John Stott writes* “Christians are often criticized for harping on it too much. But it is only because Christians are realists that they do so…it is a fact of human experience” .
What is it?
We are talking about sin.
Sin is really not a popular topic. Given that, Stott even says that some preachers may use the idea of sin to keep themselves employed. I have seen numerous pastors over the years threaten their congregations with God’s punishment for sin. The only way to conquer sin is to “get right with God” and people do that by needing the pastor’s church, filling the pews, following the admonitions of the pastor [of course, his or her messages are directed by God Himself, having nothing to do with an earthly person threatening others in order to stay employed]. I have seen some preachers overdo the sin message. Some churches do not want to be reminded constantly of their shortcomings. Pastors can dwell on sin so much that I have seen their approach cost them their jobs. It seems that some congregations can only stand to be threatened to a certain degree. One of the largest churches in my community requested a pastoral reassignment due to this very “problem:” too much preaching on sin and damnation.
Ok, maybe Christians are obsessed with sin.
Maybe we don’t talk about it one hundred percent of the time, but it is there, hanging over our heads. We commit sins or we neglect to do what we know we should do. Committing sin is sinning by commission. Neglecting to do something we know we should do is a sin of omission.
Let me tell you about three friends I have, three friends who represent how Christians deal with our human shortcomings.
One of my friends refuses to deal directly with the idea of sin. She has told me repeatedly that she does not have to worry about it. She admits to not being a regular church attendee. She admits that she has never really read the Bible. She seems to be a good person, and her “goodness” (in her mind) is good enough. She has made up her mind that she is going to get through the ups and downs of life with her stalwart attempt at being nice. That (for her) is enough.
Another of my friends is a fellow who is very active in his life. He volunteers all over the community. Whenever there is a need, he is the first to try to do something about it. He is not shy about his activity. He will tell you about what he is doing. In fact, I have attended an accountability group with this man and he regularly brings out a laundry list of all the things he has done throughout the week [making the rest of us feel “small” by comparison]. He is a Christian and is aware of sin. He attends church and knows a bit about the Bible. His approach to sin is different from the woman above. He is working his way into God’s good graces.
My third friend is an older man who is obsessed with his public image. He talks in very measured words, carefully watching his display of emotions. He likes to tell everyone that he is constantly in prayer for the downtrodden of the church; he especially has a heart for persecuted Christians in overseas churches. He won’t admit that he watches any entertainment program that is evil. He avoids that at all costs and lets everyone know it. Once, he declared that he would not read a book because he encountered a word in the pages that offended him. He stopped reading immediately (so his mind would not be polluted). When I think of him, a descriptive phrase comes to mind: “goody two shoes.” That phrase today is used in a pejorative sense for someone who is self-righteous and ostentatiously virtuous. He has constructed the sin-free façade to perfection.
What do my three friends have to do with sin?
All three need a good dose of reality; the reality that sin is alive and well and living in all of us (including them).
Let’s go back to the opening sentence of this post and focus on key words: “Christians are realists.” If you profess to be a Christian, you must grapple with the fact that all humans sin.
Stott refers to a liberal movement in the Nineteenth Century that was extremely optimistic. Many people in the world at that time felt that increasing industrialization and improving living conditions could conquer any problem, even sin. Many believed the only reason sin existed was ignorance, poor housing and lack of education. If we only practiced social reform, the sins of man would disappear because we will all be given the opportunities we need to live better lives. There will no longer be any need to commit sinful acts.
Well “educational opportunities have spread rapidly in the western world, and many welfare states have been created. Yet the atrocities which accompanied both world wars, the subsequent international conflicts, the continuance of political oppression and racial discrimination, and the general increase of violence and crime have forced thoughtful people to acknowledge the existence in every man of a hard core of selfishness [and sin]” .
It seems that we indeed have a hard time admitting that we all sin.
Let’s go further. We don’t want to admit that we have a “sin nature.” This is extremely harsh but true: sinning is baked into who we are as human beings. We are made to be rebellious against God; we have a natural inclination to sin. God has given us a choice in life: do His will or do our own. Naturally we choose to do our own.
The idea that we are born “good” is not true. The idea that we can socially engineer sin out of our makeup is false. My friend who is relying on her “good nature” to get her through life will find herself faced one day with problems that are beyond her ability to control. Life is not easy. It is full of wonderful times and awful times. “Goodness” is easy when situations are wonderful but goodness is not easy when situations are extremely challenging. We need a power that is stronger than our own self-generated goodness to get us through challenging times. We need the power of Jesus Christ.
My friend who is active in the community should be lauded for his efforts. Everyone knows that countless people need help in the world today. He knows the Bible and he seems to have forgotten what is said in Matthew 6: “Be careful not to do your `acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth; they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Helping others is commendable but announcing your works in public is not. Also, working in the community will not guarantee that God will reward you with a pass into heaven. God does not require that we produce X number of good deeds in order to win His favor. God asks that we give our lives to Him, to have faith in Him. Will “good works” flow from that? They will but there is not enough work that we can do to overpower our nature to sin. We need the power of Jesus Christ.
My last friend who has mastered his Godly façade needs to be realistic also. He needs to recognize that it is only a façade and not reality. It says in First John 1:8 “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” It is galling to be around a self-righteous person. Jesus was terribly irritated by Pharisees who worked hard to keep up appearances: it doesn’t matter so much what you are on the inside, as long as you keep the rules (at least publicly). The Pharisees were hypocrites. What they pretended to be in public was not really what they were like in private. They claimed to be perfect in keeping God’s law, but as humans, they were sinners like everyone else. What they were very good at is putting on an act. They did not need their legalistic view of religion. None of us need that. We need the power of Jesus.
“Christians are often criticized for harping on it too much. But it is only because Christians are realists that they do so…it is a fact of human experience”
It is sin.
Some readers may not like the upcoming posts. They may make you uncomfortable. My wife just came downstairs with a vacuum cleaner full of dirt. She vacuums regularly and yet the canister has an “unbelievable” amount of dirt in it every time. Should we not turn on the vacuum and play like the dirt is not there or should we run the vacuum and look at the canister and say “I got rid of some of the dirt today,” knowing that in a few days the canister will be full again.
You get the metaphor.
Sin is like dirt in the carpet. Let’s vacuum and get some of it out. We won’t get it all out and it will come right back but let’s be real.
It does exist and it is not going to go away due to our feeble efforts.
We need the power of Jesus Christ.
*This is post number one of a series of posts from John Stott’s Basic Christianity. This is from part two of his book, Chapter 5, “The Fact and Nature of Sin.”