A Senior Moment
by Rev. Bob Johnston

March 5, 2017

New Perspectives

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It was a rainy December day in 1964 when I ventured into my bank to purchase some mutual funds. The young woman behind the desk filled out my application then proceeded to ask me a very personal question:

I recall the conversation went something like this: “What is the number of your sins?

“Well, I guess 3 or 4, depending on whether you consider sneaking a second dessert is sinful. But why do you need to know about my personal behavior before selling me mutual funds?”

“Sir, I certainly do not need to know; I just needed your Social Insurance Number.” Her face had turned a bright red to match the colour of her woolen sweater.

I realized I had misheard; she had been innocently inquiring about my SIN, not my sins. My confusion was understandable. The Federal Government had only just implemented this innovative tracking system in June of that year. Having my very own SIN would forever identify me to Ottawa bureaucrats for purposes of taxation or CPP contributions, but it obviously took me some time to get used to the term.

“Sin” as a theological concept has lost its prominence and power in our contemporary world. In fact, this is a great time to be a “sinner!” Consider these three realities:

---With over three-quarters of us not attending church nor other places of worship, the idea of an angry, vengeful God seems only a relic from the cast-aside religion of our ancestors. Sinners are safe!

 ---With sermons no longer filled with fearsome warnings of “Hellfire and Brimstone,” mainstream churchgoers leave Sunday services feeling reassured about God’s unconditional love, not frightened by his condemning wrath. Even Evangelical, more Fundamentalist, denominations balance a recognition of our universal sin nature with teachings about God’s grace, His promise of redemption through Jesus.

---Society no longer condemns many kinds of behavior which, at one time, were quickly labeled as sinful. Today’s “sinner” will not be judged nor shunned by their community. At worst, they might encounter friends or neighbours who live by different values but who have learned never to insist others follow those same standards.


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What does that word “sin” really mean?

 In its most basic form, a sin is moral wrongdoing, or in theological language, a transgression against God’s law. Unfortunately, “God’s law” may indeed leave the Deity’s infallible mouth, but inevitably lands into very human and fallible ears. In other words, mankind (and I do mean ”males”) has too often interpreted and bent God’s law to suit human purposes. This had led to horrible results such as the medieval Inquisition and the current atrocities of ISIS in the middle-East. This has also led to relatively trivial past edicts against supposed sins of movie-going, wearing makeup, card-playing, consuming alcohol, partaking in Sunday sports, eating meat on Friday and many other behaviors deemed at one time to be wrong. It was these trivial rules that were the first to go.

Prohibition failed in the 1920s. In the 1950s, Toronto’s Mayor Allan Lamport unlocked the theatres, pools and ballparks for citizens to enjoy on Sundays. Mainstream religious leaders relaxed rules around social drinking and buying lottery tickets. Evangelical movements moved beyond a preoccupation with lipstick, earrings, long hair on men and short skirts on women, to focus on far more important issues of serious sin and social justice. Over the past fifty years or so, many of the proscriptions against non-trivial behavior, these serious sins, also began to crumble. Historically, it had been the power and influence of the institutional church that originally pressured governments to legislate moral laws into legal code. As the influence of religion waned in the 1960s, newer, secular voices led the way toward relaxation and ultimately abandonment of many of the legal constraints controlling human choice.

Behaviors once illegal and socially condemned, became allowable and socially accepted or at least tolerated. Laws permitting divorce were drastically broadened and, subsequently. remarriage made possible. Behavior, once unlawful-----same-sex marriage, pre-marital sex, abortion, medical-assisted death (and soon-to-be-legalized personal use of marijuana,) has become permissible without penalty.

What remains of sin? It may be preferable to let go of the word entirely because the term has become so distorted and contaminated as to be undefinable by society. Perhaps one can speak of wrong behavior instead. The Biblical Ten Commandments continue to provide an ethical foundation, condemning murder, theft, adultery and social injustice, while encouraging love, right living, charity and justice. Society still is guided by these principles even if rejecting their source.

As a Christian counselor, I spent time helping some folks to become less sinful. I helped just as many to let go of false guilt and self-condemnation for behavior and attitudes which reflected human imperfection, not sin. As the Apostle Paul noted: “Be angry (if you must) but sin not.”

In the church calendar, today, March 5th, is the first Sunday of Lent. While traditionally a time for “giving up” of some habit or food, it is also a time to reflect upon those guiding principles by which we live our lives. You may end up examining your own sin numbers—real and imaginary.

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