The Gospel of Sin Management with Joseph Lewis

“The gospel of sin management” is a phrase that was coined by Dallas Willard. For Joseph Lewis, that phrase perfectly encapsulates the way many people make being a Christian primarily about avoiding sin and following a set of rules. In this thought-provoking episode, Wes McAdams and Joseph Lewis expose the problems with reducing Christianity to mere moralism. They discuss how an obsessive focus on not sinning can paradoxically make us more likely to sin, as well as undermine the true meaning of the gospel.

Drawing from biblical passages like John 5 and Galatians 5, the discussion explores the core of what the gospel really is – not a rigid system of dos and don’ts, but the amazing news of God’s grace, mercy, and transformative work in our lives through Jesus Christ. The conversation illuminates how the gospel reorients our entire lives around Christ rather than reducing faith to mere behavior modification. It examines the importance of focusing on Jesus rather than dwelling on a checklist of sins to avoid.

The guest for this episode is Joseph Lewis, an evangelist at the Flower Mound Church of Christ. Joseph is known for his rich theological insights and his passion for helping believers develop an authentic, Christ-centered faith. With wisdom and personal examples, Joseph unpacks the life-giving power of the true gospel as opposed to the hollow, powerless “gospel of sin management.”

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Transcript (Credit: Beth Tabor)

Welcome to the Radically Christian Bible Study podcast. I’m your host, Wes McAdams. Here we have one goal: Learn to love like Jesus. Today we’re going to talk about the false gospel of sin management. Why is the gospel not just merely a matter of managing our own sin? The gospel is not just a matter of don’t do this, don’t do this, stop this, stop that. The gospel is so much more than that. My guest today is Joseph Lewis, who is one of the evangelists at the Flower Mound Congregation. He preached a sermon recently on this topic, and I know that you’re going to really enjoy this very theologically rich conversation. 

Before we get into that, I want to read from Titus chapter 2, starting in verse 11. The apostle Paul says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self‑controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” 

I hope that you enjoy this conversation and, as always, I hope that it helps all of us learn to love like Jesus.

WES: Joseph Lewis, welcome to the podcast, Brother.

JOSEPH: Hey, what’s going on, Wes?

WES: It is so good to finally have you on the podcast. I’m sorry it’s taken so long to have you on. I’m excited about our conversation.

JOSEPH: There is zero reason to apologize. I have always listened to your podcast as kind of like a thing that other people get to go on, you know? So when you texted me, you were like, hey, you should be on the podcast. I was like, no, I shouldn’t. So I’m excited to finally be able to talk to you and have it be recorded.

WES: Yeah, we always have such great conversations. We have lunch together once a month and get to have some great conversations. We’re with other preachers, but sometimes I ignore all of them because I enjoy the conversations you and I have so much.

JOSEPH: Sometimes I try to not talk to you until the end because of that, because I’m like, man, I gotta let him talk to other people. I always take up all your time, so…

WES: We get into some great theology, which is what I’m excited about talking about today. You recently had a sermon and it was entitled “The Gospel of Sin Management,” and it was a fantastic lesson. In fact, I asked you, what do you want to talk about? And then I started digging through some of your recent stuff and I was like, oh, this would be really good. And about the same time that I found that, you texted me and said, well, we could talk about this lesson, and I was already going down that rabbit trail. So I’m really excited to talk about this lesson that you did. You talked about this idea of sin management, or the gospel of sin management. Let’s first define that. What do you mean by that?

JOSEPH: Yeah, I mean, so it’s funny. I got the sentence ‑‑ or the phrase from a book called The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard. He didn’t go the direction that I went with it. I think he was more talking about kind of what that looks like in people’s lives in different ‑‑ kind of different aspects, but as soon as I heard that phrase, I was like, oh, my goodness, like, I know that gospel. I know that gospel really well. You know, it’s one of those things that I think is defined really well when you look at like sort of what people do: When they hear that gospel, how do they respond? The gospel of sin management has people say things like, well, being a Christian is about stopping sinning. And at the outset, like, I think most of us would agree with that, you know? But at the same time, that’s not really the gospel. You know, that’s the gospel of sin management. 

I remember I was talking to some ‑‑ I’ve asked this question in a lot of different groups. There’s a Tuesday night Bible study my dad and I have started that’s ‑‑ I mean, God’s doing something there because it started with one guy at the gym, and then he started talking to another guy, and now we’re having 10 to 15 guys from the gym, between 18 and 24 years old, come over to my mom and dad’s house for a meal and a Bible study. I’ll send you a picture sometime because it’s ‑‑ we got some characters in there.  It’s really, really beautiful. Anyway, we’re at this Bible study, and a lot of these kids don’t have any background in church or in religion at all and they just know the general idea of what it means to be a Christian or what it means to ‑‑ culturally, what it means to be a Christian. I asked them, I was like, hey, what does it mean to be a Christian? They were like, well, you gotta stop doing these things. I didn’t preload them. I didn’t give them anything ahead of that. They just said, well, it means you don’t drink, it means you don’t cuss, it means you don’t ‑‑ and they started throwing out all these sins. 

And the gospel of sin management looks a lot like that when people think about it. It’s, you know, if I could just get this sin out of my life, I would be good. You know, I sinned really big, I need to go to church on Sunday, kind of thing. So the gospel of sin management is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the good news that you have to manage your own sin, which isn’t really good news at all.

