What's So Bad About Sin?

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Romans 3:10-12, 22-23

We are creatures of God made good, made in his image. Much is right about our world, our life, ourselves, but there’s also something wrong, and what’s wrong with us is this thing called sin.

One of the common criticisms we get as Christians is that we are obsessed with the subject of sin. People say we’re always carrying on about how evil everyone is and trying to make them feel bad about themselves. Some would even go so far as to suggest that Christians are guilty of being anti-human because our talk about sin insults human decency and undermines human dignity. Our critics say that we slander the noble human race when we speak of human nature as being inherently twisted, corrupted or inclined toward evil.

And by preaching so much about sin we’re accused of hurting people instead of helping them, no doubt out of a cynical desire to manipulate them by creating feelings of guilt in order to win more converts. What we should be teaching instead, we’re told, is a positive message that appeals to the best in human nature and encourages people to develop self-esteem. After all, most of us have enough unhappiness in our lives already, without preachers who continually try to heap more guilt and depression on everyone.

That’s a fairly frequent series of accusations against the standard Christian teaching on human nature: the doctrine known as original sin. But I find myself wondering – I wonder, would it really make people feel better if we downplayed the subject of sin? If we never talked about anything negative, and concentrated instead on simply urging folks to feel good about themselves, would that actually work? I mean, would people then feel better and become happier?

Picture this scenario. You’re at the doctor’s office. You haven’t been feeling well, in fact, you’ve been noticing some rather alarming symptoms in yourself lately – weight loss, lack of strength and energy, unexplained pain, even some lumps under your skin that recently appeared. So you’ve gone through a battery of tests, and now you’re waiting to hear from the doctor. He walks into the examination room, dressed in his white lab coat carrying a thick file in his hands. He opens the chart, looks at you, shakes his head, and says, “Well, Dave, I don’t want to be negative or make you feel bad, so I’m not going to tell you what these test results indicate. That would only depress you more. So just go home and try to feel good about yourself.”

Now, my question is this: would that work? Would it relieve your anxiety and depression? Would it actually make you feel better? Or would you rather hear the truth about your condition and something that you could do about it?

WITNESS TO THE TRUTH

Christians believe that the word “sin” is the best way of describing the truth about our common human condition. It’s not the only truth, but it is an essential one. We are creatures of God, made good, made in his image. Much is right about our world, our life, ourselves. But there’s also something wrong, and what’s wrong with us is this thing called sin. In the third chapter of the book of Romans, the Bible diagnoses the human condition this way:

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one.” . . . For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. . . .

Romans 3:10-12,22-23, RSV

I have alluded to the fact that there is a strong tendency today to dismiss the idea of sin. People, in fact, seem embarrassed even to use the word. This reluctance to acknowledge the reality of sin is part of the moral relativism that has taken such deep root in contemporary society. Many, especially among our cultural elites, no longer accept the concept of right and wrong. As columnist George Will once wrote, “I believe that someone is innocent until he is proven guilty. The trouble today is that so many believe someone is innocent after he’s proven guilty.” But for many of the most influential people in society, the very idea that some things are right absolutely and some things are wrong absolutely is dismissed as outdated conservative nonsense.

So it has become, I believe, the responsibility of the Christian church in our age to proclaim again the fact, the reality of sin – and of moral absolutes and human responsibility. Why do we talk about sin? In the first place, it’s really just a question of basic witness to the truth. George Orwell said of the modern world that “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” And human sin seems like a pretty obvious fact to point out. The great Christian writer G. K. Chesterton called the doctrine of original sin the only part of Christian theology that could actually be proved! Writing in the first decade of the 20th century Chesterton already pointed out this problem of moral relativism and the denial of human sin. He said that in a world like ours, where a man can get pleasure out of skinning a cat, you can only draw one of two rational conclusions. Either there is no God, or else humans have lost their way and are estranged from him. What isn’t rational, Chesterton added, is to deny the cat! In a world, he’s saying, where human perversity and cruelty are on display every day in ways both large and small, we’re not going to get very far by denying the obvious sinfulness of human nature.

