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.

When doctrine matters

I was reading John Wesley’s pamphlet “Predestination Calmly Considered” when I came across the following passage that highlights Wesley’s approach to doctrine.

This is my grand objection to the doctrine of reprobation, or (which is the same) unconditional election. That it is an error, I know; because, if this were true, the whole Scripture must be false. But it is not only for this — because it is an error — that I so earnestly oppose it, but because it is an error of so pernicious consequence to the souls of men; because it directly and naturally tends to hinder the inward work of God in every stage of it.

For Wesley, the biggest concern in doctrine is how it undermines or encourages the impulse toward holiness. Since he considered the saving of souls the highest priority for the church, he responded to doctrinal disagreements through the lens of salvation. If a doctrine clearly threatened the work of God in the souls of people, then he would oppose it more forcefully than a doctrine that was merely at odds with Scripture but not directly harmful to holiness.

To what are clergy vowing faithfulness?

How do you remain faithful to vows when your partner keeps changing?

Ever since I began down this road toward full-time ministry, I’ve wondered how I will navigate the fact that at one point I will be asked to take vows to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the United Methodist Church, and yet that doctrine and discipline can change substantially over time. What is the vow really about? Is it a vow to a specific formulation of doctrine and discipline that was in place when you took the vow? Or is it a vow to remain faithful to a community even when that community changes?

These questions come up when United Methodists talk about sex, but that is not the only topic that raises such issues.

It emerged for me today while reading Bill Arnold’s proposal to revise portions of “Our Theological Task” in the Book of Discipline. Arnold has submitted this proposal for consideration by the Faith and Order Committee at General Conference in 2016. I find his proposal an improvement on our current language and would support it — if I had either a vote or say in any of this (such if the life of a local pastor.)

But as I am reading this proposal, I am also working on the final draft of my commissioning paperwork due in November. One of those questions asks for my interpretation of our theological task as United Methodists. One of the reviewers of my draft documents wrote recently that as long as my answer matches what the Book of Discipline says, I’m good.

So what happens if General Conference changes the text in meaningful ways in May? Or what does this mean for people who were ordained under the pre-1988 text, which I’ve never read but have heard a great deal about. (For those interested, a helpful brief commentary on changes changes in UMC doctrine can be found here, see especially page 2.)

I don’t have any answers to these questions. They are questions I have wondered about since I began writing this blog. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Do we ‘dare to believe’ with Wesley?

The United Methodist Book of Discipline could be more precise in its statements about the place of John Wesley’s sermons in our doctrinal panoply. In ¶103 it explains that the Plan of Union for the UMC understood Wesley’s sermons and notes to be established standards of doctrine for the church. In other places, however, the Discipline appears to treat Wesley as a model or example rather than as a measuring stick for our doctrine.

This is relevant to me because my conversion to Christianity was followed by immersion into the works of Wesley. Early in that process, I was continually struck by how far the United Methodist Church as I knew it strayed from the vision of Christian life and the church as I encountered in the works of Wesley. I found myself asking at times whether John Wesley could even get ordained among us if he were a candidate today. Our responses to him often are often more in keeping with his critics than his co-workers.

These thoughts arose again for me as I was reading John Wesley’s first sermon on the Sermon on the Mount, in which he introduces what will be a 13-sermon series on those three chapters in Matthew and considers the first two beatitudes. In discussing the blessedness that comes from being poor in spirit, tilts into what would later be called revival preaching.

He calls out for sinners to know themselves and wake up to their state.

Know and feel, that thou wert “shapen in wickedness,” and that “in sin did thy mother conceive thee;” and that thou thyself hast been heaping sin upon sin, ever since thou couldst discern good from evil! Sink under the mighty hand of God, as guilty of death eternal; and cast off, renounce, abhor, all imagination of ever being able to help thyself!

To those he calls to wake up, he offers Christ as the cure for their ailments, making no scruple at the mention of being washed in the blood. He then describes in three paragraphs the righteousness, peace, and joy that are offered to us as the inward kingdom of heaven.

Finally, he shifts to an exhortation worthy of any sawdust trail preaching of the century following Wesley’s death.

Thou art on the brink of heaven! Another step, and thou enterest into the kingdom of righteousness, and peace, and joy! Art thou all sin? “Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world!” – all unholy? See thy “Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous!” – Art thou unable to atone for the least of thy sins? “He is the propitiation for” all thy “sins.” Now believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and all thy sins are blotted out! Art thou totally unclean in soul and body? Here is the “fountain for sin and uncleanliness!” “Arise and wash away thy sins!” Stagger no more at the promise through unbelief! Give glory to God! Dare to believe! Now cry out, from the ground of thy heart – “Yes, I yield, I yield at last, Listen to thy speaking blood; Me, with all my sins, I cast On my atoning God.” (This last is a quote from a Charles Wesley hymn.)

So the question I have is this: Are United Methodists called to treat such preaching by Wesley as mere “models of doctrinal exposition” or as standards by which we can judge our own interpretation and preaching of the Bible?

In other words, if what I preach is incongruous with what Wesley preached – or a direct contradiction of it – am I failing to uphold the doctrine of the United Methodist Church? If the answer to that question is “no,” then what place does Wesley’s preaching have among us and why is it mentioned as a standard of doctrine in our Discipline?