WES: Yeah, for sure. So what first got you realizing that that was a problematic way to be a Christian? I mean, did you grow up with or have a period of your life where that is how you thought about being a Christian? Because I know that I did. I certainly had periods of my life where that’s what I thought it was. You know, you go to church, you sort of have your Sundays the way that they’re supposed to be, and Wednesday nights, as well, and then it’s about what you believe and what you do on Sundays and then what you don’t do the rest of the week, the things that you refrain from doing, that you stop doing. But then, over the years, I realized that’s not really the gospel. So what was it that kind of helped you to realize that that wasn’t the gospel?

JOSEPH: I’ve got a whole note in my phone. I don’t know if I’ll ever write a book. I don’t think I’ll ever be a guy who writes books or anything like that, but I’ve got a whole note in my phone so I don’t forget that journey because there were so many things along the way that really made me go maybe that’s not all there is to this. I mean, there’s always ‑‑ I think when you first learn some about, you know, Jesus and church and just the idea of, hey, I’m not gonna do these bad things anymore and I’m gonna start doing these good things is a really great place to start. There’s absolutely no hate or shame associated with that mindset because that is a part of this. But when that was all of it, I had always felt like, man, there’s more to this. There’s more to this. There’s gotta be more to this. And, of course, like anything, the more you read about Jesus, the more it messes with what you think you know. 

And so, you know, there was always this idea that, especially as I was growing, that there’s more to being a Christian than just not sinning and just going to church. Of course there were a whole bunch of little things that kind of reinforced or pushed me to grow in that question and in that challenge, but when I heard that phrase, it really just gave language to something that I felt. You know, like I could tell and I knew, and, at this point in my life, I was sure there’s something bigger than this, than just not sinning, and I explained it in a couple different ways, and I think I kind of made legalism out to be one of my favorite sort of whipping boys to come at. Anytime someone would preach on something, I’d be like, ah, it’s a little legalistic. And I don’t know that that even encapsulated as much the root of the problem. It was more a product of ‑‑ or a symptom of the problem of this gospel of sin management. 

So it really ‑‑ when I heard that phrase, it clicked so well because it’s something I had been chewing on and wrestling with for a long time, and I was like, man, that’s the problem. That’s the language for the problem, the real, like, underneath problem that so many Christians have.

WES: Yeah. Well, one of the things in your lesson was sort of this paradox. I don’t know that you described it that way, but it really is kind of a paradox, that when you focus on not sinning, then that becomes your obsession. That becomes what you’re thinking about. You’re thinking about sin. I thought about several different analogies or sort of comparisons for when I was growing up. When I was a kid, my parents, whenever we would get hurt, they would tell us, “Don’t think about purple elephants. Don’t think about purple elephants with pink polka dots.” And, of course, they were trying to distract us from our injury, whatever that was. And by saying “Don’t think about purple elephants,” that’s all we could think of. And of course we would laugh and we would really be thinking about a purple elephant with pink polka dots, and the more they would describe it, the more we obsessed over that. 

And that really is the way it is with sin. When you say, “Don’t sin, don’t sin, don’t think about sinning, don’t talk about sinning,” then, of course, that’s what you’re thinking about. When I was a kid ‑‑ and I was horrible at sports ‑‑ and somebody would throw a ball to me, and while the ball is in the air, the only thing I can think of is “Don’t drop it, don’t drop it, don’t drop it,” and of course that’s exactly what I’d do because it’s what I’m focused on not doing, and so that’s what we become obsessed with. And you used this example of purity culture. Why don’t you talk a little bit about that and why that’s a good example of why it’s problematic to just focus on not sinning?  

JOSEPH: Yeah. I mean, that’s really what it becomes. When the gospel of sin management produces, like we said, some of those phrases you might say in your head ‑‑ “If I could just quit this one sin, I’d be good,” or “I sinned big and I need to go to church now,” or “Being a Christian means stop sinning,” like the whole gospel, in that context, is about sin. Now it’s about the exact opposite thing that it was meant to be about. Being a Christian is not about Christ anymore; it’s about sin and not sinning. And purity culture is one of the ways that that definitely has kind of pervaded our ‑‑ or that mindset has pervaded our world. 

You know, when purity culture started, most people will trace it back to the book ‑‑ the I Kissed Dating Goodbye book, and that was a really important book. It was ‑‑ I want to be as gracious as I can with this because I think the author of that book ‑‑ I can’t remember his name at the moment, but I think he wanted to ‑‑ he saw a problem in the world, where Christians and non‑Christians would date and date. Looked a lot like marriage except you just weren’t married. You know, like tax implications was the only difference, I guess, but it was a problem where people were sleeping together before they were married, they were moving in together before they were married, and it was causing a lot of issues ‑‑ I mean, a lot of issues. And so this book came out, and the guy was kind of saying, “Hey, we’re Christians, we’re not gonna date like that. We’re gonna have a higher standard because that’s what God calls us to.” Well, you know, the book kind of started with saying, hey, we are not ‑‑ it was essentially about premarital sex. “We are not going to have premarital sex,” right? So no sex. Well, the book and the way it was written and the way sort of the culture took to it is it bred more and more and more and more and more rules, to the point where you started having to think about sex all the time, in every aspect of your life. So “no sex” turned into “only sex all the time,” and it really showed itself in ways like, you know, women have to think about what they wear, and they’re taught, in this culture, you have to ask the question, “Will someone lust after me if I wear this clothing?” I’m not saying that shouldn’t be a question or it shouldn’t be a thought, but certainly that shouldn’t be the lens through which you look at your life, as it only turns men into monsters and women into sex objects. It’s exactly the opposite of the problem that it was trying to find a solution to in the first place, and it does the same ‑‑ it has similar impacts on them.

