Reflections on Luther and Sin

Tonight I’ve been reading about Martin Luther’s theology via William Placher for my class. Luther’s got me thinking about sin and the cross.

At least since high school, I’ve gone to church where the pastor has focused on the etymological meaning of sin as a missing of the mark. It is an important definition of sin but I feel that it is often used to neuter our conception of sin. I think in part because we get the wrong visual image.

We imagine that missing the mark means we were aiming at the right target, we just miscalculated. We aimed a little too far to the left or to the right. We didn’t hit the target but we were close. We were definitely looking in the right direction. That’s true sometimes. Sometimes our sin is a miscalculation, a slight error but we were at aiming at the right thing. But often this is not the case.

Most often, sin is the result of us aiming at a completely wrong target. Instead of aiming towards God, we are aiming towards other gods: wealth, comfort, admiration, ourselves. Jesus and the prophets make it pretty clear that it is these wrong targets that are the greatest problems, they are the cause of sin itself.  

When we forget about the proper target we are supposed to be aiming at, we forget about the purpose and goal of not only salvation but our own lives. That goal is not our own self-fulfillment, though this is how we will find our trust fulfillment, but God himself. One of the mysteries of our identity and relationality is that when we aim towards other goals, especially the goal of our own self-fulfillment, is when we most lose ourselves.

One of the theologians that I read recently said that when we lose the mystery of God, we lose the mystery of man. Not only is true of humanity in general (philosophy is finally catching up to the fact that without any sort of absolute there is no solid foundation or justification for human rights or ethics) but it is true on a very personal level. You can see it in many of my journals throughout college, that the more I focused on myself the more I became a self I neither recognize nor enjoyed, and I’ve seen many friends do this too. The transformation, the loss of both our best self and God, is grievous. That’s another problem with that analogy.

Missing a target you are aiming at is disappointing. Enraging even for some people. But rarely grievous. Missing God is. Losing our best selves is. Being estranged from the most valuable relationship possible, that both sustains you and profoundly shapes you, is a devastating loss. If you have ever lost an incredibly important friend you know this. Becoming the worst version of yourself or even just a badly distorted version of yourself is painful. Though admittedly, our friends usually are the ones who are most pained. It is easy for us to too highly esteem ourselves. To create a world of funny mirrors around us that project back to us the image of ourselves that we want, instead of the true image. But our good friends see us. The ones who love us, hurt as they lose what they love in us. I don’t know about you but I can think of multiple examples.

Throughout the Bible, especially in the prophets, we see God’s grief over sin. His grief is one of the greatest signs of his love, as is his jealousy. Just as we want our friends to be their best selves, he wants that of us. Just as we desire for our friends to love and appreciate us, he desires that of us. He hates sin because of what it does to us, to our world and most importantly how it is a sign and symptom that he is not our goal. Sin is a result, in large part, of choosing to let other desires; other people determine who we are becoming instead of God.

This brings me back to Luther. The primary focus of his theology is the cross. He condemned the system that made our striving the means to salvation instead of God’s grace. He made a case for the primacy of God’s salvation through Jesus on the cross. Put that way, I guess, it all sounds a bit dry and boring. It especially seems irrelevant to those people who would prefer to think of now and not any sort of eternal life. But Luther’s concern was Who he met at the cross. Was the God of love we meet at the cross. Even though a monk, he had hated God before meeting him at the cross. He had felt condemned by him. Meeting the true God of love transformed him and invited him into a new life. Through the cross he found a new, better identity. He found a life of freedom lived in relationship, in the most rewarding relationship possible. That is the role of the cross.

Sometimes I feel like churches, maybe unintentionally, use the missing of the mark analogy to unburden us of a sense of guilt or condemnation. But that’s the role of the cross. We should allow ourselves to be grieved by sin because we need to understand its cost. We need to know, to feel how devastating it would be, to spend our lives aiming at the wrong targets, continually missing our greatest goal and never becoming our truest self.

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