John Pavlovitz writes about the Christian community's obsession with sin, particularly with defining sin and building boundaries. As Pavlovitz says, in his experience, people use the definition of sin (what behaviors or conditions qualify as "sin") as a way to define their tribe. People use sin as a "litmus test" to determine who's in and who's out. My favorite quote from this entry -
I’ve read the four gospels about a half a million times, and I have yet to see that from Jesus.
I'm not out to build an entire theology around Pavlovitz's writings here (though I do enjoy his writing and appreciate what he has to say), but this post today got me thinking.
Tolerable Sin and Intolerable Sin
I think that perhaps part of the problem with sin is that, as Christians, we define sin two ways - as tolerable or intolerable. Tolerable sin is "our" sin - the issues we struggle with. Of course, this differs for everyone: for some, it may be gossiping or lust or private porn use or lying or cutting corners on our taxes or even being short tempered with our spouse or our kids or our coworkers. None of these are good things to do, but they're not really that bad, and everyone has their own struggle, so we justify these little sins by saying that there are worse things we could do.
Intolerable sin, of course, is the sin of the "others" - drug abuse, perpetual drunkenness, child abuse, illicit sex, murder, armed robbery, or being a Democrat. These sins are, in our minds, just horrible, and people who engage in them simply can't be Christians because they are so heinous. No Christian would ever do such a thing.
"I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin."
I'm quoting, of course, from 1 John 2. It goes on to say "But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world."
I think that we assume that, by becoming a Christian, we cease to engage in the intolerable sins, and only dabble in the tolerable sins. When someone is converted, we expect them to give up the intolerable sins and join us in the liberty of tolerable sin, because, after all, they're not so bad.
John makes it clear - as does Jesus in the Gospels - that our goal isn't a certain tolerable level of minor sins. All sins are damnable, and God hates all sin. Sin is what separates us from God. Unrepentant sin - no matter how small or tolerable that sin is - disrupts our relationship with our Father and may even keep us from heaven.
We are to be without sin. How many of us can say that? How many of us, like the self-righteous, murderous throng of people surrounding the adulterous woman, consider the sins of the others far worse than our sins? It was only in response to Jesus pointing out their hypocrisy - let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone - that the crowd disperses. There are so many serious points that can be made from this story, but I only want to focus on one - casting judgment is serious business, and we must make sure that we're sinless before we do.
"But wait!" you say. "I'm not an adulterer, so I can judge adultery." (Or maybe you don't, but hear me out) Perhaps not. But Paul says that anyone who is guilty in any point of the law is guilty of the whole law. A gossip is no better than an adulterer, a murderer no worse than a petty criminal, in the eyes of God.
Where Sin Did Abound
So what, then? If we're all guilty of sin, what then? Do we just give up? Of course not. As John says, "If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." As Paul says, "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." (Romans 5:20). In chapter 6, Paul continues, "Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!" (Romans 6:1-2)
This is a complicated idea - we know what sin is, and we're told not to sin. Yet every day, in so many ways, we do sin. Yet John, and Paul, and so many other authors, tell us that, in that event, grace covers that sin, and it is plentiful. But, we shouldn't be casual in sinning simply because we have grace. This tension is covered so well by Bonhoeffer in "The Cost of Discipleship" (if you haven't read it, you should). But my point is this - we ALL sin. All of us, from the pope down to the worst hypocrite. And we all need grace to cover our sins.
I've rambled far too long, and I'm sure many of you have dropped off by now. I can't blame you. But if you've gotten this far, thank you. And here is my conclusion - when we try to box people in by getting them to define what sins are tolerable and what sins are intolerable, we are totally blowing it as Christians. Jesus preferred the company of thieving tax collectors and professional whores to the religious elite. He didn't say they were better, and He didn't say they were worse.
In another blog, Pavlovitz talks about how his church has more gay youth than any other church he knows of. Affirming or no (I don't know, and that's not the point here), his church has created an environment in which those who are among the least likely to attend church have a place where they feel safe and can hear about Jesus. That's an amazing thing.
I know that there are some who will read this and say, "Look at Brad - he left the UPC and now he'll just accept any sort of sin because he doesn't know the truth anymore" or "he's just saying this to justify his own pet sins." Be careful. I've never said that, and I certainly don't believe that. But the Bible is clear: if you confess your sins and repent - no matter what the sins are! - Jesus is faithful and just to forgive you. I'm not perfect. You're not perfect. None of us are sinless. But when we confess and repent, our relationship with Jesus is restored.
The first responsibility of the church is to share the gospel - the sower going out to sow. The gospel is simple: "We're all sinners, and as such, we deserve to die. Jesus came, was greater than sin, and then took our punishment on Himself and died in our place. Through Him, we can have eternal life. There's nothing we do to earn it or deserve it - it is a gift bestowed on us by Jesus. He died in our place, and we are made righteous because of it." The only proper response to this is humility, not judgment, bickering, infighting, or division.