What ever happened to preaching the holiness of God and the seriousness of sin? Martin Foord asks whether our evangelism has been rendered worthless by a loss of nerve.
One day my mother discovered a pimple-like bump on her arm. So she went to her GP for a diagnosis and was told, “It’s nothing to worry about”. However, she decided to get a second opinion from a skin specialist, and this time the diagnosis was radically different: it was melanoma, and she was under the surgeon’s knife within several days. Stories like this remind us uneasily of how perilous it is to be ignorant of bad news. If we have a melanoma, it’s critical we know, otherwise we can’t take the appropriate action.
One of the greatest threats to evangelism in our late modern era is precisely this: we fail to appreciate and communicate the depth and the reality of sin. But without knowing how horrific sin is, it’s impossible for people to take appropriate action. To put it simply, if sin is no big deal, who needs the death of Jesus?
What I’m going to argue is essentially this: a proper understanding of sin relies on a proper understanding of God. But the cultural air we breathe makes it very difficult for us to grasp God’s spiritual size. Hence, we find it very difficult to grasp sin’s spiritual significance.
So what is it that makes this difficult? And how did it get like this? Let’s go back and look at two key moments in western history that helped create our culture. A brief overview like this runs the risk of being simplistic. But as long as we recognize that this big picture will need qualification and refinement, an overview is the best way to begin. The two key moments were the birth of the modern world in the 18th century (give or take 100 years) and the birth of the late modern world in the 1960s.
The modern world arrives …
Let’s begin by outlining the five ‘revolutions’ that coalesced over time to form ‘modernism’.
Firstly, there was the scientific revolution that gained momentum in the 17th century. It had several tributaries. Copernicus and Galileo had suggested the radical idea that the sun didn’t revolve around the earth but vice versa. Francis Bacon made popular the idea that we cannot trust knowledge unless it can be proven by the scientific method. But the great crescendo occurred when Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica in 1687. Many believe this is the most influential book in the history of science. In it, Newton proposed a grand mathematical explanation of how both heavenly and earthly objects are moved; to put it simply, the explanation was gravity. The result was a new way of picturing the universe—as a great machine that functioned like clockwork according to laws. Hence, people began to conclude that God was no longer needed to sustain the physical world. He was still needed to explain the origins of the world, but scientific laws explained how the world was governed. God had begun to shrink in people’s minds.
The second revolution was the intellectual revolution, often called the Enlightenment. With Descartes on the continent and John Locke in England, a new approach to knowledge was forged. It was simply this: humans can start with themselves and arrive at infallibly certain knowledge without God. Prior to the Enlightenment, most people assumed that human knowledge was a subset of God’s knowledge, and hence God was needed to know things—particularly information about himself. With the Enlightenment, the starting point of knowledge was inverted. The human individual without God, using science and human reason, could discover what needed to be known—even about God himself. We must remember that belief in God wasn’t abandoned; instead, people’s understanding of God began to shrink. Now, weird doctrines like the Trinity that couldn’t be explained by science or reason began to be seen as childish; only simple-minded people embraced such irrational doctrines. In other words, the Enlightenment shrank God into human reason: he was stuffed into the small, finite space of the human mind.
The third revolution happened somewhat later than the first two. The publishing of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in the 19th century represented what many believed was the proper conclusion of the previous two revolutions. Although it was not a necessary conclusion, the ‘doctrine’ of evolution led to the point where it was possible to do away with God altogether; he wasn’t even required to kick everything off any more.1 The impact of this on the way society thinks about the world has been immense.
These first three revolutions occurred in parallel with two great social revolutions. The Industrial Revolution came about as the result of the discovery of new sources of power: water and steam. Running water drove mills for industry. Steam drove engines. And so water and steam created new forms of transport. Canals sent heavy goods far and wide, and the steam engine moved not only goods, but people all around the land. By the 19th century, railways had been built almost everywhere throughout western civilization.
How did this change the West? Firstly, masses of people moved to the cities because that’s where the factories, and hence jobs, were. Before the Industrial Revolution, western people tended to live and work more from home. But now life became split in two: the public and the private. There was public life at work during the day, and there was private life away from work at home. The second great effect of the Industrial Revolution was that the West grew dramatically in wealth and power. Western countries like England began to conquer and colonize other nations. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution enabled the West to expand like no other culture in history.
