Posted by: Philip Rushton | August 12, 2013

Respectable Sins

Our text in the preaching cycle this week is John 8. This chapter begins with the story about a group of Pharisees who try and convince Jesus that they should stone a women who has committed adultery. Jesus responds by saying, “let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Religious people still have a tendency to throw stones, and after 2000 years the target has not changed very much. Like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, we have a tendency to elevate sexual or bodily sins. I have heard Christians blame homosexuality for the decline of American culture. I recently talked with a pastor who said that he felt the need to bring up his parishioner’s pregnancy out of wedlock when he baptized her. Our group was unsuccessful at trying to convince him that it was inconsistent for him to single out this type of sin, especially since the liturgy already says a general statement about our sinfulness and need of grace. During the Go 4th festival at Lake Sacajawea a couple years ago, a minister at the public outdoor service railed against the lack of sexual purity in our county.

Now it is not as if we should never talk about these issues. Jesus does speak out against sexual sins. The problem with this fixation on the “major” sins, is that they blind us from some of the more subtle sins that we struggle with. In his book Respectable Sins: Confronting the sins we tolerate, Jeff Bridges writes: “conservative evangelicals may have become so preoccupied with the major sins of society around us that we have lost sight of the need to deal our own “refined” or subtle sins.” By subtle sins Bridges means things like greed, gossip, anger, pride, envy, selfishness, and judgmentalism.

I think that these subtle or respectable sins are more dangerous than the “major” sins because they fly under the radar. This would explain why Jesus spends most of his time confronting the religious insiders who think they have it all together instead of the prostitutes and drunks outside of the religious establishment.

C.S. Lewis says it well when he writes:

“The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I appreciate how Lewis does not disregard the dangers of bodily sins. In reference to the animal self and the diabolical self he says, “of course, it is better to be neither.” I often find that the pendulum swings too far during these types of conversations. By refocusing our attention on the dangers of our respectable sins we must not ignore the dangers of the bodily sins. At the same time, Lewis offers an important reminder that some of the most dangerous sins are the ones that we justify within our religious culture.

Perhaps our witness to our secular culture might be stronger if we stopped pointing fingers at the usual suspects and took a good look at our own struggles. This, I believe, would help restore a spirit of humility within the Christian community that might allow us to actually gain a hearing in our world.

The good news for us respectable sinners is that Jesus has grace for us as well! The story in John 8 ends with Jesus saying, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” This story levels the playing field. It reminds us that we are all sinners in need of grace. The good news is that Jesus does not condemn us. Instead he calls us to turn from our sinful ways and live a new kind of life!


  1. Balanced Truth Henry

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  3. In the Respectable Sins category – for me might be spending multiple hours cruising on the internet/Facebook while spending 5-10 minutes on devotions/prayer. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

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