The events that have rocked South Carolina with our Governor’s admission of infidelity have me pondering about sin and grace. I love the “Grace” emphasis of the United Methodist Church. We celebrate an openness that invites rather than coerces an awareness of God through Christ. However, it must be remembered that for all the grace language of our church, we are still called “Methodists” for a decidedly different reason. We’re methodical because we know that grace is not cheap. As real as grace is, so is sin. God woos us, loves us preveniently before we are even aware of His attention, is gracious toward us without reservation, and, yet, expects us to live holy methodical lives.This methodical lifestyle should never lose its graceful foundation, but our United Methodist openness threatens to undo our promotion of personal piety and social holiness.
We have become Methodist in name only because we wink at sin. The awareness of sin used to be our denominational and personal shadow. I remember thinking vividly that I might actually go to hell for calling my cousin a “fool.” My grandmother overheard me and explicitly described the fires of hell that were reserved for someone who derided anyone as a “fool.”Christians hated sin. Talk of sin was the center of religious life. We feared sin, fled from it, grieved over it. Remember the old Communion liturgy. It comes to mind quickly without any need for reference, “We bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time have most grievously committed…” I remember the days when persons who might have lost his or her temper wondered if they could still receive Holy Communion.
A woman who for years envied or disliked her sister-in-law worried that her sins threatened her very salvation.Now we say, “You have sinned,” with a grin and a tone of voice that sounds like an inside joke is being told. No more wailing! The word “sin” now finds its home mostly on dessert menus with names like “Sydney’s Sinful Sundae” or “Lethal Brownies.” Eating fattening cholesterol-laden mounds of chocolate is sinful, but lying is not. The new measure for sin is caloric. How wrong! The new language of sin misses its sheer ugliness: “Let us confess our problem with human relational adjustment dynamics,” or “Pardon me, those were misstatements.” Corporate America has decided lying is an accounting error, but not a sin. Teachers are afraid to say to an unruly student anything as pointed as, “Stop it, please! You’re disturbing the class!” Instead, educationally correct teachers are encouraged to ask a sequence of caring questions to the youth who is hitting his neighbor, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How does doing this make you feel?”
It is time for Methodists to bring back an understanding of sin as much as grace. Grace doesn’t mean near as much, or maybe even anything, without a clear doctrine of sin. We hardly ever blush any more because we are oblivious to moral standards, Biblical judgment of right and wrong. It’s time to take the word “Sin” out of mothballs and call it what it is. If we don’t, we won’t know the full power of grace. Awareness of sin is grace’s subwoofer, amplifying the depth of God’s love for each of us. I, maybe, for one, need a not-so-subtle whack of good old-fashioned righteousness. It matters!