Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Why Evangelical Christians Can't Confess Sin

In the midst of all of the pontification from Left and Right regarding Ted Haggard, Scot McKnight as usual cuts directly to the heart of the real issue: Evangelical Christianity creates a situation in which it is virtually impossible for believers to confess sin.

Of course, we believe in confession, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration. That's the bait we present to unbelievers: come to Jesus and He will save you from your sins. He will rescue you, restore you, change you, and forgive you. And we really believe it. We love to see someone come to newfound faith in Christ, to fall upon the mercy of God. We don't expect them to be perfect; it's because they're not perfect that they need a Savior. We needed a Savior too; we understand; it's okay. Each of us comes to the Lord Just As I Am. The Amazing Grace the Lord offers us is there "to save a wretch like me." We're all in the same boat. Not one of us could stand before God on our own merits; it's only by the sacrifice Jesus made for us that we can be reconciled to God.

And then, the newfound believer begins his Christian walk.

And at first, we expect missteps. They're new in the faith; we don't want to be harsh toward a baby Christian. Stay with us, get discipled, learn what this Christian life is all about. You got questions; we got answers. Still struggling in some areas? Let's pray. You seem confused on this issue; let me show you what the Bible has to say on it. And the new believer really is changing; old things really are passing away; everything really is becoming new. It's a wonderful experience.

I'd say, on average, a new believer is given about six months to get his act together.

And then, you know, you really should be beyond that struggle. We've talked about this several times; you know what the Word says. God gives you the power to overcome; you just need to give it all to Him. It's time to get past the milk and get on to the meat, you know. Do you think Jesus would be pleased with that?

And the wierd thing is that unless we're Wesleyan perfectionists (which hardly anyone is anymore--even Wesley held it as a theoretical and didn't claim it for himself), we all believe that sanctification is an ongoing process in each one of our lives and that we will not be totally perfected in this lifetime. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't be growing or changing, or that we shouldn't find victory over sinful patterns, but it does mean that we will have issues that God is dealing with--which is to say, issues of sin, throughout our lives. And depending on the person, they just might not be the kinds of safe, innocuous sins that nobody really worries about.

And this includes leaders.

I've heard the quote from James a thousand times: "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly" (3:1). Which, of course, means that if you're going to presume to teach others, you darn well better have your act together. Right? Interesting, then, that James follows it up with, "We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check" (3:2). And unless you're a Wesleyan perfectionist.... well, you get the idea. We all stumble in many ways. But how many leaders, of any denomination, from any tradition, with any theology, seriously acknowledge that?

We have created a situation in which believers, and especially leaders, cannot acknowledge failure--which is to say, sin, to one another, even though James also says, "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed" (5:16). This is the Bible, this is a command, and it's a command that most of us are disobeying most of the time. And so issues that begin as temptations grow and fester in the darkness, because we're taught not to be real about where we are and what we're struggling with. It grows to the point where there is overt sin, not just in the imagination, not just in private, but with others, because it's not being dealt with through the very means that we offer to unbelievers. The grace that we offer to them, we don't take for ourselves. And so we're not healed, we struggle in silence. Until the silence is broken by scandal and disgrace, and people's lives are shattered.

Just to be clear: this is not an excuse for Ted Haggard. It is an indictment on how he, and most of the rest of us, don't deal with sin issues, because we feel we have to maintain an image that's above all that.

And that's how we're caught.


  1. Great post. Confession is a spiritual discipline that few practice. I agree with the statement, "The grace that we offer to them, we don't take for ourselves." but I would also say that too often we offer the grace of God, but do not show grace ourselves. It's a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle that I've been caught in myself at times.

    I've often pondered how to more effectively encourage the discipline of confession from the pulpit. I know I could drop some bombs if I opened the closet, but shocking people isn't teaching unless there's a relevant context. Creating an atmosphere of love and trust within the church is a necessary first step, but actually getting people into the habit of confession, that's tougher.

  2. Keith: Reading your post brings to mind how I see others treated when they confess a sin. All of a sudden mothers don't allow their children to hang out with that kid any longer. Or women begin to shun that lady. It's sad. thanks for your post...selahV

  3. Bob--

    Yeah, I think "dropping bombs" isn't really the way to go about it. I think we need a lot of teaching about the importance of grace as an ongoing feature of the Christian life. People are afraid that if you teach grace, people will abuse it. Yes, some will. But I think the freedom of understanding the ongoing mercy of God in our own lives actually spurs us on to do what's right, out of gratitude--and also helps us bear with the failings of others better.


    Welcome! Happy to see you here!

    Great insight in your comment. Here we are, standing before God only because of His mercy given through Jesus' sacrifice, and yet we ostracize anyone who actually acknowledges his need of that mercy. It's no wonder we have so little power in reaching the world. I suspect outsiders understand us more than we think they do.