The Vanishing Concept of Sin
Biblical teaching about sin:
To begin with, the contemporary concept of sin in our culture is not all that important for the general public because there is generally a low view of Scripture. Although the Bible was held in high esteem in the early years of our nation, there has been a steady erosion of that esteem. As a consequence, there is generally an eroding view of sin. It is important to review again what Scripture has to teach about the concept of sin. There are several Bible portions which lay out clear definitions: 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Ephesians 5:3-7; “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person – such a man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, (emphasis mine) for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.” Revelation 21:8; “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars – their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
This is the standard, and our contemporary culture stands condemned. As these Scripture passages point out, as a people we have been deceived if we do not take these divine teachings seriously. Those who practice immorality (for whom the aforementioned sins constitute a lifestyle) have no place in the kingdom of God according to the Word of God. This is not some personal judgment: it is God’s judgment.
A common excuse for deviant behavior – blame others:
In every area of modern society there is a vanishing concept of sin – including the church. In short, it is generally held that there is no personal responsibility for disobedience, and there are no consequences. Everyone else and everything else is to be blamed -- except the individual. The biblical teaching of sin, however, holds the sinner (all of us) responsible – no one else. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23.
The most outstanding example of this in American culture is our president. Whenever he has the opportunity to face up to the results of his own policy failures, e.g. especially the persistent high unemployment under his leadership, he finds a way to blame the previous administration rather than to take any responsibility himself.
Psychology is notorious for placing the blame for deviant behavior on parents, environment, genetics, emotional sickness, addictions etc. To carry this placing of blame to its logical conclusion, for example, whatever an alcoholic does under the influence of liquor is thought to be excusable because he is told alcoholism is a sickness. Alcohol is the culprit. Therefore, he is not to be blamed for his/her own behavior. He tells everyone the influence of alcohol caused him to do what he did.
Consequently our culture has become filled with victims. And if one is a victim of someone or something other than being responsible for himself/herself, then there is no personal responsibility. If everyone is a victim of someone or something, then no one is responsible for deviant behavior. Our prisons are full of inmates who blame others for their situation. Only a few are willing to take responsibility for what they did.
The Bible places blame purely on the individual:
The Scripture plays no such games. It tells it like it is. In a nutshell from Romans 3:23: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Sound preaching and teaching in the church has always made clear a complete Gospel – both the negative and the positive: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23. The first part of the verse is negative – the second part positive. This is always so when the whole Gospel is presented. Scripture always presents the universal problem of sin before presenting the universal solution of salvation through the Cross.
Prior to the advent of the modern church, there was much sorrow for sin when the Word was faithfully preached. The Methodist Church used to make available a mourners’ bench where those convicted of personal sin could mourn for sin and seek forgiveness from the Lord. No more. Preachers were not afraid of offending or turning away listeners when the biblical teaching of sin, judgment and hell was proclaimed. Not today.
By inspiration of the Holy Spirit the Apostle Paul warned us of the day in which we live – a most relevant passage in 2 Timothy 4:1-5: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths (emphasis mine). But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”
If ever this was true, it is now. Many pulpits exist only for “feel good” preaching and have long since left sound biblical teaching behind. They believe this is what their congregations want to hear, so they oblige. Such pastors think nothing negative whatsoever should emanate from the pulpit lest some might be offended and turn away. They seem to forget the Gospel always includes both the negative and the positive. To quote again Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Unless personal sin is first recognized and repented of why should anyone feel the need to receive salvation in Christ?
