Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Law of Sin and Death - Not a Moral Issue?

Many of us have been taught to think that Paul's phrase, "the law of sin and death", refers to spiritual separation from God as a result of an action or inaction on our part, in other words, that it's a moral issue.

(Right-click on this sentence to open the relevant passage in another tab/window so you can read the text for yourself.)

I would encourage you to rethink that. As I understand it, the term "law of sin and death" is not a "moral" law at all, but a physical law, like the law of gravity or the law of conservation of momentum. I base this on the context of the phrase as found in Romans 8:2.

In chapter seven of Romans, starting about verse 14,  Paul is speaking of his struggle to do right; although his desire is to do right, there's something in his physical body which overrides his desire, and causes him to do wrong (v. 15-19). He even goes so far as to say that it's not him that's doing the wrong, but the sin that dwells within him that causes him to do wrong (v. 20), and that he himself is powerless to do right (v. 18).

He discusses the "law of God" in his inner being (v. 22), in which he delights with the "law of his mind" (vv 22-23), and contrasts that with the "law of sin" which dwells in his members (v. 23). He says he's wretched because he's trapped in this "body of death" (v. 24), but he rejoices that God, through Jesus, allows him to serve God with the mind, even while his body obeys the "law of sin" (v 25).

Immediately after that usage of the phrase "law of sin" while referring to that something in his physical body which causes him to do what his moral mind chooses against, he uses the phrase "law of sin and death", saying that in Jesus Christ we are now free from that law (8:2).

A couple of chapters earlier, Paul distinguished between the guilt of sin, and the inheritance of sin.

Many of us have been well-trained to dispute the notion of inherited sin, but I believe that's a result of a misunderstanding of what sin is. We think that sin is only the transgression of law, and quote 1 John 3:4 as proof. Whereas that is true, that's not the only way the Bible refers to sin. As indicated above, sin is also something that physically dwells in our flesh.

Sin is both a moral action (as we've understood it), and a physical condition (which is inherent in our fallen bodies). As a moral action, sin is not inherited. As a physical condition, it is.

In Romans 5, Paul talks about how sin came into the world via Adam (v. 12). Adam's trespass was a choice to perform an action. He morally sinned. However, his action introduced into the world a physical curse. This curse included changes to the soil leading to much harder work for feeding one's self, the evolution of thorns & thistles, the devolution of the serpent, increased pain in childbirth, the loss of equality between the sexes, and eventual physical death. This curse spread to all humans (v. 12), because all sinned (v. 12).

Well, it's obvious that babies don't perform sinful actions, and yet they sometimes die. Why do they die? It's because they inherit the curse of death, which according to Paul spreads to all because all sin. Even if the person doesn't sin in the same manner as Adam (v. 14), if they don't choose to perform a sinful action like did Adam, although the guilt of sin is not imputed to them because no law has been broken (v. 13), nevertheless, they still die, because this curse reigns in our broken world, even before the arrival of Moses' law (v. 14).

So we have two definitions of sin here: 1) the condition of sin, which occurs regardless of law-breaking, and which results in death, and 2) the action of sin, which results in guilt.

The first type of sin is inherited; the second type of sin is not inherited. The first type of sin is what I believe Paul refers to when he uses the term "law of sin and death".

It is this first type of sin which Paul says is in his members, which causes him to perform the second type of sin, and which leads to death. He praises God through Jesus because he knows he will one day be set free from this law of sin and death, and not just us, in our physical bodies (8:23), but indeed, the entire cosmos (8:18-25). The cosmos was cursed when Adam sinned, but the second Adam has re-purchased the cosmos so that it may be set free from its bondage to corruption (8:21), and now we're just waiting on the delivery of the renewed creation. (Note, the creation was once "very good"; then it became cursed with death and disease and thorns and hard work and inequality; and some day it will again be restored to its original condition; this is a far cry from the evolutionary story that is often force-fitted into the Bible to accommodate modern "science".)

We're all under the "law of sin and death", not just those who are separated from God by sin. "Sin and death" is not a moral issue, but a physical issue. The "law of sin and death" does not refer to the principle that says, "If you sin, you die"; it refers to the principle of having a tangible condition within the corpuscles of our bodies which causes us to die.

At least, that's how I understand these relevant portions of Romans.

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