I am the pastor of a church in the inner-city and a vast majority of my congregation are low-income, most are unemployed, and many struggle with addictions, broken relationships, poverty, hopelessness, and are aware that they are largely ignored by the majority of the city.
I also talk about sin. A lot. We have a Call to Confession, a Prayer of Confession, and an Assurance of Pardon each and every Sunday. I want people to remember that they — we — are sinful creatures who are in desperate need of redemption and restoration.
I have, in fact, had people criticize me for this. I have been told that those who choose Christ are not longer sinful, and confession is irrelevant (thanks to April Fiet for a great post on this). I have also been told that the people in my congregation don’t need to feel worse, and so talking about sin only intensifies this. This, however, is not only misguided, I think that it reduces the intensity (cheapens?) grace.
The much beloved first question and answer of the much beloved Heidelberg Catechism, speaks of the great comfort that we have that we belong to Christ. The second question and answer, however, is (in my experience) lesser well known and beloved because its tone seems a bit different.
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Q. What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?
A. Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.
In order to experience this comfort, to live and die in this comfort, the first thing that we must do is know “how great my sin and misery are.” But if we keep reading, we find out that there is more to that, “how I am set free from all my sins and misery”, and if we keep reading, “how I am to thank God for such deliverance.” These three go in this order for a particular reason.
Without speaking of sin, we lose the second and third points. When we ignore sin, we forget who we are, who God is, and who we are in relation to God. When we stop talking about sin, we can begin to follow the line of though that says, “I am redeemed — they are sinful.” When we forget the depths of our misery, we forget the fact that God pulls us out of those depths when we cannot climb out.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book, Speaking of Sin (the title of which I borrowed for this post), “When we are ready to honor the bare space instead of trying to stuff it full, then we are ready to consider what kind of new life God may be calling us to” (p. 67).
There is another key reason why I talk of sin — sin is the great leveler. When we understand that people are inherently sinful, we are able to see through socio-economic stratification, we are able to understand that the things which divide us truly are only on the surface, that Stephen in my congregation who sleeps under the 27th street bridge and drinks alcohol so that he is able to sleep during the cold Milwaukee nights is much the same in God’s eyes as the person on TBN who sits in a gold throne asking for money.
Properly taught, speaking of sin doesn’t encourage us to wallow in our misery, but only understand it, so that we can understand deliverance. Speaking of sin does not encourage us to think worse of ourselves, it encourages us to understand that we all stand on level ground, so far as God is concerned, and we are all equally in need of redemption and restoration. Speaking of sin encourages us to remember that the rich and powerful are not necessarily rich and powerful, and that the poor and weak are not necessarily any more poor or weak.
I speak of sin in my small and poor congregation because it is from that this point that we can begin to talk about hope, about redemption, about restoration. It provides a stepping stone, it provides a common foundation. It allows us to stand shoulder to shoulder not as the sinless and sinful, but as broken people who are all in need of redemption.
I appreciate hymns and have a great respect for their formative function. So I will leave you with a hymn that wonderfully expresses this life of sin and redemption and faith.
Depth of mercy! can there be
Mercy still reserved for me?
Can my God His wrath forbear?
Me the chief of sinners spare?
I have long withstood his grace,
Long provoked Him to His face;
Would not hearken to His calls,
Grieved Him by a thousand falls.
Still for me the Saviour stands,
Shows His wounds, and spreads His hands;
God is love! I know, I feel;
Jesus weeps, and loves me still.
–Charles Wesley (1707-1788)