Do Christians sin?

Do Christians sin?

If we know any Christians at all, the answer appears obvious. We all know Christians who sin. If we are honest, we can name times in which we have sinned despite our professed allegiance and obedience to our Lord and Savior. In light of our own experiences, therefore, we are led to conclude that, yes, all Christians sin and this cannot be avoided. We may even recall the words of 1 John 8:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (NRSV)

So it appears we have experience confirmed by Scripture to support this doctrine. Of course, Christians sin.

Or do they?

We who walk in the way of Christ in companionship with John Wesley have a different answer, radically different.

The first distinction we need to draw is between those who bear the name of Christian and those who are truly born of God. As it happens, anyone may declare themselves a Christian. So the mere fact that someone who claims to be a Christian commits a sin does not really settle the question. To be a Christian means we have been born again — or in the language of 1 John been “born of God.” This is a teaching so fundamental to Wesleyan doctrine that I cannot imagine how we could deny it and still claim any connection to Wesley or the tradition that he inhabits.

To be a Christian in the full sense, then, means to be born of God. And those who are born of God, do not sin.

Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. (1 John 3:9, NRSV)

We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them. (1 John 5:18, NRSV)

This is one of those cases where the translation you read matters. In the NIV and several other translations the key phrases are rendered in English as “do not continue to sin” rather than “do not sin.”* This gets into an argument over the sense and meaning of a single Greek word, an argument I am not qualified to enter into. But I have read enough on this to be persuaded that Wesley’s reading certainly has merit on scriptural grounds: Those who are truly born of God cannot sin and do not sin.

But, we might object, we know of people who were not merely nominal Christians but truly born of God and who subsequently sinned. Doesn’t this make the reading advanced here contradict our experience?

Here is the Wesleyan reply: It does not pose a contradiction because we hold that a person born of God can, by neglecting to worship, pray, study Scripture, and practice other spiritual disciplines, fall back into their old life. They can — in the spiritual sense — pass from life to death and give way again to sin. Properly speaking, when we do this, we have ceased to be born of God and have enlisted again in the family of the devil.

This teaching, of course, runs against the Reformed tradition’s doctrine of perseverance of the saints. Exploring that theological disagreement, however, is a topic for another day.

Another objection to the Wesleyan teaching that Christians do not sin might be that we will never be free from the kinds of ignorance and weakness that lead us to hurt each other and violate the will of God. We are imperfect people, we say, and so can never expect to live without making mistakes. Therefore, Christians will sin, if only by accident.

Wesley’s answer to this runs like this: “A mistake is not a sin.” Wesley taught repeatedly that sin — an inward or outward action that tends to our condemnation — is a voluntary breaking of a known law or command of God. Acts we commit in ignorance or by accident may violate the law of God, but they do not threaten our salvation. This is also a doctrine that leads to argument, but it is thoroughly Wesleyan and consistent with the wider body of his preaching and teaching.

So how, then, do Wesleyan Christians answer the question whether Christians can sin?

We say that they cannot. So long as one born of God “guards himself or herself” they cannot sin, but if we do not maintain our connection to Christ, if we stop seeking him, we will find ourselves cut off from the grace that allows us to trample down sin and temptation. We will fall away. We will sin.

So Christians do not sin, but we may find ourselves sinning even if we have at one time been a true follower of Christ. The good news is this:

If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9, NRSV)

If you have read this far, you may be wondering why anyone would spend so much energy trying to work all this out — especially in the face of so much disagreement among Christian communions.

I can only answer for myself.

First, it matters because sin matters. Whether or not you agree with Wesleyan teaching about the nature of sin, you should care about the questions raised here. Sin destroys our life and — the same thing — separates us from God. If we care about that at all, then we need to understand the nature of our affliction.

Second, it matters because it matters to people I pastor. Questions about sin come up all the time even in the small churches that I serve. As one who will one day — God willing — take a vow to teach and preach the doctrine of the United Methodist Church, I am compelled to understand those doctrines and find a way to explain them.

