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.

How I learned to talk about goats

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)

For many are invited, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:14)

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)

I found myself using a line in my sermon last Sunday that has been lingering with me. In the midst of my sermon, I said to my two congregations that I did not want them to end up as goats, and from there I reminded them of the teaching of Jesus from Matthew 25:31-46.

I have to confess this: Ten years ago, I would never have taken that kind of sermonic detour. Indeed, had I been in a pew hearing that, I might have bristled at it.

You see, I came to Christ from secular America and through theological liberalism. Talk of the supernatural and eternal judgment of humanity was alien to me — even a bit laughable, perhaps even contemptible.

There is a line in the TV show House that comes to mind. The atheistic Dr. Greg House is talking with another doctor about what happens after death or does not happen. House’s counterpart asks incredulously whether he believes this is all there is, to which House replies: “I find it more comforting to believe that all *this* isn’t simply a test.”

This is the way we often react to talk of the judgment of God, the coming wrath, eternal reward and eternal punishment. We act indignant that God would cheapen the meaning of life by reducing it to a never-ending test to judge our fitness for heaven and hell.

I get all that.

So why the warning to my congregations about sheep and goats?

The short answer to this is that I’ve spent the last 8 years reading John Wesley and the Bible. I’d read none of Wesley and scarcely any of the Bible before I was baptized in 2001. It was nearly pure experience that got me to the baptismal font and very little in the way of Scripture or Tradition. And it was gentle but powerful experiences of the grace of Jesus Christ that deepened my faith before I got my call to ministry several years after my baptism.

Once I sensed that call, I decided I had better start learning about Methodism and the Bible. And it was this study that helped me name my experiences of grace. Before this, I had only some spiritual experiences that, without the language of Christianity, were nearly impossible to articulate. The Bible and Wesley helped me to understand what had happened to me and what was happening in me. And they gave me the framework of belief that helped me see that this day-to-day life is much more than just a weary grind for a few decades before our bones dry out and we pass into forgotten memory. We are called to be children of God. We are called to that now. We are called to it forever.

Is life more than a test? Yes. Of course. But there is a test. And, as a pastor, I grow more convinced that I do the people in my congregations real harm if I shade that reality or hide it from them. The truth is this. We will stand before God. There will be a final exam. The good news is this. Jesus has already shown us the test. We know the questions and the answers. No one has to fail, but many will.

All this talk is crazy to atheists and those who have grown so wise that they find Jesus’ words in need of updating. It used to be crazy talk to me. As a pastor, though, I dare not treat it that way when given the awesome responsibility of teaching and preaching the Word of God to the people who come to hear it. How can I claim to love them if I act as if our purpose in life is to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die?

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.

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.

The Wesleys were better at this

This is not news. John and Charles Wesley were better at this Methodist thing than I am. Here are a few specific things that I appreciate about their ministry.

Purpose drove everything

Early in his ministry — even before his own conversion experience at Aldersgate — John Wesley became convinced that to be a Christian was not a half-way affair. You either were going on to complete holiness of heart and life or your were falling away. And so, his purpose became to find the means to nurture that spiritual growth, first in himself and then in all who would hear his message. Everything Wesley did was animated by this purpose.

How he and his brother organized their movement, how they preached, and even what points of theology they emphasized were all organized around a single, clear-eyed vision of their purpose as ministers of the gospel.

We see this most clearly in the creation of the class meetings and bands. These were not novelties in England. Such small groups had met before and did meet outside of the Methodist movement, but Wesley made them a signature of the movement because he found they were uniquely fitted to the task of fostering holiness. If they had not been so fitted, he would have discarded them. And so it was with every other aspect of the movement. If it did not serve the purpose, it was not necessary. If it did serve the purpose, he would hold on to it come what may.

Multi-media mattered

The Wesleys were multi-media before multi-media was cool. They used every method they could to get their message out. Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns to teach and gird up the theological foundation of the movement. People liked to sing, so he gave them songs. John Wesley took on the practice of field preaching — which he did not relish — because it was the only way to get the gospel to the people. If they will not come to us, the minutes of the Methodist Conference remind us , we must go to them. In addition, Wesley produced a huge array of written materials to support the movement. The Wesleys used every mode of communication they could get their hands on to support the work they were about.

Dodging rocks was part of the job

One of my favorite John Wesley stories comes from an account in one of his journals. He writes about getting ready to preach in an open field one day when he was expecting a mob to show up and try to disrupt things. As he peered around the field, he noticed a large quantity of rocks and dirt clods that would be ideal for throwing, so he move over to a different field where his assailants would have a less amply supply of ammunition. He expected opposition.

For all the success of the Methodist movement, it did not during the life of John and Charles ever grow to be more than a tiny fraction of the population of England or Ireland and barely gained any foothold at all in Scotland. Not everyone would hear it and not everyone would receive it. The Wesleys and other leaders of the movement did not obsess over the ones who rejected their message. They set about, instead, doing everything they could to make connection with those who would receive it. They believed it was a message for all people, but they did not despair that many would oppose it.

These are just some of the ways John and Charles challenge and inspire me when I think of the state of our denomination. What about you?

Encouraging cross bearing

I’ve been thinking about the necessity of cross bearing the last few days.

As I often do when pondering such things, I’ve been reading John Wesley. Here is his word on the topic from his sermon “Self-Denial.”

The denying ourselves and the taking up our cross, in the full extent of the expression, is not a thing of small concern: It is not expedient only, as are some of the circumstantials of religion; but it is absolutely, indispensably necessary, either to our becoming or continuing his disciples. It is absolutely necessary, in the very nature of the thing, to our coming after Him and following Him; insomuch that, as far as we do not practise it, we are not his disciples. If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of Him, but of other masters. If we do not take up our cross daily, we do not come after Him, but after the world, or the prince of the world, or our own fleshly mind. If we are not walking in the way of the cross, we are not following Him; we are not treading in his steps; but going back from, or at least wide of, Him.

I’ve been thinking about these words and thinking about being a pastor.

When someone comes to me as a pastor and shares a word about how hard it is to follow Jesus, to really follow, do I lose faith in the virtues of cross bearing? Often, I fear, I do. I am good at extending a word of consolation and solidarity. Yes, yes, that is difficult. I struggle with that, too.

But what I fail to say is that, yes, God is calling you and me to do this very thing we find so hard. It is in taking those steps that we discover that we have faith. God will give you grace to bear this burden. Trust him.

I fear my failure in this area is a sign of my own need for spiritual growth. I cannot encourage a practice that I avoid.