Forming Faith Blog

Sin, Shalom, and Jesus (Romans 6)

How we define words matters. The word “sin” is critical in interpreting this text, Paul’s letters, and the Bible in general. What if it’s less violating a legal code and more disrupting shalom?

Broken glass. Sin is a disruption, or breaking, of God's shalom.

As I have mentioned before, sometimes reading Paul makes my head swim. It’s not really Paul’s fault; he is just trying to explain a reality that is beyond our concrete experience of this world. The work of God in Jesus is not about a change in job, clothes, or ZIP code. It does involve a change in how we behave and how we view our world, but those changes don’t define God’s work.

Defining Our Terms

One of the critical first steps in having a fruitful conversation, debate, or teaching is to define our terms. The whole point of words and our organization of them (grammar) is to communicate thoughts and ideas. If we don’t have a shared understanding of those words, communication breaks down. Too often, terms are not defined, and communication suffers. Our arguments are not resolved, or people walk away with different ideas of what just happened.

What Is Sin?

One of the terms that is critical to Paul’s thought (and a whole lot of Scripture) is sin. Sin is a topic that many people nowadays feel uncomfortable with. Part of this discomfort is indeed a desire to avoid feelings of guilt and shame, which are kind of the point of talking about sin. However, depending on where you fall on the theological spectrum, discomfort can be caused by the (mis)use of sin and judgment by many of the dominant (loud) voices in our religious and political atmosphere.

Sin and Law

One of the primary, popular understandings of sin is the violation of God’s law. I don’t know that this can be denied. Sin is the breaking of God’s law. However, when limited to this legal understanding, a legalistic view of sin and sinners can emerge. Specific sins can be highlighted, and others can be downplayed. This can lead to self-righteousness, where “those sinners” need to repent and change, but we don’t.

Sin and Grace

Another view popular among the children of the Reformation involves an abstraction of the legal metaphor. God judges us all guilty of sin, worthy of judgment, but Jesus steps in and takes that judgment away from us, so we are free from that judgment. Again, as a child of the Reformation myself, I cannot argue with this main premise. However, this view can lead to a disconnect between the work of God in Jesus and the importance of ethical behavior. That’s the pitfall that Paul is addressing in Romans 6.

What are we to say? Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound?

Romans 6:1

God forgives all our sins, so what is our motivation for stopping our sinful behaviors?

Sin and Shalom

A definition of sin that has been helpful to me connects sin to the concept of shalom (learned secondhand from Cornelius Plantinga). Shalom is the way God created the world to be. It is the web of our relationships with God, others, creation, and ourselves defined by love, justice, and joy. Shalom is the world defined by loving God and others. It is the kingdom of God. Evil, then, is anything that disrupts shalom. Sin is specifically the things we do that disrupt shalom, as well as our state of being where sinful actions are natural.  

Shalom and the Law

Placed in this context, God’s law is meant to point us to a community and life defined by shalom. So, yes, sin is the violation of God’s law, but more deeply it is the disruption of shalom. The work of God in Jesus is to establish shalom (the kingdom of God), both now (in part) and in the future (fully). Now, we receive forgiveness and reconciliation, the love of God, to experience in part. In the future, we will experience God’s shalom completely.

Seeing sin as a disruption of God’s shalom, and not just a violation of God’s legal code, makes it easier (for me) to see the connection between grace and ethical behavior. We are citizens of God’s kingdom, but we are also called to spread God’s love/shalom. That’s our job. And, we cannot spread God’s love by words alone, but by living this love for God, others, creation, and ourselves.

In Christ,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Free Resource

During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: September 11 to May 28), we provide a free resource download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry. This week, download a free activity “Renewal” from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Worship (NL Year 2, 2023-2024) curriculum. This activity can be adapted for use by households, groups, and classes of any size or age range.

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