Chapter 5: God, Sin, and Christian Character
The three preceding chapters have attempted to outline the biblical basis of Christian ethics. We focused attention upon the ethical insights of Jesus because these are definitive for the Christian point of view. There are Christians who lay greater stress upon the messages of the prophets and the theology of Paul than upon the recorded words and acts of Jesus, and some who believe that it is impossible to recover any dependable view of the Jesus of history. However, we must continue to insist that Christian ethics stem from Jesus and his revelation of God as the source transcending all others, and even with some uncertainty as to the detailed accuracy of the historical record, the picture is clear.
It is the purpose of this chapter to look at the foundations and some of the problems of personal Christian living in terms of what we learn from Jesus, and secondarily, from the Bible as a whole. Mindful of the fact that neither Jesus nor his first great interpreter was a legalist, I shall try not to be. Yet Christian theology, far from being the barren and abstract thing many erroneously suppose it to be, yields at every turn directives that relate to life.
1. God and Christian character
As the primary note in the ethical outlook of Jesus, we noted the inseparable union of faith in God and obedient love for God with his attitudes toward men. The Old Testament is God-centered in its moral perspectives, though in a more limited sense in terms of the covenant with Israel, and so also was the early Church, though in identification of God with Christ himself as redeeming love. At the very threshold of Christian character stands belief in God as that faith comes to us through Jesus Christ.
But does it make a person a Christian to believe in God? Certainly not, in the sense of intellectual assent to the existence of a Supreme Being. Though statistics are not available and not very dependable where gathered, the polls taken from time to time indicate that the great majority of Americans — probably well over 90 per cent — would say Yes if asked if they believed in God. But this is not to say that so many are Christians. About 60 per cent are members of churches, but though only God knows how many of these are real Christians, it seems certain that Christian character in any thoroughgoing sense is a much greater rarity.
Yet belief in God, even as assent of the mind, is not irrelevant to Christian character. The postulates of naturalism and humanism may be held by good men, but to be a “good man” does not make a person a Christian. To see why, let us look briefly at these assumptions. In general, they are:
1. The universe is self-existent and self-contained, within which man has evolved to the position of the highest form of animal life.
2. Man has intelligence and the capacity for social adjustment and control, but is essentially a part of nature.
3. There is no purpose in the universe except that which man gives it.
4. Right and wrong have no objective validation beyond group standards.
5. The good life is that which is expedient for happiness and the satisfaction of man’s desires.
6. Evil and maladjustment exist, but sin is an outmoded concept.
7. All improvement comes through education and the application of various forms of social pressure, psychological, economic, or political.
8. Man has no source of support, for either the good life or the conquest of suffering, except the resources in himself and his group.
9. Each man’s personal existence ends with his biological death.
10. Jesus has no special significance except as an influential historical figure around whom the church, as a social institution and phase of culture, has been organized.
These postulates, so widely held that they might be regarded as the new Ten Commandments of our time, are radically at variance with the Christian view of God and of man. One who holds them as his basic convictions may be a respectable, law-abiding, and even altruistic person, but he is not a Christian.
Yet so familiar are they that one may be inclined at first glance to ask, “‘What is wrong with them?” Doubtless some readers of these pages will immediately suspect the writer of being ultraconservative for saying that a person cannot hold these as his basic convictions and still be a Christian. So let us look at them one by one.
1. It is the Christian’s faith that God is the Creator and Ruler of the universe, the “Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” In the creation of the world through long evolutionary processes, God has made man “in his own image” — that is, with spiritual qualities akin to those of God. Christian ethics presupposes a God-centered view both of the physical world and of the worth of human personality.
2. Man’s biological life is embedded in nature, and in a more complex form he shares many attributes with the animal world. He is, however, essentially a “living spirit,” with a soul that is capable of worship, faith in God, and outgoing, uncalculating love for one’s fellow man. Through these endowments of the Creator man is free to make moral choices. Christian ethics, therefore, cannot be deterministic in its view of man’s moral life.
3. The Christian doctrine of creation implies neither a static perfection nor automatic progress. Yet it is the Christian’s faith that both the goodness and the power of God are dependable and that a divine purpose underlies all existence. In this faith he can work with courage and hope as the servant of God for the conquest of evil. Life as a whole therefore becomes meaningful.
