Christians Can Be Terrible–You Should Know This Going In

Head in HandsChristians can be terrible. As a reader of the New Testament, this doesn’t surprise me. One of the major premises of the Christian faith is that humans are so flawed, so broken, so rebellious, and so unable to redeem themselves that the eternal Son had to incarnate himself, live, die, and rise again in order to fix them (Romans 1-8). I suppose what does shock me is that Christians are still surprised when other Christians are terrible.

For instance, every time some news report comes out about a pastoral failure, or a fiasco in Evangelical culture, or abuse in the Church, it’s common to see Christians of various stripes updating and bewailing said fiasco. While that’s fine, and probably necessary to some degree, the one attitude I find myself chafing at rather regularly is the “I don’t know if I can call myself a Christian” anymore impulse.

It’s as if this person were introduced to Christianity by having them read bits of Acts, without reading Paul, the Gospels, or heck, even the rest of Acts. As if they were promised a Christianity with nice, cleaned up people, with perfectly cleaned up story arcs where all the sin is “back there” in the past, never to rear its ugly head, so that you don’t have the bear the ignominy of being associated with such foul stupidity and wickedness. Then when they meet real Christians–you know, the sinning kind–they suffer a sort of whiplash on contact.

Well, in order to prevent the kind of whiplash I’m talking about, I’d like to present an incomplete list of sins, wicked behaviors, or assorted troubling phenomena that the New Testament notes happening in the early years–in just 1 Corinthians alone:

  • Arguments about personality cults (ch. 1-4)
  • Lawsuits between believers (ch. 5)
  • Incest, or sexual immorality so gross that even the pagans are shocked (ch. 5-6)
  • Visiting prostitutes, or sexuality that’s basically just pagan (ch. 6)
  • Bizarre confusion about the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality (ch. 7)
  • Confusion on gender issues in relation to culture (ch. 11)
  • Inequality and pride based on social and economic distinction (ch. 11)
  • People getting drunk at church before communion (ch. 11)
  • Gross spiritual pride related to the gifts (ch. 12-14)
  • Confusion on eschatology and core theological issues like the resurrection of Christ (ch. 15)

How about some other Pauline epistles?

  • Syncretism and mix and match spirituality (Col 1)
  • Legalism and false ascetic restrictions (Col 2; Rom 14)
  • Ethnic particularism and pride (Galatians)
  • Arguments between solid, believing Christians (Phil 4)
  • False teachers perverting doctrine and lying about godly pastors (2 Cor 10)
  • Free-loaders who won’t work, but leach off the community (1-2 Thes)

Honestly, we could just keep going for a while here. These are the kinds of things that the authors of the New Testament, the Apostles who regularly performed miracles and such, had to warn their congregations about.

Now, there is a real sense in which these things “don’t happen” among Christians. D.A. Carson, when talking about the statement in 1 John 3:9 “no one who is born of God will continue to sin”, told a story about an old teacher he had. The teacher would say in class, “We do not chew gum here.” Now, the force of the statement is such to say that, “as a rule, gum-chewing is forbidden and we take it seriously.” Still, he wouldn’t have said it if it weren’t for the fact that people regularly tried, and occasionally did, end up chewing gum in class.  In the same way, Christians do not, and should not sin in the various ways I listed above. At the same time, though, if Paul, or John, or Jesus, are warning about them, clearly they have happened in church. What’s more, apparently these are the kinds of warnings they expected might come in handy for future believers as well, otherwise they wouldn’t be in Scripture (1 Cor 10).

All that said, I suppose I want to say a few things.

First, yes, sin in the life of the believer is many senses shocking. It’s shocking in its flagrance. It’s shocking in its ingratitude towards the Savior. It’s shocking in its resistance to the Holy Spirit who now empowers the believer to a life of obedience. It’s shocking because sin, at core, makes no sense. Yet should it be surprising? Not to anyone who has taken the time to read the New Testament it shouldn’t be.

Second, keep in mind Jesus tends to save all sorts. He saves people from healthy family situations that predisposes them towards basic, moral, sociability that we enjoy. He also saves people out of broken social situations, drugs, prostitution. He saves them out of hyper-religious legalism. He saves them out of sexual addiction and rage. Given all the different pits Jesus manages to drag people out of, don’t be surprised to see varieties of dirt and muck still clinging to them as he sets himself to the slow task of cleaning them up again.

