During Easter week USA Today featured a provocatively titled piece. The front page headline asked the question: “Is Sin Dead?” A famous television preacher was asked by CNN’s Larry King if he used the word sinner. I don’t use the preacher’s name because I get bombarded by his fans who ignore my point entirely.
"I never thought about (using the word 'sinners'), but I probably don't," The upbeat preacher answered. "Most people already know what they're doing wrong. When I get them to church, I want to tell them that you can change."
But how can you be cured if you don’t know the disease? I understand that many of us (present company included) were damaged by a legalistic and graceless upbringing. But that is a theology problem. The truth remains the same. The late Howard Cosell signature phrase was “telling it like it is”. Our culture seems increasingly less capable of calling simple concepts by their name and it carries over to the church.
Our politically correct society has make sin an archaic and intolerant word. But no word as powerfully communicates any behavior that separates me from a Holy God. The law does not convict me of blunders and slip-ups. It convicts me of sin. By reducing the power of the concept of sin we have negated the awesome gift of grace. You don't need grace to rescue you from idiosyncrasies. I haven't been moved by a hymn that says…
Amazing Grace. How sweet the sound,
That empowered a dysfunctional but spiritually seeking and fundamentally good person like me.
Somehow John Newton's original line about saving a wretch like me hits a little closer to my story. I am not talking about self-bashing and looking for fault. I am talking about the mind boggling prospect of facing a holy and sinless God with resume that I would have to present. Am I a good person? Yeah, I think so. Am I up to that appointment without the redemptive endorsement of Jesus? No way.
The classic hymn He Took My Sins Away by Margaret Harris would lose some luster if many of us in the body of Christ were writing it about ourselves. Here is the refrain as she wrote it in 1901.
He took my sins away, He took my sins away,
And keeps me singing every day!
I'm so glad He took my sins away,
He took my sins away.
One hundred and seven years later it might go something like this…
He recognized my dysfunctional past, He helped me find my inner voice
And showed me it was not my fault
I'm so glad He understood my syndrome
He took away my responsibility.
Same verse…everybody sing along now.
Cathy Lynn Grossman interviewed a couple of successful pastors in the USA Today article.
Two pastors serving youthful congregations in big cities, long the statistical capitals of secular culture, say they must talk about sin to be true to their calling. They just have to use 21st-century lingo. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan is a modern-day variation of the circuit-riding preacher. He dashes across Central Park to three different leased locations to serve 5,000 worshipers at five services on Sundays.
When Keller, author of The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, speaks about "sin" to his audiences, which are 70% single and younger than 40, "I use it with lots and lots of explanation, because the word is essentially obsolete. "They do get the idea of branding, of taking a word or term and filling it with your own content, so I have to rebrand the word 'sin,' " Keller says. "Around here it means self-centeredness, the acorn from which it all grows. Individually, that means 'I live for myself, for my own glory and happiness, and I'll work for your happiness if it helps me.' Communally, self-centeredness is destroying peace and justice in the world, tearing the net of interwovenness, the fabric of humanity."
Mark Driscoll says a little talk of hellfire, so out of fashion these days, would do the world good. Driscoll founded Mars Hill Church in Seattle, a non-denominational megachurch with 7,000 in Sunday attendance, chiefly singles in their 20s. He defines sin as "anything contrary to God's will. People assume the way they are is normal, not that something has gone terribly wrong, and this world is abnormal."
Although his primary audience is newbie Christians, Driscoll is sharply clear: "Without an idea of sin, Easter is meaningless."
Amen. Any thing that breaks the covenant between myself and a Holy God is sin. God doesn’t have scales to weigh our sins. Really good people still fall short of the mark. I fall short and I need that fixed. Jesus came to fix it. That gift of forgiveness is incomprehensible.
Jesus called sin by it's name. But here is the miracle. If we believe in faith that He came to deal with that sin debt then He calls us by another name…His child. All it takes is accepting the gift of salvation.
Dave Burchett is an Emmy Award winning television sports director, author, and Christian speaker. He is the author of When Bad Christians Happen to Good People and Bring'em Back Alive: A Healing Plan for those Wounded by the Church. You can reply by linking through daveburchett.com.