Speaking of Sin

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)

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12 thoughts on “Speaking of Sin

  1. Pingback: Speaking of Sin | thealreadynotyet.com

  2. Dear Matthew,

    Thank you for your thoughts. I too love the city, and served Calvary Reformed Church in inner-city Cleveland, OH for 16 years. I also love the Heidelberg Catechism, but in this case I think the catechism gets it backwards.

    Before I can begin to understand my sin and misery I need to know God’s grace. If I am not confident that I am loved and forgiven, I will never allow myself to be vulnerable before a holy God, but will engage in self-denial, self-justification and self-protection. I face God not as Judge, but as Savior and Redeemer. Grace paves the way for the recognition of my sin.

    A more contemporary song puts it this way:

    YOUR KINDNESS
    Leslie Phillips

    Waiting for angry words to sear my soul,
    Knowing I don’t deserve another chance.
    Suddenly, the kindest words I’ve ever heard
    Come flooding through my heart.

    REFRAIN:
    It’s your kindness that leads us to repentance, O Lord.
    Knowing that You love us now matter what we do
    Makes us want to love You, too.

    copyright 1985, Word Music, as found in Maranatha Music Praise Chorus 3, 1993.

    Preach grace and we can begin to get a grip on sin. Preach sin and we will be afraid to come to God for grace.

    • Michael,
      Pleasure to meet you! Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Perhaps a bit of clarification may help to put my post into perspective. I would agree that the Catechism would be out of order if Q&A 2 was the first or intended to stand on its own. The way I understand it, however, Q&A 1 provides the foundation, the framework for which the rest of the catechism, including Q&A 2 fits in. Therefore, I think that the first word is grace, and then we begin talking about sin, and then grace again, and response after that.

      The same is with my ministry. I do talk about sin a lot, but I talk about grace more. Our sin-talk is taken seriously, but always comes within the context and framework of grace (for instance, we can only go through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday because we know that Resurrection Sunday is just a couple of days away).

      The word of grace always comes first. No doubt. But I do think that to experience grace and the fullness of what it is, at some point we have to come to terms with our deep and core-penetrating brokenness. But this only happens because God’s grace is the bookend which support us on either side.

      I speak of sin, but I preach grace like it’s going out of style.

      Thanks again for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  3. As a child, I’m not sure if it was because of what was said or because of what I heard that made me much more conscious of sin than of grace. I distinctly recall a high school catechism class in which our pastor, Rev. Stuart Blauw, taught us that grace is defined as unmerited favor and explained that concept. It still took some time, but over the years that has helped me become more accepting of the grace that is offered to me as a sinner. This discussion is helpful in that journey that continues to require acknowledging my sin and appreciating God’s grace.

    Matthew, I just discovered your blog this week and am enjoying following it.

  4. When I was a kid, I was terrified of God. I recognized I was sinful and couldn’t understand how God could forgive such a huge amount of sin in one person. Accepting that, receiving that grace, was both liberating and humbling. Sin is real, and without it there would be no grace. Thanks for your great post, Matt!

    • I was always terrified of God as a child as well, and to be honest, there still remains a part of me that is. This is why it is important to talk about sin, but scream grace; to speak of sin but preach grace. We must acknowledge sin, but celebrate grace that not only delivers us from sin, but also allows us to see our sin to experience even deeper the magnificent grace which God lavishes upon us.

  5. Matt,

    I love your post. Part of the reason why I think ministry in my context is so hard is because they do not understand the gravity of their sin. A relationship with Jesus has to be something you come to out of a sense of desire, and as long as one thinks that everything is okay in the Jesus department, I think it’s very hard to see one’s desire or need for Christ. We can, after all, do everything by ourselves. We’re American, you know.

    I remember always being acutely aware of my sin. Though as I read your post now, I wish that I would have realized that grace bookends the whole thing. My train of thought was more of a “I suck, God. Can you help?” This realization got me where I needed to go/start in relationship, but it also presented me with the image of a vengeful, angry God–one who helped because he had to, but whose anger burned all the while. It was years before I understood what grace even was, and even still, there are days when I don’t hold onto it very well.

    • Thanks for sharing, Jill. I think of the call of Isaiah in chapter 6. God actually shows up, and that is the moment when Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me!” and he sees a seraph with a burning coal and touches it to his lips. I think that it is significant that God shows up, first, and then there is acknowledgement of uncleanliness, and then another magnificent grace. Thankfully God’s grace is there before we ever realized that we needed it, and during those times when we are not sure that we deserve it.

      • Good point. I guess I better start praying that God shows up, eh? You know, I started my ministry that way, but somewhere along the way, I just started putting my nose to the grindstone, and “doing my job”. God has really been convicting me about that lately. Your comment is just another indication of that.

  6. Glad to find your post on Heidelberg here. I’m blogging on it regularly, and would love to have you in the conversation. (Did Q2 in a post titled “What Christians Believe in 15 Seconds.”) Click on over some time!

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