Monthly Archives: April 2017

What Sin Is All About

Conversations About God 2:2

A crisis of distrust developed in God’s universal family. As we reviewed earlier, our heavenly Father has been accused of being unworthy of our trust. Specifically, He has been accused of being arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. And thus sin entered our universe for the first time. For the Bible, sin is much more than a mere breaking of the rules, serious as that might be. In its essence, sin is a violation of mutual trust. It is a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness, a stubborn unwillingness to listen to the One who is so eager to help us in our predicament.

Doesn’t the Bible specifically state, however, that sin is breaking the rules? How about the key text we’ve learned from childhood up, “Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4, KJV)? Actually, that’s a rather free translation. The Greek word that John used is anomia, and it means, literally, lawlessness. “Everyone who commits sin commits lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4, Williams). In other words, sin is described as a state of mind, an attitude. And anyone in that state of mind is a continuing threat to the peace and security of the universal family. Sin will not have been truly dealt with until our lawlessness has either been changed or eliminated. Sin begins with a lawless, rebellious state of mind.

The hazard of regarding sin primarily as breaking the rules is that such a mindset tends to encourage an impersonal, even fearful relationship with God. If we regard sin as primarily a breaking of the rules, God’s commandments may be misunderstood as arbitrary regulations designed to show His authority and test our willingness to obey. If we obey, we’re rewarded. If we disobey, we’re destroyed. Do you want to live under those circumstances?

Since we all have sinned, should we be fearfully awaiting the execution of the sentence? Or have we been spared because God found some legal way to give us yet another chance? And if we turn down that second chance, will He punish us with even greater severity for our ingratitude? Would such an understanding help produce the peace and the freedom from fear that God desires so much in His universal family?

Actually though, if rightly understood, there is a sense in which one can say that sin is a breaking of the rules. Let’s look again God’s commandments, particularly the Decalogue. All those Ten Commandments ultimately require is that we love God and we love each other (Matt 22:36-40). And if we really did that we would have peace and freedom. In fact, in the tenth of the Ten Commandments it says that we should not even want to sin. If we lived in that state of mind, not even wanting to do anything unloving, we would have freedom to be sure, and all kinds of peace and good will.

But can love actually be commanded? Or produced by force or by fear? To put it vividly, has God said to us children, “You either love Me, and love each other, or I’ll have to kill you. Do I make Myself clear?” Have you husbands ever tried that on your wives and children? Did it work? Imagine your wives and children trembling in front of you and saying in unison, “Oh, yes, daddy. We love you very much.” Would you be pleased? Would you be satisfied? If so, then you’re a brute. And the God some of us worship would never settle for that.

Having said that, we all must admit that the Bible is full of references to law, discipline, punishment and rewards, even final fiery destruction. And since our purpose in this series is always to look at the Bible as a whole, not just “here a little and there a little,” we must look at all these other passages seriously. In fact, several chapters of this book will be devoted to God’s wide use of law and why Jesus indeed had to die. And we will talk about how, in reality, God’s law is no threat to our freedom! To understand that is really the truth that sets us free.

Going back to the beginning, sin entered our universe when angels ceased to trust. As a consequence, they themselves became untrustworthy. James 4:17 offers a familiar definition: “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin (RSV).” It is rebellious to act that way. It is lawless to act that way. Anyone who behaves like that is certainly not trustworthy to have around in a free universe.

Look at Romans 14:23 in several, different versions: “Any action that is not based on faith is a sin.” (Moffat) “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (RSV).” “When we act apart from our faith we sin (Phillips).” In a text from the book of Ezra (10:2), the Jews who returned from Babylonian captivity are confessing that they have done several things that they should not have done. But they describe their misbehaviors in these words: “We have broken faith with our God (RSV).” “We have been unfaithful to our God (NIV).” These texts underline that the essence of sin is a breach of faith; it’s a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness.

Chapter 2: “What Went Wrong in God’s Universe”

This blog begins chapter two of the book in process Conversations About God. It originated as a series of lectures of Graham Maxwell in 1984. After each lecture Maxwell took written questions from the audience mediated through the pastor of the Loma Linda University Church at the time, Lou Venden. This marvelous series has never been put into book form, so I am attempting to do so and sharing the results in progress here with permission from the Maxwell family. The words that followed are Maxwell’s oral presentation, edited by me.

