A weak understanding of sin results in a pale image of the gospel.
We think of sin in narrow terms, we Westerners that is. When we talk about sin, we are usually referring to the bad things we do that make us guilty before God. In fact, our language concerning sin betrays our understanding. Sin makes us guilty. God is perfect, and thus he is innocent. We, on the other hand, are not perfect and definitely guilty before an innocent God. In fact, his righteousness most certainly qualifies him to judge his creation. It is, after all, his creation. The fall made us guilty before a holy God.
And all of that is true. Every bit of it. There are countless passages in Scripture that point to our guilt before God. The Bible is full of legal language concerning our sin and God’s righteousness. But, that is not the only way sin is explained in the Bible. It just happens to be the one we Westerners have pressed so hard. Truthfully, sin has affected much more than our guilt before God.
A Three-Fold Message of Salvation
Let me demonstrate. Think back with me to Genesis 3, where the fall occurs in Scripture. You remember the story. The serpent tempts Eve with Adam standing over her shoulder by saying that they will not surely die. Eve and Adam eat of the fruit and their eyes are opened. Of course, this is referring to their eyes being opened to good and evil, right and wrong, to their guilt… right?
This is certainly a central aspect of the narrative, but do not miss the other telling pieces of the story. If we read it with fresh eyes, we discover other really important pieces of the story. Moses (the guy who wrote this down) makes a point to mention that they were naked together in the garden and felt no shame (Gen 2:24) before the fall. Now, let’s look at that verse about their eyes being opened again: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (Gen 3:7). The immediate result of their eyes being opened is that they realized they were naked and were filled with shame. Their first act was not trying to absolve guilt but trying to cover shame.
Let’s keep reading. The very next verse tells us they hid from God. When the Lord confronts them about this, Adam responds, “I heard You in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid” (Gen 3:10). Adam and Eve are scared. The reason they hid was fear. So far, sin has produced shame, embarrassment, and fear in the hearts of Adam and Eve.
Finally, God deals with their transgressions. God asks, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from” (Gen 3:11)? This is a question of obedience, of right and wrong, of guilt. Then the blame-shifting occurs. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent, and God curses all because of their disobedience. In each case, he recites the particular transgression. This is clearly judgment for guilt.
Sin’s effects are broader than we realize, and that means they are responsible for more than we acknowledge. Yes, sin pricks our conscious. But it is also the root of our shame and fears. Other cultures get this. When I lived in Africa, people spoke much about fear. In fact, much of religious practice is designed to overcome fear by manipulating powerful spirits to protect you. Shame was another big issue. In collectivist societies, shame was a much bigger concern than guilt. You could speak to them about being wrong, but they cared little about this. However, if there was even a hint that they had been shamed, they were cut to the core.
When sin is big, the gospel stops being pale. It becomes vivid, because it offers us salvation from more than our guilt. It covers our shame in a way that fig leaves never could. It removes our fear of the unknown. The gospel is the good news that God, through Christ, saves us from our guilt, our fear, and our shame. We are truly new creations.
Why does this matter in America?
If Americans tend to focus on the guilt aspect of sin, then why am I concerned about the effects of shame and fear? Well, let me clarify. I think the American church is concerned with the guilt aspect of sin, but I am not so sure many (or maybe most) Americans still hold this as their primary problem in life.
When America lived squarely in a modernist worldview, we were all focused on objectivity. There was truth and progress, and we were working hard to discover both. In that setting, guilt predominates the mind, because it points out all the areas where you are wrong in a world that is trying to be right. However, Western societies are in a major transition right now.
Post-modernism is skeptical of objectivity. Truth is more subjective. If you are a modernist, that may make you nervous, but there are a great many people in your town that firmly believe that is true. Fact is, younger generations may be much less concerned about right and wrong. Many are, however, suffering from fear, anxiety, depression, and even shame. In a world of personal narratives, where everyone does what is right in their own eyes, the highest concern becomes saving face. People are concerned about looking good in a social media world. They fear the opinions of others.
For the last several decades, we have moved from modernism, to post-modernism, and on to whatever is next. This is not a neat slide, though. People in the United States plot all along that map. Modernism is not gone, but post-modernism has been around long enough now that people are moving out the other side of it.
This becomes a problem when all you know how to do is talk to people about their guilt. Are they guilty? Yes. But they are so much more. If we explain sin for the full-orbed problem it is, the gospel is no longer pale in a culture that does not ascribe to truth. Sin is all-encompassing, digging its claws into our emotions, our deepest fears, and our actions. If it is the root of all our failings in these things, then the gospel is good news for the depressed. It is good news for those who are ashamed, who are seeking identity, who are terrified of what others think.
So, next time you share the gospel with someone, let them know that sin may be bigger than they realize. Then show them how the gospel answers their biggest problems.