The actual problem of sin

Here is an excerpt from The Gospel-Driven Life by Michael Horton, Systematic Theology and Apologetics professor at Westminster Seminary California. Here he is pointing out a common misrepresentation of sin as failure or purposelessness. Something that is quite a problem in the American church. The problem, while initially good in that it minimizes sin that shames us, comes about when it also minimizes the sacrifice made by Christ and forgiveness. How can you accept the life giving power of the Gospel, when you find not real true need of forgiveness?  I will allow him to explain this thought further because he is far more articulate than I, but as I read through it again, it is hard not to get pictures of people like Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, and many others that downplay the true cause while approaching the symptoms alone, all in the name of Christ.

No More Crisis Management

There is a place for crisis management. Victims of natural disasters are served by governmental and private sector relief. We are grateful to those busily at work developing vaccines, economic plans, and hospitals. However, the one crisis that we cannot manage– which is in fact the root of all other crises–is sin and its eternal consequences.

Pastors have increasingly become experts in crisis management. Some of that is simply part of shepherding a flock, but a lot of it is due to the fact that we expect our pastors to be personal coaches, therapists, and life managers rather than faithful prophets who diagnose our condition and heralds of the Good News that actually solves our deepest crisis. We may be a little more sophisticated in our spiritual technology, but the pattern is familiar. We will gladly follow preachers who tell us that everything is fine, that there is no wrath to fear, that either God is too nice or we’re too good for any final judgment to land on our heads. We will even pay a lot of money to spiritual designers who will help us weave cobwebs to hid our guilt, assisting us in shifting the blame to our parents, our circumstances, society, our spouse, and ultimately God. As false prophets, we lie ot ourselves, to others, and to God about who we really are. As false priests, we offer whatever pitiful sacrifices we think might buy God off for a while. As false kings, we seek to dominate rather than serve, expecting everyone– including God– to assume their role in our supporting cast.

However, the problem is not God’s unfaithfulness to his covenant, but ours. And because we are the ones at fault, God is our problem, and this is one we cannot manage. In fact, God’s Word calls us to face the crisis at its root and to give up our strategies for self-salvation. When the righteousness of God no longer disturbs (much less terrifies) us, we feel no need to cry out for the righteousness from God that is a gift in Christ Jesus. No longer “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” as in Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, we are more like somewhat dysfunctional but well-meaning victims who need to be “empowered.” Nobody today seems to think that God is dangerous. And that is itself a dangerous oversight.

The Holiness of God obscured, the sinful human condition is adjusted, first, to the level of sins. That is, instead of recognizing that sin is the universal condition of bondage, death, and condemnation from which we cannot extricate ourselves, we reduce it to particular actions or habits that we can be scolded or cheerfully encouraged out of repeating. Symptoms are mistaken for the illness. Second, we treat them primarily as negative behaviors that adversely affect fellow human creatures or our own well-being. For many, especially in our pampered culture, the only law left- and it is a relentless command that generates enormous anxiety- is to take care of oneself. The vertical relation- that makes sin truly sinful- is almost entirely forgotten. Now they are no longer sins- offenses against God- but mistakes: failures to live up to our potential or to improve our world. In fact, they need not even be defined by God’s law, but reflect our own inner lights: that which we personally find morally offensive. Third, we deflect these sins to “outsiders,” defining them as things that other people do. Depending on your ideology, “sinners” become either Republicans or Democrats, gays or social conservatives, socialists or capitalists, Muslims, Jews, Christians, or secular humanists. In this reconstruction of the problem, sins are deflected to others. Even when we discover them in ourselves, they are easily treated merely as self-destructive behavior that can be managed with proper strategies.

However, in the biblical perspective, that which makes sin sin is not first of all the unhappiness or shame that it brings to us and those around us, but the objective offense that it is before God. No one is eternally condemned for failing to find meaning, purpose, or fulfillment in life. But when sin is first defined vertically- that is, in reference to God- our nagging sense of unworthiness and guilt finally finds a real source and object. Only real sins can be really forgiven. We cannot forgive ourselves. Even the forgiveness of other people cannot erase the debt and give us a righteous status. Only if our sins are first of all offenses against God can they be objectively, fully, and finally forgiven.

There is no way of avoiding the biblical insistence that God’s wrath is real and being stored up for the judgment day. At the heart of Christ’s work on the cross is his propitiation of God’s wrath, but this makes no sense when we worship our own idolatrous projection of a domesticated deity who thinks we are basically good people who need a little help to be better. If “people today” find the preaching and teaching of sin and the cross irrelevant, it is only because we, like Israel, have dulled their sense of God’s holiness and righteousness.

When theology dispenses with propitiation (the satisfaction of God’s wrath) as a theme, it must eventually surrender forgiveness as well. We see this connection between a denial of God’s wrath and forgiveness in Don Henley’s song, “The Garden of Allah”:

Because there are no facts, there is no truth, just data to be manipulated…

Because there is no wrong, there is no right, and I sleep very well at night.

No shame, no solution, no remorse, no retribution

Just people selling T-shirts….

(Page 50-51)

Horton, Michael. The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks. 2009. Print


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