Sin, disapproval, and John 20:23

Reading Drawn to Freedom, I'm struck by the clarity of the understanding of sin. That, and how pale in comparison are those 'sins' which are merely sinful because we disapprove of them. Sin is sin, not because there are rules that oppose a thing, but because it authentically causes misery. It does us harm. It is defined by our painful distance from God. In Paul's terms, it is even personified as that power that rules over us, but from whose service we are liberated into the service of God in Christ under the Spirit.

There is a common sense that sinners enjoy their sin, that they revel in disobedience—and such a caricature makes of "them" an opposition to "us" who are penitent and good (and perhaps even free from sin). A further idea that what we deem to be sinful actually is causing them misery, if only they would see it (and quit reveling in disobedience). We receive permission—deriving it from Scripture if we can—to oppose the sins we define in such people. And perhaps in humility we permit ourselves to be sinful people as well, but never at equity with "them."

This is vastly different from the world Paul sketches in Romans, though perhaps it bears on the problem he addresses in 1:18-32. And the world of the Heidelberg Confession, likewise. Sin is greivous, not because we or God arbitrarily disapprove, but because, as a power, it harms us. God does indeed disapprove, as should we, of genuine sin—and not the sinner.

A few weeks ago we had John 20:23 in the gospel reading, and my wife asked me, "what does it mean, binding and loosing sins?" So, because it's why she asked, I hit the Greek. Besides noticing the significant differences with respect to the Synoptic version, there's a basic difference about sin operant in the passage. If we think of sins as part of the actions of a person, internally produced, the verbs make no good sense. To bind we must bind the sinner—and what about loosing? Why would we release the sinner and permit sins?

But John operates on a different view. This passage is the gift of the Spirit, which his disciples receive as a power enabling them—and not as though they got some new personal ability. And with the Spirit's presence: the capacity (and even the responsibility, perhaps) for two related actions. Taking the genitive not as simple possessive ("... anyone's ..."), but as ablative, we see a very different sense. To free/release/remove sin from a person, and to bind/box up/quarantine it. To replace the power of sin over life with the power of the Spirit, as it pours into the vacuum. Which is to be the means by which the Spirit comes to fill up the separation of our life from God. To restore joy and health.


  1. I didn't go where I was going at the start. Have to back and fill -- perils of composition on the iPod!


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