The Benefits of Sin?

Blog post by Nathan Richardson on November 17, 2008
10Comments

Nathan Richardson

Del Parson, At Her Master’s Feet. When a woman who had made severe mistakes washed the Savior’s feet, the Lord gave the parable of the two debtors to teach about forgiveness of sins.

The Savior spoke parables in order to teach eternal truths. The Bible Dictionary points out that “the application of a parable may vary in every age and circumstance,”1 so we shouldn’t be surprised if several valid meanings can be drawn out of any one parable. However, just because a parable can be applied several different ways does not mean that any or every possible interpretation is true.

The Parable of the Two Debtors

There is one particular parable that I would like to discuss: the parable of the two debtors. While I do not claim to know all the profound and true interpretations one could make with this parable, I do know one interpretation we can rule out as incorrect.

I focus on this parable because it has implications in answering the problem of evil. In this series, I hope to show how understanding the nature of sin helps us better understand this mortal test and how a good God can allow evil. The misunderstanding itself, in fact, is a testimony of just how powerful the atonement is. First though, let me quote the parable.

And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee.

And he saith, Master, say on.

There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?

Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most.

And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged. (Luke 7:40–43)

A Sincere Misinterpretation

To be honest, I can see how this parable could easily be misunderstood. The Savior seems to be implying the more you sin, the more you will love Heavenly Father. It’s not too far of a jump to conclude, “Hey, sin away, just as long as you repent. That way you’ll love Heavenly Father more!”

One time in my elders quorum in a student ward, while discussing sin and repentance, my friend suggested, “Well, repentance and forgiveness are good things, so maybe it’s good to sin, because then there’s more repentance and forgiveness going on.” It seems easy to discount this interpretation when it’s stated hypothetically like this, in a tongue-in-cheek manner (and I think my friend may have been playing devil’s advocate a little in order to create discussion and liven up my boring lesson). But let me rephrase his hypothetical suggestion by telling of a real-life situation.

My friend Antonio2 was in an elders quorum meeting during a similar discussion of sin and repentance. Another brother in the quorum was in his second marriage. His first marriage had ended because he had been unfaithful to his wife. Thankfully, after several years of working to get rebaptized, this brother had come back into the Church. Not only that, the woman with whom he had made the mistake later converted and the two were eventually able to be sealed. So it wasn’t totally incomprehensible when Antonio heard him make the following suggestion.

“I think that sometimes it’s good that we sin, because we learn so much from it. It seems like we’re wiser and more caring by sinning and repenting.”

When you think about it, you can see how this brother came to such a conclusion. He’s thinking, I’m back in good standing within the covenant, and I’ve learned a lot about the atonement first-hand. I’m also happily married to the woman I love, and I wouldn’t be married to her if I hadn’t made the mistake I did. So it was a good thing that I made this particular mistake, right?

Conclusion

I don’t think this is a rampant doctrinal misunderstanding in the Church, but I have heard it more than once, expressed in different ways.3 Ultimately, the question being asked is, “Is it necessary for us to sin, in order to learn certain lessons? Is sin a good thing, because of how we grow in the process of overcoming it?”

Antonio told me that he usually doesn’t say anything when he hears a doctrinally incorrect comment in church meetings, often because they are usually minor, harmless mistakes. “But,” he told me, “I just couldn’t let that one go.” I will discuss why he objected in the following posts in this series.



Notes

1. Bible Dictionary, “Parables.”
2. Name changed.
3. Take this example: “I got pregnant and placed my baby for adoption. Out of sin was borne, literally, a life for a wonderful LDS couple who could not have children of their own. I often wonder if I had the choice to do over again, would I still have sex and committ the sin. The answer is always yes, for the blessings wrought from that sin will manifest themselves forever” (Jessica C., 14 Jan. 2006, comment on Kaimi Wenger, “The Spiritual Benefits of Sin,” TimesAndSeasons.org, 14 Jan. 2006.

10
comments so far
  1. I agree Nathan. I don’t quite grasp the concept that to sin makes one stronger. Doesn’t it take a stronger person to resist sin? Perhaps if a person doesn’t sin, it means he has a better understanding of the atonement and a more solid understanding of what Christ went through in atoning for our sins.

    As for the man who said he is better off having sinned because he is happily married to the woman he loves and with whom he had the affair; he appears to not understand the concept of selfishness. Is his ex-wife better off? Is she happier? Is she thankful that he sinned? Does he consider the turmoil and heartache that he put his wife and family through by sinning. He sees himself as the faux beneficiary of the sin without consideration of others who aren’t feeling so blessed by his actions.

