In his 1973 book Whatever Became of Sin? psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote,
The very word, “sin,” which seems to have disappeared, was once a proud word. It was once a strong word, an ominous and serious word…. But the word went away. It has almost disappeared—the word, along with the notion. Why? Doesn’t anyone sin anymore? Doesn’t anyone believe in sin?
To reinforce his observations, Dr. Menninger noted that in the presidential proclamation for the annual National Day of Prayer, the last time the word sin was mentioned was in President Eisenhower’s proclamation in 1953—and those words were borrowed from a call to national prayer by Abraham Lincoln in 1863! So, as Dr. Menninger observed, “as a nation, we officially ceased ‘sinning’ some twenty [now over seventy] years ago.”
Karl Menninger is by no means alone in his assessment. Author Peter Barnes, in an article titled “What! Me? A Sinner?” wrote,
In twentieth-century England, C. S. Lewis noted that, “The barrier I have met is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin.” And in 2001, New Testament scholar D. A. Carson commented that the most frustrating aspect of doing evangelism in universities is the fact that students generally have no idea of sin. “They know how to sin well enough, but they have no idea of what constitutes sin.”
These statements only confirm what seems clear to many observers: The whole idea of sin has virtually disappeared from our culture.
Unfortunately, the idea of sin is all but disappearing from many churches as well. Sociologist Marsha Witten analyzed forty-seven taped sermons on the prodigal son (see Luke 15:11-32) preached by Baptist and Presbyterian ministers. In her book All Is Forgiven, she wrote,
How does the idea of sin fare in the sermons under study here? We should not be surprised to find that communicating notions of sin poses difficulties for many of the pastors…. As we have seen here, a closer examination of the sermons suggests the many ways in which the concept of “sin” has been accommodated to fit secular sensibilities. For while some traditional images of sin are retained in this speech, the language frequently cushions the listeners from their impact, as it employs a variety of softening rhetorical devices.
Ms. Witten concluded her chapter on the pastors’ treatment of sin with this observation: “In this context, talk about sin appears more to be setting implicit boundaries to separate insiders who are beyond reach of evaluation from outsiders who are targets for it, than to be articulating theological insights into the depravity of human nature.”
So, we see that the entire concept of sin has virtually disappeared from our American culture at large and has been softened, even within many of our churches, to accommodate modern sensibilities. Indeed, strong biblical words for sin have been excised from our vocabulary. People no longer commit adultery; instead they have an affair. Corporate executives do not steal; they commit fraud.
But what about our conservative, evangelical churches? Has the idea of sin all but disappeared from us also? No, it has not disappeared, but it has, in many instances, been deflected to those outside our circles who commit flagrant sins such as abortion, homosexuality, and murder, or the notorious white-collar crimes of high-level corporate executives. It’s easy for us to condemn those obvious sins while virtually ignoring our own sins of gossip, pride, envy, bitterness, and lust, or even our lack of those gracious qualities that Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23).
A pastor invited the men in his church to join him in a prayer meeting. Rather than praying about the spiritual needs of the church as he expected, all of the men without exception prayed about the sins of the culture, primarily abortion and homosexuality. Finally, the pastor, dismayed over the apparent self-righteousness of the men, closed the prayer meeting with the well-known prayer of the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
The attitude toward sin reflected in the prayers of those men seems all too prevalent within our conservative, evangelical circles. Of course, this is a broad-brush observation, and there are many happy exceptions. But on the whole, we appear to be more concerned about the sins of society than we are the sins of the saints. In fact, we often indulge in what I call the “respectable” or even “acceptable” sins without any sense of sin. Our gossip or unkind words about a brother or sister in Christ roll easily off our tongues without any awareness of wrongdoing. We harbor hurts over wrongs long past without any effort to forgive as God has forgiven us. We look down our religious noses at “sinners” in society without any sense of a humble “there but for the grace of God go I” spirit.
We were incensed, and rightfully so, when a major denomination ordained a practicing homosexual as a bishop. Why do we not also mourn over our selfishness, our critical spirit, our impatience, and our anger? It’s easy to let ourselves off the hook by saying, these sins are not as bad as the flagrant ones of society. But God has not given us the authority to establish values for different sins. Instead, He says through James, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for [is guilty of] all of it” (2:10). That Scripture is difficult for us to understand because we think in terms of individual laws and their respective penalties. But God’s law is seamless. The Bible speaks not of God’s laws, as if many of them, but of God’s law as a single whole. When a person commits murder, he breaks God’s law. When a Christian lets corrupting speech (that is, speech which tends to tear down another person) come out of his mouth (see Ephesians 4:29), he breaks God’s law.
