The Consequences of Trivializing Sin (2)

As I mentioned in my last post, there are at least two major consequences to our minimizing or trivializing sin (The Consequences of Trivializing Sin). In this post I want to deal with consequence number two – the fact that we have lost, or fail to recognize, the pervasive “systemic” nature of sin. I will attempt to illustrate my conclusion with an example I think few would disagree with – and one that I’m sure will ruffle more than a few feathers.

The first is the way in which sexual sin has truly become systemic in our culture today. Back in the late 1950’s and 1960’s when the “sexual revolution” began to bloom in full flower, the church responded as it is wont to do, by focusing on the “moralities” of the revolution. Thus, instead of recognizing that what was taking place was a total reorientation of our sexual nature, the church focused on the length of a woman’s skirt, whether “mixed bathing” was a sin (um, that has to rate up close to the top for incorrect nomenclature. I don’t think ANYONE was arguing for mixed bathing, but swimming together was surely a hot topic), and the “sin” of dancing (the old “vertical expression of a horizontal desire”). As the revolution deepened, more strenuous objections came against pornography and guiltless cohabitation, but once again, the push back was focused on individual “acts” of sexual immorality, not the larger issue of our sexual natures being “re-imagined.” Fast forward to 2019, and now the sexual content of that harbinger of decadence, Playboy magazine, seems tame in comparison to the repugnant demonstrations of homosexuality routinely presented in “Gay Pride” parades. But, while the content has certainly become more decadent, the underlying rebellion against God’s plan for male and female sexuality has not changed. The church did not recognize it back in the ’50’s and ’60’s, but we what we are seeing today is nothing more than the ’50’s rebellion writ large.

The second area that I wanted to highlight is the area of economics. I have read, and have even heard it taught, that free-market capitalism is “God’s perfect form of an economy.” Such promoters point to the fact that in the Old Testament land ownership was described positively, and that hard work and thrift are praised both in the Old and New Testaments. I’m not sure how many of these free-market capitalists would appreciate going back to a divinely appointed monarchy, but I digress. The idea is that because God allowed, or even blessed, land ownership and hard work and thriftiness, he somehow instituted free-market capitalism as his favored economic platform.

Two comments scream out for attention. One is that in the Old Testament, no Israelite ever owned the land! It was God’s land, “leased” or “lent” to the individual farmer for a period of time. Every fifty years all “ownership” of the land reverted back to the original “owner,” but even that was provisional. All the crops, all the livestock that grazed on the crops, all the proceeds of the land or livestock belonged to God. God allowed the “land owner” or livestock manager to keep between 75 percent and 90 percent of his work, but the implication was clear – everything was God’s and did not “belong” to the man who worked the fields or kept the livestock.

Second, a system of free-market capitalism without extraordinary moral safeguards becomes a demonic system of the powerful abusing and repressing the weak. Slavery is perfectly acceptable in a pure free-market capitalism. Charging “whatever the market will bear” is perfectly acceptable, and even demanded, in a pure free-market capitalistic economy. Usury is basically mandated in a pure free-market capitalistic society. And, as our American history has proven, it is exactly that pure, undiluted free-market mindset that has been rejected in favor of a much more egalitarian capitalism, where laws and opposing forces (such as labor unions) provide a check on unbridled greed. In other words, without a strong moral framework, a pure free-market capitalism is simply impossible to maintain without utterly destroying the weakest and poorest citizens in a commonwealth.

Simply put, SIN runs rampant in a free-market capitalism, and it must be restrained by moral safeguards – such as those instituted by God in Leviticus 19 (and other texts) and as have been initiated in our own culture. It is unbiblical, and highly dubious, to argue that free-market capitalism is God’s chosen economic platform. Leaving the corners of your field unharvested, leaving grapes on the vine, ceasing all labor every seventh day (thus allowing your beasts and your workers rest), letting your land lie fallow every seventh and fiftieth year, freeing your slaves every seven years, refusing to charge interest and remitting debts every 50 years – NONE of these practices are a part of a capitalistic economy, and yet they form the bedrock morality of the Israelite economy. Let us be done with the myth that our form of capitalism is somehow favored by God!

The point that I wanted to drive home here with these two examples (and more could be given) is that SIN is not just the isolated instance of two men or two women choosing to have sex with each other, or charging usurious interest rates. SIN is a demonic force – personalized by the apostle Paul as “the prince of the power of the air” in Ephesians 2. SIN pervades every aspect of our life – there is no component untouched. If we as Christians cherry-pick what we think are the worst of the worst (typically sexual in nature and behaviors the furthest away from our lifestyle) and label them as sins while blithely turning a blind eye to the aspects of SIN that are in our favor (or worse, that we actively support), then our opponents are right to accuse us of hypocrisy.

