The word “sin” means to “miss the mark.” What is the mark?
For the Pharisees the mark was the Law of Moses, plus all the other rules they had added on. To them, sin was to break the Law. The Pharisees saw themselves as God’s representatives with a twofold task: informing society at large about God’s commandments and seeking to enforce obedience to the Law and judgment on those who were considered lawbreakers. The Pharisees were a “god police” dutifully condemning sinners and being angry with tax collectors. The older brother in Luke 15 is a picture of the Pharisees. He describes the rules his younger brother has broken, while the father never mentions them.
Jesus viewed sin in a completely different way. To Him, sin was not a broken rule but a broken relationship – a refusal to enter the fellowship of love we were created for. When the prodigal son insisted on his part of the inheritance now, it was as if he had wished for his father’s death, and in the Middle-Eastern culture this was a scandal beyond compare. To add further insult to injury, the son then spent his inheritance in a “far off country,” thereby demonstrating before the entire village that he wanted nothing whatsoever to do with his father. He was creating his own life as far away from home as possible. What was the sin of the prodigal? A broken relationship.
This is a mirror picture of Adam’s sin, the original sin. Adam wanted to find his own way instead of trusting the God who loved him. He listened to the serpent, took matters in his own hands, tried to lift himself to a higher level to improve his own situation, and become “morelike God.” This is the essence of sin: distrust. Adam trusted his own ability rather than His loving God.
After Adam fell into sin, he pulled himself away from God once more. There are those who claim that God is so holy that He cannot look upon sin. This is an outright lie. God graciously and immediately approached Adam after he had sinned. God did not pull away – Adam withdrew from God.
A couple of chapters later in the Book of Genesis, after Cain had murdered Abel, God comes to Cain and protects him. Again it is Cain who withdraws from God’s presence, not vice versa, because God has never turned His back on a sinner – God is the friend of sinners.
Finally, and inevitably, things turned to the worse for the prodigal son, because the wages of sin is always death. He found himself in a famine, and then among the pigs – the very worst that can happen to a Jew. When he called out, “I’m no longer worthy to be called your son,” these were not words of repentance. He was merely stating the obvious. The prodigal knew very well the customs of the day – the village considered him unworthy and could not accept his return. Furthermore, the father could not welcome a son who had humiliated his own dad before all the people. The inhabitants of the village would spit on the prodigal and demand penance. According to custom, their duty and the father’s duty was to keep him accountable for his actions.
To the prodigal son, sin was a matter of wrong behaviour, and now he wanted to correct his prior actions. “Let me become as one of your servants,” he said. Notice, he did not want closeness to his father. No, the same sin that pulled him far away is still keeping him back at a “safe” distance from his father. The prodigal still wants to take matters in his own hands, pay back what he owes, work as a servant, live among the servants, and slowly make right what he has wronged – one step at a time. He is still a self-made, self-righteous man ready to fix his failures by trying again.
“He came to himself.” But that does not mean salvation, because repentance does not happen when we come to ourselves. It only happens when we come to the Father; back to the love we were created for. The father saw sin for what it really is – a broken relationship. The son had broken relationship and removed himself from the father’s house to find an alternate purpose for his life.
If sin is merely breaking rules and commandments, then the Christian life becomes our attempt at keeping the commandments. On the contrary, if sin is a broken relationship with God, then the Christian life is a restored relationship with God, a new life in Christ.
If our religion is about rules, our God will be a judge who decides who is doing best, who gets second place, third place, and who is completely disqualified.
Sin is something much deeper – a broken relationship between God and people. Jesus came to be the world’s Saviour; to restore every person into this fellowship of love.
What happens then with sin in people’s lives? Human attempt to keep the commandments eventually only leads to hypocrisy. Victory over sin, real holiness, and true sanctification is the result of a life and relationship with the God who has always loved us.
Sin can never stop the flow of God’s grace – it is God’s grace that stops sin and brings true holiness.