Today on Seedbed, J.D. Walt on the Daily Text a devotional entitled “How Sin Continues to Win and How to Beat it.” Describing the struggle we have as Christians against sin, we are often left in a sense of dismal pessimism about the realities of sin; we think sin is just a fact of nature about our life, and so we live as we are defeated, with no power. But, then there is the problem of those who strive for holiness, but find themselves powerless to overcome the sin that has entangled them. So how then does one overcome sin? J.D. writes:
It takes more than me and the Holy Spirit. It requires other people. Until I’m ready to let a couple of other people into the inner sanctum of my soul to help me overcome sin. . . . .
If I may investigate a bit further into this, we in the individualist West have been inclined to construe the realities of sin and righteousness as a primarily an individualist, intrapersonal problem, rather than a relational, interpersonal problem. So the thinking can go by some zealous to pursue righteousness, being Christian is about obeying God, so I need to know God’s law so that I can obey God. While certainly, one talks about God in this manner of thinking, there isn’t a deep consciousness of God’s power engaging the person in that pursuit of righteousness; the I is at the center of righteousness and sin. Even more astute theological thinking that recognizes the problem of human depravity and some form of corrupted will may add something about a divine empowerment in Christ, through the Spirit, etc. to obey, but it is commonly construed as a power that I actively access; whatever God has done, is doing, and will do, it is still construed as something I control and access. At the end, even a more robust form of theological thinking envisions my righteousness and my sin
What has gone wrong here? If I may suggest, it is an overemphasis on individual responsibility. By responsibility, I mean the acceptance of one’s own initiative and ownership of the action’s one takes and the consequences that comes from them. My contention is that the notion of personal responsibility has served to make us overly intrapersonal and individualistic as it pertains to our way of life.
Now, certainly, responsibility is a necessary ingredient when it comes to moral action, because if we never recognize how our behavior stems from our own choices, then we will not seek to direct our choices in a moral manner; we will seek to hide behind some narrative that either a) denies any sense of submission to some ethical principles or b) portray ourselves as helpless victims to whatever impulses were thrown upon us. When we hide from guilt and shame through these narratives, we don’t direct our choices to act in a beneficial, loving, peace-making directions.
However, personal responsibility is not the only ingredient that is necessary for moral action. We need a heart that desires the right things. We need a mind that can comprehend what the right action is. We need the opportunities to take
The personal responsibility narrative leads us to construe human actions based upon our own choices; it rests within ME. God or other people may somehow, someway be involved in my moral choices, but
So what happens when we do something wrong? We “repent” but the nature of the repentance is often construed in intrapersonal terms; I feel bad for something I did, I regret what I did, etc. Less prevalent is the recognition that “I disappointed God” or “I hurt them.” Repentance is about me,
What goes missing in the intrapersonal view of repentance and righteousness? The relational aspects of repentance. Put into sentence form, intrapersonal “repentance” is built around the 1st person pronoun, generally an ‘I’ but it can in some circumstances be a ‘we’, and a verb or verbal phrase of moral
This leads to a further problem. If repentance makes my own state of failure or guilt take center-stage while those who I disappointed or hurt are only on the periphery, then engaging in repentance becomes about myself, about my own standing in the eyes of myself and even the eyes of others, about my own redemption. Even in repentance and expressing being sorry, we can make ourselves the center of the story, and the actual impact of our actions on others or to our relationship to God is not significant.
