American Christianity has tended towards ever weaker doctrines of sin in general and original sin in particular. We just don't believe we're that bad and I don't think it's that big of a guess as to why.
I'm not a big, "back in my day..." kind of guy, but I do know that I was just on the front end of what has come to be known as the "trophy generation." Nobody loses, we all had fun and we're all winners. Now this is a completely unwarranted sidebar, but I think that this is incredibly stupid. Especially since, once the kids are 7 or 8 years old, they know every time who won and who lost even though we're "not keeping score." Anyways, if this is a very new phenomena then it is born of a very old American belief about being able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. This has bled over into our national folk religion and it's no surprise. The gospel militates against every notion of religion that man has ever had. At it's core Christianity is not about advice; it is about news. The kind of news that changes things.
But the very first piece of news that the Bible delivers us, Genesis chapter 3, is that we cannot save ourselves. We tend to view salvation as a big project, say building a big shed out back of the house. In our mental scheme religions come as a project kit. The beliefs form the plans, the community forms the materials, and the rituals are the tools we need to make the whole thing right. If we come to a point in our life where we care about such a spiritual concern as "salvation" we go find the Christianity toolkit at our local church. Mostly because, A) it is convenient and B) it is the least likely thing to make our neighbors think we're kooky. Then we put all the pieces in place.
- Believe the right thing. Check.
- Hang with the right community. Check.
- Use the rituals. (worship, communion, etc.) Check.
But that's not news. Thats a bunch of advice on how to be saved. Do this. Don't do that. Don't handle, don't touch, don't taste. All of it advice. True Christianity breaks into that world of advice with earth shattering news, for those with ears to hear. You cannot save yourself! This is as fundamental to understanding the gospel as understanding that Christ died for you. Why? Because until you come to understand it, not just believe it intellectually but really understand it, you will have no need for God at all, except to make sure he has to give you what you want when you die. That doesn't sound like the powerful creator God of the universe, it sounds like an idol. I will make these sacrifices for you: Sunday mornings, alcohol, smoking, fun. And in return you must give me everlasting pleasure when I die. Deal? Deal. If you find yourself in a situation where you are actually manipulating God, then what you are manipulating is not God. For God cannot, and will not be mocked.
Instead, God breaks into our home-improvement project with news. You cannot save yourself. So stop trying. That in itself sounds like the beginning of good news. But it gets better/worse. You have not just made mistakes. You have purposefully and deliberately chosen things from creation to satisfy the desire for me that I created you with. You have rebelled against me. You have shown contempt for me. And the closer you get to the Lord the more you understand this to be true for sure. We haven't accidentally sinned. We have willfully, deliberately, with pre-meditation sinned against the only source of life ever to be found, the Creator God of the Universe. And it doesn't matter whether we've heard the gospel or not, we've still sinned against God. Sin doesn't exist because the gospel awakens it. Sin exists because our own darkened, deceitful hearts awaken it. Uh oh.
Thats right, we have chosen to cut ourself off from relationship with the only source of life available. So why aren't we dead? This is actually a pretty good question. The best answer is that God's very character determines that he patiently takes things which are broken and beautifully and imaginatively reconstructs and restores them. He does this with individual people and he is doing this with our world.
But if sin actually separates us from God, then how can we be saved apart from a solution to the sin problem? This was the fundamental problem with Israel. Israel was God's plan to save the world and it was actually a successful plan. Israel as a nation could not bring God's blessing of reconciliation to the world because she, herself was under the curse of sin. So a faithful Israelite acted in her stead to bring God's blessing of reconciliation to all the nations of the world, by absorbing the penalty of our sin into himself. First to the Jew, then to the rest of the nations. And this faithful Israelite, Jesus, did not stay dead, but rose from the dead. The claim of the early church was this: Jesus is Lord. That is, Jesus is in charge of the entire world. Everything. Every nation that has power remains under the power of Christ. Every ruler that has authority is under the authority of Jesus. Every spiritual power, human authority, principality is ultimately subject to the rule of Jesus as is every human being alive. This is the kind of news that changes things.
And the truth that the Bible teaches is that only people who respond to this news and reorient their hearts and lives accordingly in this life will be saved. Regardless of what "religion" they are.