books, confession, Gospel, Law, leadership, purity, Randy Alcorn, repentance, Scripture, sexual sin, theology
What should pastors do to keep their noses clean…or, as we say in the Christian world, themselves pure? Randy Alcorn has an article which has been highly distributed over the years which I would like to comment on.
In 1989, the book Sins of the Body was published in The Leadership Library, edited by Terry Muck. It featured articles written by a wide variety of Christian authors. The article which shares the same name as this blog post, was written by Randy Alcorn. Christianity Today has the article available on its website here. Recently, some folks asked me what I thought of Randy Alcorn. It’s been a significant amount of time since I’ve read a book by him, but I wanted to sketch out the apprehension I have for Alcorn using this article as a foil.
My operating assumption is that Randy Alcorn doesn’t understand law and gospel properly and therefore gives rather toxic advice. Alcorn offers himself as the example instead of Christ and in doing so, contributes to the problem.
In his article, Alcorn elaborates on some “Practical Guidelines for Sexual Purity.” Briefly, they are monitoring my spiritual pulse, guarding my marriage, taking precautions, dealing with the subtle signs of sexual attraction, backing off early, clearing cloudy thoughts, holding myself accountable, guarding my mind, and regularly rehearsing the consequences. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to address only the first and last of his suggestions in this post.
Monitoring My Spiritual Pulse
Often those who fall into sexual sin can point back to lapses in their practices of meditation, worship, prayer, and the healthy self-examination such disciplines foster. (Page 111)
So is this true? What does this statement assume? First, it assumes that spiritual disciplines are effective in staving off temptation. Are they really?
To what does Paul attribute his purity, his righteousness, his obedience? Is it his meditation or regular worship? Or is it Christ? Over and over, Paul’s standing in holiness is attributed by him to be as a result of his union with Christ, in Christ’s imputed righteousness…not as a result of his maintenance of spiritual practices.
Is there, in fact, usefulness in going to God’s word and meditating on it? Yes, a thousand times: yes! But is the remedy to sexual sin things like self-examination or prayer? My answer would have to be no: if it were so, then Christ would have come for no purpose, since everything to save us from sin would’ve already been given to us in the Law.
Rehearse the Consequences
I met with a man who had been a leader in a Christian organization until he fell into immorality. I asked him, “What could have been done to prevent this?”
He paused for only a moment, then said with haunting pain and precision, “If only I had really known, really thought through, what it would cost me and my family and my Lord, I honestly believe I never would have done it.”
In the wake of several Christian leaders’ falling into immorality, a co-pastor and I developed a list of specific consequences that would result from our immorality. The list was devastating, and to us it splke more powerfully than any sermon or article on the subject. (pg. 117)
I don’t know who the man Randy interviewed is…and he very well may think he meant what he said. But if knowledge is the ultimate sin-deterrent, then Christ died for no purpose. A person’s sin, no matter how small or grandiose to our eyes, has already cost the very life of the Son. In that context, the man’s comments Alcorn cites make relatively no sense. God’s collateral in the world is not in His children’s ability to keep the law and be morally upright. No, His right to speak to a dead and dying world is both in the sacrifice of His Son and His status as Creator of All Things.
When someone uses a list of shame to keep themselves from sin, they aren’t even running the equation in reverse. No, they’re running the wrong equation entirely. Paul, in rebuking the fornicators in 1 Cor. 5 does not use shame; instead he appeals to the Gospel. Should they be ashamed? Yes…and Paul indicates as much. But the primary corrective lens applied to the situation is the Gospel, not the Law. If you don’t believe me, read the whole book of 1 Corinthians. It will give the context to which I’m appealing.
Interestingly enough, Alcorn never once applies the Gospel to the situation. What should a pastor who finds himself in a lustful situation do? How should he repent? Alcorn’s answer can be summed up this way: “If you’re on a diet, don’t go into a doughnut shop.” Is this the Gospel of our Lord and Savior?
This list he refers to in print form follows the article. It has been reprinted online in a separate article here. Since those links are (at least at the time of this writing) available for your perusal, I’ll not bore anyone with the complete rehash. But I do have some comments to make about this list, so it would be useful to at least glance at the list.
Most of the advice offered by Alcorn in this list, like the article proper, does not take into account the Gospel. Many of the cautions revolve around fear (“Losing my wife’s respect and trust,” or “Causing a pregnancy,” or even “getting AIDS”), shame (“Invoking shame and life-long embarrassment upon myself,” or “Creating a form of guilt awfully hard to shake…even though God would forgive me, would I forgive myself?”) and my favorite, a complete mis-characterization of how reward works in heaven, something which is echoed in his book, Heaven (“One day having to look at Jesus…in the face and give an account of my actions”).
