Why I Believe in the One Great Heresy

Carl Trueman Articles
Why I Believe in the One Great Heresy

In the evangelical churches of today, there are numerous great heresies which one holds at one's social and cultural peril.  If you do not agree with the ordination of women, you are likely to find yourself somewhat marginalized.   Increasingly, if you hold the line on the illegitimacy of gay sex, you will find yourself looking more and more like some right wing nutter.  And, indeed, if you suggest that some people just do not belong in the church, you are likely to be regarded as a Pharisee or a self-righteous prig.

Above all, however, there is the Great Heresy.  This is the belief that some actions have permanent consequences and that gospel forgiveness does not necessarily wipe the slate clean in every sense of the word.   This orthodoxy of total, slate-cleaning forgiveness has a vice-like grip on much of the American psyche such that those who question it are liable to seem to be heretics of almost Servetus-like proportions.  It is, after all, a major part of the story that America likes to tell about itself: it is the land of second chances and, with increasing regularity, the land of third, fourth, fifth chances.  The artifacts of pop culture reinforce this myth, this orthodoxy, again and again: from soap opera plotlines, where characters endlessly rebound unharmed from the most ghastly personal actions, to the fascination with celebrity rehab, through to the parade of adulterous, corrupt, and venal politicians who sleep with a prostitute on Monday, resign on Tuesday, and make an amazing comeback on Thursday, just in time for the weekend, with no real harm done.

In recent years, this new orthodoxy has become rather prominent in the church.  I noticed this when I observed some of the responses to comments I made on Reformation 21 concerning Ted Haggard's new reality TV show.  My point had been that it was really very American to parlay the notoriety of public disgrace and personal betrayal into a television opportunity.  Some of those who read this accused me of taking a swipe at a man when he was down (`down' being an interesting way of looking at a lucrative contract for a TV show) while others thought that I was denying the possibility of rehabilitation.  Did the LORD not restore Peter?   Did he not forgive Paul and make him a champion of the faith?   What of Chuck Colson's post-Watergate prominence?  And even poor old John Piper received a mention: was his failing as a husband such that I would not wish to see him return to public ministry?

There are simple answers to all of these objections.  There is clearly a difference, in the case of Peter and Paul, between sins which they committed before their conversion those they committed after.   Chuck Colson's crimes before becoming a Christian did not disqualify him from future leadership in the church; but (crucially) they did require that he go to prison and, as the saying goes, pay his debt to society.  As to Piper, Paul is very clear in the criteria he lays out for eldership, that he requires of elders certain standards of behaviour, but not sinless perfection, for then nobody would be eligible for office.   We might summarise Paul on this by saying that a man should be a decent father and husband, and of good reputation with those outside the church, e.g., his neighbours and work colleagues.    If John Piper spent a little too much time with his congregation and not enough with his wife, or if, after a hard day at work, I respond to my children in a less than loving fashion, we have sinned; but Paul would not require us immediately to resign our positions.

With the Christian man who has betrayed the marriage bond, however, there is a difference.  That is where I would see the position of an abusive or adulterous husband or pastor (as opposed to one who simply struggles, as surely most men do, with the sins of anger and lust) as being fundamentally different. I might speak disrespectfully to my wife at some point, and that is unacceptable; but if I do it repeatedly as a means of belittling her, or if I strike her with my hand, then a fundamental bond has been broken.   Further, in the case of illicit sex, one who has joined his body to that of another who is not his wife has committed a sin of special heinousness; and that has permanent consequences, both in the marriage and the church.  The sin does not put the person beyond the range of the forgiveness of God, but it disqualifies him from ever again meeting the criteria Paul sets forth for office-bearing in the church. I may be forgiven; but I will always be the man who beat his wife or cheated on her.  My relationship with my wife is permanently changed; and my public reputation is permanently damaged.

That was essentially what underlay my criticism of the sudden reappearance of Haggard as a pastor -- and that not even as Pastor Nobody, quietly working away in Nowhereville, but as Pastor T.V. Celeb of the Parish of Satellite Channel. A simple, non-controversial point, I assumed; though apparently somewhat offensive and unbiblical in the context of a culture where the Great Heresy is to claim that forgiveness does not mean a limitless number of second chances at anything, as if the past had simply never happened.   

