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The True Meaning of "Sin"

from "The Mark" by Maurice Nicoll

THE possibility of some definite change in a human being is indicated in 'esoteric' teaching. This is plain. We find it in the few fragments of Christ's teaching that have been preserved. We can find it in other sources. But what is this change? It is difficult to say. The Gospels are the most difficult books to understand. We can see that much of Christ's teaching is deliberately veiled in the form of parable. He actually says so. 'And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For to whomsoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing hear not, neither do they understand.' (Matthew xiii.10) Parables contain an 'esoteric' meaning, which means simply an inner meaning. Again, sometimes Christ used a high form of paradox. Yet it is plain enough that a definite transformation is being spoken of all through and that fragments of hard-to-understand teaching concerning how to attain it are scattered about but without any clear order. The idea seems to be that a man is incomplete as he is, like an unfinished house, and that to complete him he has to be largely pulled down and rebuilt. In another way much of what he has learned has to be unlearned. Much that is useless or false in him has to be stripped off. In this way he is transformed. He becomes a new man.


Now this end of transformation of a man can be thought of as The Mark to be aimed at. One may never see it or never grasp. Or one may have poor aim.


Sin means to miss the mark. The Greek word άμαρτανω (hamartano) really means 'to miss the mark'. But it is translated as sin. Literally the word was used in archery, when the target was missed. It would seem clear, therefore, that we cannot understand the idea of sin in the right way unless we gain some idea of what it is we have to aim at. To miss the mark is 'sin'; but what is the mark?


The existence of a mark evidently causes sin, because if there were no mark to aim at, there would be nothing to miss and therefore no sin. In fact, Paul exclaims that had there been no commandments he would never have sinned.The commandments caused him to sin - a startling idea - just as in the mythos of Adam and Eve the prohibition to eat allegorically the fruit of the tree of knowledge caused sin and the fall of Man. The mark was somehow missed. Speaking of the tenth commandment, 'Thou shalt not covet', Paul says: 'Had it not been for the law I would never have known what sin means. Thus I would never have known what it is to covet unless the law had said: "Thou shalt not covet." The commandment gave an impulse to sin and sin resulted for me in all manner of covetous desire - for sin apart from law is lifeless.' (Romans vii.7)


He would not have recognised such a thing as sin but by means of the law. He was alive and flourishing, he says, without the law, 'but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died'. Whatever his meaning is in this and the verses that follow we can at any rate understand that Paul took the law — the commandments — as the mark and the keeping of them as the aim. But he says more than once that no one can possibly keep the ten commandments and that Man cannot be saved by the law but only be condemned. He says Christ came to do 'what the law could not do'. In Romans (vii) he sees that 'the law is spiritual' (v. 14). 'So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God: but with the flesh the law of sin' (25). 'For I delight in the law of God after the inward man' (22). Notice how he places the feeling of I in the inward man, not in the outer or carnal man. He does not say I to the flesh: 'For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing' (18). He is dividing himself into the inner and outer man. So he says: 'For the good which I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do' (19). Two different senses of I are meant. It is not the same I that would and does not, or would not and does. Let us call one of these It. Then the passage would read, 'For the good that I would It does not: but the evil which I would not, that It does.' It then becomes clear why he goes on to say, 'Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it' (20). It does it, not I. So he concludes that to this part of him that does what he would not, and does not what he would, he can say: This is not I. Through this the feeling of I is withdrawn from it and concentrated in the inner man.


It is said at the beginning of chapter eight that the commandments failed to set men free because no man could keep them, therefore Christ came to do 'what the law could not do'. ' . . . that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh but after the spirit' (2-4).


The telos is to free us. For Christ is the end (telos) of the law unto righteousness to everyone that believeth' (x.4).The Mark is the End - τελος - and this is 'conforming to the image of his Son' (the firstborn of many others) (Romans VIII. 29.) You cannot start with the law. Paul's whole teaching is based on the forming of 'Christ in you'. Then the keeping of the law follows naturally.

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