves God. He is the one who gave the commands and told his people how he wanted them to live (18.4-5, 30).
I cited Leviticus 6.1-3 above. This passage claims that deceiving your neighbor financially or robbing your neighbor or pretending his lost property is your property is actually a breach of faith against the Lord. Why is this the case? We’re given the answer just a few verses earlier in Leviticus. Leviticus 5.17 says: ‘If anyone sins, doing any of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done…’ The reason our sins involve God is that sin is a violation of his commandments. He has told us how to live, and we have disobeyed him. If a father tells his little boy not to throw stones at the cat, and the little boy nonetheless throws stones at the cat, the boy’s actions have caused a rift in his relationship with the cat and with his father. In fact, he has sinned against his father even if his aim is bad and he misses the cat.
The same is true with Israel’s sin of fear in Deuteronomy 1.26-46. Israel’s fear of the inhabitants of Canaan is sin against God because it involves disobedience to the command of God (1.26, 41), the casting of aspersions on God’s character (1.27), and failure to trust God (1.32). Moses explains that Israel’s refusal to enter the land was rebellion against the commandment of the Lord and a lack of trust in him. The Godward direction of Israel’s fear is manifest in Deuteronomy 9.24: ‘You have been rebellious against the Lord from the day that I knew you.'
Sin calls God’s character into question
Sin against others offends God because sin is always saying to God that we know better than he how to make ourselves happy. For this reason, sin inevitably calls the truthfulness of God’s plan and promises, and the goodness of his character, into question. It says to God: ‘You’re a liar.’ Therefore sin, in the words of Proverbs 17.5, ‘insults’ God. The case of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram in Numbers 16 illustrates this. In Numbers 16.8-10, Moses explains that Korah’s challenge to Moses and Aaron was in fact a challenging of God himself because it was God, not Moses, who appointed the Levites to their task of serving in the tabernacle and Aaron and his sons to be priests. Therefore, for Korah and the others to assert themselves against Moses and Aaron is to challenge God’s wisdom in placing each person where he wants them. Their challenge against Moses and Aaron is therefore sin against God. In envying Moses and Aaron, they are essentially saying to God, ‘Your allotment of responsibility is deficient. You should have given us more responsibility.’ Consequently, it is God, not Moses or Aaron, who destroys these men and their households by causing the earth to split beneath their feet (Numbers 16.31-35).
Whenever we envy a person who has better looks or a bigger brain than we do, we are saying to God (whether we mean to or not), ‘You should have made me different.’ We are essentially putting ourselves in the place of God, and this is the very heart of sin. All complaining, in fact, moves in this deadly direction. In The Art of Divine Contentment, the Puritan Thomas Watson claims that, ‘murmuring is rising up against God, for thou settest thyself up against God, as though you were wiser than he.' In his sermon on Job 1.21, John Calvin said,
‘As soon as God does not send what we have desired, we dispute against Him, we bring suit, not that we appear to do this, but our manner shows that this is nevertheless our intent. We consider every blow, ‘And why has this happened?’ But from what spirit is this pronounced? From a poisoned heart; as if we said, „The thing should have been otherwise, I see no reason for this.” Meanwhile God will be condemned among us. This is how men exasperate themselves. And in this what do they do? It is as if they accused God of being a tyrant or a hairbrain who asked only to put everything in confusion. Such horrible blasphemy blows out of the mouths of men.'
This is dangerous ground upon which to tread. Isaiah 45.9 pronounces woe upon the one who ‘strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots!' The connection between envy and questioning God’s wisdom and character explains why David’s solution to the sin of envying wrongdoers (Psalm 37.1) is to call for trust and delight in the Lord (Psalm 37.3-4). Trusting in God’s wisdom and provision punctures the power of the sin of envy.
