Here are two recent direct quotes I’ve read from otherwise wonderful, gospel-centered, reformed resources:
“It doesn’t make any sense to get mad at somebody who is lost. It doesn’t make any sense to make it a matter of personal offense against you. It doesn’t make any sense to condemn a lost person with words or throw a punishment at them and walk away. Lost people need understanding and compassion.” – Paul Tripp, “Parenting, 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family”
“Why do we raise our voice when talking to someone who is blind? They aren’t deaf; they just cannot see…A blind man will not see, no matter how hard or loud you yell at him. We cannot fault a man for being blind and demand him to see. We can only pray that Jesus would give him sight and thank Jesus for healing our own blindness.” – Brad House, “Community: Taking Your Small Group Off Life Support”
These are two books I heartily recommend. Yet I was dumbstruck by these two paragraphs.
This view of sin is well beyond the pale of a Reformed view of sin. The Bible does indeed talk about a certain lack of ability to obey God’s law apart from Christ. Yes, and Amen. But the problem with statements like those above is that they treat sin as merely an outside force, and therefore more worthy of compassion than judgment. But if sin is merely an outside force, shackling us to its symptoms like a warren over a prison, then God would not be just in condemning us. It would be like sentencing a man to life in prison for having cancer.
Sin is not merely a disease like ovarian cancer or diabetes. It is a disease for which we are culpable. As Romans 1 so blithely states: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” According to Romans 1, then, blindness is a result of sin, not the other way around.
Jonathan Edwards dealt with this own misunderstanding in his day. The problem with the reformed view, said Edwards’ Arminian opponents, is that “God would not require what he does not allow”. He cannot punish us for sin if we are unable to obey. In response, Edwards asks his readers to imagine two scenarios:
In situation one, a man sits in prison, the door locked from the outside. The warren invites him to freedom, but the man says, “I can’t.” In this case, what he means is: “Though I want to be free, I am trapped.” This is not, Edwards notes, the way to think about slavery to sin.
Rather, he says, imagine a man sitting in prison with the door wide open. The warren genuinely invites the man to freedom. The man says, “I can’t.” In this case he does not mean: “I want to be free, but I’m trapped.” Rather, he means: “I do not want to be free, and you cannot force me. Here I am god, and here I’ll stay.” This, says Edwards, is the true nature of our captivity: yes, we are prisoners – but the prison is of our own hardened, self-centered hearts. In the second case, the prisoner is both imprisoned and culpable – and that is just the way it is with sin.
So when Tripp says: “It doesn’t make sense to make [sin] a a personal offense against you,” we must say that’s a gross misunderstanding of sin. Sin is a personal offense against me! The fact that the offending party is blind to her own sin only makes it the more despicable, because the blinding is self-willed. It allows us to sin without feeling, or thinking about, the weight of our own rebellion. House says: “We cannot fault a man for being blind…” Sure we can! Why? Because our blindness is our choice.
Unlike these statements from two otherwise wonderful authors, the Bible never minimizes sin in order to encourage forgiveness. Rather, it maximizes grace: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” There’s no talk here of excusing sin because it is a symptom of helplessness. That would be like excusing sin in the name of sin!
Rather, the writer of Ephesians gives us permission both to look squarely at the radical nature of sin and the radical grace of God in the gospel. Such thinking won’t make us bitter, judgmental people. Rather, it will make us radically kind and compassionate to sinners. Why? Not because sinners deserve our compassion, but because we too are self-blinded sinners who received a compassion we didn’t deserve.
So yes, be gentle. Be kind. Speak the truth in love. But not because sinners are innocent – they aren’t! Do so because Christ, the only truly innocent victim of sin, suffered for us “while we were yet sinners”. Through Christ, our hearts have been transformed from self-made prisons into temples of God’s glory. As we extend that miraculous gift to others, we become vessels of that transformative grace in the lives of others.
It’s true that yelling, screaming and arguing won’t change people. But the grace of God, flowing from recipients of that same grace, certainly can. Thanks be to God!