The final revolution was the late 18th-century political revolution. People began to believe that as Newton had discovered the laws of gravity, so humans could discover the laws of society. Hence the rise of the discipline of political science. Thinkers such as Englishman John Locke and Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau sought to articulate the laws that would produce a supreme society. Democracy lay at the very heart of this new thinking. The sure path to the supreme society was through government by the people for the people; monarchy was considered the enemy of all. The fuel that drove this political fire was the notion of freedom: maximum freedom for the maximum number of people. Particularly important in the rise of democracy was the American War of Independence (1775–1783). The first amendment of the American Constitution was passed in 1791, and it articulated the separation of Church and State.
… and God shrinks
What was the effect of these revolutions? They produced a fundamental separation in western thinking between the public and the private. The public world was viewed as the arena of politics, media, economics, sport and the like. It came to be seen as morally neutral territory that dealt with facts. Facts are pieces of information that can be universally recognized as true—like the existence of gravity. And facts (it was believed) are neutral: they have no relationship to morality or religion. Indeed, morality was the domain of the private world of the individual—a place not of universal facts, but private values. Values are our opinions about things non-factual, like whether I prefer Thai to Chinese food, or whether I prefer Mozart to Beethoven.
The very important point about this public/private division was that religion became relegated to the private world of values (or opinions). Religion doesn’t fit the category of facts for the neutral public world. Hence, even to this day, we hear Australian politicians saying that we must keep religion out of politics. We westerners find it very difficult to think that morals have anything to do with public economics. This is because the economy supposedly belongs to the neutral public space of facts. By confining God to the private realm, our understanding of God has been affected. We westerners have been forced to understand God in categories that are too small for him. But God can’t be stuffed into the private realm; he’s too big. The modern ethicist Alasdair Macintyre has brilliantly argued in his book The Religious Significance of Atheism that when a culture is modernized, it loses the notion of God’s transcendence (or bigness).2 We will take this up later, but first there is one other story that needs telling: the birth of the late modern world.
The late modern world arrives
The late modern world, which we now inhabit, emerged from the turbulent 1960s. Paul Kantner, a founding member of the ‘60s psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane once said, “If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”.3 At first, the ‘60s student rebellion was seen to be just another example of young people’s idealism. However, it turned out to be a cultural revolution that has permeated the fabric of western society. The ‘60s was characterized, firstly, by an all-out rejection of authority: people rebelled against authorities that had been hitherto taken for granted—university leadership, political headship, the police force—you name it. Authority was passé, and was soon replaced with an egalitarianism which emphasized human rights, particularly that of the marginalized: ethnic rights, gay rights, women’s rights, and so on. This went hand-in-hand with the postmodern rejection of absolute truth, because absolute truth is an authority that humans abuse. Truth is ultimately what I want it to be. What’s important is that I make the choice and not someone else.
What has been the outcome of this? By rejecting authority, we found stability and meaning by turning inside ourselves as individuals. The already existent individualism of modernity became radicalized. It’s no accident that Christopher Lasch’s sociological analysis of the ‘60s is entitled The Culture of Narcissism. Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has aptly entitled her latest book Generation ME: Why today’s young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled and more miserable than ever before. The meaning of life for late moderns is to be found in reaching one’s full potential. Barely an episode of Australian Idol goes by where someone doesn’t say, “You can do anything if you just believe in yourself”. Just this week I saw a girl wearing a T-shirt that read, “It’s all about ME”.
The impact of late modernity on an evangelical understanding of sin has been immense. As David F Wells has so cogently argued in his books, our me-centeredness has led to sin being understood in therapeutic categories. Instead of viewing our problem as the sinful rejection of God, modern evangelicalism has preach that we’re basically neutral people who have been damaged by life. Hence Jesus is no longer the sin-bearing sacrifice, but the one who heals my damaged self and brings me to wholeness. What we need is Jesus to love me into completeness. A perfect example of this is Joel Osteen’s ministry at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, which has a current average attendance of 47,000 people. Osteen’s first book, which sold some 4 million copies, is entitled Your Best Life Now: 7 steps to living at your full potential.
Getting sin right
The way ahead for understanding and communicating sin rightly is to recover God’s transcendence, which was lost by modernity. And the starting point for grasping God’s transcendence is God’s act of creation. This is precisely where Paul began with those who didn’t have a Jewish understanding of God—those like the pagans in Athens (Acts 17:24) and the Gentiles of Rome (Rom 1:19-20). Why begin with God creating everything? Because it tells us that God is the only one not created. And if he is not created—if he has no beginning and no end—then, as Paul says, God must be “eternal” (or infinite) and “divine”: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). Herein lies the fundamental difference between humans and God: we are created, finite and limited, but God is uncreated, infinite and unlimited. God’s infinitude makes God divine.
