I want to offer a few thoughts about the turmoil in our country right now. I think it would be impossible to make good sense of it all apart from a deep and biblical understanding of sin. I hope these thoughts will inspire you to study the Scriptures and submit to what God has said in his Word. As always, it will be difficult, but it will produce fruit. Here are three key ideas I’d like you to wrestle with.
1. Sin is universal and it’s most destructive in the hands of the powerful.
Romans 3 makes clear that there is something deeply wrong with every one of us. “There is no one righteous, no not one.” This is bad news on so many levels but is a particularly huge problem when it comes to governing. James Madison framed it like this:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. -James Madison Federalist 51.
Madison is aware that because people in power have a greater ability to disadvantage others and get away with it than people out of power, the effects of sin are more damaging when the perpetrators are powerful. That power might be official, as with a corrupt criminal justice system, or unofficial, as when a crowd of people surround and attack an individual. In both cases, an imbalance of power by sinful people leads to injury, tearing the fabric of society, particularly for the most vulnerable.
The Bible speaks to this and it warns those in power to be judicious how they use their authority. Everyone who misuses power will answer for it. Micah 6:9 says,
Listen! The LORD is calling to the city “Heed the rod and the One who appointed it. Am I still to forget, O wicked house, your ill-gotten treasures? Shall I acquit a man with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights? Her rich men are violent; her people are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully. Therefore, I have begun to destroy you, to ruin you because of your sins.” -Micah 6:9-13
The minor prophets are full of language warning rulers to lead with justice. We should take seriously in our day the ways we have abused our own power, in whatever spheres we exercise it. And we must have robust systems in place to limit the damage that can be done by ourselves and others in authority.
2. Sin is also corporate, and God holds us to account for our communities.
Americans are famously individualistic; as such we naturally rebuff any claim to being responsible for something we have not personally done. But, much to the chagrin of the America majority mindset, God does hold us accountable for each other, sometimes in very shocking ways.
Josiah was a good king who understood this. He came to power in a time when God’s Word had literally been lost and forgotten. When it was rediscovered, he was horrified by how far he and his people were from God’s standards. And so he repented of what his Fathers had done. Notice the very unusual thing he says:
When the king heard the words of the Law, he tore his robes. He gave these orders. . . “Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the remnant in Israel and Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the LORD’s anger that is poured out on us because our fathers have not kept the word of the LORD; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written in this book.” –2 Chron 34:20-21
That is strange to our ears, but God holds us accountable for each other, including for prior generations. Wow. We need to grapple with what that means for us today.
3. While sin can (and must!) be restrained by government, it can only be defeated by the cross of Christ, which we will best come to understand in diverse community.
In the kindness and wisdom of God, he ordained governments to restrain evil. It is their primary God-given function. It would be grossly irresponsible for them to abdicate that.
But as important as the government’s work is, all it can do is restrain sin. It cannot defeat it. Only the cross of Christ can do that.
Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. -Romans 6:3
We have been freed from sin because we are in Christ! Nothing else can do that.
To maintain that freedom we must search ourselves daily, weekly, moment by moment, surrendering to the Spirit. In humility, we must diligently study and submit to the Scriptures, lest we again fall under a yoke of slavery.
But there is a very important detail here that can help us be truly free. If we are going to hear the Bible correctly and fully and obtain all God has for us, we need to hear it taught to us- including by people outside our own communities who don’t have the same blind spots that we do. Young need to hear from the old, the old need to hear from the young, contemporaries need to hear from ancients, white people need to hear from black people, and black people need to hear from white people.
This is not because there is anything lacking in God’s Word that needs to be added by others. In its rawest form, his Word says all that needs to be said. But, every one of us has an inherent ability to filter out stuff that doesn’t make sense or doesn’t comport with what we already believe. When we see things that don’t click with us, they just blow by, and we turn the page.
And so as a corrective to that, we need to hear from other people whose experiences are different from our own. They will have blind spots too, but they will be different blind spots, and so we can help each other. In particular, my non-white friends have shown me things in scriptures that I had read a hundred times, but just never saw.
This sharing of wisdom and insight happens when we do life in community with people that are not like us. It’s one reason that God built and loves a multi-ethnic church – comprised of lots of multi-ethnic churches! His plan all along was to make one new man out of the two, to break down the dividing wall of hostility, create a community with people from every tribe, language, people and nation.
Let’s seek him for the grace to grow in all of this, for his glory, and our joy.