The Reformers outlined several marks of the church: the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and, at times, godly discipline or biblical worship. Today, they would need to add another: constant apologizing to the world.
Whether it is saying sorry to the world for the election of Trump, or for racism, or for not being loving to the LGBTQ community, Christians now seem to spend a lot of their time apologizing. One might be forgiven at times for thinking that the world is going to hell in a handbag because of the church and her failings rather than anything the world itself has chosen to do. Of course the church, being full of ordinary people, sadly often reflects the behavior of the surrounding world even as she is called to something higher. That was the case in Corinth in the first century, when Paul was forced to call out the Christians there for factionalism, a worldly view of power, and the tolerance—if not the indulgence—of the same sexual immorality that characterized the world.
There are times when apologies to the world are appropriate. The church claims to reflect the character of God; when she does not, then she has let the world down. She is meant to present a vision of holiness that convicts the world of its rebellion against God and thus helps draw it to repentance toward God. The church cannot lecture the world about what is and is not good and true if she is indulging in what she decries as wicked and ugly. But the church’s biggest problem is not that she has failed the world, but that she has failed God. It is to him that repentance is to be expressed. This is why David, king of Israel, the one charged with representing the godly rule of God to his people, declares that he has sinned against God and God only in Psalm 51. This is after he has taken another man’s wife and then conspired to have him killed. Clearly, David knew that he had sinned against both Bathsheba and Uriah. But knowing the holiness of God and his status before him, it was his sin against God that overwhelmed his emotions. It is to God first that he addresses his sorrow and remorse.
Today, one needs barely glance at Christian Twitter to see endless repentance for the sins that the world regards as top priority. One finds many horizontal repentances directed toward other men and women, but little that is directed heavenward. Not many repentant racists use the language of “against you, you only, have I sinned” when they mull over past bigotry to which their churches, or maybe even themselves, have been party. And that is interesting.
I wonder if today’s turmoil is partly due to the fact that much of this current repentance is but hokey wokeness, selective in the sins it calls out—and selective on the basis of what the world thinks is important. This, we think, is the way to make the world take us seriously once again—as if the world ever has taken us seriously, or is even meant to.
If we step back from racism for a moment and think of other social sins, an interesting picture emerges. Take sex trafficking, for example. We hear little about the evils of this sin either on prime time news, or among the trendy Christian twitterati, or, I suspect, from many of the pulpits up and down the country. And yet sex trafficking is thought to affect virtually every zip code in the United States, and is a modern form of slavery, as it turns human beings into commercial objects with no dignity of their own. Sex trafficking is also connected to the pornography industry. I would be more inclined to accept the social justice purges of various companies if they also required their employees to provide the history logs of their Internet searches and fired anyone caught downloading pornography (and thus helping to perpetuate the sex trafficking industry). Of course, that is unlikely to happen. First, because at this moment, standing against sex trafficking does not carry the cultural cachet of other social justice causes. And second (to channel my inner Marxist) because it would likely lead to firing so many employees that it would actually cost the companies something more than constant emails, reassuring us they are not racists.
The church does need to repent. But repentances that are oriented toward the world rather than God—and reflective not of the whole counsel of God but of the immediate moral priorities of this present age—seem designed to enhance our status in the world rather than truly abase us before a holy God. This is especially true when they are ostentatiously performed on social media. The Puritans considered even our best repentances to be so stained with sin that they needed to be repented of. How much more those designed to curry favor from the world?
When Paul lambasts the Corinthians for their sinful behavior, he seems less concerned with what the world thinks of the congregation than with its status before God. There is a worrying lesson there for the church in a day when repentance—at least on some issues—seems not so much the thing that distinguishes her from the world but rather the cover charge for a place at the world’s table.
Carl R. Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and senior fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom. His forthcoming book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, is due to be published in November.
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