It is past time for Christians to return to a biblical understanding of SIN. While there certainly is nothing wrong with cataloging individual sins, (and Paul certainly does that!), we need to regain that understanding of SIN that underlies all of the various biblical catalogs of sin – SIN is deeply embedded in our nature, it is not without reason that the Psalmist can say, “I was conceived in sin.” (And, lest you worry, I am NOT promoting the idea of original sin!!) I am simply saying that the psalmist had a much more “biblical” view of sin than we do, and we have his words to help us understand the idea of sin!

Not to muddy the waters even more at this point, but we really do need to return to the apostle Paul in the letter to the Ephesians, and forget the blather of Sigmund Freud!

[Authors note: some rather egregious spelling mistakes have been corrected. Sorry for the poor proof-reading!]

The Consequences of Trivializing Sin

[Continuing my thoughts from yesterday, SIN – It’s Not Just a Little Boo-boo]

I think, on a fundamental level, we just do not fully understand sin. As I pointed out yesterday, we may have a pretty good grasp of individual sins, as in moral deficiencies, but I am just not convinced that we really have a handle on SIN. This, I further believe, has at least two huge repercussions. The first is in relation to our understanding of the cross as made explicit through the act of baptism, and the second is our lack of understanding (or appreciating) the depth of the pervasiveness of sin as a systemic issue in our lives. I will have to save point two for a later post.

To set the background for my first point, let me use the only example I can speak confidently about – my own experience. During my early teen years I watched as all of my peers stepped forward and were baptized. I watched as they went into the water, and then came out of the water basically the same person. I never really noticed any changes, and in one or two cases, they actually became more accomplished sinners! I fought being baptized for this very reason – I just did not see much of a change in the lives of my friends. Then one day I too stepped forward and was baptized. I went into the water and came out of the water basically the same person. I felt a little different, at least at first, but as time wore on it was pretty obvious to me at least that there had not been much of a change in my life.

The problem was, at least as I can analyze it today some 40+ years after the event, that before I was baptized I considered myself a pretty good person. Oh, I was only too aware of my sins, but nobody is ever perfect, and since everyone around me considered that I was a pretty good person, I was only too willing to go along with the general consensus. Thus, when I was baptized I was vaguely aware that a legal transaction had taken place, that my sins were forgiven, that I was now a member of the church of Christ.

But, on an existential level, nothing had really changed. I came out just as self-centered, just as prone to anger, just as narcissistic, and just as capable of “playing the game” as I was was when I entered the baptistery. The only real difference, as far as I could tell, was that over the course of a couple of minutes I had now become an “insider” where before I was an “outsider,” and I was now “saved” where just a few minutes earlier I had been “lost.” I could now partake of the Lord’s Supper, and, as I am a male, I could lead in worship.

Outside of the generic Bible classes to which we were all being subjected, I had not been discipled. I was not at that time being discipled. In fact, no one ever took me and became my mentor, my teacher, my “discipler.”

This is just a guess, but I am thinking that my story could be repeated hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of times for young people in my generation, maybe even other generations.

If all baptism is supposed to do is to be a legal transaction, a “rite (and sometimes a right, something owed and expected) of passage” and a place marker that separates the insiders from the outsiders, the “saved” from the “lost,” then I think the main reason is because we have completely lost an appreciation of what sin really is. By extension, we have completely lost an appreciation of the meaning of the cross.

The “gospel plan of salvation” as it was presented to me illustrates my conclusion perfectly. We are taught, at least once upon a time in the Church of Christ kids were taught, to “hear, believe, repent, confess and be baptized.” That was it. That was the “gospel plan of salvation.” That was the Church of Christ equivalent to praying the sinners prayer or inviting Jesus into your heart. Notice nothing followed “be baptized.” It ended right there. Oh, in some presentations there is lip service given to “live a good life,” but really, what does that mean? For virtually every kid that ever grew up within the Churches of Christ, we WERE good kids before we were baptized (or so we thought, very, very few would have confessed to being “sons of disobedience”) and we continued to be basically good kids after we were baptized. Sin, if it was mentioned at all, was illustrated by dancing, smoking, doing drugs, having sex with our girlfriends (or boyfriends, if you were a girl), or maybe using “cuss” words or looking at magazines that were hidden behind brown wrappers at the convenience stores. That is, sin was simply a list of moral failures, a long list of things to avoid. I was never taught that SIN was a realm, a spiritual dimension of my life presided over by a malevolent “prince of the power of the air” as the apostle Paul describes him in Ephesians 2:1.

