I have thought for some time that one of the greatest problems in the church in America is that our knowledge and understanding of ourselves as sinners is largely theoretical and abstract—and I’m not talking about the liberal wing of the church when I say this. (Not primarily, anyway.) We airily acknowledge that of course we’re all sinners, and each of us is willing to admit that he is a sinner or she is a sinner in some generic sense—but try to get most churchgoers to accept that they are specific sinners, that they are guilty of various behaviors and heart attitudes which merit the wrath of God and are deserving of his judgment, and you find out very quickly what it feels like to hit a stone wall at a hundred miles an hour.
As a consequence, our understanding of the grace of God and our need for grace is equally abstract and theoretical. We may agree that we have a generic need for generic grace, but that doesn’t often penetrate to the reality of the sin in our hearts. For ourselves, this goes one of two ways. On the one hand, we minimize our sin: it’s not that big a deal, God can’t really be all that bothered by it, and what right does that person over there have to get so upset? We brush it under the rug, where it can grow happily without interference and rot out our floorboards. On the other, we maximize it: if anyone knew, they could never forgive me, and God can’t possibly really forgive me either. Our prayers become desperate pleas to God to just give us more time or more help so that we can stop doing these things before he judges us in his wrath and utterly crushes us. We set our sin up like a statue in the middle of everything where it can dominate our thinking; we can never get free of it and move past it because we’ve identified it as the central reality of our lives.
Either way, our functional expectation is that we can’t, or perhaps shouldn’t have to, live by grace. Grace is for “salvation,” which we implicitly understand as simply a “get out of Hell free” card; for normal life, our pattern of living by law remains largely unchallenged and unquestioned. If we’re guilty of sin, we deserve to be condemned for it; therefore, either we accept that we’re guilty and heap condemnation on ourselves, or else we reject condemnation by insisting that we’re not really guilty in any important way.
(As a side note, I believe this is the main reason the vast majority of Protestant pastorates are short. When a new pastor comes to a church, they understand that the pastor is a sinner in an abstract way, and the pastor believes the same about the members of the church. In most cases, however, the church implicitly believes that the new pastor won’t be a sinner in any way that really hurts or upsets them, and the pastor unconsciously believes the same about the church. Give it six months to three years, and the church sees the pastor’s sins clearly and concretely, and there are wounds and disappointments attached to each of them—and the pastor can say the same about the church. If everyone’s willing to buckle down, face all these issues honestly, and commit to dealing with them in the love and grace of Jesus, you have the foundation for a long and fruitful ministry. Most of the time, unfortunately, most people are unwilling to do so, the pastorate ends, and the cycle of disappointment repeats.)
As a result of all this, we disconnect our struggles with sin and with one another from the power of the gospel and the wisdom of God. As a blogger who goes by KP has written,
I find it alarming how frequently the explanations offered by Christians about what motivates people to do what they do sounds virtually identical to secular accounts which have no category for the activity of the heart with reference to God. When pressed, we’ll acknowledge in some vague, generic sense that “we’re all sinners,” so as not to be thought of as unorthodox. But listen carefully to how believers talk among themselves or read some of the bestselling Christian pop psychology (frequently marketed under the heading of “personal development”) and you’ll find that we don’t really expect the Bible’s teaching on sin to be of much practical value in helping us get to the meat of the matter of our intra- and interpersonal problems. Consequently, as I’ve stated before, the person and redemptive work of Jesus Christ is marginalized to that nebulous (not to mention, narrow) region of our lives designated as “spiritual.” The gospel becomes icing on the cake of “real life” whose primary ingredients must be acquired at the mental health market.
KP wrote this in reflecting on an interview with Larry Crabb. Central to Crabb’s understanding of Biblical counseling—and of the work of the church—is that it’s not enough to identify particular behaviors as sins and forbid them. If that’s all we do, we’re trying to cure smallpox by giving people a skin cream to treat the bumps. The problem isn’t really sins as such—they’re important, but they’re symptoms; the problem is sin, the underlying disease. As Crabb said in that interview,
God wants us to unpack and to interpret scripture in a way that does not result in a proof text, and not in a bunch of principles—do this, and don’t do that—but in an enriched, deep understanding of what is happening in the human soul that has gone profoundly wrong that leads to all these difficult and sinful problems. You can apply it to homosexuality, eating disorders, panic attacks, whatever else. What is going on in the human soul, and how does the Bible give us categories for understanding this? . . .
[Homosexual behavior] is sinful, but the core sin is turning to God and saying, “You are not the source of joy, you are not the essence of goodness. There’s a greater good than you.” This is the sin of Adam and Eve, who decided that there was a greater good than God. So we have to get down to the essential sin in dealing with all of these problems.
Our response to sin in our own lives and in the lives of others, then, ought to be to dive beneath the surface. What underlies a given sinful behavior? What’s going on in our hearts that’s causing us to act in this way? This is only possible because of the grace of God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ by the work and the power of the Holy Spirit. Because of Jesus, there is no condemnation for those who live in him. As the pastor and author Kent Denlinger, a colleague and former student of Crabb’s says, this means that we can move from condemnation to curiosity. We don’t need to respond to sin, whether our own or someone else’s, by beating the sinner senseless. Instead, we’re free to respond to it by exploring what it tells us about ourselves and each other. Through that exploration, we can find the path toward freedom—not only from condemnation, but from our sin.