Sin avoidance or doing right?

“Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”
-Eric Metaxas*

Avoiding Sin

On my author page on this site, I describe myself as “uncomfortably” evangelical. Once, a family member asked for a concise explication of where I disagree with evangelicals. I struggled with this because I share the methodological assumptions of evangelicalism and theologically I am rather evangelical. I tried to briefly explain that the “historical ethos” of evangelicalism is reactionary, isolationist, and anti-intellectual. That is certainly a part of the evangelical ethos with which I struggle. But, I think the quote above gets to the issue even more concisely and precisely.

There is no doubt that avoiding sin is an important part of the Christian life. It is a matter of focus. Is our focus on doing the will of God? On living the character of God? Or, is it simply about avoiding sin? I believe for many evangelicals it is simply about avoiding sin.

Missing the Mark

Why is this a problem? When we focus on sin avoidance, we tend to take a rules approach to the faith. Don’t do this…Don’t do that… sometimes we will be a little more forward-thinking and add a couple of rules we should do…go to church every time the doors are open…read this version of the Bible…vote Republican. The problem is that none of those things are living the life of faith.

Jesus claimed that the great commandments were to love God and love others. The heart of the gospel is defined by what we do, by who and what we love, not by what we avoid. The reality is that we become what we think about most of the time. With that in mind, we may want to focus on living the heart of God and doing right rather than the avoidance of sin. If we set our eyes and heart on God and living His will, sin avoidance will happen naturally.

This could revolutionize the way Christians are seen in the world. I am not saying that Christianity will ever be the darling of the secular world. I think scripture is clear that will never happen. But how are evangelicals known in this world? Christ said we will be known by our love. Are we? I think we are known for our hate. The hate of sin is a good thing.  But by having the heart of our spiritual commitment as our hate of sin rather than our love of God, we miss the mark.

Doing Right

Further, we become what we think about or maybe how we think. We become hateful. Since the avoidance of doing wrong rather than a commitment to doing right is the heart of our religious experience, we lack the courage and commitment that it takes to stand up and do right. We become a cowardly people who are able to shout against the evils of the world but are incapable of standing up against the world, or the church, to actually DO right.

Many evangelicals completely miss the life of faith by twisting a faith that is centered on the love of God into a faith centered on hating what God hates. These are not the same. The walk of faith is found in loving God and loving what he loves. It isn’t so much that we avoid sin but that God moves our affections from sin to Him.

* This quote is often attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is, however, the words of Eric Metaxas when he was summarizing Bonhoeffer’s philosophy.

This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are either still relevant today or can be easily updated. This piece was first published on February 13, 2013, and has been lightly edited and updated.

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  • “incapable of standing up against the world or the church to actually DO right.” ; I would just add that, regardless of religion or faith or whatever, most people are also incapable of looking inward at their own faults. How’s that saying go? “Let he who is free of sin cast the fist stone”? You know what I’m talking about.

    • That is so true, Jim. With my art students I tell them that artists need to develop self criticism (analyzing work to fix bad parts and improve in what you do) and self editing (don’t show the junk that you produce). That sort or inwardness would be helpful for non-artists as well. Look at how you can improve which means admitting where you need it and the junk that your life and mind produces to yourself.

  • I have never heard this so concisely and well said. Thanks!

    • Robin, Thank you for letting me know. The internet is a terrible wonderful thing. So much informationis available but at the same time misinformation is just as available! Thank you for helping me to try and staymore on the information rather than the misinformation side of things.

  • Excellent. A life of faith requires an openness to making mistakes. Thinking about it musically, we can play in such a way to communicate feeling, or we can play in such a way to avoid mistakes. Those who truly love what they do and care about the final performance will practice in such a way to minimize mistakes, but if communicating feeling is of primary importance, the risk of mistakes is still there in performance. Playing only to avoid mistakes can result in a rigid, flat, life-less performance. Most listeners would prefer to hear a vibrant performance, even with glaring errors that happen in the passion of the moment (rather than from a lack of preparation – the difference is obvious) over a performance that is technically exactly accurate but fails to emotionally connect with them.

    • This is absolutely true. Technical proficiency alone is so much less than being able to put a part of yourself into the art (music, painting, etc.). I’ve seen so many boring paintings that are technically excellent but don’t communicate from the artist’s soul to mine.

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