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Do we have a “sin problem” or an “ignorance problem”?

Most yoga devotees and New Age or Far Eastern advocates declare loudly that man’s problem is not sin, but ignorance. However, the subjects of “sin” and the “lower nature” are often addressed in the Scripture base of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, and sometimes with strong language. For instance, the Bhagavad-Gita warns against the “triple gate of hell”: lust, anger and greed. (See Bhagavad-Gita 16:21–22.)

If ignorance is the source of man’s dilemma, the logical deduction is that salvation comes through knowledge. In 1970, before I became a follower of Jesus, I studied under an Indian guru named Yogi Bhajan. He posed the question, “Who is the savior? It is your own higher consciousness which can save you from your own lower consciousness.”1  The premise behind this statement is that human beings are asleep to the fact that they are truly divine. They need to be enlightened, awakened to this realization of their ‘higher Self.’ They certainly do not need to view themselves as sinners. During the first World Parliament of Religions in Chicago (1983) Swami Vivekananda, founder of the Vedanta Societies, offered the curious comment, “It’s a sin to call a man a sinner.” Of course, this obvious play on words contradicts itself, because to sin makes one a sinner.

Many of my peers in the study of yoga felt the use of this term was negative, even repulsive—and I must admit that I did too. Yet this word is inseparably integrated into the teachings of Jesus and the purpose for which he came. The angel that foretold Jesus’ birth instructed Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21, emphasis by author) According to this heaven-sent herald, providing salvation from “sin” was the primary reason for the Lord’s entrance into this world.

During his earthly ministry Jesus often used this word and dealt with the concept behind it. Once he even protested, “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.” (John 8:34, emphasis by author) And there is no more powerful statement than Jesus’ forceful declaration to those who rejected his claim to Messiahship, “If you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24, emphasis by author) Such phrases would be inconsistent with a real ‘Avatar’—(for those who believe that to be his shared identity)—if the dilemma of the human race is just an ‘ignorance problem’.

The teachings of Gnosticism often challenged the early church and its doctrine. The Gnostics proposed that ‘salvation’ is achieved through knowledge (gnosis). Once seekers are awakened to the ‘knowledge’ of their divinity, they are lifted above the confines of sense-consciousness. When this happens, they conquer negativity in their lives and begin to live on a higher plane of saintliness. So revelation knowledge, not repenting of sin, emerges as the answer. Most likely, in response to the Gnostics of his day, the apostle John wrote, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8, emphasis by author) Erasing the concept of sin enables men to set their own standards, instead of aligning with God’s. This can even make aberrant behavior allowable.

The main issue at stake is not the rightness or wrongness of the idea of ‘sin,’ but rather, the interpretation of the nature of the Godhead. If God is just an impersonal energy force, human beings are not morally accountable to him. Hindu Scripture gives many guidelines concerning a person’s moral and ethical behavior. Yet in the story of his conversion to Christianity, former guru, Rabi Maharaj, pointed out, “Hinduism teaches that each man’s dharma, or rule of conduct, differs and must be discovered individually; there is no moral code binding upon all.”2 This runs parallel to the concept of relativism, the idea that behavioral choices should not be governed by predetermined rules and regulations, but by the sensation of the moment.

If God is a personal Creator, there are definite, moral absolutes to which all human beings must conform. Because God authors these laws, failure to observe them is considered a transgression or a ‘sin’ against him. A personal God, in great love and fatherly concern, watches over the thoughts, attitudes, and actions of human beings to see if they are in conformity with his will. Those who come to God, acknowledging his standard of proper behavior, are privileged to receive pardon and cleansing upon repentance over wrong choices. The next step is for them to lovingly, worshipfully submit to God’s rules and oversight. This should be done in the realization that God’s purpose in giving guidelines is not to dominate, but to liberate. He knows what kind of behavior has a destructive, binding, and blinding effect on us and what ushers us into a place of freedom, bounty, illumination, and blessing. His boundaries really are for our protection and comfort.

The Scripture warns that when lust (selfish desire) has “conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (emotional death, mental death, spiritual death, physical death and ultimately, eternal death). (James 1:15) But Jesus came to give “life…and that more abundantly.” (John 10:10) Teaching on the concept of sin fills the Bible, as does the cure for this great dilemma of the human race.

This chapter’s conclusions does not negate the fact that ‘knowledge’ is essentially important. The Scripture announces that “the Lord is a God of knowledge” and “through knowledge the righteous will be delivered.” (1 Samuel 2:3, Proverbs 11:9) It also instructs that those who are bound to their lusts are living in “ignorance.” (1 Peter 1:14) So being ‘awakened’ out of ‘ignorance’ by the influence of the Spirit of God is, and will always be, a primary concern. However, understanding that we have a ‘sin-problem’ is inextricably a part of this ‘knowledge-awakening.”

*1 Yogi Bhajan, The Teachings of Yogi Bhajan, The Power of the Spoken Word (Pamona, California: Arcline Publications, 1977) p.129 #510.
*2 Rabi Maharaj, The Death of a Guru (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1977) p. 159.

Copyright © 2003 Mike Shreve

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Written by Mike Shreve