Church: a hospital for sinners?

What is your experience of church?  Is it a place where you feel like you can be your sinful self?  Or rather a place where you have to keep up appearances like Mr and Mrs Jones in the pews next door?  A former seminary friend of mine (name dropping alert), Rev. Leon Brown, recently wrote this piece about his experiences at various churches during his Christian sojourn so far:

On numerous occasions I have been told that the church is like a hospital for the sick. The illness is sin; the remedy is Christ. We, therefore, attend church to receive our diagnosis and to gladly hear and embrace its remedy. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). Over the years, however, through numerous conversations and limited pastoral experience, I have come to realize that the church – the gathered assembly on the Lord’s Day – sometimes appears like a place for those in perfect health. Illness (i.e., sin) is not allowed.

Theologically we know that is inaccurate. That is why in many Presbyterian and Reformed churches we corporately confess our sins. We acknowledge our offense against a holy and righteous God. We know that our lives do not reflect the perfection that God demands. We, therefore, readily admit our brokenness, or do we really?

As a pastor, I have the privilege to interact with people, both inside my church and outside, about some of the harsh realities of how sin affects us. Lust, coveting, broken marriages, hatred, and dishonesty are all the result of acting on the desires of our sinful hearts. To some degree we all suffer from some of these things, but you can hardly tell that on Sunday mornings. Between 10:30am and noon, some people manage to put on the Christian veneer. The outside looks pearly white while the inside is suffering from a cancerous illness – sin.

Is that acceptable? Asked differently, should we put a smile on our faces for a hour and a half on Sunday mornings when things are truly chaotic in the home? No sooner than we depart the church building, we are met by disobedient children and dueling spouses. Our pornography addiction resurfaces; our anger meets us again; we are back in reality.

I wonder if in some of our churches there is no place for grieving, mourning, lamenting, suffering, and acknowledging sin in more places than the corporate confession? While I have not conducted an analysis of every Reformed and Presbyterian Church in the US, I know this to be true from my personal experience and in my conversations with other pastors. Sunday mornings are the time to be on your best behavior. You cannot show weakness; you cannot fail. Lest the corporate confession of sin, there is no place for brokenness. There is an imaginary sign above the entrance of the church that says, “This is the place for those in perfect health.”

It troubles me to know this reality exists. This observation caused me to ask a question: “Why?” Why are things like this? I began to pursue my inquiry. Overwhelmingly, and this is not limited to my congregation, when I asked people why their actions depict their lives are in perfect order when I know things are a bit chaotic, the response I received was, “I don’t want to be judged.” They believed there was no room for reasonable transparency in the church. It was expected that one’s children be in perfect order, spouses on the same page, and singles portrayed as if they struggle very little with contentment.

Though I do not believe this is the cause, I wonder how much Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites contribute to this sad reality (i.e., in all things we must be relatively perfect). Most Facebook posts and Twitter feeds that I have read are largely positive. People gladly boast of their witnessing opportunities, the books they are reading, vacations taken, and family reunions. Most people confess very little of the difficulties through which they are going. I see the same thing in many churches.

This is not to suggest that we must air our dirty laundry to everyone in the church, and the world for that matter on Facebook and Twitter, but a certain level of transparency seems healthy. Rosaria Butterfield, in her book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith, put it this way,

“I think that churches would be places of greater intimacy and growth in Christ if people stopped lying about what we need, what we fear, where we fail, and how we sin” (25).

I could not agree more. I often tell my congregation that is okay to hurt; it is okay to fail; and while it is not okay to sin, it is okay to be transparent about where you sin because there is forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

If there is any merit in my observations, I also wonder how this affects the church’s witness. One of the constant accusations I hear from unbelievers is that the church is full of hypocrites. However we handle that accusation, I wonder if the point behind it is that sometimes people in the church present themselves as perfect. As soon as the Christian veneer is shattered, unbelievers’ image of how Christianity affects one’s life is ruined. They were under the impression that Christianity makes one perfect (not positionally perfect (i.e., righteous) but presently perfect in thought, word, and deed). Therefore, once they realize the untruth to that manifestation of Christianity and that Christians, too, often face the same problems they do, Christians are labeled as hypocrites. In unbelievers’ minds, the mask was removed.

