According to a new LifeWay Research poll, most Americans admit that they are sinners. Some disagree, however, and even those who admit they are sinners have many misconceptions about sin.
Here are five things Americans believe about sin which are dangerous and false from a Christian perspective.
1. Sin does not exist.
While most Americans do believe sin exists, one in ten (10 percent) said that it does not. “Nones,” those who do not identify with any particular religion, proved most likely to say sin does not exist (32 percent).
Technically, sin is offending against God, breaking His moral law. If someone does not believe in God, he or she will not believe in sin, either.
In his book Orthodoxy, Roman Catholic author G.K. Chesterton called sin a fact, “as practical as potatoes.” He argued that original sin “is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”
“If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions,” the Catholic writer argued. “He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.”
The very idea that sin does not exist is preposterous. Adolf Hitler killed over 6 million Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals. Paul Pot in Cambodia killed 2 million of his own people. Joseph Stalin killed at least 20 million through mass slayings and labor camps. China’s Mao Zedong killed an estimated 50 to 70 million people. That’s just the 20th century.
Violence and evil of all kinds spills off the pages of history. The ravages of racism, torture, misogyny, atomic bombs, genocide, and more give the lie to any idea that sin is just a cultural construct.
It may sound nice to say that there is no absolute morality, but if it is true, then there is no objective ground on which to condemn Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Indeed, an atheist would lose even the ability to condemn the violent rape and murder of his own sister as objectively evil.
Sin exists — common sense and Christianity are clear on that.
2. I am not a sinner.
According to the LifeWay poll, most Americans believe that sin exists, and that they are sinners. While one in ten said sin does not exist, only 8 percent said it exists but they are not themselves sinners.
The Bible is clear. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul wrote, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). When Jesus was asked how God wanted human beings to live, he said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
What does it mean to love God wholeheartedly? To dedicate heart, soul, strength, and mind to Him? In Christian theology, Jesus is the example of what it looks like to live a sinless life, and he left his family, preached against the religious leaders, and eventually submitted himself to a painful, gruesome, and ignominious public execution alongside two thieves and in the place of a murderer.
Jesus taught that unless a man loves God with his whole being, and loves his neighbor (and this includes his worst enemy) as himself, he is not fulfilling God’s plan for him. The entire Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) makes this impossibly perfect morality crystal clear. Any person is guilty of sin if he fails to do this, throughout his entire life.
By this standard, even the most decent person in America is a sinner. Even Mother Teresa has been quoted as describing herself as a sinner. If Mother Teresa is a sinner, who isn’t?
3. Sin is not a problem.
Some Americans accept that they are sinners, but do not consider sin to be a big problem. In the LifeWay survey, only 5 percent of Americans said they were “fine” with being sinners. Even so, 15 percent preferred not to say whether they were sinners or not.
These results seem to suggest that a great deal of Americans do not take sin seriously. They may admit that they fall short of moral perfection, but say that it is fine to do so, since nobody is perfect. (Indeed, another LifeWay study from last year found that 65 percent of Americans said that everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.)
In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis wrote about the moral perspectives of certain “pockets” — the standards of right behavior which are accepted among one group of people at one particular time.
“Many of us have had the experience of living in some local pocket of human society—some particular school, college, regiment or profession where the tone was bad,” Lewis wrote. “And inside that pocket certain actions were regarded as merely normal (‘everyone does it’) and certain others as impracticably virtuous and Quixotic.”
“But when we emerged from that bad society we made the horrible discovery that in the outer world our ‘normal’ was the kind of thing that no decent person ever dreamed of doing, and our ‘Quixotic’ was taken for granted as the minimum standard of decency.”
Lewis warned that “it is wise to face the possibility that the whole human race (being a small thing in the universe) is, in fact, just such a local pocket of evil—an isolated bad school or regiment inside which minimum decency passes for heroic virtue and utter corruption for pardonable imperfection.”
The author noted that human history has certain characters who “demonstrate the alarming truth that a quite different behaviour is, in fact, possible.” Worse, the moral teachings of Zarathustra, Jeremiah, Socrates, Gautama, Jesus Christ, and even Marcus Aurelius agree a great deal, and set a standard far above what any age considers acceptable moral behavior.
