Who Do You Say That I Am?


Fill in the blank: “Jesus said to them, “My wife ________________________ .”

  1. Looks like Mary Magdalene.
  2. Keeps complaining that I gave up my carpentry job.
  3. Made dinner for 12 again. Come join us!
  4. Is smokin’ hot.

Last week, every media outlet was abuzz with news of the discovery by Professor Karen King of Harvard University of a scrap of papyrus containing the phrase: “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife.’” This week, more questions than answers have been provided regarding the origins and credibility of this document, questionably dubbed The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. While the dust continues to settle on this brouhaha, scholarly consensus appears to be emerging that this document will be categorized alongside the sensationalistic claims of The Gospel of Judas, The Jesus Tomb and – yes – even The DaVinci Code. It’s still within the realm of possibility that the papyrus could turn out to be one of the greatest hoaxes of all time. If nothing else, the announcement of the discovery of The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife has made for some pretty good humor. On a more serious note, the announcement of The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife has served to expose a streak of shameless sensationalism within mainstream Biblical scholarship.

Where is the sensationalism in The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife? Well … Someone at Harvard University did entitle the papyrus as The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. Some basic challenges exist to that title. First, a business card sized scrap of papyrus does not make a Gospel. King argues for the Gospel label because the document contains a discussion between Jesus and His disciples about discipleship. However, it’s difficult to truly ascertain that classification when you have a scant 30 words from various disjointed sentences to go by. Second (and more importantly), there’s still no proof that Jesus has a wife. While Harvard University surrogates repeatedly admit that this particular document provides no proof whatsoever that Jesus was married, they do openly espouse a whale of a theory that many second century Christians did believe that Jesus was married – perhaps to Mary Magdalene.

So if this document does not prove in any conceivable manner that Jesus had a wife, then why name it The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife?!? Here’s why: If it was entitled “Papyrus #42859237,” it would have been lovingly placed in a dusty archive with other Gnostic discoveries and quickly forgotten. Certainly, the field of textual criticism has enough existing (and perfectly boring) nomenclature to use for strange papyri originating from ancient Egyptian trash heaps. But we don’t even have to speculate about this issue: The Q&A on Harvard University’s website about the document freely fesses up to the juicy naming of the document: “The title refers to the fragment’s most distinctive claim (that Jesus was married).”

So let me get this straight: Harvard University simultaneously denies that there’s any actual proof of Jesus being married but uses the provocative idea to promote the finding. Hmmmm … Something smells rotten.

Adding to the palpable heartburn over the document is the fact that significant questions and “red flags” seem to have been overridden in an effort to get The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife out to the public. There are serious questions about whether the papyrus can be accurately dated to the 4th century. There are more serious questions about whether the neat square shape of the papyrus indicate that the document has been intentionally clipped to make it more alluring. There are theories that the papyrus is just a retread of The Gospel of Thomas. Questions upon questions … Theories upon theories …

But the biggest unanswered question is the document’s origin. Unlike other major credible discoveries like the Nag Hammadi documents, this document was provided to Harvard by an anonymous source. There is only a residual, second-hand tale about how the anonymous owner acquired it from a German-American fellow who somehow acquired it from somewhere in East Germany. No one outside of Harvard University has had the opportunity to “kick the tires” (so to speak) and probe the uncertain background of the document. While certain assumptions can be made from the fact that the material is papyrus and the writing is Coptic (assuming it is authentic), there is no verifiable “chain of ownership” to provide any illumination whatsoever to the document’s origins. There’s something unsettling about the imagery of shady anonymous collectors in trench coats peddling ancient papyri to openly salivating institutions of higher education. (Boy … That sounds like a Monty Python line.)

The unfortunate fact of the matter is a market has emerged for making sensational claims about Jesus. After every reported new discovery about the historical Jesus, there seems to be the accompanying best-selling book, major-league television special and media outlet tour (see: The Gospel of Judas; The Jesus Tomb). To no surprise whatsoever, the Smithsonian Network is conducting a television special next week about The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife discovery. Somewhere someone must already be working on Jesus’ wife t-shirts and baby “onesies.” Stories about Vatican conspiracies and a “naughty” Jesus sell big in print and on the big screen. And as long as the latest crackpot theory about Jesus continues topping the New York Times bestseller list, sensationalism disguised as scholarship will keep on back to fill the void. Ultimately, it’s the second coming of Al Capone’s Vaults … A bunch of flash about a pile of dust that will make no mark upon history.

