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.