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