The Gospel of Sin Management (Gil Dueck)
Our community is in the middle of a four-week sermon series on the nature of the gospel. We are discovering that “the gospel” is an expansive and inclusive thing—perhaps much bigger and deeper than many of us have considered it to be at various points along our journeys of faith. The gospel is good news that goes far beyond individual souls and their eternal destinies, and has implications for all of life and all of the world.
As I’ve been preparing for these sermons, the following post from my brother Gil Dueck has helped to sharpen a few concepts for me. A couple of things stood out to me as I re-read this post. 1) The gospel of sin-management seems to produce a faith that is easy to lose (especially for young adults?); 2) The gospel of sin-management struggles to provide a coherent account of why God made a world and why he made people. These are pretty significant weaknesses, in my view. We need better news.
One of the greatest benefits of owning books is reading them again. In my life this has proved helpful because I have often bought books and read them before I understood or even cared about the questions that animated the author. One such book is Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. I’ve had this book for a number of years. I think I’ve even read it once before. But in rereading it I’m finding so much that resonates with what I’ve experienced in teaching theology over the past six years.
In particular, Willard has a memorable and often quoted chapter entitled “Gospels of Sin Management.” The point here is relatively simple. The majority of Christians, from across the theological spectrum, believe in a gospel that “manages” sin but leaves their lives virtually untouched.
Christians on the right believe in a gospel that is basically concerned with sin as a barrier to entrance into heaven. Willard quotes Charles Ryrie’s summary,
The issue is, How can my sins be forgiven? What is it that bars me from heaven? What is it that prevents my having eternal life? The answer is sin. Therefore I need some way to resolve that problem. And God declares that the death of His son provides forgiveness of my sin… Through faith I receive Him and His forgiveness. Then the sin problem is solved, and I can be fully assured of going to heaven.
The concern that animates Willard is that this kind of gospel is irrelevant to most of our lives. It might deal with our present existential guilt and it might give us the assurance of heaven after we die, but it has virtually nothing to say to the long years in between. In Willard’s words, “It is left unexplained how it is possible that one can rely on Christ for the next life without doing so for this one.”
This is the gospel I grew up with. This is the gospel that many of the students I work with have believed or inherited. And it’s not entirely wrong. It’s just incomplete. It’s too small. It presents a God who “for some unfathomable reason, just thinks it appropriate to transfer credit from Christ’s merit account to ours, and to wipe out our sin debt, upon inspecting our mind and finding that we believe a particular theory of the atonement to be true—even if we trust everything but God in all other matters that concern us.”
This gospel ignores the central biblical theology of creation, that is, it ignores the question of why God made a world and why God made people. At best it implies that this world is a temporary kind of “testing ground” where we get a few years to make a really important decision about Jesus’ death, after which the real business of heaven and hell can take over.
And, according to my observation, this kind of gospel can produce a faith that is very easy to lose. Because as human beings we have more problems than guilt and death. We long for a sense of purpose and meaning in what we do and who we become. We grieve over a world that seems to be at war with itself. We experience moments of transcendence and beauty that cry out for a home, for a “location” within which to understand them. We long for reconciliation, both with God and within all the fractured communities around us. And if the gospel has nothing to say to these realities of life, then it can easily be perceived as irrelevant and it can easily be ignored.
Does our sin need to be managed? Of course it does. But so do our lives. Thank God that the gospel, in all its fullness, speak to both.