The Extent of Punishment and Belief, Part III: Sin, Debt and the Hopeless Situation

In parts I and II, I discussed some concepts that I view as elementary to Christianity. First, sin is missing the mark and usually arises from our desire to be our own gods. Second, when we break God’s law, we put ourselves in a position of saying “I know better than God what is right and wrong” and therefore our sins dishonor God, and God is the one against whom we sin. From here, we need to realize just how sinful we really are.

When I was young, I saw a comic about a muscle car that was getting gas at a service station. The owner of the muscle car left the engine idling while the attendant attempted to fill the car. Unfortunately, the car was such a gas guzzler that the service attendant couldn’t put gas in fast enough to keep up with the gas being used by the muscle car even in idle, and the caption read: “Can you turn the engine off? You’re catching up to me.” In many ways, our relation to sin is like this. We like to think we are good, but we are sinners. Moreover, we sin weekly, maybe daily, perhaps hourly. We don’t always recognize that we are sinning because we suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18), but we do sin faster and more consistently than we do good works.

In an earlier post on sin, I noted that the idea that we are sinful and the concept of absolute depravity constitute part of the core teachings of Christianity.

Perhaps there is no verse that specifically says that we are "full" of sin, but the idea that we are all hopelessly lost, sinful creatures is one of the touchstones of our Lutheran understanding of the Christian faith. I cannot fathom how this Pastor could claim that telling someone that they are sinful is wrong in light of verses like 1 John 1:8: "If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us." Or consider "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9) Our greatest thinkers all felt the heavy weight of sin. Consider St. Augustine, who said, "[My] sin was all the more incurable because I did not judge myself to be a sinner."

What did Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran denomination, have to say about the extent of sin? First, in the The Smalcald Articles (1537), he describes sin as "not to know or regard God." In his Preface to the Book of Romans, Luther said:

"Everyone finds inside himself an aversion to good and a craving for evil. Where there is no free desire for good, there the heart has not set itself on God's law. There also sin is surely to be found and the deserved wrath of God, whether a lot of good works and an honorable life appear outwardly or not."

Or consider Luther’s words with respect to original sin in The Smalcald Articles:

"This hereditary sin is so deep and [horrible] a corruption of nature that no reason can understand it, but it must be [learned and] believed from the revelation of Scriptures, Ps. 51, 5; Rom. 6, 12 ff.; Ex. 33, 3; Gen. 3, 7 ff."
(Emphasis added.)

Further, he said:

"All the world is guilty before God. No man is righteous before Him. And Christ says, John 16, 8: The Holy Ghost will reprove the world of sin."
(Emphasis added.)

The Bible sometimes uses marketplace terms to describe sin (for example, redemption is a word taken from the marketplace that means “to buy back”), and this has led to a model of understanding Christianity known as the “Sin-Debt Model.” In this model, sin is viewed as a negative on our overall cosmic righteousness balance. If you sin, you incur a debt to God (which is why it is important to understand that all sin is ultimately against God) that needs to be paid before the you can be permitted into heaven (God cannot allow people with negative sin balances – and therefore unrighteous – into heaven because of his holy and righteous nature).

Equating sin with debt is not a novel idea. When I was growing up, we learned to say a portion of the Lord’s prayer as “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Obviously, debt is used here as synonymous with sin.

Here is the problem: it only takes one sin to create a debt that puts you in a negative balance. Every one of us has not only one debt as the result of our sin, but hundreds if not thousands or even millions. In order to get to heaven, you need to pay the debt. How? Most people assume that we pay the debt by doing good works. They think that these good works we do can balance out the books and eventually get us into heaven. But there is a problem with this understanding: you already owe your good works to God. If you follow his commands, you already are required to do good works and these good works cannot be used to pay the debt that you owe to God as the result of your sins. In other words, if I owe you $20, how can I pay that money back through the mechanism of not incurring more debt? Doing good works does not result in a positive on the books, it results in not going further into debt!

Consider how Jesus narrowed down the Law down to two commandments: You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and you are to love your neighbor as yourself. These are not “good works” that can make up for the negative balance you hold as the result of sin. They are commandments that you are required to do to be debt free. They are your obligation that you need to do to not fall into sin. If you don’t do these two things, you are building up sin-debt.

I like to think of the problem confronted by men in this model like the 18th and 19th Century debtors’ prisons. In those days, if you had a debt that you could not pay, you could be sentenced to serve time in a debtors’ prison until you paid the debt. Of course, while you were in prison, you could not earn any money to pay the debt because you were unable to work in your occupation. Thus, unless you had the money stashed away someplace or someone else offered to pay the debt for you, you would sit in prison until the debt was paid -- a hopeless situation.

The plight of people in debtors’ prisons serves to illustrate the hopelessness we necessarily have as the result of our own sins. While on earth, everyone sins. Thus, we all incur a huge sin-debt to God that we cannot pay because there is nothing that we can do to pay the debt owing. We have no capital and cannot earn the capital to pay the debt. Moreover, no one else can pay the debt for us because they are also debtors and have no ability to pay either. Thus, when we die, since our debt hasn’t been paid, we will spend eternity in debtors’ prison, i.e., hell.

Sound fair? If you don't think so, you aren't alone. Fortunately, God appears to have a solution which I will discuss in Part IV.

Part I: What is Sin?
Part II: Against Whom do we Sin?


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