Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
I have a confession to make: I don’t care much for Jerry Falwell Jr.
In many ways, he is a stereotype of Evangelical Christianity—an imperfect representation of the Christian faith who is easy to laugh at, disagree with and drag through the mud on evening news commentary programs. When I hear friends and colleagues discussing Falwell, I feel like I have to distance myself from him and explain that I’m not one of those kinds of Christians. Never before has this impulse been stronger than when news broke today of Falwell’s sexual sin involving his wife and another person.
I think part of me still clings to the notion that I can believe the doctrines of Christianity and simultaneously have the respect of those who are opposed to the gospel. This is the motivation behind describing Falwell as a one of those kind of Christians. After all, he’s the kind of Christian who only wants to wage war against the culture. He’s the kind of Christian who puts way to much stock into politics. He’s the kind of Christian who struggles with sexual sin. He’s the kind of Christian who is a hypocrite.
In the final analysis, there’s really only one kind of Christian: Those who are depraved of any inherent goodness, desperate for salvation and have found it in Jesus Christ. All the separation that we think exists between us because of our different idols, passions and struggles with sin, isn’t really there.¹ At its foundation, Christianity teaches the universal moral bankruptcy of every member of the human race. Anyone who is a Christian is so only because a righteous God has shown them mercy and grace, choosing to count his Son’s perfection as their record of righteousness rather than the list of offenses committed in their sinful rebellion (Romans 3:9-26, Ephesians 2:1-10).
So, then why do I struggle with Falwell? Armed with this understanding of my own depravity and my hopelessness apart from the mercy of God, why do I still just want Falwell to go away? There are probably several reasons (which would all speak volumes of my own sinful pride, I’m sure), but the one that comes to mind tonight as I reflect on today’s news is that I just really want Christians to have a tidy testimonies, and I’m frustrated when we don’t.
It wasn’t gratitude that caused Peter to fall to his knees that day as he pulled into his boat the biggest catch of fish he had ever seen; it was fear. Suddenly he came to realize that the peculiar man with whom he had been spending so much time was more than a mere man. “Depart from me,” Peter said to Jesus, “for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). I wish I could have heard the compassion in Jesus’ voice as he said to Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on, you will be catching men.”
This is one of those moments in a story when the reader can really tell that a character has turned a corner. Surely now, Peter would walk in an unquestioning faith, an unbridled zeal and become the faultless leader of the disciples. Maybe this is why Peter’s betrayal of Jesus is so painfully dramatic, when, chapters later, he denies three times that he even knows him. After the resurrection, Peter’s betrayals are mercifully forgiven by Jesus. Surely now is the turning point for Peter. Surely now, it’s nothing but blue skies and green grass ahead of the disciple as he strives after Christ, hoping to be as much like Him as is possible.
In Galatians 2, we read of the apostle Paul’s correction of Peter. Though the gospel of Jesus had been given as a gift to all men, Jew and Gentile (and even though Peter had a front row seat to this theological breakthrough), Peter still was showing partiality to Christians who were of Jewish birth. He was once again caught in sin, and once again found needing to be corrected. It would seem that somehow Peter’s life is marked by both faithfulness and betrayal.
As a sinful man, I’m painfully aware of how far from perfection I am. You could say my testimony lacks tidiness. Had God not blessed me in life with countless people who have restored me time and time again in a spirit of gentleness, I may have despaired from my sin and drowned in its depths. In this sense, I relate a great deal to Peter.
The Christian life is messy. If not already, by tomorrow much of the world will begin to mock Jerry Falwell Jr. He will be maligned as a hypocrite, and perhaps that is the most appropriate way to describe him. It’s even quite possible that his professed faith in Christ is a complete and total lie. I can’t speak to all of these things. But I do imagine that the apostle Peter spent a very lonely 2-3 days wallowing in self-hatred after he denied Jesus. I imagine the public rebuke from Paul, his brother in the faith, was embarrassing and painful. But on both those days his story wasn’t over. God was still hard at work to perfect Peter into the image of Christ. Did Peter ever attain this perfection before he died? Absolutely not, nor will any of us. But now he has, and so will all of us who are truly followers of Christ.
¹ Of course the work of the Holy Spirit to sanctify his children and make them more into the image of Jesus is a very real thing. I’m not suggesting that those who have come to know Christ are all equal in terms of their progress in sanctification; only that the difference between true believers does not divide them so much as their depravity apart from Christ unites them.