Managing Sin or Following Jesus?
Are we following Jesus, or merely managing sin? Nearly two decades ago, Dallas Willard observed:
“History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how we 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.” (The Divine Conspiracy, 41)
He famously blamed this marginalization of the gospel’s impact on our actual lives on the ascendency of “gospels of sin management.”
Gospels of sin management focus on sin rather than Jesus; they start with where we have gone wrong, rather than what God has done in Christ out of love and grace. The result is tragic: rather than living God’s kingdom in its fullness, we manage sin and never really enjoy the kind of life God intends.
The net effect is that we make the gospel about mitigating sin and not about a salvific, lived relationship with God.
If that sounds too much like sophistry, let me go at it another way. Eric Metaxas summed up the life and teaching of the German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer thus: “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”
As Willard goes on to point out, when and where God’s will is done, the Kingdom is present. We pray every Sunday for the Kingdom and often don’t think about it: “Thy Kingdom come ON EARTH as it is in heaven.” In the Lord’s Prayer, forgiveness is there, but the Kingdom – God’s will actively being carried out – is central.
Gospels of sin management come to us in two forms, and distort our visions of the Kingdom accordingly. There is a gospel of sin management on the right, and a gospel of sin management on the left. The conservative version of sin management focuses on personal sin: on moral effort towards (for instance) lying less, having fewer lustful thoughts, or being less prideful. On the right, managing sin is about Jesus atoning for my personal faults so that I can go to heaven.
There is a gospel of sin management on the left as well. Instead of focusing on personal sin, it focuses on social and corporate sin, on structural evil. In this progressive variant on managing sin, Jesus came to overturn injustice, he came as an advocate for the marginalized, and is concerned not so much with my stealing or cheating, but about poverty and homelessness and injustice. Jesus came to help us manage society’s sins and if we get right with Jesus there just might be a little less injustice.
Both of these pervert the Kingdom of God based on their particular visions of the gospel. Like the best lies, they rely on a kernel of truth and wrap it up in great falsehood. Now, lest anyone accuse me of antinomianism (being against moral law), hear me out: personal sin is awful, and against God’s will; structural sin is awful, and against God’s will. But if we only aim at managing sin, we miss the One who is our true life.
Personal sin management turns the Kingdom into a reward on the other side of life, removed from real life except for the knowledge of forgiveness. Social sin management turns the Kingdom into a reward in this life for human effort; instead of the fullness of God’s reign, we celebrate a little less evil in society as if it is the ultimate goal of God.
Both of them fail as gospels in the sense that you can buy into them fully and never have an active, living relationship with Jesus Christ.
When I observe Protestant Christianity in North America, I see us managing sin – left and right – all over the place. I see a lot of Christians fighting over how to alleviate sin, and barely any energy put towards actively following Jesus.
Willard has hit a chord, in my estimation. He was right almost twenty years ago, but we are still getting it wrong. What say you?