respectable-sinsIn his 1973 book Whatever Became of Sin? psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote,

The very word, “sin,” which seems to have disappeared, was once a proud word. It was once a strong word, an ominous and serious word.… But the word went away. It has almost disappeared—the word, along with the notion. Why? Doesn’t anyone sin anymore? Doesn’t anyone believe in sin?

To reinforce his observations, Dr. Menninger noted that in the presidential proclamation for the annual National Day of Prayer, the last time the word sin was mentioned was in President Eisenhower’s proclamation in 1953—and those words were borrowed from a call to national prayer by Abraham Lincoln in 1863! So, as Dr. Menninger observed, “as a nation, we officially ceased ‘sinning’ some twenty [now over fifty] years ago.”

Karl Menninger is by no means alone in his assessment. Author Peter Barnes, in an article titled “What! Me? A Sinner?” wrote,

In twentieth century England, C. S. Lewis noted that, “The barrier I have met is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin.” And in 2001, New Testament scholar D. A. Carson commented that the most frustrating aspect of doing evangelism in universities is the fact that students generally have no idea of sin. “They know how to sin well enough, but they have no idea of what constitutes sin.”

These statements only confirm what seems clear to many observers: The whole idea of sin has virtually disappeared from our culture.

Unfortunately, the idea of sin is all but disappearing from many churches as well. Sociologist Marsha Witten analyzed forty-seven taped sermons on the prodigal son (see Luke 15:11–32) preached by Baptist and Presbyterian ministers. In her book All Is Forgiven, she wrote,

How does the idea of sin fare in the sermons under study here? We should not be surprised to find that communicating notions of sin poses difficulties for many of the pastors.… As we have seen here, a closer examination of the sermons suggests the many ways in which the concept of “sin” has been accommodated to fit secular sensibilities. For while some traditional images of sin are retained in this speech, the language frequently cushions the listeners from their impact, as it employs a variety of softening rhetorical devices.

Ms. Witten concluded her chapter on the pastors’ treatment of sin with this observation: “In this context, talk about sin appears more to be setting implicit boundaries to separate insiders who are beyond reach of evaluation from outsiders who are targets for it, than to be articulating theological insights into the depravity of human nature.”

So we see that the entire concept of sin has virtually disappeared from our American culture at large and has been softened, even within many of our churches, to accommodate modern sensibilities. Indeed, strong biblical words for sin have been excised from our vocabulary. People no longer commit adultery; instead they have an affair. Corporate executives do not steal; they commit fraud.

But what about our conservative, evangelical churches? Has the idea of sin all but disappeared from us also? No, it has not disappeared, but it has, in many instances, been deflected to those outside our circles who commit flagrant sins such as abortion, homosexuality, and murder, or the notorious white-collar crimes of high-level corporate executives. It’s easy for us to condemn those obvious sins while virtually ignoring our own sins of gossip, pride, envy, bitterness, and lust, or even our lack of those gracious qualities that Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22–23).

Jerry Bridges, Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2007), 17–19.

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