It is dreadfully difficult, if not impossible, to renounce something you never knew existed, or continued to exist, in your life.

Sadly, what I have described as my experience is the very same message I have been preaching for years. I can remember baptizing a number of young people, or at least having a part in bringing them to baptism, and then just dropping them. No discipling, no mentoring, no bringing them to an awareness of the seriousness of the concept of sin. They were “lost,” now they were “saved,” so move on to the next target. If no concept of sin, then no concept of grace, of forgiveness, of the cross.

God, save us from our arrogance!

As I am learning in my studies in Ephesians (and, thereby retroactively to other of Paul’s letters), Paul did NOT have this misunderstanding of sin. For Paul the awesome reality of the seriousness of sin was as real as the nose on his face. Paul’s converts were dead in sin, until they died with Christ in the waters of baptism (Eph. 2:1; Rom. 6:1ff; 1 Cor. 15:1ff; Gal. 3:27-28). [Aside here – I just realized today the power, and really the beauty, of Paul’s usage of the words death and dying. We are all spiritually dead outside of Christ, until we die to ourselves and to the world, so that we might live in Him. Wow.] There are only two realms for Paul – we are either in the world, or we are in Christ. The one is under the power of the “prince of the power of the air,” the other is to be ruled by Christ and his Father. Although God is ruler over all, Paul was still aware that for those who so desired, Satan was very much a power and lord of their lives.

As I mentioned yesterday, if sin is only a catalog of sins, if sin is simply a matter of mastering a few moral deficiencies in our lives, then the cross is emptied of all of its power. It should be more than obvious that agnostics and atheists can live as moral, or sometimes even more moral, lives than some “born again” Christians. If morality and ethics are the only issue, the cross becomes literally and physically meaningless. And, if the cross is meaningless, then our baptism means that we only got wet.

I have so much more to say on this issue, but for the moment, I must pause. I hope that these meditations have been valuable to you. I hope that you are reading Ephesians along with me. I hope that either through my words or through your own study you can come to grasp what Paul is telling these Christians. Sin is nothing to trifle with. Sin is not just a violation of a little children’s song. A cosmic battle is taking place, and SIN is the realm into which this world has fallen. There is only one rescue from this realm, and that is the cross of the Messiah, the blood of Jesus.

If we cannot grasp that first reality, then the second is of no use whatsoever.

SIN – It’s Not Just a Little Boo-boo

It is amazing the extent to which we humans have gone to protect our self-esteem. Take, as just one example, the topic of sin. Sin is something other people do. Better yet, sin is something that people used to do, but now, thankfully, we have moved beyond such Victorian concepts. Regardless, no one wants to consider themselves a sinner. While others might be lazy, I am thoughtful. While others are angry or violent, I am justifiably responding to injustice. While others are narcissistic, rude, selfish, I am asserting my rights. As I said, it is remarkable how no one sins anymore.

This thought occurred to me as I have been working through the book of Ephesians. I have exhibited a certain degree of naïveté regarding the book of Ephesians – I have never really studied it in depth or, to the best of my knowledge, preached through it. Okay, let’s be a little more honest and say I have been ignorant about much of Ephesians. Doggone it, let’s call it what it is – I’ve been pretty stupid regarding many of the key issues regarding Ephesians. Ephesians has been for me what it is for many Christians – the go-to book if we want to emphasize grace, or the seven “ones,” or the spiritual gifts given to the church. Everything else is pretty much just background noise.

It took me three weeks to wrap my mind around how much importance the apostle Paul puts on the church in chapter one. And, I’m not really sure I did a very good job at that. Those who disparage church membership, or the importance of the church, are in for a real shock when they meet Paul – if they get a chance to, that is.

So, this week it was supposed to be chapter two. I’m all of three verses in, and already I am swimming in molasses.

I am, like I dare say virtually all of us, a child of my culture. I have been taught, and have basically worked with the idea, that sin is a matter of moral lapses – little boo-boos from which we are called to abstain. Sin is saying a naughty word, or violating that sacrosanct childhood song we were taught in Sunday school, “O be careful little eyes what you see…” As we age the examples of sin get bigger, such as having sex with someone who is not your spouse, or maybe shooting the person who slept with your spouse, but fundamentally sin is committing a moral no-no.

