[Editorial Note: This is the fifth post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]
Article 5: Sin
WE AFFIRM that all people are connected to Adam both naturally and federally. Therefore, because of original sin everyone is born under the curse of God's law and all break his commandments through sin. There is no difference in the condition of sinners due to age, ethnicity, or sex. All are depraved in all their faculties and all stand condemned before God's law. All human relationships, systems, and institutions have been affected by sin.
WE DENY that, other than the previously stated connection to Adam, any person is morally culpable for another person's sin. Although families, groups, and nations can sin collectively, and cultures can be predisposed to particular sins, subsequent generations share the collective guilt of their ancestors only if they approve and embrace (or attempt to justify) those sins. Before God each person must repent and confess his or her own sins in order to receive forgiveness. We further deny that one's ethnicity establishes any necessary connection to any particular sin.
Recognition and repentance of sin are both central to the proclamation of the gospel. When Peter preached to the Jews at Pentecost, he confronted their sin by declaring, "this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:23).
When the crowd recognized their guilt, their hearts were pierced, and they cried out to ask what they must do. Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). If they were to be saved, the message was clear: they must recognize and repent of their sins and identify with Christ. The ones who received and acted on Peter's words were saved that day (Acts 2:41).
Recognition and repentance of sin are both central to the practice of the gospel, It is the pattern of the Christian life as we continue to walk in the light. Consider the familiar words of the Apostle John that were written to believers: "If we say we have not sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 Jn 1:8-9).
These words are both sobering and encouraging. If we ignore or deny our sin, we demonstrate that the truth of God does not indwell us. In other words, failing to recognize our sin is serious business; it evidences we are not saved. However, the wonderful news is when we confess our sins, God forgives us and cleanses us. He is faithful and just to do so because he is keeping his promise that our sins have been punished through the cross on the basis of Christ's blood.
The Bible is replete with warnings about the danger of concealing our sins as well as the blessings of confessing them. Therefore, it is critical that we are able to know the sins for which we truly bear guilt so that we may confess them. Our salvation and blessed life as a Christian depend upon this. Simply put, if we have sinned, we must recognize our guilt and confess that before God in order to receive forgiveness.
This truth becomes crucial in the ongoing debate about social justice among evangelicals. Some argue that people today not only bear the guilt for their own sins, but also for the sins of past generations - particularly those of racism. For example, even though none of us were alive during the practice of American slavery, and many were not yet born at the time of Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder, some argue that whites should both confess and repent of the sins of their ancestors in these matters.
Article 6 of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel addresses this critical error. Scripture is clear that although we are all sinners, by nature and practice, no one is morally culpable and called to repent for someone else's sin (Rom 5:12).
Nevertheless, some reference Exodus 20:5 where God says he will "visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation." Therefore, it is argued, future generations can be complicit in the sins of their ancestors.
However, the text actually assigns this guilt to "those who hate me." The warning places guilt upon those who continue to walk in the wicked ways of their ancestors. The children share in their father's guilt because they share in their father's sins. This is further clarified by the prophet Ezekiel's words:, "The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father for the iniquity of the son" (Ezk 18:20).
This continues to be the case in the New Testament. Nowhere do we find guilt assigned to individuals for the sins of others. Each person is called upon to confess their personal sins in order to receive forgiveness. Hence, John declares, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins..." (1 Jn 1:9).
But what about Peter's sermon at Pentecost as was referenced earlier? Is that not an example of guilt being assigned to a group of people for the sins of others? Peter said to the entire crowd, "you crucified and killed Jesus." Everyone knows that it was the Jewish leadership who handed Jesus over, Pilate who sent him to the cross, and Roman soldiers who nailed him to that tree. Yet, Peter declares to every person within the sound of his voice that it was they who are guilty of this vile sin.
We must remember Peter is preaching this sermon in the heart of Jerusalem - the very place where Jesus had been unjustly tried and crucified mere weeks prior. It was the Jewish leaders who handed Jesus over to the Roman government and called for his execution (Jn 18:28-31). When Pilate gave the Jewish crowds the opportunity to set Jesus free, they demanded that he be crucified, and they vowed, "His blood be on us and on our children" (Mt 27:15-26).
Furthermore, this was no sin of ignorance. Peter declared that Jesus was "a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know" (Acts 2:22). There was ample evidence that Jesus was the promised Messiah, but essentially the entire nation had rejected him and insisted he be crucified. Virtually everyone in the nation of Israel was active in the crucifixion and murder of the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, Peter's pronouncement of guilt upon this Jewish crowd in the heart of Jerusalem was certainly justified.
However, before we rush to embrace the idea of corporate guilt, we must consider some vital facts.
First, neither Peter nor any of the other apostles include themselves in the guilt of killing Jesus. They also were Jews, in Jerusalem when he was crucified, and most of them abandoned him in that very hour. Yet, they seem to bear no guilt.
Second, no Jews are told throughout the rest of the New Testament that they are guilty for the crucifixion of Jesus. When Paul preached to the Jews in Antioch, he declared, "those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers" condemned Jesus (Acts 13:27). This continues to be the pattern throughout the rest of Acts.
Surely the crucifixion of Jesus was the greatest act of injustice in the history of the world, yet his death was not laid at the feet of future Jewish generations. There could be no greater evidence that one's ethnicity does not establish any necessary connection to any particular sin. Clearly, we are called upon to confess our own sins, not the sins of others.
The Scripture must be our only guide in matters of guilt and repentance. We do not have the right to burden people with guilt that God's Law does not clearly lay upon them, and we certainly should not call upon people to repent for sins in which they bear no legitimate guilt. To do such a thing is to go beyond the line of Scripture and is nothing less than "teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Mk 7:7).
The truth is there is real hatred towards others that dwells in our own hearts that calls for confession and repentance. The gospel demands that we do the harder task of confronting the real guilt of sin that we indeed bear, and the humble repentance God requires. This is the task to which we must be fully committed. As important as brotherly reconciliation is, there is more at stake when we assign guilt for sin and call for repentance. What is at risk is our personal standing before God (1 Jn 1:8-9).
C.S. Lewis addressed this issue in his time. At the beginning of WWII, young Christians were calling upon England to repent of her past sins they believed contributed to the evils of the war. They claimed England was reaping what it had sown from the nation's prior actions.
Lewis wrote an article entitled "Dangers of National Repentance," where he declared, "Young Christians are turning to it in large numbers." But what harm is there, Lewis reasoned, in having a heart that is willing to repent of any sin - even if it is not directly your own? He saw it as a grave danger with no sign of spiritual health at all. Scripture calls us to is the harder work of repenting of our own sin.