Is there a solution? I am a rookie pastor. I do not have all the answers. I do not think I will have all the answers in the future either. However, I wonder if we need to more fully embrace the doctrine of sanctification? Unlike our justification – a once for all completed act – our sanctification is a process. Sometimes our sanctification may seem to be moving more slowly in our lives, or the lives of others, than we would like; nevertheless, God is at work. He guaranteed it! If we more fully embrace this, perhaps we will more readily understand that the church is like a hospital for the sick. Our illness is sin; Christ is our remedy. We, therefore, do not need to put on the Christian veneer.

We all suffer from the effects of sin. I pray that we, as the body of Christ, can more openly acknowledge our sins, mistakes, and express our sorrow without fear of judgment, without fear of a ruined reputation, without fear of our perfect family image being shattered. It will take time, prayer, a better understanding of grace, forgiveness, and sanctification, and the Spirit’s work. It is possible. I will pray to that end. Will you join me?

Posted February 10, 2014 @ 2:27 PM by Leon Brown

It is our hope and prayer that RCSS be a hospital for wretched sinners, where Christ crucified is truly that balm of everlasting comfort.  So come boldly to God’s throne of grace with us this coming Lord’s Day: come filthy; come failing; come depressed; come anxious; come angry; come hurt; come broken; come doubting; come addicts; come obsessed; come compulsive; come adulterers; come prostitutes; come tax collectors; come diseased; come introverted; come lonely; come divorced; come perverts; come thieves; come gossips; come liars… Come, repent and believe in Jesus – again, or for the first time – and be assured through the ministry of the Word that you stand forgiven and righteous before our heavenly Father.

Blessings of the covenant (Deut 28)

The audio of the following sermon can be found here.

The blessings of the covenant (Deut 28:1-14)

This life is not heaven on earth, is it?  There are plenty of experiences of pain and suffering.  Most things take hard work.  However, two things that do come easy are expecting blessing for obedience and punishment for disobedience.  Isn’t this what our conscience or heart naturally tells us?  Isn’t this how the world generally operates?  Children, when you do your homework you are rewarded with praise from your parents and teacher.  However, when you steal those sweets from the cupboard or punch your sister on the nose, you know that there will be a negative consequence.

The thing is, we all too easily apply this same cause and effect logic to our relationship with God.  It can go something like this: we know that we have not obeyed God as we should.  Our hearts tell us we are guilty, and we instinctively feel like we deserve God’s punishment…  And, then, when we find our lives riddled with suffering, we can be tempted to conclude that God is in fact judging us.  So, what do we do?  We try to clean up our act so that God will bless us again; so that we can be sure we will make it to heaven.  Sound familiar?

In our passage this morning, we learn about Israel’s life under the terms of the OC: the Sinai covenant.  Under this covenant, Israel did experience earthly blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience.  It turns out that this covenant follows very closely the structure of a Suzerainty treaty, which was a kind of secular covenant common to ANE at the time.  Basically, a Suzerain treaty is a strict conditional covenant between a king and those people under his rule.  Under the terms of the covenant, the people or subjects were to meet certain requirements to receive blessing – or just to survive!  And if they disobeyed, they would be cursed and even disowned by the king.

The book of Deut is structured like a Suzerainty treaty.

By the time we get to chapters 27 through 30 of Deut Moses is in that section of the treaty where he sets forth the blessings and the curses (IOW: sanctions) of the covenant.  Last week, we saw in chap 27 Moses describe the terrible curses that would overtake Israel if she disobeyed the laws of God summed up in the Ten Commandments in Deut 5 and elaborated upon in Deut 6 through 26.  Now in chapter 28, God confirms the blessings of the covenant for obedience.

In 28.1-14, Moses describes the graphic earthly rewards that God will pour out on Israel, in the Land, if they obey the conditions of the covenant.  This connection, however, between obedience and reward had the higher purpose of teaching God’s people of the greater happiness of heaven awaiting those who please God.  But even more importantly, the lesson from God’s Word this morning is that neither Israel nor you and I can lay claim to heaven by keeping God’s law.  Rather, the way to enter the kingdom of heaven is by faith in Jesus Christ alone: the one who did keep God’s law on our behalf.