Finally, have a care for your own pride. As Paul says,

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

Remember where you came from. You weren’t on the spiritual a-team either. You’re still not. And yet you don’t want to be ‘associated’ with those people because you’re name is such a big deal? Paul says to us here, “if your name is anything, it’s only because “in Christ” you have gained wisdom, righteousness, and so forth. It is because holy Jesus was willing to identify himself with what is low, foolish, sinful and broken”–you know, you and I. If you have any great shame, any great disgust at the sin of your fellow believer, make sure it is because you care about his name not yours.

And then praise his Name when you remember he’s willing to share it with all sorts.

Soli Deo Gloria

23 thoughts on “Christians Can Be Terrible–You Should Know This Going In

  1. Thanks for the post Derek. I might guard against moving from one extreme to the other and remark on what Carson said of 1 Jn 3.9

    “Now, there is a real sense in which these things “don’t happen” among Christians. D.A. Carson, when talking about the statement in 1 John 3:9 “no one who is born of God will continue to sin”, told a story about an old teacher he had. The teacher would say in class, “We do not chew gum here.” Now, the force of the statement is such to say that, “as a rule, gum-chewing is forbidden and we take it seriously.” Still, he wouldn’t have said it if it weren’t for the fact that people regularly tried, and occasionally did, end up chewing gum in class. In the same way, Christians do not, and should not sin in the various ways I listed above. At the same time, though, if Paul, or John, or Jesus, are warning about them, clearly they have happened in church.”

    After John says this (1 Jn 3.9) he gives the explanation;
    “10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”

    John is saying a persistent practice in sin is a sure fire way to highlight the person is not a child of God, rather is a child of the Devil. And vice versa, persistent practice of righteousness highlights a person is righteous, a child of God. This is why he says ‘By this it is evident who…’ Of course at times all have sinned. But the emphasis here is on constant practice.

    Carson is right to point out the statement is made because people were ‘chewing in class’ and it happens in church, but he is wrong to assume from this passage they were the children of God – Christians. Rather their persistent behaviour makes it evident they are ‘children of the devil’. When people continue in sin its right to question whether they are God’s people or not (e.g. Tit 1.16 ‘profess to know God’; 1 Cor 5.11 ‘bears the name of a brother’). Paul did.

  2. I’ve read Romans 7, many times. He is speaking about himself, how he does what we shouldn’t and how he doesn’t do what he should.

    Doesn’t that describe you?

    It describes me…and every other Christian I have ever known.

    • Why not include repentance within the purview of Christian-life and perfecting?

      The problem is not that Christians sin, but that supposed Christians sin so boldly without a hint of repentance (which is different than feeling sorry). The problem is these so-called leaders do not boast in their weakness, but hoist themselves up as beyond. Even the account of Paul writing to the Corinthians, their problem was they boasted in sins and not repented of them.

      It shouldn’t be shocking in as much as men sin, but shocking that the litmus test for elders/bishops/leaders of the Lord’s people are not the ones proscribed in his letters, but finely tuned doctrinal agreements and a degree from seminary. Not that doctrine is not important (it really is), but we’re not taking a moment to see whether those we have elected as shepherds are humble(!) and loving.


      Steve: While I take Romans 7 to be about the believer (as you do), it ends with the proclamation of Romans 8. We don’t walk according to the flesh, but the Spirit. This is, again, a movemement of repentance. Jesus’ dichotomy between light and dark is not primarily moral, but found in His split between truth and evil. Those who walk in the light expose (themselves firstly) works of darkness.

    • Romans 7 in context can’t be speaking of Paul’s post conversion life. You have to consider everything he just said in chapter 6, the old man/sinful self was crucified with Christ. Dead. Romans 7:1 gives specific context to his first person story, “Im speaking to those who know the law”, which is a literary style to drive home the point: under the law, all I could is sin, I had no power to not sin. He even nails this shut by ending chapter 7 (vs 25) exclaiming that Christ’s work on the cross has saved him from powerless sinning. Romans 8 is affirming what he just spent two chapters explaining, that Christ set us free from sin and we are no longer bound to the sinful nature that once controlled us.

      Paul is shouting the good news of the Gospel, that sin is dead in us/holds no power over us, we are now slaves of righteousness, an entirely new creation, one with God Himself. This is why the Spirit dwells in a believer, in fact the entire Godhead, because Jesus made us righteous and holy, now, at the point of faith in Him. Its true that to the extent you believe that Christ freed you from sin is the extent that you actually will live out that freedom. Paul spoke this gospel in many other letters, and showed that sin was dealt with at the cross, it doesn’t “live” in us, we aren’t controlled by it, we are a new creation living in a new kingdom.

