Is righteousness underrated by liberal Christians?

I mentioned in passing in “Sinners in the hands of an ___ God” that I think universalism has the tendency to overshoot our focus in terms of practical Christian living (Richard Beck agrees). Although I doubt that it does this significantly more than most preoccupations with the hereafter, I do want to suggest that one particular pitfall that people in conservative Christian leadership are keen to point out to those of us who are less traditional in our soteriology actually has some validity to it.

It’s this: I’ve found that Christians whose theology has left the Fundamentalist/Evangelical staging grounds are simultaneously the most likely to lean toward radical inclusivism and the least likely to talk about personal sin. In fact, I expect that many of them won’t get much further than this paragraph before saying, “Not interested. Can’t we get on with talking about how wrong and silly conservative Christians are?”

Now, the reasoned universalists I’m familiar with do not fall into this category nearly as much as those who sort of end up in essential universalism by default after leaving the mainstream Evangelical Christianity herd. “God is love; God won’t condemn; God wants to give us all bear hugs, especially if we advocate for the marginalized.” It seems that those in this latter group allow the idea of God’s forgiveness of sin to morph into an assumption about God’s disregarding sins – well, sins other than fundamentalist bigotry, anyway. But I think this is a reflex of a faulty view of what constitutes sin in the first place.

The libertarian/classical liberal political philosophy is often summarized as the conviction that, so long as you do not adversely affect another’s life, liberty, or property, no one has the right to interfere with your actions, even when operating under the name of “government”. It’s often noted that while the American Right only honors that philosophy in economic matters, the American Left instead champions that ideal in social matters: let them sleep with whomever they want to, smoke or inject themselves with whatever they want to, and you’re probably a closeted theocrat if you vote otherwise! Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that many theological progressives (who highly correlate with those on the political Left) give the impression that if it doesn’t directly hurt my neighbor, it’s not really sin — or even if it is sin of some sort, it’s not the sort we need to obsess over. Without stating it explicitly, the implication is that God doesn’t poke His head too far into your private business. Love your neighbor and don’t hurt anyone, and you’ll probably be fine.

But if, as I’ve argued in my two earlier posts on this topic (1, 2), sin is conceived as that behavior which is characteristic of a damaged will, our salvation is best thought of as healing and liberation that helps us avoid sin by all means possible through participation in the life of the Spirit.

I agree with my fellow post-conservative Christians that personal (unobtrusive, non-violent, “libertarian”-friendly) sins don’t steam God one little bit. After all, He’s not a peevish tyrant who just arbitrarily decided that He doesn’t like certain things and then judges people for it, and nor is He bound to uphold some esoteric perfectionistic criterion that exists external to Himself. If He hates certain behavior, He hates it for a perfectly good reason. That’s why I think that God doesn’t react in indignant anger to our “little” vices; but it doesn’t mean He wants any of them to remain in our lives.

See, under the disease model, sin is bad for the same reason that bleeding from an open wound is bad: it’s a symptom of a problem that, left alone or ignored, produces an even bigger problem. Even surface wounds can turn ugly if left untreated, and in the same way that internal bleeding is anything but desirable, even secret or relatively “contained” sinning is unhealthy. God wants us well, and to the extent that we’re happy to retain our sicknesses, we’re evincing an illness of the will that we should hasten to surrender to our Father’s healing hands much as a child runs to her parents when she thinks she might have broken her arm (even if she hurt it doing something she shouldn’t have been doing).

It’s temptingly convenient to do as many public figures do and separate pet vices from the type of moral shortcomings that we feel actually need to be addressed. But as long as the behavior is recognized as a vice, a character flaw, or even just a bad habit, it should be rejected, not coddled. Our own personal holiness is something worth intently striving for, and to allay the fears of theological progressives, that concern does not compete with compassion for the hurting and marginalized: attuning our heart to God’s heart will purify and deepen the motivation behind our benevolent actions. And remember, the founder of our faith emphasized personal righteousness no less than he did compassion.

If all this makes me seem like something of a Puritan universalist, I need to clarify something. This is a much more positive view than that of those stereotypical Puritans or the old time holiness preachers. While I do believe we need to be diligent about identifying the flaws in our own character, where the predominant view of sin goes wrong is in the implication that we should always be obsessed with hunting it down in ourselves and others. Our goal is not to agonize over every sinful inclination but to develop the mind of Christ within ourselves. We cultivate good health, not just the elimination of sicknesses; treatment for illness is the last resort, whereas prevention through healthy lifestyles is how we occupy ourselves. We don’t fear sin for judgment’s sake, because God intends to heal us of it rather than smite or reject us for it; we avoid sin by chasing down perfection, focusing on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, reputable, and praiseworthy. As I was told long ago in youth group, the point of Christian freedom isn’t to allow us to get as close to the “sin” line as we possibly can get without stepping over it, but to allow us to make all haste to leave it as far behind as possible and pursue righteousness.

The Bible occasionally presents ancient, outdated, and arcane standards for what constitutes sin; in fact, quite often it’s referring to breaking certain aspects of Torah, which most Christians no longer put any stock in. But I am uncomfortable throwing the Bible out as an educator in areas of “reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness.” Granted, we can’t proof-text sin: behavior is not sinful simply because it’s spoken of unfavorably – or even named as sin – in any particular verse. When someone in Scripture condemns a certain behavior it is only sinful if there’s an actual, theologically sound rationale underlying its censure. Remember, I don’t think that God dictates our behavior based on an inscrutable, immutable, abstract, and essentially arbitrary Cosmic Code of Conduct. This much I get. But I do wonder if we should all take the admonitions of our faith’s forefathers a bit more seriously; for instance, I can certainly understand why the author of Ephesians might not have been just a prudish killjoy when he advised his audience against drunkenness.  I also want to suggest that we should tread a little more lightly in lifting biblical bans on behavior even when at first glance we fail to see why the biblical authors considered it problematic; for instance, do we have a good enough reason to override the biblical censure on “coarse language”, even if it doesn’t seem like such an awful thing to us? More often than not, I find that there are virtues we all believe in that properly motivate bans on the behaviors that populate those lists of sins we find (e.g.) in Paul’s epistles.

So yes, sometimes upon reflection clarity will surface about where the “sin” line should be drawn: but don’t forget for a minute that there is such a line. Sin that is destructive of others is obviously wrong: but so is self-destructive sin. Jesus reportedly taught that even thinking sinful thoughts is sin — it is against God’s nature and symptomatic of our diseased wills. I would caution against making too firm a distinction between violent sin that hurts others and contained, internal, personal “flaws”: jealousy, bitterness, pride, gluttony, lackadaisical attitudes about sex, the impulse to call people names and seize each opportunity to demonize their character or intelligence — all of these tendencies must be steadfastly resisted because not only are they contrary to God’s character, if left untreated they have real world effects. Mark and Matthew record Jesus, echoing Proverbs, warning that what our minds are occupied with will eventually spill out.

Even when we give up the idea that sin is some sort of legal offense against God, we can recognize that He desperately wants to uproot it from us with our cooperation. And to the extent that we realize we don’t quite share His concern, we should submit ourselves to Him for the renewing of our minds.

Jesus did not die to save us from punishment; he was called Jesus because he should save his people from their sins.

~ George MacDonald


This is Part 3 of a series. Here are the other posts:

Part 1: Sinners in the hands of a ____ God

Part 2: God’s Awful Mistake

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