Whatever happened to the word “sin”?

Although almost every sermon in my childhood church centered on sin, the word has vanished in the years since.

I have a resistance to the word sin. It has a slithery, reptilian sound to it, and for me the word summons up memories from my past, when heavy-breathing Southern revivalists would drawl the word in a two-syllable fury. “See-yun,” they would shout, and raise their fists against the devil’s agent that crouched inside us.

As a child, I trembled when I heard about sin. My concept of God was forming as I listened to the angry preachers. I did not think of God as Father, for my own father had died just after my first birthday and I had no experience to draw on. God more resembled a policeman, or a scowling teacher eager to catch me in some wrongdoing. The great Enforcer would bring down swift and terrible punishment on all who misbehaved. Church members cruelly fanned those fears when they told me that my earthly father, now in heaven, was looking down day and night to spy out my hidden sins.

Although almost every sermon in my childhood church centered on sin, the word has vanished in the years since then.

Later, in teenage years, I got downright cynical about the fixation with sin. I remember one summer camp meeting when the visiting speaker, a fervent young student from Bob Jones University, strove to get every person present to come forward in an altar call. We sang four verses of “Just As I Am” while he coaxed the unrepentant to receive Christ. He then gradually expanded the invitation to encompass other needs. Soon, fully two-thirds of the audience had come forward to kneel at the front. I glanced wistfully at the corrugated tin roof overhead, because sometimes a summer thunderstorm would blow through, unleashing a downpour that rattled the roof so loudly the meeting had to adjourn. Not tonight.

“If you just feel a need for someone to pray with you, we have counselors standing by,” the speaker entreated. Another trickle made their way forward. Finally, the clincher. “I have one last invitation. Now listen carefully. Any of you with unconfessed sin in your life — any sin whatsoever — God is calling you to come forward and confess it.” Campers streamed down the aisles as he went through a list of suggestions: “A careless word, perhaps . . . a flash of anger . . . a lukewarmness in your spiritual life. Have you looked on anyone with lust this week? Have you thought ill of anyone?” The stream became a flood as the pianist gallantly pounded away on yet another refrain.

This was my sixth straight week at camp and every other week I had gone forward at the final service. Tonight, my soul was calloused. Eventually, only two of us remained standing in the large auditorium.

I edged closer to my friend Rodney for moral support as the pianist began yet another round of verses. Fellow campers kneeling down front glared back at us in irritation; we were, after all, delaying the evening’s round of refreshments and games. “I don’t know, Rodney,” I whispered, “I can’t think of any sins tonight, can you?”

“No unconfessed ones,” he replied with a tight grin. The two of us held out until at last the revivalist gave up, said a closing prayer, and called it a night.

As I now look back on that scene, I realize that I completely missed the point of the Christian concept of sin. I envisioned God as a frowning Enforcer rather than a loving Creator who desires the best for us in life, with sin as the main obstacle preventing it. I missed any sense of sin as a negative marker pointing toward life as it is meant to be — a telling rumor of another world.

A misconception of sin has turned people away from faith. Nathaniel Hawthorne reacted against the stern judgment of New England Puritans by writing stories that exposed their hypocrisy. John Muir fled the harshness of his Scottish Presbyterian father, who scorned his son’s interest in nature as frivolous and ungodly, and “made every duty dismal.” George Orwell lost his faith at an English boarding school where the staff beat him and condemned him as a sinner every time he wet the bed. Instead of helping people understand the world, the notion of sin alienated them.

Coming from a sin-saturated upbringing myself, I read such accounts with great sympathy. At various times, the church has hammered away at “original sin” while ignoring the presence of an original grace in which God provided the cure for sin even before it occurred. That risky act of rescue — “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” — lies at the heart of Christian belief. “God is love,” proclaims the Bible in absolute terms, which seems a very long way from my childhood image of God as stern Enforcer.

Something strange has occurred in more recent times, however. Although almost every sermon in my childhood church centered on sin, the word has vanished in the years since then. I seldom come across the word these days in Christian books or magazines, rarely hear it railed against from the pulpit, never hear it mentioned on network television. Politicians, who often speak in the language of morality, hardly ever invoke the word sin. Fear of sin, the dominant force of my childhood, has nearly disappeared.

Christians have a most realistic view of humanity, believing that human beings have failed, are failing, and will always fail.

In retrospect, my early encounters with the word sin seem to belong to another planet. Psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a book titled Whatever Became of Sin? and the answer today is more elusive than ever. Menninger’s question poses a challenge to modern culture. Christians did not invent the concept of sin, after all. Anthropologists find something similar, acts of wrongdoing that cause a sense of guilt, in every culture. How did this most basic insight into human nature simply vanish from the radar screen of modern thought? And what are we missing if we delete the word from our vocabulary?

Today, although we hear about a health crisis associated with promiscuous sex and drug abuse, or the problem of illegitimate births, or the social injustice of poverty and homelessness, we do not often hear the word sin. Try dropping sin into a conversation on these topics, and you will see what I mean.

Modern society is caught in a dilemma. We can afford to be optimistic about human nature, those of us who live in prosperous nations with strong economies and ever-rising life expectancies. We don’t want to come across as moralistic and judgmental, and yet we keep encountering contradictory signs of disturbance. The alcoholic down the street beats his wife and wrecks the car. A woman confides that sexual abuse by her father has made her suspicious and angry toward all men. A security camera at a shopping mall records a man abandoning his three-year-old son. Gang members in New York “brand” their women with heated coat hangers. Much as we would wish otherwise, we have a deep, inescapable sense that something is wrong with the world, with our neighbors, and even with ourselves.