The “would I forgive myself” question merits an entire blog post in and of itself…but it’s sufficient to say that if one operates in psychological categories of ‘forgiving oneself’, then one isn’t operating biblically…and indeed, hasn’t confronted the fact that when David sinned and sang about it Psalm 51, he didn’t say, “Against myself have I sinned.” He said, “Against you, God, only have I sinned.” Forgiving oneself, if one grants the appropriateness of such terminology, comes from understanding the graciousness of God the Father in Christ, given to us in His death in our union with Him.
We are rewarded according to works, for sure…but not our own. We are rewarded according to Christ’s work on our behalf (if I’m reading Scripture correctly at this point) and thus, if Mr. Alcorn is indeed in Christ, he’s in for a treat: he won’t be answering for his sins, because Jesus already has done that. His righteousness is not in the fact that he’s kept it in his pants (if you’ll allow me a moment of crudeness). His righteousness is in Christ’s work on his behalf…alone. Randy adds nothing to it.
This is why preaching Christ and not ourselves or our successes is so important, pastors. If Randy Alcorn were to sin sexually, this would be a grievous thing…and people would look at this article and say, “Poor schmuck…couldn’t even take his own advice.” And they would be right, of course. But where is the redemption? Where is the help for the pastor who hasn’t maintained purity? Does Christ’s blood leave them out? Are the chaste the only ones who inherit the kingdom of God?
Of course not. This article which claims to be practical advice for pastors on purity issues is actually contributing to the problem. It’s taught a generation of pastors (if not more) to trust in their own righteousness, in pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. The word “repentance” never even appears in the article. Isn’t there something wrong here?
Much to ponder on here. I agree with you… spiritual disciplines do not necessarily keep us from sin. Do we actually think we can keep ourselves from sin by our own efforts? Duh! Sexual sin is often seen the VERY worst. It may have big consequences, especially when married partners are involved, but other stuff like injustice, gossip etc also can destroy people and we accept those things more easily.
Wow. Can I say thank you? I’m a new Christian as of this year and you don’t know how much this helps. I have been going to counselling at church for my homosexual “problem” and have become more and more independent in my thinking and even accepting of my orientation now. Something has always seemed just barely off with his advice, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, and now I know why. Because it never really goes back to the gospel and only furthers a sense of burdening guilt.
I think God’s been trying to teach me this concept the past few weeks. That guilt and conviction are completely different primarily because Satan uses guilt and God uses conviction. Guilt is only negative and leads to despair (“I am the scum of the earth, and I shouldn’t even be living right now–God just strike me with lightning”). But conviction is a tap on the shoulder by the Holy Spirit saying, “That wasn’t very Christlike was it? And I am so thankful he has bought and paid for that specific sin. Now I need to draw nearer relationally to God to help change this habit for the sake of the gospel and for God’s pleasure.” That I think is what Paul would say to pastors today if he could.
Anyways, I am thoroughly enjoying reading your posts and would love to talk more in-depth at some point. Keep pursuing Christ!
Dawn K said:
What this reminds me of is Rick Warren’s speech at the Desiring God conference where he basically said that sin is the result of wrong belief – a rather Pelagian teaching. The premise of the article seems to be “if I can have the right knowledge and right beliefs and do all the right things, I can avoid sinning.”
But sin is more than just the outward deed. It involves the thoughts of the heart. A person who finds him/herself in a lustful situation has sinned way before they get to the point of any outward action. In addition, the mindset of “if you’re on a diet, don’t go into a doughnut shop” presumes that the doughnuts are what cause the temptation. But on the other hand I might crave the doughnuts even more if I don’t see them because the desire for them is in my heart, not outside of me. So many people seem to think that “if I can just avoid X, Y and Z then I won’t be sinning.” But as Jesus said, it’s out of our heart that come all sorts of adulteries and wickedness. One can throw away their TV set and their computer and never again interact with or even look at a person of the opposite sex (or the same sex if that’s who they’re attracted to) and still fall into sexual sin of both thought and deed.
The only answer is the Gospel – both for the forgiveness of the sins we have committed and as a deterrent against sin. Remembering one’s Baptism (Romans 6) is very helpful in this regard. It seems to me as though Satan has corrupted the church’s teaching on Baptism to rob people of both the assurance of forgiveness and of the power to resist temptation.
If I might add a scripture here:
1 John 1:8-9 (King James Version)
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
From what I’ve read it appears Randy Alcorn is attempting to create a self righteous person who fully trusts in his/her ability to keep themselves out of sin. Which of course in incorrect and not biblical. Jesus told us to pray this way:
Luke 11:4 (King James Version)
And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.
Jesus told us to ask God to lead us not into temptation and to deliver us from evil. This would cause us to put our total dependence in the Gospel, which is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as the is the propitiation for our sins. By this alone are we free from the bondage of sin, not by keeping ourselves righteous….This is a major error in the church today, for we love to hear how we can better ourselves and downplay the cross where our freedom was effectively paid for.
Excellent observations. Thank you for your comment!