God has redeemed his people
Finally, sin against Christians is sin against God because God has redeemed his people. This reality undergirds Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 8-10. In 1 Corinthians 8.11-13, Paul addresses the issue of whether the Corinthian Christians may eat food offered to idols in the idol temples. Before absolutely prohibiting feasting in temples (which he does in 10.14-22) Paul first focuses on a crucial reason not to eat idol meat in idol temples. One should refrain for the sake of one’s brother, in order not to make him sin against his conscience by doing what he believes to be the wrong thing. Paul says that if this ‘weak’ brother does what he believes is wrong, he is ‘destroyed.’ Importantly, Paul describes this brother as one ‘for whom Christ died’ (8.11). Paul then establishes the seriousness of causing one’s brother to stumble: ‘Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ’ (8.12). This vertical direction of the sin convinces Paul to forgo his own rights for the sake of his brother: ‘Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble’ (8.13).
3. Why a God-centered perspective on sin is so important
The reason it is crucial to have a God-centered perspective on sin is that we’re in a tough fight against a wily enemy. Satan deceives us (John 8.44), sin deceives us (Hebrews 3.13), and we deceive ourselves (Jeremiah 17.9; Ephesians 4.22). In one meeting with a couple who had recently begun attending our church, it became clear that, despite their emphasis that they loved God’s Word and were hungry for robust biblical preaching and teaching, they were unmarried and living together. There was obviously a serious disconnect occurring here between belief and practice: sin was deceiving them and they were deceiving themselves. The measure of sin’s deceitfulness is its power to produce these strange blind spots and juxtapositions in our lives and unfortunately, examples abound. A young John McCain bravely endures many years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, returns home as a war hero, and begins a series of extramarital affairs. The intrepid, trustworthy, larger-than-life Sir Ernest Shackelton carries on an extramarital affair over a long period of time. The Bible is full of stories of men and women with equally terrible blind spots, and if we take a long, honest look at ourselves we will find them in our own lives. We live with these juxtapositions because sin deceives us and we swallow the lie. John Owen wisely said, ‘Without sincerity and diligence in a universality of obedience, there is no mortification of any one perplexing lust to be obtained.'
Like all lies, sin multiplies at an alarming rate, one sin quickly leading to another. Sin rarely travels alone; it prefers to travel in packs. For example, adultery almost always requires deceiving one’s partner. Frank Pittman is onto something when he claims that: ‘The infidelity [of an affair] is not in the sex, necessarily, but in the secrecy. It isn’t whom you lie with. It’s whom you lie to.' Well, of course the infidelity is in both whom you lie with and whom you lie to. The point is, they go together. One leads to the other. Our enemy (sin) is devious and fast-growing. Therefore, we must know it well. We must have a God-centered view of it. If we really grasp this perspective, it will help us enormously. Here are the some of the ways a God-centered view of sin will help us.
A God-centered perspective on sin reveals sin’s lies
We sin more readily against people when we believe they have no chance of repaying our wrongs. One of the (many) reasons it is tempting to be rude toward telemarketers and bad drivers in traffic is that we will likely never see them again. Hence, we’re almost invariably more impatient and less forgiving toward such people, because we believe they can’t pay us back. This deeply mistaken position is revealed for the lie it is by the truth that all sin is sin against God. Because all sin, including so-called ‘horizontal’ sins, has a Godward direction, there is no sin that God does not care about. Every sin must be paid for, either at the cross by Jesus, or in eternity by the sinner. God demands it. When I was a boy my brothers and I put burrs into the hair of the little girl who lived next door. We thought that was very funny, because she couldn’t get back at us. But when she went home and told her mom, who got angry and called our parents, the situation quickly escalated from funny to serious. We will do well to remember that sin angers God and provokes the vengeance of Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 1.8). God has no further preparations to make for the final judgment; he is ‘ready’ to judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4.5).
