Sin and Society – Holiness in a Fallen World


Tim Costello defined sin as anything that cripples the ‘image of God’. This includes not only personal transgressions, but structural and institutional oppression, injustice, violence, manipulation and coercion. On the other hand ‘Salvation’ is anything that restores the image (character) of God.
As humans we inherit a certain history. We inherit sin caused by decisions made in previous years. We inherit a sort of sin ‘frozen’ into the institutions and society and culture within which they were birthed.

Duane Clinker noted John Wesley’s awareness of the centrality of dealing with fallen society and its institutions when applying the Gospel. He claimed that ‘the Gospel of Christ knows of no religion but a faith expressed in a social context; no holiness but social holiness (being different than the fallen world i.e. set apart). He responded to claims that slavery was an economic necessity by saying ‘Better is honest poverty than all the riches brought though tears, sweat and blood of our fellow creatures.’ He went on to point out that our guilt lies in the complicit actions that support the sin of such structures and organisations that enable us to enjoy benefits at the serious price of others’ suffering.

Today, we often find Holiness has shrunk to being a matter of personal rule keeping or piety. David L Watin & Doug Marks point out the lack of insight of this view. “Only a fraction of our sin is personal. By far the greater part are sins of neglect, of default, our social sin, our systemic sin, our economic sin. As long as evangelism focuses on the need for personal salvation (and basically leaves it at that), individuals will acquire a faith that focuses on maximum benefits with minimal obligations – making Christ’s sacrifice a pragmatic transaction of salvific contract. The sanctifying grace of God in Jesus is meant not just for the sinner but also for a society beset by structural sin.” As members of God’s Kingdom, his call on us is to dispense His grace and to participate in His will and work for the redemption of his good creation, structures and all.

Jacques Ellul pointed out that ‘A major fact of our present civilisation is that more and more sin becomes collective and individuals are forced to participate in collective sin. Individualistic theology has not trained the spiritual intelligence of Christian men and women to recognise and observe spiritual entities beyond the individual.’ If they do, then it is apportioned to some atmospheric, personalised ‘evil spirit’ that is somewhat mysterious and scary.

Walter Rauschenbusch stated that ‘We have in many ways responded to the big global crises of our day with an incredible shrinking gospel. Apathy will enable ‘collective sin’ to visit vast destruction on us all.’ Some have decided that this is all God’s will and there is nothing they can do except pull anyone who wants ‘salvation’ into their ‘life boat’ before it is too late and ignore the fallen world which God has charged us to redeem (Rom 8:18-25 & Col:19-20).

However, as Edmund Burke observed, ‘All that is necessary for our contemporary global crisis to destroy us because we have allowed social/systemic sin to flourish, is for ‘good’ people to do nothing.’

Matthew Maury declared that a true Christian perspective must acknowledge that, ‘Every decision we make, everything we do imparts transformation toward a more just or unjust world, whether it is in what we buy, eat, who we vote for, how we invest, how we travel, what institutions we access etc. Our transformed lives are what set Christians apart. Keep in mind that if a Christian is neutral in any situation of injustice, then they have by default chosen the side of the oppressor. Where the kingdom values are contravened then injustice is seeded. Justice is what Love looks like in public (Cornet West).

Written by Sweis Meijers


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