When Texas Rangers outfielder—and recovering addict—Josh Hamilton fell off the wagon earlier this year, popular sports website Deadspin played it up with snark-infested commentary. While Hamilton's night of drinking was nothing compared to the lewd, lascivious behavior of many athletes, he was ridiculed as a hypocrite. Hamilton is vocal about his faith in Christ and the role it has played in his recovery from heroin and alcohol abuse.
It turns out that Hamilton had told his wife, his team, and Major League Baseball about his sobriety failure the day after it occurred. And when photos from his debauched evening went public many months later, he held a press conference, apologizing again to his team, wife, and kids.
"Unfortunately, it happened," he said. "It just reinforces to me that if I'm out there getting ready for a season and taking my focus off the most important thing in my recovery, which is my relationship with Christ, it's amazing how those things creep back in."
Perhaps the media and popular culture are confused about what Christians believe regarding sin and forgiveness because we are, too. Churches with liberal and conservative doctrine are frequently tempted to reduce Christianity to nothing more than morality. One side may be more interested in social change and the other side may be more interested in personal change. But far too often, churches preach and teach the importance of our own moral actions, thereby belittling the importance of what Christ has done for us.
The result is that every time a scandal breaks involving a prominent Christian laid low—South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, Ted Haggard, Mel Gibson—we're treated to an endless news cycle about hypocrisy. But hypocrisy isn't failing to practice what you preach. Hypocrisy is pretending to have beliefs that you don't actually have. Real hypocrisy is rare and difficult to discern.
The battle to overcome sin, on the other hand, plagues every Christian daily. We are usually good at hiding it. Occasionally, our weaknesses are revealed to the world. In the first of his 95 Theses, Luther wrote that Christ "willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance." We know how God wants us to behave, but we regularly fail.
That's why the church and its people are so concerned with forgiveness. As Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick" (Matt. 9:12). The good news of Christianity is that Jesus perfectly kept the law in our stead, and our sins are forgiven through him.
The whole point of the gospel is that we are forgiven when we fail to keep God's Word in thought, word, and deed. As Paul wrote, "For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14).
Of course, in order for the church to be a place of healing and forgiveness, we must correctly diagnose our sin, neither excusing it nor making a bigger deal out of it than Scripture does. The media's inability to comprehend how sin and forgiveness are traditionally understood played out in their coverage of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's (ELCA) recent vote to change its doctrine. The denomination will now roster clergy who are in same-sex relationships. Many media outlets touted the move as "gay friendly."
I am a member of a congregation in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Unlike the ELCA, we teach that all sex outside of marriage is contrary to the will of God. This is an ancient teaching, and we are not inclined to adapt our doctrine to meet the whims of cultural elites.
We certainly have members who identify as having same-sex attractions, who have cheated on their spouses in thought or deed, and who have engaged in premarital sex. In fact, our church is what you might call "sinner friendly." And while we identify all sex outside of marriage as sin, it's still only a sin.
Each and every week, we are confronted with the truth that we are all poor, weak sinners who have fallen short. We confess our sins and receive absolution. We hear the beautiful gospel preached, and we receive Holy Communion. For major-league sinners like me, the good news of forgiveness gives life and strengthens faith.
The struggle with sin unfortunately continues throughout our lives. That is why Ambrose of Milan said of the Eucharist, "Because I always sin, I always need to take the medicine." It's fine for the media to shine a spotlight on Christian sin. But it would be nice if they included the rest of the story, too.
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Previous columns by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway include:
White Flag in the Mommy Wars | The theology that many parents are missing. (September 28, 2009)
'Honor Thy Father' for Grownups | Or, how not to be a deadbeat son or daughter. (July 1, 2009)
Civil Religion's Sharper Teeth | All believers welcome, so long as they aren't religious. (April 27, 2009)
Previous Christianity Today articles about sin include:
Grace Amid the Vices | Exploring the seven deadly sins doesn't have to be depressing. An interview with Glittering Vices author Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. (September 25, 2009)
Amazing Sin, How Deep We're Bound | Finding the courage to trust in grace. (May 1, 2004)
Let God Handle Your Sin | The Christian life isn't so hard when you let God do all the work. (March 1, 2004)
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