We’re also more tempted to commit certain sins when we believe they are relatively trivial and insignificant. A white lie is just white. A little cheating on the exam is just a tiny thing. When we come to see that all sin, including the so-called ‘little’ sins, have a Godward direction, we realize that even these sins are actually sins ‘of the deepest dye.' J.I. Packer says, ‘there are no small sins against a great God.' Truly embracing this God-centered perspective will have transformative effects upon our marriages. It will motivate us to wage war against the sins with which we once were willing to make peace. The seventeenth century English pastor John Flavel imagined the voice of temptation as saying: ‘It’s only a small matter, a trifle. Who else would worry about such a trivial thing?’ Flavel suggested what the believer should say in response: ‘Is the majesty of heaven a small matter too? If I commit this sin, I will offend and wrong a great God. Is there any little hell to torment little sinners? Great wrath awaits those the world thinks are little sinners.'
We are also more likely to commit a sin when we believe it will not harm anyone. Envy is a particularly good example of this. Who does envy harm, particularly if you don’t even tell the person you envy that you envy them? And suppose I envy some famous person I will never meet? Where’s the harm in that? Without an understanding of the Godward direction of sin, the resultant harm of such a sin appears minimal or even non-existent. But understanding sin from a God-centered perspective sheds light on this issue by opening our eyes to the reality that all sin grieves God (Ephesians 4.30). Ed Welch writes from this God-centered perspective: ‘Even if our sin does not seem to be hurting another human being, it is still sin. If sin was reduced to hurting others, then we could become morally perfect by isolating ourselves from all people. Sin, however, is not primarily a human-against-human action. It is human-against-God.' The implication of this perspective is that there is no ‘harmless’ sin.
Finally, we are more likely to commit a sin if we are not even aware it is a sin. Unless we understand sin with a view toward how it affects God, we will be deluded into thinking that some sins are not really sinful. Living all of life consciously before God opens up whole new areas that we come to see as no longer value-neutral but rather as matters of holiness or sin. To take two quite distinct examples, we might reflect upon self-harm and time management. The implications of viewing morality from a purely horizontal perspective are seen in the work of Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, who (as I noted above) has written an entire book arguing for objective morality without God. This position has important implications for Sinnott-Armstrong’s understanding of self-harm. He claims it is irrational, not immoral, to cause harm to oneself without an adequate reason. Suicide, for example, is merely irrational. It seems to me that this claim can only be true within a worldview that fails to take the presence of God and his ownership of our persons into account. Writing from within the Christian tradition, Aquinas taught that suicide is not just a failure of one’s duty to self and community, but also a failure of one’s duty to God. When we understand that we are the work of a creator God and that we have a responsibility to the God who has redeemed and indwelt us (1 Corinthians 6.19-20), self-harm is rightly seen as sin against God.
How we choose to use our time is not (as it is perceived in the secular time management books) a value-neutral discussion that boils down to being more productive or less productive. That is only the case if we see our time and how we use it in purely horizontal terms. But when we see time as a gift given to us by God and understand ourselves as responsible to God for how we use it, we come to understand time management as a matter of sin or righteousness. In The Preciousness of Time and the Importance of Redeeming It, Jonathan Edwards manifests a profoundly God-centered view of time management, pressing upon his readers the truth that we are accountable to God for our time and will need to give an account for our poor use of it. Edwards’ vertical perspective is totally missing from most modern discussions of time management. As Walter Henegar notes, procrastination is acceptable in our culture, viewed sometimes even as an endearing personality quirk. C.J. Mahaney nicely summarizes the discovery Henegar came to as he analyzed his own strong propensity toward procrastination: ‘What Mr. Henegar discovered was the simple truth that underlying our procrastination – putting off the most important duties we are called to accomplish – was not so much a busy schedule but a sinful heart.' Procrastination, seen in its vertical dimension, is not just a ‘bad habit’ or a lack of productivity, but rather a sin against God himself.
A God-centered perspective gives us the proper motivation for fighting sin
Why do we fight sin? Sometimes simply because we hate its consequences, or because we’re ashamed of the stigma attached to it, or because we want to experience the thrill of victory in conquering it. These are inadequate reasons. Realizing that all sin is sin against God helps us to fight sin for the right reason – because we know it hurts God, and that is the last thing we want. Jerry Bridges says it well when he explains that our problem ‘is that our attitude towards sin is more self-centered than God-centered. We are more concerned about our own „victory” over sin than we are about the fact that our sins grieve the heart of God.'
