Some believers think all sins are primarily sins against God. Stephen Witmer makes that very statement:
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.
I cannot agree with the assumption that sin is primarily sin against God. Nor can I agree that understanding sin as a person-to-person problem decreases motivation for fighting sin or increases confusion about the character of God.
Offenses against others are offenses against the Father in one sense: the Father does not wish us to experience this pain and alienation; he does not want people to be hurt. But he cares equally for the offended and the offender. So, absent our offenses against others, all offense against the Father disappears.
I have three major objections to the view that sins are sins against God:
- It promotes a legalism of following religious rules
- It ignores the weight of sins we commit against each other
- It casts God as a thin-skinned, egotistical entity
When I was growing up, all the preachers I knew preached hard against sin. They constantly badgered their audiences and warned them of terrible coming judgment against their sinful behavior. But they were mistaken about what sin is; they thought sin was breaking religious rules, but it is really our hurting people and causing pain, suffering, and alienation.
Sometimes our offenses in hurting others are very clear, such as murder, theft, and sexual assault. These acts are illegal in every society because society cannot exist without controls against them. But many of our offenses against others are not so clear: salesmen taking advantage of buyers; employers squeezing workers for extra profit; church members gossiping. These are also offenses because they cause pain and suffering.
I submit that anything we do that diminishes, exploits, or disadvantages someone else is an offense—a sin; it is an offense even if the wronged person is unaware of it. In the animal world the stronger prey on the weaker; it is the natural order of things. But we are not animals. Harming others in any way is an offense.
We are also often the source of our own pain and suffering. We hurt ourselves by self-destructive behavior or making decisions that harm us. These are offenses against ourselves. We do not deserve this pain and should stop hurting ourselves.
Belief that Sins are Offenses against God Tarnishes God’s Character
Contrary to Witmer, those who consider sin to be offense against God are the ones who create confusion about God’s character.
A common observation is that sin is an affront to the Father’s holiness. It is said that the smallest sin is an offense against God’s infinite holiness and has infinite significance. This is why eternal punishment in a burning hell is necessary—sin against God’s infinite holiness requires infinite punishment. But this is not what Jesus tells us about the Father who, instead, demonstrates infinite love and seeks to resolve our suffering and alienation.
Some believers see the Father as author of a host of commands for us to obey, some of which seem quite arbitrary. They think disobedience against his rules drives God into a positive rage against us. They imagine the Father is easily offended and intolerant of disrespect or slights against him and that we must be careful not to anger him.
We all know people with these overly sensitive characteristics and try to avoid them. They are petty, full of themselves, and can never be pleased. Have you ever known someone who must have their own way down to the last detail? It is difficult for me to see the Father in this way. He is not thin-skinned, insecure, or jealous; he is not egotistical. He understands our pain, our limitations, and our difficulties; and he seeks our healing, peace, and happiness.
We learn from Jesus that there are no legalistic commands; there is only one rule and that is to love others as we love ourselves. The real response of the Father’s character regarding our offenses is his overwhelming, unconditional love for us. The Father wants us to avoid our hurting others for their good and for us to avoid hurting ourselves for our own good. If we coöperate with his love, the Father helps us achieve these two goals.
The Father’s work in us is not to reduce slights against him but to reduce suffering and alienation in us. We need to promote this healing, but the way to do it is not by railing against ‘sin’ but by growing as followers of the loving Jesus.
How do We Avoid Causing Offense and Respond to Offense against Us?
Jesus points to two wonderful principles that address all offenses: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. These pre-empt all rules about offenses.
As we respond to the love of the Father, and start to love ourselves properly, we can begin to love others from our heart as we love ourselves. As we begin to see others as the Father sees them, our offenses toward them will decline as we seek their good like we seek our own good. We might adopt helpful practices and personal habits to guide us, but we can never rely on lists of rules.
When we feel hurt or victimized by another person, our first inclination might be to seek revenge or retribution, but part of our growth as followers of Jesus is to put those feelings aside and choose a better response. When Jesus taught his followers to pray in Matthew 6, he focused on one specific point, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’. Forgiving others helps us to forgive ourselves for offenses we cannot repair. And this is not just for friends or the general public. Jesus also says in chapter 5:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Sins are our offenses against other people, not offenses against God. Jesus tells us to treat others appropriately so we can enjoy healing, peace, and reconciliation. But Witmer speaks for others when he says, “Where sin is…seen primarily as a person-to-person problem rather than as primarily ‘theocentric,’ motivation for fighting sin is decreased.”
We will talk about that next time.
Articles in this series: Sin and Forgiveness
The Story of Sin and Salvation—Common Baggage Version (CBV)
What is Sin but Pain and Alienation?
Addressing Sin in the Old Testament
The Prophets Begin to Talk about Sin in a New Way
What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much!
The Misguided Concept of ‘Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin’
What does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us?
How Substitutionary Atonement Fails
Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?
Does Jesus Tell Us to Judge People in Matthew 18?
Are Sins Primarily Sins against God?
“If There’s No Hell then I Will Sin All I Want!”
Problems with the Sinner’s Prayer
What does the Story of Eden Tell Us? Is it about Sin?
We Do Not Inherit Original Sin from Adam
Original Sin or Original Self-Centeredness?
Who Does God Refuse to Forgive?
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