How Serious Is Sin in Postmodern Times?

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Raphael, The Death of Ananias (1515)

In 1973, the psychiatrist Karl Menninger published the book, Whatever Became of Sin? He noted that the word was disappearing from our vocabulary. Moral offenses were increasingly labeled by neutralizing words like “mistake” or “slip-up.”

Since Menninger wrote that book, the nature and gravity of sin have been further squeezed from our public understanding. Rarely if ever does one hear the word used to describe a lie, theft, corrupt act, cover-up of wrongdoing, or personal abuse.

The Christian Scriptures have an array of words or expressions to describe acts of sin such as: lawlessness; unrighteousness; depravity; disobedience. Sin will harm its perpetrator and/or another person, but is always first and foremost an offense against a holy God.

Here are two situations, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament, that might help us regain our understanding of the terrible consequences of sin.

Joshua had led the people of Israel in a great victory over Jericho (Joshua 6). They had marched around the walled city as the Lord ordered and the city’s walls had collapsed. They were on their way to taking possession of the Promised Land.

There followed the conquest of a much smaller town called Ai. Victory should have been easier here, but 3000 of Joshua’s soldiers were routed, and 36 were slain.

When Joshua heard of the failure he lay face down on the ground. The Lord rebuked him sternly saying the problem was that Israel had sinned. God had ordered that all property of the people of Jericho (the prior battle) be totally destroyed. But God told Joshua that one of his soldiers had greedily seized and hidden a selection of them. The Lord called this “stealing” and “lying.” Thus the sin of one man was behind the failure of the Lord’s soldiers to overcome their enemies at Ai.

After a detailed investigation, Achan confessed that he had buried a beautiful Babylonian garment, two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold in his tent. Messengers recovered the forbidden booty.

Despite his confession, Achan and his family were executed and all of their possessions destroyed. The sentence seems severe to our modern sensibilities, but we recall that these were ancient times; God’s longstanding covenant with Israel had been violated; Achan had caused the death of 36 soldiers; 3000 fighting men had been routed; and Israel had been demoralized for a time.

The greed of one man had devastated the whole nation. Yet, his act had not seemed serious until its consequences were brought to light.

Centuries later, in the earliest days of the New Testament church, an act of deception against a holy God and his people again brought severe punishment. In the young church in Jerusalem a spirit of generosity had broken out among the people. Some even sold their houses or lands, bringing the proceeds to the Apostles to provide for the needy.

Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife, noticed that open-handed giving had released great joy, and they decided on what they considered a harmless bit of deception to win them recognition as lavish givers.

The two agreed to sell a piece of property but to give only a portion of the proceeds to the church — while allowing it to appear that they were giving the whole. The Holy Spirit revealed this deception to the apostle Peter, who rebuked Ananias for “lying to the Holy Spirit.” The shock was more than Ananias could take and he collapsed and died at the Apostle’s feet.

Three hours later, his wife, Sapphira, having not heard the news, came before Peter, repeated her husband’s lie, and also died on the spot. The Acts of the Apostles records, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (Acts 5:11).

Each of the two incidents occurs at the outset of a God-directed venture. If the offenses had been ignored or covered, both ventures would have been seriously compromised. In each case, the point had to be made in a way that would speak clearly for the times: however hidden, sin is primarily an offense against God, and thus profoundly serious for that reason alone.

Today, we can find many examples in business and politics of lies, deceptions, broken laws, raunchy talk, and corrupted processes. And nowhere is the word ‘sin’ to be found in news reports even in quotes. That may be partly because today, God’s judgments of sin may not seem so immediate as they were in the cases of Achan or Ananias and Sapphira. Grace restrains judgment for a time and God’s mercy is extended. But situations like the above are included in our Sacred Book to warn us about our peril. These stories counter the notion that God is just nice and he will understand and be indulgent when his holy standards are violated.

The church has everything to offer society today, provided the church, too, keeps its sense of the reality and gravity of sin. After all, our God is holy. With the empowerment of the Spirit, his people must be, too.

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Holiness is Not Optional

7343174816_9d67d74f5a_mEvangelicals speak often of the forgiveness of sins (justification) as the fundamental element in God’s gift of salvation. And so they should.

Justification is a legal term and it represents our acquittal as abject penitents before a holy God. Our forgiveness is assured by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He paid our sin debt on his cross, so that by faith we can be pardoned of all our sins. Justification stands for what God has done for us. Christ’s atoning sacrifice is the focus.

But evangelicals do not speak often enough of the companion doctrine – the doctrine of sanctification. If justification borrows its language from the law court, sanctification borrows from the terminology of the temple and its holy rituals. Justification stands for what God does for us, while sanctification stands for what he does in us in his setting-us-apart ministry.

