The kind of theology we are doing now is called Soteriology, the theory of salvation. There is a distinction between Salvation– the radical improvement of material conditions or people’s ultimate fulfilment, Atonement– the Christian concept of salvation which consists of mankind’s mystical union into the presence, activity and nature of the Divine (also called justification), and Redemption– the Christian concept of the means to atonement whereby God forgives mankind’s sins through the death and resurrection of Christ.
Redemption may also be called sanctification, and it is the process that results from the exercise of God’s grace. Despite its etymology (at-one-ment), the term ‘atonement’ is now usually used in the sense of ‘redemption’ probably because these concepts are so intertwined. All Christian denominations agree upon the above but there is, however, a great amount of disagreement about exactly how God does this- though presently we are going to explore the different question of what it is that we are saved from.
Here is a list of things we thought we might be saved from:
> Being ostracised
> Communication breakdown
> Relationships breaking
We noticed that these might be feelings from a personal perspective that we wanted to go away or they could be objective features of us and our place in the world.
We also noticed that some of these things usually resulted from internal causes -the choices of the individual concerned- and others from external influences.
When we tried find a general term by which to sum up most of the things on this list we came up with ‘separation’. It doesn’t fit easily with all of the items, but it is significant because that is how the Jews (and then Christians) traditionally defined ‘sin’- as separation of your life from God’s life. This was also expressed in the above by separation from friends and family and the fear of loss.
Temptation and evil seem to fit in differently. In the Christian tradition, actions which perpetuate these things have been called evil, and evil is often said to be the result of giving in to temptation. I personally think that we can become more general and say that all these phenomena can be captured by the term ‘brokenness’- things that have been distorted out of how they should be. But is this definition actually helpful? Isn’t sin some ineffable word ministers just invented to sell the form of salvation they were offering?
Of the following passages we asked the questions:
> Have they sinned, and how?
> If it wasn’t a sin, what is a sin really?
> What might forgiveness entail in this context?
A) “After months of my husband coming home late drunk, I screamed at him last might. I feel so guilty. It’s not his fault he’s lost his job…”
B) You over-hear some friends talking about some cheap clothes they’ve bought. They’re really pleased they had to spend so little money. But you have just read an article in a magazine that has said that the shop they bought the clothes uses child labour to keep its prices down (for legal reasons the shop cannot be named but it may rhyme with ‘Ri-lark’, end in ‘mark’ and begin with ‘Pri’).
C) A homeless man with no friends or family suffers from renal failure because of his overindulgence in alcohol.
In the examples we see that sins can be more personal (hurting only oneself, as in C, or hurting those close to you as well) or they can be more social (hurting those you don’t even know while not hurting yourself). Another distinction arises between acts which from an objective perspective are wrong (in our example, giving financial support to unjust practises might fall short of God’s standard) and the individual’s culpability (responsibility) for that act. If the friends in B didn’t know that the shop uses child labour, while they may have committed an objectively bad act, their action as a whole cannot be sinful because they were not culpable for it.
Culpability does not only require being sufficiently informed before you act but also being sufficiently free of external pressures. Of course there are also internal pressures we cannot control at the will but we are, at least if of sound mind, responsible for these since they are the accumulated effect of our previous actions. I am speaking particularly of vices– these are habits we have formed which increase our tendency towards bad actions. While a large amount of the pressure and weakness in such habits at a subconscious level, we have contributed to it each of the many times we have made the choice to do the bad action concerned. For this reason the homeless man of C may have sinned by acting on his alcoholism. (The opposite of a vice is a virtue.)
If these acts are sins then ‘sin’ here is being used not as a noun to mean ‘brokenness’ but as a verb: (through metonymy) certain acts can be called sins if they have a particular property. Traditionally this property is ‘falling short of the standard set by God.’ Obviously the verb and noun are related- falling short of the mark is bound up with the state of sinfulness which is separation and the breaking of relationships. Sinfulness could also be seen as the opposite of atonement.
One of the radical truths about the character of God revealed by (and in) Jesus is that he offers forgiveness through our forgiving of others (Luke 11:4). Though our acts hurt others, all sins are ultimately against God. But for Jesus and unlike the religious authorities of his time, forgiveness is importantly horizontal: between our neighbours, between the Church, as well as vertical: between us and God. Theologians have also pointed out that the Christian conception of forgiveness differs importantly from the ordinary definition in that it cannot be one-directional: “Forgiveness is meaningless if it is offered to someone who doesn’t want it or see the need for it. … True forgiveness [involves]… a clear recognition by both parties that a wrong has been done”.
Christians also believe in a particular kind of sinfulness that can only be forgiven by God commonly referred to as Original Sin. Here is one view: “The belief that human beings are sinful… is not to say that humans beings are inherently wicked… it means that they are free but limited creatures. One of the obvious implications is that we are likely to make mistakes- sometimes out of ignorance… sometimes out of sheer malice.”
No human being could be wicked before a certain level of maturation and yet this state is original because we have it by virtue of our birth as free but limited creatures, and through participation an imperfect, indeed corrupt, social environment. Therefore it is certainly correct to say that human beings are not inherently wicked. And even if people could be guilty of bad actions before their birth that would not be the point of the point of the doctrine, rather, sinfulness is about being in a state of brokenness.
It is problematic, however, to reduce the doctrine of original sin to the trivial statement that human beings have a tendency to do bad things. This is because Christians generally believe that baptism removes original sin. But given that Christians are not statistically any better behaved than non-Christians it obviously cannot be the case that baptism removes the tendency to do bad things (concupiscence). To clarify this early theologians said that after baptism concupiscence remains, but the original separation between man and God is removed as human nature is completed by the addition of God’s grace. (Note that this belief is wholly independent of whether or not the account in Genesis 3 has any historical truth to it.)
 D. S. Cunningham, (2002), Reading is Believing, The Christian Faith Through Literature and Film, Grand Rapids, pp.185-6
 Ibid, p.184