Having dealt with the main language for sin as it is discussed in the Bible, in terms of either trespassing over boundary lines or missing the mark of achieving the character of God the Father and Jesus Christ our Savior and Elder brother , it now time to add to this picture a couple of less frequently discussed aspects of sin that aid our understanding of moral topography by filling in details that might otherwise be ignored. Even though these aspects are not as often mentioned as the first two concepts, they are nonetheless important in providing an essential understanding to aspects of the topography of sin and general morality. In this light, I would like to go into greater detail about these last two aspects of moral topography because they are less well known, or if they are known, as is the case with the final dimension, they are often misunderstood by many people who seek to write or think about sin.
The third dimension of sin can best be considered a matter of velocity, and it is described various ways in scripture. If the first two dimensions of sin are matters of location or position, namely the position of boundary lines and the target of moral development that we are to aim at, the third is a reminder that we are not called to stand still but to progress. That is to say, movement is required toward the destination, and complacency is to be avoided. Perhaps the most vivid and graphic description of this, and the most familiar to many people, is the harsh message that is sent to the Church at Laodicea, of whom it is written in Revelation 3:14-19: “And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write, ‘These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.'” The brethren at Laodicea thought they were obeying God and thought that they had nothing further to do to progress towards the Kingdom of God. They thought they had arrived and had mastered what was expected of them, only to be told that they were totally off-base in the accuracy of their self-judgment. Given the harshness of this message, it is tempting for people to toss the term Laodicean around as an insult to other people, but like most examples of rebuke given in the Bible, this is a matter of personal self-examination and reflection. So long as we think we have arrived at the Kingdom of God or at the standard of virtue and spiritual maturity that God wants of us, we are possibly subject to this particular warning, and called upon to repent our presumption and to resume our journey towards God’s kingdom growing in grace and knowledge, in understanding and in practice of God’s ways.
Yet this is not the only place where a lack of progress is noted and lamented. Such examples are more common than we might first guess, and remind us of the importance of progress. If we can picture a side-scrolling video game, like the original Mario Brothers game for the Nintendo Entertainment System, we can have some image of what is expected of us. In Mario Brothers and in other games like it, the player must make continual progress towards the end of each level, because the game moves inexorably and forces the player to either progress or die. One cannot stand still or one’s character will be crushed against a barrier or forced forward until one is killed by an enemy or pushed into a hole. This particular facet of the side-scrolling game is a suitable metaphor for the spiritual development that is expected of us. Resting on our laurels when there is still a mission to accomplish or a kingdom to reach is unacceptable, and so we are pushed onward and forward into new and more difficult challenges until we reach the destination that is expected of us. Even finishing individual levels is only a brief accomplishment toward the ultimate goal of defeating the ultimate enemy and bringing peace to the kingdom, even as these interim goals remind us all too often that our princess is in another castle .
Rather than simply take my word that these examples can be found without too much difficulty, and that the importance of progress is repeatedly emphasized in scripture, especially the Renewed Covenant scriptures, let us examine a few of these occurrences which point to the importance of progress. Hebrews 5:12-14 speaks rather harshly of those who had been believers for decades and had not progressed as expected: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” It is difficult to imagine brethren who had been baptized members for three or four decades, as was the case for the brethren being written to here, to be pleased at being compared to infants who had not even been weaned to partake of solid food when they were supposed to be progressing on to adulthood and full maturity. It is difficult to imagine a more complete picture of wasted time, where decades of prayer and Bible study and of considering oneself a Christian, of attending services and listening to sermon messages had totally failed to lead to any measurable progress towards maturity, but rather still required the author of Hebrews to again point to the basic and fundamental doctrines of a belief system in which the believers should have been capable teachers to others, rather than being infants in need of the most basic moral instruction.
It should come as little surprise that Paul would comment frequently both positively and negatively concerning progress or its lack. In 2 Timothy 3:1-9, widely considered to be the last letter written before Paul’s execution by Nero, Paul has this to say about those who do not progress towards the Kingdom of God, and it is scary picture: “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith; but they will progress no further, for their folly will be manifest to all, as theirs also was.” This is one of the most frightening passages of the Bible, especially for all who consider ourselves to be living in the last days, able to check off the list of these sins and see them manifest to all who bother to look at the behavior evident around us, and sometimes among us and within us. At least two groups are here spoken of as failing to progress towards the Kingdom of God. Of various gullible women loaded down by sins and led away by various longings and lusts, the fact that these people are always learning, and vulnerable to the siren’s call of false teachers chose message comes along with moral corruption of one kind or another because they fail to overcome these sins, they fail to come to the knowledge of God because they lack obedience. Concerning the false teachers, the comments are even more harsh, as these leaders are said to be disapproved of the faith, with their folly destined to be obvious to all, and compared to various sorcerers of Pharaoh’s Egypt, consigned to judgment and even destruction, condemned to progress no further, a scary thing to say about anyone.
Nor is this the only place where Paul speaks of the importance of progress towards the destination, which is embodied by what Paul considers running or the race of Christianity. Galatians 5:7-10 says of the brethren of Galatia: “You ran well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion does not come from Him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in you, in the Lord, that you will have no other mind; but he who troubles you shall bear his judgment, whoever he is.” Hebrews 12:1 reminds us: “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 tells us: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” In all of these cases, we are reminded that the path of Christian growth is a race, that it requires discipline, like marathon training, and that it requires consistent and diligent effort. It is not a sprint, not a walk in the park, but rather a long and grueling and difficult race, one that demands discipline so that we can continually progress towards the goal.
In light of these warnings about the perils and dangers of not progressing, let us note the praise that is given where progress is seen, lest we have a view that is too negative about the process of moral growth. In Philemon :8-11, we see Paul’s touching message about the former runaway slave Onesimus, making a pun on the name of that slave, which meant “useful” and was a common slave name, if particularly ironic in this case: “Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ—I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.” The progress spoken of here is for both Onesimus and Philemon. Onesimus had to repent of his sins, which included theft, apparently, in allowing for his escape to where Paul was imprisoned, but Philemon too had to grow in love to see Onesimus not as mere chattel property as a slave, but as a brother in Christ, an equal. The graciousness that Paul speaks of these matters often leads people to pass over the seriousness of what Paul was expecting of both slave and master in the context of their shared Christian identity and their shared destination of the Kingdom of heaven.
Likewise, seeing as we have read of Paul’s harsh comments towards those who did not progress towards Christian maturity, it is important to recognize his graciousness towards those who had repented, as it is written in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11: “But if anyone has caused grief, he has not grieved me, but all of you to some extent—not to be too severe. This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him. For to this end I also wrote, that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. Now whom you forgive anything, I also forgive. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ, lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices.” Here we are reminded that the discipline and punishment that is given to those who have fallen into unrepentant sin is not to last forever, but is rather to end once it has accomplished the goal of prompting and encouraging repentance. We do not live in a moral world where penance and self-flagellation are required forever, but are put in a context where we are expected to walk according to God’s ways and to repent when we fall short but to get up, dust ourselves off, and keep on moving. And let us do so, as long as God gives us to walk upon this earth.
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