4. Man’s ideas of right and wrong are greatly influenced by group standards. Yet it is the will of God as this is revealed in Jesus Christ that, for the Christian, is the ultimate point of reference. To the degree that this is discerned and lived by, social standards are transcended by agape love.
5. The good life is neither determined by, nor is it indifferent to, human happiness. The good life is the “blessed” life portrayed in the Beatitudes, the “abundant” life Jesus said he came to bring. It is the life of obedient love toward God and selfless service to men disclosed in the words and deeds of Jesus.
6. Sin, as self -centeredness with regard to both God and other persons, is man’s most persistent evil. It is expressed both in moral dullness to the love commandment of God and in positive acts of rebellion against God and injury to one’s fellow men. It is “original” in the sense that human nature, if undirected or unchanged, is always self-centered.
7. Self-discipline and social forces contribute to the achievement of maturity, and these are important elements in the development of Christian character through Christian nurture. However, to be brought up in a good home or a good society does not automatically make one a Christian. The process of becoming a Christian occurs only through personal decision and the acceptance of divine help. The will then becomes unified, motivated, and consciously directed toward the effort to be a follower of Christ.
8. Neither sin nor suffering can be fully eliminated from human existence. Yet through the power of God in Christ, moral victories over temptation are won, often to an amazing degree, and suffering can be borne with courage and inner enrichment through trust in God’s providential care.
9. The Christian lives in the hope and in the vista of eternal life as the gift of God. This enormously transforms his perspective upon the present life, less through hope of future reward or fear of punishment than through a sense of the enhanced worthfulness of the present as preparatory to eternal life in the presence of God.
10. To the Christian, Jesus is more than a great, good man who has exerted an influence upon the course of Western civilization. He is the supreme revealer of God, through whom God is known, personal salvation comes to men, and society is changed in the direction of a fuller embodiment of the principle of love. The Church, as the community of his followers united by his living presence as Holy Spirit, is more than a social institution; it is a divinely grounded fellowship.
Even so brief a survey of the affirmations of Christian faith in contrast with the assumptions of naturalism should make it apparent that the viewpoint from which the Christian looks at life is different. The Bible, as the framework from which this faith is derived, becomes a primary source of insight, and the structure of life to which it points has an orientation and a quality not to be derived from naturalistic or humanistic assumptions.
2. The Christian virtues
But is not the naturalist, or the humanist, or the person who does not have a label but makes no claim to being a Christian, as “good” as one who does? The crux of personal Christian character is at this point, for if believing what a Christian ought to believe and calling oneself a Christian makes no difference in one’s personality or behavior, Christianity as a whole is bound to be discredited. The stock charge against the Church is that it is full of hypocrites, less sensitive to human need than many outside it. While this is doubtless an overstatement based on too hasty generalization, every “bad” Christian who can be set over against a “good” non-Christian is a barrier to the gospel.
At this point we must proceed with caution, avoiding either of two erroneous positions. One is to draw up a list of Christian virtues — honesty, generosity, courtesy, veracity, and the like — and define a Christian by their possession. The other is to define being a Christian in terms extraneous to moral qualities, as by right beliefs or church membership or faithful observance of the sacraments or some metaphysical change assumed to be wrought by conversion. The first of these procedures is moralism, against which the exponents of neo-orthodoxy continually inveigh. The second has no such neat label to designate it. It might perhaps be called fractionalism, from its tendency to take a fraction or aspect of Christian experience and make it the whole.
The truth lies between these positions. There are Christian virtues. Yet making a list of them and adding them together does not add up to being a Christian. These virtues, in greater or less degree, are found among those who are not Christians, and no Christian possesses them in unlimited degree. These virtues are not traits of character that can be put on point by point, as Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography tells that he tried to do as he systematically cultivated one virtue after another. They cannot even be dissociated enough to analyze them atomistically, as Aristotle attempts to do in his Nicomachean Ethics and the Stoic philosophers were fond of doing. Every list one can draw up leaves one with the feeling that there is something more. Nevertheless, I repeat, there are Christian virtues, and in their possession Christian character bears distinctive marks.
The Christian virtues are the qualities of a God-centered life as one seeks, in the totality of his being, to follow the pattern of faith and love set forth by Jesus. The Bible presents them again and again, always vitally and not schematically, but with a consistency that makes the picture clear. Let us look at some of the greatest of these portrayals.
