View of sin

What Sin is and Why it Matters: How an Altered View of Sin Destroys the Christian Mission

By Sally Fam

There is a subtle enemy to the common goal of effective ministry—an altered view of sin. The gospel is, by definition, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ. But its relevance as “good news” for this generation is little because of a disconnect with an understanding of sin. To combat this, apologists (and evangelists) must explain experiential relevance; i.e., how does the gospel serve your own experience. Why? Because only by recognizing our depravity do we realize that we are in dire need of this good news. Charles Spurgeon, the 19th century pastor known as the “Prince of Preachers,”  beautifully summarizes what I see as the dynamics between evangelism, apologetics, and their relevance to culture:

The gospel is a reasonable system… It is a matter for thought and consideration…
Consequently, if we don’t teach men something, we can shout, “Believe! Believe!
Believe!” But what are they to believe?… “Escape!” from what? This requires
knowledge of the doctrine of the punishment of sin for its answer… “Repent!” of
what? Here you must answer such questions as:
what is sin?
what is the evil of sin?
what are the consequences of sin?[1]

An incorrect understanding of one of the questions proposed by Spurgeon will ensure that a person stays in their depravity.

Threats From the Inside

If the evangelist (or the apologist) presents a distorted view of sin, she undermines apologetics as a tool for leading sinners to salvation. For example, if an apologist defends that people are “radically” depraved, then apologetics cannot be a bridging channel of God’s grace leading to the need for the gospel’s hope; we have destroyed any logical justification and cultural relevance for apologetics for the sake of evangelizing the sinner.

Radical depravity goes beyond total depravity; it entails that humanity cannot even intellectually perceive a rational argument for Christianity. In other words, sin has “perverted the inferential faculty of the human race such that any divine communication and evidence are perverted “in the sinner’s favour (Cornelius Van Til’s view as presented by Dr. John Warwick Montgomery). [2]

However, Dr. Montgomery argues that if this view were true, the sin has not just defaced and distorted the image of God but has, in effect, “obliterated the image of God.”[3]  Moreover, he makes the point that if it were true, then Adam would have not understood what God was asking him right after the fall and before the sacrifice was made. Finally, Dr. Montgomery points out the Van Til’s definition of human depravity is not the result of Van Til’s Calvinist view. Theologian and former president of Wheaton College J. Oliver Buswell was also a Calvinist yet he opposed Van Til’s definition of human depravity.[4]

In contrast, reducing sin to an issue of moral reform or social injustice (progressive, liberal Christianity’s view), undermines the claim that we need the gospel. Also, redefining sin as “a lack of something good” to mean that it has not produced real and tangible corruption in human nature and has no real power over us (Karl Barth’s view), statements that Christianity provides the good news of human salvation is, at best, laughable.[5]

If Christians can hold questionable views of sin, how much more is an outsider likely to have a distorted view of sin? Moreover, if apologists limit the use of apologetics to natural theology (a theology or knowledge of God based on observed facts and experience apart from divine revelation), we have made the case for theism but not Christianity. I might dare to say that even if apologists argue for Christianity using arguments for the historicity of the Resurrection but have not made the case for the proper Christian view of sin, we have not used these arguments to their full potential. If the Resurrection did happen, beyond being a fascinating miracle, why should it matter to me now?

I think the link between apologetics and evangelism must include paving the way for the need of a savior by making the case for our sinful state and spiritual deadness. This is where Christianity makes both rational and experiential sense to the sinner. If we do not incorporate that in apologetics, I believe we have left the biggest and the deepest pothole to evangelism unfilled.

The Threat From Outside

There is a substantial cultural and generational gap that separates early Christianity from the distortions that are associated with it today. The concept of sin is incomprehensible, like a dead language, and is quite offensive to the present culture. One factor contributing to the issue is naturalism, which states if we are only our physical bodies, there is no place for a sinful nature or souls. Thus, there is no objective moral standard to discern the holy from the unclean.

Another factor is the rise of a blind self-righteousness that has driven many to condemn the God of the Bible, as a result of, ironically, not understanding the seriousness of sin, the extent of our moral corruption, and the holiness of God. The prophet Isaiah needed an encounter with God’s holiness, the experience of which made him more aware of the extent of his moral corruption. The encounter reminds me of the from R.C. Chapman’s hymn, Oh My Savior Crucified:

In His spotless soul’s distress,
I have learnt my guiltiness;
Oh, how vile my low estate,
Since my ransom was so great!

In other words, the biblical view of sin is not intuitive to the desensitized sinner and must be explicitly taught and argued for in order to explain sin’s evil and consequences. Paul M. Gould suggests in his book Cultural Apologetics ways to reintroduce these biblical concepts and therefore close these cultural and generational gaps.

Conclusion

With sin now meaning different things to different people, it is no longer enough—in fact, it is insufficient and inefficient for apologetics—to rely solely on sharing the gospel or arguing for God’s existence, objective morality, or even the historicity of the Resurrection to demonstrate the truth of Christianity. Apologetics (and even evangelism) should explain the Christian view of sin and its evil and consequences in the context of responding to why God allows evil, but also how and why Christianity is the much-needed remedy and hope, supported both by reason and experience to the culture.


Footnotes:

[1] Charles Spurgeon, The Soul’s Winner: How to Lead Sinners to the Saviour (Abbotsford, Winsconsin: Aneko Press, 2016), 7, Amazon Kindle.
[2] John Warwick Montgomery, Defending the Gospel through the Centuries: A History of Christian Apologetics (1517 The Legacy Project, 2016), audiobook, 01:49:00- 1:51:00. I have to mention that others questioned whether Buswell misunderstood the sinner’s lack of common ground for rational argument, Van Til’s definition of “presuppostionalism”. It is also argued that perhaps Buswell had an extreme view of human’s innate knowledge of God that leads him to practically deny it. For details, see https://reformedforum.org/podcasts/ctc316/. But whether Montgomery was correct in his analysis of Van Til’s view of human depravity, the point made is a distorted view of depravity will negatively impact apologetics.
[3] Ibid., 1:49:49
[4] To be clear, I am not saying that apologetics as a tool is capable of converting sinners. Rather, it is a tool like ammunition fired by God to destroy the barriers to the gospel. In other words, while the debates on man’s free-will and salvation can continue, they need not slow down us from ministering to sinners whether by using apologetics and getting the soil ready to receive the good news or by delivering the seed (the gospel). We can use apologetics while expecting that by faith it will bring fruit. There is nothing to say that the Holy Spirit does not use an argument to convict sinners. The point to be made here is that an extremely radical view of human depravity strips us of a crucial spiritual weapon and tool, the use of apologetics as a handmaid for evangelism.
[5] Montgomery, Defending the Gospel. Montgomery mentions that Barth went beyond Augustine’s definition of evil to the point that rendered sin to be nothing more than an empty concept.


Disclaimer: All views expressed by those associated with this ministry or on our platforms do not necessarily represent the opinions of Women in Apologetics, Inc. or its individual team members.

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