I don’t think that is exactly what Paul meant by sin, or at least what he meant by SIN. As the first three verses in Ephesians 2 makes clear, SIN is something much larger. Infinitely larger, in fact.

Notice Paul can use the word sins in the plural, but he moves immediately to the real issue – that of SIN. For Paul SIN is following the Ruling Power* of this world, the “prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” (Eph. 2:2, ESV) Paul confesses that we all “once lived” among this power, and gave into the passions of our flesh and desires of the body and mind. So, the specific, individual sins are present, but they do not constitute the totality of SIN.

Let me digress just a moment. In our technological, scientific worldview, evil spirits (or The Evil Spirit) no longer exists. If we have a flat tire, it is because we ran over a nail, not because the evil sprite of travel has turned against us. If we get cancer, there must be a medical explanation, not that we are being singled out by an evil, deceased ancestor as punishment for some unconfessed crime. We are thoroughly, completely, and irrevocably scientific in all we say and do.

As I study the apostle Paul, I am not at all sure that he would agree. SIN is not just violating a little children’s song. SIN is systemic, it is the presence of a malevolent being under whom we all live (or, for Christians, lived). SIN is following the prince of the power of the air. And, read in context of chapter one, a person is either IN CHRIST or IN SIN. There is no middle ground, no neutral field.

This is significant – critically so – for one very important reason. If sin is just a moral boo-boo, if it is just not averting our “little eyes” when they see something naughty, then sin is purely within our human power to overcome. We can rationally analyze it, make the necessary adjustments to avoid it, and then, with all of our mental and emotional powers fully under our control, eliminate it from our lives.

For Paul this is all just humanistic hogwash. SIN is way beyond anything you or I can control, or even more ridiculous, eliminate. SIN is a spiritual reality, controlled by a malevolent personification of the “Prince of the Power of the Air,” for which there is only one cure – the grace of the all powerful God (Eph. 2:5, 8). And, as Paul will later argue, it took Jesus dying on the cross to effect that cure. As Paul will go on to say, Christ has defeated these powers through his death on the cross, and chapter one has already made clear that the principalities that carry out the orders of the demonic Prince have been overcome and now lay at the feet of Christ, but they have not been eliminated! The powers have been defeated, but are still present!

If we dismiss this reality, if we read Paul with twenty-first century eyes (as I have tended to do) we reject a fundamental truth of Scripture – inspired by the Holy Spirit. In doing so we moralize sin and make it something we can control, even overcome. And, in so doing, we utterly and completely underestimate the power of SIN. (And, not to make this post too long, we thereby completely minimize the event of the cross. If all it takes to overcome sin is to “be careful little eyes what you see” then the death of Jesus was totally unnecessary, and an utter waste.)

We might be able to avert our eyes when we see something naughty. We might even be able to learn how to bite our tongue and not verbally abuse a front desk clerk who fully deserves every syllable of our attack (mea culpa, I was not, and don’t ask). Agnostics and atheists alike can be, and often are, more “moral” than the little widow ladies sitting on the “amen pew.” But we will never, no how, and no way, be able to overcome the power of SIN. The only way to walk in the realm where SIN has been defeated is to live in the realm IN CHRIST, and that is one of the main points of the letter to the Ephesians.

I think I have a lot more to learn about the world view of Paul, and that points to a lot more than just naïveté. That points to laziness, sloth, indolence. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

*As my study today revealed, the word translated “course” in Eph. 2:2 in the ESV (otherwise translated “age”) can have the meaning of “ruler” or “power.” In this sense it would be parallel to, and a synonym of, the word translated “power” in the phrase, “power of the air.” So, I have chosen to follow this line of thinking, in which Paul is simply being redundant for the sake of emphasis. Paul is saying that, prior to becoming a Christian, a person followed the Ruling Authority, or Ruling Power, of this world, and in a parallel idea, followed the Prince of the Power of the Air. This, I believe, more powerfully conveys Paul’s underlying message – we are hopeless against such power without the overwhelming power of the redeeming death of Jesus on the cross.

The New Normal

We human beings function the best when we have at least a relatively certain belief that we can understand our past and anticipate our future. That belief is called “normal,” and without it our lives would be chaotic. No sentient being can exist in chaos for long – that is why soldiers and other individuals who face catastrophe and disorder for long periods of time are permanently scarred. Our psyches were just not made to endure severe turmoil or even mild disorder for long periods of time.