Justification means that we are pardoned–and thereby saved from the judgment because the shed blood of Christ makes possible acquittal for all our sins. Our sin record is erased.

Sanctification means that God begins to transform our characters. To sanctify means to make holy — to set apart and form the life of God in us. In the original languages the two words – sanctification and holiness — come from the same root.

The two elements – justification and sanctification — can be considered separately to help us in our understanding, but they cannot exist or function separately, for in the moment we are justified, our sanctification begins. That is, the moment we are forgiven in a genuine conversion experience, in that moment in an evangelical sense the Holy Spirit imparts Christ’s life in us.

I find the call to sanctification clear in Paul’s letter to the Ephesian Christians (Ephesians 4:25—32). First, he exhorts these “born again” members of this young church to participate in a full transformation. Using the analogy of changing one’s clothing, he exhorts them to “put off” the badly soiled old life in its entirety and to “put on” the new life. That is, dress in the fresh clean garb of Christ’s holiness.

This can only be possible by energy made available by the mighty Spirit of God, but Ephesian believers are required to cooperate, though not as a means of adding virtue to the process. All is of grace. Yet the Apostle Paul’s appeal is for their response.

Then he mentions some characteristics of the old life they should guard against: They should put off falsehood, anger, stealing, and unholy speech. The suggestion is not that these are still rampant in the church but that such remnants of the old life are sure to be hanging on in some cases because awareness has not yet been awakened that such conduct does not fit the new life.

Paul’s list might leave his readers thinking that only sins committed that others can see are at issue, so he adds, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with all malice.” The work of sanctification confronts sins of the disposition, too.

Because it is only by the energy of the indwelling Holy Spirit that such transformation of character is possible, nestled in amongst these exhortations Paul makes another appeal: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”

The Holy Spirit does not seal us as God’s possession by stamping some detached insignia on us; he himself and his indwelling presence are our seal. We are to avoid grieving him by our disobedience because he is real, personal, and the one who now graciously owns us.

It is clear to Paul that good can be expected from all this and it will manifest itself in the church. For one thing, holy relationships are sure to form between believers, as the Holy Spirit enables and supervises the church. In the words again of Paul, we will — “Be kind and compassionate to one another.” What a gracious result to expect!

But with this concern for God’s sanctifying work, Paul, does not forget that our grounding is in our justification. He writes: “Forgive each other just as in Christ God forgave you.”

Photo credit: McKay Savage

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Nurturing A Healthy Christian Mind

UpPhilippians is a love letter to a young church for which the Apostle Paul has a great fondness. It is written while he is under house arrest in Rome, awaiting a sentence that may condemn him to death.

One of his counsels to believers is — to think! Not stream of consciousness thinking but thought in an elevated and disciplined way. Here’s how he puts it:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things . . .  And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8,9).

Ponder with me these targets of wholesome thought.

Whatever Is True. There is mathematical truth (two plus two equals four, everywhere and always). And there is historical and scientific truth. But the truth Paul has in mind is spiritual or moral truth. Elsewhere he writes of truth “as it is found in Jesus.” (Ephesians 4:21). Jesus himself said, “I am the truth” (John 14:6). And throughout the Gospels countless times he introduces his teachings with, “I tell you the truth.”

We Christians are to hold truth in high esteem. Therefore, we turn to the Gospels often and search for its words of truth in a spiritual sense as grounds for our meditation. As a consequence we are lovers and practitioners of truth.

Whatever Is Noble. Weymouth translates the word as “whatever wins respect.” We might say, whatever is honorable, or whatever we are inspired to look up to. There is so much in our world that is crass and vulgar. Paul calls us to avoid reflecting on that which is cheap by consciously fixing our thoughts on that which is noble.

Whatever is Just. There is a connection in the original language between the words “just,” “right” and “righteous.” Paul’s counsel is, think on whatever assures of fair play or meets just standards. When moral concerns are so readily set aside by deception and favoritism in our times Christians are called to reflect on what is just in order to practice being just.

The psalmist wrote in the Shepherd’s Psalm, “He guides me in paths of righteousness”(Psalm 23:3). That imagery of a righteous or straight path is repeated again and again in the Old Testament, suggesting the path the Good Shepherd leads us on is always free of hidden obstacles that would trip us up (Jeremiah 31:9).

Whatever is Pure. The prophets of the Old Testament, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, constantly preach that God is not pleased with the mere external ceremonies of religion, however elaborate and well performed; he wants the hearts of his people to be pure and undivided toward him.

And that of course requires a Spirit-disciplined thought life, and active avoidance of whatever would sully a pure heart — such as internet pornography, movies that promote lust and literature that excites lewd thoughts. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8).

Whatever is Lovely. Weymouth translates this word, “loveable.” The NRSV uses the word, “pleasing.”

