When we share the gospel we do so admitting our mistakes, doubts, sins and shortcomings. The more we take God’s call to holiness seriously, the more some of these flaws seem to matter in fact. It means we can share the grace of God with a humility that is attractive to people who are also flawed; rather than with a self-confidence which will crush those who are aware of their sin; and a hypocrisy which will alienate everyone.
There is a popular Christian meme that does the rounds on social media every so often. It reminds us that amongst the Biblical heroes involved in God’s work are some pretty dodgy characters. It usually begins “Noah was a drunk, Jonah ran away, Sarah laughed at God, Thomas doubted (etc etc); and you think that God can’t use you??” It’s a simple point, well made. If God included such a cast of rogues in his word; then why do we think that we can’t be in on his plans because of our sin?
Yet—many of us back off from evangelism out of a sense of unworthiness. Apart from the obvious fact that our deepest spiritual and psychological issues are not fixed by memes (!!), what is going on here?
The first thing to note is that we instinctively know that while that popular meme is undoubtedly true, and nothing but the truth; it’s not quite the whole truth. Anyone who has read the Bible will also know that God also demands radical holiness from us and urges separation from people who claim to be Christians but practice things such as sexual immorality, idolatry, slander, drunkenness, fraud, and greed. Jesus himself taught the necessity of quite extraordinary standards of holiness in conduct, speech and attitudes too. And of course hypocrisy is hardly a great advert for the faith…
Reading these texts we all often experience a profound sense of our own sinfulness before God, and need for forgiveness. It also makes us very, circumspect about claiming to be God’s ambassadors here on earth, and putting ourselves in the position of calling others to be reconciled to God, when we know that there are stubborn lumps of our old nature which continue to reside in us; which are not in line with that message.
If you think Paul’s teaching about church discipline in Corinth is hard; then read Jesus’s battles with the Pharisees and Sadducees—the religious hierarchy of his day! Jesus’s main bone of contention with them was not that they sought to uphold the law (although they did often miss-apply it) but that they were religious hypocrites; who brought the message of God into disrepute by having attitudes and lifestyles that did not embody their teaching. When Jesus called the religious leaders ‘whitewashed tombs’ he was utterly scathing in his denunciation of outward shows of religiosity which were not matched by an inwardly sincere spiritual life. Or as my Solas colleague Gareth Black wrote, “your character should never be playing catch-up with your calling”. Religious hypocrisy stinks no less today, where it occurs in the local church or amongst the public scandals of televangelists, than it did in the gospels.
So, should we read the teaching of Jesus and keep our mouths firmly closed in the knowledge that sinners like us can never adequately represent Him? Or should we look at the flawed folks in the Bible God used in His work, take heart and get on with mission regardless? Are we inevitably locked into this conundrum – or is there a way out?
The answer, I think, lies in the gospel of Jesus itself.
The texts in scripture which tell us about the holiness of God and His righteous requirements for our lives are supposed to help us see our sinfulness. “The law was our schoolmaster, to bring us to Christ” is how Paul phrases that in Galatians. It’s God’s perfect, exacting standards of inward and outward holiness which drive us into the arms of Christ where we find forgiveness.
There is a critical step that we all have to take as we receive that grace and forgiveness though. Because in order to receive forgiveness of sin, we must come to God in confession. 1 John 1:8-9 tells us that denial of sin, is a fatal condition; but that confession opens the path to receiving forgiveness from God. Confession is the humbling business of agreeing with God about our sinfulness, and no longer seeking to explain or excuse that which we find within ourselves that falls short of his standards.