I think I told the story in the lesson, I had a buddy in college who tried to argue with me, and, I mean, he was in college, I was in college, so I felt like he did a fine job, but I look back on it and I laugh at these conversations. He tried to argue with me that the only reason anyone gets married is for sex. And I was like, well, I mean, companionship, relationship, trust, respect, you know, like, children, there’s so many reasons why you get married. And he goes, well, you can find all of those outside of marriage. And I laughed. I said, well, I mean, you can find the other, too, outside of marriage. And it was just like that culture had pervaded so much the mindset, that, suddenly, sex was no longer about relationship and imaging God by two becoming one and showing unity and showing love and faithfulness. It just all became about sex. 

And so, paradoxically, like you said, this movement started in an effort to say no sex outside of marriage, outside of the right context, right? And it turned into everything is about sex. You have to think about it all the time. It’s on your mind all the time. Everyone struggles with it, everyone fights with it, and it’s the only thing we think about all the time. And, I mean, it had the exact opposite effect because you weren’t thinking about holiness, you weren’t thinking about godliness, you weren’t thinking about here are the beautiful parts of this or how we can do this in a way that glorifies God. Instead, it was just don’t do this thing, and it turned into only think about and do this thing in shame, you know? 

WES: Yeah. And it really corrupts every aspect. It corrupts our view of God, it corrupts our view of ourselves, it corrupts our view of people of the opposite gender or the opposite sex, it corrupts our view of marriage, all of these things. When Jesus isn’t ‑‑ we’ll get to this later, but when Jesus isn’t at the center of our theology, if he’s not at the center of our life, when it really is about sin, then it distorts everything because the center is off balance, and then everything in our life is out of kilter. 

You used John 5 as sort of the text around which the lesson revolved, this idea of the Sabbath and work. Let’s talk about that because I love that picture of how the Jewish view in the first century ‑‑ or at least the leadership’s view of Sabbath really was sort of very similar to the way we think of the gospel of sin management.

JOSEPH: I mean, it was exactly the same. Like that was one of the things that came to my mind immediately when I heard the phrase and I started thinking about how I would present this lesson. I was like, man, this is exactly what the Pharisees ‑‑ or in John 5, they’re just called “the Jews,” but, you know, it’s exactly what they did with the Sabbath. So if you look at John 5, you’ve got the story of the man who’s by the Pool of Bethesda for 38 years. You know, he’d been crippled for 38 years, and Jesus shows up and asks, “Hey, do you want to be healed?” Which is classic Jesus in the Gospel of John. He seems to always ask strange questions and say confusing things in the Gospel of John. And, you know, the other man in the story responds with, “I don’t have anyone to get me in the water. You know, I can’t get in there fast enough.” Of course there was that myth around the Pool of Bethesda that when the water was stirred, the first person to get into that water would have healing, and whether or not that was true is not really a question in John’s gospel; it’s just a part of the story, and it was a really important part. This man thought he’d find healing in water. A couple chapters later we find out Jesus is the living water. Where’d the man find healing? In water, which is just cool. 

Anyway, so this man is laying there by this pool hoping to get into this water and be healed, and Jesus comes up and asks him if he wants to be healed. The man complains, and then Jesus says, “Rise, take up your bed, and walk.” He gives him three instructions: Rise, take up your bed, and walk. And if you read through it, there’s nothing wrong with getting up, there’s nothing wrong with walking, within certain parameters, for the Jews, but the specific command to take up your bed ‑‑ for Jesus to tell this man to take up your bed on the Sabbath, that was where the problem was gonna happen. So do you mind if I read it? Is that okay? 

WES: No, please do. Yeah, please do.

JOSEPH: I mean, I’ve got the general arc of the story, but I always prefer to read it and have the language be the way John wrote it. So at the end of verse 8, Jesus gives him the three instructions: “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And then, once the man was healed, he took up his bed and he walked, right? So he checks all three boxes, all three of the things Jesus told him to do. And at the end of verse 9, “Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews” ‑‑ which my note says that that’s a shorthand for the leaders of the Jews. This would likely have been the Pharisees, the scribes, and that group that you typically read about interacting with Jesus. “So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.'” I always laugh here and think, wouldn’t “Hold on, how did you get healed” be a really good first question? Well, they’re completely unconcerned with how this guy got healed. Instead, they’re concerned with him breaking the Sabbath, which means working on the Sabbath. 

So verse 11, the man answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.'” He kind of gives them a “Hey, the guy that miraculously gave me the ability to walk, I’m probably gonna listen to him because you can’t make me walk.” You can almost hear the jab at the leaders of the Jews. “I’ve been laying here for 38 years, and you guys haven’t done a thing about it, but this guy, I’m gonna take what he says to the bank. He said, ‘Get up and walk, take up your bed,’ I’m listening.” So verse 12, they asked him, “Hold on. Somebody healed you?” Like, again, that would be such a normal response, but the Pharisees are so blind to the fact that this man had a miracle performed, that they only respond with, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” You notice they’re really concerned with that one part because that was the part that wasn’t lawful to do on the Sabbath. That was what they called work, and according to the Sabbath, you’re not allowed to work. 

