My Trivial Sins

My Trivial Sins

Listen to “My Trivial Sins” by Fred Smith

 
No one would describe me as a product of diversity. As a Southern Baptist, I grew up sure of our traditions and practices but not our doctrine. I had a clear picture of who we were but had no idea what it was – other than hymns, potlucks, and full-immersion  – that distinguished us from the imposters to the true faith around us. Everything we thought and every question we had about salvation, God, the world, and eternity was in the Baptist hymnal, so we sang our way into believing each Sunday. And one of those hymns, “Nothing But The Blood” has probably shaped more people than any sermon or book. It certainly shaped me.
“What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus;”
“What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus;”
“Nothing can for sin atone, Nothing but the blood of Jesus;”
So, you can understand my confusion when I began reading about charity as a means of atonement in the early Church tradition. First, Jeremy Beer, in his book, “The Philanthropic Revolution,” introduced me to the idea that there is a significant difference between charity as taught by the early Church Fathers and philanthropy as practiced today. More recently, in David Downs’s “Alms: Charity, Reward and Atonement in Early Christianity,” I read that western thinking about voluntary giving today has little to do with the Christian tradition of charity, and even less with the theology of almsgiving that gave rise to that tradition.
Increasingly, modern philanthropy begins with what one can accomplish in measurable outcomes. On the other hand, charity was not a tool for bringing about social change but was for thousands of years a way to atone for sin. Charity was, among other things, a way of cleansing from personal transgressions. This was not the reconciliation with God that only comes through the sacrifice of Christ, and it was not seen as a way to replace absolute trust in Christ alone. But, as St. Augustine wrote, it was held as a means to erase the passing and trivial sins of every day from which no life is free…Thus, there are many kinds of alms, by which, when we do them, we are helped in obtaining forgiveness of our own sins.
In other words, while philanthropy begins with the motivation of doing good out of love for mankind, charity rightly understood begins with the recognition of the necessity of forgiveness of every day missing the mark. Charity begins not out of altruism or even in the hopes of accomplishing some goal – great or small. I give because I recognize that I have fallen short and am in need of cleansing and atoning for my behavior.
The purpose of giving to the poor was not to eliminate poverty but to atone for sin. It was the recognition of the need for confession, forgiveness, and atonement that motivated charitable gifts.
Beer writes, “The loss, or conscious rejection, of the doctrine of atoning almsgiving, may be one reason why for many Christians, whether inside or outside the Protestant tradition, the theological logic of charity has been replaced by the techno-logic of philanthropy, even if this latter mode of thinking is often given a Christian gloss.”
Charity as penance? Isn’t that simply bribing God? Not according to Augustine: “Of course, life must be changed for the better, and alms should be offered as a propitiation to God for our past sins. But he is not somehow to be bought off, as if we always had a license to commit crimes with impunity.”
Needless to say, everything in my upbringing resists this and labels it as salvation by works or even buying indulgences. But, that’s not what the Church Fathers were saying at all. They were writing and preaching that acts of mercy, material assistance to the needy, and caring for the poor will cleanse us from “passing and trivial” sin.
So, what if many no longer give out of a response to sin? I would imagine most philanthropists if asked would not say their giving is motivated out of their need for cleansing or atonement. I suspect the answers would be more along the lines of giving back or finding a solution to a problem or even gratitude for what they have been given.
However, as I have thought about this I have come to recognize there is something genuine – but not soul saving – in the recognition that I sin and there is something tangible I can do in repentance for that.
Giving does not spring from altruism but from our own need. Giving is not a sign of our love of mankind but of our recognition of our own sin and need for absolution. Giving is not merely a voluntary act of goodwill but both a responsibility and necessity. Instead of hoping the poor will recognize my help and be grateful I can say, “Thank you. This is not out of the goodness of my heart but out of my need for forgiveness of my trivial sins.”
 
*Artwork is “Augustine of Hippo” Artist unknown

20 Comments

  1. Challenging thoughts in this article. There has been a shift, particularly among young evangelicals in South Africa to the thinking all that is needed is to care for the poor, ensure justice and care for the environment. There is also a much more ‘liberal’ approach to Scripture than there was 20 years ago! I am still absolutely sure that “nothing but the blood of Jesus’ gives me personal atonement. However, a more centrist approach to the Biblical imperative to care for the poor is still needed amongst the majority of evangelicals

    Reply
    • Thank you, John. I always look forward to your responses! Yes, holding to the essentials is part of our responsibility to the next generation.

      Reply
  2. Love it. As a fundraiser in Christian organizations for 20+ years, I increasingly rely on meditating on and learning from Luke 8:1-3. For me, it’s the model of what it looks like to raise money and to give it. It’s a narrative, rather than didactic, passage, yet we can easily deduce lessons from the wisdom contained in it.

    Reply
    • It doesn’t say the women received a tax deduction for supporting them, does it?

