What is Sin?

By the Rev. Paul Wheatley, St. Augustine's Oak Cliff

“I am good, but not an angel. I do sin, but I am not the devil. I am just a small girl in a big world trying to find someone to love.” –Marilyn Monroe

Though its purposes and use would be inappropriate for discussion at a dinner party, no preliminary tour of a house is complete without showing guests the location of the toilet. So too, though it may be a topic we rarely discuss in polite company, no discussion of faith or human life is complete without talking about sin.

The word “sin” conjures up emotions of disgust and delight, shame and satisfaction. A succulent slice of chocolate cake described as sinful is more likely to incite hunger than guilt. Yet, to label a person with the same word evokes images of Hester Prynne from Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and provokes others to see them as an outcast. Sin is a powerful word.

However, to St. Augustine of Hippo, evil and sin are unable to be powerful in themselves. For Augustine, evil is not a power or a thing in itself, but rather the absence of something, namely goodness. Just as a bright room cannot be made dark by turning ‘on’ the darkness, but only by turning ‘off’ or blocking the light, so too sin takes place when we reject, deny, or fail to live up to the goodness with which God created each of us “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” [Gen 1:31, NRSV].

The Greek and Hebrew words that we translate into our English word sin share this same sense Augustine speaks of. To sin is to miss the mark, referring to an archer’s arrow that fails to hit the bulls-eye. In other words, sin is settling for, contributing to, or committing an act that takes away from the goodness God created. When the serpent deceived the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden, the result was loss: The easy, close relationship they once knew with God became distant and estranged. Their home in Eden no longer fit, and no better home existed outside its gates. They became exiles, pilgrims without a destination, people in hiding. Adam must confess, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” [Gen 3:10].

This confession is something we now share with that man on his way out of the Garden. This is what we call original sin: we don’t have to learn how to hide from God or to go our own ways. In our own unique ways, we hide; we mask our frailty with misdirection and half-truths. Confessing this truth in our own lives is part of understanding what sin is, and how it affects us.

Confession isn’t just something done in a dark chamber, with a screen hiding the one confessing from the priest; just as Adam did, it is something anyone can do at any time. Confession is simply admitting the truth to God or someone else. Confessing sin involves honesty with self, and honesty with God, naming the places where we have missed God’s best for us, and admitting that living a life of wholeness involves turning away from these places back to the home God has for us in his will.

Where we as Episcopalians best explain how we define sin is the confession of sin we make corporately in our Sunday service before we take communion. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, from which we take our Sunday worship services, puts it this way:

Most merciful God,

we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,


by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.


We have not loved you with our whole heart;


we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. 


We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;


that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name.

[BCP, p. 360]

There is much that could be said about this, but I want to highlight four things.

  1. Sin, even if committed against others or against ourselves, is also committed against God: Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you

For example, if I were to tell a lie to a friend, I would have certainly sinned against my friend, and may need to make things right with my friend by coming clean and telling the truth. At a deeper level though, I would have also sinned against God, who is the Truth and whose word is truth. By lying, I violate God’s best for my life: a life lived according to the truth.

  1. Sin isn’t just an action. It takes place in our thoughts, words, and deeds.

This acknowledges that not only in our actions, but in our thought patterns and in the words we so carelessly fling about, we can do wrong and can miss God’s best.

  1. Sin isn’t only doing something wrong. It can also be failing to do something. …by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

This is what some people refer to as sins of commission and sins of omission.

  1. At the core of sin, most often, is not a failure of holiness, or a failure of perfection, but rather a failure to love. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

Speaking of love, the quote from Marilyn Monroe above—perhaps more of a theologian than she realized—shows how, at the foundations of our being, we are all looking to be loved and to love. To confess sin, to bring the failure to love God and others, that we all share, fully back to the merciful God of love is to open ourselves to the possibility that we need God in his mercy to restore us to relationship with him.

In other words, to answer the question of what sin is, is also to begin the journey of confession. To confess is to return to relationship with God, to journey from the exile of Adam and Eve that we still experience, and to return to the face of the God from whom we hide. This is what the word repent means, after all. Being honest about sin, naming it in our specific thoughts, words, and deeds, and acknowledging the ways that we naturally gravitate away from the wholeness found in relationship with God allows us the opportunity to return to the love of God made available to us in the mercy of Jesus Christ. Then, we can know true love: That we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name.

Posted by The Rev. Paul Wheatley with

Why Does the Anglican Communion Matter?

By The Rev. Joe Hermerding, Church of the Incarnation in Dallas

Let me begin by answering this question theologically. The Anglican Communion matters because it is the English branch of the catholic church. God has been at work in the British Isles since the earliest centuries of the church's birth, and has continued through all of her ups and downs right to our own day. God’s actions matter, in history and in human hearts, and that is why the Anglican Communion matters.

But this is perhaps obvious. There are more personal reasons why the Anglican Communion matters. For me, and I would make the case that this is true for most English speakers, the Anglican Communion is the best way to be catholic. Here's why: Americans are odd. We have this young "melting pot" of a country, which has both great strengths and great weaknesses. On the good side, we are able to have an ethnic and racial broadness that few other countries enjoy. But on the bad side, our melting pot sometimes takes the unique flavor of each ethnic group and turns them into a…suburbia, a Mc-Culture. That is to say, it turns them into something mass-produced, something bland, something that has lost all of its original flavor. In most of our cities today, gone are the small ethnic neighborhoods with their own food, architecture, traditions, languages, and idiosyncrasies. While the first generation of immigrants might retain their cultural heritage, it is often lost on the children born stateside, who exchange their rich cultural heritage for the bland and shallow culture of American popular media.

However, the longing for a home, a people, a culture and a language and a tradition, are desires that reside deeply within the human heart. Fundamentally, it is a desire to belong, to be known. But where can a "bland" American, whose family has been here for some generations and who retains almost nothing of their original culture, go to find this kind of home?

Enter the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion may not actually be in our blood, as we American Anglicans may descend from Germany, France, Africa, or the far East. But we can have an adopted home here. In fact, I believe the Anglican Communion to be the best and most natural "fit" for your average American, over the other branches of the catholic faith such as Rome or the East. This may be because our country descends from Great Britain, or because the original language in these United States is English. In any case, it has been such a home for me.

Growing up as an American Evangelical, I was used to an environment that was deeply suspicious of religious traditions. I felt as though I was floating above the surface of the vast ocean of tradition, but I had no idea what was down there. I was told it was dead ritual. The water was 2,000 years deep, and that was scary. But the human desire for a home never left me. Perhaps it is one of the primal desires of our species. And it is this desire that brought me again and again to consider Anglicanism. Here was a tradition, quirky and bizarre at times to be sure, but yet a tradition that I could embrace, that I could call my own, that I could make my home.

There was a lot to learn at first. Crossing myself, kneeling, standing, singing, chanting, reading prayers out of a book—all of these things were foreign to me. It was a bit like learning the grammar of a new language. But they held the promise of home. They held the promise of deep spiritual riches—riches that came, I knew, from Jesus Christ Himself. And so Anglicanism has become a home for me. These “awkward” movements, once foreign ideas, and sacred and peculiar liturgies, have become second nature to me now. Instinct. 

I am conscious that I am learning them much like an adult learns a new language—I will perhaps always speak this language with an accent. But I hold within my heart the promise that my own children, being raised within the incredible riches of English catholicism, will speak that language naturally—for it is their native tongue.

Posted by The Rev. Joe Hermerding with

12...3031323334353637383940

Priests from throughout the diocese explore religious topics with depth and nuance.