SATAN WINS, TAILS YOU LOSE
by Robert Tarr
This essay discusses “sin”, a concept that has nearly disappeared from western culture, and is neglected by the Christian church. The concept of sin is central to an accurate understanding of God and His plan, to successful and safe living on earth and to an expansion of God‘s kingdom on earth. The idea of sin is so distasteful to our current culture that it is difficult to discuss it. Furthermore, since the “fire and brimstone” approach to Christianity is associated with American church evils such as witch hunts and slavery, even the Christian culture has an aversion to the concept of sin.
Sin is an entity that is described by God as part of His revelation to humans. It is defined in relation to God in that sin is described as a force that leads humans to disobey God. It is a force in humans that is opposed to God, hostile to God and the enemy of God. Without first realizing that there is a God and that He has commands, and that He demands that humans obey Him then the concept of sin doesn’t make sense.
There is a new spirituality emerging on earth today. It can be seen in secular realms within phenomenon such as the global information unification of all humans seen in the web and in the rejection of the European system of male chauvinism, imperialism, colonization and slavery, The new spirituality can also be seen in religious circles as a rejection of narrow legalistic and arrogant Christianity and in an embracing of tolerance and unification. It can be seen in theology as a rejection of the idea that Jesus is the only way to heaven and in an embracing of universalism. That is, in an embracing of the belief that all religions lead to heaven and that all humans will eventually end up in heaven. Connected to universalism is an abandonment of the concept of sin.
Thus it is important that we closely examine the concept of sin. There appears to be a slowly forming divergence in human spiritual thought concerning the concept of sin. Some are abandoning the concept and some are seeing its centrality in the message of Jesus. It is therefore timely that we each reexamine our beliefs about sin.
THE REVELATION OF SIN IN THE BIBLE:
Sin is a central concept in God’s revelation to humans, through both the Jewish people and through the teachings of Jesus and his followers.
Looking first at the Old Testament, we see immediately that God created humans in His image, but that through Satan and disobedience the humans “fell” and were changed. Not only were humans cursed and driven from God’s presence, but they had a new force to contend with. In the story of Cain we see this introduced: before Cain killed his brother Abel God came to him and said “sin is laying at the door and he desires you, but you must master him”. We know what happened; and the rest of the old testament is a chronicle of the power of sin and the helplessness of humans to master it.
John the baptist in one place describes Jesus’ ministry of incarnation on earth like this: “behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. Again it is said “now, at the end of the time of this world Jesus has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Of the Holy Spirit Jesus said that “when I send Him He will convince the world of sin.”
Paul has a long and serious discussion of sin in the first 8 chapters of his letter to the Romans. In it we learn many important truths about sin. First, we learn that all humans have the power of sin in them, whether they are “Jewish or gentile.” This means that all humans, regardless of culture, education, religion, race, intelligence, training, understanding, technology or political environment have the power of sin within them. Second, we learn that “the Law” cannot free a person from the sin power within them. That is, even when we are informed of what God wants we cannot consistently obey Him. The human power of choice is not strong enough, on its own, to keep God’s commandments. Paul sums this up by saying that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Thirdly, we learn that this sin power is inherited as a sin nature. That is, sin is inherent in human nature. Sin is not learned. Fourth, we are taught that this inheritance started with Adam and his sin and has been passed down in its full power until the death of Christ. Fifthly, we see that in Christ the sin nature is conquered by the nature of God which now can live within us. Sixth, we are warned that the sin nature is not removed from us, but that now we are not in debt to it; that in Christ sin will no longer have dominion over us. Lastly we are shown that only as Christ lives within us and as we yield to Him can we walk in victory over sin and be free from its dominance. “Those that are led by God are the children of God.”
Just think about what this means for a second: all the evil in the world today that you can think of, from your own failures to global thermonuclear war stems from a force within us, inherent in humans, called sin.
The secular world view does not include a concept of sin. Humans are aware of sin and its effects, but they will not admit that sin is an inherent power within them that opposes God. In consequence we have counterfeit concepts in secular culture that explain the evil in the world.
