‘Authenticity’ and Making Excuses for Sin
Hypocrisy stinks – no question about it. The Bible often warns against this. Yet more and more I find too many Western believers today using hypocrisy – or the avoidance thereof – as a cover for living a carnal and sinful life. That is, they will say it is bad to be a hypocrite (they are right about this), and so they will lower their standards on holy living so as not to be accused of hypocrisy (they are wrong about this).
We get this sort of faulty reasoning from many in the emerging church movement for example. They often go on and on about being “real” and “authentic” Christian living, and how “messy” Christianity is. So they seek to get away from hypocrisy (always good), but they do so by effectively making excuses for sin and the compromised, fleshly life (always bad).
These folks rightly state that no one is perfect, but then use that as a justification for not even striving for perfection – something of course Jesus commanded us to do (“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” – Matthew 5:48). By seeking to be “relevant” and “real,” these folks often present us with a watered down gospel, anaemic discipleship, and compromised Christianity.
Of course we all know absolute sinless perfection in this life will never be fully attainable, but going from one extreme to another helps no one. If we can do damage by insisting on immediate and complete perfection in this life, we also can do great damage by putting all the stress on being “real”.
What about striving for the biblical balance instead? What about striving for more holiness and less hypocrisy – simultaneously? Isn’t that the way we should be proceeding here? I so dislike these unbiblical extremes and these false antitheses. But of course the emergent church thrives on all this, as I have spoken about elsewhere:billmuehlenberg.com/2008/06/27/on-emergents-and-false-dilemmas/
I quoted D. A. Carson at the end of that article, and it is worth doing so again here. In his 2005 volumeBecoming Conversant with the Emerging Church he said this about unnecessary extremes:
So which shall we choose? Experience or truth? The left wing of an airplane, or the right? Love or integrity? Study or service? Evangelism or discipleship? The front wheels of a car, or the rear? Subjective knowledge or objective knowledge? Faith or obedience? Damn all false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ.
Strong words indeed, but much needed. Forget this foolishness of avoiding hypocrisy by embracing and settling for carnality and second-rate Christianity. We need to reject both. We should seek holiness, obedience and righteousness (by the Spirit’s help of course), and we should seek to avoid hypocrisy as well. Forget this lousy talk about “authenticity” and start talking about biblical holiness.
And I am not alone in these concerns. Just on two years ago Brett McCracken wrote a great piece for the Gospel Coalition on this very matter. Entitled “Has ‘Authenticity’ Trumped Holiness?” he also takes to task those who would use the avoidance of hypocrisy as an excuse for sinfulness. He mentions books, articles and even films which have pushed this way of thinking, and then says this:
Evangelicalism – both on the individual and institutional level – is trying hard to purge itself of a polished veneer that smacked of hypocrisy. But by focusing on brokenness as proof of our “realness” and “authenticity,” have evangelicals turned “being screwed up” into a badge of honor, its own sort of works righteousness? Has authenticity become a higher calling than, say, holiness?
He quotes Erik Thoennes, professor of biblical and theological studies at Biola University: “There’s this idea that to live out of conformity with how I feel is hypocrisy; but that’s a wrong definition of hypocrisy. To live out of conformity to what I believe is hypocrisy. To live in conformity with what I believe, in spite of what I feel, isn’t hypocrisy; it’s integrity.”
Our notion of authenticity should not primarily be about affirming each other in our struggles – patting each other on the back as we share about porn struggles while enjoying a second round of beers at the local pub Bible study. Rather, authenticity comes when we collectively push each other, by grace, in the direction of Christ-likeness.
Reflecting on Christianity’s “current obsession with brokenness” for hermeneutics, Megan Hill wrote, “If we are constantly looking for someone else who is broken in all the same places, we overlook the comfort we can have in the perfect God-man.”