Therefore, I believe C. S. Lewis' warning then is as relevant to the discussion among evangelicals now: "The first and fatal charm of national repentance is the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting of our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing the conduct of others."
Tom Buck serves as the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Lindale, TX.
There was a recent advertisement on Twitter for a Christian event in Mobile, AL titled, "Shrinking the Divide: A Gathering for Racial Reconciliation" featuring John Perkins and Russell D. Moore. There were some immediate negative responses from numerous professing Christians on Twitter. In summary, the comments basically asserted that Jesus has already conquered the divide on the cross and that this kind of conference wrongly implies there is something lacking in what Christ has done. According to the critics, talking about division is what really divides. These kinds of responses have become all too common along with pejorative name-calling against anyone who speaks out against racial injustice as SJW's (Social Justice Warriors) and cultural Marxists.
Such comments are often followed with the idea that talking about race or racial injustice at all is a waste of time and distracts us from the gospel. After all, it is frequently said, the gospel is the only answer to racism. Racism, they suggest, automatically disappears when the gospel takes prominence. It is a bizarre sentiment coming from conservative evangelicals. If racism disappears when someone is genuinely converted to Christ then do they believe that slaveholders Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and R.L. Dabney were unconverted men who didn't really believe the biblical gospel? If not, such rhetoric is empty.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who I have never heard anyone describe as a Marxist, gospel-compromising, SJW, preached a sermon on John 4:13-14 titled, "Spiritual Dullness and Evasive Tactics," in which he brought up the issue of racism. Early in the sermon on Jesus's encounter with the woman at the well Lloyd-Jones explains,
"We have dealt with some general prejudices that hindered this woman. She turned to our Lord in amazement when he asked her for a drink of water. She said, "How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria?" We face national prejudices, class prejudices, race prejudices, gender prejudices, and so on. There is almost no end to them. What harm they have done in the life of the individual Christian, and what harm they have done in the life of the church throughout the centuries--the things we cling to so tenaciously simply because we have been born like that!"
Lloyd-Jones then proceded to address the prejudices that the church battles both societally and personally. He explained that falling into this type of sin is a mark of spiritual dullness and gospel evasiveness. Regarding the woman Jesus meets at the well, Lloyd-Jones says, "She shows us that you can be intelligent, you can be quick and alert, you can be subtle at disputation, and yet the whole time be spiritually dull." He goes on to clarify, "You see, this is not a question of learning; spiritual understanding has nothing to do with natural ability, nothing at all." Of the "hindrances and obstacles" this woman used to evade the fullness of Jesus gospel message Lloyd-Jones declares, "As they were true in the case of this woman, so they are, in principle, still true of all of us."
Anticipating the objection that the prejudice and gospel avoidance of the women at the well was merely because she was an unbeliever and such sins could not be found in a genuine Christian who believes the gospel Lloyd-Jones explains what he refers to as a fallacy:
"It is assumed, therefore, that while this spiritual dullness is true of an unconverted person, like the woman of Samaria, it cannot be true of a Christian. But it can! The fact that we have become Christians, that we are born again, that the Spirit of God is in us, does not mean that we have solved all our problems; that is only a beginning. We now have to go through a great process of readjustment, and it is because so many people fail to realize that and, still more, fail to act upon it that they are constantly in trouble."
Lloyd-Jones attacked this fallacy when he says, "Spiritual understanding is not something that happens automatically. Not at all! You must work out your own salvation in this way." He goes on to note the multitude of imperatives directed at Christians in the New Testament by declaring, "All this is addressed to Christians, and it is because we fail to realize this that we are so frequently in trouble and raise these hindrances that prevent us from receiving this well of water that springs up into everlasting life." He provides five reasons Christians struggle with spiritual dullness and gospel evasiveness in our lives:
(1) Old pre-conversion habits we still struggle with.
(2) The feeling that we have everything; we received it all at conversion, and there is nothing more to be gained.
(4) The magical view of faith, people seem to think that faith is a magic word that completely changes everything.
(5) In preaching and teaching we tend put too much emphasis upon the will and upon momentary experience of decision and surrender.
According to Lloyd-Jones, we are all experts in the kind of gospel evasiveness that we find exhibited in the woman at the well, shifting the ground and changing topics. We will even use the fact of our Christian conversion to avoid living out the gospel,
"How we evade the issue, how we parry the question! It is because we do not like being searched, we do not like being examined, we do not like being disturbed. This is 'the natural man,' the old nature that is still with us. You do not get rid of your old nature when you become a Christian, when you are born again. The old man has gone, but the old nature has not gone; and the old nature, the natural self, does not like being searched. That element remains in us. We resent it; we do not want to be made to feel that we are wrong. We even dislike the very process that disturbs us out of our sloth: 'Why, we are Christians! I was converted.'"
Lloyd-Jones went on to insist that the gospel is meant to disturb and confront us. He then pressed in on our responsibility to apply our lives to the truth of John 4:13-14 by exhorting, "He searches us for our own good, but it is painful; so we evade it by taking up other issues. We have seen how the woman of Samaria did it, but what about us?" Thus, he brings up the horrific sin of racism again and explains that it is even possible to denounce someone else in order to evade dealing with your own sins. Lloyd-Jones explains, "You see, in denouncing somebody else, you are shielding yourself." That is precisely what the racists does and it it also what some who denounce racists are doing to shield themselves.
Every way that Christians evade walking in line with the gospel must be confronted with specificity and clarity. We have this responsibility in regard to racism and every other anti-gospel attitude we embrace and action we take. Yes, Jesus has already conquered the racial divide on the cross and the gospel is the answer to the sin of racism. Absolutely true! Nevertheless, as Paul notes, it is sadly often the case that we still "walk as the Gentiles do" (Eph 4:17) in far too many ways. May we keep reminding one another without apology, "But that is not the way you learned Christ!--assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus" (Eph 4:20).
Sin is a two-way street. There is the offender and the offended. We may not think of sin in those terms, especially in instances where we are the offended party. But the truth of the matter is that we bear the burden of responding to sin in a Christlike manner whether we play the role of villain or victim (Eph. 4:32).
Scan the moral landscape of today's evangelical church and it is readily apparent that preaching or teaching that we sin (or, worse, that there is such a thing as 'sin' at all) is becoming increasingly outmoded. Oh, sure, we'll concede that we make mistakes. Of course, we do. After all, "nobody's perfect" right? But to suggest that we sin? Well, that's so...so...Old Testament; so...Moses on Mount Sanai...so...judgmental and disgracious.
