What it Really Means That Christians Are Sinners Too

A reader asked me about my post, Toward a Biblical Sexual Ethic,

I do appreciate your panoramic treatment of the Scripture story when you deal with issues. It’s refreshing, totally. However, in the spirit of “what would you do if…” questions – what happens if you are brought to a position of leadership in a local church where there is congregational support to ordain to leadership a non-celibate gay or lesbian? Where would you come down on that matter? Just trying to figure out where your “gray” becomes “black and white”.

I’m not sure I answered well. I’m not sure this is going to be much of an answer either.

There are two good stories from the Gospels about sinners and repentance. The first is that of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32, and then that of the Adulterous Woman in John 7:53-8:17. Both are about sin, judgment, repentance, and mercy. I’ll use the John story (which the ESV notes the earliest versions of the Greek we have do not include this passage) to illustrate this point.

2 Early in the morning [Jesus] came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:2-11 ESV)

Here, Jesus confronts her accusers. You who have not sinned, he says, may throw the first stone. He tells her accusers — you too are sinners. And therefore, while you may be right in judging her, you have no business imposing the punishment of the law upon her. He then tells her that he does not condemn her either.

“From now on, sin no more,” Jesus tells her.

In each of these stories, we are not told what comes next. We do not know how her life turns out. We do not know if she sinned again or not, just as we do not know if the church in Corinth kicked out the man who married his step-mother. Or not. If “the adulterous woman” did not sin again, then good for her. She experienced mercy and took it to heart, and it changed her life.

But if she did sin again, then were the Pharisees right in getting their stones ready to hurl? Was Jesus wrong in forgiving her? Is forgiveness here only a one-shot deal? Once you meet Jesus, and are forgiven, that’s it, you’ve used it up? Anything you have coming next you’ve earned?

And even if she sinned again, can we honestly say that encounter with Jesus didn’t change her? I met Jesus, and it has changed me. It has not stopped me from sinning, as much as I try sometimes. I know I am forgiven and redeemed, despite what I do. Or what the consequences of my actions are.

We live in that next moment, in that bit of the story we aren’t told so we have to write it ourselves. And it is agonizing. I get the fear some (many?) might have that without the kind of moral order the law imposes, chaos would reign. The purpose of God’s good creation, and its inherent meaning, would be thwarted, perverted, denied. And they might even be right about that.

But if our repentance is solely, or even mainly, about our becoming right with God, about us living out our created (as opposed to our redeemed) purpose, then we’re lost. Because we cannot.

I like how Michael Spencer, the late prior of Internet Monk, put it in 2004 when speaking of the Prodigal Son:

I think it’s provable again and again that what we are comfortable saying to an unbeliever, we aren’t comfortable saying to a Christian. The Gospel is for Christians, too. We love the story of the Prodigal son. Now, what about the day after the party? What if the son messed up again in a week? What if he doesn’t live the life of a grateful son? Or to be more realistic, what if he sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t? Does that change the Father? Does the older brother get to come back into the story and say “Aha!! I was right!” Christ died for the sins of Christians, and we need to hear that over and over again.

Which means, as awful as it is, there will be sinners in our midst. People who don’t change. People who only kind-of change. People who can’t change. People who won’t.

And we are no less the people of God.

“But if we aren’t a changed people, what could it possibly mean to be redeemed and called by Jesus Christ to follow?” It depends on what you mean by change. Too often, I think conservatives and traditionalists are effectively defending, either consciously or not, a respectable church, one in which there is little daylight between being a good believer and being a good, bourgeois citizen. That church is, or should be, the place where people who do not sin, or are only really sinners in theory, meet. (Let me be fair — mainline liberals are defending this too, and the gay-friendly church is also peddling a version of bourgeois respectability that is as conformist, pietistic, and intolerant as any traditionalist version.) In the callous and violent world of collapsing mass modernity, in which far too many people have been reduced to things of pleasure and profit for each other, the greatest change we can make — the thing we who live right now are empowered by Jesus to do — is to meet those broken by this world and be something truly human, something truly divine, for them. To be God’s love. To show that resurrected life is possible in a dying world.

Anything else, right now, is secondary.

How we deal with the day after, with the response to “go and sin no more,” is open. It is for us to write. We can be good traditionalists, and toss those out who continue to sin. It is something the church does and, unfortunately, does well.

But I am not called to do that. The people I serve — whoever and wherever they may be — are not called to do that. (And it takes all kinds to make a church.) The people I know, the people most dear to my heart, the people for whom I wrote a book and sing my songs, have all been broken by a world (and this includes the church) that has called us, time and again, sinners. That world has hurled stones at us without conscience or regard. We do not need more condemnation. We aren’t going to listen to “sin no more” — even if we really want to hear it — because we know that some kind of abuse naturally comes next, like mushrooms sprout after a heavy rain. That belonging, being part of something, is always conditional. On being something we cannot be.

And yet, we know Jesus. We have met Jesus. He has come to us, forgiven our sins, commanded us to walk, told us who we really are, and invited us to follow.

