Good at What They Do

Our culture depends on deception. Our economy goes round as advertisers put the best face on their products, and it only takes $19.95 plus shipping and handling for us to realize that advertisers are good at what they do. In a similar way, much religious life goes round as church-goers stick on their best face for Sunday morning, and it only takes a little scratch before the sniff doesn’t smell so good.

Confession and deception occupy different sides of the field, and only one can side can advance the ball. In other words, it’s possible to gain ground in two directions but not at the same time. A man can mature in his integrity or in duplicity, in righteousness or in sin. He can become more practiced at living a whole life, the same inside and out, everywhere he goes. Or he can become better practiced at showing up as whoever he wants wherever he goes, a crafty actor putting on different faces.

Sinners who mature don’t sin less, they learn how to cover it better, or at least they think it’s covered better. We appreciate kids because they can’t help but speak candidly. Grown-ups are the ones who figured out the supposed benefits of distorting ugly words once they’ve left the heart on their way out the mouth. As we get older, it isn’t that we stop thinking foolish or sinful things. In many cases, we think worse things, but we’re more “wise” than to make it easy for others to see that we’re really fools.

Religious duplicity ruins the multi-faced and spoils everyone on whom it spills. Deceiving ourselves and others is easy, and is the easy way to destruction. We should do the harder work of confessing sin as sin in our hearts, turning toward light and walking in the truth, the only path to life.

Press On

It is a sin to be stagnant in spiritual growth. The apostle Paul said, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14). We always need to remember that we are saved and sanctified by faith alone in Christ alone, but true faith lives and grows. The Christian life is not a self-improvement project, but those who embrace the gospel cannot remain the same, they “press on.”

We are not done until we are complete in Christ. We long for the pure milk (of the Word) so that “by it [we] may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). We “make every effort to supplement [our] faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are [ours] and are increasing, they keep [us] from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8).

To be sure, growth is often slow, but slow moving is not stagnant. Growth may not be immediately obvious, as with the physical maturation process, overnight is rarely long enough to observe measurable progress. But regular check-ups, perhaps with the help of others who know what to look for, may be quite important, especially if faith and hope and affections are not stronger. Every believing pilgrim makes progress and sins by staying in the same place.

Wearing a Religious Hat

Taking oneself too seriously is a sin, and Christians sin this way a surprising amount.

We’re not surprised to see an unbeliever take himself too seriously. Showing off and then getting ticked off when others don’t acknowledge the greatness on display is natural for the natural man. We see Mr. Thinks-he’s-great at work all the time and it’s no surprise that he’s mad when others laugh.

But how does this happen among believers, among us? Christians take themselves too seriously due to the exact same problem. Pride still remains in our hearts, we just use Bible verses to defend it. It isn’t a different sin at all. It’s the same sin wearing a religious hat.

We must take some things seriously because God takes them seriously. Husbands ought to sanctify their wives by the washing of the water with the word (Ephesians 5:25-26). That’s serious. But, husbands, it’s not serious because we’re awesome. It’s serious because the husband/wife relationship illustrates Christ and His Bride.

Parents, in particular fathers, we will answer to God for bringing our children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). That’s serious, but it’s serious because of His standards, not ours. God gave us stewardship, but that stewardship is to point them to their great Father, their heavenly Father.

Church leaders and disciplers also fall into cul-de-sac ministry, becoming dead-end authorities rather than speaking authoritatively about someone else, the Head of the Church, the Lord who commissioned the work. We take ourselves too seriously when we fight more for others to respect us than revere Him.

Pastor-centered shepherding is still man-centered ministry, parent-centered families are not better than child-centered ones, and husbands who get angry because their sacrifice was ignored miss the point. In some ways, the pointy heads of pride under these hats are worse because they should know better, and should be more experienced at killing pride rather than justifying it.

Those Who Do Nothing Wrong

We’ve been on a roll reviewing some of the ways we distance ourselves from personal repentance, especially through various deflection techniques. Popular deflections include recrimination or counteraccusation, “I’m rubber, you’re glue, and whatever you say you do worse than I do.” Then there’s credentialism, demanding to see a badge of authority before offering to pay any attention. We also examined the offensive technique of first-strike, rebuking someone who we know will take it in order to throw the attention off of ourselves. Here’s one more technique that starts defensive and turns offensive.