We’ll skip down and let’s go to verse 15. The man doesn’t know who healed him, then he runs into Jesus. And after he runs into Jesus, in verse 15, “The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them” ‑‑ and I think the language here is really important ‑‑ “My father is working until now, and I am working.” What was the rule on the Sabbath? Don’t work. So if Jesus just straight up said, “God is working and I’m working,” I mean, obviously, he’s equating himself with God, which is really significant, but he’s also kind of saying God broke the Sabbath, which causes a whole bunch of problems. And, typically, when you see Jesus saying something like this, something else is going on. There’s more that you need to understand. It’s not that God broke the Sabbath or that Jesus broke the Sabbath, but the people who he was talking to needed to learn something about the Sabbath, and that’s exactly what’s going on here. Because if you go back to Exodus chapter 20 and you read the original command about the Sabbath, it says, “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.” You know, six days you’re gonna work; on the seventh, you’re gonna rest. Don’t do any work, you or anyone in your household, and then it gives the reason. “For in six days God created the heavens and the earth, the sea and the sky and all that is in them, and then, on the seventh, he rested.” 

So the reasoning behind Sabbath points back to Genesis chapter 1, when God created. Okay. Well, if the reason that we’re meant to have a Sabbath ‑‑ or the Sabbath was in the law, at least, if the reason for that had to do with God and creation, then we need to understand God’s resting in creation in order to accurately do the Sabbath. That makes a lot of sense. So you go back and you read, and you say, God rested on the seventh day. Well, why in the world did God rest on the seventh day? You know, we teach little kids ‑‑ this cracked me up. I was talking to my sister, who teaches a lot of younger kids’ classes, and I have younger kids, so we were talking about this. And she said, “Yeah, we always have them take a nap, you know, like you’re tired.” I was like, well, I mean, surely the infinitely powerful creator of the entire universe wasn’t tired on day seven. Six days is enough for our God. He was wore out. Like that’s obviously not the problem. When you look at creation and you look at Genesis 1 and why did God rest, the answer is very clear. God is resting because he’s done creating. He finishes creating and then he steps back and he says, “It’s very good,” right? There’s a distinction. “It’s good,” “It’s good,” “It’s good,” and then after he creates humans, there’s that “very good,” and he’s done creating. He steps back and he delights in his creation. We read all over the Bible about how much God loves and delights in his creation. And so day seven, he steps back. He says, “I’m done creating. This is exactly how I want it. I’ve given you, Adam, Eve, everything. Go enjoy it, go live in it, go celebrate what I’ve done by creating this for you,” right? 

I think the illustration I used in the lesson was ‑‑ I think it’s Michelangelo ‑‑ I don’t know, you know, Renaissance artists that well, but I think it’s Michelangelo, the sculptor. Is that right? And he ‑‑ you know, he starts with a giant ‑‑ whoever the sculptor was that, you know, did the sculpture of David, he starts with a giant hunk of marble and he just chisels away on it a little at a time, a little here, a little there. At some point, he has to stop and rest from his work because the sculpture is finished. He has to know when to say enough, and if he doesn’t, he’s gonna decimate his sculpture. At some point, his creation will start becoming decreation. He’ll start ruining what he’s made. And so that’s kind of the idea of God resting on the seventh day, is that God stopped creating because things were very good and he enjoyed them and he allowed humans to enjoy them and he gave us the Sabbath. 

I mean, Jesus says, in Mark chapter 2, that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, and so that idea is like, hey, I’m giving you a gift of rest. So what’s the Sabbath really about? Well, the Sabbath is about being like God, doing what God did in Genesis 1, and what God did was rest from his work and enjoy his creation. Let’s take that concept of Sabbath and apply it back to John chapter 5. This man hasn’t walked for 38 years. Do you think it was a joy for him to stand up for the first time and roll up his bed? I mean, if I was him, I’d probably start running. I wouldn’t even think about it. I’d just be so excited. Of course this is ‑‑ what better way to celebrate the Sabbath than to use the things God has given you to celebrate and rejoice in this man essentially being made whole for the first time in nearly four decades? 

And so Jesus, in John 5, is trying to show the Pharisees that they’re doing that same paradoxical flip that we talked about with purity culture and that the gospel of sin management brings. They were so concerned with work that they had not understood the true meaning of the Sabbath, and I think this is really important to remember. The reason the Pharisees were so concerned with work is because God said, “Don’t work. You should rest.” And they had a question, “Well, what is work?” Because they really, really wanted to take God’s commandment seriously. Like the Pharisees get such a bad rap, like we’re the Pharisees, like they really wanted to do what God said. They loved God’s word and they wanted to know what is work so we don’t get anywhere near that line. Well, then that idea started sort of breeding its own rules, and there are all kinds of ridiculous rules that the Pharisees had about what is and is not work on the Sabbath, and the Sabbath became all about not working, so much so that the Pharisees were like the Sabbath police. Their job on the Sabbath was to work at getting people to stop working. The whole rest, the whole celebration of God had been forgotten and, instead, it was all about don’t work. That’s exactly what the gospel of sin management does in our life. When it’s all about sin, we forget the things it was really meant to be about.

WES: Well, I love the way that you said their job on the Sabbath and they would work at getting people to not work, because it really did. They were violating the Sabbath by trying not to violate the Sabbath. They had turned not working into one of the hardest jobs in the world. They were working incredibly hard at not working and keeping other people from not working, and it reminds me of so many things that we do. I was thinking about Paul’s commandments to the church at Corinth in 1st and 2nd Corinthians about giving. His entire instructions revolve around the idea that God doesn’t want you to give out of compulsion. He wants you to give cheerfully. He wants you to give what you’ve decided and what you’ve promised to give. Just give that and do it cheerfully, but I’m not going to exact it from you. I’m not going to twist your arm and tell you this is how much you have to give and this is the way you have to do it. Just give what you’ve promised and what you’ve decided to give.