One such counterfeit concept is “ignorance”. Now, there is no doubt that ignorance and a lack of education and training in cultural values causes a great deal of harm. The power of the will applied through education and training can make for a more “civilized” people and a stabilized society. However, it does not get rid of sin. How many examples of corrupt royalty, elected leaders, academics, and higher class people does it take to illustrate this? The history of civilization should suffice to show that knowledge, training and culturization does not produce a people free of sin.
Another counterfeit concept is the related idea that humans are intrinsically good, but wounded and twisted by their surroundings. Many attempts at utopian communities have stumbled on this rock. Never in the history of the world has a person or group been able to produce an environment that fostered selfless people. The same human plagues emerged in all attempts at psychological or cultural programs to protect children from damage and to “release the good within”.
A more recent explanation of evil in the world is the idea that humans have neurochemical imbalances that force them to do wrong. The classic example of this is the model of alcoholism. Thus, if a person has a genetic predisposition to alcohol addiction, then that person gets swept into destructive patterns of drinking. That is, it is a physical illness. The person is innocent, not guilty, just sick. Now, in one sense this is true: all humans have a predisposition to one sort of evil or another. Sin is not a uniform product. But the list if “illnesses” is growing, until now we have sex addicts, work-a-holics, sociopaths, humility deficit disorder, work aversion disorder, and political truth deficit speaking disorder. The point is this: the concept of sin is absent in our culture, and with it’s loss we also lose responsibility, accountability and reform.
The new spirituality that is emerging today has several streams that are denying the concept of sin. One stream, echoing the secular thinking on the subject is the substitution of a psychological concept for the concept of sin. Borrowing from psychology and psychiatry, many Christians are more comfortable talking about the subconscious and neurochemistry than about a sin nature. In one way this is healthy, given that many Christians are unaware of darkness within them, but this subtle substitution has a large price tag. The most immediate consequence of adopting the scientific and humanistic worldview of human “dysfunction” is the collapse of all evil into the framework of illness. For a further discussion of these issues, see the articles in the New Day Monk Writers Club section on inner healing.
Another stream, and even more dangerous, is the movement away from orthodox Christian belief and an outright denial of basic Christian doctrine, from sin, through salvation, to eternal judgment. In both the Protestant emerging church movement and in the Catholic spiritual directors movement we see shadows and hear undertones of heresy. Even though neither group will directly deny an essential doctrine, such as the divinity of Jesus and the incarnation, they often skirt around these issues and appear to be teaching a new gospel. In this paper we will look at an example of questionable Catholic writing and will not examine the Protestant emerging church movement. For a further discussion of the Protestant flirtation with heresy see Jim Belcher’s book “Deep Church”.
The presence of heresy in the Catholic retreat movement, and the Catholic spiritual directors movement is less of a surprise than it is in the Protestant evangelical world. All “high church” systems, whether Protestant established denominations or the Roman Catholic Church attract liberal minded people, and such people are less inclined to see the value of Orthodoxy than their more conservative low church counterparts. What is really surprising is the more recent trend where Roman Catholic leaders, laity and clergy alike, are unafraid to teach in a way that denies their own authorities. The official Roman Catholic teaching wing has always been orthodox. Even when practice betrayed doctrine, such as the abuses of the medieval church that Luther identified, the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church has always defended orthodoxy. What we see now though is an “emerging” group of Catholic teachers that are gaining popular support and are challenging the official view. For example, if you carefully compare the solid doctrinal position of people like Father John Corapi, Rev. Ron Rolheiser or the apologists on the Catholic Answers Live radio show and compare them to people like Richard Rohr, Joan Chittister, or the authors often featured in the National Catholic Reporter then you can see that there are 2 divergent groups of authority within the Catholic Church that are differing on important doctrines.
