Monday, February 21, 2011

All sins are not created equal

Growing up in American evangelicalism I know a thing or two about sentimentality. Statements like, "God loves everyone the same" and "God's love is unconditional" are just a part of the landscape. Another one of those phrases was something along the lines of "All sins are equal" or "No sin is worse than any other." In one respect that is true enough I suppose. After all, our sins are all a product of the corruption and deceitfulness of our hearts. Our sins without exception are expressions of the sinfulness which condemns us before a holy God.

However, there is a sense in which all sins are clearly not equal. And by "not equal" I mean that not all sins are as readily forgivable within the body of Christ. Forgiveness does not mean, nor should it mean immediate or easy restoration. For example, ask the average wife which of her husband's sins would be easier to forgive: harboring lust in his heart once or committing adultery once. I dare say the results would be overwhelmingly one-sided.

Carl Trueman, in a helpful article for Ref21 suggests that to deny sentimental ideas about forgiveness and restoration remain the one great heresy in the evangelical church.

Trueman writes:

I might speak disrespectfully to my wife at some point, and that is unacceptable; but if I do it repeatedly as a means of belittling her, or if I strike her with my hand, then a fundamental bond has been broken. Further, in the case of illicit sex, one who has joined his body to that of another who is not his wife has committed a sin of special heinousness; and that has permanent consequences, both in the marriage and the church. The sin does not put the person beyond the range of the forgiveness of God, but it disqualifies him from ever again meeting the criteria Paul sets forth for office-bearing in the church. I may be forgiven; but I will always be the man who beat his wife or cheated on her. My relationship with my wife is permanently changed; and my public reputation is permanently damaged.

That was essentially what underlay my criticism of the sudden reappearance of Haggard as a pastor -- and that not even as Pastor Nobody, quietly working away in Nowhereville, but as Pastor T.V. Celeb of the Parish of Satellite Channel. A simple, non-controversial point, I assumed; though apparently somewhat offensive and unbiblical in the context of a culture where the Great Heresy is to claim that forgiveness does not mean a limitless number of second chances at anything, as if the past had simply never happened.

Still, I want to suggest that the Great Heresy has more significance than simply ruling out of office certain men because of certain post-conversion actions. We might hate to acknowledge it, but Christian forgiveness should never be confused with the possibility of second chances. Forgiveness with God is absolute, and no matter how heinous the crime, God's grace is never withheld from those who look to him for mercy. Yet actions here on earth always have consequences. We do people no favours by pretending otherwise. The gospel is not about how you can beat your wife to a pulp on Tuesday and make love to her on Wednesday as if nothing had happened. That is teaching of a kind which is so ruthlessly propagated in a myriad of sitcoms and movies. In these, casual violence and illicit sex never seem to have any real or lasting impact on anybody, as if they were as inconsequential as one's choice of breakfast cereal or brand of coffee. On the contrary: God may forgive; but we must understand that part of the inherent tragedy of the fallen human condition is that we still live with the consequences of our sin.
Trueman also points out the important pastoral and theological implications of a proper understanding of sin and forgiveness.

It is vital that the gospel is not confused with sentimental second chances. This is important, both pastorally and theologically. Pastorally, it should make us compassionate towards those who struggle with the hangover of previous actions. It allows us to understand why the Christian who lived a homosexual lifestyle before conversion may continue to wrestle with such tendencies till the day he dies. Grace is not a wiping of the slate in the sense that one return to the start and begins all over again with a blank sheet. Rather, it is divine forgiveness despite who we have been and what we still are. That is very good news. Think of the church in Corinth, a small gathering of people, many of whom had probably worked in the sex trade. The amazing thing there was not that the church was being torn apart by immorality - that is what one would expect from a group of people wrestling with their past; rather, it was the fact that there was any church there in the first place.

On the other side of the balance sheet, however, this should lead us to have a high view of Christian behaviour. We must not confuse forgiveness with the idea of the past simply disappearing as if it had never happened. The gospel is not a magic bullet which continually returns us to Year Zero in every aspect of our lives. If I beat my wife, I am a wife beater, and there will be consequences. If, as a Christian, I beat my wife, I am a Christian wife beater and to be subject to the appropriate discipline and exclusions that apply. Sorry is not a magic formula which wipes the slate clean in every sense, and neither is God's grace. There is a difference between, on the one hand, forgiveness and restoration to fellowship, and, on the other, going back to the way things were. Some actions so fundamentally change relationships, reputations, and even personalities that there is no going back. We lie to our people if we tell them otherwise.

Theologically, the insidious sentimentality of the gospel-as-limitless-second-chances brigade is also subversive of a biblical understanding of exactly who God is and what salvation looks like. Remember: as Christ was hanging from the cross, the Disney redemptionists, the pragmatists, and the sentimental were out in force. Indeed, the religious leaders, the soldiers, and the first thief all called out to Christ and told him that, if he was truly king and messiah, he should immediately come down from the cross. They could only conceive of a gospel that simply wiped the slate clean and that ignored the consequences of human actions. Only the second thief understood the real point of what was happening that day: he saw clearly that Christ's kingdom was not be inaugurated in glorious and stubborn defiance of death, but rather by going through death and utterly subverting its power. Interestingly enough, he also rebuked his dying colleague, pointing out that, yes, he did deserve to die; that, humanly speaking, there was to be no second chance for him; and that this was only right and just. [emphasis mine]
Read the entire article HERE.

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