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.
Confession is also the essential key to answering the question about how sinful people like us can represent a Holy God by proclaiming His gospel. Imagine, if you will, two people sitting alongside each other in church who have committed the same sin – they’ve embezzled £10,000 from church funds. They are equally guilty of an identical offence before God. However, while the first person thinks she has got away with it, the second has confessed their sin, and sought forgiveness. Obviously although they are both sinful, the latter person has stepped into integrity before God, by confessing her sin; while the former remains in the stench of religious hypocrisy. Confession is the step into integrity.
That’s why the Bible doesn’t just say that we need to confess our sins to God, but also that there is a place for confessing our sins to one another. A Christian student I knew very well had a really difficult conversation with his non-Christian mates in the halls of residence we lived in. He hadn’t really been living in a way that commended the gospel of Jesus to his friends. So he decided to confess. He said to them, “I owe you an apology. I’ve invited you to church and CU stuff, and told you about my faith, but I have completely let you down by the way I’ve behaved in the last couple of weeks. Please don’t dismiss Jesus, because of my mistakes.” His mates stared blankly back in incredulity, as this was not what they were expecting to hear. Yet – he was able to share more of his faith later that term, because he had chosen the path of integrity.
We’re all sinners, who have traded away our ability to speak adequately for Jesus, but confession restores integrity.
This point actually drives us to the very heart of the gospel. Christian author Tim Chester has pointed out that our job is not to present ourselves as flawless adverts for Jesus, because the message that we would present with our lives would be, “I’m good, and Jesus can make you good like me.” And that is categorically not the gospel message (nor is it true!). The message that needs to ring out from us is, “I have been forgiven for all my sins by Jesus and you can be too!”. The famous image which captures this thought is that in evangelism we are not millionaire philanthropists who are feeding the world, but one beggar telling another beggar where we have found bread.
That means that while hypocrisy is a barrier to evangelism, forgiven sins are not. It means that 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.
The late Dominic Smart, wrote a wonderful little book about Peter in the New Testament. It details Peter’s spectacular fall into sin and the way in which Christ restored Him. One of Dominic’s astute observations is that Peter’s fall was an essential element in his preparation for future ministry. Bold, garrulous, overly-self-confident Peter had to be broken in order to be more useful. Jesus used Peter’s crushing failure in order to re-forge a close-discipleship based not on Peter’s own determination; but in dependence on Jesus.
For you and I that means that the message of our lives and our lips need to be consistent. That should look like a humble recognition that we need forgiveness that we speak about. And, we should be people who are (certainly far from perfect), but making progress in the Christian life – visibly before others. The acts of the sinful nature should be in retreat, and the fruit of the Spirit growing in us; with the knowledge that confession is the step back into integrity, with every failure.
So, our Christian meme with which we started is right – up to a point. God can and does involve sinners like us in his work. In His grace he has both saved us and prepared good works for us to do. He has called flawed people to transmit His flawless message. Yet – not because those sins, flaws and failures don’t matter or have no consequences; but because that very gospel message we transmit is the medicine for our own condition. So humbly, and with the integrity of confession, we can step forward in evangelism. God uses people like us.
But I leave the last word to Dominic Smart, who wrote this about Jesus’ restoration of Peter:
“We do a pretty good job, with the devil’s help, of writing ourselves off. We kick ourselves when we are down; we’ve learned to do it when we are young. Many of us have picked up from the world, or our parents, or our siblings, or at school that we are sub-standard. So we adopt that position in life. We need to be reminded by the physician of our souls, when we have fallen, that the love which he has placed in us – a love for himself, has not been eradicated by our sin. It is actually true that where sin abounds, grace abounds more.”
Jesus then, when he had restored Peter’s relationship with him, gave him valuable work to do. No less, are flawed people like you and I, invited into partnership in the work of God.
 1 Cor 5:11, Matthew 5:20-48.
 Matthew 23:27-8
 James 5:16
 Dominic Smart, “When We Get It Wrong: Peter, Christ and Our Path Through Failure”, (Authentic, 2002) p89