Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Just As I Am...

I am pondering writing a book, and I covet the prayers of any who might read this. I have thought for some time that we in Reformed churches do not understand sin and how to handle it very well at all, and it might deserve a book.

Theologically, we understand sin, and its judicial guilt. What we seem to lack is a sense of sin as a hostage taker --who holds victims in bondage. Thus, when a sinner is caught in any of a small list of sins, we come down on him with both feet, and enact punitive church discipline. We depose from office or suspend from the sacraments.

Both of those things are sometimes necessary. We with-hold the sacraments for the same reason we might excommunicate --as a means of grace in reverse--to show an impenitent sinner what life is like outside the covering of Christ's blood. As Paul said, for the destruction of the body, and the salvation of the soul.

We ought never, therefore, suspend a penitent sinner, or a struggling addict, from the Lord's Supper. He needs that nourishment. We do not come to the Lord's Table to testify that we are without sin, Dordt's Liturgy says, but rather have daily to struggle with the lust of our eyes and the infirmities of our flesh.

But, even in the case of a sinner who initially appears protective of his sin, or, as we might call it, "hard," we ought to work long with him, to see if his heart is indeed hardened. Idolatry is a blinding thing --and it takes supernatural effort for the blind to be brought to sight. Remember the man in Corinth in an incestuous relationship with his step-mother --even he was brought to repentance and restored, with rejoicing.

A church officer becomes entangled in some sin. The first thought we have is the purity of the church: he has lost his fitness for office. I had a friend in another denomination who had a sin issue come to light. It almost cost him his ministry and his marriage. I say almost because the particular denomination he was in determined to rescue him, and restore him. Sounds like Paul in Galatians to me, "If a brother is overtaken in a fault, you who are spiritual should restore him gently, taking great care, lest you too be tempted." There, but for the grace of God, go I, indeed.

In our own denominational context, those who are wounded by Satan in the battle don't fare as well. And I maintain this is because we have too low a view of sin, not because we have too high a view of it, not to mention too low a view of the work of the Spirit, and the healing offered in the cross. We view sin primarily as judicial guilt --the necessary punishment for which is condemnation. But, and especially for the believer, sin is even more a matter of hostile power. The believer who sins, even boldly and repeatedly, is not condemned, but disciplined as a beloved son. Believers who sin cavalierly are denying the Lord who bought them. They are in danger of placing themselves under a yoke of bondage from which Christ has freed them.

Sadly, what begins with a high hand, often becomes a prison from which one longs to escape. If we view sin merely as guilt, then we say, "You made your bed. Now lie in it awhile," or worse, "There is no hope for you." This is doubly disastrous. Disastrous because we give our brother no hope, and disastrous because we have a very light view of our own sin.

The tragedy of this is it keeps sinners from seeking help in the light of day. Sin festers in the darkness. But shame and consequences keep sinners from seeking the very help the church supposedly exists to offer. The level of sin bondage in our churches is mind-numbing. I would encourage a cursory read of Mark Regnerus's fine Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers if you don't believe the bondage out there on just that one sin issue. Pornography and attendant evils remain unaddressed because of the great shame that is heaped upon those who are thus enticed --including, now, a large percentage of evangelical Christian men and boys (and, in alarmingly growing numbers, girls and women).

When sin becomes bondage, we call it addiction, and it has grown deep thorny roots in the heart, roots that do not disappear overnight. Simply telling the addict that he is sinning is Law --it does not contain within it the power of deliverance. Helping him sort out his addiction in the light of Christ, and with the help of the Spirit is gospel, and this is the work to which we are called. I would recommend Neil Plantinga's Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin , particularly the chapter "The Tragedy of Addiction"

And, we can lament and condemn and denounce, but if we do that, we are being more righteous than Christ, who came not for the righteous, but sinners, not the well, but the sick. The sick need healing, the sinner needs forgiveness and restoration. He is already "bruised and broken by the Fall."

The sad thing is that our forebears understood this well. They have a full-blown hamartiology that we have abandoned. One thinks of Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices, or John Owen's On the Mortification of Indwelling Sin.

