Is it wrong to tell someone that they are sinful?
Last Monday, I received in my mail an article from a Lutheran Pastor entitled "Tell me More About the God you Don't Believe In . . . ." The article started off nicely enough, quoting Pastor Rich Mayfield of Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church in Dillon, CO, who had written that when someone tells him that they don't believe in God he tells them, "Tell me more about the god you don't believe in . . . I probably don't believe in that God either." According to the artilce:
"He has found, and I have to agree with him wholeheartedly, that many people who say they don't believe in God have been told, taught or brainwashed into believing that God is a vengeful, mean, power-hungry, dogma and brimstone wielding diety who is out to trip us up and make us pay for eternity. You might wonder where someone would have come up with some nonsense like that and all too often the answer is that they leanred it in church. I don't believe in that God either."
I am with this Pastor so far. The technique used by Pastor Mayfield is both tried and true and I have used it on many occasions to make the point to skeptics that they often don't have knowledge about what God is according to the Bible, but about a caricature of God. This is essentially uncovering the straw man fallacy. So, this Pastor and I start off on the right foot, but it quickly degenerates.
Later in the piece, he states:
In your neighborhood, every other house has a family inside that has absolutely no connection to a community of faith. My guess is that this is true, not because they have never heard of God or Jesus of the Church before in their lives. My guess is that they are not connected to a faith community because they HAVE been a part of a faith community at one time and at some point they were told they were doing it wrong. They might have been told they read the Bible wrong. They might have been told they are full of sin. They might have been told they didn’t pray the right prayer. They might have been told they didn’t follow a confession right. They might have been told (or more often shown) that they or their son, daughter or best friend was not welcome there because they were single and pregnant, a different race, they were divorced or gay or lesbian, a drug addict or an alcoholic, had the wrong political views of just didn’t dress right.
First, let me say right off that the Christian view of faith is that all are welcome. There are none who we ought to be excluding from potentially meeting up with the grace of God, certainly not on the basis of being single and pregnant, of a different race, divorced, gay, lesbian, a drug addict, an alcoholic, the wrong political views of a bad dresser. If there are churches that tell anyone that God cannot save them on this basis, this is wrong and we need to say that.
However, while I cannot read the Pastor’s mind, it seems clear to me that the list he provides is a list of things that we, as Christians, may have done wrong which caused someone to leave the church. Now, with the understanding that that is the purpose of this list, did you notice that one of the things this Pastor thinks is wrong is telling someone that "they are full of sin"? In other words, this Pastor suggests that some people may have left the church because "they might have been told that they were full of sin," suggesting that it was wrong to tell that person such a thing because God is loving and inclusive. I find such a view rather odd—-especially from a Lutheran Pastor.
Perhaps there is no verse that specifically says that we are "full" of sin, but the idea that we are all hopelessly lost, sinful creatures is one of the touchstones of our Lutheran understanding of the Christian faith. I cannot fathom how this Pastor could claim that telling someone that they are sinful is wrong in light of verses like 1 John 1:8: "If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us." Or consider "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9) Our greatest thinkers all felt the heavy weight of sin. Consider St. Augustine, who said, "[My] sin was all the more incurable because I did not judge myself to be a sinner."
What did Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran denomination, have to say about the extent of sin? First, in the The Smalcald Articles (1537), he describes sin as "not to know or regard God." In his Preface to the Book of Romans, Luther said:
"Everyone finds inside himself an aversion to good and a craving for evil. Where there is no free desire for good, there the heart has not set itself on God's law. There also sin is surely to be found and the deserved wrath of God, whether a lot of good works and an honorable life appear outwardly or not."
Or consider Luther’s words with respect to original sin in The Smalcald Articles:
"This hereditary sin is so deep and [horrible] a corruption of nature that no reason can understand it, but it must be [learned and] believed from the revelation of Scriptures, Ps. 51, 5; Rom. 6, 12 ff.; Ex. 33, 3; Gen. 3, 7 ff."(Emphasis added.)
Further, he said:
"All the world is guilty before God. No man is righteous before Him. And Christ says, John 16, 8: The Holy Ghost will reprove the world of sin."(Emphasis added.)
These are not the words of someone who believes in a “vengeful, mean, hateful and exclusionary” God, but are the words of the founder of the denomination of which this Pastor is a minister.
To claim in an article that someone may have left the church because they were told that they were sinful is turning it around. We should be telling people that they are sinful and that the only road to salvation is through Jesus. In fact, the main reason to follow Jesus is in recognition of the fact that we are sinful and in need of salvation. As Luther said in the Smalcald Articles in response to the suggestion made by some that we are without sin:
"Such and many similar things have arisen from want of understanding and ignorance as regards both this sin and Christ, our Savior and they are truly heathen dogmas, which we cannot endure. For if this teaching were right [approved], then Christ has died in vain, since there is in man no defect nor sin for which he should have died; or He would have died only for the body, not for the soul, inasmuch as the soul is [entirely] sound, and the body only is subject to death."
Let me make this clear: I have met this Pastor and do not doubt his heart. I do not doubt that he is following his understanding of the Biblical teaching to the best of his ability. I earnestly believe that he sees the best way to invite people to come to Jesus is to accept them fully as they are -— a very open and inviting view (a view which, incidentally, the Unitarian Church capitalizes upon). But this understanding is in direct opposition to my understanding of the Bible. Moreover, while the Bible calls all people, it calls them to repentance, and in my view, what this Pastor is doing is inviting people to remain in their sin. I think that this is not the message of the Gospel, and it is destructive of the real message.
This Pastor’s vision of God is a hollow grandfatherly type of God who makes no demands on us. C.S. Lewis specifically rejected this image of God in his work The Problem of Pain.
Am I wrong? Should we not be telling people that they have sinned? Should we instead simply open up our arms inviting everyone to come and tell them that they are alright? Or does this view denude the Gospel of its strength by ignoring the fact that Jesus came to save us from our sins and that is how he demonstrated the depth of His love for us? I think that the latter is true, but I would be interested if anyone else has a different opinion.