Monday, February 05, 2007

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

One of the books I’m reading this semester is Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections. It should be interesting. I, like Jonathan Edwards, am a New Englander, and New England has a not-entirely-undeserved stereotype of being rather sparse in both religion and affection. My only other exposure to the work of Edwards (aside from indirectly, through the contemporary writings of John Piper) was in high school, when his classic sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” came up in our textbook of early American literature. It’s too bad that that sermon, which makes sense within the whole of Edwards’ works but which on its own fails to reflect the robust joy that permeated much of his ministry, has been the only taste of early American Christianity for most teenagers.

Nevertheless, that sermon reflects a part of the powerful theology that drove America into massive revivals, coming to its full flower in the Great Awakening. Why then does it seem so foreign to us? I’ve worshipped in evangelical churches all my life, and I’ve never heard a sermon like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I doubt many would fault Edwards for his theology, but some might be tempted to suggest that his theological focus was misplaced. The real reason why we would be uncomfortable hearing a sermon like “Sinners” in this day and age is a complex one. On the surface, of course, is the fact that it does make us uncomfortable, as well it should. That is its intent. But we’re Americans, and discomfort is something very foreign to us. We come to church to be revived and encouraged, not to be set upon by the guilt-laden messages of hellfire-and-brimstone preachers. Sometimes, though, I think we’d be well-served by a few hellfire-and-brimstone sermons. Jesus had a few of his own. Condemnation of sin and the beauty of grace can go hand in hand. In fact, they were meant to.

Aside from the issue of our own discomfort, though, we as evangelicals are also conscientious of the image we present to the world, and the image of a church that is hard on sin is not attractive to a world that loves its sin. We’ve spent too much time trying to convince people that sin makes them miserable. We should let them decide that on their own. They know as well as we do that sin can be a lot of fun. Our message isn’t to tell them about the empty holes in their hearts, but about the reality of what sin is and what it means in the eternal sense. Truth has a power all of its own, and even an unwelcome truth has the ability to draw people and to change the way they live. While hellfire-and-brimstone sermons may not be the best way of doing that and certainly shouldn’t be the main avenue of that message, it is a telling sign of the times that we have drifted so far away from that medium.

Another reason why we shy away from sermons like Edwards’ “Sinners” is that we have left virtually no room in evangelical worship for honest confession. Our worship is celebratory, and it should be. But the church is both human and divine, both holy and sinful, caught in the tense division between a fading kingdom and a dawning one. We have reason to celebrate Christ’s victory, but we also have reason to mourn our sins, and if we forget either of these pieces we put ourselves in grave danger.

Almost all of the great liturgical traditions—Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and so on—give prominent place to confession in their worship. Together they stand and confess with their mouths that they have sinned—in what they have said, in what they have done, and in what they have failed to do. This is not a dead rote, but a vital piece of healthy communal discipleship. How many evangelical churches actively practice the exhortation of James 5:16—“Confess your sins to one another”? At best, members are encouraged to join accountability relationships, which are a step in the right direction, but which still leave no place for an honest dealing with sin in the corporate life of weekly worship.

Why is corporate confession so important? First, because by not talking about sin and confession, we have lost much of our sense of the horror and gravity of sin. We allow it to seep into our lives by small compromises with our flesh and with the culture around us until we are anesthetized into spiritual slumber. Why is it that Edwards’ congregation threw itself down in tearful protestation at hearing his sermons, while our reaction is merely one of mild revulsion at his repugnantly narrow theology? It’s not that his congregation was easily manipulated; it’s that we don’t understand anymore the terrible reality of sin. We have too often allowed what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” to creep into our churches, brushing sinful behaviors aside in order to focus on the forgiveness we find in Jesus. But unless we understand the horror of sin, then we cannot truly understand forgiveness or grace. Unless we understand sin, we will never understand the holiness of God. Revival does not come without acknowledgment of sin, and this may well be why revival came in Edwards’ day and has not come in our own (at least not in America). We have lost our sense of the fear of God.

Second, corporate confession is important because we need to be honest about ourselves. American Christianity is often caricatured as being a venue where believers merely hide behind holy masks. But people won’t be drawn to a church of false, albeit exuberant, holiness. They will be drawn to a church of breathtaking and forward honesty, to a church where people love one another amidst the struggles of dealing with a sinful world and a sinful inner nature. We have nurtured an environment in which once a person expresses faith in Christ he is (rightly) expected to walk in righteousness. What we haven’t done is nurtured the deep and vibrant sort of community that allows Christians to deal forthrightly with their continuing sins, openly loved and supported by their brothers and sisters in their fight for holiness.

Third, we need to make clear that there is forgiveness for sin. We need to show that there is a way of dealing with the monsters that torment us. There are some people who need no urging to feel the guilt and terror of their own sins—they have that in plenty, and what they need is to find relief and help in living a righteous life. Corporate confession, while general and sometimes vague, can still be a powerful means by which sinful people approach a holy God and find in his response the wonderful secret of amazing grace.

And fourth, we need corporate confession because we have accepted our culture’s insidious focus on the individual. Christians have begun to believe that their “private sins” are no one else’s business, that it’s somehow just between them and God. This is why sexual immorality is so rampant in the church today. This is why sins like gluttony, pride, and vanity are seen as individual failings and personal struggles. But these are all lies, and lies of the highest order. Sin in one believer’s life affects the life of the whole Body. Not only does relegating sin to the realm of individual struggle remove it from the robust power and corrective support of the community, but it eats away at the spiritual life of the local church itself. We are connected in a way that we cannot ever fully understand, in a way that even our greatest theologians will never be able to explain. We are one Body, and private sin is a public matter. My suspicion is that only when we begin to deal communally with our sin—when we begin to love each other as we ought and to live in holiness—only then will we see the enormous power and potential for the church as a Body and community. The fact of the matter is that we’re so blind at the moment that we don’t even know what we’re missing.

So how do we bring confession back to evangelicalism? Liturgy is a good place to start, in the communal confessions that have brought together believers from every land and every age. We also need to give time during worship services to allow believers to stand up and voluntarily confess their sin before the Body. I saw this done in Sudanese churches, with powerful and heart-rending effect. And finally, we need to hear more sermons on sin and righteousness. These are unpopular themes in today’s culture, but they are at the heart of the truth we believe, and truth is worth speaking, no matter what the cost.