Volume 26 - Issue 2
Tell it Not in GathBy Carl Trueman
It is always a tragedy when Christians find themselves so controlled by sin that they fall in the most public and disastrous of manners, bringing shame on themselves and upon the name of Christ. Years of faithful service can be destroyed in an instant and Christian testimonies permanently compromised. We all know of such cases. In a world increasingly obsessed with money, sex and power, it is clear that these modern-day Baals have been the cause of the downfall of far too many Christians, from members of local churches to leaders known around the world. When we hear of yet another such tragedy, maybe some of us are tempted, as the pharisee was in the parable, to thank God that we are not such as they. On the contrary, we are good, upright citizens of the kingdom who bring nothing but praise and honour to the name of Christ; we would never take drugs, commit adultery or use pornography. And yet the fall of others should not be a cause for complacent self-congratulation or finger-pointing. When the English Reformer, John Bradford, saw a man going to execution, he is said to have commented to those with him at the time, ‘There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.’ Such an attitude indicates a heart that truly knows the meaning of God’s unconditional, unmerited grace in Christ. And, if we are honest, sometimes it is not even the grace of God which separates us from the fallen brother or sister—it’s simply the fact that our own sins are more private, or perhaps that we have not been caught and exposed in such a public manner. Let him who hath no sin …
The public fall of a Christian is, of course, rarely, if ever, a spontaneous or instant occurrence. Nobody ever embezzled money who did not first covet something. Nobody ever committed murder who was not first angry. And nobody ever committed adultery who did not first nurture adulterous and lustful thoughts. The point is simple: sin is something which grows and festers as it is fuelled by our thought life, by our patterns of behaviour, by the books we read, by the company we keep, and by our failure to deal with the sin at the outset, at the very first moment it tries to get a foothold in our lives. When a man or woman is caught with their hand in the till, we can be certain that the actual criminal act was merely the culmination and outworking of a series of moral decisions taken by the individual in the hours, days, weeks, months or even years prior to the crime.
The first thing these tragedies should do, therefore, is warn us that not even Christians are immune from the sins and temptations of the world. I don’t like Christian bumper stickers—too twee for my tastes. But occasionally they do touch on real truths. Indeed, the one which declares that ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just saved’ does actually hit the nail on the head, albeit in a rather flippant manner. Christians are as capable of stealing, cheating, murdering and fornicating as their non-Christian counterparts do. For example, statistics for premarital sex among teenagers show how little difference there is between the behaviour of Christians and those outside the church. High-profile cases over the last few years also indicate that theft, adultery and homosexuality have regularly claimed high-profile Christians as captives. What separates those who have publicly fallen from grace from those of us who have not? In a word, God’s grace. Let us be clear about one thing: those who fall publicly may have offended the church on earth in a more dramatic way than the rest of us; but, before God, we are all enclosed under sin; not one of us in our sinful, self-sufficient selves is any better than anybody else when it comes to standing before the holy, righteous and jealous God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Second, the worst thing about the tragic fall of a friend is knowing that they have been slowly sucked into the world of sin over a period of time, maybe even years, years in which you knew them, talked theology with them, prayed with them, and shared the same visions with them—and yet you, their friend, never saw what was going on. They probably did not tell you because we live in a kind of simplistic evangelical culture where people are not meant to have certain problems. We pay lip service to all being sinners, but we cannot imagine that any Christian would actually be involved in any serious public sin, such as embezzlement or adultery. The result is a church culture where we are all too frightened to tell anyone about some of the things with which we struggle. We need to think hard about how to change this culture, about how to cultivate friendships where such honesty is possible on the basis that we all know we are saved merely by grace. Then we will know that we have no grounds for looking down on another brother or sister, no matter how awful we might see their crime as being. But, further, we also need to remember to tell each other the gospel. The gospel is, after all, for sinners, and we Christians are, at the end of the day, all still sinners. We still need to hear the gospel because repentance is an ongoing reality which involves the whole of our lives, and which is fuelled by knowledge of what God in Christ has done. When I think of friends who have fallen, I feel guilty, not just because they did not feel able to ask me for help, but also because I failed to tell them the gospel as often as I should have done.