And then we have taken that, 2,000 years later, and we’ve turned all of those instructions about giving into a second law, and then we use that to compel people to give. I want to say stop. That’s exactly the opposite of what he was saying. And so we’re saying, well, you know, if you break down this phrase, you know, this means you need to give a percentage of your income, and we just break everything down and we turn it into the exact opposite of what he was trying to do. And I think all of this ‑‑ it’s such a good way to put it, the way that you framed this, as managing sin. 

I was thinking about the fact that ‑‑ I don’t remember who I had this conversation with, so if whoever it was is listening, I apologize, but somebody was telling me about a friend of theirs, and they were saying, “This person is not a Christian, but, you know, they live a very moral life. They believe in a traditional sexual ethic. They do this, they don’t drink, they don’t smoke, they don’t do any of these things, and so they’re almost a Christian or they’re practically a Christian.” And I think about some of the leading voices that I see in the world today that are atheists and agnostics, and so many people, they listen to them as if they’re preachers, as if they’re teachers, as if they’re, quote‑unquote, practically Christians. And I want to say a moral person who denies Jesus is nowhere near being a Christian. That is not Christianity. Someone who is really struggling with sin but yet is devoted to Jesus ‑‑ I’m not saying that they don’t need to repent. Of course they need to repent ‑‑ that person is a Christian. And the person who is living a moral life but denies Jesus and believes that all that they have and all that they do is by their own power, they are nowhere near Christ. So let’s talk about that for a second. What’s the difference between, quote‑unquote, “the gospel of sin management” and “the gospel”? What is the gospel and why is that not “just stop sinning”?

JOSEPH: Well, I mean, that’s such a great part of this. I wish we had the conversation before the lesson because that’s so important. How many people say, hey, they’re a good person and they’re basically ‑‑ like they literally make being a Christian about your morality. Like if you manage your sin well, you’re a good Christian. If you can’t, you’re not. Where is Christ? Like, I’m not a “Moralitian.” You know, like it’s not about I’m following morality or moral leaders. This is all about following Christ. 

It’s really important to notice that the gospel of sin management just isn’t the gospel. It’s just not. Like it can be preached in a way that sounds kind of like it, and it obviously has deceived many about what being a Christian is really about and what the gospel is all about, but the idea that, hey, here’s the good news, you have to manage your own sin ‑‑ it’s just not good news. In fact, we read about people who tried to manage their own sin for, you know, a couple thousand years on the pages of this book, and it doesn’t go well at all. Like that’s one of the driving forces for this Messiah, for the Jews, is we cannot manage our own sin. We cannot keep this law. We cannot stop breaking God’s law. We’re a broken people. 

The Pharisees ‑‑ and I think this is interesting, too. They had this mindset that if I could ‑‑ if we, the Jews collectively, could keep God’s law perfectly, restoration would come, the Messiah would come, our kingdom would be given back, Rome would be overthrown. That adds some pretty serious weight to why they were such sticklers about the law. Like you get where they’re coming from, but like you go read Paul in Galatians, the point of the law ‑‑ or one of the points of the law was to show you you can’t do this. This isn’t the gospel. That’s why the old law wasn’t good news. 

But the gospel ‑‑ I mean, of course you know the story of Jesus on the cross, and it’s even bigger than that because it’s a story about redemption and reconciliation. It’s about a God who created a good creation, loved them, gave them everything, and we tore it up and we chose ourselves over him. And then you’ve got a whole bunch of chapters and books about a God who is breaking down doors and pleading with his people and desperately trying to bring them back to him. Then, in Christ ‑‑ and this is where the real good news is. In Christ, you have this death, burial, resurrection, and appearing to many that Paul outlines in 1st Corinthians 15. Well, what that did is it finally made a way ‑‑ it carved a way back for humans to be in a right relationship with God, to be close to him again like we were when it was very good, and so you’ve got this good news that you get to be with God. 

How much of that was about your sin? How much of that is about managing your sin? How much of that did you have to do? Legitimately, none of it, you know? This wasn’t something humans could do. This wasn’t something humans had to do. The idea of forgiveness of sins is a piece of a much bigger and much more complete teaching on what this good news is. You have a new king and a new kingdom, and this king loves you and wants you and wants to give to you. 

One of the verses we read in Micah chapter 7 talks about how ‑‑ Micah is writing about God. I think it’s in verse 19. He says, “You do not stay angry for long because you delight in steadfast love.” That’s good news. That’s good news that that’s our King. He doesn’t stay angry long. He wants to and is predisposed to being steadfastly loving. Man, I mean, that’s the gospel. That’s the good news. And it doesn’t have anything to do with you taking care of your own sins or managing or your excellent morality.

WES: Well, I was thinking about ‑‑ I don’t know if you saw this study. I don’t know, it’s probably been 20 years ago now, but there was a guy who’s a sociologist. I think his name was Christian Smith, and did a study and he determined ‑‑ he was studying teenagers, and he said that, looking at teenagers across the board, some came from sort of a Christian background, others came from Islamic background, Buddhist background, Muslim, you know, whatever different religious backgrounds. But he said that the predominant worldview in America was moralistic therapeutic deism. He said ‑‑ and so he coined this phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism,” and as time has gone on, he said, well, it’s not just teenagers; it’s across the board, that this is the predominant worldview in the United States, is moralistic therapeutic deism. It’s this idea that be a good person, and the primary purpose of religion is sort of therapeutic, help you to feel better about yourself and help you to ease your guilty conscience or just be happy and live a happy life, and there is a God, but for the most part, he’s just kind of hands‑off unless you need him, in which case he’s sort of like a genie in a bottle and you make your wishes and he comes and he may intervene on your behalf. 

