“In 1987, Harper’s Magazine invited seven ad agencies to create a humorous campaign designed to rehabilitate the reputation of the seven deadly sins.” So begins Dangerous Virtues, the latest offering from John Koessler, professor emeritus of Applied Theology and Church Ministries at Moody Bible Institute. Though offered tongue and cheek, Koessler uses Harper’s attempt at humor to introduce a “modern consensus when it comes to sin.” His observations on modern American culture form the bulk of this conspectus (summary) on sin. They also provide us a glimpse into the mind of a seasoned veteran of sermon writing and church ministries.
Sin? “We don’t think much about it,” laments Koessler. We may ask the same questions the ancients asked, like, “What kind of behavior constitutes sin?”; but we come to very different conclusions today. “Early Christians” wanted to understand the “internal dynamics that generated sinful behavior,” asking “How does sin arise within those who would rather not sin? Are some sins worse than others? And, of course, the most important question of all: what alternative is there to sin?” Yet, sadly, to us, sin seems more a “low-grade fever” than a “raging fire.”
With prose reminiscent of Cornelius Plantinga’s Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, Koessler answers the question, “Why do we think so differently from previous generations about sin?” He finds we have “radically different notions about virtue in our day.” The reasons include our cultural tendency to “think as little about virtue as (we) do about sin in the traditional sense.” We “trust our scientists more than our priests.” We “consume our way to happiness.” And, worse, we allow Harper’s and others to create dangerous virtues from the dust of the deadly sins. These dangerous virtues include mistaking anger for the pursuit of justice, embracing pride as a valuable motivator for success, and dressing envy in “business clothes,” confusing it with “ambition.”
With rich metaphors, Koessler’s treatise reads like a greatest homiletic hits list. With soundbites from beloved 20th-century voices, like C. S. Lewis, Owen Chadwick, Herman Ridderbos, and Cornelius Plantinga, he offers his homage to those he admires.
So, what is the way to true virtue? What alternative is there to sin? While eschewing the “medical models”—treat sin like a disease—and steering clear of “athletic models”—treat sin like a weakness to overcome, Koessler calls us back to the only effective remedy for sin, God’s remedy: the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the way to virtue. Our “journey into virtue,” the path to life and our true self in Christ, leads us to freedom from the power of sin and dangerous vices. And God’s Spirit enables us to say “yes” to life.