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New Horizons

Saints or Sinners?

Norman De Jong

Have you ever wondered why some pastors have a more positive relationship with their congregation than do others? Have you ever tried to analyze the factors that make one pastor deeply loved by his parishioners, while others seem only to engender doubt and disagreement?

Being a pastor in today’s church can be a very trying experience. One need not travel far or live long to realize that many churches today, of all denominational stripes, are experiencing much disagreement and conflict.

For example, in our recent trip to Florida, we ended up worshipping with a PCUSA congregation one Sunday morning. The Sunday school class, led by one of the elders, was a poor example of what Bible study should look like. He led us through chapters 2–4 of Daniel in forty minutes and was totally skewed in his “lecture.” The worship service that followed had promises of being better. Their webpage gave the impression that this congregation was still committed to the historic Presbyterian creeds. As the congregation gathered for worship, some senior members circulated through the congregation and distributed a three-page handout detailing all the faults of this particular church. The document was signed by fifteen current and former elders. Their complaints were specific and very weighty. Even we visitors received copies. This church was obviously in deep trouble.

With that introduction, one would expect the pastor and his staff to be either highly defensive or deeply apologetic. Neither reaction was evident. The ministry team conducted the worship service as though this was the most contented, blissful congregation ever assembled. All praise and glory to the worship leaders and the session. This was followed by a congregational meeting, conducted by the pastor, which lasted at most ten minutes, with nary a single complaint registered and not a question invited. The pastor had encouraged all us visitors to stay for the congregational meeting, so that we could “see how good Presbyterians conduct their business properly and in good order.”

The pastor was in deep trouble with his flock, but he never acknowledged it because he was a master manipulator. He treated his members as though they were dumb sheep. It was a classic demonstration of how not to conduct a congregational meeting. His days in that church may well be numbered. Or, more probably, he will stay and many of the congregants will leave. He treated this body as his church and forgot that it was supposed to be God’s church.

Hopefully, that kind of pastoral behavior never occurs in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Hopefully, every pastor in the OPC has deep compassion for his congregation and is willing to listen to their concerns. Hopefully, every session takes the task of shepherding the flock very seriously.

But problems do occur. Churches sometimes experience real division and conflict. The OPC is not immune to “worship wars” or “theological digressions” or “contemporary versus traditional” service debates. My concern, in this article, is not with such issues.

My concern is with the attitude that a pastor exhibits to his congregation on a weekly basis. I want to raise the issue of whether a pastor looks upon his congregation as saints or as sinners. I have always opened worship services with “the Lord’s greeting to the saints who are gathered here to worship our God with us.” I do that because the apostle Paul opens many of his epistles with such a greeting. Look at his letters to the Romans (1:7), to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1), to the Ephesians (1:1), to the Philippians (1:1), and to the Colossians (1:2). Look at the opening of his first letter to the Corinthians: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1:2). He does the same in his second epistle to them (1:1). He does this in spite of the fact that this church was characterized by multiple problems and deviant practices. He doesn’t approach them as would a prosecuting attorney, following the pattern of many of the Old Testament prophets. No, he calls them “saints.”

I suspect that some of my parishioners have stumbled over such greetings from their pastor. They might be saying, “I am not a saint. I sinned again this morning, and yesterday, and last week, and when I was younger. Does he know my teenagers? My pastor doesn’t know us very well.”

Others might be thinking along cultural lines, reflecting on the list of saints so designated by the Roman Catholic Church, or by the Eastern Orthodox, or by the Anglicans. Don’t you have to be dead at least five years before you can be elevated to sainthood? Don’t you have to be responsible for at least two verifiable miracles? Don’t you have to be of impeccable character? None of us qualifies on any of those grounds. What does the pastor mean?

Forget those man-made criteria! They have no basis in God’s Word. In the Bible, the saints are those who acknowledge that they are sinners, who repent of those sins, who have asked God to forgive those sins, and who have the assurance that those sins are gone. If you meet those criteria, you are saints, no matter how old or young you are. Your sins are gone. You are a new creature in Christ. Rejoice!

But getting back to Paul’s epistles, notice that a different pattern emerges in his letter to the Galatians. He does not address them as “saints,” but as “foolish Galatians,” implying that there are some serious problems that need to be addressed. Paul then goes on to raise some of those issues and call them to repentance. Bluntly stated, he treats them as “sinners.”

The difference is subtle and yet profound. A “saint” is a forgiven sinner. A “sinner” is one who needs to repent, so that he or she can become a saint. Saints are those who are “in Christ,” who have admitted that they were dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1) and desperately needed a Savior. They have acknowledged their sinful condition, have pleaded with God for forgiveness, and now experience the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). Paul expresses that so beautifully in 2 Corinthians 5:17–18, where he writes, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself.”

The Pastor’s Attitude

The pastor who looks upon his parishioners as saints does not neglect the law or calls for repentance. He knows that the law is our schoolmaster to drive us to Christ. He knows, too, that the law is a recipe for gratitude and thankful living. He often chooses Colossians 3:1–21 as an example of God’s law, teaching us to live our lives as ones who have been “raised with Christ.” He knows, too, that the devil is busy putting temptations in our paths and seducing us into sin. He recognizes original sin and total depravity. But he also recognizes that Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to the members who gather for worship on Sunday. Such a pastor is not naive. He knows that the great antithesis reaches into every heart.

The pastor who looks upon his parishioners as sinners creates a very different environment. He elicits a very different response. His favorite phrase is “thus says the Lord.” He doesn’t have to pound the pulpit when he confronts the sinners who sit before him. He doesn’t have to thunder denunciations upon his listeners. He doesn’t have to “thump his Bible” and demand obedience. All he has to do is to present the law as the pathway to justification. He has to lay down challenges for justifiable behavior, so that the flock can become “right with God.” He would never admit it, but his theology smacks strongly of works-righteousness and justification by good works. The underlying message is not about grace and forgiveness and justification, but about earning salvation by living lives of sanctification. The message is “Obey!”

In some cases, the pastor may have become a victim of his session’s demands. The elders may have foisted such a pious-sounding works-righteousness on him. They may have considered the behavior of some parishioners, those who admittedly have unresolved sins, and concluded that the needs for justification could be best met by strict obedience. In the elders’ meeting, they may have stipulated the terms of admission to the Lord’s table as a series of obedient behaviors. They may have pronounced judgment without ever offering grace and mercy, as our Lord so often did. They may have looked upon the offending individual as a stubborn, rebellious sinner, rather than as a backsliding saint. That attitude may have shaped the behavior of the pastor. In response to the session’s deliberations, he now treats the whole congregation as sinners. He easily and too quickly confronts his members and details their sins. He demands repentance and obedience instead of offering grace and mercy and forgiveness.

Each one of us who is called to be a pastor has to ask himself this question: do I look upon the people in my congregation as sinners or as saints? There may be times when we need to adopt the tone and message of Peter in his sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:23), but such situations will seldom confront us. It is much better to model Paul in his greetings, acknowledging those assembled before us as saints, washed in the blood of Jesus Christ. Their sins are gone! They are new persons in Christ! That is the glorious gospel we are privileged to preach.

The author is a retired OP pastor. New Norizons, January 2014.

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