And this is the way that we think about it, and so we have turned Christianity into moralism. And it’s not to say that we should be immoral. Of course that’s not what we’re saying. We’re not saying that it’s okay to be immoral. This is Paul’s point, I think, in Romans 6, that when you say that salvation is a gift that God gives and it’s by grace and not through works of the law, then of course there’s gonna be objectors who say, well, hold on a second. Are you saying that we can go on sinning so that grace may abound? And Paul says, of course not. That’s ridiculous. Why would you do that? The beauty is that when you begin to focus on God and you begin to focus on his goodness, you begin to worship him in spirit and in truth, the way that Jesus really means that phrase. 

When you worship Jesus in spirit and in truth, then the Lord begins to transform us through the Spirit, through the promises, through his presence. He does the transformational work. And yes, of course you have to repent of your sins, but when you turn your life over to him and surrender to him, that’s when you actually begin to be transformed. Otherwise, all we’re doing ‑‑ the best we can do without the Lord is to swap one sin for another, and we swap sins of the flesh for maybe sins of the spirit, and we become proud, and we become arrogant, and we become bitter, we become angry, and we think, well, that’s better than what I was doing before, but it’s not better. In fact, C.S. Lewis would say, when we swap one sin for pride, we’ve chosen a lesser vice for a worse vice, that pride is the worst vice of all. And we make ourselves proud of “Look at what I’ve accomplished and I’m so good and I’m a better person than so‑and‑so is.”

JOSEPH: Yeah. I mean, so I heard that phrase. As you started talking about it, when you got to the “moralistic therapeutic deism,” I was like, oh, I’ve heard that. I think it was referencing the same book, but I think it was ‑‑ Lonnie Jones uses it. And I was like, man, that ‑‑ like the first time I heard that, I was like, yeah, that’s exactly what we do. Again, we should have had this conversation before the lesson, man, because that’s such an important part of this. Like we looked at ‑‑ the book is actually called Almost Christian, by the way, which is exactly the phrase you used just a little bit ago, that they’re almost a Christian. That’s exactly the concept, but yeah.

And the other part of that is like if anyone listens to this conversation or that lesson and they come away with it thinking, “Hey, you know, Joseph says you can do whatever you want. It’s not about sin; it’s only about grace, and that’s all there is to it,” you just haven’t read the rest of the New Testament. Like the vast majority of 1st Corinthians ‑‑ maybe not the vast majority, but at least half of 1st Corinthians is about Paul instructing a church on how to do things right. Like chapter 5, 6, 7 are all about sexual ethic. The question he’s answering is how does a Christian live like Christ in first‑century Corinth as it pertains to the Christian sexual ethic? And you have the man sleeping with his father’s wife, and that’s obviously a problem. Not even the pagans deal with that, he says. And then you’ve got the crowd who says, “Well, I can do whatever I want with my body because I’m free in Christ,” the idea of “I can sin and it doesn’t matter because I’m covered.” Paul says, well, I mean, don’t you know the implications of that? Of course that’s not how Christians ought to live. And then you have the other crowd, in chapter 7, who’s like, hey, we should probably never do this sex thing ever, which is purity culture. I mean, it was the same mindset where, hey, we stay all the way away from this because that’s what Christians ought to do. 

Paul wrestles with morality. He wrestles with the Christians and instructs them on how to wrestle. I think that’s really more of what Paul does, is he instructs them on how to wrestle with what it means to be a Christian and how to live a moral life, not only in 1st Corinthians, but in much of his writing. But that’s never the point. That’s never the whole picture. That’s never what being a Christian is about for Paul. The thing that being a Christian is about for Paul, like number one over everything, is the gospel. It’s the good news about our God, about our Savior Jesus who came and did what he did on the cross and lived how he lived and taught what he taught, and striving to be like Christ and to be transformed into the image of God. That’s what we’re trying to do. The goal is transformation into a Christlike life, not avoidance of sin. 

I gave sort of a version of this lesson ‑‑ we had a youth retreat on ‑‑ I guess it was last weekend, on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and our speaker talked on the narrow path, you know, from Matthew chapter 7, right? The narrow versus the broad, and he did a great job, really emphasized all the things that you’d expect at a youth retreat, and I kind of was thinking, you know, there’s another side of this. So he went home on Sunday because he had to be at church, and I usually do the lesson on Sunday, so I gave sort of a variation of this lesson, where I just said, hey, being on the narrow path is not about looking at all the things you can’t or don’t do. You know, that’s the gospel of sin management. Being on the narrow path is about keeping your eyes focused on God, focused on Christ, as opposed to looking around and seeing all the things you can’t do. 

