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Have We Lost the Concept of Sin?

Posted: April 3, 2008 - 23:39 CT

The Survey

I ran across an article a few days ago from Cathy Lynn Grossman in USA Today entitled Has the 'Notion of Sin' Been Lost?  Her data was based upon a survey by Ellison Research (Phoenix, AZ) in August 2007, which I found at [link deleted by original site].  The good news is that a majority of people surveyed believe that there is such a thing as sin.  The bad news is that opinions differ greatly over what actually constitutes a sin.

For the survey, Ellison Research asked each participant if they believed in the concept of sin (defined in the research as “something that is almost always considered wrong, particularly from a religious or moral perspective”).  The 87% who responded with a "Yes" were then asked whether they would personally define each of thirty different behaviors as sinful.  Here's where the responses got interesting.

Of the 30 behaviors, only 7 were considered sin by a majority of Americans:  Adultery 81%, Racism 74%, Using "hard" drugs such as cocaine, heroine, meth, LSD, etc 65%, Not saying anything if a cashier gives you too much change back 63%, Having an abortion 56%, Homosexual activity or sex 52%, and Not reporting some income on your tax returns 52%.

A "significant percentage" of Americans agreed that these acts are also sinful:  Reading or watching pornography 50%, Gossiping 47%, Swearing 46%, Sex before marriage 45%, Homosexual thoughts 44%, Sexual thoughts about someone you are not married to 43%, Doing things as a consumer that harm the environment 41%, Smoking marijuana 41%, Getting drunk 41%, and Not taking proper care of your body 35%.

A much smaller percentage believed that these acts are sins:  Gambling 30%, Telling a "little white lie" to avoid hurting someone's feelings 29%, Using tobacco 23%, Not attending church or religious worship services on a regular basis 18%, Playing the lottery 18%, Watching an R-rated movie 18%, Being significantly overweight 17%, Not giving 10% of your income to a church or charity 16%, Drinking any alcohol 14%, Working on Sunday/the Sabbath 14%, Spanking your child when he/she misbehaves 7%, Making a lot of money 4%, and Dancing 4%.

We must also note that Ellison also broke down the responses  to the first question (Do you believe in sin?) by various groups, with "Yes" answers ranging from a high of 100% (Evangelical Christians) to a low of 77% (Politically Liberal).  Other notable groups included Men 85%, Women 90%, Non-evangelical Christians 86%, Republican 93%, and Democrat 85%.

Responses to the second question were reported by religious perspective, demographics, geography, and political perspectives.  For example, those that believe adultery is a sin: Evangelicals 100%, Non-evangelicals 79%, Protestants 92%, Catholics 82%, Male 77%, Female 82%, White 80%, Black 94%, Hispanic 74%, Conservative 87%, Liberal 67%, Republican 88%, and Democrat 77%.  One interesting observation, the only two activities perceived as sin by a larger percentage of Democrats and Liberals than by Republicans and Conservatives was spanking your child and harming the environment as a consumer.  Surprisingly, racism is seen as a sin by Conservatives over Liberals by a significant margin.  Other notable differences  include murdering an unborn child (Evangelical 94%, Conservative 69%, Republican 68%, Democrat 50%, Liberal 38%) and homosexual activity (Evangelical 93%, Conservative 70%, Republican 66%, Democrat 43%, Liberal 29%).  Also surprising to me was some of the responses by those attending Roman Catholic worship  (abortion 74%, homosexual activities 49%, pornography 51%, swearing 48%, sex before marriage 47% etc).  I expected a much higher percentage of Catholics to consider these activities as sin.

Conclusions from the Data

So, what conclusions can we draw from this data?

We must first address a few flaws and limitations in the survey itself.  First, the survey defined sin as “something that is almost always considered wrong, particularly from a religious or moral perspective”.  The survey confines itself to actions, but sin is also any thought, motivation, attitude etc, that is contrary to the perfect will of God.  The concept of sin is determined by the authoritative, infallible, inerrant Word of God, not by opinion poll or majority vote.  Next, we can safely assume that the verification process, in grouping participants into various categories, was limited to their responses.  Many people unintentionally classify themselves in the wrong group.  For example, in most Barna surveys, about 87% of the respondents identify themselves as Christian, but when certain questions are asked regarding the doctrine of salvation, it's usually determined that at least half of these folks are not.  They just assume that, since their grandparents attended a Christian church, or since they're not a Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist, by process of elimination, they must be a Christian.  Many consider "Christian" to be a classification (such as male, female, white, black etc) rather than our position in Christ.

Returning to Ms Grossman's article, she begins with an excellent question, "How can Christians celebrate Jesus' atonement for their sins and the promise of eternal life in his resurrection if they don't recognize themselves as sinners?"  I believe she is asking it in a hypothetical sense because in reality, a person that does not recognize himself or herself as a sinner is not a true born again Christian.   A person can't be saved without realizing his or her need to be saved.  Those believing they can be saved without repentance of sin vastly underestimate the Holiness of God and/or the seriousness of sin.  God's law is not just an arbitrary set of rules, but is based on His character.  For example, God doesn't say "Do not lie" just because He thinks it's a good ethical practice, He says "Do not lie" because it is against His very nature to lie.  So, when we sin, we wage an attack on the holy nature and character of God.

One of the principle reasons the Bible was written was so teach us how to have eternal life (to be saved and spend eternity in heaven), and how to know for sure.  If you are not 100% sure that you possess this great gift, please read our How to Know for Sure that You're Going to Heaven article.