I’m not sure what the word for it is, but it goes something like this. Person U approaches Person I and says, “It really seems that you are angry.” Person I responds, “But what about last week when I wasn’t mad at you? What about all those times when I haven’t been angry?”

Sure, what about last week? Agreed, Person I wasn’t mad last week. But we’re talking about this time, not those times.

Person I digs in, “Well, why aren’t you thankful for all the nice things I’ve said to you? That’s wrong!” Person U is confused. “Who said I wasn’t thankful for all those? I am thankful, that’s part of the reason I’m concerned about this. This doesn’t fit with those. This needs to be dealt with.”

Third person observers know that this is not a good situation. This is how Person I deflects confession and repentance by attempting to make the other person feel guilty for something completely unrelated. “I covered the dunghill with snow. Why are you (sinning by) complaining about the stink?” “Even though I was punching you in the gut, at least I had my left arm around you holding you up. Where’s the thanks for that?”

There is no forgiveness for those who do nothing wrong. There are few relationships that can survive with this type of perfect person who does nothing wrong, either. We should pray that God won’t allow us to get away from sin in our hearts no matter how hard we try.

Field Full of Boulders

I listened to a sermon by Doug Wilson a week or so ago in which he said,

Often we rebuke not the ones who need it, but the ones who will take it.

I’d like to work that soil a bit and talk about why we do that.

Rebuke is a strong word, and not every situation requires it. With that said, situations that call for rebuke usually are not the ideal teachable moments where the other person is listening and wants to do better. When rebuke is necessary it probably means that the other person isn’t thinking or listening or responding to gentler measures. Who wants to step into that? Who wants to plow a field full of boulders?

So instead, we search for softer fields. We aim our rebukes at those who don’t need to be rebuked, but at least we will feel like we accomplished something. Rebuke isn’t always necessary when the other person is already listening, already sensitive. But that’s the person who will feel our blow and, not only will they learn how wrong they are, they will also learn how much more we love righteousness than they do. What a large pile of dirt we can show after digging where the soil was already turned over.

Why not just remain quiet? Say you’re not strong enough to rebuke the hard case, why lay into the weaker one? Not everyone does, some are always quiet and occasionally that’s wise and not a compromise. But why do some go for the scold? Because at least that keeps the attention on someone else. Recrimination and credentialism are defensive techniques to avoid confessing sin ourselves. Rebuking those who don’t need it is an offensive move, but still deflection. We think it keeps people from seeing our own field full of boulders.

Insulation Techniques

We construct elaborate but rickety structures to shield ourselves from confession. One of the most popular insulation techniques is recrimination, accusing the other person of what the other person accused us of. It’s ugly business and, even though countercharging doesn’t make sin disappear, it at least leads to weeks or months in the appeals system before a verdict is made. Who knows, maybe the initial allegation will even get dropped because, really, who has the time and resources to endure the litigation?

Another useful technique to dodge confession we might call credentialism, asking the other person what gives them the right to confront us or call us to repent. In this game, the parent card trumps the kid card, the shepherd card trumps the sheep card and, sadly, there is no joker for those who claim the upper hand. Arguing that authority is infallible by definition is a logical fallacy. But even when it doesn’t work, at least we can waste time forming a committee to investigate who’s responsible and we might forget about the original sin after a while.

Here’s the thing: the other person might be guilty of what they’re accusing us of. Perhaps that’s why they can see our sin so accurately; they know exactly what they’re looking at. Also, the other person may not actually have authority over us, but they see what the underneath of our authority looks like in a way we hadn’t considered from the top. Either way, the question is: are we sinning?

Blowing smoke in the face of others doesn’t put out the fire. There are all sorts of ways we can distance ourselves from and argue ourselves out of confession. As we do so, we also distance ourselves from forgiveness and fellowship with Christ and with each other.

Portions of Grace

Do you remember the story of Elijah, the widow, and the container of oil that never ran out? In the midst of a severe drought, with the prophet and her own son to care for, we can all imagine how cautious the widow must have felt making cakes day after day. But, according to the word of the Lord, the household ate for many days, the jar of flour was never spent and the jug of oil never emptied. How did that happen? It was a supernatural work of God.

The Christian life is also supernatural. It should not be explainable except for God’s work in us. According to Philippians 2, we’re to give ourselves for others, to treat them as more important than ourselves, and to see Christ as our model for humility such as this. That sort of a serving life is supernatural.