Finally, it matters because I am a pastor. If my charge is to shepherd people toward and into the kingdom of God, then I need to understand what threatens and hinders people’s progress toward that goal. I can’t help people avoid pitfalls and dangers that I cannot see myself. Having a doctrine of sin is for the spiritual shepherd as important as having a knowledge of the diseases and dangers that afflict sheep is for the herder of sheep.

If you want to read more about Wesley’s teaching, I’d suggest the following sermons:

The Great Privilege of Those that Are Born of God

On Sin in Believers

The Repentance of Believers

*This is one place where the Common English Bible reflects a Wesleyan translation. Some of the CEB’s translation decisions in other places obscure Wesleyan doctrinal emphases, but 1 John is one place where the CEB can be read by Wesleyans without having to reinterpret the English.

The divorced pastor

I’m a pastor, and I’m divorced.

As I’ve learned in the last year of separation and finally divorce, there are a lot of pastors who know what this feels like or are struggling to avoid joining the ranks of the divorced clergy. What there is not as much of is open talk about it. No one likes to talk about their marriage and family falling apart. Pastors, I’ve been learning, have to deal not only with the shame and pain that are common to everyone in such situations, but also a special kind of fear — fear that they will lose their vocation, fear that they will be seen as frauds, fear that they will lose the ability to preach or teach without being accused of hypocrisy. And so there is silence.

I’ve not learned all there is to learn about these things, and I’m not anywhere near perfect, but I wanted to share some of my perspective on this and perhaps a few words for my brothers and sisters in the clergy who have walked or are walking this road.

First, I want to say that I believe that God’s intention for marriage is that it last until death. In other words, I don’t think God intends us to divorce or desires that we divorce. This is the point of those words in Genesis 2 that are part of most Christian wedding services: the two become one flesh. But Genesis 3 happened and happens. We are fallen, sinful, and damaged creatures. When we get married, we do not plan on divorcing. God does wish for marriages to end in divorce. But we hurt and betray each other. Marriages fail, bonds break, and people divorce. We separate what God has brought together. Sometimes for the safety and health of one or both of the people in the marriage, divorce is necessary, but it is never a cause for celebration. It is a failure.

With that in mind, here are a few words for my brothers and sisters.

Jesus still loves you. I find as a pastor that I am no less prone to bad thinking than others. I fall easily into thinking that Jesus only loves me when I am living up to the right standard and carrying out my vocation with excellence. I confuse praise from people with the approval of God. And so, in the midst of a public and personal failure, it is easy to feel like we are beyond the pale. Jesus Christ came for the sick not the healthy. He loves you even when it your feel like you’ve betrayed him and failed. He loves you especially at those times.

It is okay to struggle to hold on. You made a vow to remain married until parted by death. You did not know when you made that vow what it would require. None of us do. It is okay that you want to hang on and hope for a way forward. You may have people around you encouraging you give up and get out. It is okay to look for those who help you and challenge you to hope and struggle for reconciliation.

It is sometimes necessary to let go. There may come a moment when you have to come face-to-face with a hard truth. Your marriage has failed beyond repair. It is dead. Legal fiction makes it appear to still live, the same way machines can keep a dead body alive in a hospital. The only thing keeping it breathing is the plug that no one has the courage to pull. Yes, with God all things are possible, but sometimes resurrection only comes after death. We want to hold on so hard to hope — and fear so much what will happen if we let go — that we become trapped in a never-ending limbo or deepening cycle of destruction. Unless a thing dies, new life cannot come. Grieve it. Mourn it. Let go what you cannot save.

Fear is normal. Divorce shatters us. It breaks apart our families. It makes us question our own judgment and choices. It strips away a central part of our very identity. It exposes our flaws and sins. And if we are clergy, it raises the possibility that we might lose our calling. When the pain and dysfunction and sin that has remained hidden in our family and in ourselves becomes known by others, there is always the chance someone will look at us and decide we do not meet the standards for pastoral ministry. The prospect that might end up with no spouse, no family, no calling, no job, and no place to live scares us. What you are feeling is normal.

