Some Further Thoughts on Sin, Honor, and Shame

Doug Coleman Cross Cultural Ministry, Missiology Leave a Comment

In a previous post I raised a question about the honor/shame paradigm. Jackson Wu was kind enough to respond with some helpful thoughts. Below are some follow up comments.

Let me say again that my purpose in raising these questions is not to object to the use of honor/shame language or to defend a guilt/innocence paradigm. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I have benefited from understanding more of this over the years. Part of my motivation is to work out my own ideas and questions in conversation with brothers and sisters who have spent significant time thinking about this topic. Perhaps the public conversation will help others as well.

The Core Problem?

Jackson states that “dishonor is the core problem that makes sin the evil it is.” While I wouldn’t necessarily attempt to reduce this to one particular factor, at the same time I don’t object. Paul perhaps uses “dishonor” as an umbrella term in Rom. 1:21. However, this still leaves a critical question undefined: How do we know if we have dishonored God? At a very practical level, what does it mean to dishonor God? By what standard is that determined?

Jackson writes, “Conceivably, someone could think of a way of dishonoring a king that does not direct break a stated law.” Theoretically I suppose this is true, but biblically speaking is this actually true when it comes to God (not in reference to a human being)? Is every conceivable sin specıfıcally codified in the Bible (not just the Mosaic Law)? I don’t know. I’ve never attempted to list every conceivable sin and search the Bible for a specific prohibition against it. But I’m not sure that’s necessary in order to be able biblically to define ways in which we dishonor God.

How do we Dishonor God?

I think we would agree that God’s law is not just a random set of rules, but an expression of his moral nature, his character. From this perspective, sin is not “just” breaking a specific law codified in Scripture, but actions, thoughts, feelings, etc., that are contrary to his character and nature. So, I’m not suggesting that sin is simply a matter of law-language. (At the same time, it is not something less, or other, than this.) It seems that Jackson and I agree on this point. As Jackson writes, “Laws are simply explicit statements about how people should honor the king.”

Was there Sin before the Law?

Jackson uses Paul’s statement in Rom 5:13 (‘sin indeed was in the world before the law was given”) to support his claim that “breaking a law is but one way that people dishonor God.”

Rom 5:13 seems to be referring to the Mosaic law, not just any law. So, it seems that Paul’s statement that sin was in the world before the law was given refers to the presence of sin before the giving of the Mosaic Law (verse 14 seems to suggest this, and commentators seem to agree). In a non-technical sense, God’s command to Adam and Eve surely could be described as a law.

Furthermore, Jackson is correct that Paul does not explicitly appeal to the law in Romans 1. However, the clear implication is that these people are guilty because they knew these acts or behaviors were wrong. How did they know if they didn’t have the Law? At least part of the answer is the natural order (see v. 20-21, 26-27). Additionally, somehow they knew the “righteous decree” of God regarding these specific actions and attitudes (1:32). Perhaps Paul gives us the answer in Romans 2:14-15: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them…”

The Crucial Point

Ultimately, my point here is that dishonoring of God must be defined, and it must be defined biblically. Whether we define it in respect to the law or in respect to God’s character or nature, there is still a standard (a “mark” if you will), something that makes the act, attitude, or thought sin or evil, and therefore dishonoring to God. If we are to honor God, we must know what that means. And the content must be biblical. I think we agree here, but I want to be sure.

In the end, this matters most because if we’re not clear on this point—defining “dishonoring of God”—a gospel message using honor/shame terms could be heard only in terms of how a particular culture defines and describes honor and shame.

I have some further thoughts and questions on honor/shame gospel presentations, but for the sake of brevity and being able to focus the discussion on a specific issue at this point, I’ll save those for later.

Doug ColemanSome Further Thoughts on Sin, Honor, and Shame

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