Augustine, the fountain-head of Reformed Theology after the Apostle Paul, wrote of his own life and death struggle with lust:
I was bound not by an iron imposed by anyone else but by the iron of my own choice. The enemy had a grip on my will and so made a chain for me to hold me a prisoner. The consequence of a distorted will is passion. By servitude to passion, habit is formed, and habit to which there is no resistance becomes necessity. By these links...connected one to another...a harsh bondage held me under restraint.

The Westminster Confession, 5.5, acknowledges the fearsome power of indwelling sin:
5.5 The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave, for a season, His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled;(1) and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends.

But, we ourselves tend to have adopted the shallower view of sin promoted by Holiness and Keswick teachers --defeat of sin is a relatively easy thing, and if one hasn't accomplished it, it is a defect of faith. (Read J.I. Packer's Keep In Step with The Spirit for his own encounters with this destructive teaching as a young Christian man.

The added tragedy is that we have developed a list of sins that are less serious than others. I have written a lot here about sexual sin, because that is the sin that is first on every evangelical's radar. Sexual sin, and its attendants (such as unbiblical divorce) are at the top of our sin pyramid. In fact, I have never seen anyone disciplined for anything other than sexual sin or divorce. Sexual sin is serious --nobody who has become entangled in it would deny that. Because sex is intended to build relationships, its misuse destroys much. Because it is intended to open the heart, the misdirection of sexual desire callouses the heart.

The issue is not that sexual sin isn't serious. The issue is that other sins are equally (and sometimes more) serious. Pride, censoriousness, an unforgiving spirit, intemperance, gluttony, and lack of charity towards others are destructive interpersonal sins. But, for some reason, all of these are tolerated among the Christian populace, and church officers, too, to our own destruction. They aren't serious: not as serious as substance abuse, a gambling problem, an affair, or sex addiction. Those sins are icky, and we don't like to think about them. But, a lot of successful people (even in ministry) are proud, so it's okay.

But, given that sex sins and these others are serious and lethal. What then? Cancer is serious. Do we take a gun and shoot the cancer patient? No, we spend months and hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to save the person while killing his disease. Are we that devoted in love to those with sin diseases in the heart? Or, does it demand too much of us?

Why do we not acknowledge that God is sovereign over serious and spectacular sins, and can make even these redound to his own glory? Can't the hard fought battle with sin put us in a place of usefulness to help others who are where we once were? Is the church missing out because we shoot our wounded, rather than rehabilitating them?

O God, cleanse us from the guilt and power of sin.


  1. Yay! A blog! I could probably do a comment about as long as the blog itself but half of it would probably be wrong and the other half would be short-sighted. :) I think this would make a great book. I'd read it. I have my hands on "Respectable Sins" by Jerry Bridges and am a bit afraid to read it but I know I need to -- because I'm a sinner. Having waded through some pretty huge sin issues myself, I now find myself on the more prideful, judgmental side, and that behavior disgusts me as much as some of the more "obvious" sins -- and I like to THINK it's easier to hide, but I'm fairly certain that it shows. Oh, for the day when we are all perfected...

  2. Satan's device #3-by extenuating and lessening of sin.....
    It is sad to stand with God for a trifle.
    The less the temptation is to sin, the greater is that sin.
    Therefore, when Satan says, it is but a little one, do thou answer, that oftentimes there is the greatest unkindness showed to God's glorious majesty, in the acting of the least folly....
    ~Thomas Brooks
    It has been my experience that just when you think you are above a certain sin and spirtual pride begins to take root in your heart, that God slightly withdraws his irresitable gracious advances and allows a stumble, ever so small, the tiniest of follies. The stumble begins to snowball until at last you look around and feel as young pilgrim, Christian felt in the sloth,"How the hell did I get here?" At that point, I have found myself pleading with God to remove the sin, hating it with all my being and all the while feeling it pulling its chains, the battle is exhausting. But when the Spirit wins and the heart is restored, Augustine is most correct, the humility is deafening. Your soul becomes aware of the definite power of sin and at how unobservable satan's advances can be and how your "spritual" heart is just as prone as any other. Your radar becomes more keen and little offenses start to become big red flags. Though you are humilated to have fallen on such a small account, you become all the more compassionate to those who stumble as well with small accounts. You begin to say they are no better or worse than me, but for the grace of God....where would we all be?