I’d like to knead that dough a little more. I think it’s a common experience for us to be very cautious with the portions of grace we give to others. We know that we’re supposed to give it, so we’re careful to position ourselves on the giving side of the line. But we also try to stay as close to the line as possible for fear that our bottle might run dry. Sure. We all understand that. That’s natural.

The problem is that we’re supposed to be supernatural, and being on the opposite side of the stingy line is not necessarily supernatural generosity.

As we angle to guard our flour and hoard our oil, we reflect a God who is not grace-full. We have received from His fulness, a fulness that is never spent and grace that is never emptied. Serving is better than no serving but, according to the word of the Lord, by the Holy Spirit, He fills us for much more than panicky, self-protective, bottom of the barrel serving.

Not Just in December

Paul commanded the Philippian Christians:

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3–4)

These simple imperatives often feel impossible and, based on our struggle to remember them, let alone obey them, our practice seems to support how impossible they are. And, actually, they are impossible apart from Christ.

I want to point out that these commands are not simply what God requires us to do, they represent who He is. In other words, humble, glad, others-oriented service communicates God’s own character. How do we know that? We look at Jesus in whom the fulness of deity dwells (Colossians 2:9). We would be less proud, bitter, self-centered, and expectant of others serving us if we dwelt on the incarnation not just in December.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5–8)

Jesus did that for sinners. He did it because true joy and true glory gush out for others like a fountain can’t help but get the ground around it wet.

Our lack of grace to others cannot be fixed with tighter rules or frequent reminders or whipping ourselves into a guilt-frenzy because we blew it again. If we want to show more grace, then we must worship God more, in particular, we must worship the Word made flesh.

Theology to Justify Rebellion

There are at least two corrupt ways to witness about Christ to others that we must confess. The first sinful approach is thinking that witnessing depends on us. The second sinful attitude is thinking that witnessing doesn’t depend on us. Stated as such, we’re always in sin; so is there a way out after we confess?

It is sinfully proud to think that our timing, our tone, our terms make the difference in evangelism. Spiritual darkness and deadness are spiritual conditions that only God’s Spirit’s can overcome. God causes men to be born again, and we can no more make someone a child of God than a doctor can make a baby have life. God is not impressed when we act like we can do His job.1

Likewise, it is sinfully proud to think that we have no responsibility whatsoever in evangelism. This pride masquerades as humility, but this modesty poorly masks disobedience to God who commands His people to make disciples, to proclaim the gospel, to defend the eternal hope within them. God is not impressed when we use theology to justify our rebellion.2

Pride may open our mouths or keep them shut, but it must be confessed as sin either way. So how can we witness and not sin? How can we be bold without getting big heads? By believing Him.3

Belief is the problem in both. In the first case, belief is misdirected, put in a place He didn’t say to put it. In the second case, belief is partial, not held in all the ways He did say to hold it. As we call men to believe, we need to be examples of believers even in what we believe about our place and God’s place in calling them to believe.


  1. Pelagian and semi-Pelagian/Arminian evangelizers should confess their sin.
  2. Hyper-Calvinist non-evangelizers should confess their sin.
  3. There is only one other soteriological paradigm for evangelism that honors God’s sovereignty and man’s responsbility.

Sunday Followed Friday

There is no more pivotal day in history than the Sunday morning when Jesus rose from the dead. “Up from the grave He arose, with a mighty triumph o’er His foes.” “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (v. 17). “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (v. 20); He is risen indeed.

The resurrection was necessary, obviously, because He was dead; “Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my Savior.” “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” and “he was buried” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Sunday followed Friday, and that Friday is the second most important day in history, the day when Jesus laid down His life, gave up His spirit, and endured the fulness of the Father’s wrath on our sin. The righteous took on unrighteousness; the just took the judgment; He was made sin who knew no sin. He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities.

50 days after the crucifixion, Peter preached about Jesus in Jerusalem (Acts 2:). Many who heard his message were “cut to the heart” (v.37), and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (v.38).

The resurrection celebration is for “every one,” but only each one, who acknowledges that Jesus is Lord and believes that God raised Him from the dead (Romans 10:9). Christians are those who hear the gospel, confess their sin, turn away from their sin, and trust in Christ. That’s the only way to be saved, the only path to share in the sin-forgiving death and life-giving resurrection of Christ.

Even as Christians, we continue to confess our sins because we don’t forget that the empty tomb we celebrate on Sunday is glorious because our sin caused His death on Friday.