The Episcopal Doctrine of Sin

Some conservative evangelicals have suggested that Episcopalians in general and The Episcopal Church in particular does not believe in or is "soft on sin." That is a false perception that must be corrected. Ironically, the first message I heard from the female priest of the Episcopal church of which I am a member was on sin, its destructive nature and inhibitor of a good relationship with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit. Any passing glance at the Catechism of the Episcopal Church would inform even the novice regarding our core beliefs on the doctrine and reality of sin:
Q. What is sin?
A. Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.

Q. How does sin have power over us?
A. Sin has power over us because we lose our liberty when our relationship with God is distorted.
The reality of sin is why we need the redemption from, of, and by a perfect and sinless Savior: Q. What is redemption? A. Redemption is the act of God which sets us free from the power of evil, sin, and death. Samuel Wells, in his book What Episcopalians Believe, helps us understand the dynamics and attributes of sin:
Sin is living as if there were no God, no grace of God, no creation to remember or kingdom to hope for, no forgiveness to redeem the past or eternal life to focus the future, no faith, no hope, no love. [Sin and its effects] is living outside the narrative of God -- without regard to the creation, the covenant with Israel, the revelation in Christ, the existence of the church, the consummation on the last day -- and making one's own narrative instead.1
Sin, Gk. ἁμαρτία, by very definition refers to missing an intended mark: i.e., error, loss, fault, guilt, ethical or moral failure, which is derived from a heart or mind intent on disobeying the morals and ethics and holy standards of God -- including error of omission (not doing what one should do) as well as error of commission (doing what one should not do). Sin causes spiritual-relational death. (Isa. 59:2; Eph. 2:1) We cannot -- nor do we care to attempt to -- mend this broken spiritual-relationship with our Creator. He must (and did and still does) take the initiative in mending our broken state in and through Christ by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Samuel Wells continues: "On the one hand [sin] arises from ignorance, immaturity, foolishness, lack of [spiritual] insight, clumsiness, hastiness, laziness, and a host of [fallen] shortcomings that could eventually be ameliorated through thoughtfulness, [spiritual] formation, [Christian] education, [biblical and Spirit-induced] wisdom, and patience."2 This brief list of instrumental causes for sin derive from our deadened state that can only be remedied by grace through faith in Christ. Wells continues: "On the other hand sin is utterly perverse and inexplicable: it is turning from glory to sordidness, joy to meanness, beauty to tawdriness, grace to misery."3 Such notions are any other perspective than disbelieving in sin or being "soft on sin."


Once we are redeemed from sin, by grace through faith in Jesus, we then seek to be discipled in Christ by studying Scripture, attending Sunday school and worship, and by spending time with other believers and sharing in their stories. Anglicans refer to this discipleship as spiritual formation whereby we create spiritual habits and a spiritual manner of thinking daily that is biblical and spiritual. Dr. Ian S. Markham explains: "The goal is to create habits so that we no longer run the risks of sin. We want to become vehicles that radiate the love of God. We don't simply want to be able to turn down opportunities for sin; we want to become people who don't want to sin."3

What we do not want to risk is becoming a life-long struggling believer who becomes comfortable merely with "sin management." Dallas Willard teaches us that trusting in Christ in the sense of trusting in His redemptive work relates to sin management and little else: "What must be emphasized in all of this is the difference between trusting Christ, the real person Jesus, with all that that naturally involves, versus trusting some arrangement for sin-remission set up through him -- trusting only his role as guilt remover." After all, we trust in a Person, not necessarily in a work.

Willard continues: "'Gospels of Sin Management' presume a Christ with no serious work other than redeeming humankind ... [and] they foster 'vampire Christians,' who only want a little blood for their sins but nothing more to do with Jesus until heaven."4 We need far more than mere sin management. We need redemption, forgiveness, and reconciliation -- with God, each other, with our self-loathing selves. But to what end? Do we hope for easy forgiveness of our sins while we remain in sin and continually sinning? God forbid! The soul that has been forgiven, redeemed, and regenerated desperately longs from his heart to be rid of sin once and for all.

Yes, friends, Episcopalians take the reality of sin very seriously. Sin is why Jesus had to die on a very cruel and torturous cross. Sin is the reality of all the problems we face in the twenty-first century (and every century prior). We feel the effects of sin every single day: from oppression to greed, to sex slavery to domestic physical and sexual child and spousal abuse, to racism and misogyny and homophobia and xenophobia, to lies and deceit and murder and rape and incest and drug and alcohol addiction, to any number of other problems that the human race experiences; and there is hope!

Sin has been dealt a crushing blow at the Cross of Jesus Christ. Sin will no longer be a reality when He returns in righteousness to bring about justice to the world.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home [the dwelling place] of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." (Rev. 20:1, 2, 3, 4)
We await eagerly every day for the New Reality of God to arrive. Christ will finally settle all accounts as He brings about justice and holiness and righteousness and freedom from every sinful and wicked and hateful and loathsome aspect of our former manner of life. Until that day, may the Lord God conform us more and more to the image and likeness of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29) as we seek to live out our new lives in Him through the Holy Spirit, forming spiritual habits, hating sin and evil and loving God above all else and others as ourselves.

__________

1 Samuel Wells, What Episcopalians Believe: An Introduction (New York: Morehouse Publishing 2011), 22.

2 Ibid.

3 Ian S. Markham, Liturgical Life Principles: How Episcopal Worship Can Lead to Healthy and Authentic Living (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2009), 20-21.

4 Quoted from Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 75, 76.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.