      Reply
  3. As a youngster, giving for me meant taking the dollar my dad had just handed to me and putting it into the collection plate. I felt holy and generous without it costing me anything. Another reason I miss my father.

    Reply
    • A dollar? That’s four times what I received each week! I saved mine and said I would be a philanthropist when I was older.

      Reply
  4. If we confess our sins, (not confess and give) He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

    Reply
  5. I really like the idea of being motivated to give based on recognition of my own need. Even that it is good for our soul to give, and at times out of a true heart of repentance. This is something worth contemplating more. Recognizing our own needs of a savior and need of forgiveness while we give creates a parity, based on humility that is realistic. Unhealthy giving happens when we give based on being superior for some reason, just because we have more of something like money than the receiver, which can leave us feeling like a savior, and taking even more from receiver. (thinking of When Helping Hurts…) Ultimately since everything we have comes from God, giving from humility, and out of recognition of our own need is correct and true. Where I struggle is with the thought that giving helps in the forgiveness of our own sins or provides absolution through penance. That seems too far, and creates the opportunity for us to incorrectly feel like a savior in another way, in somehow saving our ourselves. So while I think it is really helpful to think about giving based on recognizing our own need and even as a picture of what Christ has done for us personally in humility, I don’t believe it can create forgiveness or absolution of my own sin. I think it can also be a part of our true repentance (like Zacchaeus), but giving is not what saved him, or us. Christ alone does that and we need to be careful lest our sinful heart find a boast through giving.

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    • Yes, it was a new thought for me as well. It might be more helpful to think of it as a reminder of our sin and not as penance. I’m still thinking about it.

      Reply
  6. I immediately thought of Zaccheus’ changed heart and his response:
    “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” 6 And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. 7 When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 8 Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.
    His giving didn’t save him, but this is a beautiful example of the Augustine quote:
    “Of course, life must be changed for the better, and alms should be offered as a propitiation to God for our past sins.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Jeanie. Yes, it did not save him but what we do with our money is a great indicator of the state of our hearts!

      Reply
  7. This concept of charity as an atonement of “passing and trivial sin” is new to me. I had been more familiar growing up with the concept of giving and helping the needy as means to earn heavenly rewards (e.g., Prov. 19:17), but have more recently been motivated most in practicing philanthropy from a deep desire to seek His pleasure (Heb. 13:16) and to share in that pleasure (Matt. 25:21). Truth is that I will need time to accept St. Augustine’s concept that by practicing charity, “we are helped in obtaining the forgiveness of our own sins” simply because I know my sins are forgiven through nothing but the blood of Jesus. But I can relate more to your statement that, because I do sin (both trivial and not-so-trivial), charity is something tangible I can do as an outward expression my repentance for – and my decision to turn away from – my sins. Thank you, Fred, for your blog in causing me to think through these foundational faith concepts in my faith journey.

    Reply
    • Yes, I think giving is a good expression of the state of our hearts. I know we quote Augustine to support so much of what we believe as reformed believers and maybe this is an example of not taking everything as inspired – but worth thinking about.

      Reply
  8. Fred, thanks for sharing this. This drew me to think also about alms not only as a response to personal sin but also to an admission of participation in broken systems that nevertheless help us to generate income. Hopefully our involvement in that brokenness is indirect and unintentional, but there is a structural humility in saying that the provision I receive and work hard for in my salary is nevertheless a part of the fall, and there can be some atonement for that in handing some of it back to others who haven’t been ‘blessed’ by the system.

    Reply
    • That thought will drive me crazy! I’ve tried to monitor my personal investments in that way but I suspect a portion of my compensation as a
      non-profit originated from suspect sources.

      Reply
  9. Thanks for this well thought out article. I have been reading books by Richard Rohr (A Catholic priest) for a few years now, and he introduced me to our Church Fathers, although Rohr refers to them as our Desert Fathers. I am astounded and blessed by much of what the Church Fathers say and very thankful to Father Rohr for opening my eyes to them. Your article is the first time ever I have seen a protestant refer to our Church Fathers. I believe we have much to learn from them, as this article so competently demonstrates.

    Reply
    • Yes, Richard Rohr has been a source of blessing for a growing number of
      people. I have friends who have done small retreats with him and send
      me his writings several times a week.

      Reply
  10. Fred, I just finished listening to a sermon series on money that you may enjoy. Both of my sons attend Church of the Incarnation in Harrisonburg, VA. Aubrey Spears is the pastor and he is fantastic. Here is a link to the church sermons. The ones you want are entitled: “Mauled by Money” (March 17), “Justice is Important but Supper is Essential” (March 31), “God’s Passion for Work” (April 7), and “God is Neither Democrat or Republican” (April 14). Here is a link to the website: http://theincarnation.org/sermons

    Reply
    • Thank you, Lonni. Yes, I went to the site and listened to the sermons. You are right!

      Reply

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