What is Sin? Answers from a Quaker, a Calvinist, and a Sufi

Today I would like to talk to you about a difficult subject, one that causes much confusion and disagreement within the Christian world and beyond. It is a central part of our faith and yet one which is not so clearly spelled out or understood, certainly there is a great deal of differing opinion between denominations and even individuals within denominations. This controversial subject is the nature of sin, what it is, how we relate to it, and what is required of us to free ourselves from it.

I would like to present to you some differing ideas and maybe go so far as to tell you what I think, but in the end, of course, it is something we all have to come to terms with on our own, it is something between the individual and God.

To ground us in some scripture, we will look at Mark 1:21-28

The story of Jesus’ presence not only expelling demons but also revealing them when they are hidden seems to me to be an allegory for the nature of God’s presence in our hearts and the sin we carry inside of us. For what is a demon but personified sin, and what is Jesus but personified God?

So first, let us ask the question “what is sin?” Well, this is no easy question to answer. John Calvin, one of the leading theologians after the Protestant reformation, had some very interesting ideas about sin.

He held firm to the Catholic notion of original sin as passed down to humanity by Adam in the fall. And, as such, he professed the inescapable depravity of every human being. He believed us all to be wretched creatures who disobeyed God by our very nature, and that our only hope of redemption from our selves was by the grace of God, through Jesus Christ. He also believed that, and I quote:

“God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation.”

In Calvin’s view it is all rather simple. Adam is to blame for the existence of sin, we are all worthy of God’s just punishment, and by no virtue of our own God has ordained a select few to be saved in order that he might exemplify his own just and forgiving nature. Pretty straight forward stuff.

To contrast this, I would like to present the ideas of George Fox, a Quaker theologian from a similar time period. The Quaker ideas of sin and salvation are in direct opposition to Calvinist thoughts. Here is a Quote from Fox:

“He that hath brought Man into Imperfection is the Devil, and his work who led from God; for Man was Perfect before he fell, for all God’s Works are Perfect; So Christ that destroys the Devil and his works, makes man Perfect again, destroying him that made him Imperfect, which the Law could not do; so by his Blood doth he cleanse from all Sin; And by one offering, hath he Perfected for ever them that are Sanctified.”

Here he is saying that the Devil is responsible for human sin. That humanity cannot be inherently sinful as we are a creation of God and all of God’s works are perfect. And so when Christ came to destroy the Devil and all of his works, he destroyed sin itself and humanity was returned to its perfect state, the way God intended.

Fox, and many Quakers to follow him, held the belief that it was possible for a person to return to the state Adam was in before he fell, that is, to become perfect. And they believed that this was in the process of happening on earth right now, as the effects of the sacrifice of Jesus slowly begin take hold in the world.

A third idea which I would like to present to you is from a Muslim Sufi Master by the name of Abu Hashim Madani. Madani said:

“There is only one virtue and one sin for a soul on the path: virtue when he is conscious of God and sin when he is not.”

A simplified version of the Sufi idea is that God is all that exists. We are God and so are all of our surroundings. The physical world and, in fact, the spiritual world as well are mere expressions of God. Just as waves in the sea appear to be separate for a moment but are really only ripples in the ocean, so are we merely waves protruding out from the ocean that is God.

And so, by Sufi reckoning, sin is merely a lapse in understanding. It is a forgetful nature which leaves us imagining the wave exists without the sea and virtue is grasping that profound and simple truth that we are all, quite literally, one and the same and that no real distinctions exist between individuals, in fact, individuals do not exist at all.

Whatever you believe the nature of sin to be, all agree that we should work to remove it from our lives, that sin separates us from God and displeases him. And, despite the fact that these three examples I have given you all seem to be in direct contradiction with each other they all share one common feature. While the cause of sin is disputed the remedy for it is apparent.

Calvin says that the grace of God is the only escape from it, Fox says that we have already been liberated from it but fail to grasp the magnitude of what Jesus has done for us, and Madani tells us that reuniting with the one God will bring about virtue. All agree that it is by God we have salvation, and this is the obvious message of the Gospel.

So, then, the important question to answer becomes “how do we grow closer to God?” And again here people begin to separate on views. Calvin is a little pessimistic as he believes that there is nothing a person can do to change anything, our own nature is beyond our ability to influence, and it is by God’s whim alone that each person is either saved or condemned.