Hill wisely notes, “Grace covers. And it covers again and again. Thanks be to God.” But if we stop there, “We are only telling half of the story. . . . Receiving grace for my failures also includes Christ’s help to turn from sin and embrace new obedience.”
Could it be that the most authentic thing any of us can do is faithfully pursue holiness and obediently follow after Christ?
In Scripture, Paul teaches again and again that Christians are “dead to sin” and risen to new life, no longer slave to sins but to righteousness (Rom. 6). That doesn’t mean the battle with sin is gone. But as Paul describes the struggle in Romans 7, he says “it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me” (Rom. 7:17), noticeably separating his identity from this unwanted alien thing still residing within. The struggle is neither the point nor the marker of one’s identity. In Christ we are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17), called to flourish through life in the Spirit (Rom. 8).
“I think goodness is more real in that we are actually living more as humans were intended to,” Thoennes said. “Jesus is the realest human we’ll ever see. He’s authentic. He understands our brokenness. But he’s as real as can be.”
His closing words are also quite helpful:
Sin is necessarily part of our story as redeemed people. We shouldn’t ignore or make light of it. But we also shouldn’t wallow in it or take it lightly, for the sake of earning authenticity points.
As someone who became a Christian in his 20s, after having experienced the rocky ups and downs of a life without Christ, Luis Salazar of Whittier, California, finds it sad that so many young evangelicals seem to think dramatic struggles with sin are more real.
“I would never want to walk through it again,” Salazar said. “I wish I hadn’t gone through all that. A lifestyle of flashy sin isn’t necessary to experience grace. It’s not necessary to have a grand testimony of brokenness in order to be an authentic Christian.”
To overcome our “authenticity” confusion, evangelicals must see themselves differently. Rather than focusing on our brokenness, we should look to Christ and those who model Christ-likeness. We should move in that direction, by grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Yes quite so. Yes we all struggle, and yes we should be open, honest and accountable to one another. But simply making excuses for our sin and struggles in order to not be seen as hypocritical is not the way forward. Seeking, with the grace of God and the help of the Holy Spirit, to become more Christlike and holy is the way ahead.
When the writer of the book of Hebrews said that without holiness “no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14), he meant it. Instead of focusing on our struggles and our “authentic” sinful condition, why not focus on a God who is able to redeem, cleanse, purify, and empower us to become what we were meant to be in Christ?
This is not to deny that the Christian walk can be difficult, and that obedience is not always easy, and godliness is no magic pill. But it is to get our eyes off ourselves and back onto Christ where they belong. Let me finish by offering a few quotes on holiness and its importance.
I have collected some 400 quotes on this topic, and many could be used here. But let me just draw upon one author who always delivers the goods: J. I. Packer. In his important 2009 volume,Rediscovering Holiness he has much to say on this. Here are four brief quotes from that book:
“Holiness, like prayer (which is indeed part of it), is something that, though Christians have an instinct for it through their new birth, as we shall see, they have to learn in and through experience. As Jesus ‘learned obedience from what he suffered’ (Heb. 5:8) – learned what obedience requires, costs and involves through the experience of actually doing His Father’s will up to and in His passion – so Christians must, and do, learn prayer from their struggles to pray and holiness from their battles for purity of heart and righteousness of life.” (pp. 14-15)
“The process of learning to be holy, like the process of to pray, may properly be thought of as a school – God’s own school, in which the curriculum, the teaching staff, the rules, the discipline, the occasional prizes and the fellow pupils with whom one studies, plays, debates and fraternizes, are all there under God’s sovereign providence.” (p. 15)
“Holiness means, among other things, forming good habits, breaking bad habits, resisting temptations to sin, and controlling yourself when provoked. No one ever managed to do any of these things without effort and conflict.” (p. 160)
“Holiness, as we have seen, is neither static nor passive. It is a state of increasing love to God and to one’s neighbour, and love is precisely a matter of doing what honors and benefits the loved one, out of a wish to raise that loved one high.” (p. 194)
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