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Dr. Cornelius Plantinga defines sin as a “culpable disturbance of shalom.” This definition intrigued me because it seems to sum up my understanding of sin. Typically, I define sin using several passages:
But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.Romans 14:23
Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.1 John 3:4
All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.1 John 5:17
Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.James 4:17
So, sin is offending one’s own conscience, breaking a command from God, unrighteousness, and to know to do good and not do it. This is where Dr. Plantinga’s definition comes in. Sin is a “culpable disturbance of shalom.” Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace, but it is more than just peace like we think of peace; it is peace with God, it is things behaving like God designed them, and it is everyone and everything living for God. Anything that disturbs that is sin. This includes breaking a command of God, offending your neighbor with something that offends their conscience, or even doing things that aren’t inherently wrong but are wrong to you.
Thus, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). To make peace for yourself and for those around you is to live as God called you to live. Stealing, killing, speaking evil of, or even thinking negative things about your neighbor isn’t possible for a peacemaker. This is how we bring humanity back into the garden through this “new creation” that is in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Then, Jesus says, He will call us “sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).
How can we bring about peace? Through love.
Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.1 Peter 4:8
We show love for each other by putting to death our own needs in favor of others. This doesn’t leave us empty because they turn around and do the same for us. This brings about shalom. Now, this doesn’t mean that everything is perfect because sometimes we mess up. Sometimes we disturb shalom for ourselves (private sins) or for those around us. In that case, God calls us to still practice love, but to practice it in patient discipline.
My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.James 5:19–20
We have a duty towards our neighbor to be conscious of their stumbling blocks, but we mustn’t confuse that with a total lack of care for their beliefs. If they believe something that causes them to disturb shalom, the loving thing to do is say something.
Sin separates us from God. Sin separates us from our families or vice versa. Sin separates us from God’s intended life for us and those around us.
Disturbing shalom doesn’t just produce some magical or technical separation between us and God; it causes real-time consequences that are detrimental to our world. It separates us from true happiness, peace, and joy because disturbing shalom makes access to God’s presence impossible. So sin is both individual and corporate. When an individual sins, there are negative consequences for themselves and possibly those around them because when one separates themselves from life, they render themselves incapable of giving life. When a nation, community, or group sins, it can have devastating, worldwide consequences.
For example, one reason Babylon carried Jerusalem into captivity is their treatment of the land and the poor.
Those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete.2 Chronicles 36:20–21
‘They are fat, they are sleek, They also excel in deeds of wickedness; They do not plead the cause, The cause of the orphan, that they may prosper; And they do not defend the rights of the poor. Shall I not punish these people?’ declares the LORD, ‘On a nation such as this Shall I not avenge Myself?’Jeremiah 5:28–29
In forgoing the land sabbaths and mistreating the poor, they disrupted shalom and caused pain for those who weren’t necessarily guilty themselves. Sin separated the entire nation from God and from everything they loved. They lost their temple, land, and kingdom.
We have an obligation to keep ourselves from sin for the sake of ourselves, but also for the sake of others. If we are to be peacemakers and the children of God, then we must abstain from sin. We also have an obligation as peacemakers to call out disturbances of shalom in individuals, groups, congregations, corporations, and nations.
Don’t Abide in Sin
Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.1 John 3:4–6
No one who abides in Christ sins continuously. While everyone makes the occasional mistake, there is a difference in living a life of sin and living a life for God. In fact, walking in the light means admitting that you occasionally stumble, but it also means trusting in God completely to forgive you of sins.
If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.1 John 1:6–10
The necessity of repentance and confession are not because of some magical or transactional need on God’s part, but it is because when we disturb shalom we are adding to the problem in the world. When we sin, we are not showing love for our neighbor. Even private sins become a matter of universal importance because we are doing damage to God’s created order.
Sin separates us from God because sin is a disturbance of everything God stands for. When we disturb shalom, we are going against God’s design, and we are going against our intended purpose as messengers of the good news. We bring harm to ourselves and those around us. Sin is serious, and we must be conscious of its effects in our lives.
God has called us to peace and to be peacemakers, and sin is the exact opposite of that calling.