What Job teaches me about sin

“Sin” is one of those tough words in Christianity. A lot of people outside the faith don’t understand it. Many of them find it off putting. At the same time, many people who claim the name of believer don’t actually know what they mean by the word either.

When I encounter problems like these, I try to stay alert in my Bible reading to clues that might help me see things more clearly. The Book of Job, I find, is a particularly rich resource.

In the course of his self-defense against his friends, Job provides evidence of his innocence. In Job 31, he lists many sins for which he claims to bear no guilt. Here is a quick summary of his list:

  • He does not walk with falsehood or hurry after deceit (31:5)
  • He has not let attractive or alluring or appetizing things control his choices (31:7)
  • He has not lusted after a woman who is not his wife (31:9)
  • He has not denied justice to his servants when they have fair complaints against him (31:13)
  • He has not refused to share his bread, support, or clothing with the poor, the orphan, and the widow (31:16-19)
  • He has not let injustice against the poor occur in court without offering his help (31:21)
  • He has not put his trust in gold (31:24)
  • He has not worshiped the sun or moon (31:26)
  • He has not rejoiced at his enemy’s misfortune (31:29)
  • He has not cursed his enemies (31:30)
  • He has not closed his doors to the traveler or stranger (31:32)
  • He has not hidden from the people who might see whether he has sinned (31:33-34)
  • He has not been unjust to the people who farm on his land (31:39)

This may not be an exhaustive list of sin. But it certainly is long enough to challenge us to examine our own lives.

And most importantly, Job understands that the court of this judgment is not ultimately his own heart or the opinion of his friends, but God: “What will I do when God confronts me? What will I answer when called to account?” (31:14)

God in the Bible has given us some clear teaching about what he expects of us. He has also left us with some teaching that we find more difficult to sort out. In the end, the proper frame of reference the judgment of God. How will we stand before God when called to account?

What Job teaches me about sin

Dead, not sick

Since I was thinking about George Whitefield the other day, I went back and read the sermon John Wesley delivered in 1770 upon Whitefield’s death.

In the sermon, he summarized Whitefield’s fundamental point in all preaching as this:

“Give God all the glory of whatever is good in man;” and “In the business of salvation, set Christ as high and man as low as possible.” With this point, he and his friends at Oxford, the original Methodists, so called, set out. Their grand principle was, There is no power (by nature) and no merit in man. They insisted, all power to think, speak, or act aright, is in and from the Spirit of Christ; and all merit is (not in man, how high soever in grace, but merely) in the blood of Christ. So he and they taught: There is no power in man, till it is given him from above, to do one good work, to speak one good word, or to form one good desire.

If it not clear from the text, Wesley was one of those original Methodists. He is writing and speaking about his own doctrine here as much as Whitefield’s. If we miss this point about Wesley’s doctrine, we misunderstand the nature and power of preventing grace. For Wesley – just as for the Calvinist Whitefield – human beings are devoid of any power or desire to do good. We are fallen utterly, and left to our own devices are rude, selfish, and brutal.

But Wesley always insisted that there is no such thing as a human being totally devoid of grace. In his sermon “On Conscience” he explains that no human being we ever meet is in an entirely graceless state because preventing grace (what we United Methodists call prevenient grace) has been poured out already. We recognize it when we urge each other to listen to our conscience. What we sometimes think of as that universal human intuition about right and wrong is – according to Wesley – God’s grace tutoring us toward holiness.

But – and this cannot be emphasized enough as we read Wesley today – preventing grace is not saving grace. It lures and draws us toward God, but it is not itself grace that will save us. In other words, being a person who is guided by conscience or who is a “good person” by the world’s standards is not a sign of being right with God.

Indeed, in his sermon on Whitefield’s death, Wesley overturns one of the most common ways we like to talk about church, a turn of phrase we use, perhaps, because we want to think that all people are more or less good people and just need some support to live upright and holy lives.

Here is how Wesley put it:

For it is not enough to say all men are sick of sin: No, we all are “dead in trespasses and sins.” It follows that all the children of men are, “by nature, children of wrath.” We are all “guilty before God,” liable to death temporal and eternal.

Church is not a hospital for sinners, Wesley might say, but a slaughterhouse for the old Adam. We are not basically healthy people who just need to be cared for and nurtured back to full health. We are dead people, spiritual corpses, in need of a miracle.

This is the message George Whitefield preached, according to his spiritual friend John Wesley. It is the message John Wesley himself preached, despite our attempts to soften the edges of his doctrine. Is it or will it be the doctrine that we preach?

Dead, not sick

Is Whitefield damned?