When something radical happens in our life we typically adjust – the “old” normal is replaced by the “new” normal. Most of this happens without much thought, and typically it is either benign or even positive. I don’t think anyone really wants to give up their cell phone or tablet.

Sometimes, however, the new “normal” is anything but healthy or even benign. New normals can be insidious, malignant, destructive. I believe that as a society we have reached a new “normal” in societal relationships, and it is anything other than healthy.

  • Item: a police officer mistakenly shoots a young man. Within days – seemingly within hours, people declare her to be guilty of MURDER and demand that she face the most violent of repercussions possible.
  • Item: an appellate judge is nominated for the Supreme Court, and AFTER THE LEGAL INQUIRY INTO HIS PAST IS CONCLUDED a letter is produced in which a woman accused him of sexual assault OVER THIRTY YEARS AGO. Immediately he is condemned in the court of popular opinion, and many demand his professional career be terminated.
  • Item: a professional tennis player is admonished by an official for actions that are contrary to the rules of her sport, and over the course of the next few hours she repeated berates the official, throws a temper tantrum in which she destroys her racket, and then screams obscenities at the official. She is steadfastly defended by many for the apparent reason that she is (a) a female and should not have to abide by the rulings of the court official and also because she is (b) a minority and therefore has had to overcome more difficulties in life than a racial majority would have had to overcome. Never mind that her opponent (who was defeating her at the time) was also a racial minority, and a female who WAS abiding by the rulings of the same court official.

These are all examples of the “new normal” by which we get to condemn (and metaphorically execute) individuals on the basis of some bizarre Facebook or Twitter revelation, or that a lifetime of hard work and dedication can be destroyed by an unsubstantiated and unverifiable claim of wrongdoing that took place over three decades in the past, or that deviant, miscreant behavior can be tolerated and even celebrated so long as the perpetrator can claim some minority status or some real or perceived handicap.

I have a name for the new normal. It’s called anarchy, chaos, mob rule. If there is no straight line by which we can measure truth and falsehood, proper and improper behavior, then everyone will eventually become a savage. Societies, no more than individuals persons, can long exist in the face of a moral vacuum. We are living today in the reality of that moral vacuum.

Ours is not the first culture to experience this vacuum. Moral degeneracy has been a common feature of the human race. It’s just that for the past couple of hundred years the deviancy away from a universal moral plumb-line has been easy to detect – the American slavery experience, the Nazi regime, the Rwanda genocide. Today the plumb-line has been so bent and twisted that we (as a culture) no longer can recognize truth, integrity, honesty – or even beauty for that matter.

It is precisely at this moment that the truth of the gospel needs to shine the most brilliantly. Christians MUST accept that if we are to bear the cross and wear the name of disciple of Christ we are going to be labeled as counter-cultural, bizarre, weird. If the basic understanding of morality and truth is a lie, then those who hold up the truth of the gospel will be considered deviant. This is why Jesus – the very prince of peace – was executed for being a treasonous malefactor. There is no escaping this reality. We as disciples of Christ can no longer fool ourselves into thinking that the world will love us just because we use the adjective “Christian” in our name. If Jesus the messiah was killed because his world hated him, how can we even attempt to justify having our world love us?

If  the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18-19)

I have grown weary, and have now even openly rejected, what I consider to be “weather vane” Christianity. These so-called “Christians” and the churches they populate function like a wind-sock at an airport. They point to the direction where society is headed, and then work furiously to make sure they are out in front so that they can appear to be “leaders” in the movement. They are loved by the culture they identify with, and they receive the commendation of those who have created that culture. As Jesus said, they have received their reward.

The new normal is not going to end up looking like anything most of us are familiar with. I’m not even sure what the eventual “normal” will look like. But I can see that as our culture continues to eviscerate itself, there will not be much left in it that will even be worth keeping. If there is no universal truth, if there is no common decency, if there is no consideration of authority, if there is no fundamental acceptance of a person’s dignity, if mere innuendo and accusation can take the place of verifiable facts – then where will we as a culture end up?

There is a place where the light of God’s kingdom can shine. There is a place where decency and honor can be practiced – and where forgiveness and grace abound. There is a place where sin is frankly and openly dealt with and repentance, confession, and restoration is the standard. It can be found in the church – the assembly, the gathering – of God’s redeemed people. It will increasingly be viewed with distrust and suspicion – and even hatred – and for that very reason its members must never, never, never surrender to the scandalous attacks of its opponents.

Our savior ascended by descending to the death on a cross. May we, like him, climb higher by descending lower.