This somewhat passive approach to the sins you and I commit is, I believe, a by-product of our collectively treating so casually the fact that we are sinners--violators of God's law-- as opposed to mere "mistake-makers" (Rom. 3:23). That being said, this commentary isn't about sin, necessarily. Well, it is but, then, again, it isn't. It's actually about forgiveness. But any true understanding of the importance of forgiveness in the life of the Christian begins with an understanding of the significance of sin; because it is sin that necessitates forgiveness (1 Jn. 1:9). If no sin has been committed, then, no forgiveness is required.
There is an irony in that, ordinarily, you and I are inclined to view forgiveness in terms of an obligatory gesture of contrition owed to us by someone who has wronged us. But there is a flip-side to forgiveness in that we should not view it solely within the context of one's moral or ethical indebtedness to us, but as Christ did, as a gift, a benefit, a blessing to be volitionally and unreservedly bestowed on those who, like you and me, are wholly undeserving of it (Ps. 103:10; Dan. 9:9; Eph. 1:7; Col. 3:13). As the 19th century preacher and theologian Charles Spurgeon truthfully exclaimed:
"You are nothing better than deceitful hypocrites if you harbor in your minds a single unforgiving thought. There are some sins which may be in the heart, and yet you may be saved. But you cannot be saved unless you are forgiving. If we do not choose to forgive, we choose to be damned."
As sinners, we often find it difficult to forgive other sinners. One would think, given this universal spiritual nexus we all share, that the very opposite would be the case--namely, that forgiving those who sin against us would be easy or, at least, easier since we all share the same sin-nature (1 Kin. 8:46a; Ps. 14:3, 53:3; Eccl. 7:20; Rom. 3:10). One of the primary reasons why we find forgiveness so arduous an undertaking is that sin is weighty (Rom. 6:23; 1 Tim. 1:15; 1 Pet. 3:18). It is our sin that cost the Son of God His life on the cross (Jn. 3:16; Mk. 15:24-25).
Sin and forgiveness are inextricably connected insofar as the fact that you and I are sinners is not only a declaration of what we are in terms of our spiritually-depraved condition (Eph. 2:1), but also of the kind of fruit we are capable of as a result of that condition (Jer. 17:9; Rom. 7:18, 24). The Puritan theologian Thomas Watson underscores this truth quite unambiguously in his book The Doctrine of Repentance in that:
"Sin is like the usurer who feeds a man with money and then makes him mortgage his land. Sin feeds the sinner with delightful objects and then makes him mortgage his soul. Judas pleased himself with thirty pieces of silver, but they proved deceitful riches. Ask him now how he likes his bargain."
In the fall of 1995, the Christian band DC Talk released the album Jesus Freak which contained the introspective What If I Stumble?, the chorus of which poses some very sobering questions for Christians to consider concerning sin and forgiveness:
I mentioned earlier that sin is a two-way street. Consequently, so is forgiveness. For not only when we are sinned against do we have the opportunity to forgive - regardless if it is requested or not - but when we sin against others, for it is when you and I stumble and fall (and we will) that we are reminded of the Christlike humility we are obligated and expected to display toward others (Matt. 18:21-22) when the roles are reversed (as they undoubtedly will be). As Thomas Watson reminds us in The Godly Man's Picture:
"A humble soul thinks better of others than of himself (Phil. 2:3). A humble man values others at a higher rate than himself, and the reason is because he can see his own heart better than he can another's. He sees his own corruption and thinks surely it is not so with others; their graces are not so weak as his; their corruptions are not so strong. `Surely', he thinks, 'they have better hearts than I.' A humble Christian studies his own infirmities and another's excellences and that makes him put a higher value upon others than himself."
Reflecting for a moment on the words of the chorus above, ask yourself the following questions:
How will you respond when the walk of someone you care about stumbles and falls? When his or her walk with Christ becomes a crawl? When they let you down by not living up to an expectation you had of them? When they fail to follow through on a commitment they made? When he or she is caught in an adulterous relationship? Or when you find out your closest friend has been gossiping about you? What then? As you consider these questions, consider also these words from Thomas Watson who, in The Art of Divine Contentment, exhorts us to:
"Look upon the unkindness of your friend and mourn for your own unkindness against God. Shall a Christian condemn that in another which he has been too guilty of himself?"
Forgiveness is a cross those who claim the name of Christ must be willing to bear and with joy (Lk. 9:23; Rom. 15:13).
As believers of and cross-bearers with Jesus, the question is never if you and I will stumble and fall but when and to what extent we stumble. We know this in principle, of course, though perhaps less so in practice. But forgiving those who wrong us actually can be a source of God-exalting joy when we understand that the ultimate goal of forgiveness is our sanctification, that is, to be conformed to the image of the One who forgave - and continues to forgive - you and me (Eph. 1:7).
I fear that much, if not most, counseling in churches hurts people more than it helps them. Why would I say that? I say it because pastors want to be liked and perceived as caring shepherds. Often, that fact overrules the need to push back against what the person perceives to be their problem in order to challenge what needs to be changed in their thinking and actions. There are often long-standing underlying patterns of non-biblical responses to people and circumstances that must be exposed.
People rarely rightly identify their problem. What people perceive to be their problem is often not their actual problem. It usually takes time, effort, and intrusive questions to get at the real problem. In other words, effective discipleship counseling almost invariably involves pushing back at what the person thinks their problem is. Even when this is done with gentleness and respect, it is often met with a sense of offense and outrage.
Herein lies the problem. People come to be counseled assuming that you will accept their self-definition of their problem. If you do so, you will invariably give them advice that does not help them. Often, such advice will make their problems worse rather than better, but they will leave thinking of you as kind, caring, and compassionate. If you push to get at their real problems you'll often be labeled unkind, harsh, and an uncompassionate shepherd. In fact, some people will get mad, leave the church, and find a church down the road where a staff person will be glad to superficially console them.
Every church has to decide whether or not they are really trying to help and disciple people or are they simply a public relations firm, maintaining the brand and image at all costs. Sadly, it is often the superficial pastors and staff, consumed with image and perception, who are often outwardly applauded as being kind and caring shepherds. This applause comes even though they are neglecting the real problems of the sheep and doing them real harm.
Some time ago, I met with my staff to tell them we are going to be loving truth-tellers in counseling because we are called to be disciple-makers, not self-promoters. I made it clear that we often have to risk making people mad in order to really help them and if they made someone mad by loving them enough to tell them the truth I would stand behind them. Not long after this meeting, a young adult came for counseling with one of our pastors. She explained the people who were, in her mind, the problem (the issues were normal disagreements and mildly unkind comments) and asked for help in dealing with these people.
