Friday, November 10, 2017

Elliptical Guilt

The Westminster Catechism defines sin as “Any want of conformity to or transgression of the law of God.” We notice here that sin is defined both in negative and positive terms. The negative aspect is indicated by the words want of conformity. It points to a lack or failure on moral performance. In popular terms it is called a sin of omission. (I once had a theology professor who denoted a sin of omission as the failure of the second baseman to cover the bag in a double play.) A sin of omission occurs when we fail to do what God commands us to do.

The positive aspect of the catechetical definition of sin refers to overt, actual stepping over the boundaries of God’s law. It is a sin of commission.

Both sins of omission and sins of commission are real sins. They incur real guilt. When we do what God forbids, we are guilty of a sin of commission; when we fail to do what God commands, we are guilty of a sin of omission. In both cases the law of God is violated.

Sometimes God expresses His laws in negative terms (Do not do …) and sometimes in positive terms (Do …). The Ten Commandments contain both forms (Do not steal; Honor your father and mother).

That God’s commands appear in both positive and negative forms hints at the elliptical character of the law. Calvin stated it this way:
There is always more in the requirements of the Law than is expressed in words.… It is true that, in almost all the commandments, there are elliptical expressions, and that, therefore, any man would make himself ridiculous by attempting to restrict the spirit of the Law to the strict letter of the words (Institutes II/VIII/8).
Calvin’s distinction between the letter and the spirit of the Law follows Augustine, and more importantly, the teaching of Christ. It is not intended to say we are to keep the letter of the Law and ignore the spirit, or keep the spirit of the Law and ignore the letter. The spirit and the letter of the Law may be distinguished but never divorced. God requires that we keep both the letter and the spirit of the Law.

The spirit of the Law is often elliptical to the letter. That is, it is not overtly stated but is left implied or tacitly understood. This is the crucial point the Pharisees missed and which Jesus carefully expounded in the Sermon on the Mount.

It is usually clearly understood that when God positively commands some good, by implication the evil opposed to it is forbidden. For example when God says, “Honor your father and your mother,” we understand that we are not permitted to dishonor our parents.

It is not so clear to us when we work in the opposite direction from vice to virtue. When the Pharisees looked at the prohibitions “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” they assumed they were guilt-free if they merely abstained from the letter of the prohibition. They missed the ellipse that called attention to the whole complex of the commandment. Jesus explained that the prohibition against murder contained implicitly within it the whole complex of inflicting injury against our fellow man. To hate a person or be angry against a person is implicitly forbidden along with the explicit prohibition against murder. Likewise, sexual impurity including lust, is prohibited on the full import of the Law against adultery.

But the Law goes deeper. Just as when good is commanded, its opposite evil is prohibited, so when evil is prohibited its opposite good is commanded. The Law against adultery is a law for sexual purity. The Law against idolatry is a law for true worship. The law against murder is a commandment for the sanctity of life. Again Calvin comments:
When evil is forbidden, its opposite is enjoined.… Censure of vice is commendation of virtue.… Hence the commandment. “Thou shalt not kill,” the generality of men will merely consider as an injunction to abstain from all injury, and all wish to inflict injury. I hold that it moreover means, that we are to aid our neighbor’s life by every means in our power (Institutes II/VIII/9).
If we fully grasped the elliptical character of the Law, I trust, for example, that the argument among Christians over abortion on demand would be ended once and for all.

When we consider the elliptical character of the Law we discover that God’s law is far deeper and broader than we ever imagined. We also discover that our guilt is far deeper and broader than we ever imagined. It is the elliptical guilt we often overlook when we flatter ourselves for our virtue. When we see it and see it clearly, we fly to the Savior and His fountain of grace.