I acknowledge that some sins are more serious than others. I would rather be guilty of a lustful look than of adultery. Yet Jesus said that with that lustful look, I have actually committed adultery in my heart. I would rather be angry at someone than to murder that person. Yet Jesus said that whoever murders and whoever is angry with his brother are both liable to judgment (see Matthew 5:21-22). The truth is, all sin is serious because all sin is a breaking of God’s law.
The apostle John wrote, “Sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). All sin, even sin that seems so minor in our eyes, is lawlessness. It is not just the breaking of a single command; it is a complete disregard for the law of God, a deliberate rejection of His moral will in favor of fulfilling one’s own desires. In our human values of civil laws, we draw a huge distinction between an otherwise “law-abiding citizen” who gets an occasional traffic ticket and a person who lives a “lawless” life in contempt and utter disregard for all laws. But the Bible does not seem to make that distinction. Rather, the Bible simply says sin—that is, all sin without distinction—is lawlessness.
In Greek culture, sin originally meant to “miss the mark,” that is, to miss the center of the target. Therefore sin was considered a miscalculation or failure to achieve. There is some truth in that idea even today as, for example, when a person is genuinely repentant over some sinful behavior and is earnestly seeking to overcome it but still fails frequently. He wants to hit the bull’s-eye every time, but he can’t seem to pull it off. Usually, however, our sinful actions stem not from a failure to achieve but from an inner urge to fulfill our own desires. As James wrote, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (1:14). We gossip or lust because of the sinful pleasure we get out of it. At that time, the lure of that momentary pleasure is stronger than our desire to please God.
Sin is sin. Even those sins that I call “the acceptable sins of the saints”—those sins that we tolerate in our lives—are serious in God’s eyes. Our religious pride, our critical attitudes, our unkind speech about others, our impatience and anger, even our anxiety (see Philippians 4:6); all of these are serious in the sight of God.
The apostle Paul, in stressing the need to seek justification by faith in Christ alone, quoted from the Old Testament, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Galatians 3:10). That is a perfectly exacting standard of obedience. In academic terms, that means a 99 on a final exam is a failing grade. It means that a misplaced comma in an otherwise fine term paper would garner an F. Now, happily, Paul goes on to assure us that Christ has “redeemed us [that is, all who trust in Him as their redeemer] from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). But the fact still remains that the seemingly minor sins we tolerate in our lives do indeed deserve the curse of God.
Yes, the whole idea of sin may have disappeared from our culture. It may have been softened in many of our churches so as not to make the audiences uncomfortable. And, sad to say, the concept of sin among many conservative Christians has been essentially redefined to cover only the obviously gross sins of our society. The result, then, is that for many morally upright believers, the awareness of personal sin has effectively disappeared from their consciences. But it has not disappeared from the sight of God. Rather, all sin, both the so-called respectable sins of the saints, which we too often tolerate, and the flagrant sins of society, which we are quick to condemn, are a disregard for the law of God and are reprehensible in His sight. Both deserve the curse of God.
If this observation seems too harsh and too sweeping an indictment of believers, let me hasten to say that there are many godly, humble people who are happy exceptions. In fact, the paradox is that those whose lives most reflect the fruit of the Spirit are usually those who are most keenly aware of and groan inwardly over these so-called acceptable sins in their own lives. But there is also a vast multitude who are quite judgmental toward the grosser sins of society but who seem pridefully unaware of their own personal sins. And a lot of us live somewhere in between. But the point is, all of our sin, wherever we may be on the spectrum of personal awareness of it in our lives, is reprehensible in the sight of God and deserving of His judgment.
Admittedly, I have painted a rather dark picture, both of society as a whole and of our conservative, evangelical community. But God has not forsaken us. For those who are true believers, God is still our heavenly Father, and He is at work among us to call us to repentance and renewal. Part of His calling is to lead us to the place where we do see the sins we tolerate in our own lives so that we will experience the repentance and renewal we need.