There is a conflict as old as humanity that crosses every divide ever created. That conflict can be summed up as “what is lawful.” Or to put it another way, “what is sin.” How do we know where the lines are and when we’ve crossed them? Who determines those lines? Who passes judgment when they are crossed? Are there universal lines or only individual lines? Even the early Christians argued over some of these same questions.
The book of Acts records a meeting of the Jerusalem elders to determine what laws the Gentiles (non-Jewish believers) were to observe. Should they essentially become Jewish and keep the whole law? The debate can be found in Acts 15:1-35. Their conclusion was this – “And so my judgment is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead, we should write and tell them to abstain from eating food offered to idols, from sexual immorality, from eating the meat of strangled animals, and from consuming blood.” (Acts 15:19–20, NLT) But even that wasn’t the final word. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians concerning food offered to idols acknowledges differences in conscience and what to do about it (see 1st Corinthians 8).
Over the following two millennia what words, deeds, and thoughts were considered sin morphed and changed through various times and cultures. Sometimes rightly so, sometimes it was very wrong. Even the seemingly obvious sins shifted. For instance, during the middle ages murder was approved for differences of faith in the name of Christ. At one time divorce was treated as an unforgivable sin. For centuries, slavery was approved in the name of Christ. And to be complete it was Christians who changed that understanding about slavery. To say that Christianity’s “sin list” hasn’t changed in 2000 years is a statement missing reams of history.
Does this mean God changes His mind on what is and isn’t sin? No. It is we who have changed it. Even today some sins are normalized and others are ostracized. Normalized sins are those we readily ignore like gossip and backbiting. Ostracized sins are those sins we break fellowship over. That “sin list” and the communal punishment prescribed is what changes. We’d love for things to be clear with no muddled tones to be heard, but that is not reality.
Take the history of alcohol use for example. Over the years it has seen a variety of responses in the church. This has ranged from allowed within limits to total avoidance. It has been denounced from pulpits as the devil’s brew and offered in communion cups in remembrance of Christ’s blood. Confused yet? To be clear, in my understanding the Bible doesn’t outright forbid alcohol but it does forbid drunkenness with the provision that our freedom must not cause someone else to stumble.
Today, the church is reaping the seeds of normalizing some sins and ostracizing others. To the outside world, it seems as though our “sin list” is pliable so society demands change based on their whims and desires. Our response to their anger, the division within our unity, and our visible hypocrisy has dimmed our light and made bitter our saltiness.
I see three possible paths forward from this point. Some, in a move towards holiness, will seek to purge all sin. While noble in sentiment such a tact drives sin underground and tends to erect pious false fronts of perfection. Others will seek to ignore sin altogether (or nearly so) by giving everyone a pass. But if nothing is a sin, if nothing we do, say, or think matters to God or others, then why do we need a savior and forgiveness? There is a way which holds to the truth in the Bible and in our lives.
That way acknowledges that we all sin. We sinned before we accepted Christ’s forgiveness and we continue to sin afterward. (see 1 John 1:8) In this path forward, we don’t ignore our sin, but actively invite the Holy Spirit to continue His work in us and in each other. No sin is normalized, hidden, or swept under the rug for the sake of optics or cultural acceptance. No sin causes separation from an individual unless the Holy Spirit says enough.
Call this real Christianity which strips away our false fronts and celebrates wearing the Belt of Truth. Where observed sin in others is a call to prayer and introspection long before it is a call to confrontation. A real adventure in Christ which seeks unity while God individually moves our heart towards recognition, confession, repentance, and forgiveness of our sins. Where confrontation, when necessary, is permeated with an attitude of love and moves with the goal of restoration and wholeness for all. Real Christianity calls for great love, an abundance of patience, an overflow of grace and mercy, is steeped with gentleness and flavored with kindness. Its practice requires neither an assumption of innocence or the presumption of guilt but full reliance and trust in the Holy Spirit.
In all openness and candor. I am a sinner saved by grace. I struggle with pride, needing to be acknowledged, needing to feel significant and liked. I lie and control to protect myself and what others think about me. I lust at times and covet what others have. I fail to take everything to God, to continue in prayer, to continue seeking His will and His way. I create gods out of people, things and ideas. I still choose my own way for my own pleasure. I am selfish. I am judgemental at times and refuse to accept those I don’t understand and those I feel judged by. I hate at times and I am unloving at times. Those are my sins today and there are undoubtedly others I fail to see. I trust the Holy Spirit to continue His work in me. What about you?
My sin is neither less than or greater than yours or anyone else’s. This is not a contest to see who has been (or is) the worst sinner or the greatest saint. It is a call for honesty with ourselves and each other. This is a call to put away our mental lists of what sins get a pass and what sins are “evil.” All sins from gossip to murder and everything in between are evil. This is ultimately a call to walk in love towards each other as we trust the Holy Spirit to continue His work in our hearts and the hearts of others. It’s not easy, it is risky, but love is never easy and is always risky.
When we are real with one another and love each other in spite of our differences the light of Christ in us will be bright and clear. Jesus said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (John 13:35, NLT) Being real in our love for each other will remove the bitter taste many have experienced about Christianity and will return us to truly being the savory salt of the world.
This conflict about what is and is not sin is a conflict we shouldn’t have at all. God holds the list and is the one who examines the intent of our heart. In all actuality, the list is extremely short but miles deep. Paul wrote, “whatever is not from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23b, NASB95) Jesus said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37–40, NASB95) That’s it. God’s list is short but farther reaching than the Law or any manmade list could ever imagine.
I close this knowing full well that everyone will read these words through their own set of filters. Some will assume one thing, while another will see something completely different. Some will even assume what sins I’m thinking about. Others may feel the need to use this precept to create a whole new list. Stop. We are all sinners. We all need God’s grace every day. We are forgiven but are also still working out our salvation. Let’s be real with God and with each other for a change. I choose to trust the Holy Spirit to continue His work in my sinful heart and in yours.