“I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord;’ and You forgave the guilt of my sin.” – Psalm 32:5
“Look – it’s not like I don’t know it’s probably wrong, but God understands me and He knows I’m gonna sin anyway. So I’m ok.” The words hung thickly in a noisy coffee shop as I listened to my companion unpack his story of infidelity, hoping I might offer the equivalent of a spiritual high-five.
It took a moment and another sip of coffee for me to absorb the depth of the comment from this friend I’ve known for a number of years.
“I’m ok.” Two simple words that, used in the wrong context, plunge countless souls over the cliff of false security. You may have heard this sentiment under different phrases: “God loves me just the way I am,” is a popular claim. “Why would a loving God send anyone to hell? As long as I accept Christ I don’t have to change,” argues another. And “Jesus never actually said that,” is the current rage with the Progressive Christian crowd.
How can self-professing followers of Christ hold such seemingly contrarian views to clear and unambiguous guidance from scripture? A couple of answers come to mind.
Confess and Carry On
For centuries, the role of confession has played a prominent role in both Protestant and Catholic denominations. Canons 12 and 13 of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 hint at the necessity of confession. In 459 Pope Saint Leo the Great (the very same Pope who turned back Attila the Hun’s attack on Italy) wrote “It is sufficient … to have first offered one’s confession to God, and then also to the priest, who acts as an intercessor for the transgressions of the penitents.”
The argument for confession is that when someone unburdens themselves through sharing their deepest, most desperate secrets they form a private and intimate trust with God’s intermediary, thus opening the door for God to restore their relationship.
Unfortunately, in the case of my friend – like so many others – confession often replaces repentance, becoming a substitute for a truly changed heart. Substitutionary confession proclaims “There, I said it. I’m good now until it happens again. See ya next week.” In these instances, words replace transformation and the “saved” soul is just a “guilty conscience.”
We see a lot of this in today’s culture. Politicians discovered taking bribes, only to admit their sorrow at how they disappointed constituents. Celebrities caught in years of sexual harassment, explaining away their behavior as a “generational” thing. High school teachers accused of having inappropriate relationships with students, apologizing for any pain experienced by colleagues or parents.
What’s missing? Actual repentance. No real change of heart, just regret at being exposed. Their actions aren’t the problem, the consequences of those actions are.
Paul cautions against this belief in Romans 6:1-4: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died in sin still live in it?”
God’s grace and forgiveness isn’t offered as a reprieve from the “all you can eat” sin buffet, continually filling our plates and indulging our appetites while having our weekly spiritual purge. Rather, He offers grace to entirely change the menu.
Scripture is Misunderstood
This argument is a bit more difficult, mostly because it’s so charged with identity politics. The approach typically follows the path of “Jesus never really said that,” or “the Old Testament was written before science understood XYZ,” or one of my favorites: “words don’t really mean what they seem to mean.”
Underlying this belief is a passage found near the very beginning of scripture, in Genesis 3: “The serpent said to the woman, ‘You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”
“God doesn’t really mean what He says,” Satan whispers to Eve. Why? Because if God is serious and humans understood that sin creates eternal separation from Him, the power of temptation would evaporate.
Since mankind’s Fall, we’ve tried to re-interpret and “refine” God’s explicit instructions. The Old Testament is essentially the chronicle of our repeated failure to obey God’s commandments through the unfolding story of the nation of Israel, while the New Testament records the ultimate rejection of God’s law in the Crucifixion of Christ.
We’ve not really evolved much as 20th and 21st Century believers. Falling into sin remains, at its core, the rejection of God’s sovereignty. Instead of finding our identities in God’s design, we define God through our identities. Rather than adhering to God’s will, we demand our will.
In creating our own identities, we open the door to any and all interpretations of God’s plan, based solely on what we feel and believe about ourselves. Thus, we self-label as “true” Christians regardless of how many fundamental tenets we reject simply because we don’t believe they apply to us.
This philosophy claims my sin is not really sin if I believe it defines who I see myself to be – for as we read in Psalm 139:14 “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Therefore, God must love me because He made me this way.
Any call to change who I am – regardless of what may be found in “outdated” scriptures – would imply God made a mistake with me. Being perfectly unblemished and perfectly tolerant, God would never make that mistake. So what you call sin, I (and my God) call self-realization. In the words of celebrity pastors such as Hillsong’s Carl Lentz, “People just have to live out their own convictions.”
There’s so much to unpack there it would take volumes explore. Yet God, in His infinite and mysterious mastery of grace, allows us our freedom to fall or to soar, to enter or reject His Kingdom saying “ok then, not My will but your will be done.”
The clearest mission
As Christians, we’re charged with a clear and unambiguous mission – love each other and those around us while focusing every ounce of our faith and belief on God’s ultimate sovereignty over our lives. Then, share the Good News of Salvation through Christ, confronting errant or false teachings with candor and honesty.
This can be terribly difficult when what we believe about ourselves conflicts with what God has revealed to us as His Truth.
After my friend shared his story I paused, not sure how real he wanted me to be. I could see his desire for approval, but I also felt called to hold up a mirror.
I reminded him that God never smiles on sin, that infidelity is called out directly as an affront to His desire for us. I shared the words of Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias: “When a man says ‘I do’ to his wife, he is simultaneously saying ‘I don’t’ to everyone else.”
True confession results in what Paul refers to as “Godly sorrow,” bringing repentance “that leads to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Without repentance, there is no changed heart. An unchanged heart is simply our way of going through the motions, asking God’s permission to continue in our sin without being accountable for the results.
Sin is not what we choose it to be. The world’s definition of the Good News is what A.W. Pink described as “Salvation by character.” Once we give up our belief in our own sovereignty and choose God, Salvation reveals itself as something entirely different: a character built by, and because of Salvation.