To glance again, as we did in Chapter 3, at the Sermon on the Mount, what did Jesus do with Jewish legalism? Paraphrasing a bit we find him saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not kill, commit adultery, divorce your wife illegally, swear falsely, exact more than even-handed justice, hate your neighbor, though you may your enemy.’” The Christian virtues that he substituted, as the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven, are the mood and spirit to refrain from anger and lustfulness and the severing of the marriage bond, positive injunctions to straightforward speech, outgoing and uncalculating service, love of all men including one’s enemies as befitting sons of the God whose love is limitless.
Again, the Christian virtues are epitomized in the Beatitudes. Who are the blessed ones — not simply the happy ones who have satisfied their desires, but those who have found their supreme happiness in God? They are those who are humble in spirit; comforted by God in their mourning; unpossessive, yet possessing God’s richest gifts; eager and persistent in the quest for righteousness; merciful; pure in heart; peacemakers, as the Sons of God ought to be; faithful to duty even under persecution; able to endure misunderstanding and scorn for the Kingdom’s sake. In the immortal words of Matt. 5:3-11 there are nine affirmations which cannot be run into a list of virtues, if virtues are conceived abstractly, yet no clearer picture of Christian character was ever drawn.
Turning to the words of Paul, we have the Christian virtues again stated, not this time in nine sentences, but in nine words. The fruit of the Spirit, says Paul in Gal. 5:22, is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Several points beyond the words themselves must be noted. First, these virtues are not the product simply of human cultivation; they are the “fruit of the Spirit,” the result of the indwelling presence of God as he comes to us in Christ. Second, the verb is “is” and not “are”; they make a constellation of personality, not a collection of nine traits joined at random. And third, Paul disclaims legalism, as we must, when he adds after this inclusive picture of the Christian life, “against such there is no law.”
There are other portrayals of the Christian virtues in the New Testament. Rom. 12, as a whole, is devoted to this portrayal, as is I Cor. 13. Doubtless the reason why the twenty-third psalm and the Corinthian ode to love, with the Lord’s Prayer, are the most familiar passages in the Bible is that they gather up so perfectly the faith and love which lie at the base of Christian character. I shall not attempt to analyze or restate them, for they make their own case.
To return to the question raised at the beginning of this section, is this type of character, which means this total structure of personality, just as evident among those who are not Christians as among those who are? After one has finished citing cases of “fine people” who are not Christians and some who “profess Christ” but are not very attractive, the answer is clear. Christian character, though not flawless in any person, is a self-validating witness to the power of Christ to transform human nature. To the degree that a person is genuinely — not merely nominally or institutionally but actually — a Christian, his total life bears witness to the fact that Christian character is a reality.
3. The nature of sin
Look in any concordance of the Bible, and it becomes apparent that one of the words which appears most frequently is “sin.” From first to last, sin is the story of man’s behavior, even as salvation from sin is the great theme of the Bible. Christianity is through and through a religion of redemption, and while the whole gamut of salvation is not expressed in redemption from sin, this is its central core.
Although, as we noted, naturalism and humanism tend to think of sin as an outmoded concept and talk instead about maladjustment, insecurity, neurosis, or antisocial conduct, the term remains in the diction of Christians. But what does it mean? There is no clear agreement as to its meaning, and the ambiguity with which sin is regarded is responsible for much ineffectiveness in Christian preaching and in Christian living.
To some persons, and probably to the majority of ordinary Christian laymen, sin means transgression of those standards of conduct usually accepted by the people around them. A Christian is expected not to kill, steal, lie, commit adultery or other sexual infractions, or get drunk. How far he can move in these directions, as in exploiting others to one’s own gain, driving a shrewd deal or pursuing an advantage, stretching the truth, “having a little affair,” or drinking in moderation, depends for most persons less on the will of God or the revelation of God in Jesus Christ than on what is and what is not done in one’s community.
The community, though it embraces the geographical area in which one lives, is a far more pervasive thing than this, for a community is in a large part defined by the social standards of like-minded people. For this reason conflicts as to what constitutes sin often arise between the younger and older generations, or between ministers and their laymen, or between the people of one church and another.