So this is the first reason why Christian teachers talk about sin. It’s part of our witness to the truth about basic reality. I’m not trying to insult or offend anyone. My purpose is not to intentionally make us all feel bad about ourselves. I merely want to explain – or, better, to let the Bible explain – just what is wrong with us as a prelude to putting it right.

ACCURATE DIAGNOSIS FOR APPROPRIATE TREATMENT

But there is a second reason to talk about sin. Going back to the medical analogy I was using earlier, I might put it this way: an accurate diagnosis is necessary in order to receive the appropriate treatment. As Christians, we believe that God has taken decisive action to deal with the problem of human sin. He did that by coming in the person of Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God. Jesus took the burden of our sin upon himself, dying as a sacrifice of atonement to pay for sin’s guilt. This, in just a few simple statements, is what Christians call the gospel, the good news of salvation. It’s also the specific message of that passage from Romans 3 that speaks with such devastating candor about the universality of sin. Earlier I quoted just a part of verse 22:

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

But listen now to the whole statement:

There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood (Romans 3:22-25a, niv).

But even this isn’t the whole story. God saves us from the consequences of sin out of sheer grace through our faith in the atoning death of Christ. But God doesn’t leave it at that. His intention, his purpose, is also to make us good. He doesn’t save us merely to leave us as we were; he saves us in order ultimately to cleanse us from all sin and make us like Jesus Christ.

Christian conversion begins the Christian life when we are saved by God’s grace through trusting in Jesus Christ by faith. But the Christian life then becomes essentially a fight against sin, sin both in us and in the world. And you can’t really fight that fight unless you know the enemy. So that’s the second reason we talk about sin. It’s impossible to win the battle against sin without a thorough knowledge of what we’re up against, in other words, without an understanding of just what sin is and how it works in various ways inside us.

That’s why, in the interests of developing just such an in-depth understanding that can lead to effective spiritual healing and moral growth, I’m planning a series of programs on what are traditionally called “The Seven Deadly Sins.” The list of the seven deadly sins is many centuries old. It was first developed in the early church by Christians whose particular concern was to defeat sin, that is, to overcome temptation in their own lives and to grow in personal holiness. They realized that the only way to do that was to really understand the enemy with which we struggle. So over the centuries these followers of Jesus developed, out of a long and hard struggle against that enemy within, a list of the seven most dangerous, most insidious sins. The reason they are called the seven deadly sins is because they are most threatening to our souls. To put it bluntly, they’re the sins that will damn you the soonest. And here is the list: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice (or greed), lust, gluttony.

Notice one very significant characteristic these deadly sins all share: none of them is an act or an action. They are all attitudes; inward rather than outward. The problem for many of us is that we have tended to see sin strictly in terms of specific acts of disobedience, or behaviors that our religious culture may have forbidden. As long as we avoid doing those things, we think we are successfully overcoming sin. But as one wit once remarked, “Don’t think that by giving up drinking you go to heaven; you just go to hell sober, that’s all.”

The deadliest sins are the ones that lie behind our actions and beneath our behavior. They are the sins of the mind, the heart and the soul, the sins of our emotions, thoughts and appetites. You may have noticed that murder is not one of the seven deadly sins but the anger or the lust or the greed which often lead to murder are among the seven. So these are all sins of attitude. They are motivating sins, sins that grow inside our hearts and cause us to do wrong to others and to ourselves. That is what makes them so deadly.

One other general point to emphasize. When we as Christians study the seven deadly sins, we are doing so primarily for our own sake. I’m really not interested in attacking or criticizing non-Christians. If you don’t happen to be a Christian, I invite you to listen along. But please don’t think I’m trying to go after you. Christians don’t talk about sin from some presumed position of moral superiority – at least we don’t if we really know what we’re talking about. No. We’re not pointing the finger at the world out there; we’re pointing at ourselves. We are looking in the mirror. And we do so out of a need to understand our own sins so that with God’s help, we learn to fight them more effectively and overcome them more completely. We study sin in order to learn holiness, that we may grow in the goodness and purity God desires for us – and that we also desire more than anything for ourselves.