Skipping over our sin

“I’m a sinner, but I’m forgiven.”

If you have been around church or been a pastor, you’ve heard these words. You may have even said them.

One of the things I find myself struggling to communicate to people is the importance of not skipping over the first part of the sentence too quickly.

We like to get to the forgiven part quickly. We don’t like to dwell on the sinner part. That, of course, makes perfect sense. Dwelling on our sinfulness is rather unpleasant.

But here is the thing I often encounter in my ministry.

Many Christians struggle because they have not really experienced the good news of the gospel. Oh, they have heard it. They have sung about it. They’ve sat through countless sermons about it, but there is something that has not yet grabbed hold of them.

They are like the pre-Aldersgate John Wesley, who spent his life in admirable Christian service, but had himself not come to know the joy of the gospel. For him, the key moment was when he came to a deep realization that his sin had been forgiven.

In the Bible, Jesus puts the contrast this way. Those who have been forgiven much rejoice much. Those who have been forgiven little, rejoice little.

And our problem so often is that we want to convince ourselves and others that we have little to be forgiven for. We do not really dwell on the ways that we reject God. We do not think on our sins. We do not experience the cold hard truth that we are in dire need of forgiveness. Instead, we rush ahead and grab the warm comfortable mantle of forgiveness and so fail to really know what it means to come out of the cold and into the warmth of the Father’s love.

We skip past our sinfulness like someone running on hot coals. We move so quickly, that we barely need the healing that awaits on the other side.

And so, this is work I continue to seek the wisdom to do better. For I do know this to be true. The tepid relief of “I’m a sinner but forgiven” often provides little comfort when a person is lying in a hospital bed with their heart failing or cancer assailing their body. At the hour of their death, they need the full assurance that only comes from the full gospel.

Lord, help me to learn better how to help the people in my care die a good death.

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What about greed?

I was reading a biography of Catherine de’ Medici today. The book opens with an extended argument that it was in the late 15th century and early 16th century that capitalism and a social order based on competition finally swamped the medieval church’s prohibitions on greed. The author argues that the church was simply and finally pushed along by the currents of social change into accepting a set of values that it had resisted for hundreds of years before that.

I was thinking of that as I was reading this evening from Ephesians 5.

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. (Ephesians 5:3-7, NIV)

In the midst of our current church debates, our eye might first be drawn to the apostle’s concern of sexual immorality, but I want to draw your attention for a few moments to the sin that draws equal condemnation here: greed.

If I asked a hundred clergy, I think I would have a hard time getting much consensus about what the biblical definition of greed might be. I wonder how many of us have preached on this topic or discussed with our members the dangers of this sin. I wonder how many of us could even articulate clearly what we think the sin might be.

In our Methodist tradition, of course, we have some resources to draw upon. John Wesley wrote and preached on “The Dangers of Riches” and “The Use of Money.” In the eighth his 13-part series of sermons on the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, he devotes extended attention to the sin of laying up treasures on Earth. Because this is my blog and I enjoy this particular bit of Wesley’s writing, I am going to share an extended quotation from that sermon:

With regard to most of the commandments of God, whether relating to the heart or life, the Heathens of Africa or America stand much on a level with those that are called Christians. The Christians observe them (a few only being excepted) very near as much as the Heathens. For instance: the generality of the natives of England, commonly called Christians, are as sober and as temperate as the generality of the heathens near the Cape of Good Hope. And so the Dutch or French Christians are as humble and as chaste as the Choctaw or Cherokee Indians. It is not easy to say, when we compare the bulk of the nations in Europe with those in America, whether the superiority lies on the one side or the other. At least the American has not much the advantage. But we cannot affirm this with regard to the command now before us. Here the heathen has far the pre-eminence. He desires and seeks nothing more than plain food to eat and plain raiment to put on. And he seeks this only from day to day. He reserves, he lays up nothing; unless it be as much corn at one season of the year as he will need before that season returns. This command, therefore, the heathens, though they know it not, do constantly and punctually observe. They “lay up for themselves no treasures upon earth;” no stores of purple or fine linen, of gold or silver, which either “moth or rust may corrupt”, or “thieves break through and steal.” But how do the Christians observe what they profess to receive as a command of the most high God? Not at all! Not in any degree; no more than if no such command had ever been given to man. Even the good Christians, as they are accounted by others as well as themselves, pay no manner of regard thereto. It might as well be still hid in its original Greek for any notice they take of it. In what Christian city do you find one man of five hundred who makes the least scruple of laying up just as much treasure as he can? — of increasing his goods just as far as he is able? There are indeed those who would not do this unjustly; there are many who will neither rob nor steal; and some who will not defraud their neighbour; nay, who will not gain either by his ignorance or necessity. But this is quite another point. Even these do not scruple the thing, but the manner of it. They do not scruple the “laying up treasures upon earth,” but the laying them up by dishonesty. They do not start at disobeying Christ, but at a breach of heathen morality. So that even these honest men do no more obey this command than a highwayman or a house-breaker. Nay, they never designed to obey it. From their youth up it never entered into their thoughts. They were bred up by their Christian parents, masters, and friends, without any instruction at all concerning it; unless it were this, — to break it as soon and as much as they could, and to continue breaking it to their lives’ end.

Our bishops have taken up the charge to sort out how we can live in a church where there is widespread disagreement about exactly what is and what is not sexually immoral. We have no need of such a commission on the topic of greed. We seem to not be vexed by that sin at all. I fear, though, that it is because we have ceased to view it as a sin and not because it is no longer a problem among the people called Methodist.

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.