Take, for example, the matter of drinking a glass of wine or beer. To some Christians this is a sin. To others, if it is done in moderation, it has no more significance than to drink a cup of coffee. Some regard it as sinful for a minister to drink, but not for a layman — and still more is this disparity in evidence with regard to smoking. A Roman Catholic or an Anglican or a German Lutheran Christian is likely to take a much freer view of such indulgences than is an American Methodist. I am not at this point trying to say who is right. What this illustrates is the ambiguity that emerges when the attempt is made to define sin, or “a sin,” by accepted social practice. A large part of the message of Jesus was the challenging of both Pharisaic and Gentile ideas of sin by a higher law.
The chief danger in defining sin by accepted social practice is not its ambiguity. This, if recognized, can be made the basis of mutual tolerance while holding to one’s own convictions. The danger lies, rather, in taking social standards as the voice of God, “absolutizing the relative,” and condemning all whose opinion differs in moot matters. Thus, Christians may sincerely differ as to the duty of the Christian to be, or not to be, a pacifist; but if one forms his opinion only by the standards of his group and then calls it the will of God for all, God has actually been left out of the picture. This procedure constantly happens, from the most insignificant matters to the greatest, and is a major source of the perversion of Christian ethics.
Identification with accepted social standards is a moralistic view of sin. To reject moralism is not to repudiate morality, but to declare the inadequacy of such a man-centered form of morality. Moralism has legalistic implications, for it is based on a set of socially determined “dos” and “don’ts.” Its appeal is not wholly that of external compulsion, for social conditioning affects conscience until there may be not only fear of consequences but strong inner compulsions at the thought of infractions of the standards of society. What is distinctive about it is not the degree of legalism involved, or the amount of conscientious scruples invoked, or even the degree to which God is talked about as the professed sanction for a given opinion. Its primary note is the limiting of sin to certain acts that must not be done because they are socially disapproved.
At the opposite extreme is a view of sin which regards it as state of being, rather than as a set of concrete acts, and as a state of being in rebellion against God. It is in this context that Paul says much about the natural man being “in sin,” until its burden is lifted and victory is won through justification by faith in Jesus Christ. Luther, in the Pauline tradition but with more realism as to post-conversion sin, speaks of the Christian as being simul justus et peccator (at the same time justified and a sinner). It is this view of sin that lies at the base of the Reformation doctrine of total depravity. It is to misunderstand the latter to suppose that the Reformers thought an unconverted man could perform no moral act, such as being a good citizen or a kind father; what they meant was that man’s nature was corrupted by a pervasive self-will and self-centeredness which made even his good acts sinful. Such sin is “original” in the sense of being born in us. Calvin thus states it:
Original sin, therefore, appears to be an hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused through all the parts of the soul. . . . And therefore infants themselves, . . . though they have not yet produced the fruits of their iniquity, yet they have the seed of it within them; even their whole nature is as it were a seed of sin, and therefore cannot but be odious and abominable to God. . . . Wherefore I have asserted that sin has possessed all the powers of the soul. . . . Man has not only been ensnared by the inferior appetites, but abominable impiety has seized the very citadel of his mind, and pride has penetrated into the innermost recesses of his heart.1
Contemporary Reformation theology modifies this view at the point of rejecting the biological inheritance of sin as the result of the fall of Adam, yet holds essentially to this idea of sin as a pervasive state of sinfulness. It is a universal human tendency to try to be, as the Garden of Eden story puts it, “like God” (Gen. 3:5), exalting one’s self into the state of supremacy which belongs rightly to God alone. Thus pride is the basic sin. Some would add also that sin roots in anxiety and the frustration of human finitude as the ego attempts to rebel against the limits set by our existence.2 Redemption is granted when one becomes aware of his presumption and self-righteousness, repents in humility and turns to Christ in faith. Yet sin continues, for while its burden is lifted, its hold is never loosed. Outwardly one may live a highly moral life; inwardly he continues to rebel against God and seek to magnify himself. This rebellious and disobedient self-exaltation is the essence of sin.
Moralism stresses the need of avoiding particular wrong acts, but gets its frame of reference from social standards and conventions. The second view I have outlined meets this defect, and is more authentically Christian. Yet in stressing man’s permeating sinfulness it often seems to give a too pessimistic view of human nature, with too little recognition of the God-given capacity of some persons to live victorious and highly virtuous Christian lives. Furthermore, in its stress on pride and rebellion against God as basic to the meaning of sin, it does not always give sufficiently concrete moral guidance as to how a Christian should conduct himself with relation to his fellow men.
