The initial shock over Ted Haggard's fall has passed. The mainstream media spotlight has thankfully turned elsewhere. Nevertheless, Haggard's New Life Church and evangelicals nationwide continue to wrestle with disappointment, anger, grief, and compassion. One particular question has burdened many: How can I avoid something like this happening to my church, my spouse, or me?
One place to begin is by recalling that no one is exempt from temptation. Our "enemy the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (1 Pet. 5:8). Temptations will vary, as do our responsibilities, and Haggard's fall reminds us that God holds leaders to strict standards (James 3:1), even though their temptations may be more severe.
Reactions to Haggard again testify that evangelicals, contrary to many cinematic portrayals, have a warm appreciation for the grace of God. Most of us have heeded Jesus' warning not to judge, echoed by Paul: "Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" (Rom. 2:4). Many evangelicals, having fled from churches characterized more by judgment and hypocrisy than by grace and holiness, have no interest in condemning Haggard.
At the same time, we must not unwittingly encourage misconduct. Despite his struggles, Paul also wrote, "We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin" (Rom. 6:6).
How do we treat sinners (that is, one another) with compassion, while still taking sin with utmost seriousness? Some call for increased accountability that can sound like legalism. Others fall over backwards to dismiss sin as mere human weakness that we must learn to live with. The Bible never divorces grace from holiness, and we are wise to recall the great biblical principle: Only by God's grace do any of us become holy. True grace not only treats sinners with compassion, but it also calls and enables them to live a life of holiness.
Holiness is indeed God's indisputable call on us: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect," Jesus commanded (Mt. 5:48). Phoebe Palmer, the influential 19th-century holiness leader, put it this way: "If you are not a holy Christian, you are not a Bible Christian."
The life of holiness is more arduous than the war on terror, which is why we need help from our wisest teachers. "Be killing sin or it will be killing you," Puritan theologian John Owen warned in the 17th-century classic Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers.
Owen said we start by confessing our need for Christ to accomplish this work within us. We're encouraged to do so precisely because of the mercy and tenderness of God, our High Priest (Heb. 4:15-16). Finally, we can be confident that God will break the bondage of sin. As Owen wrote, "[N]ever any soul did or shall perish by the power of any lust, sin, or corruption, who could raise his soul by faith to an expectation of relief from Jesus Christ."
Thus, the "impossible" command to be holy as our heavenly Father is holy is grounded in the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Grace and holiness merged at Calvary. And so "sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace" (Rom. 6:14).
Nothing new here, really. Just a review of the gospel, the Good News. But recent events suggest it is a good time to recall the fundamentals.
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