Richard Sibbes describes the immense mercy of Christ for those who struggle with weaknesses, doubts, fears and sins. But this raises the question – when is an ongoing struggle with sin a weakness with which Christ and the body of Christ must be patient and merciful? And when is an ongoing struggle with sin actually a sign of a refusal to renounce the sin itself?
Sibbes wants to make sure that the weak trust, and trust fully, that in Christ they will find wave upon wave of grace. However:
“to plead for an infirmity is more than an infirmity; to allow ourselves in weaknesses is more than a weakness.”
In other words, there is an important distinction between being sick (he’s talking here about the “infirmities” of our besetting sins) and trying to excuse our sickness. This, Sibbes points out, is “the justification of evil”.
So pastorally, how can you tell which is which? How can you tell if you yourself, or if one you seek to minister to, needs grace as he continues to fall in his struggle with sin or needs confrontation for no longer really struggling at all?
Sibbes gives four diagnostic tips:
- “Wherever sins of infirmity are in a person, there must be the life of grace begun.” In other words, is the person converted? This is the necessary starting place and not to be assumed.
- “There must be a sincere and general bent to the best things.“ Is the person aiming in life, in their stated desires, toward the Kingdom of God? Do they WANT to be free from this sin, or do they just want to manage the consequences of their sin?
- “There must be a right judgment, allowing of the best ways, or else the heart is rotten.” Is their thinking about this issue right? Sibbes indicates that right judgment follows from a right heart; or in other words, right reason follows from right affections. So if one’s thinking isn’t right regarding the particular sin issue then it is a sign that something deeper is wrong and they will “justify looseness and condemn God’s ways as too much strictness”. As Jonathan Haidt argues, for human beings, feelings come first then post hoc justifications. The mind is very good at coming up with reasons why what we WANT to do is actually the right and best thing for us to do. Such justifications, Sibbes argues, are signs of a rotten heart.
- “There must be conjugal love to Christ”. Here we reach the heart of the issue. Is one joined in loving union with Christ, such that “there are no terms on which they will change their Lord and husband, and yield themselves absolutely over to be ruled by their own lusts, or the lusts of others.” When it is made clear that to continue in this course of sin is to break with Christ, the truly converted Christian, though still struggling with the sin, will not finally and fully turn from Christ to follow the path of sinful desire. They may struggle very greatly with the sin – but they will STRUGGLE, precisely because they cannot simply follow the sin and leave Christ. In fact, Sibbes writes, “God’s children never sin with full will“! There is always a conflict, a contrary will at work within us. AND there is always this encouragement: “A Christian’s behaviour towards Christ may in many things be very offensive, and cause some strangeness; yet he will own Christ and Christ him.”
From all this comes a particular point of pastoral application. In helping someone in her struggle against sin, a ministry of true grace will often seek to INCREASE the conflict within her, by showing BOTH the free grace and abounding love that Jesus gives her, and by showing how this sin itself is in direct conflict with following Him. Rather than offering simply a false peace that applies grace to continual sin, the faithful minister must apply abundant grace AND increase the tension, deepen the crisis, by showing the choice that must be made, the true repentance that is necessary.
Increasing the conflict can be helpful and clarifying. A friend was counseling a church member in how to deal with the ongoing use of a particular substance that, while not technically illegal, was nonetheless linked with sinful patterns in his life, including a need to lie and hide the fact that he was using it. It also kept the person from serving in a leadership position in the church – a position to which he was being invited when this issue was revealed. The person had all kinds of justifications for why this really wasn’t that bad, studies on why this substance could be helpful, stories of how he was helped by it. But the need for all these arguments and for a pattern of deception testified clearly to a deeper sense of conviction as well.
Rather than get caught up in a series of arguments about the merits of the substance, my friend simplified the question: If Jesus is calling you to serve him, and you cannot serve him as he’s called you to while using this substance, then you have to choose.
What will it be: Jesus or this stuff? Will you say no to him, so that you can say yes to this?
The person visibly winced and responded: “That’s not fair.” The conversation ended there, unresolved. He went away sad.
And within a few months, he had resolved not to touch the stuff again.