This is where John the Baptist’s rebuke of the repentance of Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 3:7-10 is particularly insightful:
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree
thereforethat does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Jesus will later to go on to criticize many of their religious practices in the Sermon on the Mount as having a self-serving attitude behind them. Here, John the Baptist warns that simply “repenting” isn’t sufficient for God’s judgment. Repentance must bear fruit, it needs to lead to a change of action to avoid being like a tree that is cut down for not bearing good fruit. But John the Baptist doesn’t simply exhort them to bear fruit in repentance, but he takes down a rationalization that probably took place. These leaders have repented, and their lives being center-stage in the drama of their own lives, they believe their repentance is all they need to be on the good side of
This similar pattern has under-girded intrapersonal Christianity. You need to take personal responsibility for the sins you do, but once you recognize your sins, you are good, because Jesus Christ’s sacrifice is what secures your future. Repent and believe is a formula for getting to heaven, rather than a formula for our lives to be engaged with the transformation that is ushered in with the coming of God’s kingdom. So then, much as the Pharisees (and Sadducees) had a penchant to treat repentance as a formulaic action that
What isn’t important about repentance then is the making of amends for our sins. One doesn’t need to actually act
The clearest demonstration of this pattern within church circles was the story of Andy Savage, who got a cheering ovation from his church after he told the story of sexually assaulting Jules Woodson, which he admitted only after the accusations. While I don’t want to weigh too heavily into the nature of this matter, as there are a lot of complex factors and I am not trying to fault how Savage tried to handle things, I want to highlight the basic problem of how the culture of intrapersonal Christianity treated this: what wasn’t celebrated was the accused actually making amends to the accuser and a process of real redemption; what was celebrated
Now, certainly, repentance is celebrated in the Scriptures. In the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son in Luke 15, Jesus talks about the celebration that occurs after what was lost has been found. But these parables of repentance do not describe an individual person who has recognized their own problems; they describe someone who has lost something finding what was rightfully theirs. Those who lost something were rightfully restored. The emphasis on these stories is NOT on the sinner own self-recognition; in
What is the point behind all of this? The repentance that Jesus and John the Baptist teaches about is a different type of repentance from what the Pharisees engage in. It isn’t a repentance of personal responsibility of the sinner, but a repentance that is brought about in the sinner by the pursuit of those who have been deprived or lost. The aggrieved, not the sinner,
What does this mean? New Testament repentance doesn’t have the sinner take center stage, but God and the people who have been hurt. The implication behind this, then, is that the relationship between the aggrieved and aggrievers is restored due to a) the seeking and openness by the aggrieved and b) the responsiveness to this seeking and pursuit by the aggrievers. What is to be celebrated is rightness of relationship being formed as repentance leads to the fruits of rightly directed action towards God and others, not simply that a sinner recognizes their sin.1
And this is part of the reason why we must be in relationship to overcome sin. Certainly, we need people to point out the blind spots of our life, to allow the Spirit to speak to us in our life. But beyond that, recognizing sin entails recognizing the interpersonal dimension of sin and bearing fruits consistent with recognizing this interpersonal rupturing with God or others. But insofar as we make repentance simply about a recognition and public confession of our sin and fail to act upon the
In other words, because sin is a negative interpersonal action, whether with God, others, or both, one can only overcome sin by being in (an appropriate) relationship and putting into action positive interpersonal actions. What these positive interpersonal behaviors will look like depends on who is it and what has been done, but in terms of thinking, it entails a more interpersonal view of sin and repentance, which means the personal responsibility of the sinner is not all that is needed or the only thing that is important. In fact, an interpersonal view of sin and repentance means that the one who has been aggrieved is more important.6
But here is
So, in support of JD’s point, because sin is a deeply interpersonal reality, we do not overcome sin until we engage interpersonally with those you have sinned against with repentance that bears the fruit of new actions. Seeing this will entail de-emphasizing, while not forgetting, the personal responsibility narrative, that makes the space in our minds and hearts for God and others in the pursuit of righteousness. But insofar as we think overcoming sin is simply about taking responsibility to manage “myself,” we avoid the very causal root of sin, our failure in our relationships with God and one another.
As John Wesley said: “Directly opposite to this is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.” As it is with the Gospel, so it is with sin and repentance. We don’t fully overcome the habits of sin without the help of those we sinned again, which entails the grace and forgiveness of those we sinned against.
- More can and should be said about what a “rightness of relationship” should look like in different situations. For instance, in cases of sexual assault it will look very different than in cases of mere deception, for instance. The “rightness of relationship” is not some strict rule that the people must be close to one another, but rather what is morally due from aggrieved to the aggriever is realized.
- Romans 7
- Romans 8:1-13
- Romans 6:19
- Romans 8:13
- It is true that this narrative about sin and repentance itself can also be manipulated in destructive ways, just as the personal responsibility narrative has been, by being employed for the vindictive purposes of the humiliation, control, and absolute deprivation of dignity to the sinner that also undercuts Jesus view of repentance. However, when the deleterious effects of the personal responsibility narrative is present, the fear that the interpersonal narrative could turn bad should not be an excuse from placing the emphasis on the aggrieved rather than the aggriever.