It is easy as that!  But our hearts find it difficult to believe it. Therefore, may God by his grace strengthen our faith in his promise of unconditional salvation this day.

    Blessings for obedience

In the first two verses, Moses tells Israel that blessings in the Land will follow their obedience to God’s commands.

However, before going any further, let us be sure to be clear on one thing.  Israel did not become God’s people and inherit the land because of their righteousness or obedience.  [In Deut 9.6, God says, “Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is NOT giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.”  Just think of the sins of the Patriarchs, Israel’s golden calf, and their 40 years of wilderness wanderings.  Let’s remember, Israel is God’s people, Israel will possess the Land, and Israel is promised eternal life because of the unconditional oath God swore to Abraham – the COG.

In verse 3, Moses begins to describe the blessings or beatitude that will literally overtake and overwhelm Israel once they are in the Land, if they display an appropriate level of obedience or righteousness.  Vv 3-6 present six blessings, and both the form of their presentation and their content point toward the comprehensive fullness of blessing awaiting Israel.

Israel will be blessed in the city and in the field, v3, and in her coming in and her coming out, v6: there will be no area of Israel’s life that will not be saturated will blessing.  There will be no fear of a barren womb, for the Lord will make Israel abundantly fertile.  The ground will not bring forth thorns, thistles, and sagebrush, but rather luscious fruit.  Instead of diseased and famished cattle, their livestock will provide continual rich sustenance to the people.  When it comes to household necessities, v5, the Lord will make ample provision for good harvest and the production of food.  Sum: in all these critical areas and sources of earthly life, Israel will have no want but will be filled to overflowing with plenty.

Moses then elaborates on these six blessings in vv7-14.  Here, there is also purpose behind the arrangement of these verse.  Moses works in concentric circles of blessings, starting on the outside with (i) foreign relations, then to (ii) domestic affairs, and in the center, Israel’s (iii) covenant relationship to God.  In v1, God has already said he will set Israel high above all the nations of the earth.  Israel will be a great spectacle to the world.  Now in vv7, 13 Israel is promised victory and exaltation over her neighboring pagan nations, and at the same time enjoy good commerce with them, v12b.  When it comes to (ii) domestic affairs, v8, God will bless Israel’s storehouses of grain and in every vocation she undertakes.  The Lord will make prosperity abound in the fruit of Israel’s livestock, the fruit of her ground, and the fruit of her womb, v11.  God will open up the heavens and make them shower forth with rain, the vital source Israel needs so that God can bless them in all the work of her hands, v12a.  (iii) And most importantly, vv9-10, the epicenter of the blessings, God will establish Israel visibly as a people holy unto himself, a covenant people from all of the nations of the world.  And the world will fear Israel.

Notice: in all these earthly and temporal blessings that are held out to Israel we find a reversal of the curse of the Fall.  No more pain and travail in childbirth, and no more painstaking toil upon a cursed ground, but instead an overwhelming abundance in the garden-like Land of Canaan.

Such blessings are symbolic of the eternal fruit of the Tree of Life that Adam would have enjoyed had he obeyed God in Eden.  Now, they are set before Israel as a tangible foretaste of heaven to come.  Yet, unlike God’s conditional promise to reward Adam with heaven, here God’s promise of eternal life to Israel is rooted in his unconditional promise to Abraham – to be received by faith and not by works of the law.

But, why then are there the conditions of the OC?  Why the conditions place Israel in a similar position to Adam in the garden Eden?  The difference being that Adam was sinless and now the Israelites are riddled with a corrupt heart?

    Lessons from the conditions

Remember, Israel can only stay in the land and enjoy its blessings if they obey God’s commandments.  So, what is God teaching Israel here?  As well as us sinners today?