You need someone to talk to. Find a therapist. Go. Keep going.

You need God. Spend time in prayer, with Scripture, and alone with God. There may be some yelling involved. There will be some crying. You’ll have to confess some things. You will discover how much you are willing to trust God’s promises.

This should change you. If you repair your marriage, it will be because you both have changed. If you divorce, you will be different. In either case, don’t go through this without learning and growing. God can use all things to bring about good. The good for you may be discovering some hard truths about yourself and growing from that knowledge.

There is grace even here. The most curious thing about my last year has been the number of people who have shared with me their stories of divorce. These are people who never would have talked to me about this topic before I was one going through this. I won’t lie. Those moments do not help much in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep and your heart feels like it has fed through a trash compactor. But God is with you, working to bring healing and life out of our sin and death. Be open and on the watch for signs of God’s grace.

I don’t pretend this is everything there is to say about divorce. I have much more to learn, and I pray God will give me the time I need to learn it all. But I hope some of these words are helpful to some. We have become travelling companions on a road none of us originally intended to walk. Perhaps we can help each along the way.

The practical problem of evil

Apparently it never occurred to the early Christians to question their belief in God or even God’s goodness because they were unjustly suffering for their beliefs. Rather, their faith gave them direction in the face of persecution and general misfortune. Suffering was not a metaphysical problem needing a solution but a practical challenge requiring a response.

— Stanley Hauerwas, Naming the Silences

Stealing the bishop’s silver

From the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren, one of the doctrinal standards for the United Methodist Church:

We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil. Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.

I’m not sure why this has come home so strongly in the last week. Maybe it has to do with some things in my personal life. Maybe it has to do with this book I’ve been reading about spirituality of the unchurched.

The thought that has lodged in my brain is how poorly suited Christianity is for America. At the very heart of Christianity is the belief that we — all of us — have gone wrong. We are slaves to sin and death. And we will never be free but for the grace of God.

This does not sound like an American story to me.

In our version of the story, Jean Valjean not only steals the bishop’s silver, but he goes on to success and glory based on his own determination and will to win. He writes a series of best-selling books on seizing the moment and cheers for the New England Patriots.

What we fail to understand is that our lives are not ours. They are a gift from God. Not a single one of us has any right to be alive or expect to draw another breath. That we live at all is because God is good and generous to us. Only if we understand that, can we see our own arrogance when we speak about what we deserve and what we have earned. We’ve grabbed the silver off the bishop’s table and convinced ourselves that it was ours all along. We gobble down the apples of Eden and throw the cores at Yahweh’s feet.

But despite our arrogance and greed, there is grace. God loves us. God forgives us. God gives us life. Praise be to God.

I’m not sure how to write these things or preach these things in ways that will be heard, really heard. I know that what I’ve written here is so much gobbledy-gook to those who have no ears to hear it. I’m not sure how to make it otherwise, but the question has been with me this week.

More on sin

Here is how John Wesley consistently defined sin:

By sin, I here understand outward sin, according to the plain, common acceptation of the word; an actual, voluntary transgression of the law; of the revealed, written law of God; of any commandment of God, acknowledged to be such at the time that it is transgressed. (“The Great Privilege of Those that are Born of God“)

The criticism I’ve heard of this definition is that it does not take account of unintentional or accidental sins. Wesley’s response to such questions was that those things might be considered wrongs we commit, but not properly sin. They do not damage our relationship with God.

The complication here is that the Old Testament clearly describes sacrifices for unknown sins. In the first covenant, there is such a thing as a sin committed in ignorance of the law. If such at thing is possible, then why would those no longer be considered sins under the covenant of Christ?

My thinking — and I do not pretend to be a brilliant thinker here — has to do with the once-for-all sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ. In other words, on the cross Jesus covered by his blood all sins of ignorance and accident. Such things are still sins in the sense that they are actions that void the law of God, but they are not sins in that they have already been atoned for and without our conscious participation in them do not represent a deliberate turning away from God, for which we would need to repent. Under the new covenant, such sins of ignorance have been paid for in advance and therefore do not damage our relationship with God. Of course, all our actual sins have been paid for as well, but since these involve a deliberate act of will, we must engage in an act of will to redeem the promise already made. We must repent and seek forgiveness to mend the rupture in our relationship with God.