A personal experience:
Let me share with you a personal experience which illustrates the vanishing concept of sin. After returning from missionary service in Venezuela I accepted a call from an evangelical church my home state. Very naively I thought some of the experiences I had while serving the Venezuelan church surely would not happen at home. I was to learn the hard way. Most of the leadership in the church was solid, but there was one couple in leadership for whom there was a vanishing concept of sin. I first found this out even before coming to the church. The wife of this couple, the most outspoken of the two, called me to perform a wedding for her son who was currently living with his girlfriend. (This adulterous practice of “living in” was not as common then as it is now.) I told her I would ask two things: that I have the opportunity to counsel the couple before marriage and that they live apart until the wedding day. She balked at this and asked the youth pastor in the church at that time to perform the ceremony before I arrived. For her, living together before marriage was a “vanishing sin” – really not a sin at all. Later a new youth pastor who joined the church staff told me about an experience at this couple’s home with a group of young people. The couple thought nothing of showing R-rated movies to the kids, and the youth pastor rightly did not think this was proper – another sign of the vanishing concept of sin for this couple. Then, it became common knowledge in the church that another son of this couple in the youth group was sleeping with a girl who was also part of the youth group. It was known that this son carried a condom in his billfold just in case the opportunity were to arise. The church board decided it was necessary to speak with the parents of both young people so that they would not continue to sleep together. The parents of the girl were in complete agreement, but the parents of the boy were incensed. “Who are you to judge?” was their angry reaction. Again, the vanishing concept of sin.
We went over the teaching of 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 with both families: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified; that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.”
For the couple that had a vanishing concept of sin this straightforward passage had no meaning whatsoever. It was as though it didn’t even exist. Regardless of what the Bible taught, what their son was doing was just fine. The pastor and the church board have no business butting in on their private affairs – so they thought. This couple not only openly rebelled against the Scriptures, the church board and me, but they also influenced their friends to do the same. Needless to say, this whole experience caused a serious rift in the church fellowship – all because this couple in leadership had a vanishing concept of sin and would not obey the Bible.
Pastors all across the country could tell a similar story.
An outstanding psychiatrist who recognized the reality of sin:
Karl Menninger, M. D., graduated cum laude from Harvard Medical School in 1917 and briefly taught there. In 1919, along with his father, Dr. Menninger founded the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, KS, which became one of the foremost psychiatric clinics in the world. Menninger, (1893-1990), is considered the elder statesman and dean of American psychiatry. In 1973 Menninger upset the psychiatric apple cart with his book, Whatever Became of Sin?. (Hawthorne Books, Inc., New York, 1973) Psychiatrists weren’t supposed to speak of sin. As alluded to in the earlier part of this paper, taking personal responsibility for deviant behavior was not part of standard psychological training. Sin was considered to be an old-fashioned medieval concept. The father of modern psychiatry, Sigmund Freud, was an atheist and had little use for anything biblical to explain human nature -- especially the concept of sin. So, modern psychiatry did not grow out of fertile ground for an understanding of sinful human behavior. In fact, it was very much opposed to it. Then Dr. Menninger’s book, Whatever Became of Sin?, exploded on the scene. Psychiatry did not know what to think.
Psychiatrists were not supposed to write like this: “I believe there is ‘sin’ which is expressed in ways which cannot be subsumed under verbal artifacts such as ‘crime,’ ‘disease,’ ‘delinquency,’ ‘deviancy.’ There is immorality; there is unethical behavior; there is wrongdoing. And I hope to show that there is usefulness in retaining the concept, and indeed the word, SIN….” (Whatever Became of Sin?, p. 46).
“Hence sin is the only hopeful view. The present world miasma and depression are partly the result of our self-induced conviction that since sin has ceased to be, only the neurotics need to be treated and the criminals punished. The rest may stand around and read the newspapers. Or look at television. Do your thing and keep your eye on the road leading to the main chance. As it is, vague amorphous evil appears all about us, when this or that awful thing is happening and this terrible thing goes on and that wretched circumstance has developed, and yet, withal, when no one is responsible, no one is guilty, no moral questions are asked, when there is, in short, just nothing to do, we sink to despairing helplessness. We wait from day to day for improvement, expectantly but not hopefully. Therefore I say that the consequence of my proposal would not be more depression, but less. If the concept of personal responsibility and answerability for ourselves and for others were to return to common acceptance, hope would return to the world with it!” (Whatever Became of Sin? p. 188).
The Menninger Clinic in Topeka, KS, has been unusually successful in treating mental disorders because it has been willing to view individuals as having not only a physical and mental component – but also a spiritual one. There has been a willingness to recognize the universality of sin and the need to face its spiritual nature – hence the need to help the client to recognize his/her personal responsibility for behavior.