Most people agree with these moral teachings, but present the excuse that modern society is as virtuous as it can be. But Lewis dashed this idea by pointing to the different moral judgements of different ages. He urged a reader to “ask yourself whether you think God ought to have been content with the cruelty of cruel ages because they excelled in courage or chastity.”
“From considering how the cruelty of our ancestors looks to us, you may get some inkling how our softness, worldliness, and timidity would have looked to them, and hence how bad both must look to God,” Lewis concluded.
Furthermore, sin is horrid because each act leaves a mark on the soul. “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before,” Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity. “And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowing turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature.”
If human beings are going to live forever, as Christianity teaches, this is a serious problem. If each sinful decision turns a person into a more hellish creature, hell won’t just be the punishment for sin but the natural result of that person’s own choices.
4. God can’t send me to hell for temporary sins.
Another LifeWay study from last year found that Americans think sin is commonplace. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) said that everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature. More than half (57 percent) said it would be fair for God to judge sin.
Even so, a full three-quarters (74 percent) of Americans disagreed with the idea that even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation. Almost two-thirds (62 percent) strongly disagreed with this idea.
But the Bible is clear that a little sin is enough to merit eternal damnation. This does not make God vindictive, it makes Him just.
In his new book The Problem of God: Answering a Skeptic’s Challenges to Christianity, Vancouver pastor Mark Clark explained why it seems unjust for God to condemn people to hell for one small sin.
“The Bible helps us to understand that one of the consequences of rebellion against our infinite Creator is that we, as human beings, have a distorted sense of moral value,” Clark wrote, citing Romans 1:21-23. “In other words, we fundamentally don’t understand what sin is and how it affects the universe.”
The Canadian pastor pointed out that “the degree to which a person experiences punishment is not typically based on how long it takes them to commit a crime but on the seriousness of the crime — the weight of its moral offense.”
As moral offenses go, sin is utterly heinous. Why? Because it represents the rejection of an infinitely good Being, and not only that, but the very Being who created each person and gave them everything good that they have. This is far worse than disobeying your parents, stealing from a person right after he gave you $1 million, or even committing high treason against the country which provided society, law, and peace for you.
Furthermore, humans often think of sin as a temporary action, when it is really a state of being. A sinful person is someone turned in on himself, in rejection of God. As Lewis warned, sin turns someone a hellish person, and hell can be explained as a perfectly good God — the source of all good — allowing someone to close himself off from God.
“What are you asking God to do? To wipe out the past sins of the damned and at all cost to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering miraculous help,” C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain. “He has done so in Jesus. Are you asking God to forgive him? They do not want to be forgiven. Are you asking God to leave them alone?”
“Alas. I am afraid that is what he does,” Lewis chillingly concluded (emphasis added).
5. I can free myself from sin.
Many Americans seem to believe they can free themselves from sin. A third of Americans (34 percent) in the LifeWay survey said they are sinners and are working on being less sinful. A quarter (28 percent) said they are sinners and rely on Jesus to overcome their sin.
According to the Bible, only Jesus can free people from their sin. Their own good deeds will never achieve this. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast,” Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-9.
Why can’t good works save people from their sin? Ephesians 2 starts, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. … But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses made us alive together with Christ.”
Accepting Jesus is less like signing a document and more like being risen from the dead. Sin not only turns a person inward, it blinds him from the truth and love of God. Jesus’ death and resurrection offers forgiveness and new life to all, but unless the Holy Spirit prompts someone to accept Jesus, it will never happen.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:18.
Even so, the promise is clear. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your hear that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” Paul wrote in Romans 10:9. If anyone repents of sin and believes in Jesus, he will be saved.
Christians are called to stop sinning, but not in order to be saved. Only the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ can save someone from sin. But if someone is saved, he will enter the path of discipleship and fight sin, not to save himself, but to draw closer to God, who is the source of all joy and goodness.
Sin is heinous not because Christians are judgmental — in fact, Christians are supposed to be keenly aware of their own sin, and refrain from judging others on that basis — but because it blinds people and separates them from the love of God, it cuts them off from the source of all joy.
Talking about sin is not about controlling people or making them feel guilty, but about freeing them from what the Bible describes as a kind of death. The persistence of guilt, even in a post-Christian secular culture, points to the truth of a religion which so many have rejected.
If Christianity is true, a right understanding of sin is of paramount importance — your eternal destiny literally depends on it.