Fox believes that we need only to accept the grace that has already been bestowed on every person and accept the light of the Holy Spirit which Christ has placed in our hearts. In this view one would accomplish their goal by silent prayer, personal improvement, and charitable works. And here is another great quandary in the Christian world, is it by the good works we do or the faith we have that we are liberated from our own sin?

Another huge name in Protestant theology and a precursor to Calvin is Martin Luther. Luther was the first to put forward the idea that it is by faith alone that we are granted God’s grace and able to gain favour in God’s eyes. He says that the works of an individual may be holy on the exterior yet sinful in reality.

It is faith alone which is pure and it is by it that Christ enters our lives. He did not speak out against good works, but instead said that when one has true faith charity will be the natural result of God’s impression in the heart. And that the inner disposition is the only factor which God will consider in assigning judgement.

I think he is right that if we have true faith we will automatically do good things in the world. But, couldn’t it also be possible that faith could be the product of charity? If the works themselves are genuinely good and not affected by an undercurrent of selfish desire or personal gain then the faith of the individual will surely grow in proportion to the works. I do not see a relationship which flows in a single direction from faith to works, but instead I see a symbiotic relationship whereby one must practice good works to build faith and build faith to practice good works.

One could not focus entirely on a single of these two paths and complete it fully without having also tread the other. For faith is something that is built and which grows in the heart and it is through works that we are able to increase it incrementally. Faith, being a complete and unwavering trust in God, cannot be gained instantaneously, as trust is built and earned slowly over time.

It is in a working relationship that trust is gained and the only working relationship one may have with God is in the way he treats God’s creation. Any person who claims to have unwavering faith but has not practiced works to accompany it has merely a hollow shell of faith for they are operating solely within the confines of their own mind and not in the living creation of God. In Matthew 25:40 Jesus tells us

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

We interact with and demonstrate our love for God by the works that we do and faith and love must grow together for wherever one is lacking the other cannot continue. But charity is something we all can do no matter how we feel inside.

Faith, on the other hand, is not something we can just decide to have, but charity and other good works are. So charity seems to me a natural place to begin. While the exact nature of sin and its origins may for ever remain a mystery the remedy is plain to see and it was the very command that Jesus gave us:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ And ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

And I pray that one day we, as a species, will be able to truly implement this command. I agree with Fox that perfection is attainable by every person, for in every person God dwells, and for every person Jesus died.

I have no doubt in my mind that the only thing which holds back the Kingdom of Heaven from being realized here on Earth is a stubborn clinging to sin by the people of the world. In the words of John Woolman, another influential Quaker theologian:

“My heart hath often been deeply afflicted under a feeling that the standard of pure righteousness is not lifted up to the people by us, as a society, in that clearness which it might have been, had we been as faithful as we ought to be to the teachings of Christ.”

The onus is on each of us as individuals: to choose between love and selfishness, to choose whether we wish to be holy or sinful. For inside each and every person reading this is the potential to be holy, or to be a sinner, and we all are, whether consciously or not, making that choice with every decision we make, every word we speak, every action and every thought.

We create the world we live in and the state of the world is a mere reflection of the state of our souls. For all of nature is perfect, as it remains how God created it, and if we wish to see the true nature of ourselves we need only look at the world which we design separate of God’s and I am sorry to say that what I see paints a dark picture of the human spirit.

Luckily, it is a picture which can be repainted and as soon as the moment comes where humanity decides to genuinely love God and our neighbours God will wipe away the grim portrait we have now and it will be replaced by a beautiful one and love will finally embrace the earth and sin will become an artifact of the past.

So let’s all go out from here and choose love over selfishness, let’s all make a conscious decision to be holy, and not in a little way, but in a big way. Let’s accept that the light of God has already shone down upon the world and it is we who have put our hands before our eyes and cry that it is dark. Shake off sin as if it were nothing more than dust, for in comparison to God it is nothing more. Remember that you are created in God’s image and as such you are so much more than sin.

I believe humanity has a massive and beautiful untapped potential and by God’s grace and our own commitment and faith it can be released from the bondage we ourselves have placed it in. So be holy, don’t be timid, or skeptical about it, just be holy. Start right now, there is no reason to wait. Look up into the sky as you walk away from here and say to God

“I am ready to be with you, I am ready to do this, let’s start right now. Lord, I have decided to be holy, my soul is in your hands.”

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