A God-centered perspective on sin shows the gospel to be sensible and sweet
The way we view sin is a gospel issue. Thomas Watson wrote, ‘Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.' If we think of sin as merely a horizontal problem, we may begin to believe that our sin is small and our virtue is sizable, and that therefore we’re just about good enough for heaven and not quite bad enough for hell. Realizing the vertical nature of sin disabuses us of that notion because it reveals to us the catastrophic seriousness of sin. The more bitter our sin becomes to us, the more sweet will be the gospel.
If sins are merely horizontal, the gospel is not only less sweet – it is not even sensible. The gospel is the good news that God freely rescues us from eternal punishment and destines us for eternal life in his presence, in a new heavens and new earth. But the biblical doctrine of an eternal hell makes no sense if sin is merely a human-to-human offense. Clark Pinnock offers the following objection to the doctrine of eternal punishment: ‘It just does not make sense to say that a God of love will torture people forever for sins done in the context of a finite life.' Pinnock would be correct concerning the injustice of a punishment that lasts ‘forever’ for sins committed in a ‘finite’ life, except for the fact that each of these sins offend an infinitely precious God. The seriousness of sin is a function of the worth and value of the one who is sinned against. Because all sin is against God, all sin is infinitely serious. For this reason, hell is just.
A few years ago, my wife and I visited one of Berlin’s most famous art museums. Failing to notice a line on the floor that ran around the perimeter of each room about two feet from the wall, I enjoyed getting close up to the paintings, observing how the paint had been applied and studying the brush strokes. As I stood a few inches from one of the paintings, I had one of those sudden, crazy impulses one sometimes get in art museums: what would happen if I raised my elbow and drove my elbow straight through the painting? Thankfully, I resisted the impulse! Eventually one of the museum attendants pointed to the line on the floor and told me I had to stand behind it. The paintings were so valuable that they didn’t want me to get within two feet of them, let alone put my elbow through one.
The penalty for destroying a Bruegel or a Rembrandt or a Monet at this art gallery is greater than the penalty for destroying a postcard of the same painting being sold in the museum shop. Suppose I jab a scissors through a Rembrandt. I may be physically tackled by the attendant and I will surely face months of litigation, a significant financial penalty, and perhaps time in prison. But now suppose I jab a scissors through the postcard of the same painting in the museum gift shop. I will almost certainly not be tackled (unless the gift shop attendant is overly zealous). Rather, I will owe a couple Euro to the shop and I may not be welcome there anymore. Why the drastic difference in penalties? It’s the same painting. The difference is that the original is more valuable than a postcard of the original. The seriousness of an offense is related to the worth of the one (or the thing) offended. In most societies around the world, the penalty for damaging a flower is less than that for cruelty to animals. And the penalty for cruelty to animals is less than that for child abuse. Why? Because a puppy is more valuable than a flower, and a baby is more valuable than a puppy. In fact, the penalty for injuring a human being is greater than the penalty for killing a flower because human beings are considered so much more valuable than flowers.
Humans are in serious trouble because we have offended God, and there is no being in the universe more valuable than God. In the terms of our analogy, we have pierced not the postcard but the painting. God is a being who is valuable in every way. He is the most valuable being in the universe. And God is the one whom humans have offended. That is why our sin against him is so desperately serious. This was all seen and said by Jonathan Edwards in his remarkable sermon, ‘The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners.' Edwards has nuanced my view of why sin against God is infinitely serious by introducing the important concept of obligation. According to Edwards, ‘The crime of one being despising and casting contempt on another, is proportionably more or less heinous, as he was under greater or less obligations to obey him.’ The degree of obligation toward a being is in turn proportionate to that being’s ‘loveliness, honorableness, and authority.’ God is infinitely lovely, infinitely excellent, infinitely beautiful. Therefore, I owe him total allegiance. Therefore, sin against him is infinitely evil and deserving of infinite punishment. In the course of the sermon, Edwards applies the truth that, ‘It is just that God eternally cast off and destroy sinners’ in order to produce conviction in his hearers. But at the end of his sermon he briefly addresses the ‘godly.’ They should see afresh the ‘freeness and wonderfulness of the grace of God towards them.' This should lead to praise of God and to humility: ‘You shall never open your mouth in boasting, or self-justification; but lie the lower before God for his mercy to you.’
