Last Sunday, Christians around the world began celebrating the season of Advent. The word “advent” is from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming.” Thus, the Advent season is a time to reflect upon the coming of Jesus, especially his coming to earth in the first Christmas story. It is a preparatory season, a time to prepare our hearts and minds to behold the beauty of Jesus.
Sometimes, however, the celebration in our hearts is only hum-drum. Our hearts do not explode with fireworks at the joy of the incarnation. Instead, they flicker by the light, as it were, of a single votive candle somewhere off in the distance.
Likely there are many reasons for this, but perhaps one reason is we do not see sin as serious, and thus our salvation is not as joyous as it could be, even should be.
Home by Marilynne Robinson
I’ve been reading through a series of novels by Marilynne Robinson. She is a gifted author, and for many years has played various roles at the renowned creative writing program at the University of Iowa (currently Professor Emeritus). The series includes Gilead (2004), which won a Pulitzer Prize, Home (2008), and Lila (2014). Each novel tells a version of the same story through the eyes of a different character. The stories center around two pastors and their families in the small town of Gilead, Iowa in the middle of the twentieth century.
The second book, Home, tells the story from the perspective of Glory, the daughter of the Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton.
I’m mentioning all of this because of a fascinating description by Glory about the spiritual complacency of her town and her father’s preaching about sin. She says,
Complacency was consistent with the customs and manners of Presbyterian Gilead and was therefore assumed to be justified in every case. . . . Even her father’s sermons treated salvation as a thing for which they could be grateful as a body. . . . He did mention sin, but it was rarefied in his understanding of it, a matter of acts and omissions so commonplace that no one could be wholly innocent of them or especially alarmed by them, either — the uncharitable thought, the neglected courtesy. . . (p. 111)
Taken in the context of the novel, it’s not entirely clear whether we should view Glory’s description of her father’s preaching as wholly reliable. Glory, while respectful of her father and her father’s faith, does not seem to have embraced Christianity herself. Regardless, the essence of what Glory says is that in the estimation of the town (and perhaps her father), sin isn’t so bad, and therefore complacency over sin is justified.
But is this really good preaching?
The reviewer of Home in the New York Times, A. O. Scott, seems to appreciate this charitable and tolerant approach toward sin. Scott writes,
There is real kindness and generosity in the town, and its theological disposition is accordingly tolerant and charitable. Reverend Boughton embodies this forgiving, welcoming spirit.
In the above quote, I’m not sure whether Scott has in mind the old meaning of tolerance, which indeed is a virtue, or the new meaning of tolerance, which is not. (“Old tolerance” means, though you do not agree with another person, you still believe he or she has the right to believe it, and therefore you tolerate the person and the view. “New tolerance” means all points of view, regardless of their merit, are equally laudable.)
Still, going back to the description by Glory, notice the specific wording she uses to describe her father’s preaching about sin. She says, according to her father, sins were mere “acts and omissions so commonplace that no one could be wholly innocent of them or especially alarmed by them.”
What kind of sins might have been discussed in these sermons? Apparently, nothing too disturbing. Using the terminology of our own day, apparently he was preaching about the sins of failing to call your mother on her birthday; the sins of not returning emails fast enough; the sins of thinking mean thoughts about a homeless man and the misspelling on his cardboard sign; and the sins of not helping the neighbor kid with her fundraiser. Sins like this.
It would seem that Reverend Boughton preached about transgressions so innocent and un-alarming as to hardly require a savior at all. We’ve all made mistakes, dropped the ball, and fallen short of the glory of the good Samaritan. These kinds of sins happen to the best of us, and we’re sorry about it, but we’re certainly not alarmed.
What does the Bible say about sin and salvation?
Don’t misunderstand me, though. My negative comments about Reverend Boughton’s preaching are not reflective of my view of the whole novel and the series, which I’m rather enjoying. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive because it’s my profession that’s being discussed.
And please do not think that I am advocating the hellfire preaching of yesteryear. My point is simply that Boughton’s light-on-sin-preaching, wherever it does exist, is a shame. It’s a shame not because it’s wimpy preaching (“real men preach about sin”). Rather, this type of preaching is unbecoming to ministers because it’s not faithful to the Bible, which is the only true measure of preaching, not my personal preferences. And in the Bible, sin is certainly an ugly, fearsome, insidious thing which wars against the Creator and the ultimate flourishing of humanity.
Consider what Jesus says in Mark 7:21–23,
For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.
And look at this list of sins from Romans 1:29–31,
They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
In short, sin is alarming.
And if sin against a holy God is serious, then we should despair. Except, of course, Christians shouldn’t despair. We don’t despair because there is a Savior who drank the cup of God’s wrath, and therefore, there’s nothing left for Christians to drink (Mark 14:36; Romans 3:25–26).
It’s this good news that causes the Apostle Paul to burst into song in 1 Corinthians 15:55. Because of the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Paul writes,
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?
On this point—in the Bible sin is serious and therefore salvation is joyous—I could go on and on, but just consider the way this two-pronged theme so frequently occurs in our beloved Christmas hymns. Take, for example, the familiar lines in O Holy Night. Yes, of course, “long lay the world in sin and error pining.” But this is not the whole story. The verse continues, “[when the Savior appears] the weary world rejoices.”
It’s the times when I have seen my sin as deeply offensive to God—not as minor mistakes or foibles or idiosyncrasies of my personality—that the good-news story of Jesus has actually been to me good news, not a cliché.
But this kind of self-reflection requires courage. As pastor and author Timothy Keller writes in his recent book Hidden Christmas,
Are you willing to say, “I am a moral failure. I don’t love God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind. I don’t love my neighbor as myself. And, therefore, I am guilty, and I need forgiveness and pardon . . .”?
It takes enormous courage to admit these things, because it means throwing your old self-image out and getting a new one through Jesus Christ.
And yet that is the foundation for all the other things that Jesus can bring into your life—all the comfort, all the hope, all the joyful humility, and everything else. (60–61)
Let me return to where I began. This Christmas, my hope and prayer is that our hearts will explode with praise over the salvation that comes through Jesus. If this is to happen, first we need to reckon seriously with the darkness within us. If we do this, then we’ll appreciate that from outside of us “a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16).
[Picture by Alessandro Viaro / Unsplash]