We continue our sermon series look at some of the fundamental words in our faith vocabulary that have been co-opted and redefined by the culture. Our goal in these series is to reclaim these words so that they speak to our faith and how we live it out in our lives. Today’s word…sin!
SCRIPTURE – I John 1:5 – 2:2 – 5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true;7 but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
2 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
Dirty Words sermon series
#4 – Sin
Feb. 1, 2015
We continue our Dirty Words sermon series today, in which we’re looking at some basic Christian words that have been co-opted and negatively redefined by our culture. Our hope is to reclaim and redefine them in a way that makes them useful to us as we try to understand how to live out our faith in our daily lives. And no word has been more distorted than the word “sin.”
This can be an uncomfortable topic, so I thought a good way to start would be to lay everything out on the table. We’re all friends here, right? The Bible talks repeatedly about the cleansing power of confession, so I figure we would start redefining the word “sin” by naming our own to each other. I’d like each person to stand up and share one of their sins. Ushers, please lock the doors. Seriously, I was thinking of using this sermon to model the importance of confession by sharing with you a few of my own sins, but then I realized my dad was going to be here and there are just some things I don’t want him knowing about. Sorry dad!
Sin. Just hearing that word elicits a reaction in us, doesn’t it? Our stomachs tighten a little, we get a bit squirmy, we suddenly feel like we need a shower. Sin. Why is that such a bad word today? The word is all over the Bible, especially in the New Testament, and most especially in Paul’s letters. He uses the concept of sin as a fundamental building block in his exposition of what it means to be a person of faith and a believer in Jesus Christ. So how did “sin” go from building block to bad word?
I blame the church for the way it has handled the concept of sin. For example, at my last church I preached a sermon on sin and salvation, going into great detail to explain the biblical understanding of sin and our need to be saved from it. It wasn’t quite fire and brimstone, but I thought it got the job done with a minimal amount of squirming.
After the worship service, a good friend of mine in the congregation stormed up to me and said, “I just want you to know that I didn’t even listen to your sermon.” Now, I’m used to hearing that often enough, but the anger with which she shared her statement startled me. She said, “As soon as you said the word ‘sin,’ I just stopped listening. I was beaten over the head with that word so much growing up that I just can’t hear it anymore. Every tie you said it I got angrier, and you said it 67 times. Yes, I counted!”
The word “sin” doesn’t really need to be rescued from our culture, because you very rarely hear it spoken anymore, unless you’re talking about a dessert that so good it’s sinful. No, the word “sin” needs to be rescued from the church itself. It has been lifted up as the defining characteristic of the human condition to the point that people have fled the church to get away from the brow-beating they’ve taken because they are sinners. As for my friend, just hearing that word is a huge turn-off.
To compensate, some churches have jettisoned the word “sin” and found more palatable alternatives to it. I was once told by a minister who was reading over one of my sermons that I shouldn’t use the word “sinfulness” because it was too negative. She suggested I used “brokenness” or “shortcomings.” That’s like the doctor who told me he didn’t like to tell family members that a loved one had died; instead, he told them they had “transitioned.” But Paul doesn’t say that all suffer from brokenness and have fallen short of the glory of God; he says all have sinned. In fact, Paul uses the word “sin” 77 times in the book of Romans alone. I’d hate to see what my friend would do to him!
It makes sense that we’d want to distance ourselves from this word because of the extreme negative spin it has. I’d rather be thought of as broken rather than sinful because, to be honest, it’s easier to rationalize the bad behavior. Calling our sins “mistakes” or “imperfections” makes them so much more palatable! One author suggests we change the traditional sinner’s prayer, which says, “Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” to say, “Benevolent and Easy-Going God…oops! I goofed. Sorry about that. I’m still a good person.”
Why are we so afraid to claim the title of “sinner”? What would happen if people found out that we’re not really the perfect person we want people to think we are? Our reputation would be ruined. We’d be kicked out of church, our picture would go up in the post office, people would talk about us in hushed tones: “Remember Kory? Oh, yeah, can you believe it? I thought he was such a nice guy! Who would have guessed that he was really a sinner!”