We must next ask how so many people in America, which began as a Christian nation, can possess such a casual view of sin today.  We can certainly point to the secular media, Hollywood, activist judges, and government sanctioned atheism in our schools.  Another major factor is the ACLU and other liberal and socialistic organizations challenging any mention of God in public, re-writing history and turning our constitution inside out.

This would explain the attitude of the unbeliever, but what about the regular church attendee, and how do we account for the lack of knowledge and outreach among professing Christians?  Why do we see little difference in thoughts and actions of Christians when compared to unbelievers?  If, by some estimates, we have 60-70 million born again Christians in America, why is our country consumed with almost every epidemic known to man?  Where is our Godly influence on our morally bankrupt society?  We must place a large portion of the blame on the Church herself.  The Church that we refer to here is the entire body of born again believers.

It is interesting that Jesus was always firm, but gentle and loving with sinners.  He saved his harshest condemnations for religious leaders who talked the talk, but weren't walking the walk.  In Ezekiel 9, evil had spread throughout the land of Israel (similar to our situation today), so God orders his angels to go though the city of Jerusalem killing all those who are not grieving and lamenting over the "detestable things" happening there, and directs the angels to "begin at my sanctuary" (Ez 9:6, see also 1Pe 4:17).  Any reforms must begin with the Church.

Reversing the Trend

So, what can the Church do to reverse these trends.  First we must make an honest evaluation of ourselves (1Cor 11:31).  We must regain our respect and fear of God.  We must stop trivializing God's holiness, justice and hatred of sin.  In Ms Goodman's article, she states that Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston (largest church in America), never mentions sin in his TV sermons or best sellers such as "Your Best Life Now" and "Become a Better You".  I've noticed the most popular words in the book promos are "you" and "self".  She then includes a quote from his Larry King interview:

"I never thought about (using the word 'sinners'), but I probably don't.  Most people already know what they're doing wrong.  When I get them to church, I want to tell them that you can change."

There are two immediately obvious problems with this statement.  The first is that, while some might know they're doing wrong, most who have never heard the true Gospel (such as those who listen exclusively to Mr Osteen) would say that they're basically a "good person", so even if they've done some bad stuff, God will surely still let them into Heaven, not realizing that the slightest sin will keep them out.  The second problem is that people can't change, no matter how many pep talks we hear or self-help books we read (Rom 7:14-20).  When the apostles asked Jesus, "How can man be saved?", He replied "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God. (Mk 10:27)".  God doesn't want to you to "become a better you" or to "live your best life now".   He wants to make you a new you and give you an new life.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2Cor 5:17).

Next, we as the Church must re-commit ourselves to Christ and the Great Commission (Mt 28:19-20).  To do this, we must preach and teach the full Gospel, relying on the Holy Spirit for results.  Many churches today have lost confidence in the authority of the Word of God, relying instead on clever marketing schemes and more "seeker-friendly" messages.  Most churches who cater to seekers are dedicated and well meaning; however, the problem is that there are no "true seekers".  The Bible says "No one seeks God" (Rom 3:11, also Jn 6:44,65).  If a person is in church, he has been drawn there by the Holy Spirit.  If the Spirit has the power to get a person to the church, He certainly has the power to change his life through the message of the Word of God.

The full Gospel must also include an honest assessment of the Christian Life.   Many preachers promote Jesus as a feel-good psychologist who can solve all your problems.  He will solve all your spiritual problems, but he also guarantees that there will be trials.  What does a preacher say a person going through a hardship after bombarding him with constant "health and wealth" messages?  We much teach that the Christian life sometimes involves hardships, but we can say with the apostle Paul that "whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ" (Php 3:7-8).

Finally, we must be consistent in our walk with Christ.  If the non-believer sees no difference in our lifestyle, except for a little religious frosting on top, why would he want to listen to our message.  The Church is called to transform the culture, not to assimilate herself into it.  We must live a life worthy of our calling, thus earning the right to be heard, if we are to redeem a lost society.

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April 5, 2008 - 19:28
Amanda - Phoenix, AZ writes:

Good article...  I'm an evangelical Christian and don't consider spanking your child, making lots of money, or dancing as sins.  I also think a few of the others may depend on the situation.

April 6, 2008 - 13:45
Webmaster replies:

Thanks very much for your comment Amanda.  This was also my wife's first observation when she read the article.  I agree that the actions you mention normally would not constitute a sin in most situations, the exceptions being abusing a child (normal spanking is not abuse) or obtaining wealth by illegal or unethical means.  This fits in with your other comment about some actions depending on the situation.  As I mentioned, one of the limitations of the survey was confining the answers to certain actions without taking into consideration the motives behind the action.  Often, the motive can be the determining factor as to whether or not an action is a sin.   In addition, there are some "gray areas" that the Bible doesn't specifically address.  I recently taught a class on this subject and should have an article posted shortly, but here's a couple of thoughts.  If the Bible doesn't address a particular sin explicitly, we should first look for related principles.  For example, the Bible does not say "Thou shalt not gamble", but we can take a negative view of gambling based on the Biblical principles of stewardship, statements against exploitation of the poor, and responsibility to our families (1Tim 5:8).  We must also evaluate how our action might affect fellow Christians (1Cor 10:23-33).  However, on those matters about which the scriptures are truly silent, we should seek God’s guidance while applying biblical principles for ourselves, and let others do the same.  We should also place the welfare of other believers above the rights of our own personal freedom.

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