Christianity has a simple message: Jesus saves from sin. When you start asking questions about what that means, you realize that simple message can generate, and indeed, necessitates some very complicated explanations. A simple question like “Who is Jesus?” can call forth debates that span centuries, councils, and countless learned treatises that, even when they establish a solid baseline, never fully come to the end of the issue.
So what of the other part of the equation? What are we talking about when it comes to the ‘sin’ that Jesus saves us from? While we could tackle this from a number of angles, one question that has been a rather thorny one in the modern period is whether sin is more of a personal or a social reality. Painting with a ridiculously broad brush, one could say that contemporary pop-Evangelicalism and mainline liberalism have typically taken opposing approaches to sin and sanctification.
Evangelicalism has typically focused on sin as a problem with individuals. I choose to sin, personally disobeying God, loving things other than the Lord my God with heart, soul, mind, and strength first. If society as a whole is debauched or unjust, it is because of the collective individuals of which it consists. Liberalism has typically given priority to society and structural issues. Sin is less about personal acts of unrighteousness, but rather unjust systems of oppression that trap people in harmful, destructive behavioral cycles. If holiness is to be achieved, we must change the social structures first and the individual issues will be mended from there.
So which is it? The sinful self or the circumstances that lead to sin? Jurgen Moltmann weighs in:
‘Change yourself’ some say, ‘and then your circumstances will also change.’ The kingdom of God and of freedom is supposed to have to do only with persons. Unfortunately the circumstances will not oblige. Capitalism, racism, and inhuman technocracy quietly develop in their own way. The causes of misery are no longer to be found in the inner attitudes of men, but have long been institutionalized.
‘Change the circumstances’ others say, ‘and men will change with them.’ The kingdom of God and of freedom is supposed to be a matter only of circumstances and structures. Unfortunately, however, men will not oblige. Breakdowns in marriage, drug addiction, suicide and alcoholism continue undisturbed. Structures which make people unhappy can be broken down, but no guarantee is attached that men will be happy.
Thus both must be done at the same time. Personal, inner change without a change in circumstances and structures is an idealist illusion, as though man were only a soul and not a body as well. But a change in external circumstances without inner renewal is a materialist illusion, as though man were only a product of his social circumstances and nothing else.
–The Crucified God, pg. 23
Once again, the Gospel is a simple message but it is not simplistic. We need salvation both from our own personal sin and rebellion, as well as the redemption of broken social structures that are generated by and aggravate that rebellion. Evangelical that I am, I think the latter is rooted in the former; in the narrative of Scripture, sin moves progresses from the personal (the garden, Gen. 3) to the social (Babel, Gen. 11). Still, it does not help to ignore either as we think through reality of redemption.
Now, as always, its beyond me to suggest how that all plays out. I work in the local church, primarily at the level of the individual, and am only now framing my theology of how the Church, either as an organism or an institution, should be engaged in social change. I do know that as I continue to pursue these questions, I don’t have to panic as the world is firmly in Jesus’ saving hands.
Soli Deo Gloria