What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.
Here we are in the liminal state between sin and law. Where boundaries which seem clear dissolve the closer one tries to define them. Where thresholds which seem to delineate transitions shift like the sands of the sea. Where the more one tries to pin things down, the further apart they seem to move.
Although Barth might claim “the law is quite obviously the point at which sin becomes an observable fact of experience” and “law brings all human possibility into the clear light of an all-embracing [contest]”, everyday life is much more messy. It does not matter whether we are contemplating the Old Testament statement of the Law or statute law in England (or elsewhere), behaviour that might be considered sinful may not be illegal and things which are lawful could be regarded as sinful.
It is clear that matters of behaviour, personal conduct and attitude which the “standard” Christian of 1919 would have considered as “obviously” sinful are for many Christians of 2019 matters of personal choice. And vice versa.
It depends on the way one interprets the Bible as being the Word of God. In the URC we believe that “The highest authority for what we believe and do is God’s Word in the Bible alive for his people today through the help of the Spirit”. The help of the Spirit is vital in guiding us through liminal regions.
I have recently been working through a book of poems* in which a black man and a white woman respond to borders and boundaries experienced by refugees. One poem reminds us that
if what culture is is different ways of seeing things and what language is is different ways of saying things then the challenge is to gather these different ways to fight challenges.
For “culture” substitute “sin” and for “language” substitute “law” and then define the contest.
*The warriors who do not fight, Alison Phipps and Tawona Sitholé, Wild Goose Publications, 2018
God you give us life you give us discernment you give us freedom you give us courage you forgive our sinfulness.
Give us strength to navigate liminality to plough through the messiness to face the challenges of sin and law.
The Rev’d Ron Reid is a retired minister in the Mersey Synod serving as Link Minister at Rock Chapel, Farndon. He is a member at Upton-by-Chester URC.