George Whitefield, the greatest evangelist in pre-revolutionary America, a man who preached a gospel of repentance and held fast to high standards of biblical morality, celebrated the opportunity to set up a slave plantation to generate revenue to fund an orphan house in Georgia.

In 1740, he warned slave owners about the judgment of God if they abused their slaves and refused to provide adequate Christian nurture for them. He never condemned the institution of slavery itself. In less than a decade, however, he was praising God for the offer by wealthy Charleston converts to support the establishment of a slave plantation in Georgia that would fund an orphanage in Savannah. Georgia at the time prohibited slavery. In his zeal for his great charitable work, Whitefield became a leading figure in the campaign to introduce slavery to the colony.

I am not aware whether John Wesley and Whitefield ever exchanged correspondence on the topic or spoke with each other about it. Our evidence is that Wesley abhorred 18th century slavery and found it incompatible not just with the Bible but with basic human morality. But although Wesley had his differences with Whitefield over Calvinism, I’m not sure if there is any written record of their disagreements over slavery. They may exist. I’m just not aware of them.

As one looking back on Whitefield’s ministry, I wonder how to weigh all of this. I wonder whether his support of slavery has called his salvation into question. Of course, we cannot know. He must stand before his Lord as we all must. But as slavery has had such a profound impact on American history and society, I do find myself wondering whether Christian slave owners or advocates for slavery are bound for hell at the final judgment.

Is it possible that a person could be a racist and owner of chattel slaves and find favor with God? Or are all those men and women like Whitefield damned?

This is not merely a historical question, of course.

Is Whitefield damned?

It made me say ‘whoa’

From John Wesley’s journal August 10, 1788:

I was engaged in a very unpleasing work, the discharge of an old servant. She had been my housekeeper at West-Street for many years, and was one of the best housekeepers I had had there; but her husband was so notorious a drunkard, that I could not keep them in the house any longer. She received her dismission in an excellent spirit, praying God to bless us all.

Of all the things I’ve read in Wesley’s journals and other works, this is one of the hardest ones for me to swallow. To put this woman and her husband out of his house must surely have meant she would soon be near starvation. Her notorious drunkard husband surely would not be caring for her or earning money to buy them food. I infer from the wording that Wesley had tried to avoid taking this step for a time.

This summer, I’ve seen up close in CPE the carnage inflicted on families by drug and alcohol addiction. I’ve seen families forced to say to their sons and daughters that they cannot come home if they can’t get clean. So, I understand this aspect of it.

The short entry in Wesley’s journal reminds me that discipleship in the flesh is often not nearly so sanitary as the intellectual exercises in which bloggers, authors, and scholars so often engage.

It made me say ‘whoa’

I see a broken world

This week, I listened to a presentation that included as one of its main points the argument that the Western tradition has gone terribly wrong because it is too focused on fixing problems. The concern is that this puts an emphasis on seeing people as broken or fallen in need of saving rather than as whole and healthy in need of — well, not much really except encouragement.

As  I listened, I recalled the opening pages of GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.

In my presentation and in much of contemporary theology — so far as I can tell — the fact that human beings are radically out of alignment with God simply does not register. Awareness of this fact — which Chesterton memorably calls the only part of Christian theology that can be empirically proven — is described as a kind of morbid negativity about humanity.

I have a hard time reflecting over the arc of Scripture — Torah, the prophets, the writings, the gospels, the epistles, and revelation — and finding much foothold for the notion that we — when left to ourselves — are well-grounded and responsive to God’s will for our lives.

I have a hard time looking at the world — especially beyond the little bubble of security that we all try to hard to wrap around ourselves — and seeing that people are generally happy, joyful, peaceful, just, merciful, and righteous.

I have a hard time looking in my own heart and seeing the image of Christ stamped there without any blemish or blot.

I’ve been accused of being a gloomy Gus many times in my life, so I’m aware that there may be people with a much more positive theology running around. But I don’t see the world looking much like the Garden of Eden or the New Jerusalem.

The world looks like a place that needs God to me, not just for some encouragement on the way but for rescue, healing, and salvation. God, of course, is at work already. All good comes from God. But the work is not done. The world is broken in need of healing. It is fallen in need of lifting up. It is captive in need of liberation.

This is how it looks to me. If I am wrong, God help me to see rightly.

I see a broken world

Welcome to Corinth?

An online pornography site is taking its advertising public.

This story about the ad campaign — which I can’t figure out how to link to without linking to, but it would not be appropriate for reading in church, so be warned — calls the ads tasteful. This is a new meaning of the word “tasteful” that is unfamiliar to me.

This is the culture that tells the church it needs to loosen up about sex.

Welcome to Corinth?