George Fox and the other early Quakers of the 17th century were not known to shrink away from controversy. In fact, they often seemed to have sought out confrontation with Anglican priests and Puritan preachers. One of the common charges the Quakers levied against the Calvinist Puritans in particular was that they focused too much on "preaching up sin." I always imagine Fox having a bit of a wry smile when leveling this charge against the "hireling preachers" (as he called them) of the day. But I also think there is a deadly serious truth behind the criticism of "preaching up sin" that goes to the core of the meaning of the Christian faith and how we live our lives from day to day.
The Bible, of course, has much to say about sin. I have studied the topic of sin (Hamartiology) in some detail and I think it is an important term to define. Is sin rebellion? Is it ignorance? Or is it simply falling short? My favorite definition of sin comes from Mark Biddle in his book "Missing the Mark", which is that sin is our failure to develop into the fullness of being human and to embrace authentic freedom. I believe that sin is, at its essence, the failure to allow God's love to do its transformative work within us.
A few months ago I led a group through an in-depth study of Atonement Theories (atonement, or at-one-ment, is a word coined by 16th century theologian William Tyndale to describe the reconciliatory work of Christ). Our study lasted several weeks and looked at Christus Victor and Ransom and Satisfaction and Penal Substitution and Moral Influence and Covenantal and Governmental and (my favorite) Narrative Christus Victor. One of the key factors that we discussed was the degree to which the believer participates in appropriating Christ's atoning work. Many, if not most, of the Atonement Theories developed during the history of Christendom are transactional in nature: A transaction was made between Jesus and God (or between God and Satan) in which humans play no direct role other than being dependent upon the success of the transaction for salvation. In those theories, atonement is an abstract and external event. God changed his orientation towards humankind because of Christ's atonement--humankind doesn't change (except perhaps to concur with the necessity of the transaction). Our justification is imputed, rather than infused. And so the bumper sticker says "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven." It follows naturally that if one's theology is built on a transactional view of atonement, then the effects of the atonement are going to be abstracted. Thus, for the Protestant Reformers, humans are always sinners--born into sin and consigned to sin until we die.
But another way to look at the work of Christ is not so much as a change in status from God's perspective that is projected upon us (through the blood of Christ) from the outside, but instead as an intrinsic change that occurs inside of us through the power of Christ. Redemption occurs from the inside-out rather than from the outside-in. Salvation is a process, rather than an event.
The ramifications are profound. An imputed justification from a transactional atonement does not provide (it could be argued) the motivation or empowerment to overcome sin in one's life. It is not transformative. Thus, "preaching up sin" is ultimately a defeatist theology. On the other hand, if we view the work of the Spirit as a redemptive process occurring deep within us--that we can choose to surrender to and cooperate with--where we are convicted but also empowered by God, it results in a hopeful, overcoming and practical theology. As the believer undergoes inner transformation, they transform the world around them (as William Penn wrote, "True religion does not draw men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it.").
I think this fundamental difference in ramifications is what the early Quakers were getting at when they spoke out against those who were constantly "preaching up sin." Their criticism strikes me as being just as relevant today (and the solution proposed by Friends just as life-giving) as it was in the 17th century. Belief in substitutionary atonement is the norm for Evangelical Protestantism (many aren't even aware that there are other views) and in recent years there has been a resurgence of neo-Calvinism.