The more I’ve worked with addicts and dealt with my own sins, the more I’ve realized that most churches are falling short in a very important area–freedom from sin. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Most churches teach freedom from sin. Most command freedom from sin. But very few are helping people become free from sin. Most of them simply tell people to quit sinning and then slap them on the wrist when they catch them sinning again or belittle and shame them for doing so. What can we do about this?
Basically, here is the problem as I see it. Most churches deal with only one aspect of salvation–forgiveness. They are doing a great job at teaching people where to go to receive forgiveness. As a Christian, I believe ultimate forgiveness can only be found through the blood of Jesus Christ (Matthew 26:28). Churches teach that. I certainly think there are a lot of churches out there that aren’t teaching accurately how to come in contact with the saving blood of Jesus. But many are. In either case, these churches are teaching how to be forgiven. But that is not the extent of salvation.
“Saved” is actually a medical term. In the New Testament, it translates the word “sozo.” It means to keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger. It has an emphasis on saving one who is suffering, especially one who is perishing from a disease. To be saved means to be made well, healed, restored to health. This is more than just dealing with what has happened in the past. This is fixing what is broken. This is the side that is often missed. Salvation is more than forgiving the sins of the past, it is healing the person spiritually so they overcome the sickness of sin. Salvation is not simply forgiveness, it is freedom. As John 8:32 teaches, Jesus wants us not just to be forgiven, but to be free.
Let’s see if we can see a picture here. Imagine a diabetic who, because of his disease, has had some toes amputated from one foot and the other foot and leg removed up to the knee. Forgiveness can be seen as simply removing the problems of the past. The toes and leg are reattached. On the surface it seems like everything is now fixed. But if the person still has diabetes, what can he expect in the future? He’s just going to lose those appendages again. That is a picture of receiving forgiveness without getting freedom. We don’t just want to reattach the appendages, we want to get rid of the diabetes. That is a full picture of salvation–forgiveness and freedom.
Regrettably, on a practical level, I don’t know many churches that are doing a very good job at this side, especially not with people who are dealing with obsessive sins, compulsions, and addictions. Sure, we can point to people who used to do some bad things and then stopped. We can find some people who even made some drastic changes in their lives when they were baptized into Christ. They become our poster children. But then we meet someone for whom just getting baptized doesn’t seem to do the trick. Instead of helping them, we often look down on them as they repeatedly fall into their sinful patterns. We accuse them of not really repenting. In some cases, that may well be true. In others, they have repented, they just need some really practical help on actually overcoming the sins they wanted salvation from.
By the way, this is the point at which I ask all Christians, “Are you perfect yet?” If not, then maybe you should back off on accusing everyone who struggles with a sin that you don’t of just not being penitent enough.
There are some organizations that I have seen that actually are doing a great job at showing people how to be free and overcome. They don’t purposefully turn people to Jesus to receive forgiveness, so I worry about that. However, I think there is a place for churches to learn something from 12-step groups. I’m talking about those groups that are based on Alcoholics Anonymous. Many who once thought they were hopeless have found hope. Regrettably, they didn’t find it in churches. They found it in groups of people with the same struggle coming together to share their experience, strength, and hope. They found it in working a program outlined in 12 steps and relying on others who also wanted to quit whatever struggle they were having.
I think churches can learn from this. Though I don’t personally like the phrase “God of my understanding” found in the 12 steps of most 12-step groups, I think the principles behind these steps are profound and biblical. They have helped me in having progressive victory over my own sins.
I’ve got way more to say about what churches can learn from these groups. That will come in later posts. In this one, let me simply share a modified version of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Then let’s talk about how biblical they are and how beneficial they can be in helping folks not only be forgiven but be set free.
Step #1: We admitted we were powerless over sin–that our lives had become unmanageable.
Step #2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Step #3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God in Jesus Christ.
Step #4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Step #5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Step #6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Step #7: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Step #8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step #9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Step #10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Step #11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God through Jesus Christ, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Step #12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to sinners, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
(Adapted from “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,” Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, New York, 2007, pp 5-8)
I’ve seen people working these steps gain a freedom that just being told to stop didn’t give them. I think churches need to learn something from these steps. Not that churches need to become mega-12-step groups, but that there are some truly practical lessons based in the Word of God that can help people who are really struggling. There is hope beyond saying, “Why don’t you just stop?” Let’s learn how to offer that hope and that direction in our churches.