Is it not possible to understand the nature of sin in a way that avoids these pitfalls? We can, if we draw our perspective from what is to be learned from Jesus. There, as love for God and one’s neighbor is the supreme virtue, so sin is its opposite. Sin is an attitude of the soul, and the prime essential for the elimination of sinful acts is that “ethical inwardness” which Jesus proclaimed so vitally in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet there are sinful acts, which are to be defined not by Pharisaic or Gentile or twentieth-century social standards but by the eternal will of God. Any attitude or act in which one rebels against, or fails to be adequately responsive to, the love commandment of Jesus is sin.
In this view of sin, as in the corresponding picture which Jesus gives us of the good life, relation to God and to one’s fellow man are in inseparable union. No works of love are Christian unless they are God-centered, but no God-centeredness is truly Christian unless one is impelled by it to attitudes and to works of love toward one’s fellow men. This is why any moralistic substitution of human good and evil, and on the other hand, any legalistic or ceremonial view of the demands of God, fails to do justice to the full seriousness of sin.
Sin, then, is self-love and self-centeredness with regard to both God and other persons — all persons with whom our lives either have or ought to have connection. With reference to God it may be called rebellion, or alienation, or estrangement, or simply “unbelief,” but these attitudes all center in not caring enough to desire to render to God obedient love. Regarding man’s relation to man, it means the negation of what Jesus taught, and the opposite of what was outlined in the previous section as the Christian virtues. This total structure of life which sin negates centers in the obligation to love and to serve to the uttermost of one’s powers.
But can every person love in this manner? Is not this to ask the impossible? ‘What of the immature, the untaught, the mentally defective or ill, the underprivileged, the frustrated and warped soul to whom life has given too little love — can these be asked to love without limit? And can even those of us who might not be included in these categories love everybody? The mere putting of these queries indicates the importance of human freedom and its bearing on Christian moral responsibility.
To be a sinner in the eyes of men, and presumably also in God’s eyes, requires enough maturity, knowledge, and freedom to enable one to make moral choices. This is why a little child, even though self-centered by nature, is not a sinner, and sin is “original” only in the sense that the natural self-centeredness of childhood, if uncurbed, becomes sinful as the individual matures to the point of responsible decision. To the degree that any physical, psychological, or social restriction makes it impossible either to know what is right or to act responsibly in Christian love, our best impulses tell us that understanding and sympathy rather than condemnation are in order. Modern psychology and psychotherapy have done much to soften the sting of what formerly without qualification was called sin. This is good, if it is not carried beyond rightful limits, and much more work needs yet to be done before the relations of neurosis to sin can be clearly defined.
Yet this must not be allowed to vitiate the reality of sin. Granted that there are limits to human freedom, what of the person who can know, and feel, and do otherwise than he does? Though it is not humanly possible to draw absolute lines at the point where our “cannot” ends and “can” begins, sin is a persistent reality. To sin is not simply to be maladjusted, or mentally ill, or socially conditioned in a certain way, or otherwise to be a victim of bad circumstances. Nobody is responsible for what he could not know, or be, or do: yet to sin is to continue in self-will and self-love at those many points of decision in which, for a normal person, one’s outlook and action ought to reach far beyond himself.
Can we love everybody? Here the distinction between philia and agape needs again to be drawn. One cannot feel a strong personal attraction toward everybody he knows, to say nothing of the unknown — and there are limits to the channels of service open to us. But love in the Christian sense of outgoing concern need have no limits: to set such limits either willfully or carelessly is to sin.
Sin, then, presupposes knowledge and freedom adequate to those attitudes and acts required by love, and without taking a “soft” view of divine judgment we may believe that God does not require of us the impossible.
As a father pities his children,
so the Lord pities those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust. (Ps. 103:13-14.)
Yet both sin and judgment are stark realities, and the most pervasive type of sin lies in the complacency, lethargy, and moral dullness of self-love at those points where both knowledge and freedom are available. We all know what it is right to do far better than we do it; we all, in our dispositions and overt acts, place premature limits around our love and our service to others. Every man, if he is honest with himself, must echo the word of Paul, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:11).
