Jeff Smith

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Solid Food

Believing in Sin

Columnist Mona Charen revealed in a recent column that more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God, 43 percent say they attend religious services at least once a week, and 58 percent report that religion is very important in their lives (Jewish World Review, 29 March 2000). The one thing they do not believe in is sin.

That old-time religion of frontier days, which emphasized themes like sin, redemption and judgment, has been gradually replaced by a self-esteem, self-help program of moral relativism and secular therapy.

Charen cites a few examples. Well-known preacher and head of Focus on the Family, James Dobson, still counsels young people against fornication, but his first line of deterrence is the risk of venereal disease, not displeasing a vigilant God. Dobson also advises teens that their formative years should be consumed with the pursuit of healthy self-esteem. A preacher years ago advised, "Remember now your creator in the days of your youth, Before the difficult days come And the years draw near when you say, ‘I have no pleasure in them'" (Ecclesiastes 12:1). The shift is subtle, but pervasive and fatal. There is a purity about the pursuit of God that is lost when spirituality is more defined by that loose phrase, "self-esteem."

Sin, of course, is viewed by American society as the greatest enemy of self-esteem, for failure makes people feel bad. Hence, the megachurch movement eschews it as a theme and focuses on what they call edification instead. Through the Old Testament prophets and New Testament writers, however, God made plain that true spiritual edification must be preceded by the demolition of wrong ideas. Jeremiah was sent with a divine mandate "To root out and to pull down, To destroy and to throw down, to build and to plant" (1:10). Paul wrote to three different churches about the burial of the old man of sin and the regeneration of the new man of faith (Romans 6:6, Ephesians 4:22, Colossians 3:9). The lot of the human heart is condemned and some clearing must occur before new construction may begin. Sin is the debris that penitence and conviction will remove.

Charen also cites the popular evangelical writer, Kenneth Erickson, who "focuses most of his attention on building self-esteem, understanding one's ‘inner child' and eschewing ‘perfectionism and shame-based morality.'" Erickson is not afraid to talk about forgiveness, Charen reports, but he avoids the subject of sin altogether. Forgiveness of what then, pray tell?

The pop psychology that has failed so miserably in the secular world is now being plucked off the refuse pile and adopted by mainstream Christianity, a main stream that flows almost as fast and dirty (1 Peter 4:4). This program attributes much influence to the Holy Spirit and yet emasculates his message of conviction regarding sin (John 16:8-11).

Charen displays a pamphlet from the United Church of Christ, which in recent years has affirmed the legitimacy of homosexual behavior. The pamphlet encourages young people that "Loving myself is at the heart of living, loving, and growing .... To love oneself is holy." The Bible seems to have warned us about the United Church of Christ's tactics; Paul wrote of the looming perilous times in which "men will be lovers of themselves" (1 Timothy 3:1-2). While self-respect and contentment are noble goals, the message of the day has gone to an extreme in which such a self-estimation is based, not on an objective look in the divine mirror, but a hazy perception brought on by blurry teaching. It is an ear-tickling message that erases sin's guilt and consequences, one that heals the hurt of God's creation only slightly. Ignoring sin is like pretending the man pulling the wallet out of your hip pocket is not really there. You end up robbed and broke in the end anyway.

Charen indicts the mainline Presbyterian church which claims to reject "handing out absolutes," for these can be "a disservice to youth." One would suppose that absolute prohibitions of drinking, drugging and fornicating would be a disservice to youth, while a fuzzy message would be better. Perhaps we should try to do away with the absolutes at an earlier age and be a little more tolerant when our toddlers reach for a hot pan on the stove or wander toward a busy street.

The ten commandments was a set of moral absolutes, devoid of any gray areas, and the New Testament of Jesus Christ is no less clear or absolute. The list of works of the flesh found in Galatians 5:19-21 is certain. To hedge when it comes to lewdness or fornication is to conceal the devil's visage with a harmless-looking mask.

Charen remarks that a rabbi at a large Reform congregation in Manhattan was asked whether theological concepts like sin are used to instruct the young. "Sin isn't one of our issues," he replied. "My guess is that in 12 years of religious school, our kids will never hear the word." The Reform rabbis also decided recently to sanction the solemnizing of homosexual unions, in clear violation of the law of Moses (Leviticus 18:20).

Imagine, sin isn't one of their issues. Sin was one of God's issues; just ask Adam, Eve, Cain, Moses, Korah and Achan. It was one of Christ's issues, for it was the very cause for which he came to Earth and gave his life (Matthew 18:11). You cannot preach a message of redemption without the issue of sin. Without sin, there is nothing from which to be redeemed (Romans 6:15-23).

The principal of a Catholic school in San Antonio expressed a similar view, says Charen: "Oh no, that kind of language would not relate to them anyway. When I was growing up, I personally might have responded to someone if they said ‘Hey this is a sin.' Today though I don't think that young people would respond to that. The most you could say to them is, ‘That is not allowed.'"

Sin is dead and with it, the stigma that once was a deterrent to many a foolish decision. A sea change has swept over America, in that "the church" no more influences society, but takes its lead from the popular movements of secularism. And like the church in Corinth, which pushed the envelope of sexual immorality in a heathen city (1 Corinthians 5), so the sects today have taken pop psychology to ungodly extremes.

Charen argues that self-esteem "has been ridden into the ground in modern America, to the point where building strong self-esteem has become a substitute for serious moral reasoning and self-examination. Religion used to teach introspection in order to instill humility. In our fear of low self-esteem, we seem to have tossed humility aside altogether."

Could it be that self-esteem is just a pseudonym for pride, the sin we could never quite identify and now have decided to embrace?

The death of sin is producing a generation of Americans unequipped to meet the challenges of temptation. The church of Christ is far from immune, for we hear the tone of preaching softening among us as well, in a rush to embrace the positive mental attitude approach, which cannot build anything enduringly good, for it knows not how to identify and tear down sin.

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