In recent years, I’ve been assured at church that I’m in a safe place where I can take off my mask, admit I don’t have my act together, and be my authentic self. As comforting as that sounds, it can only be a starting point, not a destination – a starting point we don’t want to linger around at if we’re serious about following God and growing in Christian character. If we want to be authentic, we need to get real about what the Bible actually says. And the Bible leaves no room for a sloppy, sentimental “I’m OK, you’re OK” approach to sin, repentance and maturing in the faith.
I was optimistic this spring when I learned that the teens in my June summer school personal finance class would be among the top in the school. I was eager to teach a class of highly motivated, conscientious high school students. It wasn’t a remedial class, rather a chance for them to get ahead. Their intelligence was clear from the start, but I soon was dismayed to discover that more than a third of them were cheating. For several online quizzes, they were asked to submit their scores to me electronically, which I was able to verify by running an independent report. Some students reported receiving A’s when they hadn’t even done the work, while others reported getting A’s and B’s when they really got C’s or lower. When I confronted them, few challenged me. But no one apologized. Not one showed remorse. I was taken aback by the number who cheated and the lack of shame. My mind raced, searching for an explanation. Whatever happened to character education? Had there been a flu epidemic the week their elementary school covered honesty?
I’ve seen a collapse in character on a number of fronts teaching in various public schools. Neglectful parenting and corrosive pop culture certainly play a role. But to that, I would add preaching that doesn’t pay enough attention to virtue. There’s no shortage of churches where I live in Middle Tennessee, and public school students and their parents are among those filing in on Sunday morning. But today, with grace-filled pastors increasingly on guard against sounding moralistic and legalistic, the odds are diminishing that they’ll hear about the importance of Christian behavior, at least in specific detail at length.
That’s unfortunate, since there’s much to cover. There are so many ways we can go wrong and so many things to be warned against. Explicitly. It’s a mistake to assume we’ve reached a point of theological sophistication that doesn’t require us to review the nuts and bolts of what’s needed along the Christian journey, and to be prepared for the reality that the journey is a hard one, and in today’s culture, getting harder by the second.
In recent years, I’ve been assured at church that I’m in a safe place where I can take off my mask, admit I don’t have my act together, and be my authentic self. As comforting as that sounds, it can only be a starting point, not a destination – a starting point we don’t want to linger around at if we’re serious about following God and growing in Christian character. If we want to be authentic, we need to get real about what the Bible actually says. And the Bible leaves no room for a sloppy, sentimental “I’m OK, you’re OK” approach to sin, repentance and maturing in the faith. We are commanded to behave in a way that distinguishes us from nonbelievers.
This is a theme repeated throughout Scripture, but one that pastors seem to be shying away from in their attempts to make Christianity sound appealing to the unchurched. After all, what sounds more off-putting in the age of equality than the idea that Christians are called to be a people set apart? The Apostle Paul, though, doesn’t mince words in describing how we’re supposed to act when compared to the surrounding culture. Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God, without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world. (Philippians 2: 14-15,ESV).
There is amazing forgiveness and grace when we mess up and sincerely repent. But we are not supposed to be protected from feeling bad about our wrongful actions. We are to own what we did and recognize we brought it on ourselves. Pastors talk a lot now about brokenness with respect to the fall of man and our resulting sin nature. There’s nothing wrong with that word, except for its chronic overuse. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard the words broken, brokenness, and broken vessels, I would be able to quit my job, buy a villa off the coast of Italy, and not have to worry about teens with only a passing acquaintance with the truth.
The combined effect of the frequent use of these words can create the idea that sin is something passive, something beyond our control. It can become an excuse for our actions. It contributes to Christian leaders describing the scandals of their peers with words more appropriate for natural disasters and accidents than for egregious violations of God’s word. The Bible, though, is clear that we sin willingly and flagrantly, and that the grief we suffer as a result is for a purpose. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11, ESV) But none of this can happen unless we call out sin for what it is.
As we mature, we hopefully realize that Christian character means striving to do the right thing in everything we do, day in and day out, even if we are not feeling particularly close to God at the moment and even if we don’t have a big audience before us. We look to God for help, but we have to put in human effort. It’s God working in us, but it involves us doing something.
I like how Charles Spurgeon related this to the daily grind in his sermon, “The Character of Christ’s People”: A servant of God will be a God’s-man everywhere. As a chemist, he could not indulge in any tricks that such men might play with their drugs; as a grocer—if indeed it be not a phantom that such things are done—he could not mix sloe leaves with tea or red lead in the pepper; if he practised any other kind of business, he could not for a moment condescend to the little petty shifts, called “methods of business.” To him it is nothing what is called “business;” it is what is called God’s law, he feels that he is not of the world, consequently, he goes against its fashions and its maxims. A singular story is told of a certain Quaker. One day he was bathing in the Thames, and a waterman called out to him, “Ha! there goes the Quaker.” “How do you know I’m a Quaker?” “Because you swim against the stream; it is the way the Quakers always do.” That is the way Christians always ought to do—to swim against the stream. The Lord’s people should not go along with the rest in their worldliness. Their characters should be visibly different.
Churches of all places should be where people can get schooled in character, at a level and depth unrealized by public school character education programs. As Christians, we don’t ultimately place our faith in morality, but we are clearly called to be moral people as defined by God. Faith apart from works is dead, we’re told in James 2:26, and that means more than helping out occasionally at our local homeless shelter and donating clothes to Goodwill.
Our faith should be embedded in the way we think, behave and interact with others. It means we are to be continually conscious of right and wrong as discernable in Scripture. It’s knowing that while we are not saved by works, without them we do not have the mark of a true Christian. All this suggests that works are deserving of a central place in preaching and teaching. Our humble obedience is a response to the love and grace showered on us, and is a recognition that when we commit wrongs such as lying, we are not merely doing something bad in the eyes of the world, but are committing an offense against a holy God.
Wendy Wilson is a teacher and freelance writer. She attends a PCA church in Nashville.