C. S. Lewis makes the same point in his classic, Mere Christianity. (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., New York, 1952) “These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature ; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.” (p. 8)
So, in other words, sin is a universal phenomenon. All people everywhere know what is right (although their definition of right may differ), and all people recognize they do not do what they know to be right. This places all people in a dilemma which the Bible calls sin.
C. S. Lewis then ends his book, Mere Christianity, with these words: “Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose you life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end; submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will really be yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.” (pp. 226-27)
Only the Bible presents a solution to the universal problem of sin:
Dr. Menninger and others properly identify the problem of sin and identify it as such, but they do not go far enough. Even if individuals take responsibility for sin, that does not solve the problem. All religions have some sense of right and wrong, but only Christianity provides a solution for sin. That solution is the Cross of Christ.
Throughout Scripture the solution for sin is presented – even in the Old Testament 700 years before the Cross – Isaiah 53:4-6: “Surely He (Jesus) took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered Him stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed. We all like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”
The dilemma of sin places us all in an unsolvable situation. We all know we have fallen short. We all know we have done wrong. And if we are honest, we recognize we are responsible – and no one else. The difficulty is that we have no way out. Knowing this, God in Christ paid the penalty for our sin – something we could in no way accomplish. If you read Isaiah 53:4-6 carefully you will note how Jesus took our place for our sins, “our sorrows, our iniquities, our transgressions.” It was a substitutionary death on our behalf. No other religion has any mechanism to solve the dilemma of sin – except Christianity – and that is the Cross.
Current demonic attacks on marriage and family:
This paper begins with a biblical description of sin, and much of it has to do with sexual immorality. The Enemy of our souls knows the centerpiece of God’s creation is marriage and family – the very foundation of human society. It is completely understandable that he would make his most vicious attacks against us at this very point.
Even a casual observer can comprehend how severely marriage and family is under attack in our society. The sins of adultery and homosexuality are not only openly flaunted, but they are also thrust upon our youth as normal and natural. A simple perusal of current magazines, movies and TV will prove this. Yes, there is a vanishing concept of sin in our day.
And the pressure to conform to the so-called “norm” of adultery and homosexuality is increasing rapidly. Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-a, has been vilified by some political leaders, media personnel and homosexual activists because he openly holds to the biblical principles of marriage and family. Who would have thought that our culture would degenerate so rapidly that his could happen? Who would have thought that upholding traditional marriage and family would be characterized as intolerant and bigoted by some?
A prophetic voice in our day:
Old Testament prophets thundered against sin in Israel and Judah – warning the people that continued disobedience against God would result in severe judgment. And so it happened that Israel fell in 721 BC through the invasion of Assyria – and Judah in 586 BC through the invasion of Babylonia. Would God so terribly judge his own people for their immorality? Most assuredly He would. We are now in this same jeopardy.
A great prophet for our day is Dr. Billy Graham. He stated: ‘Some years ago my wife, Ruth, was reading a draft of a book I was writing. When she finished a section describing the terrible downward spiral of our nation’s moral standards and the idolatry of worshiping false gods such as technology and sex, she startled me by exclaiming, ‘If God doesn’t punish America, He’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.’ ….
I wonder what Ruth would think of America if she were alive today? In the years since she made that remark, millions of babies have been aborted and our nation seems largely unconcerned. Self-centered indulgence, pride, and a lack of shame over sin are now emblems of the American lifestyle. ….
My heart aches for America and its deceived people. The wonderful news is that our Lord is a God of mercy, and He responds to repentance. In Jonah’s day, Nineveh was the lone world superpower – wealthy, unconcerned, and self-centered. When the Prophet Jonah finally traveled to Nineveh and proclaimed God’s warning, people heard and repented.
I believe the same thing can happen once again, this time in our nation. It’s something I long for, and my son Franklin recently shared a vision for perhaps the greatest challenge in the history of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association – to launch an outreach called My Hope with Billy Graham… that would bring the Gospel into neighborhoods and homes in every corner of America next year.”
May God raise up many prophets in our day who are not afraid to talk about sin and the need for salvation in Christ – whatever the cost. That is truly the only hope for individuals and our nation.