It's worse than you think: Four things Christians get wrong about 'sin'

A recent survey by LifeWay Research probed American views on 'sin'. But sin, a theological concept at the heart of Christianity, can be tragically misunderstood both in and outside the Church.

Pexels'Sin' can be though of as purely individual, legalistic, or just not a big deal. But its more like a dark valley or looming storm - far bigger than we thought.

Earlier this year then-Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, a Christian, was plagued by a question I'm sure he learned to dread: 'Is gay sex a sin?' His responses, initially failing to provide the simple 'no' that people presumably wanted, dogged the General Election campaign. Farron would later suggest they showed the impossibility of being a committed Christian in mainstream politics.

But that wider debate aside, there was a sense that the word 'sin' was just confusing people. Some seemed to infer that saying gay sex was 'a sin' meant you therefore 'hated gay people', or near enough, even though Farron had long advocated for the equality of the LGBTQ community. The Lib Dem leader had tried to explain himself with reference to the concept of classic Liberalism, but by that point no one really cared.

Inescapably negative, sin will probably always be a tricky concept to talk about. But there are some really bad ways to talk about it – and better alternatives. Here are four.

1. 'Sin is like heavenly credit card debt – Jesus clears it!'

A caricature often perpetuated in the Church is that sin is essentially your heavenly debt – and the work of Christ is simply the transaction that wipes the slate clean. It works well for a simple 'four points' evangelical formula: you're sinful, but God loves you, so God saved you and cleared your debt, so now be grateful until you get to heaven.

Or perhaps even outside evangelical circles, God gets perceived primarily as a far-off judge of good and evil, he's weighing up our deeds day-to-day, and on judgment day you'll find out how you did. It makes God seem like an impersonal, inactive and ultimately legalistic judge.

This mindset detaches us from sin, rendering it an abstract concept that its quite easy, and convenient, to ignore. It can imply that you never have to deal with its effects in earthly life. Unfortunately, the opposite is the case.

2. 'Sin is just individual, the bad things you've done'

Another misunderstanding is that sin is purely an individual problem – it's your personal wrongdoing. But Scripture says it's so much bigger: 'sin' belongs to nations, communities, and societal structures. It's corporate and institutional.

When Israel neglects the poor, the orphan the widow and the stranger, God's prophets cry out. They're not naming names, this is corporate injustice. As long as they let it happen, they are to blame. On a similar note, sin can be not just the wrong things we do (sins of commission), but the bad things we allow to happen that we could've stopped (sins of omission).

It makes the whole thing more complex, but also encourages us to take this life more seriously. It's not hard to look at the state of the world and see how corporate sin has spread: institutional racism, social systems that condemn the poor and elevate the rich, and an individualistic mindset that allows us to close our ears to global injustice, to name a few.

Reuters45.8 million people are held in forced labour, sexual slavery or unpaid work around the world. 'Sin' is systemic, corporate and destructive.

3. 'Sin is just fine, and a little bit sexy'

There used to be a line of Magnum ice-creams that were each sold as one of the 'seven deadly sins'. With the help of the sultry advertising, sin somehow became bound up with just being a little seductive and sexy. It's like chocolate: a little 'naughty' or indulgent, but a good kind of bad. Perhaps that's how some imagine sin. Occasionally listening to that cheeky horned devil on your shoulder, how bad can it be?

Equally, some Christians can be so delighted in the salvation of Christ that they imagine sin no longer has any power. Perhaps misunderstood, Martin Luther implored his followers to 'sin boldly' as a scorn to Satan, so safe were they in the forgiveness of Christ.

Unfortunately the Bible, and real life, points to a far more grim reality. Sin is rather a malevolent, destructive force: allowed to flourish, it kills all life. Tragic and harmful addictions can bear this out, proving that choices have consequences, and that doing wrong can never be purely kept to yourself, but inevitably infects one's whole life: damaging relationships, opportunities and capacity to choose good instead.

Marital infidelity is bad not just because God likes commitment, but because it causes pain, poisons trust, distances family and inhibits love. Murder isn't wrong only because it's a crime, but because it condemns both the actor and the victim, and frequently provokes endless cycles of violence that follow.

Sin isn't just naughty: its deeply destructive.

4. 'Sinners' are outside the Church – society's very worst

The Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus' day apparently loved the idea that 'sinners' such as tax collectors and prostitutes were far from the Kingdom of God. Jesus told them otherwise, and promised that the 'last' (in their eyes) would ultimately be the 'first' in his Kingdom.

Christ saved his strongest words for the 'religious' who didn't think they needed forgiveness, and indulged in their self-righteousness. As spoken word artist Jefferson Bethke put it, the Church is 'not a museum for good people, it's a hospital for the broken.'

Christian theology has always understood sin to belong to all humanity, not a select few that we choose. Many miss this, and perceive the Church as the righteous stronghold condemning the unworthy who dwell outside. That may sometimes be how it is, but never how it should be. To believe something is sinful doesn't, or at least shouldn't, mean that person is worthy of hate. If that were true, who would be safe? For a reminder that the Church, and those within it, are far from perfect, either join a church, or watch the news.

If you plan on judging, Jesus warned, take a long hard look in the mirror first.

All this talk of sin is hardly cheery, but there is always good news. None of what's been said means that humankind's tendency to selfishness and destruction is irredeemable or hopeless. It just means the problem is bigger than we might have thought. Mercifully, so is God.

You can follow @JosephHartropp on Twitter