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When saints sin

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*This article is from the MB Herald archives, originally published November 8, 1991, in the column “Christian Mind.” Author Walter Unger (1936–2018) served the church as a teacher, administrator, and board member.*


Recently someone queried me on how to interpret the moral lapses of Christian leaders. In our discussion, my friend asserted that the church needs to learn in a new way what repentance is.

Surely the recent downfall of a number of leaders among us is signalling the need to individually and corporately fall prostrate before God in deep sorrow for sin. This needs to be done corporately as well as individually because we all share in the shame and we all are wounded when a brother or sister falls.

Repentance is also needed where we have helped create conditions which have contributed to a leader’s fall. I believe that especially in the evangelical world, people set up leaders for a fall by elevating them, making them super- stars, feeding their egos, thus desensitizing them to their own vulnerability. Woe to the man who believes all the wonderful things people say about him!

When just a few years ago Jimmy Swaggart was heralded as the most watched televangelist in the world, it only provided fuel for pride, self-reliance and triumphalism. These seem to be the sentiments which came through in April 1986 when the evangelist told his audience that if his ministry ceased, most of the evangelism in the world would come to a halt.

The Bible says, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).

God’s blessing rests on those who are humble, not those who are triumphalist. Matthew 5:3 states “O the bliss of the man who has realized his own utter helplessness, who has put his whole trust in God, who is empty so God can fill him” (Barclay).

Humility, or poverty of spirit, is not a matter of simply having low thoughts of oneself or of grovelling in the dust. It is rather a matter of recognizing the grandeur of man as created in the image of God but also acknowledging the sin- fulness of man as fallen and his constant need of God’s redeeming and restraining grace. Thomas à Kempis’ prayer ought to be our daily plea – “O Lord, how entirely needful is thy grace for me, to begin anything good, to proceed with it and to accomplish it. For without thy grace I can do nothing.”

The Loss of Mourning

Not only do we so often lack the blessing which comes through humility and utter dependence on God, we also rarely ascend the heights of blessedness which come from first descending into the depths of mourning (Matthew 5:4). The word which Jesus uses for mourning is the strongest word which he could possibly use. It is the Greek word used of mourning for the dead. It describes deep agony of soul. Our Lord is saying “Blessed is the man or the woman who experiences deep agony of soul, whose heart is broken with repentant sorrow; such shall be comforted.” In our age of positive thinking and high self esteem, mourning and deep, heartrending repentance for sin such as David experienced in Psalm 51 has largely been lost.

Soren Kierkegaard, in his Purity of Heart, speaks of precipitous repentance, that is, repentance that comes quickly, before we have really come to grips with our true condition. “Sudden repentance,” he writes, “would drink down all the bitterness of sorrow in a single draught and then hurry on. It wants to get away from the guilt.”

Through thoughtful, unhurried confession we begin to see our heart as we have never seen it before; we begin to confront our own fallenness as we never have confronted it before. We learn with David: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:17). We begin to understand what Martin Luther said in the first of his Ninety-Five Theses-the entire life of the believer should be one of repentance.

Jesus promises comfort and grace for such broken-hearted, broken-world people. Gordon MacDonald was such a person. He had grievously sinned and felt there would be no tomorrow for him. It came to him one day as he walked along a life-saving rings hanging on poles before, but never really paid serious attention to them because he’d never come close to drowning. Assuming that one day he might be in such a predicament, he says he will now take a much keener interest in life-saving rings.

He writes, “Grace to me is like a life-saving ring. It was thrown out to me in the darkest hours of my life when my world was breaking in tiny pieces, and I was sure I would never have an opportunity to rebuild.” Through the grace of God, he experienced what all of us can experience – there’s hope for the poor and broken in spirit; there’s comfort for those who mourn.

My father, who died at a relatively young age, was an example to me of a contrite man pleading God’s mercy. He had many struggles and failures in his Christian life, but was ready to confess them to God and to others. Earlier in the evening on which he had the heart attack which shortly thereafter took him, he shared a verse with me. It was Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.”

When my father uttered his last words, they were words of confidence in God’ s all-sufficient provision for sinners in Christ: “Jesus, thy blood and righteous- ness, / My beauty are, my glorious dress; / In this before my God I’ll stand, / When enter I to heaven’s land .” I cherish my dad’s demonstrating through his life and death that there is comfort and hope for those who mourn.

What then is to be the response when a saint sins? Grief and mourning. I mourn that a fellow pilgrim has fallen. I pray that he or she will have a true spirit of remorse and repentance, and then the comfort of God’s forgiving, restoring grace.

At the same time, I call to mind my own vulnerability, and as one who knows his own potential for similar sin and worse, I cast myself anew on God’s mercy and grace. I remember that my entire life must be one of repentance.

—Walter Unger is president of Columbia Bible College, Clearbrook, B.C.

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