Thus it appears that in the debate between the customary liberal view3 that stresses man’s freedom in the willful breaking of known moral laws and the neo-orthodox emphasis on unconscious sin as derivative from man’s basic pride, anxiety, and rebellion against God, the truth may lie between. Without freedom and willful choice there is no sin; yet such freedom and willfulness can be exercised negatively as well as positively, becoming moral insensitiveness of the most devastating and unchristian nature. The effects of this we shall note repeatedly as we look more precisely at social sin and hence at the need of enlightened and loving social action.
4. Some illustrations
It may add concreteness to the foregoing, and move us a step closer toward practical applications, if we look at a number of questions that commonly confront Christians in daily life. As a handle for operation, let us go back to the list of things a moralistic view of sin prohibits, recognizing of course that the list given was only illustrative and not complete.
a) Is it right ever for a Christian to kill his fellow men? The depths of anguish involved in this question come to full focus in reference to personal participation in war, which is but one angle of the larger issue of the ethics of war, to be discussed later when we look at international relations. In anticipation it may be said that if it is right to do in war what would be murder in time of peace, this must find its Christian justification — not in the supremacy of the call of the state, or in the impersonality of group action, but in love for those persons believed to be protected thereby, without hatred toward any, and with due Concern for what war does to persons. It is unequivocally wrong for a Christian to kill wantonly, or without deep soul-searching leading to the conclusion that love requires it as the will of God. Some Christians do sincerely arrive at this decision while others do not, and it is not to be expected that all will reach the same answer. As the Methodist Church has put it:
Faced by the dilemma of participation in war, he [the Christian] must decide prayerfully before God what is to be his course of action in relation thereto. What the Christian citizen may not do is to obey men rather than God, or overlook the degree of compromise in our best acts, or gloss over the sinfulness of war. The Church must hold within its fellowship persons who sincerely differ at this point of critical decision, call all to repentance, mediate to all God’s mercy, minister to all in Christ’s name.4
There are other aspects of this question which confront us daily. Every careless automobile driver is a potential murderer, and Christians like others are too often insensitive to their obligations at this point. Taking unnecessary chances is “tempting fate,” and hence is sin against the God who desires all his children to live out their normal span of years in health and well-being. The person who drinks, or who condones drinking, encourages reckless driving, and hence becomes a participant in the guilt of killing. He does not, of course, intend this consequence, but the fact that his love does not stretch far enough to give him a sense of moral responsibility makes him responsible. That this is no idle bit of moralizing is substantiated by the fact that traffic accidents take an appalling toll of about 36,000 lives each year, and in this killing, intoxication is a factor in over 25 per cent of the instances.
There are other more subtle angles of the question. One who would directly poison or set fire to another person would be subject to condemnation and the severest penalty the law can inflict.5 Yet even Christians own and derive income from unhealthy slums — firetraps and, breeders of disease. Most people are reasonably careful not to spread infection to their families or friends; there is less care with regard to strangers in public places. The known laws of health are persistently violated, not alone by the careless who injure themselves or infect others, but even by conscientious Christians who in stubborn self-will wear out their energy, acquire nervous breakdowns or stomach ulcers or heart trouble, and collapse before their time. Or one can be so concerned with his own comfort and prosperity and the demands of his business, family, or other immediate circle that he can be quite obtuse to the fact that in half of the world’s population, there are chronic hunger and malnutrition, high infant mortality, and a much shorter life span than in opulent America. It is, of course, not the Christian conscience alone that should have a sense of social responsibility about such matters. Yet if a Christian takes seriously the love commandment, he is obligated to have a quickened conscience. The words of Jesus, “What more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” ought to be to the Christian a persistent challenge.
