I was a fly on the wall for a conversation with some Christian men recently and the subject came up about sin in the world and what an appropriate response to sin is by Christians. Some of the men thought that Christians ought to be taking a tougher stand in declaring what is right and wrong. This, they thought, would not be popular with “the world” but would be absolutely necessary as “loving Christians” to point out sinful actions that lead to hell. Some others thought that the best response would be to be nice and kind to all people and wait for “the world” to see the difference in our lives and ask us what makes us so different.
I think the answer lies somewhere in between these two positions.
To be sure, the world is growing darker and darker. Many sins and vices that were taboo to even think about years ago are now accepted as normal and a part of everyday life. To say there are actual boundaries between right and wrong can acquire the label of a close-minded bigot. Yet this is not the first time the church has found itself surrounded by a culture that is antagonistic to it, and many times in the past it was the church that helped bring about change in that culture for the better.
Jesus said that he would build his church and “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). This is an image of the church on the offensive, not the defensive. It is not an image of evil trying to batter down the doors of a fortress-church. It is the church that is banging down the gates, the strongholds, of evil. But how? Three points come to mind:
1. Jesus, at the heart of his message, calls people to do two things: love God with everything they are and love others. Of course this gets expanded in his parables, the Sermon on the Mount, and the call for his disciples to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow him. But at the core, all of the Gospel message is about love.
2. Jesus told us whose job it is to “convict the world of sin.” The Holy Spirit. Much of the problems the church has today with the image of being self-righteous and judgmental is because we Christians have taken the Holy Spirit’s job for ourselves. Rather than allow God to work in people’s lives, prick their conscience, and convict them of sin, we would rather tell them they are going to hell because of their sinful ways. Perhaps we don’t have enough faith that God will do this, or we think he works too slowly to wait for the Holy Spirit to do his job, or we are trying to avoid the third point.
3. All of the admonitions in the New Testament railing against sin are directed towards those who are already in a relationship with God. Jesus’ ministry is to the Jews, the Covenant People, who ought to know right from wrong and righteousness from sin. Paul’s letters are to Christians in churches already established. His arguments against sin is directed towards those who are Christians already. In fact, there is only one instance in the New Testament where Paul speaks to a group that is not made up of Christians or Jews who know God and God’s standard of right and wrong: his speech in Athens. Nowhere in this speech does Paul give the laundry list of sins that will condemn people to hell. In fact, he takes a very conciliatory tone and uses every possible means of appealing to the people in the hopes of enticing them to further seek Jesus Christ. The harsh language concerning sin is reserved for those in the church, those who ought to know better.
What we are left with, then, is the idea that Christians themselves ought to strive, with the help of God, to overcome sin in their own lives and show love to others. When we do this, the Holy Spirit will convict those outside of the church of their sins and the possibility will be there for true conversion and growth in the Kingdom of God. We don’t condemn people outside of the church, and neither do we just be nice. We seek holiness of heart and life in our own lives and our own congregations, and allow God to be at work in the world.