How the Way We Talk About Sin Can Keep Us From Being Good People

American Christians lost our public credibility when we stopped talking about “virtues and vices.” Few church leaders, and even fewer popular Christian writers and teachers, focus on the development of virtue and resistance to vice. And words create worlds.

Why is language so important? Because without the notion of vice, we are left with few terms to describe our darkness. And the word we choose most often isn’t hefty enough alone to carry the freight of our fallen nature. That word is sin.

You’ve heard it. “Do not sin.” “Sin no more.” “Love the sinner. Hate the sin.”

Sin is serious. Jesus-people ought to take it seriously. Sin leads to death. It distances us from God. But sin has companions, like vice, wickedness, and evil to help describe its depths.

Deploying only the language of sin—a word that has become one-dimensional for us—leaves the church crippled when facing deeper challenges.

We Have Reduced Gospel Transformation to Sin Management

Years ago Dallas Willard, in Divine Conspiracy, warned us about reducing the gospel to sin management:

History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally … When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of the individual’s sins. On the left it is removal of social or structural evils. The current gospel then becomes a “gospel of sin management.” Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message.

Willard was correct in his assessment. Not only have we lost emphasis on the “transformation of life and character,” but we have also failed to name the transformative process for rejecting vice and adopting virtues into our fundamental character. When vice and all other acts of evil are thrown into the sausage press and simply called “sin,” faithful witness has no energy, metric, goal post, or standard to signify a gaping disconnection from God and deepening connection to the dark powers at work in the world. At the same time, we have no words for the development of a deepening and widening connection to God’s preferred future for all creation.

In short, because we only talk about “sin” (and its avoidance), we have nothing further to offer the world for our betterment. We submit no process for discipleship. And worse, we have no means to critique ignobility or behaviors, patterns, and policies that injure the vulnerable or debase the image of God in others. Instead, all we have is a management plan for—maybe—avoiding sin. This is far from the gospel Jesus proclaims: the good news of transformation and new life.

When “Everybody Sins” Becomes A Distraction from Living a Virtuous Life in Jesus

When racism, hatred, sexism, sexual abuse, and mistreatment of the widow, orphan, and foreigner rear their ugly heads, because “we all sin,” Christians are equally likely to marginalize, embrace, ignore, or even legitimize these injustices because we don’t know what else to do with them.

You’ve heard it: “No one is perfect.” “Only God can judge me.” “We all fall short.”

All this colludes to insulate us from transformation. “Everybody sins” dismisses the seriousness of what is a truly vicious way of life. When someone performs a virtuous or vicious act, it really doesn’t matter all that much—because we’re all sinners.

For instance, when a concerned relative, a member of a church small group, a spiritual leader, or anyone else points out the rampant sin in our lives, we puff-up, bristle, get offended, and howl, “But we all sin! Only God can judge me.”

Rather than receiving the invitation to develop Christ-like virtue, “but we all sin” enables us to dodge self-examination and repentance while simultaneously chastising whoever dared judge us by loving us enough to illuminate our sin.

Check. Mate.

No Place Else To Turn

The gospel of sin management flattens transformation. It makes all behaviors meaningless while wearing the fig-leaf of taking sin seriously.

When vice is simmered down to “sin,” Christians are left wordless when political leaders are brazenly offensive, when they degrade others, are recklessly untruthful, ruthlessly grotesque, and sexually debased. “We all sin.” Sin management leaves us without anchor when our Christian sisters and brothers in the business world exploit the poor and marginalized, cook their own books, or embrace greed. “We all sin.” Mum’s the word when we encounter the startling numbers of Christian men addicted to online pornography. “We all sin.”

A friend of mine pastors a church, and like many others, they attempt to utilize small groups to help spiritually form people. Couples in one small group were swinging (spouse-swapping and exploring group sex). When confronted with their vices, they responded that everyone sins and that they would try to stop. This is what sin management does: It blinds us to the corrosion and danger of sin by treating it like the common cold. “We’re all sinners.”

It never occurred to this group that what they were doing wasn’t simply sin, but was initiated by a process of nurturing vices and rejecting virtues. A better question for Christians is not whether something is a sin, but whether or not an attitude or action leads to virtue or vice.

Vice and virtue are what Jesus was seeking in the Sermon on the Mount when he talked about lust. Christians agree that consumption of pornography or swinging is sin. But what about the long stare at an attractive co-worker? We tell ourselves, “It was just a glance.” We’ll comfort ourselves saying it’s “not a sin” because we weren’t acting on our lust, but what would our answer be if we asked whether or not our leer was virtuous? A better question for Christians is not whether something is a sin, but whether or not an attitude or action leads to virtue or vice. Click To Tweet

Virtues and Vices

Virtues are habitual dispositions to the good, the practical side of holiness. Vices are nurtured dispositions, slouching toward debasement.

What could happen if we reclaimed the language of virtue and vice? Could it lead us farther down the gospel road of transformation?

Churches, in an environment of love and grace, can call good “good” and evil “evil.” Armed with the language of vice and virtue, acts good and evil can be named. The virtuous can be celebrated. The vicious can be rebuked.

Sin management is negative and reactionary. It reduces the with-God life to the mere avoidance of the bad. It’s focus is twisted.

Virtues, however, focus us on what God envisions us becoming.

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