Nearly every evangelistic sermon includes at some point a reference to Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” As part of an evangelistic appeal, this verse is intended to convey to non-Christians the reality of their sinful nature and the need to “come to Christ.” The climax of the appeal, of course, is the promise that sin is forgiven in Christ.
However, simply because our sin is forgiven does not mean we cease to be sinners. We continue to struggle against our sinful nature for the whole of our lives. This is a basic Christian belief.
The word “sin” as used by evangelicals does not just mean certain specific behaviors. Most evangelicals, whether they know it or not, follow the thinking of Augustine, who believed sin was primarily a burning desire to please the ego. In other words, sin is the elevation of self-interest above all other interests. All those other familiar behaviors we call “sins” stem from this one root problem.
Mark Ellingsen, associate professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, believes people in America need to understand this about themselves. In his book, Blessed are the Cynical, Ellingsen argues that a healthy democracy depends on its citizens realizing that all of us are prone to seek the fulfillment of our own interests first, even at the expense of others. He refers to this realization as a “necessary cynicism.”
Ellingsen demonstrates convincingly that some of the framers of the U.S. Constitution understood this aspect of human nature profoundly. They were particularly concerned how the majority, swayed by emotion and appeal to their own base needs, can tyrannize minorities. That is one reason the framers built into the Constitution checks and balances that anticipate the tendency of humans to seek their own interests, even above that of the common good.
Ellingsen argues that failure to fully appreciate this has led to some unfortunate developments in American politics. For instance, if we really understood the pervasive sinful nature of all humans, we would embrace the importance of real debate in the political process. An honest airing of competing ideas can serve as a check and balance on the self-serving desire for power.
According to Ellingsen, since this necessary cynicism about candidates and parties no longer operates within our political system, substantive debate is shut down. Instead, candidates seek to portray themselves as guardians of some irrefutable truth.
We see this at work in the use of character attacks. These attacks portray opposing candidates as unfit for service on some moral basis, while the candidate doing the attacking is, by inference, morally sound. Missing in all this is any substantive discussion of the real issues and what candidates plan to do about them.
In Blessed are the Cynical, Ellingsen challenges Americans to realize that political choices are never between sinners or saints—all have sinned and continue to do so. The great need is to keep vibrant the ingenious web of checks and balances found in the Constitution. It is these checks and balances that will help a sinful people find a way to curb their desire to fulfill selfish self-interest and work towards a vision of community that is just and fair.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.
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