Have you ever heard the adage, “Every day things change. But basically they stay the same”? The words first found my ears in the 1990s, in a song from the Dave Matthew’s Band. And I’d forgotten them until recently. Typically, these words suggest a sort of defeatism, a “stuckness” in our life experience. But they might also help us discern our cultural moment by pointing out what we’re otherwise blind to. After all, doesn’t this adage merely echo the truth of Ecclesiastes?
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
A fascinating case study is our secular culture’s view of sin. “Wait . . .” I can hear readers say, “Doesn’t secular culture just not have a view of sin? Isn’t that what makes it, you know, secular?” Yes and no. Let’s take that answer in order.
Unbelief in Sin
One hundred years ago (1923), J. Gresham Machen remarked in his classic Christianity & Liberalism that our liberal-leaning culture was experiencing “the loss of the consciousness of sin” (p. 65). He goes on:
The consciousness of sin was formerly the starting-point of all preaching; but to-day it is gone. Characteristic of the modern age, above all else, is a supreme confidence in human goodness; the religious literature of the day is redolent of that confidence. Get beneath the rough exterior of men, we are told, and we shall discover enough self-sacrifice to found upon it the hope of society; the world’s evil, it is said, can be overcome with the world’s good; no help is needed from outside the world.
Machen, Christianity & Liberalism, 100th Anniversary ed., p. 65
This dismissal of sin and the avowal of humanity’s goodness and never-ceasing progress had been in the making for some centuries. It was the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau who claimed that our human nature, unadulterated by the influences of a corrupt society, was good. It was “noble” (hence his famous notion of “the noble savage”), and not “sinful,” as centuries of biblical teaching had led us to believe. As Carl Trueman notes, “For Rousseau . . . individuals are intrinsically good, with sentiments that are properly ordered and attuned to ethical ends, until they are corrupted by the forces of society” (The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, p. 123). Over time, this unbiblical assumption worked its way into the fabric of our social imaginary—our perception of the world according to what we see, hear, and tacitly believe.
Charles Taylor shows how a biblical sense of sin was further submerged by Enlightenment enthusiasm for human prosperity and the attainment of earthly good. He explains this as three “anthropocentric shifts” (A Secular Age, 222-223)—that is, changes in popular thought that put humanity, not God, at the center of reality.
- Shift 1: We stop thinking about any purpose of God beyond our own earthly good. The present eclipses eternity. We chase only what we can see and touch.
- Shift 2: We throw out the concept of grace, since that suggests we need help to attain our version of the good life, and we don’t need help from anyone, especially not an invisible, three-personed Spirit.
- Shift 3: We erase mystery, since all we want and need is here in front of us, at our disposal.
Regarding that final shift, Taylor writes,
If God’s purposes for us encompass only our own good, and this can be read from the design of our nature, then no further mystery can hide here. If we set aside one of the central mysteries of traditional Christian faith, that of evil, of our estrangement from God, and inability to return to him unaided, but we see all the motivation we need already there, either in our self-interest well understood, or in our feelings of benevolence, then there is no further mystery in the human heart.
Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 223
If evil only encompasses human character flaws waiting to be overcome or addressed by education and intellectual evolution, then sin is void. There’s no higher authority to which we must bow and submit for salvation. Following these shifts in thought, which are now deeply embedded in the secular West, sin appears to be an antiquated concept that all sensible people should have left behind centuries ago. There is no such thing as sin in secular culture. Is there? Machen, too, is correct when he says that our culture has lost a consciousness of sin. Right?
Belief in Sin
Well, discussions like this always come back to definitions. If we define sin in the Christian sense as a violation of our covenantal relationship with God, then yes: our culture has lost a consciousness of sin. Rousseau has been memorized in rote. Enlightened self-interest (whatever that means) appears to be all that secular culture needs. But what if secular culture has simply redefined sin, in its own distorted image?
I recently heard Christopher Watkin on the Evangelical Alliance’s “Being Human” podcast talk about his book Biblical Critical Theory (which is honestly one of the best books I’ve read in the last decade; please read it). He suggested something I didn’t expect. Going on the assumption that secular culture had no category for sin, I paused when he said,
I think sin, or a version of sin, is really, really important in society. I think we talk about sin all the time, don’t we? There are certain things that are—almost in a Spanish Inquisition sort of way—forbidden now in society to say. We’re living in a very censorious cultural moment. I think that’s changed in recent years. It used to be, perhaps in the 1990s, a little bit more, “Well, nobody’s got the truth so we shouldn’t be criticizing anybody else.” And now it’s, “No, we very certainly know what the truth is, and we are there to make sure that truth is enforced. And if you say some things that are not acceptable, then we will punish that sin.” So, I think the idea of sin has migrated a lot in society, and that word is not used. But we’re a society that has an acute understanding and exercise and practice of what sin is and how to deal with it.
Christopher Watkin, Being Human Podcast
Sin as a breaking of covenant with God might be absent from secular society today, but sin as a breaking of established cultural values or norms is very much present. Why do you think cancel culture has been such a phenomenon? Cancel culture is simply the “righteous judgment” of the secular elect on the sinful actions of non-elect (anyone who violated secular creeds of identity or sexuality). Christians say, “Christ is the answer to sin, and there’s grace.” Cultural influencers say, “Silence is the answer to sin. And grace is enabling.”
Watkin suggested that sin has “migrated” in society. And I believe he’s right, for theological reasons. People cannot change who they are as image bearers of a righteous, moral God. Good and evil, right and wrong, righteousness and sin—these can’t be forgotten or fully suppressed. They’re ingrained in us. Things like righteousness and sin can migrate, but they can’t evaporate.
Our task, as Christians, is to help people see that a secular view of “sin” is ultimately destructive and diametrically opposed to any sense of human flourishing. Cancel culture, for instance, offers no hope for reconciliation or change. And yet each of us, in some way, is in the process of change right now. We’re all in process, all growing, all developing. To strike that truth down for another human being is simultaneously striking it down for ourselves. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be punished for wrongdoing. They should. God is just! But God is also merciful, long-suffering, and compassionate. The biblical view of sin accounts for that, and it offers hope in Christ for all who fall short (which is everyone).
Everyday things change. Sin appears to fall out of secular consciousness. People replace God’s standards with human ideals. Earthly flourishing eclipses heavenly destiny. Grace gets thrown by the wayside. But basically they stay the same. Sin migrates. The righteous law emerges in a secular form, with violations punishable by silence. People cry for accountability, for justice. Secular culture has a stubborn unbelief in biblical sin, but it also has a passionate belief in its own version.
What does this matter? It helps us see that those who ardently defend their disbelief in the Christian God are, at the very same time, witnesses of their knowledge of him. They know. They are showing us that they know. And we need to be praying for grace-infused words from the Spirit to call their attention to what they keep suppressing. Because the alternative, the true and triune God of the Bible, is so much more satisfying than any earthly good, than any human ideal, than any cultural agenda. And the more we help people stare at him, the more likely it will be that people once again develop a consciousness of the Bible’s view of sin. And then, God willing, a hope for the Bible’s savior.