Whatever Happened to Sin?


June 10, 1973

DR. WILLIAM L. SELF Pastor, Wieuca Road Baptist Church

The text for the morning may seem like a Christmas text because it comes from the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel, at the 21st verse, the latter part of that verse.

“And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name ‘Jesus,’ for he shall save his people from their sins.”

It was about 10 years ago that I first discovered John Steinbeck’s delightful novel, “Travels With Charley.” I read it almost as a recreation piece of literature. It seems that Steinbeck was going to get reacquainted with America, and so he bought a camper, and he got his old dog, Charley, and they started out to travel around the United States, just to meet America again and find out what was going on. He talked about his experiences in the book, all the places he went, the people he saw, the things he heard and the attitudes he encountered.

And he told about going to church at a small, beautiful white board church up in New England. But Charley was not too well-received that morning in the church, being an old dog. So he left Charley out on the porch and he went on inside. And he said he’d never heard a sermon like that in his life. He said it was a recollection of his boyhood. The preacher roasted them over the fires of hell and took them to the very beauties of heaven. Steinbeck said, “The preacher took my sins seriously and told me that if I didn’t change, something was going to happen, and he threw thunderbolts all around me.” And Steinbeck said, “When I came out of church, I kicked Charley a couple of times and we both felt pretty good.”

Steinbeck said, “Then I went to church virtually every Sunday on my trip and found that nobody else in America preaching took my sins quite as seriously as that unknown, New England preacher in the little white church.”

Now hold that story. We may come back to it. I want to move on to something else. You remember the old thing that happens when two people go to church and they meet up with someone who didn’t go? And the man who didn’t go to church asks, “What did the preacher talk about today?” And the people who went to church say, “Well, he talked about sin.” And then the response is, “Well, was he for it or against it?” In some of our churches today you really have to ask that question, “Was he for it or against it?” In other churches today, we have to describe what sin is, because it has gone out of the vocabulary of American protestantism.

And today I want to tell you that it’s not going to be the kind of answer you think, because when you stand in the cafeteria line today and someone asks you whether I was for or against sin, you better tell them that I spoke a good word for sin. Now, I don’t want to drive you up the wall, and for those of you just waking up or are not quite sure what I’m saying, I want you to know that I’m really coming out in favor of sin as a category of human understanding. I think too long we’ve drifted away from that as a category of human understanding and we’ve given over to all kinds of things. In fact, sin is almost an unknown word in the American religious vocabulary.

I want to say a good word for it because it’s time for us as a group of Bible-believing Christians to come back to understand what the Bible teaches at this point. Sin has disappeared from our speech and thought. It is rarely ever used. I was talking with other clergymen several years ago about a mutual friend of ours who had a very difficult time. He had lost his position and his life was a moral wreck. He had caved in totally morally. He had had affairs with 20 people, and when we were discussing this man, I said to our mutual friend, “This man was sick.” And my friend turned to me with a little despair in his voice and a note of pathos in his eyes, said, “He wasn’t sick. He was sin-sick.”

This brought me up short, because I saw what I had done. I had moved to the place where I had accepted the language of the street and the academies, rather than understanding the language of the Bible. It’s not fashionable any longer to think in terms of man as being a moral creature. It’s not fashionable any longer to use sin as a moral category, because the minute you talk about sin, you have to talk about whether it is part of our lives. It presumes a moral law and it presumes a relationship with God. We don’t locate man’s misery any more in his alienation from God, which is what sin is. But we locate man’s misery every other place.

We go to the academy and we say to the educator, “What is the critically central problem of the human dilemma?” And the educator comes back and he says, “Man’s critically central problem is his ignorance.” If a man knows to do right, he’ll do right — but we’ve proven that’s wrong — but nevertheless he continues to tell us, “Man’s critically central problem is ignorance.”

We go to the psychiatrist or psychologist and we ask him, “What is man’s critically central problem?” And he tells us, “The lack of a mature, integrated self-understanding. And his foremost need is not education, but therapy, which is self-understanding.”

We go out on the street and we pick up a political activist and we ask him — if we can get him to shut up long enough to listen — we ask him, “What is man’s critically central problem?” And the political activist puts down his sign, looks us straight in the nose and says, “Man’s critically central problem is the inequitable distribution of power and his need is for political reform and revolution so that we can have our hands on the power.”

We go to the social engineer — there’s always somebody who’s trying to rearrange the rules by which the games are played — and we ask him, “What is man’s critically central problem?” And he says, “It’s the disabling environment — not so much air and so forth, but the fact that the social structures of our world are against him. Sociologically he’s wrong, therefore his foremost need is a drastically improved set of surroundings.”

We go to the dialectical materialist and ask him the same question, “What is man’s critically central problem — not the peripheral, but the central problem?” And he comes in and says, “It is the lopsided distribution of wealth. The need is for the socialization of production and the abolition of capitalism.”

