February 7, 2013

Whence came sin?

"Sin exists, but it will never be able to justify its existence. It is unlawful and irrational." - Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics

Following his discussion of why God would allow sin in his creation, Bavinck acknowledges that even this does not ultimately solve the mystery as to the origin of sin. How is it that a being created in the image of God, in righteousness and holiness turn away from him? He suggests keeping these things in mind:

  1. The possibility of sinning is from God. It must have first been conceived by him for it to exist. He writes: "God eternally conceived sin as his absolute polar opposite and thus, in that sense, included it in his decree, or else it would have been able to arise and exist in reality. It was not Satan, nor Adam and Eve, who first conceived the idea of sin: God himself as it were made it visible to their eyes. By means of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the probationary command, he clearly showed human beings the two roads they could take. And before the fall he even permitted an evil power from without to insinuate itself into Paradise, using the snake as its medium, and to discuss with Eve the meaning of the probationary command." (66)
  2. God so created angels and humans that they could sin and fall. "Human beings, though they walked on the right road, could stray onto a side road. They were good, but changeable so. God alone is fully existent in all his attributes and therefore immutable. Creatures, however, become and can therefore also degenerate. All that has been created can change...Moral freedom, however vigorous, is inherently distinct from logical necessity and physical force. A creature naturally incapable of sin, therefore, is a contradiction." (67)
  3. There is some relationship between the origin of sin and the faculty of imagination. "Thomas à Kempis describes it: "At first it is a mere thought confronting the mind; then imagination paints it in stronger colors; only after that do we take pleasure in it, and the will makes a false move, and we give our assent." The mind entertains the idea of sin, the imagination beautifies and converts it into a fascinating ideal, desire reaches out to it, and the will goes ahead and does it. Thus in the case of both angels and humans, the imagination was the faculty that made the violation of the commandment appear as the road to equality with God." (67)
  4. The cases of humans are angels are different. Unlike humans, who are made of dust then breathed with life, who were tempted and had sin aroused in them from without through the lust of the eyes, the craving of the flesh, and the pride of life, "temptation did not come to [angels] from without. They fell by their own agency. Jesus says that the devil speaks "according to his own nature" when he lies. He became discontented with his status and power on his own, that is, by his own thinking; he produced the lie from within himself and projected it as a realm, a system, over against the truth of God...The origin and essence of sin has a very different character in the case of humanity that in that of the angels." (68)

Even with these considerations, all that is settled is a possibility of sin, with the answer as to why the possibility was realized still shrouded in mystery. Ultimately, the explanation escapes us because it is an irrational absurdity.

"Here we enter the mysterious area of moral freedom and face a phenomenon that in the nature of the case, as it concerns its origin, escapes explanation. A moral act, after all, is never equivalent to a conclusion from a premises nor to a physical or chemical result. It essentially differs from both and has a character of its own. The moral life is utterly unique; it is always a life of freedom and that, in the nature of the case, is a riddle...Sin cannot be physically or logically deduced from antecedent circumstances, reasonings, or considerations. Above all, it cannot be inferred from a holy nature created ion God's image. One who understood and explained sin, that is, could demonstrate that it necessarily followed from antecedent factors, would fail to do justice to its nature, erase the boundaries between good and evil, and trace something evil to something good. The sinful act is caused by the sinful will, but who will indicate to us the cause of this sinful will?...Sin started with lying (John 8:44); it is based on illusion, an untrue picture, an imagined good that was not good. In its origin, therefore, it was a folly and an absurdity." (69)

February 3, 2013

Living For Tomorrow (The Economics of Christian Belief)

There is a concept in economics known as time preference. Very basically, it is the notion that, all other things being equal, present satisfaction of our wants is to be preferred over future satisfaction. That is, if we can't achieve our ends now, we want to do it as soon as we can. This means that we place a premium on delayed attainment of those ends. If I say, "you can have a $100 now or $100 in six years," you would likely choose now without much consideration. However, if I were to say, "you can have $100 now or $1000 in six years," you would be forced into thinking about the premium placed on the future money and whether it is sufficient to forgo the present ends you could attain with the $100.

A corollary to this concept is the idea of time horizon, which is the period of time into the future in which we make plans to attain our ends. Some people live with today in mind, and others live with the next 30 years in mind, and they both plan accordingly. A combination of our time preference and our time horizon will have a big influence on how we make decisions. In the example above, the assumption is that your time horizon extends to at least 6 years, otherwise you would never consider forgoing the present satisfaction for the future greater satisfaction. Young children are notorious for having a very short time horizon. If I tell my 4 year old daughter, "you can choose between having one piece of chocolate today or having 5 pieces of chocolate in a week," she will choose today's chocolate without hesitation.

If you've ever known someone who appears to make unsound financial decisions, as if they are giving no thought for tomorrow, it's very possible that they aren't. A short time horizon is an important factor at play in why many people in a condition of poverty will often persist in that condition, even when opportunities have arisen that would allow them to improve their living condition.