For example, consider this commentary, taken from FOSIL (Faithful of Southern Illinois) on the current debate in the Catholic church on which direction to move from Vatican II; “back” to a male dominated clergy, or “forward” to autonomy of local woman religious orders (“religious sisters” loosely translates to “nuns”) who would follow their conscience and their local authority: “The good news of the Kingdom, or Reign, of God applies to the here-and-now, and those who proclaim that good news do so in a compassionate, not judgmental, manner, just as Jesus himself acted when he confronted the religious authorities in defense of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Thus, the ministry of religious to people suffering insoluble conflicts of conscience or caught in impossible life situations, is not rebellion or insubordination but a carefully discerned and courageous fidelity to their primary ministerial vocation: to mediate the good news of God’s compassion and justice to people in concrete conditions. Sisters are not clerics. Their non-clerical statues…has extremely important implications for their prophetic ministry of which many in the church are unaware or about which they are ill-informed. A cleric makes a promise of obedience to his ecclesiastical superiors and his successors. Religious do not. They make vows to God alone, in the presence of their superiors, to lead the religious life. In the concrete, this means that religious, unlike the clergy, are not agents of the institutional church as Jesus was not an agent of institutional Judaism.” Regardless of which side you favor in this debate it should be obvious that one consequence of abandoning the authority of the male clergy is to risk abandoning the Orthodox doctrine that has been passed down and protected by these men. Thus a characteristic of many of those favoring liberation from rigid ancient authority structures within the church is a simultaneous liberation from Orthodox doctrine. One such doctrine being abandoned is the doctrine of sin.
AN EXAMPLE OF DANGEROUS INCAUTION TOWARDS ORTHODOXY:
To illustrate some of these issues we will look at a few passages from “Radical Amazement” by Judy Cannato. Judy Cannato is a leading Catholic spokesperson for the emerging spirituality. “Radical Amazement” is a book that draws spiritual inspiration from analogies between contemplative spirituality and post modern astronomy. The book has many great insights and truths in it, and can be a valuable learning experience. In many ways this book reflects the forward move (and most likely future wave ) of God towards a form of Christianity that is based on really knowing Jesus and away from a human authority structure. But, like so many current Catholic spiritual expositions it is incautious about departing from orthodox truths. Consider:
Now, this is a well written, deep, valuable and understandable piece of writing. It gives a much more tangible sense of inner darkness than is found in the vast majority of conservative church writings. So, why find fault in it? This answer is that when we remove the concept of sin from our understanding of God it causes a cascade of problems. Let’s examine these problems: First, when we move from “sin” to “shadow” (or any similar formulation) we lose the sense of guilt and wrongness supplied in the concept of sin. This is in fact one of the goals of psychological substitution: an attempt to move from shame and condemnation to a less toxic explanation for our mixed motives and actions. In a legalistic form of Christianity an admission of “sin” within us is indeed shameful; it implies merely a lack of effort or devotion. However, a proper understanding of the forgiveness of sin reveals that power over sin is also found to be a part of the atonement. Gaining power over sin is not accomplished, however, by merely knowing what God wants and merely applying the will to obey His commands. Such a legalistic approach is clearly debunked in the New Testament. There we learn that becoming “dead to sin” requires a power that is released by recognizing the power of sin and becoming dependent of God and not on the mind. The answer to sin then is gain power over sin, not to deny its existence. These thoughts are amplified in later parts in this series. For now though it is important to point out that God’s anger over sin is real, and our guilt as humans is real. Any attempt to remove sin as a concept undercuts the need for a savior. Without sin there is no need for redemption. Without an angry God there is no need for Jesus to be a propitiation.
Second, if we don’t need a blood sacrifice to propitiate an angry God then there is no need for Jesus to be sacrificed. His death then becomes merely an example for us to follow. A model of selfless love. Atonement is more than an example; it is a door to a new life.
Third, if we don’t need a perfect sacrifice then it isn’t really so important that Jesus be sinless. If Jesus is not an incarnation then God doesn’t have to be his father. Joseph (or someone else) can be his father. He is merely an enlightened human. Jesus need not be the eternal word. He can be a created being.
