The awareness of sin used to be our shadow. Christians hated sin, feared it, fled from it, grieved over it. Some of our grandparents agonized over their sins; a man who lost his temper might wonder whether he could still go to Holy Communion. A woman who for years envied her more attractive and intelligent sister might worry that this sin threatened her very salvation.

But now the shadow has faded. Nowadays, the accusation you have sinned is often said with a grin and a tone that signals an inside joke. At one time, this accusation still had the power to jolt people. Catholics lined up to confess their sins; Protestant preachers rose up to confess our sins. And they did it regularly. Their view was that confessing our sin is like taking out the garbage: once is not enough. As a child growing up in the fifties among Western Michigan Calvinists, I think I heard as many sermons about sin as I did about grace. The assumption in those days seemed to be that you could not understand either without understanding both.

Many American Christians recall sermons in which preachers got visibly angry over a congregation's sin. When these preachers were in full cry, they would make red-faced, finger-pointing, second-person plural accusations: "You are sinners-filthy, miserable, greasy sinners!" Occasionally, these homiletical indictments veered awfully close to the second-person singular.

Of course, the old preachers sometimes appeared to forget that their audience included sincere and mature believers. (You wondered what language they would have saved for Himmler or Stalin!) Such preachers were also capable of sounding self-righteous: their own hearts were pure, they wanted you to believe, and even when they were adolescent ...

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