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How can the message of Christ be so radically different from one church to another? Why is it possible to find one church that affirms gay marriage, gay clergy, living together relationships, etc... while another sees these same actions as abominations? I could mention many other areas of disagreement in varying degrees of importance, however, I would like to stick with the one I've already mentioned because it is the lightning rod issue of the day and needs to be boldly addressed.
The confusion in this student's question was sincere. He wanted to have a basis for belief to know what was right, but he was given a contradiction that couldn't be rationalized away with the trite answer: "It doesn't matter which church you go to, as long as you are going to church." Now he was confronted with something that absolutely couldn't be true in both places. One had to be right and another had to be wrong.
The implications of this answer is deep and could even touch to the core of whether or not a person is truly saved by the Jesus they believe in or whether or not the Jesus they believe in even exists.
This schism, as deep as it is between churches, is really a simple one to decipher. It can be done with one simple question.
Who gets to define what sin is?
It's not a pleasant question to ask, but it is a foundational one. Everyone who claims the name of Jesus Christ will say that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. But we have to be able to identify what sin is in order to accept and appreciate His sacrifice. We also have to understand what sin is because in our new life in Christ, we are told that we are free from its bondage and are to no longer walk in it (Rom. 6:1-14).
So is sin defined by God through the self (conscience), through the culture or through the Scriptures?
80% of all people in our culture say that their basis of truth is found within themselves. They themselves are the sole authority for what is right and wrong for them. They place no judgment on anyone else for anything. Their conscience is their guide.
But does that make sense of what is recorded in the Scriptures? The woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) is a great personal example. Adultery was her personal choice that, at the moment, felt right. Though I can't get inside her head because I do know that all of us do things we don't think is right, some part of her had to justify it to commit the action. If she had convinced herself that it was right at the time, wasn't it right if she was the sole authority God had given to decide what sin was?
And while she wasn't condemned for her action by Jesus, Jesus does tell her firmly, "Go and leave your life of sin" (John 8:11b). To what is Jesus appealing to if she is the only authority under heaven for which God has entrusted the very idea of sin?
And what of the Scriptures that seem to tell us that our hearts are the worst of places to find truth?
"The heart is deceitful about all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" Jeremiah 17:9
It doesn't seem that our own proclivities are a good basis for defining right and wrong are or what sin is in the eyes of God.
But what if Jesus, in confronting the woman caught in adultery, was merely appealing to a greater authority that God has established through the culture? This is the appeal of many who are liberal (progressive) in their understanding of the Word of God. Their view is that God uses the culture through the guidance of the Spirit to open our minds to new things that God wants to teach us which we weren't previously prepared for.
Consider the following quote from a Progressive (Liberal) Pastor James A. Forbes Jr. in his book "Whose Gospel? A Concise Guide to Progressive Protestantism":
For the second half of my ministerial years, I have served in progressive circles where a different set of values prevail. I taught at a progressive seminary and then became the pastor of an open and affirming congregation, The Riverside Church in New York City, after a long and intense grappling with the issue of sexuality under the leadership of my predecessor, William Sloane Coffin, voted on June 2, 1985, to affirm what is called A Statement of Openness, Inclusion, and Affirmation. It condemned all acts of harassment, exclusion, violence, and intimidation based on homophobia; sought to address homophobia in the church; created programs about sexuality; and welcomed gay and lesbian persons as full equals in Christ. The statement represents the spirit emerging in other congregations at the time, a spirit now found in increasing numbers of congregations. The church seeks to guide individuals in greater freedom and responsibility to decide when and under what circumstances they would become sexually active. Such sexual freedom was so accepted that a friend of mine once asked, "What behavior would be considered a sin at this church?" My answer to her was that it probably would be considered a sin to try to make a list of sins by which to judge other people. (Emphasis mine) Of course this is an exaggeration, but not by far. Progressive churches are more likely to err in defining what a communal sense of values would include than drawing up a list of sins. The emphasize following Jesus's example of being more ready to include than to exclude. (Pg. 40-41)
Do you see what has happened here? Culture has become the only influence of determining what sin is. The reflection given by this pastor is simply a mirror of what our culture already accepts. The culture accepts homosexual and premarital sexual relationships and frowns upon anything deemed as judgmental, therefore God must be using the culture to broaden our horizons concerning these subjects.
There are two problems with this approach though.
First, if this were true, then we would expect this standard to be experienced throughout the Scriptures. The Roman culture is one of marked difference than the Jewish or the emerging Christian culture. Romans 1:18-32 is not just a condemnation of unrighteous actions, it is a description of the Roman culture that existed at the time. If the culture was truly God's vehicle for expanding the horizons of the church and revealing new truths, then we should see God saying something to this extent: Though the way of life around you is much different than our way of life, God is using this culture to reveal truth that you should follow, as we follow what God has revealed to us. However, whether this passage or the passage found in 2 Timothy 4:1-5, we see a consistency of God passing judgment on the prevailing culture in lieu of another standard.
Second, if this were true, then how could anything definitively be defined at "sin". If the sinful standards that God presupposes through one culture is different in another culture where the same action is not defined as sinful, how could anyone be sure whether or not they were breaking the commands of God? Is it truly conceivable that Jesus died on the cross for our sin (where in one culture is partially defined by homosexuality and premarital sexual relations) so another culture could participate in the same actions (yet not call it sin)? Do you not see how this destroys the very notion of what "sin" is, thus not only making the meaning of the word meaningless, but by extension making the very sacrifice of Christ meaningless, as well?
Paul in his letter to the Romans appeals to a different authority: God Himself, apart from self and apart from culture.
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, "You shall not covet." But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. (Romans 7:7-12)
This law that Paul is appealing to is found in the Old Testament. It was what was given to Moses by God Himself. It was the standard set by God so His people and the culture which they were a part of would know definitively when they had crossed the line of what was acceptable into that which was sinful. Through this full passage of Scripture (Romans 7:7-25; 8:1-4), we are shown our sinful human nature to gravitate toward those things we have been told is wrong (and its penalty...death), our futility to overcome those things through our own power and the victory and freedom from this struggles given to us by Christ.
There is an inherit danger of choosing wrongly concerning who defines what sin is. If we fall prey to either proclaiming ourselves the arbiters of sin or our culture, then we run the risk of creating a Jesus of our own creation who never lived and has no power to save. Many in today's culture have fallen victim to this vain philosophy and though I cannot judge their hearts, I fear they may hear these words from the Lord Jesus Christ: And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.' (Matthew 7:23)
We have a great Savior in Jesus. But in order for Him to be the Savior He has proclaimed Himself to be, He has to have the right to diagnose and define the problem as well as provide the solution.