After attempting to get to the heart of the matter, the pastor told the young adult that he didn't think these other people were her primary problem. He explained that most people go through the kinds of conflict they were describing in relating to other people. He suggested to the one being counseled that she should consider she might be the problem because she had been responding to almost every situation in a highly self-referential way. The pastor suggested they should develop a plan to cultivate humility and an others-centered focus.
His redirection of the problem was not well received. The young adult got angry and suggested that the pastor was insensitive and victim-blaming, stormed out, knocking a few things off the desk on the way out. The pastor came to me and recounted what happened and said, even though what he said was true, he felt terrible about how the session ended. I asked him if he said what he said gently and out of love, he assured me he did. I told him the only way the young adult could be helped was by the truth and we committed to pray for the person. A few weeks, later the young adult showed up again at the pastor's office. This time to apologize and to say he was right and now wanted to be discipled regarding these issues. He connected her with a disciple partner and I am pleased to report a very positive life transformation in that individual's life.
I mention that situation to ask what would have happened if the pastor had just accepted the young adults self-definition of the problem out of self-protecting image managing? The person's life would have been made worse, and the needed humility would have been neglected rather than cultivated. As long as the counselee kept the problem defined as external, she could avoid the needed personal growth. I fear that too many pastors and staff are willing to leave people in their sinful attitudes because they love temporary peace and personal reputation more than they love the one being counseled. And more importantly, more than they love Christ who gave them the authority to counsel in His name.
Jesus is Lord of all, including discipleship counseling in His churches. The rich, young, ruler asked Jesus, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17). If Jesus had simply given him something simple to do, he would have gladly done it and would have been full of joy and great thoughts about Jesus. The problem is that it would have been empty joy because he would have been deceived with false assurance about eternal life. Mark tells us, "Jesus, looking at him, loved him" (Mark 10:21). He loved him enough to confront his real problem, a lack of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. The text tells us "he went away sorrowful," but that was what love demanded. It was the only way the rich, young, ruler could be confronted to repent and believe so that he could know real joy and assurance of eternal life.
Our churches are to be outposts of the kingdom of Christ, engaging in spiritual war, discipling in the name of King Jesus, for His glory and the advance of His kingdom. They do not exist to create and protect the brand and image of pastors and staff. Every time we in the church tickle itching ears, not just in the pulpit (2 Tim 4:3), but also in the counseling room, we add to the darkness as those who are "swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power (2 Tim 3:4-5). Paul's admonition is to "Avoid such people" (2 Tim 3:5), even when their office door says pastor or church staff.
David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, and Preaching Today.
Recently, I had the privilege of meeting a new family in our church. They've spent the last several years of their life in Connecticut where they struggled to find Christian fellowship, and by God's providence, they have been able to move down to Charleston. On this past Sunday, our families had lunch together, and we spent most of the time just getting to know each other. Eventually, we discussed the spiritual state of many of the people they knew in Connecticut. They mentioned that they had numerous wealthy acquaintances, but they were among the most miserable people they knew. We all nodded heads because as Christians, we know that money cannot buy the happiness and longing that many desire. However, a statement was made during the conversation that has been on my mind for several days: "I don't know what's worse: the rich, miserable man who is attached to his wealth or the poor, miserable man whose great hope in life is to become wealthy."
That statement has stuck with me because it's speaks about the reality of materialism. There is much discussion among Christians regarding the materialism of those who are wealthy in this world. There's much discussion of families who are public successes and private failures - those who live (and boast about) a life of luxury for everyone to see, yet in truth, they are miserably addicted to their love of wealth. These are individuals who live to work, live to make money, and showcase their extravagance for all to see, yet they have neglected their souls and their families.
However, there is not much discussion of the materialism of those who are poor in this world. Even though they may have meager possessions, their heart is still addicted to the hopeful prospect of wealth. They love to watch and mimic those who are wealthy so that they can fantasize about what they would do if they were wealthy. These are individuals who "fake it until they make it" - pretending to have wealth and possessions because they pine for the status that wealth brings. Even when the private failings of wealthy individuals become public, their only lesson is to not repeat their private failures.
In reality, there are many similarities between the materialism of "the rich" versus "the poor". In both cases, their hearts are set on wealth. However, there is an important difference between the two: the rich have received their reward and their hope, whereas the poor have not. For the rich in this world, the question becomes: What do you do when your hope fails you? The consistent Christian message is that one's life does not consist only of His possessions (cf. Luke 12:15). Jesus Himself explicitly warned His disciples concerning the dangers of storing up treasures on this earth (cf. Matthew 6:19-21) and that it is impossible to serve God and wealth (cf. Matthew 6:24). The Apostle Paul repeats these admonitions in 1 Timothy 6:17-19:
"Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed."
However, for the poor in this world who yearn to be wealthy (but still remain poor), the question becomes: What do you do when your hope of wealth is crushed? How should Christians respond to such individuals? The response of Christians to these individuals should fundamentally be the same because the root of the matter is the love of wealth. The sinful attachment to wealth (and the greed and envy that these usually produce) is the true problem - not one's social or financial position in society.
I've found that this message is easy to proclaim to those lovers of money who are wealthy, but it is becoming more and more offensive to those lovers of money who are poor in our culture. Rather, I am finding that another message has been substituted for the gospel message, and it is the belief that someone (whether it is society, politicians, wicked businessmen, or Satan) has robbed the poor of their wealth. In many cases, it is true that poverty in this world is caused by corruption and oppression, but Scripture also emphatically teaches that the gospel is the remedy needed for the poor, not freedom from poverty (cf. Matthew 15:1-5). This is not a theraupetic, "pie-in-the-sky" message that ignores the real problems of the poor. Rather, it is a clear and consistent message that the ultimate problem is deeper than political and economic oppression. Materialism (in all of its forms) is a harsh taskmaster to all who serve her; materialism breaks the spirit of all who serve it. Chasing after wealth and putting one's hope in it is just as worthless as chasing after the wind. Solomon's life is a testimony of this (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). Moreover, materialism is a foolish religion to all who serve it and is nothing more than superstition; it can never deliver on the promises that it offers. The reality is that the riches of God's mercy is worth more than this superstitious pursuit for wealth.