In response to the flashy announcement of The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, Smithsonian Magazine bit hard onto the hype by claiming that the discovery “is sure to send shockwaves through the Christian world.” Meanwhile, the Christian world collectively responds with a yawn. After year upon nauseating year of the James ossuary, The DaVinci Code, the Jesus family tomb, Mary Magdalene-centric feminist revisionism and the regurgitated re-hashed re-discovery of supposedly “lost” gospels (i.e. the Gospel of Jesus’ Brother’s Wife’s Hairdresser’s Dog Walker), the reality is that most practicing Christians just don’t pay attention anymore. You can almost hear the collective eye-roll of the evangelical community every time the next sensational discovery about the “really, really real historical Jesus” comes to light.

Oddly enough, Jesus’s provocative question to the disciples of “Who do you say that I am?” seems to resonate more in the world of academia than evangelicalism. To evangelicals, Jesus is the Christ, Son of God. The issue of Jesus’ identity has been settled by the collective testimony of the apostles. In the halls of higher education and the echo chamber of cable network street barkers, Jesus is an ever-expanding, ever-evolving jigsaw puzzle where the philosophical tail perpetually wags the dog. And that’s why The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife doesn’t rock the world of evangelicals. While most of the academic world is ever-searching for the identity of the “real Jesus,” evangelicals are fully content that they’re intimately known by the real Jesus (1 John 4:6-7). With the advent of The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, the quest for the historical Jesus has become a bizarre chase for the elusive white rabbit leading to Wonderland.

Without the clarity and conviction of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:6-16), Jesus’ ultimate question to the disciples will echo on throughout history: “Who do you say that I am?”



Breaking The Fine China

So I’m a fan of the vintage book store chain Half Price Books. It’s essentially a pawn shop for book and music nerds. You’ll find me firmly planted in the Bible commentary, theology or comic book section. Last week, I overheard this awkward conversation between the store manager and an somewhat-embarrassed and mousy middle aged female customer:

Customer: “Uhhhhh … Soooooooo … Uhhhhhh … Do you have any copies of 50 Shades of Grey?”

Manager: “Definitely not. Whenever we get a copy of that book in, it immediately sells.”

“Uhhhhh … Sooooooooo … Uhhhhhh … When do you think you’ll have a copy come in?”

“I don’t know. Last time we had a copy come in, we literally had a fist fight between several women that wanted the book.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Dead serious. They were wrestling each other on the floor.”

Really? A fist fight? Wresting for a book? Not to mention that customer in question was more nervous than a teenage boy trying to buy a copy of Playboy magazine. Awkward.

OK … I’m calling it: The 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon has officially gotten dumb. Every time I’m in a bookstore, Starbucks or Walmart, some young lady is talking with her gal pal about how they NEED to get a copy of the book … Or how they’re trying to proselytize someone into reading the book. Overhearing ladies talk about the book, you’d think that every copy of the book contained solid gold leaf, winning lottery tickets or pure uncut heroin.

Just in case you’ve lived under a rock for the past year, 50 Shades of Grey is the first book in a trilogy by British author E.L. James about the evolving sexual relationship between a young virginal college graduate (Anastasia Steele) and a sadistic wealthy entrepreneur (Christian Grey). Without getting graphic, the underlying current (and controversy) regarding the book is the appropriate role of dominance, bondage and sexual violence in relationships. The Christian overtones and imagery is painfully gawky. Anastasia (whose name means “resurrection”) is “re-born” through her interactions with “Christ”ian. Get it? Oy vey.

