Monday, March 22, 2010

The Problem with Sin in the Social Gospel

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:26-27

A friend and I discussed the different perspectives of sin this weekend. Is all sin against God or does sin come from the effects it has on those around us? The latter view, I pointed out, brings us closer to the social gospel, which is more concerned with social redemption and social justice than divine redemption and justice. This is not to say that God doesn't care what happens down here, but we need to keep our priorities straight. James shows us that our responsibility as Christians is three-fold:

  1. Taming the tongue = taming the heart. As Jesus had argued earlier, James shows us that the tongue just spews forth what is already in your heart (Jas 3:6-12). In order to tame the tongue we need to pursue righteousness. An illustration of this is any time I speak without thinking. Very rarely is this thoughtless speech edifying. My heart is wicked and what comes out of my mouth reflects this. My first thought was not to bless but to curse (both uses of the word fit!). James (and therefore the Holy Spirit that inspired him) is interested in your heart and how you express yourself. It really matters to God and therefore it should really matter to us.
  2. Love those that are afflicted. Widows and orphans didn't have any welfare support back then. They either starved to death or someone else took care of them. There were no safety nets to keep them in food and shelter. It was the call of the Christian to care for those that couldn't care for themselves. It was a living picture of the Gospel. We could not be reconciled to God, there was nothing we could do on our own. Therefore God decided to fulfill both parts of the bargain, he would reconcile us to himself. He would pay our price at the cost of his Son. Our response to the magnitude of this gift is to live lives marked by generosity.
  3. Unstained by the world. The word-picture James uses shows us that our lives are to be like a pure lamb, a perfect sacrifice. Exodus 12:5 says that the lamb for the sin offering was to be without spot or blemish. God required this because it was a reflection on his perfect holiness. This final responsibility wraps up the other two. I cannot be a perfect sacrifice if I have worldliness in my heart and it is expressed to all those around me through the poison of my tongue. I cannot be a perfect sacrifice if I am not loving as God has--by loving those that can't do anything to reciprocate. Our goal is to be unstained, not wrapped up in evil pursuits nor only loving those that can "get me something."

The social gospel, and the emergent spin-offs, define sin by not loving and taking care of the people around them. They miss the point because Scripture shows us that we need to define all of our actions according to our relationship to God. We don't love others because that is an end in itself, we love others because we were first loved by God. We don't need to tame the tongue because it might offend someone, we need to tame the tongue because we are to pursue holiness as our God is holy. Sin that rests on other people for definition takes an ultimately holy God out of the picture.

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