It used to be common to hear messages condemning sin and warning of its consequences. Now most religious messages pass over the uncomfortable reality of sin to focus on "feel-good" themes. What is happening to Christianity—and is it missing a crucial part of Christ's message?
Most Americans claim to be religious, yet the nation flounders around for spiritual meaning. As reported in USA Today, researchers compiling the American Religious Identification Survey have discovered some profound shifts in attitudes towards religion.
One discovery is that many Americans are moving away from traditional Christianity. Adherents to Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are on the rise. Even the number of people claiming to be Wiccans, self-proclaimed witches, jumped from 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001.
Barry Kosmin, one of the researchers involved in the survey, concludes, "More people see religious identity as a recreational option." Has religion become a recreational activity like a day at the beach or attending a baseball game? Has the nation drifted so far from its spiritual moorings?
In response to religious pluralism, mainstream Christianity is going through profound changes, with many churches becoming a sort of doctrinal pick-and-choose smorgasbord more in tune with pop culture, political correctness and accommodating personal lifestyles than the solid teachings of the Bible.
There was a time when ministers in most Christian denominations taught parishioners to fear sin and its consequences. Messages about sin and resulting judgment were known as "hellfire and brimstone" sermons. The preacher would describe the horrors of punishment in an everlasting hellfire and call on the audience to accept Jesus and save their souls.
American Protestantism is grounded in a history of religious motivation through the fear of unforgiven sin. In the mid-1700s the American colonies experienced the "Great Awakening"—a religious revival spurred by itinerant preachers. They crisscrossed colonies working audiences into frenzied crying and shouting by describing the torments of hell.
While it's still possible to occasionally find tracts placed in restaurant restrooms or convenience stores proclaiming eternal damnation for those who refuse to turn to God, for the most part religion in American society has changed over the past century.
A majority of ministries today center their message on God's mercy and love.
The extreme of fear religion has been replaced with a call that "Jesus loves you and accepts you just the way you are."
But what happened to sin? Our pluralistic society seems to believe that the greatest sin of all is to judge the actions of another person. Some have gone so far as to claim that anyone judging homosexual acts, abortion or premarital sex as sin is breaking Jesus' command to not judge.
Is God concerned with sin? If the Son of God came to earth as a human being to die as a substitute for us paying for our own sins (and He did!), then sin should be an important subject to those who profess to follow Jesus Christ. It surely is important to God.
In the quest to experience God's mercy, has the apostle Paul's teaching that "the wages of sin is death" been misplaced? Talking about sin isn't a popular message, but it's a very important subject to understand for those who want to know what separates us from God and destroys us mentally, physically and spiritually (see Isaiah:59:1-15).
To find real solutions to your problems and genuine healing of your heartaches, you will have to face what God says about sin in your life. You may have attended a church for decades, been baptized or even had a "born again" experience. But if you haven't faced up to and dealt with sin in your life, you're still not right with God.
A biblical definition of sin
But what is sin? The apostle John gives this definition: "Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness" (1 John:3:4). According to John, one of Jesus' closest disciples, sin relates directly to God's law.
The apostle Paul writes in Romans:7:7: "Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, 'You shall not covet.'"
God's law defines sin. Many have been taught that Jesus freed Christians from all law, but the apostle Paul, whose writings emphasize God's grace, clearly shows that God defines sin by means of His law. Without the knowledge of His law, there is no way to know what separates human beings from God and destroys their lives.
Some religious teachers preach that the gospel of Christ negates any need for laws—especially those contained in the Old Testament. But what is the relationship between the gospel message of Jesus Christ and the law of God?
Paul answers this question in 1 Timothy:1:8-11: "But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God . . . "
Thus, a biblical authority no less than the apostle Paul says that the law of God defines what is "contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel." Does this mean that the Christian's only duty is to observe the letter of biblical laws? No, as both Jesus and Paul stressed the importance of the spirit of the law as well.
The spirit of the law
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus plainly stated His position on the law: "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law and the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.
"Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew:5:17-19).
Jesus Christ taught that He didn't come to abrogate divine law. Rather, He came to expound and exemplify the spiritual intent of God's law (see Isaiah:42:21). Notice Jesus' words in Matthew:5:21-22: "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.' But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment."
He continued: "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (verses 27-28).
The spirit of the law isn't a list of wrong actions, but reveals the motivating thoughts and emotions that cause the actions. When we understand the spirit of the Ten Commandments, we realize that when someone commits murder, the sin had already taken root in the person's mind before the act. The spirit of the law exposes hatred and malice, covetousness and lust, which are aspects of the heart and mind.
Sin is a selfish state of mind seated in our natural desires. That's why Paul writes in Romans:8:7 that "the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be."
To follow the spirit of the law, a person must first be willing to sincerely accept responsibility for the destructive actions, thoughts and emotions that God calls sin —and be willing to forsake them. This is the true repentance that results in God's merciful forgiveness! GN