THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 39
Sin separates - or does it?
All my life I have acceded to the statement that sin separates us from God. It is a basic of all evangelical belief, and it is often the dawning realisation of this truth that moves the sinner to accept Christ into his life as Lord and Saviour.
However, I have been thinking about this phrase recently, and now I am not as sure that I either understand or can explain how or why sin separates. In fact, I am of half a mind to say that we could express the truth better by using a different concept than that of sin ‘separating’ us from God.
What has set me off down this road? I was prompted to start along this exploration by reading some extracts from William Law. William Law was a saintly Christian and lived at the end of the seventeenth century. He wrote prodigiously and had an enormous influence on a number of very important people, including John Wesley.
One of the ideas that Law emphasised is that the concept of God being angry with us is a wrong one. God has no wrath in him. Instead, it is the human being who projects onto God (although William Law did not use the word ‘project’!) the wrath in his own spirit. It is man who makes God out to be angry and wrathful. Of course William Law says a lot more than the few words I have ascribed to him – consult the books if you want to learn more.
This theme from William Law has made me want to suggest that this phrase, ‘sin separates us from God’, that we repeat parrot like in evangelical circles, needs re-examination.
After all – if God is all love and if God is constantly with us as we believe, surrounding us with his love and care, then how can we say that sin separates us from him? In what sense are we separated?
Do we mean that sin comes between us and God? But God will not allow sin to come between us in that way. He seeks and saves the lost. Are we saying that there is an automatic result of sin that cuts us off from God? If we sin does that mean that God loves us less? Or does it mean that God becomes angry with us? Or does it mean that there is a kind of blanket of non-communication between us until some rectifying action is taken by us?
God forbid all of these suggestions! God is love and God is with us all each moment, and seeks our commitment and obedience to him all the time. He does not go away for weekends or have a holiday away from us for a time every so often. It is we, ‘tis our estranged faces’ that miss the fact of his presence.
Or does it mean that by sinning we inevitably put ourselves further from God? Push ourselves out of reach? Alienate ourselves? God forbid! Our sin is no ‘problem’ to God. He loves us with a love that is more fiery and pure than ever we have known. It is eternal. His commitment to us is eternal. Not temporary. Not ephemeral. Not variable according to whether or not we are good boys or girls.
We can surely dismiss the idea that God gets angry with us. He is not like a human parent. We can forget the idea that somehow God is ‘fazed’ by our sin. He knows absolutely all that the human heart is capable of, and still loves us totally and eternally. We can forget, too, the idea that by sinning we place ourselves out of reach of God. His love follows us wherever we go. (Psalm 139: ..or where can I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there, If I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou are there, If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, Even there Thy hand will lead me…)
God goes on seeking us and caring for us and guiding our lives whatever we do or don’t do. The poet in the Hound of Heaven talks of fleeing Him down the arches of the years – but never escaping from the relentless love that followed him always.
We can forget the idea that we have the power to defeat God – God has paid the great price in order to get the relationship between man and his creator right. It cost Christ his life here on earth. God isn’t going to let some human beings frustrate his plans to win men to his allegiance eventually.
Do you find yourself saying ‘This man is a universalist’? Well, I am not. I don’t believe in universalism in the sense that we have no need to bother because everyone will get there in the end. As if, somehow, it doesn’t really matter because we are all bound for heaven. But, perhaps, in a sense I am a little sympathetic, because I do personally believe that God’s will must eventually come to pass and that every soul will eventually come to glorify God and sing his praises. How or when I have no idea – and it seems to me the Bible is equally vague on the subject! And nothing I am saying is intended to take away any aspect of man’s free will, which God respects, for that is how he has created us.
If God loves us with such a depth of commitment and constancy – something that I am just beginning to grasp more fully- then eventually he will win all human beings to his side. There can be no other outcome for a God who is as powerful and loving as our God is. Our God is not a God who just loves. He is a God who actually is love. That means that his power is expressed in love and love alone. The power of love is beyond all others, for it is the power of God.
