As Christians enter the season of Advent, we give attention to Christ coming to redeem the lost from sin. Are such terms even still relevant in today’s context?
In this generation, as in so many before it, religious leaders have come to a fork in the road. In one direction is the ever-shifting expectation of cultural context and what could be broadly defined as ‘relevance’.
That might express itself in creating an environment that exists to entertain an audience. Or one that exists to run charitable programs. Or exists to be a Christianized Anthony Robbins self-help program helping you be the best version of yourself or awakening a giant within.
In the other direction involves the preaching of repentance from sin, and an adherence to clear moral absolutes, a binary choice usually seen as a declaration of war by non-Christians of any generation.
How important is the preaching of sin and repentance in the Church? Is it ‘mission-critical’, or can we get along without it? And do we need to have the Hellfire-and-Brimstone messages to get the point across?
Let’s first define our terms. When Christians talk about sin, we don’t mean those low-down-dirty-other guys that we’re so much better than. Anyone with that attitude needs to flip through the gospels and see what Jesus has to say about the self-righteous crowd of his own day, the Pharisees. He beat them up pretty soundly.
With sin, we talk about that part of humanity right at the heart of us that is fundamentally broken and off-center. It’s that aspect of our thoughts and desires that takes us down roads we know we shouldn’t go, making choices we know we will be ashamed of and seeking behavior that always ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’. For each of us, that list looks a little different… and a little like everyone else’s. It is both somehow a part of us yet it works against us and our own best interests.
And the satisfaction it promises in each of our bad decisions almost always eventually turns to sand in our mouth… but by then, it is busy making us NEW promises.
The Church often cycles through periods of zeal and indifference. Today we seem to be trending toward indifference; in particular, indifference toward sin.
Jesus was very blunt in saying, “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin”.
His disciple John said:
“Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
There are lists of sins in both the Old Testament and New Testament, ranging from things of Epstein-Island kind of nastiness, to more subtle and ‘socially acceptable’ things like corruption, cowardice, envy, and sloth.
The Apostle Paul — who is addressing a culture that has NOT been shaped by a thousand years of Old-Testament influence — puts a sharp focus not only on explaining what is morally out-of-bounds but also in the hope that repentance is an ongoing process of renewal where we leave such things behind us.
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
We get hung up sometimes on what is on the list. This one, for example in his letter to Corinth, lists some pretty egregious acts.
Too many stop at the ‘will not inherit the Kingdom of God’ to feel the full weight of the message.
This is written, as you may remember, by a man who had literally hunted down Christians to imprison or kill them. Someone who was present at the death of the very first Christian Martyr. This was written by Paul, who had once been Saul, the hunter of Christians who had ‘persecuted the Church’.
Read the next two lines. And such WERE some of you. BUT you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name…
Paul is talking about a life that is not merely living according to a new set of rules but is fed by a completely different power source. One that brings life and hope with no condemnation or pangs of conscience.
James put it this way:
Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
Jesus came to conquer sin and death because we could not do so on our own.
To ‘save’ us is exactly that. To get us off the hamster wheel of chasing after things that cannot possibly satisfy us at the deepest level. To put aside that sin and reconcile us to God himself, the one that answers our inner restlessness and fills it with something that truly can satisfy.
He doesn’t merely dismiss sin, he is a righteous judge who judges it with ruthless finality in one of two places — for those who will receive it, in his Son at the Cross, for those who will not, in our own person in Hell.
With the Cross bearing our sin, the thing that held us arms’ length from a Holy God is set aside and done away with. He can renew our hearts, fill us with his own Spirit and word to renew us and refresh us. He can give us righteousness, peace and joy that is not of our own.
Do not mistake this for a promise of an EASY life. We are still promised trouble — mainly from those who take God’s holy standard as a declaration of war, rather than an invitation of truce.
But it is a life that will satisfy those deeper needs that no Black Friday sale, and not even the best of families, or most perfect of careers can fully satisfy.
Jesus’s own message of repentance was very direct, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
When called upon to respond to there are two possible answers.
You can accept the weight and significance of Peter and John’s words to the religious leaders of Jerusalem:
This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.
Or you can reject them and hear the words of Paul a few chapters later:
And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.
Sin may not be discussed as honestly and as directly as it once was in churches, but it is still central to the mission of Jesus.
As for the Hellfire and Brimstone messages, that is hardly the only way to say what needs to be said. Jesus told one woman simply ‘bring your husband’. She ‘had no husband’, truthfully, but was shacked up with her fifth guy. But he didn’t say that to berate her, he did it to draw her away from sin and toward God.
The woman who was brought before him to be stoned to death didn’t get a public shaming, but a call to ‘go and sin no more’.
We don’t need angry words of condemnation, we need the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
The call of the gospel is an invitation of truce — to as many as will receive it.
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