And I ask you today, “What is man’s critically central problem?” Have you been taken in by those who would say that it’s ignorance or inner disorganization, or the lack of power, or negative environment, or the gap between wealth and the haves and have-nots? Now, I want to go on record as saying these things must be dealt with, and I think the church has a right and obligation to speak out on these things, but when you’re going to focus down to germinal problem, the critically central problem, we have to say they are not these things. Man’s critical center problem is his alienation from God — the fact that he’s cut off from God — and this is the clear implication of the Bible.

I love books. I have described myself to you on several occasions as a book-a-holic. Where two or three books are gathered together, I’m going to be in the midst of them, if I can. We find books hidden around the house when they’re trying to get me off of them. I never want to be without my supply of books. They’re always there. And so, last week I bought another armload of books, and I bought a set of books I have been wanting. It’s four volumes — the best Bible dictionary in print today. I wanted it, and so I said, “Go ahead, Enjoy yourself! You only go around once, get all you can!”

It was a religious experience when I got it into my study. And you know, I had to read it all. And since I was gong to preach on sin, I said, “I think I’ll look of up the category of ‘Sin.’” In most Bible dictionaries there would be maybe one column of discussion of “Sin” as the Bible would give us. This is a four-volume dictionary. I expected maybe two pages on “Sin.” There were 15 pages — 15 glorious pages — dedicated to “Sin.” It didn’t describe it in detail — it wasn’t a Cecil B. DeMille movie describing “Sin,” but it was 15 pages, 30 columns, closely spaced, not a wasted word, about “Sin.” Thirty columns of this.

So I said to myself, “I wonder how much is written in here about Jesus Christ?” and so I turned to the compilation about Jesus, and there were 30 pages about Jesus. I’m glad there were twice as many about salvation.

But let me read to you the opening paragraph. Now, this is a set of books that will be found in every competent theological library in America. Let me read the first paragraph on their entry concerning “Sin” — verbatim: “The Bible takes sin in dead seriousness. Unlike many modern religionists, who seek to find excuses for sin, and explain away its seriousness, it was a condition of dreadful estrangement from God for the Bible writers. Man finds himself in sin and suffers its painful effects. God graciously offers salvation from it. This is what the whole Bible is about.”

We cannot relegate sin out to the itinerate fundamentalists. We cannot relegate it to a category of high-button shoes and running boards. We can’t say that sin belongs to another generation and we’ve grown up and moved away from it. We can’t say that man’s alienation from God has now taken the form of one of these other categories that I’ve talked about. As biblical Christians, we must come to the stance that we all are aware of, that man is a creature who is alienated from God. His basic alienation from God is that which gives him his own pain, and God has mercifully supplied a way for us to have a bridge back to God. Here is the crux of the critically central problem of man. The human experience reflects it and there’s no way for us to evade it. It’s here. Without sin, we have no way to explain what’s going wrong with life.

Did you read the story this week in the Atlanta papers about the 70-year-old woman who was raped and killed in our city? I think it was murder 121 or 122, I’m not sure. Now, it’s interesting. They have apprehended the alleged people who did it. Assuming that these are the ones who did it — these men are in jail — they come from an economically deprived environment, they have poor housing and they have bad educations. And so, some of our pasty-faced young sophomores would say, as the boy on “All in the Family,” “Oh, they were economically and educationally deprived, they have poor housing, therefore they went out and raped and killed.”

All right. For nine years my family has had a delightful person who comes one day a week, on Monday, and shovels out everything. She’s our maid. She’s not like the maid on “Maude,” but she’s our maid. When I want to impress my wife with how generous I am, I always remind her that I provided someone to clean up this mess every Monday.

She comes from across the city. She’s of the same race as the people who are in jail for the killing of that woman. She has gotten four children through school — two through college. I know how she did it, she hounded them until they went on through school to get out. She is active in her church. I know where she lives. It is an economically deprived community, she lives in substandard housing. She gives more money to her church every year than some of you give to this one, and you make 10 times more money than she does.

Now the same argument won’t hold. She comes from the same background. She has the same insight that could have been pumped into her life, from the same places. She has more reasons, because she’s older, to be angry with all of the establishment and the power bases, but you can’t make it hold. Take your choice. Are you going to have a cop-out, or are you going to come down to the germinal problem and say that the problem is not these things up on the surface, but the problem is down at it’s core, is man’s alienation from God. And when man is not connected to God, he lives and thinks and behaves like an animal.

Let’s call it what it is. It’s not economic deprivation, it’s not poor housing, it’s not bad environment — although these things are oppressive enough. It’s sin. Sin is vulgar, sin cannot be made better by sophistication. It wears many disguises and it undermines our dreams.

Because of this condition we call sin, salvation becomes necessary. How are we going to operate? How are we going to live? How are we going to survive if this is it? Well, God has known that every effort man has ever made to get rid of his sin has been to no avail. Man, who tried to appease an angry God by putting his own children upon the altar of sacrifice, could not get rid of his own alienation from God. Man, who tried to find some kind of moral law, and if he could only live up to the moral law, then he would become a righteous creature, could not make it operate that way correctly. Man, who went another way and tried to do as best he could be just abandoning God and turning his back on him, has found that sin still is there.