  2. I’m going to take this at face value and call it an interesting perspective. I’d never thought of it from this point of view: We believe that after complete repentance and forgiveness, a person is completely forgiven and it’s as if they didn’t sin in the first place. The person should have learned a healthy disdain for the sin and gained a desire to be free from it henceforth. In other words, only the “positive” consequences of sin would remain.

    Obviously it’s not “good” for sin to happen, but it may be “beneficial” to have such an experience or prevent future unrepented sin. Still, a moral “good” and a pragmatic “beneficial” are two different things, and anybody who rationalizes brushes with sin as a learning experience or similarly takes it lightly probably hasn’t gone completely through the repentance process.

  3. Clumpy: In other words, only the ‘positive’ consequences of sin would remain.

    I wonder if another way to state this is, “Only the ‘positive’ results of repentance and forgiveness would remain” as sin itself has no “positive” results?

  4. Clumpy: In other words, only the ‘positive’ consequences of sin would remain.

    In a way, although I think it’s important to focus on what generated those positive effects—it was repentance and the atonement that really created those good consequences. I know it’s kind of a semantics thing, and it really depends on what a person means when he says it. I hope the rest of this series helps clarify the distinction.

  5. Well, of course, but I’m referring to “consequences” in a loose way meaning “things that follow from”. All of the positive emotions of humanity – love, respect and charity – would flourish in a world without sin. We may learn things from sin, but we learn a heckuva lot more from avoiding it.

  6. Right, I agree with you (sorry, I didn’t mean to misread you!). It’s interesting how the atonement seems to be able to take our bad experiences and, instead of erasing them completely, it filters them. We end up with only the good consequences.

  7. This is an interesting topic. I think I generally agree with what has been said … and yet I don’t feel fully satisfied. There is something more here, something deeper behind the Savior’s words in this parable.

    Maybe I should wait until your next post in this series, Nathan. I’ll share just a few random thoughts for now. On one hand, it is definitely true that sin is never good. But what I see the Savior speaking to is the recognition of our own multitudinous sins — that we will always in this life be sinners. Because we sin repeatedly, we always need to call upon the Savior and be forgiven of our sins. The person whom the Savior loves more is not he who sins more, but he who is forgiven more. The person who commits adultery and repents is forgiven the same amount as the person who goes through this pattern twice. In a certain respect, the second-time adulterer neither sins more nor is forgiven more. Rather, he continues in his sins, harming himself and others and increasing the risk of falling.

    Let me explain what I mean by this. Often when we think about sins, we think in terms of counting sins on our hands, complete with a hierarchy of discrete sins (the worst sin, the second worst, etc.). This view of sin might have some practical merit, but I think it is quite impoverished. The distance between Christ and each of us is infinitely greater than the relative distances amongst us. In other words, the more or less sin that Susan might have compared to Jason is infinitesimal compared to the enormous sin they have BOTH have, in relation to Christ. Thus, in a certain respect, we all have about the same distance to go in terms of conquering sin. The big difference lies in those who recognize themselves as sinners before God — those who recognize the enormous chasm between themselves and God — and yet also call upon God, notwithstanding their unworthiness, and in so doing achieve a forgiveness of sins and perfection in Christ. It is then God’s grace that can transform our sins into strengths (lessons learned, maturity, ways to help others). This transformation of sin does not justify sin — it is imply to say that Christ, finding us in our sins, transforms them.

  8. I really agree with you, Dennis. I think we sometimes get a little too enamoured of metaphors that quantify sin amongst multiple sinners.

    I also wonder whether the Savior was being a little ironic in many of his parables about sin. Like with the lost sheep. He describes a shepherd leaving the ninety-nine safe sheep to go find the wandering one. In all honesty, everyone hearing was a lost sheep; there were no safe sheep in the audience. And with the physician metaphor. He says the physician goes to the sick, not the whole. Again, no one in the audience fit into the whole category; everyone in the audience was sick. It seems sometimes that his parables include a totally hypothetical sinless element, when in reality everyone in the family of Adam fits into the sinful category.

    Anyway, thank you for those points. The rest of the series doesn’t really explore the Two Debtors parable any further, because my focus is on clearing up the mistaken notion of beneficial sin. I only brought up the parable because it’s sometimes used as a proof text. I hope that doesn’t disappoint you!

  9. I came across a post today that’s another example of what I strongly believe is a grave misinterpretation of LDS doctrine: The Spiritual Benefits of Sin.

  10. […] He used to blog regularly at LDSphilosopher.com and hopes to return to that project again some day. His favorite project is the Structured Edition of the Standard Works […]

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