In a recent blog post, popular writer and blogger Rachel Held Evans addressed the relationship of sin to the lives of Christians. Before I summarize my understanding of her argument, and why I disagree with her, I want to say that I really appreciate Rachel’s demeanor online. From my reading of her writing she is a good model of a Christian blogging and using social media. She avoids sarcasm, mischaracterizing positions she disagrees with to score cheap points, or writing misleading or inaccurate things simply to get hits. Rachel Held Evans is a gifted writer who comes across as doing the best that she can to fairly represent the various perspectives that she engages in her writing. I will do my best to accurately represent her position and to respond to her with charity and fairness. Ultimately, my concern is not to get in an argument with Rachel, but to articulate why holiness matters and is an essential part of the Christian life.
I think the best entry into the main argument of her post is the very beginning. She wrote:
How’s that working out for you?
The “go and sin no more” thing?
Because it’s not going so well for me.
I’ve known Jesus for as long as I’ve known my name, and still I use other people like capital to advance my own interest, still I gossip to make myself feel important, still I curse my brothers and sisters in one breath and sing praise songs in the next, still I sit in church with arms folded and cynicism coursing through my bloodstream, still I talk a big game about caring for the poor without doing much to change my own habits, still I indulge in food I’m not hungry for and jewelry I don’t need, still I obsess over what people say about me on the internet, still I forget my own privilege, still I talk more than I listen and complain more than I thank, still I commit acts of evil, still I make a great commenter on Christianity and a lousy practitioner of it.
But Jesus pours out his mercy, staying the hand of my accusers again and again and again. I go, stepping over scattered stones, forgiven, grateful, and free.
I go, but I do not sin no more.
In the post, she primarily interacts with the story of the woman caught in adultery from the Gospel of John (8:1-11). Here is what strikes me as her key interpretation of this passage:
It’s one of just two times in his recorded ministry that Jesus said this – “go and sin no more” – and I don’t believe for a second he expected this woman to do such a thing… at least not forever, at least not for good.
And the application of the story seems to primarily be that the woman will learn not to pick up a stone to throw at someone else the next time they commit a sin. She concludes by saying that “We’ve missed the point when we turn this story into a stone.”
The article is well worth reading in its entirety.
I think Rachel gets several things right. I really appreciate her humility and honesty in admitting that she is an imperfect person who needs Jesus and his mercy. And for that matter, I really appreciate the way her faith and relationship with Jesus come through so clearly. I like that the post is incomprehensible without Jesus. And I agree with her that we miss the point of the story if we “turn it into a stone,” to repeat the beautiful phrase she concludes her post with. And perhaps most importantly, I think this is one of the best articulations of the impossibility of Christians living the kind of life Jesus calls them to live that I have recently come across. It is a beautiful articulation of the dominant American Christian belief that sin is inevitable.
I, however, strongly disagree with her post for a number of reasons.
First, Rachel appears to me to make sin necessary because she finds that she regularly sins. But she provides no reason for why it follows that because I often commit various sins; therefore, I must sin – that it is necessary and inevitable for Christians to sin.
I don’t believe it does follow. This is one of the reasons I cringe at the way that experience is used in contemporary popular Christian discourse. Christians too often survey their own experience, their preferences, their habits, or the people they know and whether they seem sincere. They then read those experiences back into the gospel. And so our experiences come to norm the gospel; the gospel does not have authority over our lives and experiences.
The consequences of such a move are disastrous for Christian discipleship, which insists that Jesus is lord and not us.
I want to be sure that I am not misunderstood here. I am in no way trying to throw Rachel’s honesty about her own struggle with sin in her face. I also struggle with sin. My own list of sins would be long and at least as devastating. I have a lot of room to grow. And I am in no position to throw stones at her or anyone else.
