I came across a video of the theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, giving his thoughts on the way many American evangelical communities have thought about sin and salvation. The video is pretty short, about 4 minutes, but he makes a pretty interesting point about the revivalist spirit that has been part of much of American Christianity.
As he describes in the video, his childhood was steeped in Methodist revivalism that aimed at convincing people they were great sinners so they could then receive salvation. Many evangelicals, even non-Methodists, are probably fairly familiar with that.
The problem with this sort of gospel presentation, according to Hauerwas, is that “the tents made sin too interesting.” What does he mean by this?
Hauerwas claims this sort of gospel presentation gets things backward. He argues that we only know what it means to be a sinner in hindsight after we have come to Christ and have begun the journey of discipleship: “You only know it on your way out of it.” In his words, Jesus saves us from “our narcissistic fascination with our own sin.” I think Hauerwas is onto something.
I think many presentations of sin are overly simplistic and I think the church needs to recover a robust theology of sin. I think there are two major ways church communities err when they talk about sin. Some will get bogged down legalistically, thinking of sin primarily as the transgression of a certain, fixed rules. Others, will talk about sin almost exclusively as matters of injustice that the church (and more often than not, the state) needs to fix.
Conservative Christians, especially with pietist or fundamentalist roots, tend to fall into the error of legalism. They approach the Bible as a rule book and try to figure out how far Christians can go before they break one of the rules. The problem is, the Bible was written in an ancient context and isn’t always clear about a Christian should do in today’s world.
For example, some conservative Christians go back and forth with each other over whether it’s ok for Christians to watch movies with nudity or swearing. How much is too much? In what contexts? The Bible doesn’t give clear answers on that, for the obvious reason that it was written two thousand years before movies existed. So, conservative Christians who are conscious of sin can fall into the trap of creating intricate legal codes of what is appropriate and what is not.
Progressive Christians, however, tend to err when they think of sin as almost exclusively a metaphor for societal ills. When they say sin, they think of poverty, racism, discrimination, and environmental degradation. Fighting sin, for them, is putting an end to these things and doing “justice,” instead. This typically means alleviating poverty, making economic changes, practicing “inclusiveness,” and being environmentally responsible. These are not necessarily bad things, but it tends to overlook the individual aspects of sin.
Either of these conceptions of sin will appeal to one type of person and will appear naive to another. People abandon conservative versions of sin because it gets too nit picky and leads to personal burnout when one realizes he or she can’t live consistently. The liberal/progressive version burns people out because they often find it to be simply a disguised version of left wing politics. It too burns people out when they realize they simply can’t change the world and that the problems they spend all their time decrying actually have their roots in their own hearts.
A theologically sophisticated version of sin takes seriously both the individual aspects that exist in every person, but also recognizes that sin is bigger than individuals. Jesus said that sinful action originates in the hearts of people (Matthew 15:18-19), so it is individual. Paul saw sin as both action and a power that enslaved people so that he could speak of sin as “exercising dominion” that would be overthrown by grace (Romans 5:21).
A biblical theology of sin is not naive about evil in either its conservative or progressive forms. It’s not fire and brimstone, turn or burn, guilt-tripping over questionable matters and neither is it just another word for social ills. Sin is both within and without the individual, making us totally reliant on grace for both our individual and social transformation.