What's sin got to do with it?

sinnerToday is Good Friday, the day when Christians commemorate the crucifixion and death of Jesus. It appears we made it through Holy Week without any media debunking of Jesus' miracles. Maybe they got it out of their system with the whole Seven Deadly Sins silliness. Anyway, USA TODAY religion reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman had a fantastic piece that is perfect for Holy Week. She wrote a big think piece about sin, specifically whether the notion of sin has been lost. When we discussed the story of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer breaking his marital vows and paying a woman for sex, we knew the story had ghosts. But in a media day and age where the only sin is hypocrisy, it was hard to discuss the sin angle. Enter Grossman, who used Easter as the hook for her story:

Is sin dead? No, not by a long shot. Yet as Easter approaches, some pastors and theologians worry: 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?

Grossman gets perspective from Pope Benedict XVI, the Rev. Albert Mohler, and an Ellison opinion poll showing that only 45 percent of the people surveyed thought premarital sex was sinful:

Popular evangelist Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, never mentions sin in his TV sermons or best sellers such as Your Best Life Now.

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

Grossman does a great job of showing how views such as Osteen's are thought of by other Christians. She writes that the Rev. Michael Horton, professor of theology at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, Calif., calls this "moral therapy":

In other words, he asks, if you can solve your problems or sins yourself, what difference does it make that Christ was crucified?

People have to see themselves as sinners -- ultimately alienated from God and unable to save themselves -- for Christ's sacrifice to be essential, Horton says. "(The apostle) Paul didn't see Easter as therapy."

Can you believe this was in a mainstream news article? I mean, this is the kind of issue that we talk about in my church. In a media environment where churches only get covered when their pastors are literally spouting racist invective, this type of story is welcome.

Rather than making this a fluffy piece about whether or not people believe in sin, Grossman really delves down into the issue. There are so many good quotes, I wish I could excerpt them all:

Pope Benedict, in his prayers last week, said, "People who trust in themselves and in their own merits are, as it were, blinded by their own 'I,' and their hearts harden in sin. On the other hand, those who recognize themselves as weak and sinful entrust themselves to God, and from him obtain grace and forgiveness."

Even some people who say sin is real still steer by a compass of "moral pragmatics," not a bright line of absolute truth, Mohler says. "People say, 'I have high moral expectations of myself and others, but I know we are all human so I'm looking for a batting average.'

"We find a comfort zone of morality, a kind of middle-class middle level where we think we are doing well. We cut the grass. We don't double-park. But we ignore the larger issues of sin."

orig respectable Grossman looks into the notion that sin has been reduced to poor etiquette. She also looks at secular notions of sin -- an angle I wouldn't have thought of. Sociologist Barry Kosmin, with the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College, says that secularists believe in sin but that it's very different than what religious traditions teach:

"What is unacceptable has changed," Kosmin observes. "Racism and sexual harassment, which were not sins in the past, are now. Adultery and addiction are just bad or sad behavior. And commercial sex is a no, but breaking the bonds of marriage is not.

"Secularism is situational without fundamental, universal rules. Explanations are kosher. Mitigating circumstances, too. But if people are held guilty, the punishment, of course, has to be in this world, not the next. Secular people don't burn in hell, they burn in the court of public opinion."

Fascinating. Grossman ends the article by speaking with Mark Driscoll of Marsh Hill Church in Seattle and Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. He says that when he talks about sin, he has to do so with "lots and lots of explanation" since the word has no meaning to his younger congregation.

The one angle that I do wish had been covered was how people view other people's sins -- particularly as it relates to double standards. At last night's Maundy Thursday service, the homilist had a great line about how we find it so easy to see other people's sins and club them over the head with them while not even remembering our own sinfulness.

Anyway, I commend Grossman for her excellent treatment of the subject and look forward to more meaty and interesting stories.

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