Just saying that sounds so horrible, but that also highlights the breakdown in the evolution of the word “sin.” In the Bible, to be called a sinner was not a judgment; it was simply a statement of fact, and assertion about the reality of our human nature and our broken relationship with God. To be a sinner does not necessarily mean you are hypocritical, disgusting or evil. It means you’re human. Some of the nicest people I know are sinners, and most of y’all are sitting in this room right now!
We can start reclaiming this essential word by redefining it and owning up to the fact that sin is a part of the human condition. Yes, we are all sinners. I don’t say that to make you feel bad or beat you down; I simply say it because it’s true, and if we are to understand God’s grace and the power of what Christ did for us on the cross, we first have to acknowledge our separation from God and our need for a Savior.
Part of the reason we resist seeing our sinful nature is that we’ve let sin be defined too narrowly. “To sin” has become synonymous with “breaking the rules.” The Bible says “thou shalt not,” but if you slip up and shalt when you shouldn’t shalt, you’ve sinned. But sin is so much more multi-faceted than that. It’s not just a cosmic demerit system or a divine spreadsheet of wrongdoing. For example, there are sins of commission, which means doing things we shouldn’t do. But there are also sins of omission, which means not doing things we should do. There are sins, the act themselves, but there is also sinfulness, which is a condition in which we live. There are personal sins, but there are also systemic and institutional sins like racism and destruction of God’s creation.
So when we redefine “sin,” we have to do so in a way that encompasses all the different forms of sin, because the Bible doesn’t make a distinction between types of sin. That’s hard for some of us to accept. There’s no list in the Bible that says murder is a really big sin but telling a lie is only a little sin. In God’s eyes, they are all sins, and no sin is more or less sinful than any others. Our human laws make these kinds of distinctions, which is good and necessary, but God doesn’t. The Bible doesn’t focus on how we’ve sinned, but that we have sinned, and that we cannot escape our sinful nature by ourselves. We need God’s help.
In that light, sin is not something to be punished, but something to be healed. Listen to this line, written by someone whose name I’ve forgotten but who is infinitely wiser than me: Sin is not a weapon in the arsenal of condemnation, but a reminder of the expectation of grace. It is through acknowledging that we are sinners that we open ourselves up to receive the lavish, unmerited grace of God, who says, “You’re a sinner, Kory, and I love you, not in spite of who you are, but because of who you are.” If we are willing to claim our sinfulness, we can then claim God’s grace. As Martin Luther said, “The recognition of sin is the beginning of salvation.”
If all this talk of sin is making you feel a little beat up – I’ve said it 63 times so far, if you’re counting – then let’s end on a positive note, shall we? Let’s go back to the beginning in Genesis, when God created man and woman. The Bible tells us we were created in God’s image, we were saturated with God’s nature, and God looked at us and pronounced us – sinners? No. God looked at us and pronounced us good. Then Adam and Eve came along and messed everything up! But before that, we were created and called good.
That’s important to remember when we’re dealing with sin, because sin can be so insidious that we can forget we are more than our sins. As Sister Helen Prejean says in “Dead Man Walking,” “Every person is worth more than their worst act.” Thanks be to God for that, right? Yes, we are sinners, but that is only a small part of who we are. Ultimately, we are children of God, created to be good, loved by God even when we don’t deserve it, forgiven for our shortcomings and brokenness and – yes – our sins. I don’t mean to trivialize sin or make it seem like it’s not as big a deal as it is, because it is. But we are not defined by what we’ve done or left undone; we are defined by the One who made us good.
If you want to read an amazing book on this, Cornelius Plantinga has written, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, and that’s the best explanation of sin I’ve ever read. In it, Plantinga defines the goodness of God’s creation as “shalom,” and then defines sin as “culpable shalom-breaking.” When we do something to disrupt the goodness that is innate within us on in someone else, we commit a sin. When we try to meet legitimate needs in illegitimate ways, we commit a sin. When we love something else so much that it becomes our god instead of God being our God, we commit a sin. The question is not if we sin; the question is when we do, do we run away from God or do we run toward God? Do we run away from God, fearing punishment, or do we run toward God, expecting grace? Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, your child, a sinner.