The level of popularity of 50 Shades of Grey has grown to astoundingly bizarre proportions. Did you know that one in five of the adult novels sold in the United States this year was 50 Shades of Grey? How about the fact that 50 Shades of Grey has been credited with essentially staving Barnes and Noble away from bankruptcy? How about the fact that the printing of 50 Shades of Grey is credited with saving a paper company in Millonocket, Maine? And why is there an “official” classical music album of accompaniment selections to 50 Shades of Grey on iTunes (Bach would be so pleased to have his music included)? And why is it no surprise that 50 Shades of Grey was originally spawned as Twi-Hard fan fiction?

So why bother addressing the “mommy porn” phenomenon instead of hardcore theology in the blog? Hasn’t there been enough blogs bemoaning this trilogy? Certainly, I don’t think that a generation of young ladies are going to read 50 Shades, start frequenting the local S&M shop and ask their boyfriends to start beating them. Above all things, I fully understand that 50 Shades is principally read as fictional work of fantasy/escapism, and I’m not going to attempt to get into the psyche of the American middle-aged women to attempt to understand the book’s popularity. But there is one dangerous issue regarding 50 Shades that amounts to playing with fire.

Plain and simple, 50 Shades of Grey is a book about sexual assault. In their important book on sexual assault Rid Of My Disgrace, Justin and Lindsay Holcomb define sexual assault as “any type of sexual behavior or contact where consent is not free given or obtained and is accomplished through force, intimidation, violence, coercion, manipulation, threat, deception or abuse of authority.” While 50 Shades does not portray any scenes of rape or forced intercourse, the character of Christian Grey is a classic stalker who obtains sexual gratification through more subtle means. Coercion? Check. Manipulation? Certainly. Deception? You bet. Abuse of authority? There’a whole mess of that. The sexual assault within the books follows a certain pattern: Grey coerces his partner into committing sexual acts that she finds uncomfortable and unconscionable … His partner exits the relationship … Grey overtly stalks and manipulates his partner into re-entering the relationship with Svengali-like charm.

The not-so-thinly veiled (if not ham-handed) play on words of the book’s title insinuate that there is some moral grey area about the culture of sexual assault. That couples need to discover their own moral latitude (or “shade”) regarding what level of BSDM violence is permitted in their bedrooms. Let’s be clear: There can be no shades of grey in areas of sexual violence. Using coercion and manipulation to have a partner engage in non-consensual and uncomfortable sexual acts is still sexual assault. Seeking to incontrovertibly hold power, control and dominance over a woman is abuse. And turning stalkers into heroes is ridiculous.

Which leads to another question: Is it permissible for couples to perpetrate consensual violence on one another in the name of sexual gratification in the privacy of their own bedrooms? No. That line should never be crossed, and here’s why … Scripture repeatedly speaks of the role of the man in a marital relationship in terms of tenderness towards the woman. Ephesians 5:25 urges husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church. Christ sacrificed His life on the cross to save the lives of His church from the power of sin and death. Just as Christ cleanses us through the redemption of His blood, husbands are now called to continue that cleansing process in the life of their wives by engaging the power of the Word. Similarly, 1 Peter 3:7 urges husbands to give honor to their wives as the “weaker vessel,” which is not intended to be a derogatory term about women. Men are supposed to treat their women with tenderness and care as if they are handling breakable fine china. In the imagery found in both Ephesians and 1 Peter, there is a sacrificial care and other-centeredness found in the role of the man.

So how does the imagery of a husband play choking and beating his wife mesh with the imagery of Christ sacrificing His life on the cross for His bride, the church? It simply can’t. God’s story has nothing to do with the BSDM story. BSDM is self-gratifying and the work of Christ is sacrificial. BSDM seeks to degrade, humiliate and dominate and the work of Christ is restoration, reparation and freedom. Husbands should be seeking to aid the work of Christ’s restoration in the life of their wives. Christ never harmed His church, and, similarly, men should follow Christ’s example. Men cannot wash their partner with filth …. Men cannot break the fine china entrusted to them. According to Ephesians 5:32-33, our marriage lives were meant to be a living diorama pointing to the unfolding mystery of how much Jesus Christ sacrificially loved his church. Turning our relationships into venues for discovering new methods for selfish sexual self-gratification, humiliation and violence tarnishes the glorious imagery of Christ and His church. As a church, we must hold the line that it’s never OK for a man to hit, beat, choke, tie up/down, “play rape,” humiliate or perpetrate any form of violence against a woman under any circumstance.