b) Ought a Christian ever to lie, or steal, or cheat? Put thus baldly, almost everybody knows that the answer should be No. Yet it is when “extenuating circumstances” arise that exceptions are made, and Christians like others, if they are not sensitive to the call of God, will excuse themselves and succumb to temptation. One will not rob a bank, but he will conveniently forget to report some things when he pays his income tax, if he thinks he will not be caught. For an appalling number of people, younger and older, in current society there are two principal criteria governing conduct: (1) one does “what other people do” and (2) one does “what you can get away with” and escape detection or penalty. Consequently, one will not sell automobiles or stocks or bonds or jackknives in ways that are directly illegal, but one will “keep his mouth shut” on the assumption that it is the buyer’s business to watch out or take the consequences. Small lies, told to keep a social situation smooth or to help one’s self out of a predicament, have a way of growing into extensive structures of deception. And rationalizations are ever available. Cheating on examinations may be condemned in general, but there is always a reason for doing it “this time.” One’s grade is too crucial to risk, or a friend needs help, so why not give it to him? And if a lie will help one out of a tight spot, why be so fussy as to think one must always tell the truth?
And so it goes. Any reader of these pages can give his own set of examples. The fabric of modern society is honeycombed with instances of lack of veracity, of basic honesty, and of that virtue so fundamental both to Christian character and to an ordered society which perhaps had best be called integrity. This ramifies through domestic, economic, political, and every sort of social relation, and is at the same time a major consequence and a major cause of the relaxing of Christian standards in a largely secular world.
There is no blueprint in the New Testament to tell us precisely what to do in every one of the manifold instances in which the temptation to deceive others, or to possess or to manipulate or to control what is not ours, confronts us. Admittedly, life comes to us with its issues mixed, and to contend, as some do, that one must always tell the truth, even if in time of war or tyrannical oppression it costs another person his life, is “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.” Yet both Jesus and the prophets are clear in their convictions that any exploiting and callous dishonesty, by whatever name it may be called, is wrong in the eyes of God. Because it is rooted in self-love, every violation of personal integrity must be eradicated, root and branch. So strong is the impulse to acquisitiveness and to self-love that most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, will admit that only by the grace of God can we be honest with other men in those areas of life where only God’s eyes see us.
c) What of the sins of the flesh? The medieval Church had a sound (even though an incomplete) insight into the nature of human temptation when it announced as the seven deadly sins pride, anger, envy, avarice, sloth, gluttony, and lust. If sloth is understood as moral indifference rather than lack of action, it is these which to the present day most persistently assail the soul. It is significant that the first five are sins of disposition, while only the last two are sins of the flesh.
Gluttony is not simply overeating, though even in this form of it, many Americans sin by setting up false standards of value, overburdening their bodies and consuming fine fare in indifference to the hunger of the world. Its most serious expression, however, is in the drinking of alcoholic beverages, with all the train of consequences ensuing therefrom. Is it ever right for a Christian to drink? The mores have made social drinking a widely accepted contemporary practice, and not all Christians hold it to be wrong. In a book on Christian ethics two Anglican leaders after stating certain limits remark:
However, after saying all this, one must add that alcohol, properly used, is one of the good gifts that God has given to His children. A group of friends drinking in moderation and experiencing the relaxation and warm fellowship that ensue, may be sacramentally rejoicing in the goodness of God’s creation.6
Without reflecting on the motives or the moral integrity of these authors, one must differ radically with their judgment. Why?
First, because nobody ever sets out to be a drunkard. Yet all the tragedies resulting from alcoholism — death on highways, broken homes, shattered vocations, derelict bodies and souls — are the result of immoderate drinking by those who thought they were going to drink “in moderation.” Although not every moderate drinker turns into a drunkard, many do, and there is no guarantee against it. About few practices is Paul’s word so relevant, “Let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (I Cor. 10:12), for there is an abundance of evidence, cited in any meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, that it can happen to one who least expects it. The only safeguard is to leave liquor entirely alone.
Second, the Christian with a conscience must think of effects beyond himself. Not a few of those who do succeed in keeping their drinking within bounds have been influential in encouraging others to drink beyond these bounds. Paul again was right when he said, “Then let us no more pass judgment on one another, but rather decide never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of a brother. . . . It is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble.” (Rom. 14:13, 21.)
And third, the way of love is to put the emphasis on a positive respect for one’s body as the temple of God’s spirit, on one’s money as held in stewardship from God for constructive uses, on one’s mind as needing to be kept clear and vigorous for God’s service, on one’s spirit and all one’s social contacts as best finding active expression with “relaxation and warm fellowship” through channels that require no artificial stimulation. The way of Christian love is not self-righteously to condemn another for holding a different view, but neither is it to surrender conviction at a point of grave concern.
