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Sexual Assault and the Scandal of Repentance

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During his lengthy tenure as an evening commentator on CNN, Larry King often posed two questions to pastors and theologians who came on as guests.

First, is Jesus the only way to God? This was Larry’s way of seeing if the Christian representative would insist on the uniqueness of Jesus no matter how offensive that claim might come across in a pluralistic world. You mean good people from other religions might be condemned?

The second question came from a different angle. Could a serial killer, or someone like Hitler, or a rapist, or a pedophile receive forgiveness and wind up in heaven? This was Larry’s way of seeing if the Christian representative would insist on the offer of grace, no matter how offensive that pronouncement might come across in a world that demands justice. You mean abhorrently wicked people might repent and be saved?

Larry King is not a Christian. But he knows where the scandalous power of Christianity is found. It’s in the narrowness of insisting on universal, eternal condemnation for all sinners who fall short of God’s glory, and in the broadness of calling everyone to repent of their sins, trust in Christ and be saved. Everyone, even the “vilest offender,” in the words of the old Fanny Crosby hymn.

The “vilest offender” today is the person who engages in sexual assault and abuse.

Vileness Knows No Bounds

Once upon a time, Hollywood elites winked and nodded at those who were well known for their brazenness. But no more. The dynamic has shifted. Women’s testimonies are (finally) taken seriously. More and more people feel the freedom to speak up. Contracts have been canceled. Stars find themselves blacklisted.

In politics, from the far right to the far left, we are discovering case after case of lecherous and predatory behavior, and we are coming to grips with a cultural sickness that promotes and protects such travesties.

(Unfortunately, partisan impulses that have been present since the Bill Clinton era have ossified into tribalism so powerful that it’s unclear if there’s anything egregious enough to cause voters to abandon their party’s candidate. Far too many have fallen for the myth that candidates who promise to vote the right way are to be preferred no matter their honor or character. This was the myth that many conservative Christians rightly exposed during the era of Clinton, before succumbing to the same line of reasoning in the era of Trump.)

Religious people have no room to point the finger and say, “I told you so!” to Hollywood moguls and corrupt politicians. In our own churches and institutions, we’ve seen how sexual abuse and assault can thrive in the shadows of piousness and self-protectiveness. Moral laxity is not the only condition necessary for evil to flourish. High moral standards or the “right positions” on biblical morality do not serve as a safeguard against those who would abuse their power in their pursuit of prey.

Beautiful Paradox

How then should we respond?

As Christians, there should be no equivocation or excusing of inappropriate sexual advances or abuse. Lord forbid the world be clearer than the church in naming and shaming evil deeds!

The church must be unflinching in its naming of sin. And yet the church must also not shrink back from the call to repentance. Repentance is the hope-filled call of the gospel: anyone can repent and be restored. Yes, anyone can turn from sin and find forgiveness.

Herein lies the scandal of the gospel. Christians name evil for what it is. Yet we also believe that evil desires and deeds can be confessed and overcome, that sin can be forgiven, and that people can be redeemed. The church is the peculiar society that insists that certain acts the world finds praiseworthy are sinful, while certain sins the world finds unforgivable can be wiped away.

So, the offense of the Christian gospel is twofold. We will seem narrow and strict when we insist on calling out sins. And yet, we will seem too generous when we insist that anyone no matter their past can repent and be restored. Our stark vision of sin is grace to the victim; our call to repentance is grace to the offender.

Repentance and Restoration

Repentance and restoration are powerful realities, but they are neither cheap nor easy.

True repentance over sin is more than remorse over consequences. It is a change wrought in the depths of one’s heart. Sexual offenders no longer dismiss or downplay their actions. No longer do they blame the victims, retreat into defensiveness, or seek to discredit the men and women who come forward. The church calls the offender to agree in naming the evil deed and refusing to make any excuses for it.

Likewise, forgiveness and restoration does not mean we abandon precautions in how we live among people who are guilty of sexual assault. It does not mean we overlook past offenses or set aside earthly consequences. The outworking of restoration must be applied with wisdom and care and prudence. Full restoration of human relationships (where a victim stays in contact with a repentant abuser) may not be advisable or possible on this side of eternity.

But the gracious call to repentance still goes out, and it is still powerful. We worship a generous God who takes sin so seriously that he gave up his body to be crucified, for the sins of victim and abuser alike. The rugged grace that flows from the cross does not minimize sin or redefine wickedness; it floods the cavernous heart and washes away our stains.

So, if the world is shocked that we still believe in sin, let the world be even more shocked that we still believe in repentance, forgiveness, and restoration. When the world is rushing headlong into sexual libertinism of all types, we continue to bear witness to the truth of God’s design for sexuality and the reality of sexual sinfulness. But when our vilest sins make us retreat in shame or double down in guilt, the church bears witness to the truth that any person, no matter how vile, who repents and believes will be forgiven and restored.

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