You likely know what I’m referring to when I say “it’s complicated.” It is a reference to relationships in all their, well, complexity. Why we do what we do in relation to others; how we go about it; and, where it is all going is sometimes, even oftentimes, subject to us struggling to define a particular relationship or situation to another person as “it’s complicated.”
When it comes to the church, nothing is quite as it seems. Nice and apparently good people say some of the most off-the-wall and even mean-spirited things you would ever want to hear. Conversely, some of the most gossiping and loose-tongued persons within the fellowship are so capable of doing amazingly good works that the only thing we can say with any confidence is that “it’s complicated.”
There is a reason it’s complicated. Sin, death, and hell rule over the human condition like a perpetual wet blanket. Whenever we want to simplify situations and people by categorizing them into good people and bad people; whenever we have the propensity to place labels on others in order to keep things black and white; and, whenever we make gross generalizations about a group of people in sweeping blanket statements; then, we are severely underestimating the impact of humanity’s fall into sin (including our own) and have simplified a situation that is in reality rather complex.
One of the problems we encounter in any group of people, including the church, is that there are two dimensions to sin, not just one. Western Christians typically discern sin as intensely personal – as a verb in which we do or not do certain sinful acts. And this is true. “All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23). Yet, if we stop there we are only seeing sin in one dimension. Sin is also a power, a dominion under which all of humanity exists. In other words, we might think of lower case “sin” as individual deeds of sinfulness; and, upper case “Sin” as a constant pervasive realm of evil that is continually oppressing us. “Jews, as well as Gentiles, are ruled by Sin” (Romans 3:9). So, then, sin resides both in the human heart and in human institutions. Sin is both personal and systemic so that when we look at the complete landscape of the human condition in all of its foulness and degradation, it’s complicated, man.
Sin is such a ubiquitous and pervasive reality that the Scriptures can say “No one is acceptable to God! Not one of them understands or even searches for God… There isn’t one person who does right” (Romans 3:10-12). This situation exists primarily because of the vast realm of Sin. Therefore, when we turn to the answer to this terrible and egregious calamity of s(S)in, the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross, the atonement of Christ has taken care of it all – dismantled the dominion of Sin and taken away its power of death, as well as absorbed all personal guilt for individual human sins.
Let’s bring this theological and anthropological understanding back into the church setting. Praying for lost people and proclaiming salvation for individuals who have guilt over personal sins is a must. But having people saved from guilty acts is not the whole story of your church. If we fail to pray against the persistent problem of Sin as a realm and dominion, then Sin is going to come back and bite us because it is still there, still exerting its power. Saving faith must turn into sanctifying faith in which people realize that the dominion of Sin must be continually overcome by applying Christ’s redemption to both personal and corporate life. The late Dallas Willard used to say: Grace is opposed to earning, but not opposed to effort.
People are enslaved to Sin. They must be set free through the death of Christ by turning from sin and following Jesus, as well as putting a great deal of effort into forsaking the old masters of cultural obsessions and systemic compulsions of evil. In short, we must become slaves to God’s righteousness in a great transference of allegiance. “You gotta serve somebody,” said Bob Dylan. And that somebody needs to be God and not Sin. Oversimplifying sin will only get us in trouble. Sin is terrible and complex. Let’s make sure we are forsaking it in all of its sinister manifestations so that we might pursue God in all His goodness.