Even worse, the book also perpetuates common myths about sexual assault. Primarily, the myth that women enjoy and “get off” on sexual violence is advanced. The “heroine” of 50 Shades (if it’s even an appropriate title) is increasingly sexually aroused by the violence perpetrated upon her. In real life, that myth quickly wears off when you have to counsel a young lady who has to ashamedly cover up the bruises from her husband’s repeated beatings. Or talk with the woman who had to lock her legs shut to keep her own husband from raping her. Or when you counsel a young lady that has been gang raped and passed around like a human party favor as a teenager. And I’m not making this stuff up. Violence upon women in the real world is degrading, horrifying, ugly and pure evil. There is nothing kinky or erotic about living in constant fear of your husband potentially coming home and killing your family because he was “in a mood.” Sexual violence is not glamorous.

The retort that I’ve heard from many female fans in response to the sexual violence aspects of the book is: “You’ve got to read the end of the trilogy. In the end, the couple wind up being madly in love with one another, and the man gives up his violent ways.” So it’s OK to sexually assault another person if the relationship ends in true love?!? In the end, this might be the most dangerous message of 50 Shades: An abuser’s sadistic behavior can be overcome by the power of love and feminine wiles. It is a flat-out harmful myth that sadistic, abusive men will radically change due to the affection of a tender, loving and intellectual woman. I’ve yet to counsel any woman who’s been a victim of sexual assault that’s been able to end the cycle of abuse through affection, love or even basic compliance to demands. Women need encouragement and enabling to escape and overcome violent relationships through professional counseling, law enforcement and legal assistance.

Sexual violence in America is a serious and prevalent issue, and shouldn’t be treated as a matter of casual fiction. Consider the following statistics from Rid Of My Disgrace:

  • One out of six American women will be raped in her lifetime.
  • Women sixteen to nineteen years old have the highest rate of sexual victimization of any age group.
  • 70% of the victims of sexual assault know their offender.
  • Sexual assault occurs in 10-14% of all marriages.
  • Female victims of sexual assault were more likely to be injured and need medical treatment than male victims.
  • One out of every seven victims of sexual assault reported to law enforcement agencies were under age six.

I’m sure that plenty will read this blog and argue: “He just doesn’t understand.” And they’re right. I don’t really care to understand that type of fantasy and escapism, because I’ve witnessed the sobbing, broken aftermath of victims of sexual assault. It’s the stuff of nightmares. And I love my wife enough to say that she’s my treasure … my joy … my fine china, and I will always treat her with tenderness, respect and care. I will never hurt her or lay a hand on her in violence. And I’m praying that a generation of men will grow into Christ-followers and not Christian Grey imitators.

I Remember. I Hope. I Believe.

I remember.

I was coming back home to Lowell, MA from a work trip to Washington D.C. in August 2001. It was one of those irritating trips where you changed planes an unnecessary number of times, and I was exhausted from breathlessly running from one terminal to another. However, I was excited to find that one of my fellow church members, Jessica Sachs, was riding the Boston-Lowell train home as well. We had a great conversation over the 30 minute train ride. I remember talking about how we didn’t like the travel associated with our jobs. She had recently gotten on-board with accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers in downtown Boston and now faced the prospect of spending a lot of time traveling on planes. I remember us geeking out over the Passion worship band. I remember being envious that she had just been to a Passion conference. The door had been opened for her to talk about her deep Christian faith. I remember being able to tell that she was on fire for Christ. Then I remember rushing off the train to get some sleep.

That was the last time that I spoke to Jessica Sachs. On September 11, 2001, Jessica was on board Flight 11 – the first plane to hit the World Trade Center.

I remember audibly yelling in absolute shock when I received the e-mail from our church that Jessica was on Flight 11. I remember barely being able to keep my raw emotions together while our church worship team played “Better Is One Day” at Jessica’s Celebration of Life service. I remember frantically helping church staff place folding chairs in the church parking lot to accommodate the overflow crowd at Jessica’s Celebration of Life service. I remember not knowing what to say to her parents. It seemed like everyone in New England tangentially knew someone who was aboard the hijacked planes. Every church had a memorial service … Every church had a packed house.

