the vertical dimension of sin

Monday, January 31, 2011

In the comments to my post on my EQ article on the church fathers view of the atonement, Peter Gurry asked some challenging questions which I wanted to address in my next two blog posts. His first question was,
Derek, where's the vertical dimension of sin in your system? I can fully agree that we are broken and need healing but your solution only deals with the horizontal brokenness, not the vertical offensiveness. How does your system deal with profoundly horizontal human sins that are nevertheless against God and God alone (Psalm 51:4)?
Now the inscription of Psalm 51 reads "A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba." So the sins that David is confessing here are specifically adultery and murder. David sleeps with Bathsheba, gets her pregnant, and then has her husband killed, telling his men, "Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die" (2 Sam 11:15). So when David says to God in Psalm 51 "against you, and you only have I sinned" (51:4) he says this referring to the very horizontal sins of adultery and murder. So how can these horizontal sins (sins against people) be spoken of in vertical terms (as sins against God) as David does?

If we look at Nathan's rebuke of David we read,
This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: "I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul... I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more." Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. (2 Sa 12:7-9)
After all that God had done for David, he still did not trust in him. David "despises" all of that generosity of God in his hurtful actions. It's a matter here of David not trusting in God as his source for goodness, and taking matters into his own hands in a way that damages others. He has damaged his relationships both horizontally and vertically.

We see an even deeper insight into what is going on here in the words of Jesus "as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me" (Mt 25:40). Here we see that when we hurt others, we wound God too. In the world of king David the one who was offended by the adultery was the husband. Having the husband killed removed the problem, and David simply took Bathsheba as his wife. That was king David's messed up thinking here. Nathan saying that David's actions were also an offense to God is a way of leveling out that messed up system of honor. It says that even if we hurt someone who is without honor, even if we neglect "the least" we are ultimately hurting the one with the most honor, God. It takes the whole system of rank and honor and levels it.

The point of course is not that we should care for God's honor as opposed to caring about people's honor. David in saying "against you, and you only" is not saying he did not sin against Uriah and Bathsheba. What he is saying is that every sin against people is ultimately a sin against God their maker. As Jesus says, God sees every sparrow that falls to the ground. To love God is to love others, and of we fail to love others, we fail to love God. John says, "whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar" (1 Jn 4:20). Vertical sin is tied to horizontal sin. In other words, all horizontal sin is ultimately vertical sin. When the Bible stresses this, there are two reasons:

One reason is that God wants us to love others, especially those we regard as the least. God is love and his priority is on our loving others as the biggest way that we show of love for him.

The other equally important reason is that we were created to be in a loving relationship of dependent trust with God. God needs to be our source. This is the point that Nathan is making above. We need to place our trust in God and see our relationship with him as primary, because all of our goodness flows out of our living in and through a right relationship with God, who works in us and shapes us into the image of his Son. The fundamental starting point of salvation is that restored relationship with God--restoring that vertical connection--so that we can live in, with, and through the indwelling Spirit of Christ. It's all about restoring that loving transformative relationship with God. As we are loved by God, that love changes us, and leads us to love others in the same way we were loved. We want to show the same grace to others that God first showed us. So the horizontal flows from the vertical.

Now the question that remains is: how does God mend the broken relationship between him and us in Jesus? For that we turn to Romans which I will deal with in my next post...

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At 11:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Derek,
I totally agree: horizontal sin is always vertical, too.
and I'm eagerly waiting for your next post concerning healing our broken relationship to god, as it seems clear to me what you also write: "the horizontal flows from the vertical".
Thus, keeping god out of he equation may result in more horizontal damage than necessary. And it stays unclear how to handle guilt and how to get reconciliation.
But another question remains: Is there such a thing as a "pure vertical sin, which is not a horizontal at the same time"? A thing which renders me guilty and lost without horizontal impact.
Part of my answer would be: I doubt it, as it would mean, god is angry and puts me into hell due to the only fact that I ignore him. That's a contradiction to "God is love". Even if it is the case, it's a mere academic question, as we are not able to avoid horizontal damage. Furthermore it is comparable to "knowing a good medicine / a better treatment against sin, but not using it". Which is morally questionable.


At 4:46 AM, Blogger Journey Girl Talking said...

I am undone by what you write. God has been bringing to my attention lately just how poorly I love. I see I have been thinking more highly of myself than I ought as I 'thought' I was doing pretty well in being a Christ follower. I am not.
Not a condemnatory statement, just being brought into balance, which I know I need.
I await the follow-up on this post.
Blessings . . . . On with the journey

At 5:00 AM, Anonymous Jeff Logue said...

God has also been teaching me a lot about his holiness lately, and how even my best intentions fall very short when I'm not leaning on Him. It is by his Spirit alone that I can love as he loved, not out of my striving. This needs to be a daily surrender of which my eyes look to Him first in order to be truly mindful and compassionate to the hurting around me. He is more than enough!


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