*

Christians have a most realistic view of humanity, believing that human beings have failed, are failing, and will always fail.

As I review my own pilgrimage of faith, I find it has mirrored the schizophrenia of the larger culture. Sometimes I am dominated by sin-consciousness, sometimes I rebel vigorously against it, often I avoid thinking about it altogether. I do recall, though, that amid all the unhealthiness of my childhood church one unmistakable message seared itself deep inside me: What I do matters. More, what I do matters to God, who created this world and set the rules we disregard at our peril. Somehow, I must keep that conviction in the foreground of my life.

“Character is how you behave when no one is looking,” a child psychiatrist once told me.  He went on to say that psychopaths, crooks, and thieves do what they do because in their heads “no one is looking.” I have often thought of his remark, not in the way he meant it but in the way Jesus must have meant when he prayed that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. God, after all, is always looking. I now envision God not so much as a policeman upstairs watching my every move but rather as a Spirit within, coaxing me to realize fully what I was created to be in the first place.

Adapted from Philip Yancey’s book A Skeptic’s Guide to Faith. His latest book is The Question That Never Goes Away.

 

Image courtesy of shoobydooby.

Philip Yancey
Written by

  • reader_gl

    “inescapable sense that something is wrong with the world”. This sense is God, who speaks to your soul.

    The Christian Bible doesn’t say, that God is love. The Bible says that YOU should love your neighbor as yourself. You (not God) should love bad teachers of your childhood and pray for them. When you pray for them, you name them by their exact name and scrupolously enumerate their misdeeds and finally say: I forgive you. Did you?

    If not, it’s your minor sin.

    • Brian Kornelis

      I’m not exactly sure what you’re getting at, but your initial assertion is inaccurate – 1 John 4.8 “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

      • reader_gl

        Because God is cheerfulness. The love which St.John is talking about in 1 John 4.8 is of the sort: we’d love you to come to dinner.

        Difficulty of translation. I wish the word agape re-took its legitimate place.

        It would be more practical if all the meanings of unknown word ‘agape’ will be subject of sermons and explanations, rather than quarrelling about what the commonly used word ‘love’ should mean to you and to your landlord and to other people from the street.

        • Mark Edwards

          1 John 4:8 – oti o Theos agape estin – because God is love. Pretty clear.

          • reader_gl

            2 Corinthians 6:6 en agape anypokrito

            Douay-Rheims Bible in charity unfeigned

            Sagradas Escrituras 1569 en caridad no fingida

            [hypocrisy is in behaviour, not in the feelings]

          • Mark Edwards

            John 17:26 )in part) ina eh agape en ha’gapemas meh ehn autois, eh kago ehn autois. “so that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I in them.” It’s not our human love (or feelings) but the love or power of love of God that we are called to live out. Loving someone who sins against you or others is definitely not a human response!

          • reader_gl

            John 17:26 + “trial rephrasing” above = the offered invitation will be returned to you and God will be in it; more or less. It’s about human acts, no metaphysics altogether (as regards ‘agape’).

  • Wesley David Rees

    I agree with Mr. Yancey. We have toned down the sin talk in most churches. Failure, mistake are words substituted now for sin. It is uncanny how close the church he grew up in sounds like the church of my childhood as well. Thanks to him, I have come to see God as a loving Father and Forgiver of my sin. Thanks again, Mr. Yancey!

  • bm

    Christians fail?.. another reason to jump ship.

  • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

    The reason the word has dropped from common vernacular is the tide of secularism. There are now a significant minority of non-religious people worldwide (~16%, third behind christianity and islam) to whom the word ‘sin’ is meaningless. Among the different religions of the world, the word has different meanings depending on whatever the holy scripture derides.

    As to why it’s even evaporated from the intra-christian media and experience, I’m not sure. It’s probably in part a result of the changing world discourse.

  • Citizen_Jerry

    The word sin has vanished because it makes people uncomfortable. Lukewarm Laodiceans don’t want to feel uncomfortable. The just want someone to tickle their ears while they skip merrily down the road to perdition.

  • george canady

    Thanks Philip. I haven’t seen or heard anything from you since I discovered reformed theology six or so years ago. I was surprise to find you on the gospel coalition. Thanks for this as I travel down the road of sanctification. P.S. I applaud the TGC for allowing open documented criticism of the puritans. I think it is healthy to honor as well expose our spiritual fathers. I think to cover for them only make us look suspect.

  • gimpi1

    The problem I have with the concept of sin is it so often has nothing to do with actual harm. According to many Christians, you can “sin” without hurting anything, by having sexual thoughts, by being gay and falling in love, by taking the Lord’s name in vain, by not believing the same things they do. Islamic and Jewish “sin” lists include what and how you eat and what you wear. None of this makes you kinder, more honest, less prone to anger or selfishness. Likewise, you can do bad things, treat people badly and not “sin” as most religious people define it. The concept of sin seems to me to have very little to do with doing helpful or harmful things.

    • Mark Edwards

      Torah – Ten Commandments for Christians – expressly calls sinful (or disobedient) such things as not honoring one’s parents, committing adultery, bearing false witness, coveting the relationships and property of others – not just things you actually commit. Bottom line for Christians, sin in trusting your life in something other than God.

  • Salero21

    So… they centered on the outer ring of Sin but missed the target center, which IS the Love of God for the sinners showed in Christ Jesus. Really, really people!!