For starters, the laws for purity and righteousness under the OC were to teach Israel about the holiness of God’s kingdom, because God himself is holy.  Only those who are pure can enter heaven.  As it turns out, Israel did end up enjoying the blessings of the Land for a time because they did produce a relative righteousness, by God’s grace.  They were able to stay in the Land long enough to learn the lesson that obedience produces blessing under the Sinai covenant.  Israel as a nation in the Promised Land with all its civil and ceremonial laws was a picture to the nations of the glory of God’s heavenly kingdom on earth.  It showcased God’s overflowing love and goodness toward his chosen people.  But it also put on display his severe justice for those who reject him and fail to submit to his commands.

Over time, Israel ran into problems, didn’t they?  It wasn’t long before their sin caught up with them.  Their obedience in the Land was not good enough to keep them there.  Not even the righteous leadership of king David could secure Israel’s place in Canaan indefinitely.  As the story goes, Israel was ultimately banished from the promised land for their disobedience.  They broke the Sinai covenant.  Eventually God’s patience and forbearance ran out.  Constrained by his justice, God cursed Israel as a nation by sending them into exile.

This was a difficult lesson for Israel, but nevertheless a vital and gracious one they needed to learn if they wanted to experience the blessings of heaven.  The requirements of the Sinai covenant, summed up in the Ten Commandments, were intended to show Israel that they could not ultimately enter God’s kingdom by their own obedience.  Why?  Because of sin.  Therefore, they needed to look to God to save them.  This is why Paul writes in Gal 3.24, speaking of Israel, “The law was our teacher until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.”

Beloved, we too are like Israel.  We are made of the same stuff.  We too have fallen in the first Adam and therefore justly under God’s judgment.

Brothers and sisters, friends, we too break God’s law every day – our guilty conscience tells us this.  Therefore, we too cannot enter God’s kingdom due to our moral imperfections.  Like Israel and the nations surrounding them at the time, we are all faced with the problem of God’s justice that demands obedience to his revealed will.  Otherwise, there is no escape from the flood of his eternal curse.

It is at this point where God’s eternal covenant with His Son to redeem a people for himself kicks in.  It is at this point that God’s unconditional promise of salvation to Abraham rescues Israel and us from certain judgment.  This promise finds its fulfillment in Israel’s Messiah and our Saviour, Jesus Christ.  The good news of the gospel is that despite our sin, God in his grace has given us heaven as a gift, if we will only believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

For, when Jesus came down to earth, he brought God’s kingdom with him.  Jesus earned the blessings of heaven for us through his perfect obedience to God’s law.  And not only did Jesus keep the conditions of the law for us, but he was also cursed for our disobedience by suffering and dying on the cross in our place.

Beloved, Jesus has brought the Sinai covenant to an end.  Therefore, we must understand Deut 28.1-14 in this light.  We cannot conclude – even though it comes so naturally – that God promises earthly blessings in return for our obedience or that God will curse us in this life for disobedience.  Jesus has turned this logic on its head.  By faith in Jesus, we are already heirs of eternal life and have already passed through judgment.  In other words, our salvation has come through suffering: through the suffering of Jesus and his death at the cross.  And this seemingly contradictory logic continues to govern our lives as Christians as we journey toward heaven.

(For, we are told in Acts 14:22, “through many tribulations shall you enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Like Abraham, like Job and the Patriarchs we wander as pilgrims in the wilderness of his life.  Like Israel in exile, we are a people who live away from our homeland.  We are subject to many trials and tribulations here.)


So let us take heart as we carry our cross in this life.  Our suffering is never because God is punishing us.  And it is never in vain.  In fact, it is all to prepare us for heaven and further our salvation.  Yes, God does indeed discipline us through suffering: we get sick, loved ones die, families all apart, and friends betray us.  BUT, again, God permits all these things in love and for our good.  In all these things, God is teaching us not to look for our ultimate blessing here on earth.

In his mercy, God time and time again shows us our sin and often fills our lives with tremendous trials so that we may long for heaven.  For heaven is where our Savior is.  Heaven is our true homeland.  Jesus promises that the beatitude of the kingdom of heaven is already ours by faith.  May this reality sustain us until the end.   Amen.


Simon Jooste, RCSS AM service, 29 December 2013