Christianity is inextricably bound up with the notion of sin. The Bible tells the story of the triune God’s rescue mission to redeem rebels out of their sin and guilt, which alienates them from his shared life of light and love. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the central message of how the Son came in the power of the Spirit to conquer sin and death through his own life, death, and resurrection. Without seriously considering the weight of sin, as Anselm so famously urged us to do, we can’t possibly understand the glory, goodness, and mercy of God’s liberation. Neither can we respond to it appropriately with repentance, faith, and worship. This is why Christians have historically spent so much time talking about sin.
If you’ve been around church long enough, though, you know there are plenty of ways to “talk about sin” that fall short of considering its full weight. I can think of at least five.
1. The ‘Youth Group’ Way
First, there’s what we’ll call the “youth group” approach. It’s not so much about the sermons, but more what happens in the small groups. Sometimes, when the discussion moves along, people will begin to talk about areas of “struggle.” One person shares, then another identifies with the same struggle, and pretty soon you have people chuckling over shared foibles and faults.
At that point, you get a discussion of “sin” that treats it more like chewing your nails than a serious, soul-destroying plague with real-world (in this and the next) repercussions. Sin is named lightly, and so barely named at all. Instead, we’re lulled into a false sense of security, with little urgency about the sickness destroying our souls, or our need for God’s healing hand.
2. The Millennial Way
Second, there’s a way of talking about sin I could dub the “authenticity badge” approach. Maybe I’m just jaded, but this seems to particularly be the bane of millennial discussions on sin.
For those of us who grew up in a youth group, we know we’re supposed to take sin seriously and not paper over it. But when that spiritual stream hits the cross-currents of our generation’s cult of authenticity and therapeutic self-narration, our discussions take a different character. We sit around and we “confess” our sins, sometimes very publicly—but all too often as a way of cutting off criticisms or calls to repentance. We’ve “owned” our messiness, so how could anyone demand more of us without falling into pharisaical judgmentalism? Or again, though we share our sins, our motive isn’t genuine brokenness before God, but an ironic way of demonstrating our righteousness through our willingness to appear broken before others.
3. The ‘Sectarian’ Way
Third, there’s what we might think of as the inverse of the last two. Certain churches cultivate a way of speaking of sin with grave seriousness and properly earnest tones. They don’t see sin or brokenness as a badge of heroic authenticity or vulnerability. Instead, it’s a target that marks those outside the tribe.
We might call this the “sectarian” approach, in that it involves speaking of sin as a practice or feature of those people “out there,” but rarely of us “in here.” Sin is to be repented of and its consequences to be feared—but only (or mainly) by others. After all, sin isn’t something we ourselves would deeply identify and struggle with, and be guilty of. We’re past that—if we ever had a problem to begin with—and so we speak of sin only when warning others.
4. The ‘Mainline’ Way
Fourth, there’s the “mainline” approach. This is the sort of talk about sin marked by an old-school liberal piety. In this form, sin-talk is vertically challenged; it has no godward reference. H. Richard Niebuhr famously described the core of such theology as “a God without wrath who brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.”
Indeed, if sin is identified, it’s mostly at the horizontal level—human injustices such as sexism, racism, oppression, and greed. God isn’t acknowledged as the chief offended party, so any rectification must occur purely between persons. We’re to do justice, but without concerning ourselves with confessing to God our offenses against his goodness, majesty, and holiness.
5. The ‘Evangelical’ Way
Finally, there’s the “evangelical” approach. If the “mainline” approach is vertically challenged; this one can be horizontally challenged. It speaks of sin as an offense against God—saying with David, “Against you alone have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4)—but largely rules out the horizontal dimensions.
Here we assume that because sin is chiefly against God, he’s not concerned with much else. So long as we’ve prayed, confessed, and “felt” sorry before God, we’ve taken sin seriously. We forget that a true consideration of sin recognizes the real harm, carnage, and hurt our sins wreak in the lives of our neighbors. Instead, we act as if receiving forgiveness rules out the hard work of rendering restitution, or working on reconciliation with those whom we’ve wronged.
Taking Hold of Reality
All these ways of speaking manage to minimize, distort, and insulate us from recognizing sin’s manifold effects. Most importantly, though, they rob us from a clear knowledge of all the ways that we need a Savior.
When we deny the serious consequences of our sins, we miss out on experiencing the fullness of Jesus’s healing. When we wear our sin as an authenticity badge, we lose the opportunity to derive our true identity from him. When we act like sin is something “those” people struggle with, we forfeit the joy of knowing God’s gracious mercy has been lavished on us in Christ. When we fail to see that our sins alienate us not just from our neighbors but also from a holy God, we fail to honor him and cut ourselves off from the vertical power—peace with God—that charges our horizontal work for justice. And when we fail to recognize how deeply sin harms our neighbors as well, we neglect laying hold of the fullness of reconciliation God intends for his forgiven children.
Let's not fool ourselves, then, with empty “talk” of sin. Instead, take hold of the real thing. Only then you’ll be driven to take hold of a real Savior.