There were once two evil brothers. They were rich, and used their money to keep their evil ways from the public eye. They even attended church, and appeared to be perfect Christians.
Then, their pastor switched. Not only could the new pastor see right through the brothers’ deception, but he also spoke well and true, and the parish grew. A fund-raising campaign began to build a new extension on the church.
All of a sudden, one of the brothers died. The remaining brother sought out the new pastor the day before the funeral and handed him a check for the amount needed to finish paying for the extension. “I have only one condition,” he said. “At the funeral, you must say my brother was a saint.” The pastor gave his word, and deposited the check.
The next day, at the funeral, the pastor did not hold back. “He was an evil man,” he said. “He cheated and stole.” “ He wasn’t faithful to his wife and abused his family.” After going on like this, he finally concluded, “But, compared to his brother, he was a SAINT.”
We all want to be called saints but not THAT way. St Paul talks about the struggle to become a saint. Let’s read a few interesting lines: “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want… So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand.”
How often are we like St Paul; we fail to do good and instead do evil.
Evil seems to overwhelm us; yet if the devil appeared as he really is, I doubt any of us would fall for his tricks. I think we can begin this article by asking two very simple questions: First, what makes something a sin? Second, what is our goal as Christians?
So often we confuse these to questions. We think that the goal of every Christian is simply to be free from sin. I think such an attitude is absolutely destructive of Christianity; Dallas Willard criticizes both conservative and liberal Christians for falling into what he calls the “Gospel of sin management.” We need to understand the differences between the true Gospel and that of sin management. I propose that we first examine what the Gospel of sin management consists of, then compare it to the real Gospel, and conclude with some ways we can escape from sin management into the true Gospel.
Before continuing I want to mention that this blog post is a slightly modified version of the homily I gave on Friday October 25th before the Faith of Our Fathers banquet in Regina, Saskatchewan; hence references to certain readings.
There are 2 essential doctrines of the false Gospel of Sin Management: the empty alliance that lets you in, and the focus on sin.
The idea of an “empty alliance” may not be clear. Imagine a basketball team that let you play even if you weighed 400 pounds and couldn’t shoot. Or imagine a teacher who gave you 100% just for showing up, even if you chatted all through class. Those would be empty alliances. They have no real value because they don’t demand anything of you.
How many of you have heard one of the Protestant groups who after a 1-hour sermon asks you to come forward and accept faith in Jesus to be saved. This is an empty alliance because nothing is expected of you. We can fall into the same empty alliance by simply focusing on who says “Catholic” on a parish survey or sends their kids to a Catholic school. Nothing is demanded of them so the Gospel is irrelevant in their lives.
The other dogma of the Gospel of sin management is like the name suggests: SIN management. According to this Gospel, the goal of all we do as Christians is about sin, either avoiding it or managing it by good works and confession, or explaining it away. This reduces Christianity to a series of don’ts: don’t steal, don’t hit your brother, don’t do drugs, and don’t forget your homework. Who wants to follow something that just says “don’t.”
In reality we usually say “no” because we’ve already said “yes”: You might say “no” to tickets to your favorite team because you already said “yes” to an anniversary dinner with your wife; You might say “no” to a girl who wants to do something you know you shouldn’t because you’ve already said “yes” to your family’s and Jesus’ love; Or you might say “no” to weed because you’ve said “yes” to being on the basketball team. It’s a lot harder to say “no” without previously saying “yes” to something opposed to it. Michael Manhardt (from One Strong Family who was the keynote at the event) will teach us about FAMILY (Forget About Me, I Love You) tonight; I can only forget about me after I love you.
The Gospel of Sin management focuses on the no’s not the yes’s.
The Two Gospels Compared
Let’s compare this Gospel of sin management with the true gospel. We’ll just focus on key differences; otherwise, we’d be here all night. The biggest differences are the ideal and the heart.
The result of the Gospel of sin management is minimalism. Its model is abstract not Christ. When you go to Rome, you can see the Pietà: possibly the most beautiful statue ever carved. People will comment on how Michelangelo worked his chisel, how he positioned the figures, or how he polished the statue; nobody says “this is great because it isn’t made of silly putty.”
Or take a saint, any saint you like and examine his life. I’ll take John Paul II: he preached man’s dignity when communists denied it by force, he taught theology of the body against the sexual revolution, and he brought all the young people together for the biggest festivals in history. Nobody says he’s a saint because he didn’t lie or steal.
Since it is minimalist, the Gospel of sin management doesn’t affect the rest of our life. We can sit comfortably in a pew for 53 minutes on Sunday, we’d be mad if it reached 54 minutes, and think we’re good Christians. Instead of this minimalism, the true Gospel is demanding. Jesus says things like “Go, sell what you have and follow me”; “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me”; or “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive … [among other things] persecutions.” Is that a Gospel of sin management?
Instead of minimalism, the Gospel asks us to “be perfect as the heavenly father is perfect.”
The Gospel of Sin management only asks content but the true Gospel asks our heart. The Pharisees knew the scriptures inside and out, they practiced every single commandment, yet Jesus saves his harshest condemnation for them. Why? They had the content but their heart was far from the Lord; they had hardened their hearts.
St Paul says: “The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not.” That isn’t ideal but he’s on the right path. Jesus asks for your heart. Jesus is not satisfied if you fulfill a bunch of rules, he wants you to desire good, that means desiring him, and seeking him out, with your heart. A priest who used to be in the Army explained the difference to me: when he was in the army, he could wish the commander burn in hell so long as he obeyed; but when he became a religious brother he had to love his superior.
This is a radical difference. You may not realize how radical it is; it is the heart not just actions.
Escaping the Gospel of Sin Management
The Gospel of Sin Management is common yet preventable. Let me offer 2 escapes from it: awareness of sin’s nature and a return to Jesus.
Sin is not sin because there is a “don’t” in the Bible but because it goes against the ideal Jesus presents us. We sin we are not like Jesus. Christ is the only measure of a Christian. Our sin is not measured against the ten commandments or the laws of Canada; our sin is measured against Jesus’ example. This is about doing good not just avoiding. We are called to be apostles not just nice dudes. That’s tough!
But we can never live up to the ideal. That’s why we have the 2nd way to escape: return to Jesus.
Only Jesus can give us the strength. We become like him when he lives in us. Today’s psalm teaches us this trust in the Lord: “You are good and bountiful; teach me your statutes. Let your kindness comfort me according to your promise to your servants.” Our strength is in you, O Lord.
If you forget the rest remember these 2 things: (1) Sin is not breaking a rule; sin is going against our ideal Jesus Christ, and (2) We can only live up to that ideal with Jesus
In the Gospel we hear Jesus tell the Pharisees: “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Today this might be reworded: “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret iPhones, football games, and car engine noises; why do you not know how to interpret the words of Jesus.”
Jesus is not a minimalist, he does not preach a Gospel of sin management. Jesus presents us an ideal and then says, “Come Follow me!”