Do we have more than ‘my truth’?

The Preamble to the Social Principles in the United Methodist Book of Discipline speaks with some depth about how we should live with our differences within the church.

We acknowledge that, because it is a living body of believers, gathered together by God from many diverse segments of the human community, unanimity of belief, opinion, practice has never been characteristic of the Church from the beginning to this day. … Therefore, whenever significant differences of opinion among faithful Christians occur, some of which continue to divide the church deeply today, neither surprise nor dismay should be allowed to separate the members of the Body from one another; nor should those differences be covered over with false claims of consensus or unanimity.

The preamble goes on to encourage us to embrace conflict with courage and see it as a sign that God is still working with us and shaping us. It concludes with a call to “respectful dialogue” in a spirit of exploration, honor, and truthfulness.

To me, the key word in the passage above is “opinion.”

I wonder what the General Conference means when it refers to matters of opinion, over which we should embrace differences.

In Western philosophical history, the discussion of the difference between knowledge and opinion goes back to Plato or beyond. I’m not capable of explaining the thousands of years of history of thought about the nature of knowledge and opinion, but I think it is fair to say that a key distinction is that it is irrational to embrace or endorse the idea that there can be differences of knowledge. Matters of opinion admit differences, but matters of knowledge do not.

If the word “opinion” is used in this sense, then the preamble to the Social Principles appears to echo the thought of John Wesley, who said that we should allow differences of opinion that do not strike at the core of revealed Christianity.

The flip-side of this, however, is that there are matters of knowledge, which do not permit differences. For instance, Jesus Christ is Lord. To believe this is to have actual knowledge. Whether you or I believe it, however, does change the truth of this statement. To deny this is not merely to have a different opinion. It is to be wrong.

When writing the above paragraph, I had to keep editing myself. What I started to write was “For Christians, Jesus Christ is Lord.” To write it this way, however, is to treat the Lordship of Jesus as a matter of opinion. For Christians, he is Lord. For non-Christians, he is not.

This is why the word “opinion” stands out to me in the preamble of our Social Principles. I want to know what we mean when we speak of differences of opinion. More importantly, I want to know what we think is not a matter of opinion.

In this vein, it is interesting to note the contrast between the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith. The Confession is written as a credo. Each article begins with the words “We believe.” In our contemporary context, these statements of belief are easily read as statements of personal opinion, although is not how Creeds were historically understood by the Church. The Articles, in contrast, perhaps reflecting a greater confidence in the knowledge provided by revelation, do not have such a subjective construction. They are not couched as the things we believe but as the things that are.

Hence, Article I reads:

There is but one living and true God, everlasting without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

I understand that there are very good reasons why we find it hard to talk about knowledge and opinion in the ways that previous centuries did. But I can’t escape the thought that if we are going to go about arguing that differences of opinion should be embraced, it would be good to be clear what we mean by that term.

I suspect that most people today use the word the way nearly everyone does. When we say “opinion” we tend to mean whatever I happen to think or believe. We don’t actually believe in truth so much as “my truth.” And so, if everything is opinion and can never be more than that, then I can see why people feel like the church is wrong to ever establish boundaries of any kind.

If the things we believe, however, are matters about which it is possible to have knowledge — and not just opinions — then it would be irresponsible for the church not to have boundaries.

In the end — and let me apologize for the rambling nature of this post — I find myself wondering why we have Social Principles at all. If they really are just a list of carefully thought out opinions about various social issues, then what purpose is there in putting them in our Book of Discipline? Opinions — in either the classic or contemporary sense — are no basis for unity or uniformity. They are things over which we expect difference.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to found our unity and our discipline on truth?

No need of redemption?

Over at the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy blog — a long title on a blog worthy of attention — you can find a discussion of the meaning and significance of the UM doctrine regarding Jesus Christ.

It is a good post and a helpful summary that makes a point of getting down to the “so what?” questions.

One part of it, though, did get me thinking about some of our trials in the UMC.

Why is it important to believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human? Actually, our very salvation stands or falls on this question. If Jesus were not fully divine, could he redeem us (that is, would he still have the power to redeem us)? If he were not fully human, could he redeem us (that is, could his saving power be applied to us mere mortals)? As nothing less than true God in human flesh, Jesus identifies fully with us and is like us in every way except that he is without sin—precisely in order to save us from our sins.

Reading this, I am reminded that many of our brothers and sisters do not believe we need divine intervention to redeem us. They are not troubled by the problems that require God to be both fully human and fully divine. Whether it is the lingering effect of liberal Protestantism discarding of the supernatural or a latent Pelagianism, lots of people do not really believe in their bones that we are in need of a redeemer. A helper, yes. A role model, sure. An encourager and example, absolutely. But not a redeemer.

Many of us are not people who believe the verb redeem describes anything of which we are in need. Or we believe we are the ones who will do our own redeeming.

This is a fundamental problem. It makes Jesus Christ — as understood in our doctrine — unnecessary.

I’m not sure how to respond to that situation as a pastor. People who are not thirsty never seek out the source of living water, no matter how well it is packaged and sold.