      So why do we (Christians) sin? Because most people aren’t taught that Jesus “performed a spiritual circumcision” in us, the cutting away of our sinful nature (Col. 2:11), and so we don’t believe it. We spend our time shadowboxing something that Christ already killed (Romans 6). We shouldn’t be sin conscious but grace conscious, understanding that we live under grace not law. Nowhere in the NT does it say that Christians are redeemed sinners still prone to sinning, by nature (Holy Spirit living in us) we are prone to righteousness.

      Paul says again and again that we are not the same when we believe. Our very nature changes. Peter mentions that we share in Gods divine nature in 2 Peter 1:4.

      So when Christians sin, its a shock because we aren’t sinning as those without the Holy Spirit. It goes against who we are in Christ and who He is in us.

      My apologies for being preachy.

      • Ok.

        You guys keep working on it. Focus on the self.

        Romans 6 tells us that “we are to consider ourselves dead to sin.”

        Our old sinful self (as far as God is concerned) was put to death in the water of Baptism when God’s Word of promise was attached to that water.

        This…brings freedom. (Gal. 5:1)

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  4. Steve: A life of repentance, walking in the Light, is freedom. Because Jesus is my salvation, and in Him I can see God’s friendly heart, I can actually deal with my ‘self’ realistically. Because I died with Christ, and am risen, I am not my own. Therefore, I may not let sin reign in my body. Any action is predicated on the indicative: Christ is risen, in Him so are you, now live!

    Passages upon passages exhort to walk in the Spirit, to imitate Christ, to grow in patience and love. The base of all of this is repentance. Not a singular, quantifiable act (or acts), but a disposition.

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  8. Cal,

    Repentance is NOT a work that ‘we do’.

    Walking in the Spirit is walking by faith…not by sight. We trust that God is at work in us no matter what we see in ourselves…or the world around us.

    We can know that we are in Christ, because we know that He Baptized us, and gave us His promises….adopted us and made us His own in that Baptism.

    In this, we can have real assurance…and real freedom. Totally apart from anything that we do, say, feel, or think.


    • Of course repentance is not a work we do, it’s a direction we face. As in the old baptismal creeds, we must renounce the devil as we put on Christ.

      Again, of course, life in the Spirit is one of faith, because it’s upon the salvation wrought by the Son of God. He washed me, He opened my eyes, He gave me a heart of flesh, He unstopped my ears.

      None of what you said is contrary to my original point: it’s sad that we have so many so-called leaders who lack the disposition of repentance, of walking in the light. Instead we have scandal after scandal, refusing to live in the light which the Son of God placed them in. They make themselves blind, and such men are immature to shepherd God’s people.

      This isn’t about focusing on myself. That is the root of why we crave our reputations and need to moralize, and hide in the dark. Repentance is a turning outwards to the Son of God.

      I don’t understand the quick jabs of ‘keep working’. How is that helpful for a conversation?


      • If someone make the point of the need to work on their sins for a right relationship with God…then (unwittingly maybe) they are advocating a sort of works/righteousness.

        The fact of the matter is that we don’t want to stop sinning. Otherwise we would.

        But God has killed sin off in our lives in our Baptism. That is exactly what Romans 6 says.

        So now we are able to forget about ourselves and our spiritual ascendency project…and we are now able to concentrate on loving the neighbor.

        There’s real freedom in that.

  9. A good word! We always need to remember that any Christian (including myself) is capable of any sin, but for the grace of God. I can think of two kindred reactions to these that we have to mind:

    1) Excusing sin in “my people” and castigating it in “those people.” We can be tempted to respond to the sins of our tribe differently than we respond to those of people outside our tribe: I can explain away or downplay my homeboy’s porn addiction, but scream “I told you so!” when that other guy’s comes out. We need to be careful to balance our understanding and our stone-throwing.

    2) Excusing “my kind of sin” and “that kind of sin.” This is maybe more insidious than the first reaction, but I think we all have sins that we “understand” more in others, for whatever reason. Maybe our judgment is tempered by lifelong struggle with that sin; maybe we just don’t think that brand is that big a deal; but, while some sins have weightier effects or consequences than others, we should pay attention to how we weight pride, lust, deception, etc.

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