It is this last point that serves as a message to us all: Do we believe in the claims that materialism promises? Do we hold tightly to our possessions or do we have the heart attitude of the Hebrew Christians who could rejoice in the seizure of their property (cf. Hebrews 10:34)? Do we still have a part of us that still desires an inheritance and a claim in this present world? Do we have the disposition of a pilgrim (cf. Hebrews 11:12-16)? Do we live with the truth that we are citizens of a heavenly Kingdom (cf. Philippians 3:20) and that this Kingdom is not of this world (cf. John 18:36)? Do we have a "worldly" faith - a faith fixed upon liberation from the problems of this world and hope for a comfortable future in this world? To all of these questions, we should remember and cling to the reality that our hope is built upon Christ and the redemption that He has accomplished.
Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.
In addition to the many rich theological insights one will glean from working through Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics, there are equally profound sociological observations from which we could benefit today. When he came to tackle the question of crime and punishment in a society that has cast off biblical definitions of God and sin, Bavinck made the following profound observation about the inevitable consequences and implications regarding criminals in such a society. He wrote:
"The decline of the ancient Christian worldview has also resulted in the modification, indeed the abolition and banishment of the concepts of good and evil, responsibility and accountability, guilt and punishment. Along with belief in the justice of God, belief in justice on earth disappeared as well. Atheism proved to be the annihilation of all justice and morality: no God, no master. The modern, positivist, evolutionistic worldview, after all, though it cannot deny the fact that there is something like good and evil, sin and virtue, guilt and punishment, looks at and attempts to explain these things very differently. Sin and crime are not traceable to the evil will of individual persons, are not their responsibility nor imputable to them personally, but are, generally speaking, remnants or aftereffects of the animal ancestry of humans and to be explained in terms of their nature or of their environment.
...Others regarded every criminal case separately and individually and viewed criminals as victims of heredity, people who stayed behind in the evolutionary process...[and] crime as a symptom of social disease, a necessary product of circumstances, a consequence of ignorance, poverty, poor upbringing, and heredity...From this position, naturally, it becomes impossible to maintain the justice and essential character of punishment. For if crime can, in fact, be totally traced to the innate animal nature of humans or to the environment in which they grew up, and their own evil nature need not or may not be taken into account, criminals are completely free of blame, and society loses all right to punish them. Rightly considered, the roles are even totally reversed. Criminals have nothing on their conscience vis-à-vis society, but society bears an enormous burden of guilt toward them...Society has failed to nurture and educate them into civilized moral beings. Just as nowadays many educationists tell us that the parents are to blame for the badness of their children, so also many criminologists have adopted the opinion that society is to blame for its criminals.
It is difficult, however, to be consistent in this connection. For then we would have to pity criminals and imprison society as the really guilty party. But since this is impracticable, people commit two inconsistencies. The first is that they accuse society of every possible injustice; the criminal is excused, defended, sometimes even praised and glorified, but to modern criminologists, educationists, and sociologists, society is proportionately all the worse. No words are sharp enough to condemn it, no columns of print long or wide enough to properly castigate it. But if in the case of crime the evil will, personal responsibility, accountability, and culpability may not at all be considered, where do people then derive the right to bring all these ethical factors to bear in the case of society? Criminals can only be the persons they are, but can society be other than it is? Does society not have a past to which it is bound, from which it came into being? Does society have a free will, the very thing that is denied to all its members personally? Clearly, those who throw away ethical standards in the case of the crime of the individual cannot again pick them up when it concerns that of society."
1. Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2006). Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ (Vol. 3, pp. 163-165). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
There is a functional perfectionism that can subtly creep into the minds and hearts of even those who adamantly reject any idea of instantaneous sanctification in a believer's life. On one hand, it is altogether possible for us to convince ourselves that we have out-sinned the grace of God or that God is no longer at work in our lives, based on misunderstandings about the progressive nature of sanctification. We love the extraordinary observable expressions of growth in grace, but are plagued by the less spectacular and less observable works of God. On the other hand, we can convince ourselves that we are not that sinful because we avoid particular sins that we deem vile, while allowing myriads of "respectable sins" to go unchecked.
In his Studies in Perfectionism, B.B. Warfield observed that a gravitation toward various forms of perfectionism rests on the insatiable desire for the immediate:
"Men are unable to understand why time should be consumed in divine works...Men demand immediate, tangible results...They ask to be themselves made glorified saints in the twinkling of an eye. God's ways are not their ways, and it is a great trial to them that God will not walk in their ways. They love the storm and the earthquake and the fire. They cannot see the divine in 'a sound of gentle stillness,' and adjust themselves with difficulty to the lengthening perspective of God's gracious working. For the world they look every day for the cataclysm in which alone they can recognize God's salvation; and when it ever delays its coming they push it reluctantly forward but a little bit at a time. For themselves they cut the knot and boldly declare complete salvation to be within their reach at their option, or already grasped and enjoyed. It is true, observation scarcely justifies the assertion. But this difficulty is easily removed by adjusting the nature of complete salvation to fit their present attainments. These impatient souls tolerate more readily the idea of an imperfect perfection than the admission of lagging perfecting. They must at all costs have all that is coming to them at once."1
When we are heavy-handed with other believers when they stumble, it reveals strains of self-righteousness in our own hearts. When we speak ill of other believers because they struggle with some particular sins with which we are not beset, we reveal that we believe that we have attained "an imperfect perfection." Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains the way in which a standard of "imperfect perfection" functions when he wrote:
"We insist on judging ourselves and one another by particular sins, good works, talk, etc. These are our categories. We speak of people as being respectable or not respectable, or we speak of them in terms of certain particular sins and their precise way of committing them, thereby confusing the whole issue and forming only a superficial judgment."
Whatever the manifestation of functional perfectionism, it causes us to lose sight of the biblical teaching on the progressing nature of God's work of bringing us our lives into conformity to the image of His Son.
The idea that "men demand immediate, tangible results" is also observable in our day by a consideration of the many efforts to rid society of particular injustices. Where there are noble calls to end gun violence, abuse, political corruption, sexual deviancy, racial inequality, abortion, etc., men can unconsciously convince themselves that a complete purgation of cultural injustices is attainable in this life. In these demands, there is--no less than in the demand for our own consummate sanctification--a quest for immediate and tangible results. Ironically, those who strive after perfectionism in cultural sanctification often reject any notion of the possibility of perfectionism in personal sanctification. Many of those who reject the notion of individual perfectionism will "tolerate more readily the idea of an imperfect perfection than the admission of lagging perfecting" in the social realm.
