Sin is Our Witness
JUNE 7, 2017
I’m writing this in April. Next week I’m speaking at the National Conference of the Association of Biblical Counselors, “Called to Counsel,” and they have assigned me the topic, “The Gospel.”
I can do that.
The problem is that they sent some material to help me prepare for that topic. In the cover letter, they wrote, “Attached are the main ideas for the module. We’d love for Steve to take this and make it his own!” The ideas were things like “Changes,” “Motivates” and “Inspires.” Then there was this statement: “The Gospel drives us to be transformed within a specific place, the church, the community of God’s people. The Gospel calls us to fix our eyes and affections upon a specific person: Jesus Christ.”
You have a problem with that?
Of course not. That would be like having a problem with the American flag and apple pie. My response is, “But, of course.”
The problem is that all the preaching and teaching in the world won’t move one soul to change and transformation. Now I have to figure out how to say that in a way that doesn’t make me sound like a heretic, offend the counselors, or get me stoned.
My friend, Dr. Tom Saunders, is a psychologist and author of Go Ahead—Kill Yourself!: Save Your Family the Trouble: Paradoxical Therapy With Families. Among other controversial things, Tom writes that often therapists have a con game going in which they somehow work out their own issues by charging their clients.
You plan to say that to a convention of counselors?
Are you crazy? I’m not terribly bright, but I’m not stupid either.
However, Tom has a point, and it applies to any Christian, especially those who are in leadership. Our problem is that we’re “fixers” and not very good at it. When Jesus was in his hometown of Nazareth, he said that they would tell him, “Physician, heal yourself” (Luke 4:23). That would be crazy because Jesus didn’t need any healing. If someone said that to us, however, it would be quite appropriate.
Paul was a genius. What he wrote was true (after all, it is Scripture); but even if it weren’t, his honesty is incredible. He wrote to his young pastor friend, Timothy: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever” (1 Timothy 1:15-17).
People are always quoting Rick Warren to me—“it isn’t about me; it’s about God.” I know that, I’m a Calvinist, and I can repeat The Westminster Confession of Faith backwards. But it’s about me too. God went to a lot of trouble to make me his own, and I’m sometimes overwhelmed with the thought of it. It’s often been said that if you (or I) were the only person living on the face of the earth, God would still have sent his Son to die on a cross for us. I believe that’s true. Not only that, it’s clearly taught in the Bible…because the Bible teaches that it’s not just about God, it’s about us too.
I once received a funny letter from a fairly well known evangelist. He wrote that in his meetings he always had an illustration (Jack) sitting on the platform. So when he talked about sin, the evangelist could point to a “living illustration” of the repercussions of sins. Jack was generally drunk and, when he wasn’t, he had a hangover. Jack had deep and dark circles under his red eyes, his nose was veined and purple, and he drooled. The evangelist explained that Jack recently died and he was looking for a replacement. He closed the letter by asking, “Would you be interested in taking Jack’s place? The position does pay well and it isn’t hard work.”
It’s often been said that if you (or I) were the only person living on the face of the earth, God would still have sent his Son to die on a cross for us. I believe that’s true.
What if that were our position? As I understand it, that’s what Paul meant. Jesus chose someone like Paul (the foremost of sinners) so that he might be on “display,” demonstrating God’s perfect patience as an example to others.
So should I go out and sin as an example of God’s grace?
Of course not! Paul makes that clear: “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:2). But he said something sort of like that: “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). That means, as a former student of mine put it, grace is drawn to sin.
What I’m suggesting (and I’ll suggest to those counselors) is that the best therapy a counselor can give to a client, a preacher to a congregation, a believer to an unbeliever, a Christian professor to a student, and a parent to a child, is themselves as an “example” of God’s grace. But we can’t do that without first being honest about our own need and sin. Therein lies the problem. Most people don’t want to “drool” in public.
I have a new definition of “witnessing.” Witnessing is allowing God to love you and then telling others why that’s such an astonishing and miraculous fact. I plan to tell the counselors that the best thing they can do for their clients is to let God love them (the counselors) and then tell their clients why.
When I was a young pastor years ago looking for a hero (I’m still looking for one but far less optimistically), I thought I had found one. (I know, I know, Jesus is my hero, but I also wanted—and want—one with skin on.) This “hero” realized what I was doing and disabused me of my hopes by confessing his sins to me. I was shocked, angry and hurt, and not until much later did I recognize what an amazing gift he gave me.
It’s the only gift we have to give…well…that and love.
We get both from Jesus.
Don’t you get tired of the “experts”—the academic pontificators, the shallow politicians, the “opinion makers” and others—speaking from Sinai about our problems as if they knew what they were talking about? They are just as confused, troubled and scared as everybody else. They make their living pretending.
Christians are the real thing and our witness provides a real answer. In fact, we are the only ones who have answers. That would be our need, weakness and sin…and God’s forgiveness, love and faithfulness.
Do you know what my wife and I did this past weekend? We drove to Jackson, Mississippi, to see our oldest granddaughter, Christy, perform in a production of The Music Man. Christy is a drama major at Belhaven University (a very strong Christian academic institution where no apology is given for their biblical worldview). I was sort of surprised that the leading male character in the musical was black and the leading female character was white. And the father’s daughter in the musical was white and her boyfriend was black. I had to keep pinching myself to remember that I was in Jackson. And then we went to a worship service at Christy’s church. Redeemer Presbyterian is located in a white area and the pastor is black. The staff and congregation are a pretty even mix of racial and ethnic folks. One has to go early to either of the two services just to get a seat.
Nobody needed to tell me what had happened in Jackson. Christians knew about their sin and failures of the past; and as the Gaithers sing, “I am loved and I can risk loving you.” Or with my own lyrics, “I am loved and that’s insane. I guess I can risk loving you.”
Our gift to the world (to our clients, to our family, and to our friends) is our witness and it isn’t one of success, power and purity. Now that I think about it, I guess Rick Warren was right. It really isn’t about us. It’s about him and his insane, crazy and amazing love to people who don’t deserve it.
He asked me to remind you.