An understanding of sin is central to our embrace of Christianity and the saving work of Jesus Christ.  Scripture clearly teaches that “the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).  Thus, knowing what sin is and repenting of it are essentials to the Christian walk.

According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”  Similarly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Saint Augustine, defines sin as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.”  Both Reformers and Catholics agree that the measure of sin is God’s law and His commandments.

This understanding of sin should be Christianity 101.  But in July, there was quite a buzz on the blogs when a Chicago Sun-Times reporter posted the text of a 2004 interview he conducted with then State Sen. Barack Obama.  The interview focused on spiritual matters, and many of Obama’s answers should shock orthodox Christians.

When asked to define sin, Obama replied that sin meant “being out of alignment with my values.”  As for the consequences of sin, Obama averred: “if I’m true to myself and my faith then that is its own reward[;] when I’m not true to it, it’s its own punishment.”  For Obama, sin is a transgression against himself, not against the Almighty, and it carries no long-term penalty.

Not surprisingly, Obama went on to explain that “there are many paths to the same place,” described Jesus as “an historical figure for me,” and questioned “the belief, certainly in some quarters, that people [who] haven’t embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior that they’re going to hell.”

Unfortunately, most Americans (even a majority of those who describe themselves as Christians) probably would not disagree with Obama’s discourse on sin, salvation, and Christ.  For example, despite Old and New Testament condemnations of sodomy, a June 2008 poll revealed that only 61 percent of American Protestants and 39 percent of American Catholics believe homosexuality is sinful.

In post-Christian America, the people and their leaders do not look to God’s Word to establish the bounds of proper behavior, but rather to themselves and to what feels right.  In an increasingly individualistic, secular, and narcissistic culture, we should expect that even members of churches labeled Christian do not have the remotest idea about the fundamentals of the Faith or the work of Christ.

Obama’s discourse on faith should remind us that there is much work to be done—not in the political sphere, but in the spiritual.  “The essence of unbelief,” according to theologian Cornelius Van Til, “is that man starts and finishes his interpretation about any and every aspect of life with the assumption of his own autonomy.  The Christian, on the other hand, has been saved by the blood and tears of Christ from this God-insulting and self-destroying methodology.”

Orthodox Christians should be ever prayerful for the millions of Americans who, like Barack Obama, look to themselves rather than to God when contemplating sin and salvation.