The problem for us is, we really love sin… a lot.
That is; we love to talk about it, preach about it, confront people about theirs, and when we feel like a pastor/writer/blogger doesn’t talk enough about sin, well, we get really, really antsy; like they’re intentionally trying to hide something or mislead us.
People in the Church often see someone’s sin stance, as a litmus test of their proper love for Jesus, and as adequate evidence of their Christian credentials.
On Facebook today, I had a friend ask me to clarify my perspective on sin, in a post that is representative of many I’ve received; one that I think reflects the mindset of so many modern Christians, so I’ll begin by posting a portion of it here. He writes:
I’m interested to know, as you are the leader of a faith community, where does the concept of “sin” fit in the picture for you? If someone came into your community displaying behaviours that were clearly impacting others and clearly against the Word of God, at what point, if at all would you confront it? What qualifies as a “sin” for you?
I think my friend’s very question, points out the great hurdle we have to contend with before we ever begin a substantive conversation on sin; the very real and difficult problem of defining sin itself.
I know in asking the question, he’s hoping for a succinct opinion on the incredibly complex, vast, divisive subject of sin, and almost immediately he begins using behavior as a barometer; asking how I would respond if someone “displayed behaviors” negatively affecting others, or “clearly” against the Word of God.
The expectation, is that as a Christian leader, I have a duty to call out and eradicate sin, and should have a clear, hard-and-fast ministerial model for doing so.
(I’ve read the four gospels about a half a million times, and I have yet to see that from Jesus).
My first response to any Christian who brings up the subject of sin and asks me to comment, is to ask them a seemingly simple question, which I’ll ask of you as you read:
What is Sin to you?
Do you believe that it is primarily:
a) A behavior; something we do? (My friend’s question certainly seems to assume so, at least in part, because he brings up another’s visible actions).
b) A condition; something he have? (The idea that sin is a fatal moral impurity we’ve all inherited; one that keeps us estranged from God, and requires some decision/declaration regarding Jesus).
Most Christians really don’t carefully consider how much the answers to these questions affect their theology, their daily lives as believers, their picture of God, and their agendas with other people.
If we believe sin is primarily an action, (which is often the case when looking at the lives of other people), then we need to decide just which actions are both sinful and clearly sinful, to the point that they are deal-breakers to God.
How can we objectively determine and all agree upon what behaviors, thoughts, activities are morally damaging; which ones God sees as sinful?
(I wrote extensively on the subject of the Bible, and the danger of supposing absolute clarity in it, here, in Point 2).
If we focus on someone’s outward conduct as evidence of their sin, we’d all be on pretty shaky ground, and I have a really hard time doing this in my personal and pastoral lives.
If, on the other hand, we believe that sin is primarily a moral condition, then how specifically does someone properly change that condition? How do we determine whether or not someone has satisfactorily completed the necessary requirements to restore themselves to right-standing with God?
Is it a magic prayer that fixes their sin condition?
If so, does it matter if they prayed that prayer, and didn’t understand what they were praying?
How about if they meant it then, but proceeded to go on living as if they never prayed it, afterward?
How about if they one day come to believe that the prayer they once prayed, no longer speaks their hearts anymore? Is it still binding?
Is the magic prayer alone the golden ticket out of Hell?
(And if it is, does Jesus ever tell anyone to pray said prayer in the gospels? Did Jesus ever give altar calls? Did he ever ask anyone to “receive him as their personal Lord and Savior?”)
What did Jesus ask of those who followed him?
Is it praying the magic prayer, and not doing bad stuff?
If so, what stuff is OK to still do and what stuff isn’t after you’re “saved”, and how much of it is OK? Is there a tipping point when the bad stuff cancels out the prayer?
(Which brings us back to trying to objectively decide from a limitless menu of choices, what is and isn’t sin that adversely affects the salvation prayer that one’s already prayed).
Is it just about really loving Jesus?
If it is, how specifically is this life-saving love measured? Is it a pass-fail, or is Jesus judging on a curve?
Not a lot of answers here, (which is sort of the point), but it’s a great place to begin; to really wrestle with what we each believe sin is and isn’t, what it does or doesn’t do, and what we can or can’t say definitively about it.
I’m not talking about an isolated Scripture passage. We can use segments of The Bible to supposedly prove or disprove all kinds of perspectives. I’m talking about, boiling it down to an irreducible essence; just what is this sin thing and how do we deal with it on a person-to-person, rubber-meets-the-road level?
Since I’m often asked to state what I believe about sin, I’ll start here in the murkiness of these many questions, and simply say that I believe building a ministry around sin or sin-policing is a very dangerous proposition, and one that’s somewhat irresponsible, given these issues I’ve raised thus far. Many pastors are fine doing this, but I think many are just being intellectually lazy.
I prefer instead, to build one around helping people know Jesus, and letting Him reveal what He chooses, to each person as they seek and follow.
I have to trust that God can do this better than I or anyone else can. That’s not heresy, it’s humility.
I think Christians want a nice, tidy sin theology that fits comfortably in a couple of bullet points, but if we’re really honest with ourselves, I’m not sure we can have that, even from the Bible.
I’m not trying to avoid answering my friend’s question with more questions. (Though Jesus loved that tactic).
My questions really are my best answer.
When we approach other people and want to talk about sin, I wonder what we really want to hear from them.
How about you?
What do you need to hear about sin from someone, to give you peace that they’re authentically Christian, or worth listening to or taking guidance from?
I’m OK saying that I just have a whole lot of messy questions. Maybe that makes me a crappy Christian and a lousy leader, but it’s the best I can do.
If you consider yourself a Christian, tell me what you believe about sin.
Maybe we can figure this thing out together.
(Note: I am fine with people responding on this topic with passages from Scripture, however as someone who has been a pastor for nearly twenty years, and who has studied the and taught the Bible extensively, I know the passages.
What I’d love to hear, is how you see those passages really translating to our everyday experience, to the way we teach theology, and to the way that you personally understand how to connect these words from the Bible to your life).