Sin Management is Too Small to be Gospel

(this pic came up in my google image search for “sin management”…funny)

Have you ever heard the phrase “gospel of sin management”? I don’t remember where I heard it first or to whom to credit this pithy little title. I do remember Dallas Willard deconstructing this view of gospel in his book The Divine Conspiracy (which I don’t have handy to reference right now). Basically this “gospel” arises in the context where we (rightly) take the sin and brokenness in ourselves and the world seriously. However we then (erroneously – in my opinion) dive into a faith life dedicated to eradicating sin, living pure, etc.

Erroneous? How can you say that Bret??? Shall we go on sinning that grace may abound?

I’ll agree with Paul’s response to those questions – By no means! (read Romans 6 if you aren’t familiar with that reference)

The problem isn’t that we take sin seriously and want to see it eradicated from our lives. The problem is that we begin to believe that if we just take God’s commands seriously enough we will flee from temptation and live holy and pure lives. “Our only hope is obedience,” one author says. 

Well, sorta. I agree that we should very carefully seek to put into practice what we have seen and heard from God, the Scriptures and from the community of believers who all call us (as Paul did in Ephesians 4) to live lives worthy of the calling we have received.

But will all of this really be accomplished by our obedience? What a human centered way of looking at life! Even the statement that God’s grace makes room for our obedience to take hold still assumes that God is passive – he removes the barriers so that we will come to him through our faithful obedience.

What if, instead, we understood God to be putting the pieces back together ACTIVELY? What if God himself were transforming us from within, writing his covenant on our hearts, as it were? (That’s a reference to Jeremiah…check out chapter 31.) What if God called us and sent us not just so that other people would receive salvation from sin and death but so that our own salvation would truly take root? What if the salvation we’re speaking of here refers to so much more than just heaven after we die? What if God were at work, right now today, putting creation back together? 

And what if sin isn’t the point at all? What if sin were merely a reflection of what happens in a person, group of people or a culture that has lost community with God? (Perceptive people will note a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg problem there…we can discuss that later if you want.)

What if we understood sin as the result of not trusting that God really has our best interest at heart? If we saw sin as the result of us moving away from God, then would treating the specific effects of sin (addictions, anger, greed, lust or whatever) be effective at treating the cause?

What if obedience was not what led us to transformation and relationship with God, but the other way around? What if falling into the arms of the Father who has run down the road to greet us actually leads to the transformation that naturally results in living out of our new self? What if we understood obedience as the natural response to a life in community with God, just as sin is the natural result of a life out of community with God?

David Fitch is rapidly moving up the list of my favorite writers/thinkers/practitioners. I was jumping up and down in the bagel shop this morning as I read this particular quote from his blog

This to me is the problem of inviting an alcoholic into an alcoholics anonymous meeting. The goal becomes overcoming alcoholism. And the alcoholics together largely stay within the frame of other alcoholics calling on Jesus (or another higher power) to achieve a personal goal. Instead all we sin-aholics of all kinds must be invited into a community of God’s all-encompassing Mission, His Story of reconciling the whole world into Himself thereby redeeming all of creation. In the process, every part of our lives (including our addictions) are re-oriented into a way of life born out of the salvation in Christ.

So let me end by saying this (because I have several people in mind who are probably throwing things at the wall right now!): I do not take obedience to the teachings of Jesus lightly nor do I think they are somehow peripheral issues. I would say that it is one of  my foundational beliefs that our contact and interaction with the Good News leads to a life lived in response. 

I do however disagree with the statement, “Our only hope is obedience.” 

I think the author of that quote would agree that actually our only hope is God, so that isn’t how I’d rephrase his statement. I believe that our only hope is restoration of community with God…which leads to transformation…which leads to obedience. Obedience is important but it comes as a result of being transformed. 

Let’s seek that transformation together. As Fitch said, “In the process, every part of our lives…are reoriented into a way of life.”


Posted on March 7, 2009, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. What?! You were at the bagel shop and not Denny’s?!When you lay it all out like that it seems so simple, so do-able. Yet we still continue to mess things up. Thank you for pointing out and reminding us that it really isn’t just up to us, our God is bigger than that…

  2. In some ways I think it is actually very simple, though it is never easy. The danger in pointing out this focus on transformation is that people may believe that I’m suggesting we sit around and wait to be holy before we address the way we live. That isn’t my point at all. We are called to response and action – a call which certainly leads us to order our lives around the principles of God’s Kingdom. We are dependent on the transformation that comes from God in order for our hearts, minds and spirits to be repaired…but our actions are still important.I have no problem saying that we should engage the difficult life of obedience even if we are still far from transformed – we just need to recognize that our focus on the management of sin is merely a stall – stemming the blood loss while the doctor prepares for surgery. No matter how well you wrap a bandage around a partially amputated finger, your efforts are temporary and only serve to protect the body until the surgeon can reattach the finger.That doesn’t mean that you should just let the finger bleed since its the surgeon who will do the real work…

  3. Would it be fair to say we (with God) are “practicing” transformation?

  4. Yeah I think there are several “active verbs” that would fit: practicing, pursuing, seeking – all of which emphasize that the transformation is something which originates outside of us but is not something which is coercively forced upon us or that we passively receive. Good call Chappy.

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