I think Luther’s modification of the medieval notion of sacramental confession is extremely useful in this context: Luther recommended that Christians should confess their sins to each other in order to create opportunities of being reminded by friends of what God in Christ has done for them. In other words, you confess your sin to me, and I tell you that Christ has died for you—and vice versa. Now, it would obviously be counter-productive for everyone to go around willy-nilly confessing their sins in public to everyone else; but in my own experience it has been good over the years to have one Christian friend with whom I can talk about anything, confess anything, and pray about anything. Such a person is worth their weight in gold, a wonderful gift from God. If you don’t have one already, pray that the Lord will guide you to such a friend.
Finally, such tragedies should warn us that, just as the longest journey begins with the smallest step, so the long road to hell starts always with an apparently trivial but sinful thought. As I said above, the murderer first starts by losing his or her temper; the thief starts by coveting the property of another; and the adulterer starts by indulging in sexual fantasies about another’s spouse. Let us therefore guard our hearts and minds as if our lives depended upon it—as indeed they do. It is very fashionable in certain so-called Christian circles to try to make Christians appear as similar to their non-Christian counterparts as possible. We go to the same places, watch the same films, use the same language, and behave in just the same way. This is not simply nonsense; it is highly dangerous. The Christian is one of God’s covenant people, called to be holy, separated to God, and required to be unconditionally loving to both God and neighbour. Whatever else these things imply, they certainly do not involve assimilation to the world’s standards in terms of attitudes to spare time or family or material possessions or sexual mores or whatever. Great leaders, from Elijah and Amos in the Old Testament, calling Israel back to covenant fidelity, to men such as the heroic Klaas Schilder, standing against the Nazis in the occupied Netherlands (upon whom I shall have more to say in the next editorial), have always, without exception, emphasised the antithesis, the absolute opposition, that exists between the standards demanded by loyalty to Christ and the way of the world. Unfashionable, outmoded, pietistic (Shock! Horror!) and fogeyish it may sound, but it is no more than the Bible demands. Thus, if it is watching the television that causes you to sin, do not watch the television; if it is going to certain places that causes you to sin, do not go to those places; if it is the internet which leads you to sin, don’t log-on; and if it is certain people who cause you to sin, then shun their company. On one level, it really is that simple. You can get to heaven without a television, without going to nightclubs, without surfing the web, and without being the life and soul of the party; but you cannot get to heaven as someone committed to a lifestyle involving pornography, drunkenness and blasphemy. Toying with anything that causes you to sin, however trivial such sin might seem to you, is like tightrope-walking over the fires of hell: only something an idiot or a madman would even contemplate.
Sounds over the top, you might say. Maybe you would rather I used my editorial to bat around the latest scholarly ideas. Well, over recent years I’ve seen too many friends destroyed and too many ministries permanently crippled by just the kind of failures I’ve outlined above for me to want to waste time today on trivia such as the latest ephemeral thoughts emerging from Oxbridge or Yale or Duke. They might be thrilling today, but they’ll almost certainly be out-of-date this time next year. I leave such things to those who think evangelicalism’s current problems are the result of not being invited to the right academic cocktail parties. I know I have said it before, but I say it again, and I will keep on saying it time after time after time until somebody starts to take notice: the problem with evangelicalism in the West is not its lack of intellectual credibility; rather, it is its frequent lack of moral integrity, its tendency towards materialism, and its lip-service to a doctrinal tradition and a code of ethics, sexual and social, which it often despises and ignores in practice—and this lack of honesty and integrity is the responsibility of each and every one of us. The church needs men and women, boys and girls, who are distinctively different from the world, who live for Christ, not for self, who maintain the absolute moral antithesis between the worship of the triune God and the crass idolatry of all that is not Christianity; and who will not only flee such things themselves but will call upon God’s people as a whole to flee them. We need our Elijahs, our Amoses and our Schilders far more than ever we need our cultural commentators, our savvy media consultants and our postmodern pundits. The battles we fight with sin are battles in which we cannot afford to surrender, and which require moral backbone, not technical brilliance, to win. And the first qualification of such people is an uncompromising attitude to their own morality, public and private, born out of a knowledge of their own sinfulness and God’s glorious holiness and unmerited grace in Christ. For God’s sake, then, for our own, and for that of our brothers and sisters in Christ, let us strive with the Spirit’s help to keep ourselves pure in all areas of our lives.
Carl Trueman is academic dean, vice president of academic affairs, and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.