So, I mean, I think when you bring that element into it and people start kind of going off the rails with, well, you know, then it doesn’t matter what we do or ‑‑ like that, too, is an incomplete picture of the gospel. You’ve got to have the whole picture in order to understand what it means to really be a Christian. That’s why we got, you know, 66 books in this thing instead of just one short list of checkmarks and do’s and don’ts. It’s a picture. It’s a ‑‑ what’s it called, a picture, when you put it all together, all the little pieces ‑‑ it’s a mosaic of different elements of what it means to be a Christian and how to live that life. And it’s why we haven’t gotten it down to an exact formula or an exact science because it’s something that we have to wrestle with. It’s something that we have to grow into. It’s something where we’re being transformed. It’s not an instantaneous kind of thing. 

So I think any attempt to focus too heavily on one part of the gospel and not have the rest of it is a perversion of what the gospel truly is, and that’s really what sin management is, is it’s a focus on only the morality, and when you do that, you pervert the gospel into being all about sin. And while that’s part of it, it’s a radically incomplete picture of what God has really done throughout history and what he did through his son at the cross.

WES: Yeah. Well, to go back to that idea of the narrow path, I always tell people ‑‑ especially when we’re talking about culture wars and we’re talking about politics and sort of the right and left, I always say that there’s a danger on both the right side and the left side of the path, and what we tend to do is we focus myopically on one side, and we think all of the dangers are over there. All the dangers are on the left, and we’ve got to stay away from the left, and the left is so dangerous, and we go off the right side of the path. Or we think all the danger is on the right, and we’re so myopically focused on that, and we go off the left side. 

And so if our fear is that we’re gonna go off of one side or the other, then we are going to gravitate towards the opposite side.  Whereas, to your point, we have to keep our eyes on Jesus, and when we keep our eyes on Jesus, we do recognize that there’s a danger on both sides and we do want to avoid those, but our goal ‑‑ our ultimate goal is not avoiding the pitfalls. Our ultimate goal is following Jesus, and if we follow Jesus, we don’t have to worry about the pitfalls. We don’t have to worry about going off in either ditch. All we have to do is worry about focusing on Jesus. 

So with that in mind, Joseph, what do you think we can do, as leaders, and how can we encourage other church leaders, whether that’s elders or deacons or teachers ‑‑ I mean teachers from the pulpit, but maybe even teachers in Bible classes. Even our kids are sort of soaking in this moralistic message, thinking that Christianity is simply about avoiding these types of bad behaviors. How do we help to reorient the church around Jesus and around the grace and mercy of God rather than around moralism?

JOSEPH: Yeah. I mean, I wish I had like a perfect answer for that. You know, we’d have all of our problems solved. But I think it’s a long battle, fixing that problem. It’s a deep, deep‑rooted problem. You know, when I preached the lesson at Flower Mound, there were some people that were uncomfortable with it. It was too much about grace. I heard multiple people tell me, “I’ve never heard a lesson like that before,” you know? And I just thought, man, this is a real problem that is very pervasive in our culture, and in the church, specifically. So how do we fix that? I mean, I think, truthfully, the way you really solve that problem is not going to be in the masses. It’s going to be a much more individual, relational, example‑driven solution to the problem. 

When you sit down and you’re able to have a conversation with somebody and you’re able to build a relationship with them and there’s trust and there’s an environment where vulnerability can grow, and they realize, “Oh, hold on. You don’t think I’m a terrible person because I’ve done these things?” I mean, that’s where this message really drives home, because you can tell someone until you’re blue in the face ‑‑ I mean, I heard it my whole life growing up. Listen, we’re all hypocrites, Christians all sin, but we’re forgiven by Jesus, and that’s so true and doesn’t feel real. It feels very distant from where I am, sitting in the pew, listening to this message. It feels very distant from where I am, sitting in the pew, with all these perfectly dressed people pretending like they don’t have those sins, you know? 

And so I think this is the kind of thing that is going to be much more ‑‑ a much harder battle because it’s not something you can just tell people. It’s going to be something you have to show them. And, I mean, the answer is, Wes, we need to learn to love like Jesus, to quote a guy I know. Like we need to learn how to look like Christ in our relationships, in our interactions. We need to learn how to be gracious. We need to, in our own mind, have an appropriate view of the gospel and sin and not panic when we see someone committing sin. You know, we need to respond graciously and gently and maybe slowly. Maybe don’t respond at all for a minute if you’re struggling with how you’re going to respond to that. 

I know, as a parent ‑‑ I mean, goodness, when you become a parent, you realize why God called himself a father because it really gives you such a unique perspective on what it’s like to try and get someone who doesn’t understand anything to learn how to be a functioning adult, right? And as a parent, I’ve noticed, like, if I just get onto my kids ‑‑ you know, let’s say I’m having a hard day and I just get onto them all the time for every little thing they do, they don’t really want to be that close to me, you know? Like I’ve had those days. I think every parent’s had those days, where, like, maybe I didn’t get good sleep or maybe I’ve got a lot of stress, maybe some guy asked me to be on a podcast and I’m all worried about it. You’ve got something going on that’s not their fault, but you’re sharp with them, and they don’t come climb up in your lap and nuzzle into your neck, you know? 

But when they do things that are wrong and you’ve given them grace or you’ve sat down with them and talked to them, immediately after that ‑‑ I remember the other day I did this with my daughter, where she ‑‑ I don’t have to give you the whole story, but she had done something she wasn’t supposed to do but she knew she wasn’t supposed to do it. And I just sat down and talked to her. I was like, “Baby, what were you thinking?” And I just saw her melt. “I don’t know. I just was wanting to.” I said, “But you know it was wrong?” “I did.” And she immediately jumps into my arms. When we show grace and mercy and gentleness, when we show the fruit of the Spirit working in our life, I mean, that’s what changes people’s hearts. That’s what changes people’s minds. That’s what changes people’s perspective on Christ and perspective on what it means to be a Christian. 