There is a second significant reason for beginning with creation. The fact that we are created beings says something about our dependence on the one who created us. We need him for all of life: he gives us “life and breath and everything”. This tells us something critical about God: he is self-sustaining and has no needs (Acts 17:25).
The only right response of the creature to the transcendent creator must be worship. So sin, at its heart, is the failure to worship God as God. This is precisely Paul’s analysis of the Gentiles, who don’t have the Bible, but who are still culpable: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom 1:22-23). Notice carefully what idolatry is here: it’s worshipping the finite (or “mortal”) instead of the infinite (or “immortal”). Sin only has meaning when it has reference to God as the transcendent God. Sin cannot be defined in a purely horizontal way: it’s not the fragmentation of community, or simply hurting someone you love; sin is a failure to worship God in his infinite glory. Moreover, if God sustains and upholds all, then the worship God demands is not that of our private lives (like a hobby on the side), but a re-orientation of our entire life.
However, a right understanding of sin entails a second moral element. A biblical word that captures something about God’s transcendence is God’s ‘holiness’. Indeed, ‘holy’ is the only attribute that is used in a threefold way about God. God is love and God is good, but only when it comes to holiness is he “holy, holy, holy” (Isa 6:3, Rev 4:8). Furthermore, one of Scripture’s metaphors for God’s holiness is ‘light’. Hence, John starts his gospel presentation in a way that sounds very strange to late modern evangelicals: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
However, God’s light is dangerously holy: no created being can experience his naked light and live: “[God] alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.” (1 Tim 6:16). God did tell Moses in Exodus 33:20 that “[Y]ou cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live”. The transcendent God of holiness is dangerous because God’s anger at sin is eternal and deserves eternal reparation (Mark 3:29, Matt 25:46).
It’s this second element that is critical for late modern ears. We don’t live in a world where we as individuals choose what is right and wrong; the universe we inhabit is a moral universe. It has been created and given purpose by a holy God.
How does all this apply to us late modern evangelicals in our evangelism? Firstly, in gospelling, we must present God as he truly is: holy, holy, holy. It’s only from this vantage point that we can adequately move to sin and then Christ. Paul spent the minority of his sermon in Athens talking about Christ because he needed to deconstruct false understandings of the divine first. Presenting Christ without a right understanding of God and sin will amount to very little.
Secondly, when we speak of sin, it must be centred on the transcendent creator God. If God is the holy, holy, holy creator, then we creatures are to render him all our worship. What we get out of worshipping God borders on irrelevant. Worship focuses on recognizing God as God. In God’s great grace, the life of worship is for our best, and nothing is worse for us than idolatry. But if our wellbeing becomes the fundamental motivation for relating to God, we commit idolatry: we worship something created.
Thirdly, we must present the infinite consequences of sin before a holy, holy, holy God. That is why when Isaiah understood something of the true God in his vision, his first reaction was, “Woe is me!” (Isa 6:5a). When Peter grasped something of Jesus’ power over creation (a sign of divinity), his response was, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8b). When people truly encounter God in their sin, there must be the reaction of “Woe is me”. Becoming a Christian doesn’t mean you bypass the horror a sinner experiences before a holy God. We find this horror in the pre-modern saints: Martin Luther sunk into the pits of despair, and John Owen went through months of depression and isolation before he came to Christ. It’s this moral experience of God’s holiness that is now so foreign to late modern conversions.
Finally, we preach Christ in all his glory! Only against the backdrop of a transcendent God can we preach the full riches of Christ’s love. Christ’s death was not about physical suffering; two thieves were undergoing the same bodily torment on either side of him. Other Christians throughout history have undergone greater physical sufferings than crucifixion. No, Christ’s death is about the spiritual sufferings of bearing our sin. That suffering was infinite. It is something we created humans will never be able to fathom. We can only grasp the infinite heights of God’s love in Christ’s death when we grasp the infinite depths of our sin. And it’s that love that the gospel unveils!
1. Interestingly, evolution did not automatically cause all people to abandon God. Many also used evolution as a pillar for religion: God is an impersonal force working through us, helping the universe evolve.↩
2. Alasdair MacIntyre with Paul Ricoeur, The Religious Significance of Atheism, Columbia University Press, New York, 1969.↩
3. Quoted by Klaus P Fischer in America in White, Black, and Gray: The Stormy 1960s, Continuum, New York, London, 2006, p. 306.↩