There are pertinent lessons for us to learn from the lives of the disciples. We should never get over the fact that Jesus committed the work of the Kingdom to men who sinfully argued about which of them was greatest (Luke 9:46; 22:44), acted with selfish ambition (Mark 10:35-37), feared men (John 18:17-18), acted impulsively (Matt. 26:35), were easily angered (Luke 9:54) and fell asleep at the most pressing of occasions (Matt. 26:40-45). They were men with natures like ours (James 5:17). Even after the three years of being personally taught by Christ--and after the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost--Peter twice denied the Gospel (Acts 10:9-16; Gal. 2:11-14) and the Apostle John twice succumbed to the idolatrous worship of an angel (Rev. 19:10; 22:9).
Lloyd-Jones explained the comfort we glean from the failures of the disciples, when he wrote:
"I never cease to be grateful to the disciples. I am grateful for the record of every mistake they ever made, and for every blunder they ever committed, because I see myself in them. How grateful we should be to God that we have these Scriptures, how grateful to Him that He has not merely given us the Gospel and left it at that. How wonderful it is that we can read accounts like this and see ourselves depicted in them, and how grateful we should be to God that it is a divinely inspired Word which speaks the truth, and shows and pictures every human frailty."2
This, of course, is not to say that we should embrace failure, revel in disobedience or wallow in complacency. The Lord has redeemed a people for Himself who will be diligent in pursuing godliness (2 Peter 1:10; 3:14), in putting sin to death (Rom. 8:13) and in walking in paths of righteousness (Titus 2:11-14). However, it is to say that in this life we will be far from what we long to be and that which Christ will ultimately and instantaneously make us in glory. In the here and now, the believer must learn to say with John Newton, "I am not what I ought to be, not what I might be, not what I wish or hope to be, and not what I once was, [but] I think I can truly say with the apostle, 'By the grace of God I am what I am.'"3
1. Warfield, B. B. (2008). The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Perfectionism, Part Two (Vol. 8, p. 561). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
2. An excerpt from Lloyd-Jones' sermon on Luke 8:22-25.
3. Josiah Bull John Newton: An Autobiography and Narrative (London: The Religious Tract Society) p. 334
"The false self is deeply entrenched. You can change your name and address, religion, country, and clothes. But...the false self simply adjusts to the new environment. For example, instead of drinking your friends under the table as a significant sign of self-worth and esteem, if you enter a monastery, as I did, fasting the other monks under the table could become your new path to glory. In that case, what would have changed? Nothing."
So wrote the Trappist Monk Thomas Keating some years ago. Whatever the merits of Keating's own solution to the situation he describes, his analysis of our basic human condition seems spot on to me. Keating understands that licentiousness and legalism represent not only alternative (albeit de facto related) ways of relating to divine law, and so of laying claim to one's inheritance (whether measured in present or deferred beatitude), but also alternative (albeit de facto related) ways of constructing identity, and so projecting an image of one's self both to one's self and to others. Some define themselves by conquest and consumption; others by strict conformity to moral standards of one provenance or another.
The Gospel, by way of contrast and solution to the "false self," bids us find our identity in our participation in the benefits of Christ's person and work for us (forgiveness and renewal), and so in the vast love of God for us which stands behind our participation in the benefits of Christ's person and work. Thereby it simultaneously invites us to forfeit those identities we have so carefully constructed via conquest and consumption or moral conformity (to precepts divine or human).
Recently I've been thinking about the way in which Margery Williams's classic children's book The Velveteen Rabbit (1922) captures this particular dynamic of the Gospel.
The Velveteen Rabbit has, of course, intrinsic worth. He's made of velveteen after all. Velveteen may not be proper velvet, but presumably it beats polyester or mere cotton as far as materials go (disclaimer: I don't actually know what I'm talking about on this score). Similarly, we human beings have intrinsic worth as image-bearers of God. Our image-bearing ontological/functional status should, at least in principle, go some way towards establishing our sense of self-worth as well as the worth of others. But in our fallen (or in the Velveteen Rabbit's case neglected state), the truth about our origin and inherent status rarely suffices to keep the "false self" at bay. The reality is we're wired for relationship, and questions of self-worth and identity inevitably revolve in the final analysis around the reality of whatever relationships (or lack thereof) we find ourselves in. Because sin has severed the relationship that matters most, we end up feeling lost and worthless; hence the quest to establish identity and worth down those paths noted previously.
The Velveteen Rabbit ultimately discovers his own identity -- and so forfeits his own "false self" as well as any false hope entertained of realizing his eschatological end ("realness") through false means -- in the love bestowed upon him by the Boy. The Boy's love doesn't (initially) change what the Velveteen Rabbit is (i.e, a Velveteen Rabbit). But it does impart previously unrealized value and identity to the Rabbit. Similarly, God's love for us doesn't (initially) change what we are by nature, but it does impart a previously unrealized value and identity to us. God's love, in other words, defines us. God's love -- measurable in the lengths that God has gone to in order to rescue us from the guilt and misery of our sin -- bestows upon us the freedom to stop defining ourselves to ourselves and others by our conquest and consumption (on one hand) or (on the other) strict conformity to moral precepts.
But in the end, love not only defines the Velveteen Rabbit; it also transforms him. The Velveteen Rabbit, true to the prophetic word of the Skin Horse (the Velveteen Rabbit's source of inspired truth), achieves realness on a new level by virtue of the love bestowed upon him, even though that love (and so the path to eschatological realness per se) introduces, whether directly or indirectly, considerable pain and sorrow to the Rabbit's life. God's love (and the realization of his love for us in the person and work of Christ) likewise leads to our own transformation (glorification). But, as every Christian knows and numerous New Testament texts conform, the path to glory is paved with pain and suffering (Rom. 8:17).
Of course, all analogies -- including those based on children's literature -- break down in the end. The Velveteen Rabbit's eschatological end necessarily separates him from the Boy whose very love imparted identity and an inheritance to him. God's love, which imparts identity and inheritance to us, draws us into his presence more concretely in the end (which is to say, God is our inheritance). But perhaps enough parallels between the Velveteen Rabbit and the Gospel exist to extend G. K. Chesterton's apology for the "ethic and philosophy of elfland" (and so all that children's stories stand to teach us) to Williams's classic work, even if it the Velveteen Rabbit (1922) slightly postdated Chesterton's comments (Orthodoxy, 1908).
After reading Nick's article on whether some sins are worse than other sins, a related conversation came to mind. Some time ago, I was talking with a man who did not believe in the scriptural truth regarding eternal judgment. He certainly believed that some sins are worse than others; however, his conclusion from that statement was that God will not hold "little sins" to his account. In thinking about this conversation, two examples come to my mind.