That is not as elegant as I would like, but it is my attempt to be faithful to the biblical witness.

What do you think? What have your read or heard that helps you work through such questions?


Pray like Christians, live like heathens

Should Christians live differently than non-Christians?

Even in my limited role as a part-time local pastor, I come across this question quite often. The question is not about whether Christians should be drug dealers or murderers but whether they should be typical Americans. Should our lives, interests, entertainments, and ambitions look pretty much like everyone else’s or should following Christ change more about our lives than what we do on Sunday morning? The most frequent way I hear this question emerge is in the unsettled voices of members of the church who wonder if it is — after all — a problem to love expensive luxuries or whether God will pardon them for lavish vacations or days spent in idleness while other humans live in misery and constant suffering.

These are not new questions. William Law wrote an influential book in the 18th century that gives a decisive answer. Here is a representative excerpt:

You may see them different from other people, so far as times and places of prayer, but generally like the rest of the world in all the other parts of their lives: that is, adding Christian devotion to a Heathen life. … they who add devotion to such a life, must be said to pray as Christians, but live as Heathens.

Law was hugely influential on the young John Wesley, whose sermon “The Almost Christian” makes the very distinction Law does between living according to the general morality of the world and practicing real Christianity. And so, these pastoral questions also raise questions about our very notion of what it means to be a Christian in the United Methodist tradition.

In the days of Law and Wesley, critics found their approach to border on lunacy. It was too much to expect men and women to forgo the pleasures of this world simply because their fellow creatures suffered. The idea of such a “serious” approach to life seemed to them to be morbid and joyless. Isn’t it okay for a man to gamble a bit on Friday night and buy a sports car in his forties so long as he shows up for church on Sunday and puts his check in the offering plate?

As a pastor, the great temptation is to soothe the worry behind such questions. “Of course, God wants you to enjoy your life. Just try to be good and do good most of the time. It is okay.”

Law argues that such answers and questions miss the entire point. What we need, he writes, is to reframe our whole point of view. The question is not what God will pardon or forgive, but what will God honor. The Christian seeks to please God in all aspects of life, and so the questions that we often ask are turned on their heads.

He does not ask what is allowable and pardonable, but what is commendable and praiseworthy. He does not ask whether God will forgive the folly of our lives, the madness of our pleasures, the vanity of our expenses, the richness of our equipage, and the careless consumption of our time; but he asks whether God is pleased with these things, or whether they are appointed for the gaining of His favour? He does not inquire, whether it be pardonable to hoard up money, to adorn ourselves with diamonds, and to gild our chariots, whilst the widow and the orphan, the sick and the prisoner, want to be relieved; but he asks, whether God has required these things at our hands, whether we shall be called to account at the last day for the neglect of them; because it is not his intent to live in such ways as, for aught we know, God may perhaps pardon; but to be diligent in such ways, as we know that God will infallibly reward.

The question that Law poses strikes hard: Do we intend to please God?

The question exposes for me the misguided mindset with which we often approach our faith. We often view religion as another product or service that we buy. Here is a little dose of relief from anxiety about death. Here is a lovely gathering to celebrate a wedding. Here is some uplifting music and a pretty little talk by a pastor on Sunday morning. We want these things, but we want them with as little cost as possible. God is a merchant peddling some wares and we want to strike as good a deal as we can for what he offers.

Law — and Wesley after him — argue that this attitude not only misses the point but falls outside the bounds of actual Christianity. It is heathenism dressed up for Sunday morning.

Honor God in all things, they would say. Seek first the kingdom. Or they might quote our Lord and Savior:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Stanley Hauerwas has argued that the mark of becoming a Christian is to be able to hear the Bible read and not react with anger or defensiveness or evasion. In our day as in Law’s, we are much in need of God’s grace if we would become not just praying heathens but altogether Christians.