(Christian Courier column, May 26, 2014)
Our latest church sign got me thinking about sin. “Don’t judge someone just because they sin differently than you.” Two admissions here. What popped into my head was not my own sin, but Rob Ford’s. I’d just heard about his leave of absence to enter rehab. The second thing that popped into my head was still not my own sin, but how surprising it was to see the word “sin” displayed so publicly and baldly. Even in Christian media, the word sin is used sparingly these days. We speak more tactfully about brokenness, struggle, addiction, dysfunction or moral failure. It doesn’t take much of a rundown through popular TV and movies to see that the flawed hero is de rigeur — Sherlock Holmes and his drug addiction, Ironman’s anxiety, Batman’s vengefulness, Spiderman’s guilt. Our favourite protagonists are those with a secret failing. We want our heroes human, after all, like us.
I’m ambivalent about the theological implications of our sign, and maybe the grammar, too (grin), but the main point is pretty clear. We all sin. Pastors, elders and deacons, Christian schoolteachers and writers for Christian publications. I have sin in my life — the sins of my youth, broken relationships, recurrent envy of families where everyone belongs to Jesus Christ, occasional jealousy of published authors, an overly critical spirit, a mounting reluctance to add any more confession to this list . . . .
However, confession is what sin requires. Not so much confession to one another, though that has its place, too, for prayer support and accountability, but penitential confession to God, who never withholds pardon.
In “Why Confess Sins in Worship When It Seems So Rote?” (Christianity Today, December 2013), John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Calvin College prof, lays out a helpful list, detailing the necessity of corporate confession in church. I found it instructive, not only to establish why confession is an important part of liturgy, but why it’s good for me, a sinner.
Here are Witvliet’s four points, considerably condensed.
- “Since sin is both individual and corporate, confession should be, too.”
- Corporate confession is practice, rehearsing together the words we instinctively balk at: “I’m sorry.”
- “Penitence orients us to grace.” Confession allows us to “set aside” our sin and become recipients of divine love and mercy.
- Corporate confession teaches us to resist “self-righteousness” and “triumphalism,” which he calls “two of the largest problems inside the church, and two of the biggest reasons people can’t stand the church.”
Witvliet goes on to describe the trinitarian roundedness of confession. It prompts the forgiveness of God the Father through the sacrifice of Jesus aided by the efficacy of the Holy Spirit to help us “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15, NRSV).
That last part — the growing up part, the maturation from forgiveness to living holy lives — seems almost as much out of synch with our culture as the word “sin.” It’s definitely catechetical (catechism teachers like me still love that word). Q&A 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism affirms that as a member of Christ, sharing in his anointing, I must “strive with a good conscience against sin and the devil in this life.”
There is nobility in those old-fashioned words. No capitulation to brokenness, dysfunction, moral failure or even heroic flaws. No wallowing or surrender, but “striving.” A forward call — “to present myself as a living sacrifice of thanks.”
So it seems I don’t really have time to judge Rob Ford’s sins. I have a lot to do. I have to “set aside” the sins of my youth since they’ve already been forgiven and “hurled into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7: 19). I have to motivate myself to mend relationships. I have to attend to the daily discipline of entrusting my family members who do not follow Jesus into the hands of the Father who loves them infinitely more than I. I have to encourage and applaud writers who are using their gifts while practicing trust and submission regarding the Lord’s plans for mine. I have to curb my tendency to notice errors and omissions and nurture appreciation for all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable (Phil. 4:8). I have to take stock of all the other sins I have not confessed here and actively attend to their eradication. I have to “take time to be holy.”
All in the power of the Spirit who will witness with my spirit that, in doing so, I am a child of God (Rom.8: 16).