Months earlier, my wife and several of my friends had planned to go to NYC for the 2001 Thanksgiving break. Jessica had told us that she’d like to participate in the trip. We had to make a decision about whether to carry on. The businesses in New York City were desperately hurting due to a loss of revenue. Tourists were afraid of another imminent attack on New York City. Ultimately, we decided we needed to go to remember Jessica and support New York City.

I remember vividly that 2001 Thanksgiving trip to New York City. I remember climbing up on a jersey barrier and clutching a chain link fence to get a glimpse of the twisted metal wreckage. I remember the acrid grey smoke still emanating from the Towers site … two months later. I remember the awful nauseating smell like wet electrified dog hair followed you everywhere you went. I remember dust would periodically fall like snow. I remember the disconcerting stunned silence of NYC. No hustle and bustle of cabs and talkative pedestrians … No late night clubbing … Just the jarring screeches and “backing up” beeps of construction equipment digging through the twisted wreckage. But the thing that I remember most is the  “missing” posters plastered on every inch of building space: “Have you seen my husband? … My wife is missing. …. My dad worked on the __ floor of the World Trade Center.” Every “Have You Seen _______?” poster was now a haunting echo of someone erased from time. I remember being so stunned that I could not utter a single word or express a single emotion – much less weep or mourn. The haunting and deadly pall over the City was written on every exhausted face.

I also remember that my friend, Melissa Chileras, was with us on that trip. She lost her battle with esophageal cancer several months ago.

I remember going back to Washington D.C. on business several months after 9/11. I remember my wife not wanting me to fly on an airplane, and I remember nervously lying through my teeth with much bravado: “I’ll be OK.” I remember the indescribably large gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon.

Amidst a day full of political sound-bytes, perfunctory patriotism and social media slogans of every political iteration, it’s important to remember that real people died on 9/11. I’m confident that most of the pictures of missing family plastered throughout New York City were never seen again. The cherished family moments proudly displayed on those “missing” posters will never be experienced again. Real families are still half-waiting for that missing loved one to come walking through the front door. In many ways, turning 9/11 into a running commentary on foreign policy or an opportunity for political point scoring tarnishes the personal loss of that day. The ever-repeating slogan of “Never Forget” serves as an awkward and ironic reminder that those who lost children, spouses, family and friends on 9/11 will never really escape the gravitational pull of that horrific day.

And yet I hope.

The worship song played at Jessica’s Celebration of Life service (“Better Is One Day”) reflects the longing for God described Psalm 84. As I witnessed workers jumping from the highest windows of the Towers, I shuddered at the terrifying spectre of death, and longed to clutch my family tight. When the Towers disappeared into a cloud of dust, I realized that the most majestic handiwork of man is only temporary. Our response to 9/11 is an instinctive understanding that something about this world is hideously broken, and we long for the justice and restoration of God. We long for the amazing grace of God to bring us through the dangers, toils and snares of this life. My heart daily echoes Psalm 84:2: “My soul longs – yes, faints – for the courts of the Lord.” I’d rather be a lowly garbage collector in God’s glorious house than toil day-after-day in the wicked tent of this world (Psalm 84:10). In the depths of our soul, we long for eternal rescue by the loving hands of God.

As I’ve remembered 9/11 today, I’ve reflected heavily on the words of Peter in 1 Peter 1:3-9:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:3-9 ESV)

In the face of imminent death ever-creeping towards us, there is hope of resurrection through Christ. And for those who believe, the resurrection is an inheritance that can never be stolen or snatched away. All manner of trial and temptation will be faced in this life (James 1:12; 1 Peter 4:12). Tornados and hurricanes may abruptly shatter the tranquility of our lives. The shadows of death and illness relentlessly chase us. And evil men will perpetrate all manner of unspeakably evil deeds. But nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:35). Even when we are in danger of losing our grip on Him, He is still steadfastly holding on to us. For that reason, I am filled with inexpressible joy amidst tragedy.