I had a friend who was extremely poor, having just come off the streets and received housing assistance. He had just cleared the hurdles to begin receiving financial assistance and the checks had started to come in, with amounts sufficient for his living expenses plus some additional. Just a couple weeks later, he told me that he was trying figure how he would pay rent and buy groceries this week because he didn't have any money. When I pressed him on the financial assistance he had received, he said he got the check but had used the money to buy a couch for his new apartment. It really never dawned on him during the course of making that decision that he might need to forgo the present good of a couch (or find a cheaper one) for the sake of the future good of being able to pay rent and buy food in two weeks.

One of the things that necessarily happens when someone is converted and becomes a follower of Jesus Christ is that they face a radical disruption in their time horizon. Whether the person previously lived for tomorrow, or lived for 30 years from now - either way, their time horizon is immediately extended beyond this life and into eternity. The effects of this cannot easily be overstated. When you are factoring in the goals and attainments, not only of this world, but of the world to come, it will influence every decision you make. For those who previously had a short time horizon, the immediate effect would be a recognition that they need to think beyond just today and you will notice a change in behavior accordingly. However, even those with a long time horizon will be impacted. For example, I may already believe that it's beneficial for me to forgo a present satisfaction in order to enjoy the future satisfaction of a peaceful retirement. However, with eternity in mind, all of the sudden I may be forgoing even that peaceful retirement for the sake of something much greater.

Isn't this essentially the argument that Jesus and Paul make repeatedly in the New Testament (Matt. 6:19-21; Matt. 19:21; Luke 18:29-30; 1 Tim. 6:17-19)? This goes beyond just what you do with money, but affects every action you take. Why would you willingly forgo present comfort and endure much suffering and hardship, even potentially dying? It may make no sense with a time horizon of 1,10, or even 50 years, but with a Christian time horizon, all of the sudden it's the only thing that makes. As the missionary martyr Jim Elliot said, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose."

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, gour inner self his being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison... (2 Cor. 4:16-18)

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us... (Rom. 8:16-18)

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied...Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor. 15:19, 30-32)

Let this mind be in you, as it was in Christ Jesus, who for the sake of the joy set before him endured cross, despising the shame (Heb. 12:2). In every decision we face, let us consider the kingdom and the inheritance in Christ which awaits us beyond this day.

February 2, 2013

Why Did God Allow Sin to Exist?

Herman Bavinck gives a superb answer:
"The answer is implied in the providence of God as it pertains to sin. Scripture repeated states that God uses sin as punishment of the wicked (Deut. 2:30; Joshua 11:20; Judges 9:23-24; John 12:40; Rom. 1:21-28; 2 Thess. 2:11-12), as a means of saving his people (Gen. 45:5; Gen. 50:20), to test and chastise believers (Job 1:11-12; 2 Sam 24:1; 1 Cor. 10:13; 1 Cor. 11:19; 2 Cor. 12:7), and to glorify his name (Exodus 7:3; Prov. 16:4; Rom. 9:17; Rom. 11:33). Precisely because God is the absolutely Holy and Almighty One, he can use sin as a means in his hand. Creatures cannot do that; with the least contact, they themselves become polluted no impure. But God is so infinitely far removed from wickedness that he can make sin, as an unresisting instrument, subservient to his glorification. There are countless examples that prove that also in this connection "when two parties do the same thing, it is not the same." It was God's will that Shimei cursed David, that Satan tested Job, that Jews and Gentiles wanted to give up God's holy servant Jesus to death - still in all these iniquities, human creatures are guilty and God is innocent. For even when he wants there to be evil, he only wants it in a way that is holy: though using it, he never commits it. And for that reason, he has also allowed sin into his creation. He would not have tolerated it had he not been able to govern it in an absolute holy and sovereign manner. He would not have put up with it if he were not God, the Holy and Omnipotent One. But being God, he did not fear its existence and its power. He willed it so that in it and against it he might bring to light his divine attributes. If he had not allowed it to exist, there would always have been rationale for the idea that he was it in all his attributes superior to a power whose possibility was inherent in creation itself, for all rational creatures as creatures, as finite, limited, changeable beings, have the possibility of apostatizing. But God, because he is God, never feared the way of freedom, the reality of sin, the eruption of wickedness, or the power of Satan. So, both in its origin and its development, God always exercises his rule over sin. He does not force it, nor does he block it with violence but rather allows it to reach its full dynamic potential. He remains king yet still gives it free rein in his kingdom. He allows it to have everything - his world, his creature, even his Anointed - for evils cannot exist without goods. He allows it to us all that is his; he gives it opportunity to show what it can do in order, in the end, as King of kings, to leave the theater of battle. For sin is of such a nature that it destroys itself by the very freedom granted it; it dies of its own diseases; it dooms itself to death. At the apex of its power, it is, by the cross alone, publicly shown up in its powerlessness (Col. 2:15)." (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 3, 64-65)