The truth of the Godward direction of sin, in other words, makes the gospel both sensible and sweet. This truth should stagger us all over again with the grace of God in our lives. When we realize the greatness of our sin, the fact that we deserve eternal punishment and separation from God in hell, we come to see the glory of the gospel, the declaration that God offers us free pardon. We enter into relationship with him through no merit of our own. Instead of hell, we get heaven. David Wells says this forcefully and beautifully in The Courage to Be Protestant:
‘Without the holiness of God, sin has no meaning and grace has no point. God’s holiness gives to the one its definition and to the other its greatness. Without the holiness of God, sin is merely human failure, but not failure before God….Without the holiness of God, grace is no longer grace because it does not arise from the dark clouds of his judgment that covered the cross. Without God’s holiness, grace would be nothing more than sentimental benevolence. It is this holiness that shows the graciousness of grace, its character as unmerited, because it also shows us the offensiveness of sin.'
4. Conclusion: the hope offered by a God-centered perspective on sin
The realization that all our sin is chiefly sin against God is both sobering and hope-giving. It is sobering because, as we have seen, it means there are no ‘small’ sins. All sin is sin against God and therefore infinitely serious. But it is also hope-giving, because God is merciful. This is the positive side to our sinning against God. When offered a choice, David chose to fall into the merciful hand of God rather than the hands of men (2 Samuel 24.14). The reason God has mercy on his people is precisely because he is God and not a man (Hosea 11.8-9).
I pointed above to 2 Samuel 12, where Nathan confronts David with the Godward direction of his sins of murder and adultery. There is a poignant moment at the very end of their exchange. David recognizes the vertical dimension of his sin: ‘David said to Nathan, „I have sinned against the Lord”‘ (2 Samuel 12.13). Nathan then responds to David with an assurance of the remarkable mercy of the Lord: ‘And Nathan said to David, „The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die”‘ (2 Samuel 12.13). The God we offend is the very God who forgives. A significant part of developing a God-centered understanding of sin is relating to God as the one who forgives our sin and helps us battle against it. William Arnot has seen this clearly: ‘The difference between an unconverted and a converted man is not that one has sins and the other has none; but that the one takes part with his cherished sins against a dreaded God, and the other takes part with a reconciled God against his hated sins.'
Sin, as Jonathan Edwards observed, is like a sickness of the eyes that confuses us as to the true colors of things, or like a sickness that affects our ability to taste, so that we can’t distinguish good, wholesome food from bad food. Sin ruins our ability to discern spiritual things. Consequently, in our fight against sin, we must shine the clear light of biblical truth upon both it and ourselves. Truly understanding our enemy is an important step in winning victory over it. I hope this article will be useful as one part of the process of understanding and battling the enemy. The gospel fruit of a God-centered perspective on sin should be not dismay but rather delight in the finished work of Christ and greater determination in the battle against sin. Soren Kierkegaard once prayed: ‘Father in heaven! Hold not our sins up against us but hold us up against our sins, so that the thought of thee, when it wakens, should not remind us of what we have committed but of what thou didst forgive, not of how we went astray but of how thou didst save us!'
Stephen Witmer (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) has lectured in New Testament at the University of Cambridge and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is now the pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts. He has written Divine Instruction in Early Christianity (2008) and has published articles in several journals, including New Testament Studies, Novum Testamentum, and Themelios.
A God-Centered Understanding of Sin
Article by Stephen Witmer June 2010