Let’s talk about this. How biblical or not do you think these steps are? How beneficial do you think they can be? How can they be adapted scripturally in a congregational setting? Add your two-cents to this by commenting below.
Brad Sullivan says
Thanks Edwin, I’m looking forward to the rest of what you have to say.
One of the things I see in the 12 steps that many people have trouble with is step 5. We can admit our sins to God because, well, He already knows. But admitting our sins to another human being, that means we have to really humble ourselves. James 5:16 tells us to confess our sins to one another. This isn’t so they can forgive us, but help to help us overcome our sins. We need to find a spiritual “sponsor” that can hold us accountable and be there for us when we are weak and tempted.
All of the steps revolve around a relationship with God that goes beyond “going to church”. If our prayer life is as it should be it will make it more difficult for us to ignore God while we go and sin. If we are continually talking with the Lord we will be much stronger when temptation comes our way.
I could say more, but I’ll leave that to your very capable hands.
Thanks again Edwin
Yes, confession is tough. But we are only as sick as our secrets. Letting the light shine on our secrets with another person is a great way to take the power out of our secrets.
I appreciate your thoughts on this subject, so much, Edwin! For years, I’d thought of this same scenario. I’ve concluded that it would be such a boost for those who are going through severe situations to actually feel they could admit freely to brethren, who are stronger, their weaknesses and failings. This, in essence, is what the church is supposed to be doing rather than providing the often felt embarrassment of having to admit failure. Being like God means that we offer support and loving forgiveness and fight against the human nature of ridicule and gossip which leads those who are suffering (for what ever reason) to want to run and hide.
173 29 65 01alpha says
Celebrate Recovery Is an Excellent 12-step based program rooted in Christ and based in scripture http://www.celebraterecovery.com/
It’s a shame this article didn’t get more attention. I attend a celebrate recovery group and across the board, no matter what church, denomination, or non-denomination the people attend (or maybe they don’t go to “church”), I have heard nearly all of them say, “church” should be more like “this” i.e., people who are open, transparent, and honest as they talk about their daily struggles and successes with what ever sin that “so easily besets” them. While I agree with Brad, I have to wonder if the problem is the culture of the current day church where “confession” is too often something that happens on a front pew and just a vague admission of guilt or sin that someone struggles with. When it is a sin that is entrenched in the heart or mind thru habit as a result of coping with emotional pain or maybe what was modeled as a child (I am not making excuses here) it is not always as easy as “just quitting”. Too often the sins of the father/mother are visited upon the children for generations. Sometimes you don’t know how to “just quit”…its not that easy. To many of us need more love, more support, more introspective understanding of ourselves. When we do, we find we are children who a loved by a God, a Father who wants a life of joy and purity for us here and in the life to come. Edwin, please keep on addressing the issue. I don’t know what the answer is, and I did not intend to put down the Lord’s church. I do know man has not changed since the days of Adam. From Adam, to Abraham, to Moses, to the prophets, to Jesus, to the church at Corinth, to today, man and the heart of man, Gods people have not changed. Sin stands between man and God…if it were easy, there would be more Enochs. Unfortunately, there are more Corinthians than Enochs in the church and the only answer is Christ and the mind transforming power of His word. I was the dog who returned to its vomit. While I am not that “dog” anymore, I am still close enough to smell the vomit and sometimes fearful of falling back into that dark hole. So please, keep on addressing the issue. With the pervasiveness of sex and sensuality in todays society, I fear for our children, our fathers, and even the wives who find themselves lonely and searching for a relationship. The world hasn’t changed. We may not be Corinth, but the heart of man today is no different than it was 2000 years ago.
Thanks, Greg. I think confession is part of recovery. Only when I shine the light on my secrets do they lose their power.
The cultural problem in churches today is very similar to going to an emergency room where we see people, hacking, bleeding, vomiting, coughing, and yet everyone pretends they aren’t sick or in need of healing. The difference is in an emergency room it is much harder to cover up. The church is the only hospital I’ve seen people go to where they spend most of their time pretending they don’t actually need to be there.
As I wrote that sentence it made me think of another institution where people who need to be there spend most of their time pretending they don’t need to be there. We call it prison. Maybe this is why so many Christians act like the church is such a drag. They see it as a prison in which their goal is to convince everyone they don’t need to be there rather than a hospital as they seek the help they really need. I’m sensing a sermon coming up here.