I recall with some interest the 1960s. As “The New York Times” calls it, “That slum generation.” The ’60s were a very interesting time. And there was injected into the American culture the idea that, with enough effort and enough money, we could change all the conditions that lead to sin. We were going to get rid of sin by pumping money and changing our total environment.

And so all of our college students, with their wild idealism, deserted in many cases by their professors, but marshaled by them, marched on the forces of sin for two or three summers in a row. They did everything they knew to bring down all the structures of sin. They rattled the foundations of our institutions, knowing their new education and their wild idealism was going to bring them down. They were going to get rid of sin in our culture. They had called it a lot of other things, but it was going to be taken out.

And what happened? They found out that sin was not that easily dislodged. They found out that sin was not going to go away simply because a sophomore said it should. They found out, much to their chagrin, that sin had been here a long time and it was going to be here long after they were gone.

And, so when they came back to their colleges in the fall they started going into smaller groups and they moved into some sort of obscure religious organizations, and now the same kids who were marching in the streets are now in meditation societies, or are with their Bibles in their hands, getting ready to be counselors. And some of the theological seminaries in America tell us there are many young people preparing themselves for religious vocations because they had found that the other avenues do not come to grips with the real problem.

I was on a seminary campus about a year ago and, as I was getting ready to speak to this group of young theologs, I was standing backstage with the young man who was in charge of the microphones. I turned to him and said, “Tell me about yourself.” That’s a good one for openers. He said he had been at another seminary, but transferred here. He named the other school that had a national reputation. I asked him, “Why did you transfer here?” He said, “I wanted some theology and not sociology and I’ve come to where I hope I can find a lever to move this world, and not some sort of social pablum.”

What I’m trying to get you to hear is that we’ve tried to find every way to evade it, but at the core there is man the sinner and God the savior. And we must come to grips with this. Until people understand this, we’re not going to have any kind of change in America. Until we understand this, there’s not going to be any kind of change in your life. These changes must take place. The Bible actually is God’s revelation of himself to man, saying “Here is the way to do away with your alienation from God.”

Christ appeared to save us from our sin. The scripture that I read a moment ago tells us clearly that he came to save us from our sins, not to save us from our ignorance, and not to save us from our lack of therapy and self-understanding, not to save us from our political oppression. May I remind you that, when they tried to get Jesus to be a political ruler, he wouldn’t do it. The scripture that I read a moment ago said that his name was “Jesus” and he has come to save the people from their sins, not from their bad sociological structures, or from their dialectical materialism. He has come to save the people from their sin.

When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he said, “Look! Here is the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin” — not the ignorance, but the sin — of the world. We need to come to understand that our basic problem is our separation from God and we can’t live with this separation. It drives us to the place that we cry out, “Father, save us!”

What must I do to be saved? A man can’t do it. Only God can do it. And the purpose of the New Testament is to show man the remedy of God for his sins.

OK, you’re here today, and for our arguments today you accept the valid category of “Sin” as being man’s estrangement from God. And you hear me as I say that this is the basic problem of human nature. Where do we go from here? One other step. The door of grace, the door of personal change, swings on the hinge of trust in God and repentance from sin. If we are faithful, and repent of our sins, he will save us.

“If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Romans 10:9). The whole tone of the New Testament is, the humble heart and a confession that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord, the persons comes into the presence of God and Christ becomes a part of his life.

We spend a lot of time trying to explain to people what it is to become a Christian and what it’s like to follow Jesus. But the strange thing about this is that it’s talking in categories which we have not had the ability to understand. If you grow up in south Florida, you’ve never seen snow. And people can talk about snow forever, but until you see it and play in it, you don’t know what snow is. If you grow up in the South Seas, you never understand what it is to see an iceberg, until you go to the Arctic and see one. And so it is, I can talk about what it is to be a Christian, but actually what I must do is tell you, that if you confess with your mouth, and believe in your heart Jesus Christ, and believe that God has raised him from the dead, you will begin to see — see with your eyes, with your ears and your heart — what it means to follow the Christ.

Yes, we need to understand “Sin” as a valid category of human understanding, and then we need to understand that God is able to deliver us from its clutches. Let us pray.

Oh God, how we would like to call it something else. How we want to be delivered from what seems so unsophisticated. How we wish there was another way to describe it. How we want the book to be interpreted so that the painful alienation of God and man would no longer be found in it. But it doesn’t operate that way. Help us to know that you take us seriously, because you take the human condition seriously. Help us to know that you take it so seriously that you have provided the remedy for it. This day, in the beauty of this worship encounter, we pray that people can come to the place where they know Christ as their savior, and shall come into an understanding which is fresh and new and fitting, as we give thee again this church, this day, and our lives. In Jesus name, amen.

This morning, if you would publicly confess you sins and receive Christ as your savior, we invite you to step out of the pew where you may be, and come to the front. If this day you would come and bring your life into this church by the transfer of your church membership, or any way we receive members — by letter or by statement — we invite you to come. Come to the front as we stand and sing hymn number 355.

(Taken from an audio recording with minor editorial revisions.)