(You want an unresolvable tension to live in? This is that tension…)

I may not be the best follower Jesus ever claimed. I probably tolerate too many sinners, and too much sin. And honestly, I’d like to see the church do that too. Perhaps I am wrong. In this, though, I know I am forgiven.

7 thoughts on “What it Really Means That Christians Are Sinners Too

  1. I get so irritated ( = uncharitable) with anyone who jumps to conclusions about people in the bible who give the wrong answer. E.g. the rich young man who went away in sorrow when asked to sell all he had and give the proceeds to the poor. The (fallen) human inclination is to say, “You blew it, dude! This close to heaven, and now you’re hell-bound.” It never says he didn’t come back. The fact that he went away *sorrowing* meant he had already been changed. He might have given away half his wealth and then come back to Jesus and asked if he ease into this discipleship thing. And what would Jesus have answered? No one knows.

    If Jesus is a one-time offer, we are all screwed. But it doesn’t work that way at all. Once we have heard him & felt his presence, then he haunts us, his whispers wake us in the middle of the night. He pursues, like God after Jonah.

    I don’t know if gay sex is a sin, or how big a sin it might be. It breaks a rule, for what that’s worth, which might be a lot, but then as you say we are forgiven. Forty years ago, I broke a rule, which some churches take quite seriously. And I haven’t stopped or repented. I married a divorced woman with two little boys. She was even a Catholic, sometimes devout, sometimes a hippie mom. Even married in the church. We went to a catholic church for a while (in another part of the country). The church at that time assigned its most liberal priests and nuns to the most conservative areas, and vice versa. The radical priest assured us that all was well – the rules were changing. Then a couple years later we moved to a liberal area with a conservative priest. He was shocked that we imagined ourselves fit to belong.

    I never had any doubt in my mind that whatever anyone said, I was going to stay married to this woman and be the father of our children. That was the promise that set utterly new priorities in my life, ones far more important than my own physical, material, mental or spiritual well-being. And we are still married and always will be.

    Now, I was not some saintly Pa from some model fictional family. I worked my way into some mighty momentous transgressions, and how the consequences did flow! For me and for those around me. And so did the many lessons and the outpouring of grace on my unworthy head. Not that the latter justified the transgressions. May it not come to be so! as Paul says (me genoito). God owns me, and if I step out of line, God gives me a thwack where it hurts, and I thank God for that.

    So I wont judge anyone, even the judgmental, and I will try to defend the judged. Or I might fail. Me genoito. *thwack* And forgive me for going on about myself. It’s what old people do.

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  2. And another thing: anyone who would throw out the “woman taken in adultery” passage because it isn’t in our earliest sources is no true Christian (he said, non-judgmentally).

    It is far more likely a genuine and popular account which was omitted by some pious scribes (or bishops) for its seeming antinomianism, than it is a later scribal inclusion. That’s my non-expert opinion, and I’m sticking to it.

    I have a very eccentric view of textual criticism and authority. My working hypothesis is that everything is in God’s hands. Every word is divinely inspired; so is every scribal error, every marginal note which gets worked into the text, every misprint, every translation, bad or good. They are all set before us in a puzzling melange, and we are supposed to think about it all. All the possibilities. Some of it is intended more for the attention of one group or person, some for others, none of it can be completely ignored or discounted. The idea of the inerrancy of ‘the original autographs’ is one of the lamest crutches (so to speak) ever devised to maintain a slippery dogma. Did Luke never revise a manuscript, and if so, which version is the original? But of course, the ‘autograph’ concept is also part of the melange, so …..

    I am all for meticulous scholarship. I am also for keeping a wary eye on the egos of scholars.

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  3. I appreciate the response. I fear that we set up a false dichotomy with the church. It’s either judgmental, conservative, traditionalist intolerance on the one hand, or it’s “moralistic therapeutic deism” on the other (a church of nice people who are simply there to affirm each other in their niceness). Isn’t there a middle ground? Couldn’t church be a place where there is acceptance in our brokenness, but without a loss of the definition of brokenness? We’ve all got to do what we think is right according to conscience and before God. Without taking it upon ourselves to “play God”, I believe we need to affirm others like Jesus did without losing a sense of the sinfulness into the midst of which Jesus made his affirmation.

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    1. I would say brokenness cannot be accepted — sin cannot be forgiven — without it first being called brokenness and sin. We need the definition. We need the judgment. Nothing to be redeemed from if there’s no judgment. Remember, God does not deliver from misfortune or bad luck.

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  4. Just to clarify, although “God does not deliver from misfortune or bad luck”, we are to deliver each other within our reasonable capacity, are we not? This goes with the “love one another” and the Samaritan’s neighborliness.

    Our ‘misfortune’ can also be providential, even redemptive itself, to us or to those around us. It may serve purposes whose connections we cannot begin to trace.

    I think there may also be something to the concept of “common grace”, which benefits the community or the world as a whole. This seems to be conveyed to us to some extent by way of “civilization”, though a lot of nastiness can be conveyed by the same route.

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    1. I think I’m going to save that answer for a future blog post. So, patience and forbearance please … 🙂

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