The language of sin may appear outdated in the 21st century, yet it is a relevant concept that can assist human beings in their quest for greater meaning and purpose in life by identifying those personal and institutionalized attitudes and actions that negatively impact the quality of human living. In many mainline Christian traditions sin has been viewed personalistically and legalistically. Sin is a personal infraction of an external and objective law that results in separation from God and neighbor. A focus on personal guilt and degrees of culpability for specific actions is assessed either by a priest or minister. Heartfelt contrition ideally follows for the offense. The repentant sinner confesses and promises to live a better life by not falling prey to repeating the offending behavior again. Grace assists a sinner toward conversion of heart. Forgiveness is the antidote to contritely repented sin.
In this understanding of individual transgression or act-centered sin there is little room for consideration of a person's motives, life context, the needs of the victim or victims of the sinner's behavior, the social implications of sin, or the ways in which an institution or social system is complicit in sin. Theologians and the Christian churches owe much to the personality or human sciences along with the range of social sciences in contributing to the development of the theological doctrine of personal and social sin. In short, without losing the stress on individual acts of destructive transgression, developments in an understanding of sin now explore the motives or patterns of behavior that result in ruptures of trust and love between and among persons. More in-depth examination of the choices that produce suffering encourage people to explore their own complicity in sheltering themselves from taking responsibility for the consequences of their behavior. The Christian understanding of sin now extends beyond the accumulation of personal guilt to the interpersonal, social, and systemic realization of accommodation to and complicity with forms of inhumanity or crimes against the earth, such as racism or ecological destruction. Exploring a vision of being human provides entry for a theological understanding of sin.
Christian theologian Letty Russell suggests that while born human, humans are engaged in a lifelong process of "becoming human." Her perspectives reflect a global experience of sin. Humans cannot escape the challenge that human life is not a given but must be created as life unfolds within the continuum of a biological life span. Humans can be authentically understood as beings in relationship. Context and history shape what it means to be human. Through interaction with one's environment, which includes many components such as culture, family, values, religion, and country, to name a few, one learns how to orient oneself to life, to function, to look at the world and name it, to exert influence on the quest for meaning and purpose; in a sense, to be an agent of one's own destiny. Russell suggests three ingredients in keeping human life human: (1) all human beings possess inherent dignity, (2) all persons participate in the shaping of their own futures, and (3) as beings in relationship, all humans are naturally drawn to community where care, nurturance, support, and challenge are constituent elements that necessarily contribute to human growth.
Other forces exerted by humans intentionally or unintentionally can thwart human flourishing and thus counter each of the previously identified essential human ingredients in the following ways: (1) it is a violation of human dignity to objectify or belittle a person, (2) it is a violation of a person's innate right to be moral agents of their own destiny through means of domination and control, and (3) it is a violation of the primary need for human community to create systems and situations that isolate persons and subsequently generate cycles of debilitation that breed the failure of human beings to thrive. The realities of forces exerted by humans to intentionally or unintentionally thwart human flourishing raise questions regarding the human capacity to do harm.
The human capacity to cause harm leads directly to the theological notion of sin. An understanding of sin is to be found firstly in the situation humans find themselves in before God and each other. That situation is one constituted by freedom. According to the major religions of the "book," meaning Judaism, Christianity and Islam, human beings are created essentially free to respond or not respond to the Divine, make choices, and author their own lives. God's will and gift of human free will can work in mutual cooperation. This must be so because one must be free in order to love. There is no coercion in God's nature; therefore, it is contrary to the Divine nature to manipulate human response. Individual self-determination and realization in community, then, are fundamental to human nature.