Fourth, if Jesus is not fully God, then he was just another in a string of people sent by God to teach us. Jesus and Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Confucius and Mohammed are all prophets, sending us the same message. Now, granted, in these times of globalization, diversity and tolerance there is a growing realization that Christendom has not produced remarkably superior moral cultures compared to the cultures springing from other world religions. It is tempting to confuse Jesus with his church. Nevertheless, Jesus, by his own teachings, is set apart and distinguished from all other people that ever lived or will ever live. He himself sets himself apart as God. If we lose this important distinction we risk losing all that flows from it: conversion, new birth, receiving the Holy Spirit, being led by the Spirit and (finally) overcoming sin.
Consider a few more passages from Radical Amazement:
Did Jesus merely teach us a new way or did he “condemn sin in the flesh” and rise to become Lord of the universe, to return again to earth, this time judge? Did Jesus come into being when he was born on earth? Do humans need to be redeemed from Satan and sin by the price of the perfect sacrifice? Do humans need to be born again and receive a new nature, or can they learn to walk in Love without first having the sin within them dealt a death blow?
Let us look at one more passage, this time showing that without understanding that “the rest of mankind are children of wrath” the removal of the concept of sin leads to a belief in the universal salvation of all humans through a continued development of the evolution of the human race:
So, we say that we are viewing the emergence of a new spirituality. It is not all negative or heretical. In fact the new spirituality is, thankfully, addressing the abuses of the historic church and will hopefully lead to a more faithful witness. Many flavors are contributing to this emergence. Works like those quoted above have much to offer, but the incaution displayed towards orthodox and important Christian truth needs to be seen for the deception that it is. Retaining a clear understanding of basic central Christian doctrine will prevent a lot of trouble as we move into the future. Retaining the truth about sin in our thinking is part of the protection we need to bring the message of Jesus to the world without offending the Spirit of Grace and denying the Lord that bought us. In subsequent essays in the series entitled “God, Christianity and the New Spirituality” (Found in this same New Day Monk “Writers Club”) we will examine some of the other foundational Christian doctrines that follow from the concept of sin: salvation, grace, works, judgment and eternity. All of these concepts will need to be reexamined in the move towards a new spirituality;
Emerging and liberal thinkers, authors and speakers have a lot to offer us. Just as the more conservative members of the body must protect orthodoxy and guard against a distortion of the gospel so the liberal members of the body must teach us about cultural diversity, community, the centrality of love in the gospel, social justice and the practice of humility. We need each other as we move into the new spirituality that God is bringing into the world.
CAN WE PLEASE LEARN FROM HISTORY?
The history of Christianity is marred by frequent divisions. Obviously the Protestant Reformation resulted in a division of the church, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. As far back the early turf wars between the bishops of Alexandria and the bishops of Antioch politics has marred honest disagreement over doctrine. The sad truth is that division has stained the Church throughout its history and “selfish ambition and vanity” have been mixed in with confusion over the paradoxical nature of God’s revealed truth since New Testament times. Even John the apostle complained (3rd John 9) about “ego” in the leadership of the Church.
Currently though there is a tendency for Christians to again polarize into 2 camps. This time though the issues are deeper than geography, ethnicity or personalities. The issue at stake now is basic to Christian belief. It really comes down to this: What is a true Christian? Who is saved? One camp is concentrated in the liberal high church (both Catholic and liturgical protestant denominations) and in the emergent protestant church. The other camp is concentrated in the conservative reformed, evangelical and “Bible based” churches.
“Liberal” minded people are inclined to recognize that worldliness includes institutional evils such as racism, abusive hierarchical authority systems, arrogance and self service disguised as leadership. Obviously God is opposed to such evils. “Conservative” minded people stress personal responsibility, morality and Orthodox Christian doctrine. Obviously God approves of these virtues. Both sides have an important truth.
However, to choose one side or the other is to fail to remain in the full truth of God. Such a split decision is really like a coin toss with the Devil: Heads he wins, tails you lose.