(Appeared first in December 2011, The Mennonite. Reprinted with permission.)
By Ervin Stutzman
But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.—1 Thessalonians 5:8 TNIV
Many of us find it difficult to talk about sin these days, even in church services. It’s just not in vogue in modern America. Even at our recent churchwide convention at Pittsburgh, when the theme passage was 2 Corinthians 5:11–20, I didn’t hear much conversation about sin.
It may sound strange to some ears, but I am suggesting that one way to invest in hope is to talk more freely about sin. And salvation. It is hard to get to the latter without the former. That’s what Barbara Brown Taylor says in her book Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation. It’s worth listening to what she has to say.
As psychiatrist Karl Menninger said in his book Whatever Happened to Sin?, Taylor notes that we have redefined sin by labeling wrong acts as either crime or illness. You treat the former by legal means and the latter by medical means. Who needs salvation from God?
If we are to bring healing to our world, Taylor asserts, “sin is our only hope.” How so? Because sin reminds us of the need for salvation, grace and repentance. As Anabaptists, we believe that God remedies sin by calling us to be followers of Jesus Christ, and by transforming us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Without a robust understanding of sin, we will have little expectation or capacity for spiritual transformation.
As the apostle Paul made clear in his letter to the Thessalonians, we live in a moral universe. There are good deeds and there are evil deeds. Granted, many things fall into shades of gray. But we are called to be children of the light and of the day. Sober reflection invites us to protect ourselves by donning faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. This is how we invest in hope for the future.
Our ethical behaviors grow out of gratitude for God’s action in saving us. Not solely by some act of justification but in the ongoing transformation of our lives into the likeness of Jesus Christ.
As Anabaptist Christians, we believe in the paradox of faith and works as partners in grace. We know that if we are to heal others, we ourselves must have experienced healing.
In Taylor’s words, “Our lives are God’s sign language in a sin-sick world, and God has promised us the grace we need to point the way home.”
I am not calling for a return to moralistic preaching that points out the sins of others along simplistic lines that too readily condemns “obvious” personal sins or moral failures while overlooking or winking at less obvious corporate sins. I believe, for example, that racism is a besetting sin of Mennonite Church USA. The more I am becoming aware of the way racism shapes my own actions, the more I see the need to repent of the damage it wreaks on others.
Rather, I am calling for us to receive salvation as a gift of shalom from God, who intends to heal the whole creation of its wrongs. We set things right in a broken world by being alert to those wrongs, by repenting of our sin and by looking to God for the grace to become different people.
True repentance calls us to take responsibility for our own deeds in the fallen world and to join others who are dedicated to turning things around. The church is not called to be a courtroom or a medical clinic but a community of faith that is yoked with Jesus, walking shoulder-to-shoulder toward a new horizon that glows with healing and hope for all of God’s world.