Saturday, February 18, 2012

How Bad Can a Christian Be?

How Messed Up Can You Be?

A colleague in campus ministry and I were talking about one of my students. This student experienced some pretty significant moral failures and had an ongoing struggle with Christian living, but as a professing believer who continued to be involved in our campus group. As we talked about how to deal with her, I expressed my operating principle with which my friend agreed: “I guess I think you can be more messed up and still be a Christian than some of our friends think.” Did then. Have since. Do now. In congregations. In Presbyteries.

It seems that the church, leaders and members, can deal pretty well with most sins if they occurred in the past, especially before a person professes faith. But the church has trouble dealing with the person who, after profession of faith, has ongoing struggles with sin and experiences multiple moral failures. What this means is that the church has a hard time dealing with a not inconsiderable percentage of its members, some of whose sins are exposed and some of whose sins remain unexposed, partly for fear of the response. In my view this hinders the church from confronting sin and helping faltering Christians and weak Christians from transparency, confession, and opening themselves to help.

The church’s understandable difficulty in dealing part of its membership does raise questions because the realities that confront us in the Bible’s narratives of people who are undoubted believers. Of course, David is always Exhibit A. We think immediately of his adultery with Bathsheba and all the sins that followed. The sin with Bathsheba by this man who was after God’s own heart, grievous as it was, was not a one-time mess-up on David’s part. His sin with Bathsheba was not his only sexual sin, nor were sexual sins his only “big” sins.

Think, too, of Abraham, God’s friend and the father of the faithful. He did not leave the idolatry of his father’s house and then live the consistently exemplary life of faith. He seems to have been an inconsistent leader of his family, perhaps especially in relationship to his wife, and an inconsistent truth teller. While he could demonstrate great courage, as he did when he rescued Lot, he could show not a little cowardice, at least twice lying about his wife and risking her chastity to save his own skin. At the end of his life we find that he had a number of children besides Isaac and Ishmael by a secondary wife with whom he quite possibly had a relationship while Sarah lived. And what are we to make of Sarah, the mother of the faithful and the example of wifely submission? We, could, as the writer of Hebrews might say, go on to speak of Noah, Moses, and more.

But, I will speak of one more – Lot. Lot was surely a “worldly believer” who lived much of the time by sight rather than faith, who was willing to subject his daughters to horrible abuse, who had to be compelled to leave Sodom to avoid its judgment. Then there is his drunkenness and incest. But, he was a believer, a miserable one, but a believer nevertheless. How would we in the most charitable judgment find him to be a believer, if Peter did not tell us he was a “righteous man”? (2 Peter 2: 7 – 10). We are confronted with the reality that a man like Lot was a man of true faith.

We could say, with some justification, that these incidents are from the Old Testament before Christ came and Pentecost occurred and that more is both expected and possible for New Testament believers. I agree. But, I believe there is another factor, too. It is that the Old Testament gives us much more narrative of the lives of its believers than does the New. We know very little of the non-ministry lives of New Testament heroes.

We know that Peter’s denial of our Lord was not his first or only failure as a follower of our Lord. Nor was it his last public failure as a minister. Even after the resurrection, his restoration, and Pentecost, and he failed miserably in Galatia, as a church leader. Yet, while rebuked by Paul, Peter continued as an elder and apostle, gave us two apostolic letters, and through Mark (another mess-up) gave us a Gospel.

While we know only a few things about the lives of New Testament leaders, we know a whole lot about the lives of New Testament New Testament Christians who made up the apostolic congregations. Take a look at Corinth or Thessalonica and note the instruction, correction, and rebuke having to do with the some of the most basic matters of Christian doctrine and of Christian ethics and morality. Yet they are “sanctified in Christ Jesus”, “beloved by the Lord”, those whom “God chose.”

Is the goal of all this to lower standards? To allow us “to continue in sin that grace may abound”? No, no more that Paul was when he insisted on justification by faith alone whole apart from human works or merit. “By no means!”

It a rather an exhortation to realism, charity, and forbearance. To be more ready to restore than to condemn. To hang with rather than give up on.  Jesus seeks sinners. He not only seeks but accepts sinners. He not only accepts them; he keeps them. He not only keeps them; he uses them. Perhaps the church could learn from him.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Someone shared this with me ... As believers our mentality should not be,at least we are all here in the same boat. The point is that we are a sorry lot redeemed by a Saviour who will not tolerate sin or presumtion of sin. Otherwise we just compare the severity of sin and shake our heads that we could do such things.
The Lord gave us the example of these sinners in the BIble to show us that we are all sinners but that there is redemption through Christ and to use them as examples for us to live by.
Yes we should be ready to restore rather than condemn, but restoration does not mean lack of consequences or the sin is not so bad because people in the Bible sinned too.

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

I have a little trouble following you Anonymous 2. Maybe you could state your point or points a little more clearly for me. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

So after we believe that Christ suffered for our sins on the cross, and God raised Him and he's alive, then we mess up and sin. Then we look at the cross and know that sin's forgiven. Our sins forvien hallelujah! We don't want to sin again. Oops. We sin again doing the same sin. Again and again and again. There's the cross; still in the same place. The death he died once and for all to sin. My sins are still forgiven. God still loves me because of Jesus' righteousness that covers me. So, when I'm 80 and made a whole lot of sinful mistakes - some huge ones, God still loves me like he did that first day I believed and trusted he took my sins on himself and suffered for me. I am no less loved or forgiven even if it's fifty years after the day I initially am brought into a saving knowledge of Christ's death and resurrection for me. Pretty cool. Pretty great! Praise God!

Anonymous said...

This topic is one of my primary concerns because I believe that Jesus' teachings on forgiveness have been perverted to serve sinners. Jesus said to the prostitute,"I do not condem you. GO AND SIN NO MORE." When a sin is forgiven repeatedly because the sinner simply repeatedly asks for forgiveness, we no longer have a moral system; this is a perversion of Christ's teaching. The sinner is free to continue sinning as long as he asks for forgiveness, whether s(he) means it or not. We can not judge a man's inner heart; only God can do that. We can judge a man by his actions. When those actions do not match what he says or professes, then we need to stand up for the moral code that God gave us. Otherwise, we are creating a system that rewards evil: no atonement is necessary. Christ called the sinners and the rejects of society to Him so that they could change their lives—not so that they could could continue their evil ways. Would you raise your child allowing him to steal money from the collection plate every Sunday as long as he asked for forgiveness everytime he did it OR would you at some point say, "Johnny, you are going to have to mow lawns until you have paid back all the money you stole from the collection plate plus interest. Many conservative Christians would say as long as you ask for forgiveness your sins are washed away—e.g. Gingrich has asked for forgiveness, so it's okay that he cheated on his first two wives and is now on his third. [Gingrich was actually condemning Clinton's infidelity while he (Gingrich) was having an affair during his second marriage.] Conservative Christians think you have to forgive Ginrich because he has asked for forgiveness. This "forgive no matter what" attitude helps explain why our society is so corrupt today. Political and religious leaders can do anything over and over as long as they ask for forgiveness. For a partial and shocking list of evangelical preachers in jail go to: :

Christian In The Minority said...

We need to be patient with people and encourage those who are struggling but we also need to remember that "No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God (1Jn 3:9)." We must be careful because we do not do anyone any favors by encouraging them to believe that they can be living in sin and still considered born again at the same time...Just some food for thought.

Anonymous said...

Ye who are without sin . . .