How do we faithfully and resonantly speak about sin?

The gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is for all people of all cultures, because to Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and earth to be the saving Lord, and so we are to make disciples of all nations!

That universal gospel must therefore also be articulated in many particular forms, corresponding to the particular languages, thought patterns, symbols and assumptions of the different peoples to whom it is proclaimed. This simultaneous Biblical faithfulness and cultural resonance is the dual challenge of contextualisation.

One of the most important claims of the gospel is that, apart from Jesus Christ, human beings are sinners in need of saving, those who have fallen short of the glory of God. And so the question is, how do we faithfully and resonantly speak about sin?

In a time when people in Australia had a widespread cultural echo of Christian truth as part of their mental furniture, speaking of sin as rebellion against God made sense. Most people believed in God, and his moral law, which you either sought to keep or rebelled against. The culture backed this way of thinking.

However, that time is long past! There is little agreement on who God is, less agreement on the moral law, and no sense at all that not living as a Christian is an act of rebellion. It's still true, of course, that sin is rebellion against God. It's just that talking that way is increasingly meaningless for people who don't even operate with those categories.

However, rebellion is not the only way that the Bible speaks about sin.

In Romans 1, arguably the Apostle Paul's most sustained and profound reflection on the nature of sin, it is sin as idolatry that is most prominent. Rather than honouring God and giving him thanks, people have suppressed the truth about God, exchanging the glory of the immortal God for the images of creation.

And then comes the really interesting move!

As Paul continues to define idolatry, he introduces a term that becomes deeply powerful for him. In Rom 1.24, Paul changes key, although he is playing the same tune about idolatry. He writes "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity." There are two crucial things to notice here. First, idolatry is now described as a condition of the heart, namely, lust. That's something of an unfortunate translation, because it makes it sound like the issue is only sexual, whereas in fact, the word is far broader than that. In the original Greek it is 'epithumia' and means 'over-desire'. The way that Paul talks about idolatry thus becomes to speak about the over-desires of the heart, the craving of the heart to find meaning, purpose, life - in other words 'salvation' - in some aspect of the creation, rather than in the creator. And second, this over-desire is the 'sin behind the sin', the sin that leads to the acts and omissions of impurity that we see all around us. In fact, when you look at just about anywhere that Paul talks about sin behaviour, he virtually always also talks about its root as being epithumia, over desire - it's everywhere!

And the point is this: over-desire is something that deeply resonates with our modern technological culture. The promise, and inevitable failure, of things and experiences and relationships, money and power and sex, to satisfy the human heart is the stuff of endless songs, movies, books, articles and blogs. The culture knows about sin! 

And so we have a great opportunity to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in a Biblically faithful and culturally resonant way at this point - to show the dynamic of the idol-structure in people's lives, which leads to death. From there, the claim of the life giving Lord Jesus Christ to offer forgiveness of sins and freedom to live can make powerful sense.