A vase can be lovely. So can a flower garden, a bride – or the life of a saintly person of our acquaintance. We are to align our minds to see such lovely things as we move through each day.

Whatever is Admirable. This is an extremely rare word, used only once by the apostle according to The Expositor’s Greek New Testament. It might call us to look for what is of value in any situation and to speak in a kindly spirit. It is not a call to forgo judgment when moral integrity is under siege but to affirm goodness insofar as that is possible.

If anything is Excellent or Praiseworthy, Think on These Things. The Contemporary English Version gives this rendition: “Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise.” It strikes me that the Apostle, having finished his list, is doubling back to be sure the list will have a permanent place with his readers as they think Christianly about all of life.

This brief scripture gives us a pattern for nurturing a healthy Christian mind across a lifetime. And the conclusion of this passage assures us that as we do this, “God who gives peace will be with us” (Philippians 4:9).

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Photo credit: ND Strupler (via flickr.com)

Ecclesiastes, anybody?

scales of justiceHow many Bible readers do you know who consider Ecclesiastes their favorite book? It’s a puzzling read. You ask, is this writer a pessimist or an optimist? Or neither? And does he know that in places he seems to contradict himself? Or so it seems?

Kathleen and I are working our way through the book in our daily Bible reading and we stop often to ponder just what the writer means.

This morning here is what we read in chapter 8:10,11 (NLT):

“I have seen wicked people buried with honor. How strange that they were the very ones who frequented the Temple and are praised in the very city where they committed their crimes! When crime is not punished people feel it is safe to do wrong.”

The writer seems to pose two problems people often come up against if they believe there is such a thing as righteousness: (1) How come sometimes even outwardly religious people who have a reputation for doing evil things — and their evil is known — seem to get away with it and even are given accolades of praise at their funerals? (2) Can’t anyone see that when wrongdoing goes on and people get away with crime this way it encourages more crime in their community?

A couple of sentences later the writer goes on: “And this is not all that is meaningless in our world. In this life good people are often treated as though they were wicked, and wicked people are often treated as though they were good. This is so meaningless!”

As we reflected on this passage, Kathleen mentioned the name of Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska. She is by all fair reports a decent person. She is married to her first and only husband, and faithful to her family, especially to her Downs Syndrome child. She has been a successful mayor and governor, and there is no evidence that she is carrying on a diatribe against anyone.

Yet, for months now, she has been the most maligned and reviled person on this continent, even worse than Bernie Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme bilked investors out of billions of dollars in savings and who is sentenced to 150 years in jail and restitution of 170 billion dollars.

There is also the late Dr. George Tiller, usher in his Lutheran church and famous for the thousands of late term abortions he performed in Kansas. Yet in his untimely and violent death he was praised for his service to the cause of women, as though killing unborn babies was some sort of great service to humanity.

Ecclesiastes sets forth the problem as a dilemma. Bad people sometimes appear to “get away with murder” and are praised. Good people in spite of their decency are sometimes maligned and scorned as though they are in fact wicked.

But, for the writer it is not a completely unresolved dilemma. He writes that when you take the long view of life there is resolution: “But even though a person sins a hundred times, and still lives a long time, I know that those who fear God will be better off” (verse 12). It is a solution resolved more fully in Psalm 73, but both still comes short of offering a fully satisfying answer to such moral quandaries.

It is Jesus who speaks the final word on this issue. He says, “Don’t be surprised! Indeed, the time is coming when all the dead in their graves will hear the voice of God’s Son, and they will rise again. Those who have done good will rise to eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to judgment” (John 5:28,29).

We take no comfort in the future of the unrepentant wicked. It is unspeakably bleak. But, at the same time, his words prompt us to live upright lives. And when we know that there is to be an absolute resolution at a final judgment to all unresolved issues, both good and evil, it tends to settle us to live the life of faith in the midst of these dilemmas.

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How Total Is Total Depravity? Some Thoughts and Reflections

Photo credit: David Gunter via flicker.comI was asked recently about the Christian doctrine of total depravity. The questioner was a Christian brought up in Wesleyan circles.

“Don’t we believe that the depravity of man is not total?” she asked. Then she added, “If it were total, wouldn’t that leave man devoid of anything that God could appeal to in calling him to salvation?”

I replied that Wesleyans among others believe that the image of God in man (the Imago Dei) is blemished but not destroyed by Adam’s fall. All humans, however sinful, continue to bear the image of God. And there is a prevenient grace (the grace that goes before) that keeps even the vilest of sinners capable of responding when the gospel appeal is made.

Her question prompted me to write down some notes about the subject of total depravity.

The question is, how total is total depravity? Besides being a profound theological question, this is also a serious pastoral question.

