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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.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for this Gil.

    January 20, 2012
  2. For progressives, sin management takes the form of healing social ills, mending creation. In both forms, left and right, sin management focuses on the negative (a theme in a recent post of yours). Perhaps, in a positive vein, the gospel is about tapping into abundant life, life in all its rich and varied forms — bodily life, psychological life, spiritual life, social life, ecological life, eternal life.

    January 20, 2012
    • Amen. John 10:10 life.

      January 20, 2012
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Some of the premise regarding “sin management”, as presented here, is troubling. It almost seems like caricature. Is it true of evangelicals that they reduce the Gospels to a “ticket in”?

    From my perspective, “life management” and “sin management” seem synonymous, mostly interchangeable terms. Good life management it seems to me, would be good sin management and vice versa.

    Or to give nuance, the quality and character of life, our experience of it, and the effect we have on others, is very much impacted by the choices we make. Choices that, if I understand my faith correctly, we are called to examine so as to consider the potential outcomes. Not so much as to determine precise cause and effect…if I do this, this, this and this will happen..but rather an accountability that asks us to consider if what I’m choosing is likely to impact for the good, or not? Further, faith reminds me to never loose sight of the fact that I am a fallable decision maker, prone to making choices that are materially self serving but often underestimate the legitimate need and right of others. Ironicly, even often betraying my own best long term interest.

    Apart from being in a “living” relationship with God, faith tells me, I am unable to reflect the full potentials of justice, through the choices I make. My impulsive perception of “self interest” will too often betray me.

    Rather than affirm that Jesus once died for me so now I am saved from sin, I am to understand that, mediated by Holy Spirit, I am to live in an honest and open interior relationship with Jesus such that it impacts and informs the very (external/material) choices that I make.

    It is not Christ’s crucifiction that saves us. It is the crucified Christ.

    Once I begin to see “sin management” along the preceding lines, all of a sudden, as a precept, it begins to loose it’s crudeness and becomes something more akin to a thoughtful, intellectuallly viable and morally supportable disposition.

    I do not mean to suggest that what you post here, guys, is antiethical to what I’m saying but that I am concerned over the generally ill defined and poor reception the notion of “sin management” receives.

    January 21, 2012
    • I wish it were a caricature, but views like the one Gil describes are alive and well (he sees them in his classroom). It’s not true of all evangelicals, of course, but it’s certainly a prominent view, even if only implicitly held. The connection between “life management” and “sin management” that you refer to here is precisely the (necessary) connection that many fail to make.

      January 23, 2012
      • Paul Johnston #

        Perhaps a question(s) for, Gil?

        So what is the answer then? How does one effectively confront what is mostly a visceral response to the Gospels, with academics? Orthodox and Catholic traditions are steeped in contemplative understandings that seek to merge the spiritual intuit with reason. Believing them to be essential compliments, one to the other, in deepening our understanding of God, self and other. Are there similar resources within the Protestant/Evangelical traditions?

        Based on dialogue I have shared in and observed on line, I often find an either/or divide between those who claim to be “spirit led” and those who would be better described as “spiritual rationalists” within the Evangelical expression of Christianity. As a Catholic I do not understand how this dichotomy; this partition, could occur.

        January 23, 2012
    • Ken #

      Re: Are there similar resources within the Protestant/Evangelical traditions?

      Only one, I dare say – scripture. If one reads it closely in it’s entirety over many years, it so conditions the heart and mind and soul. It is a Temple where union with God awaits and hope and faith and love are still given.

      January 23, 2012
  4. Ken #

    I thought the good news is that admission is free and the seats are unlimited, that faith and hope will not be let down.

    What I heard in Willard was an emphasis on morality, an obsession with sin management. What I heard in Willard was judgement and condemnation, not good news. But then, I have no background of the kind criticized here, so it is not unusual perhaps that Willard sounds so different to me. To me, Willard sounds harsh, like a fundamentalist sounds to a liberal. If his version of religion were the only one, I would be gone in a flash.

    January 23, 2012
    • Paul Johnston #

      Willard aside, Ken, is there a version of “sin management” you could keep company with? A focus on honesty, humility, accountability?

      January 24, 2012
    • Ken #

      I don’t know. Honesty is good in many cases, but not all. Humility, not sure. Accountability, not sure. They sound a lot like submission to authority, to oppression.

      I would rather keep company with desire. I think God’s love for Israel in the Bible is pure desire.

      One of the things I do to earn a living is to write about ethics or morality. From I see, what often happens is that the one who keeps ethics is oppressed. Our systems of morality tend to oppress people in a way that love, desire, cannot stand.

      If we must keep company with an ethic, let it be mercy. But lets not keep company with an ethic. Lets keep company with the birds and trees.

      January 24, 2012
      • Paul Johnston #

        I can’t speak from certainty, either. Funny though, my gut reaction is to see more oppression in desire than I do in either humility or accountability.

        I envy the affinity you have for the world of nature. For me, natural envioronments are mostly things to be overcome.

        I would be less fully alive to myself, with regard to what I would view as my potentials, without a world of ethics.

        January 24, 2012
      • Ken #

        I imagine you may be thinking about how desire can sometimes lead us into trouble, and then, yes, it is nice to have ethics accompanying us.

        January 24, 2012
  5. A gospel of sin management ( prevalent in our churches) is only part of Willard’s discussion in DC. More importantly, he discusses the gospel of the Kingdom–which is what Jesus presents.
    Jesus brings (inaugurates) the long-awaited Kingdom of God and makes it available to any and all who ” seek” it and follow him; he will show you the way and how to do it.. What the Jewish people waited for for centuries is now available for all to “enter”. Those who do will experience the life of God (heaven) now . That is why they are called “blessed” ( Sermon on the Mount).

    N. T. Wright, a Christian scholar of immense impact, is saying the same thing: all Scripture looks forward to the reign of God on earth; the breaking of the Kingdom into our world–now in part, one day in its fullness.
    What concerns Willard and Wright is that our churches have emphasized atonement ( which is true) and life after death, but they have ignored or misunderstood Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom, Consequently, they seek converts rather than make disciples. Too many Christians talk the talk but can’t walk the walk. They don’t understand that they have a role to play.and they don’t have the power to do it.

    If ethics and morality is just about rules, then that is not Christianity. Christianity is about character–learning from Jesus what that character is like. If you have a vision of his Kingdom , that you have an active role waiting for you, then you can be inspired to be like him–to do all that he said you should and could do. You need the inspiration; a call to action. The problem with the so-called ” gospel of sin management’ is that it encourages the believer to be merely a consumer of Christ’s merits; not a disciple learning to “reign with him”. . .

    December 9, 2014
    • Well said, Sallie!

      December 9, 2014

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