Still, I want to suggest that the Great Heresy has more significance than simply ruling out of office certain men because of certain post-conversion actions.  We might hate to acknowledge it, but Christian forgiveness should never be confused with the possibility of second chances.  Forgiveness with God is absolute, and no matter how heinous the crime, God's grace is never withheld from those who look to him for mercy.  Yet actions here on earth always have consequences.  We do people no favours by pretending otherwise.  The gospel is not about how you can beat your wife to a pulp on Tuesday and make love to her on Wednesday as if nothing had happened.  That is teaching of a kind which is so ruthlessly propagated in a myriad of sitcoms and movies.  In these, casual violence and illicit sex never seem to have any real or lasting impact on anybody, as if they were as inconsequential as one's choice of breakfast cereal or brand of coffee.   On the contrary: God may forgive; but we must understand that part of the inherent tragedy of the fallen human condition is that we still live with the consequences of our sin.  

I am not sure what the exact reason for this second-chance orthodoxy is.  Perhaps it is the result of the Disney-style redemptive myths which America likes to tell about itself.  Maybe it is simple pragmatism: if the gospel is true, then it must work, in the sense that it must help to realize the American dream of personal fulfillment.  Or is this too hard on America?  Is it perchance the result of a more general tendency in fallen human nature to sentimentalize the tragedy of our condition?   Whatever the case, it is wrongheaded in the extreme.

It is vital that the gospel is not confused with sentimental second chances.  This is important, both pastorally and theologically.  Pastorally, it should make us compassionate towards those who struggle with the hangover of previous actions.   It allows us to understand why the Christian who lived a homosexual lifestyle before conversion may continue to wrestle with such tendencies till the day he dies.  Grace is not a wiping of the slate in the sense that one return to the start and begins all over again with a blank sheet.  Rather, it is divine forgiveness despite who we have been and what we still are.  That is very good news.  Think of the church in Corinth, a small gathering of people, many of whom had probably worked in the sex trade.  The amazing thing there was not that the church was being torn apart by immorality - that is what one would expect from a group of people wrestling with their past; rather, it was the fact that there was any church there in the first place.

On the other side of the balance sheet, however, this should lead us to have a high view of Christian behaviour.  We must not confuse forgiveness with the idea of the past simply disappearing as if it had never happened.   The gospel is not a magic bullet which continually returns us to Year Zero in every aspect of our lives.  If I beat my wife, I am a wife beater, and there will be consequences.  If, as a Christian, I beat my wife, I am a Christian wife beater and to be subject to the appropriate discipline and exclusions that apply.  Sorry is not a magic formula which wipes the slate clean in every sense, and neither is God's grace. There is a difference between, on the one hand, forgiveness and restoration to fellowship, and, on the other, going back to the way things were.   Some actions so fundamentally change relationships, reputations, and even personalities that there is no going back.  We lie to our people if we tell them otherwise.

Theologically, the insidious sentimentality of the gospel-as-limitless-second-chances brigade is also subversive of a biblical understanding of exactly who God is and what salvation looks like.  Remember: as Christ was hanging from the cross, the Disney redemptionists, the pragmatists, and the sentimental were out in force.  Indeed, the religious leaders, the soldiers, and the first thief all called out to Christ and told him that, if he was truly king and messiah, he should immediately come down from the cross.  They could only conceive of a gospel that simply wiped the slate clean and that ignored the consequences of human actions.  Only the second thief understood the real point of what was happening that day: he saw clearly that Christ's kingdom was not be inaugurated in glorious and stubborn defiance of death, but rather by going through death and utterly subverting its power.  Interestingly enough, he also rebuked his dying colleague, pointing out that, yes, he did deserve to die; that, humanly speaking, there was to be no second chance for him; and that this was only right and just.

So please, let us take seriously Paul's teaching about the need for Christian character, and the sometimes permanent social and ecclesiastical consequences of sinful behaviour among Christians.  We cannot be perfect; but we are to walk in a manner which lends credence to our verbal declaration that Jesus is Lord.  And let us not allow a commitment to a Disneyfied view of the world, to pragmatics, or to sappy sentiment, to blind us to the problems of instant rebounds from sin, the lasting consequences of past behaviour, or the lies which countless soap operas, sitcoms and, yes, even religious reality TV shows, seek to peddle.