You can tell them, but this is, I think, one of those battles where maybe small Bible class teachers are going to have a better success rate as teachers because they’re going to be able to relate to and build those relationships and demonstrate what it means to be a Christian better than ‑‑ easier than you or I from up in front, in a pulpit. Jesus went one at a time, you know? He preached to the crowds and he taught them, but his work was with individuals. He so often forsook the crowd to sit down with one person, and I think that’s more where the answer to this problem lies, unfortunately. I wish it could just be one sermon. Everyone go preach my sermon and we’ll all quit having a problem with this, but, really, I think this is one of those things where we’re gonna have to roll up our sleeves, we’re gonna have to dig in, and we’re gonna have to counterintuitively respond to people struggling with sin in order to show them God’s grace and Christ’s love.

WES: Yeah. I was thinking about an old skit with Bob Newhart where he’s a counselor. I don’t know if you’ve seen this. So the lady comes in and she has this problem, and he says, “I can fix whatever it is.” And she explains her problem. She’s afraid of being buried alive, I think. And so she says ‑‑ she pictures this and it’s horrible and it’s bad. And he says, “Well, do you like having this problem?” And she says, “No, I don’t.” And he says, “Well, then stop it.” And that’s his solution, is just tell her to stop it. And I think that that’s exactly what we do with hurting people and struggling people. We say, “Well, just stop it. Stop. Stop doing that.” And the answer is, point them to Jesus. Point them to the grace and the mercy of Jesus. Point them to the work of the Holy Spirit in their life, because this is the only way. 

Paul, he describes this struggle, this human struggle. I don’t think he’s just talking about his own struggle with sin, but he talks about what life is like just trying to obey the law, and it is futile. You’re never going to accomplish it. And the answer is ‑‑ what’s going to save me from this? The answer is Jesus. Jesus is, and the work of the Spirit in your life. And I think, whether that’s one‑on‑one or even in the pulpit or in the classroom, pointing people towards Jesus ‑‑ this is why I think that sermons have to be worship, that our gathering on Sunday has to be more than just getting together to say “Stop it. Hey, you know all the bad stuff you’ve been doing? Stop doing that stuff.” It can’t be that. We have to gather together for worship to reorient our lives collectively and individually around the person and the work of Jesus, his work at the cross and his ongoing work as our high priest, as our advocate and our mediator, and to point people to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. 

And I think that when Sunday ‑‑ I have a cheesy little saying that I always say, that Sunday not only makes for a better week, it makes for a better life, that when we gather together and we reorient ourselves around Jesus, that whether someone says “stop it” or not, we know. We know we need to stop it. We know that needs to change and we’re looking to the Lord and surrendering ourselves to him, looking for his power and work for the transformation.

JOSEPH: Yeah. So I taught through Galatians a couple years ago now. It’s funny how that happens; it feels like I just did it. But a couple years ago we were teaching through Galatians, and I noticed, when you get to chapter 5 where we talk about the fruit of the Spirit, Paul’s obviously talking about slavery and freedom the whole time. And then, like, he contrasts the work of the Spirit ‑‑ or the fruit of the Spirit to the works of the flesh. And obviously his language that he chooses, like fruit versus works ‑‑ the whole book he’s loaded that word “works” with negative connotation, so that’s very clear. It’s also really cool because he ‑‑ well, I’m getting too much into it. 

One of the things that’s really significant is the fruit of the Holy Spirit is the same thing as the works of the Holy Spirit. Like he could have used the same word, the fruit of the Holy Spirit and the fruit of the flesh, or the works of the Holy Spirit and the works of the flesh, but he contrasts them that way. And what’s really significant is, like if you’re the one working, is that spirit or flesh? It’s flesh, right? It’s not your working, you know? When you think about it, it’s the work of the Holy Spirit in your life. Like this isn’t ‑‑ I made this point in the class. I said, you can’t do the fruit of the Spirit, which is so funny because it’s all we teach out of the fruit of the Spirit. You need to be more loving, you need to be more patient, right? You can’t do the fruit of the Spirit. That’s the Spirit’s fruit. Your fruit is jealousy and strife and anger and drunkenness and ‑‑ like, that’s yours. What you do when you’re the one working, that’s what happens. When the Spirit’s working in your life, it produces those things, and that’s like, I mean, a really beautiful way of putting that, about worship ‑‑ the sermon being worship, because it is. It’s reorienting, it’s refocusing. So often we make that about refocusing to not do things, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a more complete picture of, like, this is who we love. This is who we’re doing this for. This is why I’m making my decisions. And if it’s not that, then it’s just ‑‑ it’s not worship. It’s maybe a fun speech.

WES: Yeah. Well, I think about what Jesus said. Jesus, when he was asked, what do we need to be doing to do the works that God requires? And he says, believe in the one that he has sent. That’s the work that we do. Align ourselves with Jesus, focus on Jesus, surrender to Jesus, trust in him, give him our loyalty and allegiance. And is there a sense in which that’s work? Absolutely. It’s very challenging, but it’s not a work that’s focused on don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this. It’s a work that’s focused on who is Jesus and what is he doing in our lives? 

So, Joseph, thank you for this conversation. Thank you for your work in the kingdom, Brother. Thank you for pointing people to Jesus.

JOSEPH: Man, thank you for having me on, Wes. You know I love talking to you. Anytime we get a chance, it’s a blessing to me.

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