In the eighteenth century John Fletcher, the Swiss-born immigrant, went from his homeland to England, was converted in a Methodist setting, mastered the English language, and was ordained as an Anglican (Episcopalian) minister. He served a church at Madeley and became known as Fletcher of Madeley. He was chosen by John Wesley to be his successor but preceded Wesley in death.

Fletcher was learned in theology and wrote Five Checks to Antinomianism, which were an answer to the extremes of Calvinism in the England of his times. Here is a statement from him on the seriousness and extent of sin — which can be regarded as a fair presentation of Methodist theology on this question.

“In every religion there is a principal truth or error which, like the first link of a chain, necessarily draws after it all the parts with which it is essentially connected. This leading principle in Christianity . . . is the doctrine of our corrupt and lost estate; for if man is not at variance with his Creator, what need of a Mediator between God and him? If he is not a depraved, undone creature, what necessity of so wonderful a Restorer and Saviour as the Son of God? lf he be not enslaved to sin, why is he redeemed by Jesus Christ? If he is not polluted, why must he be washed in the blood of the immaculate Lamb? If his soul is not disordered, what occasion is there for such a divine physician? If he is not helpless and miserable, why is he perpetually invited to secure the assistance and consolations of the Holy Spirit? And, in a word, if he is not born in sin, why is the new birth so absolutely necessary that Christ declares with the most solemn asseverations, without it no man can see the kingdom of God?”

For Wesleyans, how total is total depravity? We are sometimes charged with having a casual or shallow view of sin, of being semi-Pelagians. (That is, to believe that one is saved by God’s grace but man adds something to it by his cooperation. The issue is, does Christ get all the merit for salvation or is it shared?)

Here’s an excerpt from Wesley’s Sermon 44, on Original Sin: “ ‘God saw all the imaginations of the thoughts of (man’s) heart . . .’ It is not possible to find a word of a more extensive signification. It includes whatever is formed, made, fabricated within; all that is or passes in the soul; every inclination, affection, passion, appetite; every temper, design, thought. It must of consequence include every word and action, as naturally flowing from these fountains, and being either good or evil according to the fountain from which they severally flow.”

He does not use the term “total depravity” here, but that is certainly what he is describing. When Wesley revised the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion into his Twenty-Four (plus one), he shortened the one on sin but retained the words: “. . . it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil and that continually . . .”

Do the Scriptures support such sobering words? “Sin lurks deep in the hearts of the wicked, forever urging them on to evil deeds” (Psalm 36:10). “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:9ff).

Twentieth century Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner writes, “Sin understood in the Christian sense, is the rent which cuts through the whole of existence.”

Here are some clarifications of the doctrine of total depravity by an American theologian of our own day, Donald Bloesch. As I see it, he is trying to bridge the theological differences in the evangelical ranks and make a statement for contemporary “evangelicalism.” I believe him to be a moderate Reformed scholar attempting to correct or clarify the extremes of Reformed doctrine. Please note the qualification he adds for each affirmation.

Bloesch writes that total depravity can be thought of as having four meanings:

“First, it refers to the corruption at the very center of man’s being, the heart, but this does not mean that man’s humanity has ceased to exist. Second, it signifies the infection in every part of man’s being, though this is not to imply that this infection is evenly distributed or that nothing good remains in man. Third, it denotes the total inability of sinful man to please God or come to him unless moved by grace, though this does not imply that man is not free in other areas of his life. Fourth, it includes the idea of the universal corruption of the human race, despite the fact that some peoples and cultures manifest this corruption much less than others.”

The goodness that Bloesch acknowledges is of a social or moral nature. It in no way contributes to one’s salvation. All saving virtue is with Christ.

One can scarcely miss the fact that among evangelicals at the present time the doctrine of sin as total depravity does not hold a compelling place in study or preaching. With perhaps the following results:

1. A cardinal doctrine of Christianity is being seriously muted. The three major issues of the Christian scriptures are God, sin and redemption. It is right to talk to our people about the love of God, but that is not enough. The seriousness of sin must also have a prominent place in our message.

2. The blessing of grace can be felt at the heart level only by those who have felt the sting of their own sinfulness. “Where sin abounded, grace much more abounded” (Romans 5:20b) A shallow view of sin means a shallow view of grace. And perhaps an anemic and watered-down sense of God’s forgiveness.

3. This neglect may account for a casual view of holiness on the part of many believers. The clear command of both Testaments is, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15,16). The consequence of casualness in this matter may be a stunting of character formation among Christians and a scarce witness to the everyday world. But as well, with this casualness may come a reduced ability to take responsibility for wrongdoing of the more subtle kind.

When we as believers remember well “the pit from which we were digged” — or the sins from which we are delivered — and beyond that the heinousness of sin in all its expressions, it gives depth to our devotional life, our love of the Scriptures, our need for public worship, and our faithful service for our Lord.

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