Sin Talk

Sin, Justice, and Generational Differences

Years ago, in her book Speaking of Sin, Barbara Brown Taylor had a chapter with the curious title “Sin Is Our Only Hope.” Aside from bearing a catchy title, the chapter demonstrated that, though there is no hope per se to be associated with sin, there is a lot of hope to be found in the ability to confirm there is such a thing as sin. What’s more, the reason that’s hopeful is because it points to the God who, like the ultimate cosmic umpire, is able to call balls and strikes. God is able to see what is right and what is wrong, what is in and what is out, and in so doing to convey hope that if sin can be dealt with in some final way, then we can be delivered from it and arrive at a better cosmic day.

Everyone who preaches knows that for any given sermon, being able to point to what is wrong in this world is the relatively easy part. Homelitician Paul Scott Wilson calls it “Trouble.” Eugene Lowry refers to “Oops!” and “Ugh!” Bryan Chappell calls it the “Fallen Condition Focus.” The point is that when we look at the world around us, we spy all kinds of examples of wrong, bad, and hurtful realities. Sometimes these are comparatively smaller matters, like someone uttering a cutting word that wounds you. Other times they are true horrors, like the invasion of Ukraine and the slaughter of innocent life. What people in the Calvinist tradition have long labeled “total depravity” is an empirically verifiable truth that we each encounter every day. We all desire a hope that says it doesn’t have to be this way.

In the charming 1995 movie Babe, all the animals on Farmer Hoggett’s farm are given voices, and throughout the movie each kind of animal—sheep, cows, dogs—presents its own particular worldview. Each animal has a perspective on all the other animals, and when we are told how sheep regard dogs, for instance, the narrator assures us that there is nothing in the world that could change a sheep’s mind on such matters. Another narrated refrain was that “the way things are are the way things are,” and that these settled facts were immutable.

Despite this film’s many charms, there is something a little depressing about the idea that the way things are in the world are immutable and will never be altered. We have to hope, in fact, that the way things are both can change and ultimately must change because a lot of what characterizes life for now falls into the category of what we would regard as sinful. And if something is sinful, then it means it deviates from a norm that exists. Being able to acknowledge what is sinful is our only hope. In John Milton’s language, if there is such a thing as “Paradise Lost,” then there must be hope of finding a way to arrive at “Paradise Regained.”

We have been thinking about intergenerational worship in recent issues of Reformed Worship. Intergenerational worship implies intergenerational preaching, and on matters of sin we preachers need to recognize that generations may differ on definitions of sin and on what counts as sin worthy of mentioning in a sermon.

It’s not that younger people have abandoned a sense of sin—at least not in all circles. True, Christian Smith has identified a modern belief he calls “moral therapeutic deism,” in which many people downplay the day-to-day sins that were of great concern to past generations in favor of the idea that living “pretty good” lives might be enough to pass muster. God is not paying that close of attention to our lives, many feel, and probably grades on a curve anyway. So if you are a decent sort of person who avoids really terrible activity, you are probably going to be just fine in the sweet by and by.

Most would agree that this perspective guts traditional notions of sin pretty thoroughly. But I don’t think this worldview is held by most younger people in the church today. There seems to be a persistent belief that sin is real and must be dealt with. This often gets expressed in the language of justice. Anything perceived as unjust still gets people’s attention and still gets labeled as sinful and in need of rooting out.

Curiously, that puts a lot of younger people in pretty close alignment with the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. Many things in the Old Testament were labeled sinful, but a careful Bible reader would be hard pressed to deny that matters related to injustice are prominent. Things as serious as murder or theft or rape or abuse were treated as sinful not simply because they were sinful actions in themselves, but also because they ultimately contributed to injustice in Israelite society.

This focus culminates in the writings of the Minor Prophets, in which Israel’s treatment of the poor and the marginalized and the vulnerable are assailed for all kinds of reasons, but especially because their sinful actions were, first and foremost, unjust. Treating people differently based on socioeconomic status or gender or nationality was sinful, all right, but at their core the sinfulness stemmed from the injustice of it all.

In preaching and in church life generally, it is too easy to look at the perspectives of younger people and chalk them up to a lack of seriousness where sin is concerned. Often this comes out whenever a younger person is not as worried about certain things—Sabbath observance or consumption of media or attitudes toward various social activities—as were older generations. Sometimes it may be that something long regarded as a sin still is a sin, whether younger people or others label it as such or not. But although we can and should discuss these matters case by case, we should not overlook younger generations’ focus on upholding justice and combating injustice, a concern that demonstrates they’re still very serious about sin after all.

How exactly this awareness translates into preaching is something I cannot fully articulate in this short column. Perhaps I could not fully articulate it in even a much longer piece! But we preachers know that people who listen to our sermons perceive our core perspectives over time. If we consistently embed language or sentiments into our preaching that convey to younger people the message that the church regards their attitudes toward sin as woefully lacking, this will tend to marginalize people who believe in their hearts that they are very serious about wanting to make the world a better place by addressing what they regard as sinful and unjust patterns in society and in the church.

Sin may well be our only hope, but such hope can be sought in a variety of ways. Those of us who preach would do well to learn from how younger people in the church today look for hope: by seeking to address what is unjust in the world.

Rev. Scott Hoezee is director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching ( at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Reformed Worship 146 © December 2022, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.