Second, it does not follow, however, that because we are both failing to currently live lives free from sin that sin is necessary or inevitable for Christians. This analysis doesn’t even make sense outside of the particularities of Christian living. It would strike me as ridiculous, and my guess is it would seem ridiculous to Rachel as well, if, instead of critiquing the idea of ceasing to sin, she had written a post defending the use of grammatical errors in published writing. The fact that people do often make mistakes in writing does not make that the norm for good writing. It is a failure and we can and should do better. Rachel exemplifies this in her own writing, as it is consistently of excellent quality.
As the well-worn cliche goes, “practice makes perfect.”
Related to this, to make an argument that sin is necessary for those who are “in Christ” would require a much more thorough survey of the writings of the New Testament. Rachel seems to have a hermeneutic of suspicion or at least skepticism towards the teachings of Jesus that is suspect. I am not sure Jesus saying, “Go and sin no more” is on the same level as Jesus saying to pluck out your right eye or cut off your hand if they cause you to sin. And even here, Jesus seems to be using hyperbole to emphasize the incompatibility of sin with the holiness of God.
Rachel’s analysis is not able to wrestle with the strong and repeated calls for followers of Jesus Christ to grow in holiness, not by their own inherent awesomeness – but by the grace and power of God.
Finally, and most importantly, I think Rachel unintentionally offered her audience cheap grace and not the audacious, ridiculous, almost unbelievably amazing grace that is offered to every person created in the image of God. The hope that Christians can have, on Rachel’s account, it seems to me is to not be condemned even though they are unfaithful. And to learn to not condemn others when they are unfaithful.
And yet, I find even Rachel’s own account confusing. One of the most potent lines of the piece is “I go, stepping over scattered stones, forgiven, grateful, and free.”
But she isn’t free, not really. Because she believes she will inevitably continue being a “lousy practitioner” of Christianity.
This is not the fullness of the gospel. The gospel proclaims that Jesus was the Son of God, he was crucified, died, and raised again on the third day. Jesus faced the very worse that sin and death could do. He entered fully into the reality of death. And he conquered sin, even the grave!
On this side of the resurrection, Christians have no basis for saying that sin is necessary. Christians have no basis for saying that sin is inevitable. On what grounds is it necessary for those who have been forgiven of their sins and been given new life by the grace of God to continue doing things that put distance between themselves and God? Does it happen? Yes. Does it happen a lot? Sadly, yes. Does this mean that it is God’s will? No. Does it mean that it has to happen? No.
In the list of sins that Rachel included in her post, which ones are unavoidable? Does she really believe that God’s grace has not given her any power over the discrepancy in her life between talking about caring for the poor and actually caring for the poor? Think about actual sins that you have committed. Do you really believe that in the moment that you committed them that you were powerless to do anything else?
When I look back on selfish actions in my own life, it is always clear to me that these actions were avoidable. They were bad decisions that I made. Decisions that make Jesus weep.
Here is what it comes down to: Which do you believe is more powerful: sin or God? If you believe that people are not able to “go and sin no more,” then you believe that sin is more powerful than God. If you believe that God is more powerful than sin, which I think is the conclusion Christians must come to, then you may need to take a closer look at the reflexive excusing of the reality of sin in the lives of those who have taken on the name of Christ that is prevalent in contemporary American Christianity.
Christians are able to stop sinning, not because of their own goodness, but because of the grace and power of God. It isn’t something that we can do for ourselves, but it is something that God is able and willing to do in us and for us.
Rachel is right. Jesus does pour out his mercy, he does stay the hand of our accusers. And by grace, we are forgiven. And by grace through faith, we can be free. Really free. Christians believe in the one, to use the beautiful lyrics of Charles Wesley, who “breaks the power of cancelled sin, sets the prisoner free.”
Rachel has offered her audience part of the gospel, forgiveness of our sins by faith in Christ. But she has withheld the other part, which is at least as good of news: we are not only forgiven, but the power that sin had on us has been broken. She has mistakenly put forgiveness and holiness in tension with each other. Jesus offers us both forgiveness and the freedom to live faithfully.
We do not free ourselves. Those who are in Christ are set free.
And Jesus says to those he has released, “Go and sin no more.”
Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology & Wesleyan Studies at Seattle Pacific University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.