Over the course of Lent, I preached a series of sermons on the so-called 7 Deadly Sins (perhaps better described as the 7 capital vices). It was a both immensely challenging and spiritually invigorating.
The challenge was to understand ourselves at depth, to see the sin beneath the sin, and so to trace out the contours and operations of our hearts, rather than rest with a superficial analysis of sin at the level of thoughts and behaviours.
Which is also why it was so invigorating - because this approach also gave us a way forward, a powerful spiritual program for change that was more than mere ‘try-harder-ism’. My fear is that a great deal of our preaching is, in the end, not much more than that. We know we need to preach sanctification, but what it comes down to is, ‘be more disciplined, and try harder next time!’
But when you focus on sanctification as a matter of the desires and affections of the heart, and take on board Thomas Chalmers crucial point that the ‘the only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one’, suddenly what it means to live the life of discipleship clicks into focus with clarity and hope.
And that has a crucial implication. Christians still battle - and from time to time fail in the battle - with sin. So the defining mark of a Christian cannot ever be a certain aspect of obedience. Rather, it will be repentance and faith. Repentance, which is an operation of the heart, dispossessing the heart of its old affection; and faith, which is equally an operation of the heart, as Christ crucified and risen becomes the new object of affection.
Which leads to one further thought.
The Apostle Paul instructs Timothy to set the believers an example in speech and conduct (1 Tim 4.12). I wonder whether the most important example to set is that of repentance and faith. I say this in part because I often hear preachers articulate their on going battle - and failing in the battle - with sin, without at the same time talking about their repentance and faith. This I think is a big, if understandable, mistake. It’s understandable, because people want, and need, to hear the ordinary spiritual struggles that their pastor has. But it’s a mistake because it leaves out the defining mark of a Christian, and models the sub-Christian possibility of responding to sin with anything other than repentance and faith.
But I say it for another reason as well. I know of a couple of situations where ministers have done something wrong - not especially bad, more grubby and self serving than gross sin - but when they have been challenged about it have responded by pretending it didn’t matter, covering it over, and trying quickly to move on as though nothing had happened. And suddenly, although the sin itself was not so bad, the sin beneath the sin - essentially a self-justifying self-righteousness - actually becomes a very big deal.
For Christians, and especially for ministers, repentance and faith as the response to sin should come as reflexively as breathing. Because they are two sides of the one coin, and together constitute the defining mark of a Christian.