Above all, I long for the day when I’ll worship at the feet of Jesus with Jessica and Melissa. Like Peter, I hold on to hope of the Day when we’re finally in the courts of God, which will be indescribably better than the 1,000s of days I’ve spent in life’s fiery trials. No more hurt. No more tears. No more sorrow. Held up and held together in love by the mighty hands and outstretched arms of Christ. Our hurts, stains and scars washed away by the blood of the Lamb. And the indescribable hurt and sorrow of one day of terror will finally fade into the brilliant hope of eternity.

I remember. I hope. I believe.

Thank you, Jesus. Come back soon.

For a day in your courts is better than a thousand days elsewhere.” – Psalm 84:10

Put Down That Bow And Arrow

Some days, it seems that part of my job as pastor solely consists of repeatedly telling children: “Stop running inside the church!” I don’t get after the kids because I hate the art of running or jogging (although my flabby physique is rather averse to the notion). I do it because our church floors are poured concrete with a thin layer of unpadded burlap-like carpet on top. It’s a concussion waiting to happen.

One of the worst offenders of the “no running in church” rule is (unfortunately) my daughter. So it came as no surprise last Sunday when my daughter tripped over her white flower-covered dress sandals (clearly the perfect running shoes) and then landed knees and noggin first onto the floor in a mess of tears. While no permanent brain injury was sustained (I think), my daughter lamented over the giant carpet-burn “strawberry” on her knee for the remainder of the long weekend.

While Gwen and I were tying her tennis shoes to get ready for school this morning, she remarked: “I’m sorry that I made a mistake and hurt myself, Daddy.” We then had a discussion about why knowingly breaking the rules is not a mistake.

The same kind of bizarre illogical thought process haunts Christian theology. When did the concept of sin get reduced to a giant personal mistake? The Christian hip-hop artist tobyMac has a fantastic new song out called “Forgiveness,” speaking about how everyone needs the forgiveness of God and others. However, the first description of sin within the song is “we all make mistakes sometimes.” This softening of the concept of sin is rampant in contemporary Christian music, which often nuances sin as “stumbling” or “falling” (think: “What If I Stumble” by dcTalk). Essentially, you didn’t really mean to sin … It just happened.

Admittedly, I’m no foreigner to mistakes. Anyone ever showed up to a meeting (or church) an hour early (or late) because you hadn’t changed a certain clock before or after daylight savings time? Have you ever accidentally poured sugar that you thought was creamer into your coffee? Have you ever worn one blue and one black sock when they really both appeared to be black back at your house? Yep. Guilty as charged. The essence of a mistake is either a misconception (unclear information) or a misunderstanding (unclear comprehension). Mistakes go hand-in-hand with a lack of clarity. Either someone gives you unclear information or you don’t understand the information.

Using driving directions from Mapquest provides great insight into the anatomy of a mistake. Sometimes you get lost because the directions state “take a slight right/left” when – in reality – you’re actually staying on the same road. That’s unclear information from the sender (bad computer). Sometimes you get lost because you’re tired, haven’t had enough coffee and should have read the directions better. That’s the fault of the person attempting to process the information. However, getting lost because you blatantly blew off the directions given and attempted another route entirely is not a mistake (although I would hate to admit that to my wife).

If committing a sin is a genuine mistake, then it must have occurred due to a lack of clarity. However, it’s unreasonable to categorize a blatantly intentional sin as a mistake. When teens and young adults get pregnant out of wedlock, get involved in the drug scene or get thrown in jail, their parents often tend to soften the blow off what has happened by saying: “They’re just young and made a mistake.” Let’s clarify again: If someone clearly knows God’s commandments and willfully violates God’s commandments, then sin is not a mistake. Calling intentional sin a “mistake” is just a method of nuancing the gravity of sin in the eyes of gullible friends and family.

However, there is no need to get bogged down in the minutia of whether a sin that has been perpetrated is a mistake. Scripture still categorizes mistaken sin as sin. In Numbers 15:22-31, there is a lengthy discussion of the difference between and the consequences of unintentional and “high handed” (intentional) sins. While some sins were considered to unintentional, the end result was still the same. In the eyes of the Lord, unintentional sin was still considered to be a corruption and pollution of God’s people that required sacrifice and repentance on the part of the sinner. Even with unintentional sin, Hebrews 9:22 still applies: “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.”