In the previous chapter we summarized the war that broke out in Heaven, as described in Revelation 12. This conflict within God’s family began right in His very presence, in the mind of God’s most honored and trusted angel. This raised the question, What really went wrong in God’s universe? This question is important because understanding what went wrong helps us to understand the methods God is using to put right the things that have gone wrong. We often call these methods “The Plan of Salvation.” As we noted in the last chapter, we’re accustomed to thinking of the plan of salvation as God’s gracious provision to save you, me, and other sinners on this planet. But in the larger view of the great controversy, the plan of salvation is God’s way of setting right what went wrong in the whole universe, and setting it right in such a way that it will never go wrong again.

What really did go wrong? To begin with, it helps to consider what made things go so right before the war in heaven began. Before the war there was peace. There was peace because all the members of God’s vast family trusted each other. They trusted their heavenly Father. And He in turn could safely trust in them. Where you have that kind of mutual trust and trustworthiness, there is perfect peace, perfect freedom, and perfect security.

Questions and Answers (1:5)

Lou Venden: Human beings have a tendency to focus on our own salvation. You have referred to how our salvation needs to be seen in the larger perspective. What I’m wondering is, how does this perspective affect Christian belief in general? Does it make a difference?

Graham Maxwell: I don’t think it minimizes our Christian beliefs in any way, it rather makes them more significant. As I mentioned earlier, the gospel takes on a much broader meaning in the larger view. But that’s not all. Some of us regard the Sabbath as a privilege to observe and a great blessing. A typical approach to the Sabbath is preoccupied with what God has done for our own salvation and what God has done for this planet. But if you limit your understanding to this planet, then the Sabbath was given before sin. And as such it is merely a test of our obedience, to show God’s authority and test our willingness to obey.

In the larger view, however, the Sabbath was given to man after sin entered the universe. Then it’s no longer an arbitrary test of obedience. It’s a great gift that God gave to remind us of all the things the Bible associates with the Sabbath. Things like the freedom and the perfection of Eden, and the freedom that He gave to all of His creatures. God’s rescue of His people in the Exodus. And then the events of crucifixion week. The seventh-day Sabbath is connected with all of those.

Similarly, the law in the larger view is God’s emergency measure to help us. Paul specifically says that in Galatians 3:19. Take, for example the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They were not to eat the fruit of that tree in the garden. In the narrower view, which is preoccupied with what God has done for us on this planet, God said, “don’t touch that tree” before sin. And that would simply be a test of their obedience, or so it’s often explained. But in the larger, great controversy view, they were told not to go near that tree after sin entered the universe. With that in mind, the tree was not so much a test of obedience as something given to protect us. You see, God permitted Satan to tempt Adam and Eve, but Satan was only allowed to approach them at the tree. God was not limiting them, He was limiting Satan! You see, the more one takes the larger view, the less arbitrary God’s requirements, measures, and provisions look. He simply looks a whole lot better in the great controversy view.

Lou: This definitely helps us understand the reason and the meaning behind God’s actions and, at times, lack of action. But this leads me to one final question, “If God won the war at Calvary, then why isn’t it over? Why is it still going on? In fact, why didn’t it end when God threw Satan and his angels out of heaven?”

Graham: Obviously the expulsion of Satan from heaven was a victory, a physical victory. But God was not satisfied with that alone. There were still unresolved questions and wonderings among His family. And so He waited. But when Jesus said, “It’s finished,” something was finished. And Revelation indicates He was recognized in heaven as having won the war (Rev 5:6-14). So why does He still wait? Is it that the war has been won in the minds of His children throughout the universe, but not here on this planet? We’re still trying to make up our minds. And it’s essential that we not only make up our minds, but be so settled into it that we cannot be moved during the terrible events that will happen before the second coming. It is in mercy that He waits.

Lou: I’m sure we’ll have more on this as the series progresses. Tell us about the next chapter.

Graham: The next chapter deals with the question, “What Went Wrong in God’s Universe?” What went wrong in the family? It will be a fresh look at sin in the larger setting of the great controversy. Sin is much more than just breaking the rules, it is a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness. This will take us to the heart of the issue in the war. Until we know what’s gone wrong, how can we understand God’s efforts to set things right?

Note from Jon Paulien: This blog concludes chapter one of Conversations About God, my edited transcript of a 1984 series of lectures followed by questions involving Graham Maxwell and then-pastor Lou Venden. I will begin sharing chapter two shortly.