The Sleeper's Dream
One of my favorite books of all time is The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan--a book that I read almost once a year. In the third scene of the book, Christian reaches the house of the Porter. In this house, Christian meets three young women named Piety, Prudence, and Charity. As Christian takes a temporary rest from his journey, he converses with these three young women about his journey thus far. In recounting the events, Christian recalls his account of hearing the Sleeper's Dream where a man named Sleeper is warned of his judgment through a dream. Even though the Sleeper is temporarily frightened, he does not earnestly repent of his sin because he viewed his sin as a "tiny sin".
Piety had known Sleeper and thus, when Christian tells this story to Piety, she informs Christian that Sleeper had been intending to repent of this "tiny sin" since her grandfather was a small child. Christian pitied Sleeper because in Christian's eyes, Sleeper suffered in his condition because of "one small sin." However, Piety does not interpret Sleeper's predicament in the same way. Piety makes the following statement:
"It was not tiny at all...if it was so tiny, then why would he not trade it for all the riches of eternity?"
In asking this question, Piety gets to the heart of the matter. It is correct to say that not all sins are equally heinous; however, it is also appropriate to state that when a person clings to any sin, this person is making an exchange. In clinging to a "little sin", a person is making a subtle statement that this sin is greater to him than all the world to come. In other words, clinging to "small sins" means that we are choosing sin over Christ himself. This is why there are no small sins. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, their sin was a "small sin" when viewed from a humanistic lens. However, in choosing this fruit, Adam preferred the words of the serpent over the command of God.
The Death of Moses
Another example from Scripture that illustrates this point is the death of Moses foretold in Deuteronomy 32:48-52:
"That very day the LORD spoke to Moses, "Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor and was gathered to His people because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel."
My wife and I have been reading through the Pentateuch over the past several months and when we read this passage, it brought great sadness to our hearts (even though we have both read this passage several times).
In reading through Exodus through Deuteronomy, we learn many aspects of Moses' godly character, such as his humility (cf. Numbers 12:3). We also learn that Moses has spent the majority of his life in the wilderness: about 40 years in Midian and about 40 years during the wilderness wanderings with the nation of Israel. However, what we also learn is that Moses' failure to follow the divine instruction exactly during the rebellion at Meribah (cf. Numbers 20:2-13) forfeited his right to enter Canaan. From man's superficial perspective, Moses' striking of the rock twice seems to be a rather minor error and based on Moses' life experience up to this point, there's a natural human desire for God to overlook this particular sin since it's just a minor error. However, behind the action of striking the rock twice, there is a commentary about Moses' carelessness and anger. In Deuteronomy 32, we are told that Moses "did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel."
At the end of Moses' life, he is told to go up to Mount Nebo and view the land of Canaan. As mentioned numerous times throughout Exodus and Numbers, the land of promise is always sharply contrasted with the wilderness. Whereas the wilderness is characterized by scarcity, the land of Canaan flows with milk and honey. Whereas the wilderness is characterized by famine, the produce of the land of Canaan is so great that poles are required to carry them (cf. Numbers 13). When Moses sees the lush land of promise in contrast to the wilderness in which he has lived the majority of his life, there is an implicit commentary: Moses traded the riches and glories of this for his "small error". Furthermore, Moses' single sin had a permanent consequence, which is to demonstrate that there are no "little sins."
This scene in Deuteronomy 32 is a picture of the Christian life for us. Although we are redeemed by the blood of Christ and are united to Him, we still live a pilgrim's life and we have not received the fullness of our inheritance. We are in the middle of our journey to the heavenly city where we will obtain our promise. Right now, we see the riches and glories of this inheritance dimly, but we indeed see our promised inheritance through the eyes of faith. However, there will be a day when what we see by faith will be turned into sight. Until then, may we never cling to even "small sins". May we never be as Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal (cf. Hebrews 12:17). Rather, as the writer of Hebrews exhorts us, let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus who is the founder and perfecter of our faith.
A witness for Christ in any age--and certainly in this present age--requires a prayer-saturated, Christ-centered, Gospel-motivated, Bible-shaped, Spirit-filled and God-glorifying commitment to "speak the truth in love." But this essential command for effective Gospel ministry to both those not yet saved and those already saved is easier said than done. The prevailing tendency is to sacrifice "speaking the truth" in the name of love, or to thoughtlessly speak the truth without love. We cannot truly love without speaking truth truthfully; and we can't speak truth truthfully without loving intentionally and thoughtfully. You can "speak the truth" without loving but you can't "love" without "speaking the truth." To paraphrase a much more able Gospel minister from another age who confronted this issue with a clear, insightful and captivating observation: "Truth without love is barbarity, but love without truth is cruelty" (Bishop J. C. Ryle).
Because speaking the truth is central to an effective Gospel ministry, there is little doubt that Satan will devise as many reasons possible to discourage Christians from either speaking to those living in the death spiral of sin and idolatry; or to distract them from intentionally, thoughtfully and relentlessly loving sinners drowning in the brokenness of a sin-deceived life.
Furthermore, it is equally obvious that if Satan cannot silence the truth, he will attempt to trap us into speaking the truth without love. If he can't stop us from loving, he will entice us to quit speaking the truth. He does this in two ways. First, Satan tempts us to minimize truth with meaningless euphemisms that disguise the horrific consequences and the irrationality and blasphemy of sin. Second, and often even more effectively, he will culturally intimidate us into outright silence in the name of love. Our diminished truth speaking or silence actually reveals that we are more interested in people loving us than we are in them knowing truthfully the love of Christ and being brought into the life-changing blessing of loving the Christ who first loved them.
So Satan--with an insatiable desire to reduce love into deeds that are void of truth or to communicate truth through self-righteous arrogance--today employs five deceptive myths:
Five Deceptive Myths
What is the Result?
In the present age the influence of these myths (when they are individually and/or collectively embraced) are almost always initially revealed by "selective truth speaking"--all of which is done in the name of "sensitivity." The result is that many contemporary Christians following their leaders will sacrifice truth speaking in the name of love; yet, amazingly, they will boldly address the sins and prevailing issues that the culture agrees are undesirable. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with speaking to cultural sins (cultural sin and justice concerns must both be addressed, after all). However, though many boldly speak the truth on issues found on the list of "Culturally Approved Topics for Denunciation," there is an astonishing silence about other prevalent issues the Bible clearly identifies as heinous sins. Why the silence? First of all, those who the masses confront are confronted with permission by today's culture shapers. Many suppose that by speaking to these issues the cultural capital of the church will be enhanced. But in contrast, those sins--corporate, cultural, and individual--which are avoided, are the ones that have been declared off limits because they are on the "Cultural Approved Lifestyle List." Even more, those issues on the Culturally Approved Lifestyle List are not only declassified as sins but now are to be celebrated, perpetuated and propagated. This brings us to the crux of the question: is "selective truth speaking" an evidence of sensitivity or is it a lack of courage; is it compassion or is it cowardice?