So why is sin routinely called a mistake in Christian circles? I believe that much of this misconception relies on an over-reliance on and potential abuse of one Greek word for sin: “hamartia.” You’ve probably seen the cliche pastoral illustration from the pulpit that describes sin as an arrow missing the mark. That’s the literal definition “hamartia”: Missing the mark (as used in archery). Back about 20 years ago, I actually saw a pastor in Richmond, VA bring a bow, arrow and target on stage to illustrate sin in this manner. So the verbal picture is often painted of sin is that you tried your best but just couldn’t do what God asked. That’s actually how my pastors and teachers defined sin for me in my formative years. You want to please God but you’re not able. You give life your best effort but you just can’t live up to God’s standards.

While there is a nugget of truth in the “missing the mark” definition of sin, a giant word of caution is necessary. An entire doctrine of sin cannot be developed based on the illustration of one word. In addition, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary states: “Hamartia is, literally, ‘a missing of the mark,’ but this etymological meaning is largely lost sight of in the New Testament. It is the most comprehensive term for moral obliquity” (emphasis mine). I actually had to look up that word “obliquity” … It means immoral conduct. It amounts to a deviation from God’s standards. Unfortunately, we are often poorly trained to read the word “sin” and think about that bow and arrow missing the target. We need to stop all of the discussion of sin and bows and arrows, because it dumbs down the broader concept of sin.

There are many more Biblical words out there that describe the nature of sin. The Hebrew word “awon” means wickedness and is rooted in the concept of bending or twisting. The Hebrew word “pesa” means transgression or breaking of the Law. The Greek words “paraptoma” and “parabasis” generally mean to overstep a boundary or stray onto the wrong path. In total, Scripture describes sin more like a corruption … a pollution … a poison  … that has pervaded its way into our hearts and our world like a drop of poison sinking into a glass of pure water. After the filth of sin has spread, there is no part of our lives where sin has not touched or permeated. Our thoughts, motives and actions are all contaminated to the point where Paul’s discourse on sin in Romans 3:10-18 is apt:

No one is righteous, no, not one; No one understands; No one seeks God; All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; No one does good; Not even one. Their throat is an open grave; They use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; In their paths are ruin and misery; And the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

In addition, sin is described as a tyranny or bondage, where the sinner is completely entangled, strangled and controlled by wickedness. Sin is also described as turning away from a good path to walk on an unhealthy one. Unlike the “bow and arrow” description of sin, the real problem is we don’t want to please God and we’re not able. We’re not giving holiness the good, old college effort. We’re happy like pigs wallowing in the muck of our sin. We desperately need the Word of God to wake us up and the work of Christ to cleanse us from the filth of sin.

There is an inherent danger to dressing up sin as a mistake … Like saying a cow pie is a work of art. Just as the Devil’s most dangerous tactic is masquerading as “an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14), infinite damage can be done by whitewashing sin as a mistake. In his excellent breviary of sin Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be, Cornelius Plantinga jr. states: “To do its worst, evil needs to look its best. Evil has to spend a lot on makeup. … Vices have to masquerade as virtues – lust as love, thinly veiled sadism as military discipline, envy as righteous indignation, domestic tyranny as parental concern.” In a scenario perfectly fit for The Screwtape Letters, the minimization of sin as an ignorant mistake is used by the Devil to dissuade sinners from running to the cross of Christ. If sin is perceived as just a casual and harmless infatuation then sinners become reticent to submit to the gravity of the cross. Only when we understand that sin is a deadly pollution that has seeped down and poisoned the essence of our being do we realize the magnitude of our helplessness and greatness of God’s forgiveness.

The good news is that God forgives all sin regardless of our intent. The blood of Jesus Christ covers all sins, marks and stains – intentional or unintentional. At the end of the day, the debate about whether sin is a mistake is somewhat moot, because the great mercy and grace of God is greater than all of our sins.

Hallelujah! What a Savior!