In 1973 Karl Menninger, an American psychiatrist asked, “Whatever Became of Sin”? The answer is: it’s fallen out of favor. It’s been erased by liberal theologians in liberal seminaries and universities. Fortunately, most of them write for the reading pleasure of other academics and for publishing kudos. Unfortunately, some pastors read their books and find in them something new and novel to pass along to unsuspecting people in their pews on Sundays. This was Harry Emerson Fosdik’s (1878-1969) approach. He gained a large and popular following. However, one evangelical pastor of the day wondered whether Fosdik was winning people to Christ or to himself. In 1922, Fosdik repudiated belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth and the return of Christ as “absurd and unnecessary” to the faith.
In our own day we have pastors of large and popular followings like Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral who redefined sin: “Sin is any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem . . . I don’t think anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality and, hence, counterproductive to the evangelism enterprise than the often crude, uncouth, and unchristian strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition.”
Schuller has a “disciple” (even though I doubt they ever met), Joel Osteen who purposely avoids talking about sin. He sees it as a negative thing belonging to the “hellfire” branch of the church. Besides, it’s only a small difference in theology that distinguishes his views from other evangelicals. He thinks people hear enough bad news during the week that they don’t need to be reminded about their sin but rather about the dreams God has for them to excel and be the best they can be.
Paul would call this marginalization of sin “suppression” (Rom 1:18). Yet, all this suppression of Biblical notions of sin hasn’t stopped Americans from thinking about their own sins. In a recent Barna Group survey, Americans identified struggling with “new temptations” having a modern stripe and the same deadly “old temptations.” Over 1,000 Americans from all 50 states were polled. Each is described as over 18 years old, and as “having a practicing faith if they have attended a church service in the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life.”
What sorts of temptations to sin did these Americans say were most common? Well, it depended on your generational grouping: Millennials (1984-2002) or Busters (1965-1983) do not appear to wrestle with the same sinful temptations as Boomers (1945-1964) or Elders (1945 and older). So, Barna broke down the temptations into two categories: New Temptations and Old Temptations.
These belong to the technological orientation of this age: internet, social media, and “over-use of screens.” How many teens have you seen lately having a conversation with their iPads and Smartphones? They rarely look up or ahead.
The old temptations are the “traditional” ones that fall into the “7 Deadly Sins” categories: overeating, gossip, spending too much money, saying mean things about others, envy or jealousy, lying and cheating, drugs and alcohol abuse. Of course, the internet can be very “helpful” in these ways as well, can’t they?
Three things were surprising about Barna’s findings. First, sexual sins were always at the bottom of everyone’s lists giving the appearance that sexual temptations are not that prevalent. Yet, online pornography “continues to escalate and take on new forms” through a variety of internet portals. Second, those sins that rated highest among Americans were “particularly Western temptations.” Temptations to worry, to procrastinate, or to be lazy were labeled by Barna as “work-related” and “productivity-related” temptations. He said that this could be the “result of the Puritan work ethic or of a society driven by busyness and material success.” Or, it could be a way of embellishing my image in front of others by admitting I’m lazy when I am in fact a workaholic. What admiration might I gain if I humbly admit I am slothful when I work 80-90 hours a week? A twisted way of reckoning with sin, isn’t it?
It is the third finding that I found most insightful: 59% of the people polled say they never do anything to resist the temptation. And remember these are, by Barna’s definition, Christians. Of the other 41% who “cope,” do so by “rely[ing] on their own willpower (through reasoning, leaving the situation, thinking about something else or focusing on positive thoughts).” Now, if by leaving the situation they are employing Joseph’s discipline and carrying his words on his lips and in their hearts, then may their tribe increase! Remember what Joseph said in the face of intense sexual temptation? He said, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” Joseph understood the essential heart of sin. Sin would not have been first of all against Mr. Potiphar or even Mrs. Potiphar. Sin is always, first and foremost, against God. This is why we needn’t be puzzled about David’s confession, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps 51:4).
How do you resist temptation? There was a man in the Bible who shows us the future of doing nothing in the face of sin’s temptations. He was Cain. In a particularly vivid way, God warned Cain that “sin was crouching at the door” (Gen 4:7). Sin wants to kill you: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). Sin desired Cain the way a crouching lion desires dinner. But God said that Cain must rule over it. It’s a matter of conquest and dominion. Either sin will exercise dominion over you and me, or we will exercise dominion over it. But the effort of self-will is insufficient for the fight. Our will must be involved, but it needs a supernatural igniting to work successfully.
Sin ruled over Cain easily because he welcomed the opportunity to yield to it. He decided to ignore God’s warning and gave into his anger and carried out his plans to kill Abel. (How many of the Commandments do you think Cain broke that day?)
That’s the future of every sin. It refuses to remain a mere “child” but wants to grow into adulthood as quickly as possible and destroys lives.
You’ve probably watched the latest newspeople deconstructing the motives for the actions of the killer at Newtown, or Lance Armstrong’s deceit. There is only one answer that ties all the atrocities and smaller slights that gone on between Christians together: the sin that so easily entangles us (Heb 12:1). Only 1% of the people polled got this answer right. That is just 10 people out of 1,000.
One of the reasons that I enjoy reading the Puritans is that these were men and women who took sin seriously. Without taking sin seriously, the gospel isn’t really Good News that comes at us with a punch. It’s merely another message about a “god” who should love me because I’m really pretty lovable.
But when I see that my sin is the thing that deserves God’s just and eternal punish, the gospel becomes my refuge – a refuge to be panted after, tightly held and rejoiced in! It is my only hope because it has turned my Enemy into my Father through the self-giving of his Son.