Multitudes of ministers and leaders are imploring Christians to embrace this "selective truth speaking" as an exalted virtue. For example, the present culture expresses concern about refugees, sex trafficking, racism, and other heinous sins and injustices--and rightly so! Churches and pulpits join the culture's efforts by truth speaking affirming these practices as sins and lovingly instituting ministry initiatives to eradicate these acts of iniquity and minister to the victims. And so we should and must! But by doing so an unassailable fact emerges - leadership is speaking publicly with compassion, courage and conviction. In fact, when pastors speak publicly on these issues, in their sermons and on their podcasts or blogs, people praise them for the very fact that they are being leaders. They should be praised for this.
However, at the same time, many of the voices that speak boldly on these issues are silent in the same public square concerning the agenda of culturally normalizing unfettered sexual eroticism, marital anarchy, and the sanctity of life (among others). In addition to their deafening on these issues - which the culture is now promoting and celebrating - it is now considered unspiritual or unbecoming for the Christian and/or the church to participate in the messiness of bringing the blessings of common grace to the culture by promoting and debating public policies rooted in a Biblically informed public theology for human flourishing.
A Crucial Theological Fact
Often, in all of this, one important theological fact is forgotten. We live in a world that, emphatically, does not desire the love of Christ or the truth of the Gospel. It never has and, apart from the moving of the Holy Spirit; and, it never will. Neither did I, until the grace of God changed my heart by the power of the Holy Spirit, who brought me from death unto life. What did He use? He used believers who spoke the truth in love to me. They did so with varying degrees of sophistication, but praise the Lord they were willing to speak the truth and love me. Now I, as a beneficiary of the Gospel of Jesus Christ through their courageous compassion, must also speak the truth--lovingly--to those who need me to do so (even if they do not approve me doing so - even if they do not want me to do so)--we still must do so as others did so for me and you.
We must seek to speak the truth thoughtfully, timely and with words carefully chosen--even while we create an environment of love for effective communication. If a doctor knows you have a terminal condition and loves you he will not be silent. He will thoughtfully tell you the truth. He will likely take you aside in a private room providing an appropriate environment. Then he will tell you the truth in love and he will love you with the truth. Ministers are physicians for the soul. We know sin brings death and we know God's grace has provided the solution to sin's guilt and power. We also know that God has commissioned us to speak the truth in an environment of love. We cannot be silent about the truth they need to hear in the name of love any more than the doctor could. Nor would we tell them the truth about sin and God's grace in Christ without creating a thoughtful environment of love.
Those who have not yet come to Christ need to hear the truth of His Word spoken from those who will love them sacrificially and intentionally. And those who know Christ but have faltered in their walk for Him need us to love them enough to speak the truth. Those around us need us to deliver truth with a love that demonstrates the astonishing and unstoppable love of Christ and Him crucified.
In a world that has grown increasingly hostile to the truth of the Gospel, it would be easy to fall prey to perhaps right-hearted but wrong-headed statements like the one famously attributed to the renowned St. Francis of Assisi: "preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words." Instead, we must preach the Gospel and we must use words because they are necessary. Why? Because God's word tells us that "faith comes by hearing." In a word, we must speak the truth.
Love is essential because it opens the door for truth, affirms the truth and authenticates the truth; but, it is the truth that will "set you free." We are all born with a desire to be approved. But for believers our approval rating does not come from the world. "Do your best to present yourself unto God...handling accurately the Word of Truth."
Dr. Harry L. Reeder, III is the Senior Pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL. Harry completed his doctoral dissertation on "The Biblical Paradigm of Church Revitalization" and received a Doctor of Ministry Degree from Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina (where he serves as adjunct faculty member). He is the author of From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church, as well as a number of other published works.
"He is a man of just and holy life who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections also under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that more which ought to be loved less, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves that less or more which ought to be loved equally. No sinner is to be loved as a sinner; and every man is to be loved as a man for God's sake; but God is to be loved for His own sake. And if God is to be loved more than any man, each man ought to love God more than himself. Likewise we ought to love another man better than our own body, because all things are to be loved in reference to God, and another man can have fellowship with us in the enjoyment of God, whereas our body cannot; for the body only lives through the soul, and it is by the soul that we enjoy God."
"True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which wounds the conscience and grieves the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God's withdrawing the light of His countenance, and suffering even such as fear Him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never so utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the mean time, they are supported from utter despair."
"Under the Old Testament none loved God more than he; none was loved of God more than he. The paths of faith and love wherein he walked are unto the most of us like the way of an eagle in the air,--too high and hard for us. Yet to this very day do the cries of this man after God's own heart sound in our ears. Sometimes he complains of broken bones, sometimes of drowning depths, sometimes of waves and water spouts, sometimes of wounds and diseases, sometimes of wrath and the sorrows of hell; everywhere of his sins, the burden and trouble of them. Some of the occasions of his depths, darkness, entanglements, and distresses, we all know. As no man had more grace than he, so none is a greater instance of the power of sin, and the effects of its guilt upon the conscience, than he."
"Now, I say, a gracious soul, after much communion with God, may, on the account of sin, by a sense of the guilt of it, be brought into a state and condition wherein some, more, or all of these, with other the like perplexities, may be its portion ; and these make up the depths whereof the psalmist here complains."
At the outset, I want to be clear that I stand firmly against those who teach that legal repentance and reformation is necessary in order for someone to come to Jesus--as if one needed to clean himself or herself up to make oneself acceptable to Christ. However, what Manning taught (from a disputed passage of Scripture, I would add) is not in keeping with the details of the text or the general manner of Christ's saving work in the lives of sinners. After telling the woman caught in adultery, "Neither do I condemn you," Jesus says to her, "Go and sin no more" (John 8:11). Having forgiven this woman of disrepute, Jesus called her to live out a godly life in keeping with the redemption that she had experienced by His grace."I don't think that anyone reading this would have approved of throwing rocks at the poor woman in adultery, but we would have made darn sure she presented a detailed act of contrition and was firm in her purpose of amendment. Because if we let her off without saying she was sorry, wouldn't she be back in adultery before sunset?" (The Ragamuffin Gospel, p. 173).