Sin: Self or Circumstances?

Society-of-the-spectacleChristianity 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

12 thoughts on “Sin: Self or Circumstances?

  1. I’m with you on the progression. This is not a chicken-egg comparison as we clearly began with individuals, not social structures that individuals grew out of.
    My understanding of how the church is to interact with social change roots itself in Acts where the whole socio-economic status of a society were changed (Ephesus for example), not by programs, but by faithful gospel presentation and the its power to change individuals. I think i remember Matt Chandler saying once something like “Christianity used to be this small movement that transformed entire societies; now it’s this massive movement that effects almost no change at all.”

    So, i guess i’m in the camp of the church’s primary function is to make disciples and as we are faithful in that task, we will see societies change.

    • See, I’m with you mostly, but I see a corporate element at work in the community of the church. I also am working out the role of Christian witness in the political arena, testifying to God’s order for the world. Keller’s helpful in this area without being too dogmatic.

  2. I need to do more research on this – I certainly don’t have any outside authority to back up what I’m about to say, but here goes…

    From what I can tell, Romans addresses this tension. The way Paul talks about sin (singular) and sins (plural) changes… Namely in 3-5 he addresses more sin (singular) being a problem of an individual’s heart that is taken care of by grace through faith in Christ alone resulting in justification – Abraham believed the promise and it was counted to him as righteousness… circumcision was just the sign. But then in 6-8 he addresses more sins (in the plural sense) being about actions. And then in 8 he also addresses the groaning of creation, instead of its celebration that we see of redeemed creation as in Isaiah 55, but that it will be set free to celebrate. On top of that there is that difficult tension between the Romans 7 man “oh wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of sin and death” and the Romans 8 man “now in all things, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” So the short answer is that Christ addresses both sides of sin you mention (agreeing with the “both/and” take).

    In more depth, with that out of the way, turning to II Corinthians 5 and the ambassadors of Christ language. Before the cross our hearts are sick dying kingdoms that we attempt to rule by sin and conquer other kingdoms for the sake of building our own (leading to the futility of creation). But after the cross, the grace of the cross crushes the kingdom of sin in our hearts and adopts us into His kingdom. But the issue is that the world is still subjugated to the fall and so our roles are ambassadors. And as ambassadors we go into the world proclaiming and urging peace and reconciliation between creation and His coming kingdom – leading to that already but not yet tension.

    And so, I would argue that as long as the church is full of ambassadors – which God in His sovereignty will ensure (see Dangerous Calling by Paul David Tripp for examples of this) – it is a concurrent process. The ministry of reconciliation leads to His Gospel going forward to give faith (“faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God”), which makes more ambassadors to further the ministry of reconciliation.

    Sorry for the tomb and scattered thoughts. I need to research this more, but that’s what I’ve thought about this so far.

      • Yes – I think the Kingdom of God is holistic in that regard. Creation is still His, even though it has been tainted. I think the role of ambassador, as such, should encompass all of society and culture. Kuyper’s Stone lectures at Princeton come to mind. But, like I said I haven’t done any research yet into what church fathers or commentators have said on the subject… So I may be completely off base.

      • Also random and coincidental – I just read it this morning, but Marilynne Robinson’s Death of Adam has a really good essay on this titled “Puritans and Prigs.” The title is a little narrow for what she covers in the essay, but it is quality and addresses societal reform vs. individual reform particularly in light of the Puritans and Calvinism as contrasted with populist American thought today and Stalinism. (I also highly recommend entire collection, her essay on Darwinism and another on Family are particularly fantastic).

  3. You ever read Stringfellow? I think he has some major insights into this arena, especially in our American context. The Liberal delusion is that societal forces can be changed or fixed, in the same way that fundamentalism/evangelicalism applies moralism to try to change and fix people. People are fallen, but the whole world also is fallen. That means structures, institutions and social powers are corrupted.

    Another, Jacques Ellul, puts a faithful position as being a “hopeful pessimist”. In that, we realize that nothing can be perfect, we all have blood on our hands (personally and institutionally), but there is a hope. We’re like Jews in Babylon. Do good for the city, keep justice, but do not forget that home is Jerusalem. The Jews were not citizens of Babylons, only strangers. Strangers that raised families and worked, but still strangers.

    I recommend his “The Meaning of the City”.


  4. Another aspect to think about is the effect a tumor in the brain can have on one part of the brain and thus on a person’s behavior. Another thing to think about is the effect a brain injury can have on one’s ability to follow through with decisions as in the case of Phineas Gage (1823-1860). Are some actions sin in one person and not sin in another who has a problem in the brain?

    • I think it depends on the kind of activity. In some cases, the activity in action would still be sinful, but what might be mitigated is the culpability of the one engaged in the activity. In other words, two guys on trial for the same crime both committed the crime, but one might get off for reasons of mental incapacity. The action is still wrong when considered in itself, but assigning responsibility is different in that case.

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