Gary Anderson says sin has a history. He’s not talking about the history of our personal sin — why we did it or what it’s enduring effects were. He’s talking about the history of the way we talk about sin. He says this is evident by the change of metaphors that are used to describe/define sin in the Old Testament.
He explains why this is significant by employing the philosophical thought of Riccouer, who argues that the meaning of words are derived from the metaphors we use when talking about them. By way of example he takes the metaphors we use to describe the word argue. The sorts of language we use when talking about arguing include:
- I destroyed his argument.
- I shared my perspective now you go. Shoot!
- I dismantled her logic.
- I blew up her worldview.
All of the metaphors we use to describe the idea of arguing include war-like, violent imagery. If instead we used dance metaphors to describe arguing, we would think of an argument much differently than we do. If we said things like, “our argument last night was a waltz.” Or, if we said, “we gracefully argued back and forth as a couple glides across the dance floor.” Using this metaphor would change the way we understood arguing. It would change the very definition of what it means to argue. His point is that the metaphors we use in conjunction with a word imply the word’s inherent meaning.
Anderson applies this philosophical concept to sin in order to uncover what sin meant in the thought life of the Old Testament. He says there is a history of the word sin because different metaphors were used at different during two different time periods. The first is the pre-exilic time, and the second is the second-temple period, which included the time of Jesus.
Sin during the first period was associated with the metaphor of burden (e.g. on the day of Atonement the donkey was laden with a heavy burden, symbolically representing Israel’s sins, and sent away into the wilderness). In the second period, the metaphors that are used include the imagery of debt. When we sin, we go into debt to God. By way of example he points to the language in Lev. 26ff about the debt the Israelites go into by not adhering to the law of every 7th year is a Sabbath for the land. This was interpreted by Rabbis in the second temple period as talking about sin. When they go into exile they have to pay back the debt to God by staying out of the land for 70 years. The reason is that the land belongs to God, and by working the land on the seventh year they are stealing from God, which puts them into His debt. He also points to Jesus use of debt language in the Lord’s prayer as the strongest evidence that Jesus thought of sin this way.
What I find really fascinating is the correlating definition of virtue associated with these two metaphors for sin. For the burden metaphor, there isn’t really an associated opposite other than to unburden someone or something. But if sin is thought of as a debt, then there is an opposite action that can be taken as a way to undo our debt. You can pay back your debt. If you are in God’s debt, virtue is a way to pay it down.
Anderson argues that this is primarily accomplished through almsgiving, giving money to the poor. Throughout much of early church history, giving money to the poor was understood as a way of giving money to God himself, and therefore as a way to pay down our debt. Interestingly, Jesus talks this way too. In Matt. 25 he says that giving to the poor, the sick, and those who are hurting is equivalent with giving directly to Jesus. He also says to multiple rich individuals that their path toward salvation and overcoming their sins was rooted in giving their money away to the poor. This was so established in early Christianity that poor individuals would great their benefactors by saying: “Acquire merit in heaven through me!”
Our post-reformation inclinations violently revolt against the idea of paying down our debt of sin to God with anything that remotely represents “good works.” We have been taught that Christ alone atones for our sins. But Anderson points out that giving our money away is less about overcoming our debt and more an expression of faith. When we give our money away we make a loan to God (Prov. 19:17), which means we become God’s creditors. The root of the word creditor comes from the Latin word credere, which means to believe. So, when you or I give our money to someone in need we loan our money to God. Everyone who loans their money to someone believes in that person’s ability to pay it back. Loaning our money to God is an act of faith in his ability to pay it back with the spiritual blessings of the kingdom of heaven, now and in the age to come. That means giving our money away is less of a way to earn our salvation and more a way to express our faith in God. It’s an investment in our heavenly treasuries that pay astronomically high rates of return.