Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 16-23, 1990, p. 524, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Acknowledging sin entails the happy assessment that nothing wrong with us is finally beyond forgiveness.
Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith
Martin Luther believed that the theology of this text was the essence of the gospel. Seeing himself a sinner who fell infinitely “short of the glory of God,” the salvation that Luther found through the redeeming death of Jesus Christ was for him a sheer gift of the most unmerited grace. The Reformation would have died stillborn if many of Luther’s contemporaries had not shared his sense of sm and dependence.
Though many of us were raised in traditions that stressed the depth of our personal sin, we have generally allowed ourselves to be talked out of it. Modernity teaches us to see all our deeds — even our most deviant criminal acts — as psychological, sociological, economic or biological responses to environmental or genetic factors. Such determinisms preclude all genuine sin-talk.
The sexual revolution finds many Christians flip-flopping older puritanical attitudes — some see repressed sexuality as a greater evil than premarital sex and abortion. While not all is licensed among Christians, a striving for personal rectitude is being replaced by a sense of liberal or revolutionary social “responsibility.” Ironically, one finds in some Christian social ethics hints of a smug satisfaction over the correctness of the analyses (Marxist, Freudian, feminist, among others) of human brokenness. One’s “hermeneutics of suspicion” not only exposes society’s “real” villains but shows a solidarity, albeit self-appointed, with the oppressed. The ideological cognoscenti have moved beyond mere personal sin.
Americans are still driven by the myth of human progress. The successes of science and technology have kept alive — despite wars, racism, overpopulation, ecological catastrophe, homelessness, incest and domestic violence — the belief that one day we will get things right. And when we rid the world of poverty, ignorance and disease and provide for the needs and pleasures of everyone, human venality will cease. Our machines and knowledge, not God, will save us. Old notions such as the fear of God have been widely replaced by theologies that hold that God is powerless to do anything save lure people to righteousness, theologies that deny life beyond the grave altogether, or theologies that preach universal salvation.
I am not deploring all this. I am merely sketching a cultural milieu in which preaching about sin will more than likely be met with one or another form of “I’m OK, you’re OK.” It is crucial to remind ourselves that a Christian confession of sin rests not on cultural, philosophical or psychological pessimism but on Jesus Christ. For one discovers sin only when one knows the one against Whom it is committed — the one who meets us in the forgiveness Wrought in Christ’s cross. Thus, if I am in despair I find that my despair is ill-founded. Acknowledging sin entails, among other things, the happy assessment that nothing that is wrong with us is finally beyond forgiveness. Yet if I have prospered, I find that my success has been built on the sinking sand of worldliness, for the triumph of Jesus Christ came through the cross. The brooding secular existentialist has no more insight into our broken relationship to God than does the upbeat pragmatic secular yuppie.
What if our liberal capitalism and the blandishments of our technologically fueled hedonism were one day to set humanity free from war and criminality? Christians drawn from such a merry herd of contented beings would still, should they experience Christ’s expiating death, be driven to confess that no matter how relatively benign hedonism renders life, they themselves were in no way perfect as their “heavenly father is perfect.”
To know Christ is to know my own role in his death and that my crucifixion of God’s’ son is but the logical extension of my heartlessness toward my neighbor. No new world will change the primal fact that I do not love my neighbor as myself. Indeed, the underlying assumption of our consumer utopia is that universal plenty will make self-sacrificing love unnecessary. A Christian recognition of sin is first a recognition of our betrayal of God’s self-sacrificing love, a betrayal that is exposed only with the laying bare of such love in the cross.
When Paul persecuted the church he had no real grasp of the nature and extent of his betrayal of God’s love, for he did not fathom the depth of that love. His mature sense of sin arose only through meeting the risen Christ on the road toDamascus. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” was at once a judgment and a call of love. Paul’s discovery of his sin in the very recognition of sin’s forgiveness did not turn him into a Pollyanna. Romans contains some of the most drastic assessments of the human condition ever penned. Yet it is crucial to remember that in Romans Paul views both sin an human blindness toward God as that from which we are being delivered. Romans reaches its crescendo in Paul’s claim that “God has consigned all men todisobedience, that he might have mercy upon all” (11:32) .
The world in its worldliness can’t see that sin-talk explains anything. This is the reverse side of the world’s claim that does not need the work of Christ. The church has its work cut out for it. We ought not let the world’s willfulness so exasperate us that we become striden accusers of the world’s naïveté. The church has one overriding task: proclaiming by word and deed a perfect love which will in its own suffering way judge and redeem all things human. Love-talk is the bedrock upon which sin-talk must be built, lest it sink into the marshes of cynicism or self-pity.