On the second sin of the flesh to which reference has been made — lust in the form of overt transgression or, as Jesus saw it, the lustful look and the impure thought — I shall not say more at this point. A later chapter will deal with family relations, and there is the place to discuss it. It is enough to say here that sex, unlike alcohol, is God’s good gift and in relations of pure and holy love can be used sacramentally. Lust becomes, therefore, the more debasing and the more sinful when what is intended for good is perverted to selfish and sensual indulgence. Only a neurotic and pleasure-mad society could commercialize and pervert it as ours does.
5. Victory over sin
It will be best to end this chapter on the note, not of man’s sinfulness, but of God’s victory over sin. Sin and judgment are never God’s last words, for “God so loved the world” that he gave his Son for our redemption. That is the message of Good Friday and of Easter, and of our total Christian faith.
It was said earlier that sin is a persistent state of the soul. This is true in the sense that self-love and self-centeredness are never fully conquered even in the most saintly Christian. Yet decisive moral victory over sin by the grace of God is real, with fruits manifest in the way one treats his neighbor as well as in reorientation of the soul toward God. We shall do better to speak of this with regard to others than ourselves, lest we think of ourselves “more highly than [we] ought to think,” but the fact of it is basic to Christian character.
How does this victory take place? Here again Jesus tells what we need to know. The experience of Paul and of the New Testament community and the total history of the Church gives helpful amplification if we do not distort it into supposing that the change involved in becoming a Christian must always come about in just the same way. We noted in Chapter III what Jesus made the main requirements: commitment of will, repentance, the willingness to forgive others if we would be forgiven, faith in God. Love and the doing of the works of love then become both the evidence and the obligation of a God-centered life.
Such conversion may be gradual or sudden. In the moral decisions of a lifetime that are involved in it, one of them may or may not overshadow all the rest to become the kind of dramatic reorientation that Paul had on the Damascus road. Personal decision there must be, and background as well as foreground, and in the total experience, Christian nurture, Christian worship, and the acceptance of opportunities for Christian service play an essential part. I shall not attempt here to describe in detail what happens in conversion to the Christian life, for I have done this previously in a number of writings.7
Much is being said and written of late as to man’s basic anxiety before the precariousness of existence as the source of all his other aberrations. While not much has been said about it in this chapter, since I believe that self-love rather than anxiety lies at the root of sin, faith and love must go hand in hand in the conquest of sin. “‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (I John 4:18.) It is the perfect love of God as this has come to us in God’s Son that conquers both fear and sin; it is our faith and love that lead us to him. Victorious living comes through the conjunction of God’s act with our humble, obedient, trustful acceptance of his proffered gift.
Thus it comes about that no man needs helplessly to struggle under the burden of his sin, and no man ought to assume that without personal commitment to Christ he is good enough. Both courses lead to frustration and defeat. To the degree that personal Christian experience becomes a reality — whether it is called redemption through justification by faith or in more popular language simply “becoming a Christian” — it makes a profound difference in personality. It touches life at its center. By it the whole of life takes on a new orientation, vitality, and power. To enter into this heritage of Christian faith at first hand, and to become a “new creation” in Christ, is the most important step that can be taken by any soul.
1. Institutes of the Christian Religion II, 1. 8-9. A Compend of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. Hugh Thomson Kerr, Jr. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1939), pp. 43-44.
2. Cf. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1943), Vol. I, ch. vii, for an elaboration of this view; also John L. Casteel, Rediscovering Prayer (New York: Association Press, 1955), ch. 3, for an interesting application to the personal devotional life.
3. Cf. A. C. Knudson, The Principles of Christian Ethics (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1943), ch. iv.
4. Resolution on World Order and International Peace, Discipline, 1956, ¶ 2024.
5. Capital punishment is itself of very questionable Christian justification. Though ostensibly based on the need to protect society against murder, it too often rests on the application of the lex talionis.
6. Chad Walsh and Eric Montizambert, Faith and Behavior (New York: Morehouse-Gorham Co., 1954), p. 33.
7. See my Religious Living (New York: Association Press, 1937; published in The
Religious Life, 1953); Understanding the Christian Faith, ch. viii; Prayer and the Common Life (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1948), ch. 12; The Modem Rival of Christian Faith, ch. xi.