One of the things I learned in seminary is that theology is not some academic, pie in the sky endeavor. It’s not reserved for those who nerdily consume tomes by obscure figures, the way a Trekkie might become a repository for useless knowledge. No, theology is relevant to everyone who professes to be a Christian. What you believe about any number of things has a direct effect on how you will live out your faith.
Case in point: belief about the mechanics of salvation has a direct effect on how one will view sin, and Protestants have many flavors to choose from on that account. I have experienced that spectrum firsthand. There’s the snow-covered dung heap analogy, courtesy of Luther, that comes along with forensic justification. That is, if you have been declared just on account of Jesus’ death on the cross, then you’re still a filthy sinner- but a justified one. When God looks at you he only sees you through the filter of Christ’s saving work on the cross, however, no matter what you do or don’t do, you’re still nothing but a worm. But you had better behave, because if you don’t it will prove that you’re not thankful that you don’t have to sweat it anymore. In my mind, that system of thinking is sort of akin to giving a little kid a toy they’ve been dying for and immediately yelling in their face, “Now say thank you!” Kind of a buzz-kill, right?
On the other side of the coin I also experienced the “Well, we’re saved, so we are no longer enslaved to the works of the law,” The logical conclusion of this system of belief is that to be overly concerned with right action could possibly be bordering on legalism so, eh, you’re fine how you are. Just don’t do anything too bad. It’s all about the grace, you know.
Let me tell you how fun it is to juggle that kind of baggage. Over time though, I’d say I drifted more toward the latter description. I had been thoroughly scarred by the former, and to tell you the truth, it was just easier not to expend so much energy worrying about my sinfulness, especially since I was already good to go in terms of being saved, and especially when I could easily point to someone else and say that they are waaaaaaay more sinful than I am.
That didn’t really cut it either, though. And here’s why: have you ever felt that something was amiss regarding your soul? Not like you’ve axed your neighbor in cold blood or anything, but that you know you haven’t been the person God has called you to be and that you’ve repeatedly fallen short, even if you’re not exactly certain how?
I reached a point in my spiritual journey where I was not at all liking this feeling of soul-ickiness, and then, as I discovered Catholic teaching, I found out why: sin really is a big deal! It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are on the spectrum of sanctification(I realize that’s a loaded term since Protestants and Catholics understand sanctification differently so I’ll just use it generically at this point)…sin is bad for you! Remaining in
sin will do you no favors! I think there can be a tendency among Protestants to talk about “back before I was saved” in terms of sin, and to completely gloss over the whole “post-saved” period since it doesn’t really matter once you’re “in”, so to speak. There are verses in the Bible though, that seemed to me to suggest otherwise.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul is pretty driven to keep himself in shape: “No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” In fact, it never really seemed to me that Paul indicates in any of his writings that he’s not worried about being in a state of sin. He strikes me as being a pretty intense sort of guy regarding his salvation. And if the Apostle Paul would be concerned about sin, why would I write it off?
Please don’t interpret me as saying that Protestants don’t care about sin. What I’m saying is that there is no mechanism, at least that I ever encountered, that served to help me on my path to sanctity. And no, I don’t think an “accountability partner” is the answer (if you want to know why, read Jason’s post on that here.) When it comes down to it, no one knows your heart. You can put on the best holy tap dance in the world and be an absolute monster on the inside. That’s why I was bowled over by the concept of doing an examination of conscience on a regular basis (If you’re worried about this being an extra-biblical practice, look at 1 Cor 11:28-31. You’ll discover that it is well-established!)
This examination of conscience forces you to sit down, pray, and reflect on a real live list of ways in which you may be sinning. To see a good example look here or download that nifty Confession App. Talk about a practical way to grow in your faith. If you do it often, you might even notice a pattern. And if you notice a pattern of sin you might become more sensitive to other ways in which you might be sinning. Sharpening your conscience is an ongoing process that can only yield a positive benefit for your soul. I can imagine naysayers pointing out that a person could just tick through the list and declare themselves ok. Well, I suppose one could do that but that would indicate they’re probably not being honest with themselves or with God and I would ask how that is any different from just ignoring your sin altogether?
Being honest about sin is not about guilt for guilt’s sake. It’s about growing in holiness and thus, closer to Christ:
The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes: He who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. He never stops desiring what he already knows. CCC 2015