In fact, we can safely say that he does not hate sin (a phrase I have often read in evangelical literature) – because God doesn’t hate anything or anyone. That nonsense about hating the sin but loving the sinner is just not true to human nature. If you have hate in you, then it will come out against people – or God. We are the ones who project onto God the anger and wrath and all the other negative human emotions. God simply is not like that.
It is as if, for a lot of human history, there has been a ceiling of thick cloud that has hidden God from us – and reflected back to us, like a mirror, our own negative emotions which, because they seem to come down to us from above, we then ascribe to God. Perhaps we are only just beginning to understand the clear message of the Christian gospel which is like a message coming through the gap in the clouds, where the sun shines through and there is light and life. There is a progressive element to understanding the New Testament, and maybe we are now able to apprehend, if not comprehend, the nature of the eternal love of God for his creation.
And that message, put simply, is : God is love. Think of him as a father, said Jesus. Pray to him just as you would to your daddy, he said. Ask him for what you need, just as you would ask your daddy. Talk to him as if he were next to you.
Why then have we been so insistent that sin separates? What is the urgent and important truth that we have been trying to impart to others by using this time-worn phrase?
Surely it is just this : that we cannot slide through life as if it does not matter whether we sin or not. We have to be responsible, and accountable to God. Sin separates – watch out that you don’t let sin infiltrate your life, or suddenly you will find yourself distant to God.
The motive is fine, and there is a some truth in there, but the message now seems to me to be inadequate. Sin does not separate in any real sense. Lets unpack this idea a little further.
In no way am I saying that sin is not important, or something against which we must guard. What I am saying is that sin does not separate us in any real sense from God.
When we feel God has withdrawn from us – perhaps after a bout of spectacular sin, of which we are all too conscious, the feeling of being out of contact with God is actually an illusion. God is as near to us as ever he was. He loves us just as much as he ever loved us. He cares for us and for our future just as much as ever he did. The sin we feel is very real, in all of us all the time. It flows around and beneath and above us all the time. It permeates the whole world all the time. But sin does not separate us from God! Our feelings may mislead us, but the truth of the gospel is greater than our feelings. As we feel the warmth of his love, we turn from our sin and open our hearts and minds to God again.
The idea that God is angry with us because of our sin, or displeased with us because we have ‘let him down’, or is disappointed with us – all these are mere reflections of a human way of thinking. It is ascribing to God the emotions of our parents when we were children. It is a human emotion that is not present in God – for God is love.
The idea that God is angry with us is also a throwback to primitive religions. It is part of the old Hebrew religion – you can look in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) and see it again and again. The concept has served mankind at an early stage in the process of becoming more civilised, but it is now a barrier for a Christian who wishes to advance in his spiritual life, and rightly we can discard it.
Insofar as you find any reflection of the idea that sin separates us from God in the New Testament you can dismiss it as a legacy in the Jewish writers from their Jewish upbringing and their old Jewish Bible. It is not part of the essential Christian thought. God is like a Father. He is all and totally love. He does not feel anger, dislike, dismay, or any other of the human emotions that are so much a part of our lives.
If one examines the writings of St Paul then one sees certain themes. Justification by faith is one. The need for repentance and renewal by God is another. The importance of turning from sin is a very important one. The living of a holy life is another. The possibility of slipping away from God and of becoming deadened in our spirit is another. All of these are important, but none of them contradicts the essential truth we are uncovering in this article: that God is never separated from us, even by our worst sins.
It is the nature of love to react to every setback with a loving and caring response. All the negative emotions are simply not present when love is the motivating force behind a relationship. And it is the eternal nature of that commitment of love towards us that enables us to turn from sin and to find again the closeness with God that he wants us to enjoy.
So, for example, to say that God is angry with homosexuals only reveals the paucity of the spiritual experience of the speaker. It tells us nothing about God or about homosexuals. It shows how thin and insubstantial is that person’s experience of the Christian God.
To let your self-hatred, or your self-anger, or your self-accusations of shame – no matter what you have done -destroy your relationship with God is to play into the hands of the enemy. God loves us and in that love is our salvation. Don’t let sin separate you from God – realize the outpoured love of God in your life every minute of every day, and be thankful.