Punchline: how Luke’s view of sin challenges ours

Posted: November 1, 2012 by J in Bible, Church, Theology

Comparing sin in this story of Luke’s with the story we evangelicals tell about sin, we can say:

1. for Luke the judgement is not polarised with God alone on one side and all mankind on the other. In Luke the Pharisees do not stand as symbols for sinful mankind in general (the way we often interpret them). Rather they are contrasted with other sorts of people.  God stands with some, and against others who oppress them. Some groups of people never get rebuked or condemned in Luke.

Our teaching lacks this Lukan shape: we don’t aim most of our warnings at the powerful and religious: we flatten out the shape, lumping everyone in together as more-or-less equally condemned. In doing so we are much harsher on the poor and weak, telling them  they’re condemned, and we let the rich and powerful off much more lightly: their wealth doesn’t single them out for judgement.

2. sin does not = rebellion for Luke. Rebellion is sinful, yes, but not the heart of the matter, not the core sin. If there is a core sin in Luke, it’s probably foolishness. The inability to see straight, comprehend the truth, or make good decisions: that’s the thing pretty much everyone has in common. Foolishness is probably the most common criticism dished out in Luke. People are not generally portrayed as wicked and rebellious and vile. They are typically pictured as lost, sick, confused or blind. I.e. they are not in control of their lives or of their sinfulness: it controls them. Rebellion has a much more intentional sound: Luke would probably only accept this term to describe the religious leaders.

3. rebellion does not take the form of ‘self-righteousness’ in our Lutheran sense of the term. Only the Pharisees are any sort of self-righteous, and theirs is of a quite different variety, to do with social climbing and greed.

4. the problem of guilt or moral debt to justice, does not feature prominently in Luke’s portrayal of sin. The problems sin causes are much more visible and present: cruelty and suffering, hunger and shame, hardness of heart, disease, blindness and dangerous folly. Here-and-now issues, which if unresolved will lead to complete disaster in the future. The more abstract matter of propitiation for guilt, which we inherit from the Lutheran tradition, is not the big issue. The big deal is how sin destroys and de-humanises people, both offenders and victims. The Reformed teaching on the pollution of sin probably comes somewhat close to this emphasis.

5. so sin is not primarily a barrier hindering God – it is a block hindering us. Luke shows us a Jesus who is very comfortable getting close to anyone and everyone, regardless of their sins. In Jesus God welcomes everyone back, guilt notwithstanding. The blockage is on the other side – many reject him.

6. for Luke the cross brings ‘release from sins’, a holistic salvation which goes far beyond (though including) forgiveness or propitiation, encompassing the renewal of the whole person and even the whole society. The cross as ‘satisfying of a legal debt’ does not come in for special mention in Luke. The cross breaks sin’s grip on the world, and brings in the Lordship of Jesus and the Spirit’s renewing power, in its place.

Summary and conclusions:

Luke’s take on sin challenges the one I was brought up on at every point. It’s a different story he has to tell, different from the one I’ve always told and been told.

For Luke, sin’s main effects are much more present and visible than I would have thought. Indeed the heart of the matter is manifested in the social realm. Sin is apparently a pretty social kind of thing.

The groups Luke indicts are ones I belong to: the rich and religious. And the sins he cares about are ones that make me squirm: like foolish greed, social climbing, and lack of compassion. Personally, I prefer our traditional talk about rebellious self-righteousness – lets me off the hook. I can just say, ‘Ok, you got me, I’m not good enough, I can’t save myself, I need the cross.’  Then I can go on with my lifestyle just the same as before. But Luke’s version of sin hits home painfully.

I’m not suggesting we should teach this stuff in our churches. But, if we did, I bet there’d be a lot of angry people! I’m not too happy about it myself…

  1. Alan Wood says:

    One question (and this isn’t meant to sound nit-picky or hostile): HOW does the cross bring release from sins and holistic salvation?

    • Jonathan says:

      Well, Alan, what does Luke have to say about this? Can you get us started?

      • Jonathan says:

        hmm, yes, I’ve been thinking about this, and it doesn’t exactly jump out at you in Luke, does it – explanation of the mechanism of the cross. Maybe someone needs to do some work on this. I think that’s one for another day.

        But it’s a bit scandalous, isn’t it, how little Luke emphasises the mechanism of salvation.

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