A man and a woman walk into a church. As the service begins, they sit on opposite sides of the sanctuary. They are opposite in many ways. The man’s attire is formal and old fashioned; the woman is formal and chic. The man sings vibrantly during the singing; the woman stands and mouths the words. He tightly closes his eyes during the prayer; she scans the room. Then comes the sermon. The preacher reads: “If we say, ‘We have no sin,’ we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).
As the text is explained and urged upon the congregation, the man and woman have different responses. The man thinks about how he used to be such a sinner, but then he gave his heart to Jesus. He’s checked the box. Now he thinks about all the people he knows who need to hear this message. He looks around the room and spots the stylish new lady. He wonders if she’s acknowledged her sins yet. He continues to ponder about other people, while finding the sermon doctrinally sound and satisfactory. The woman responds differently. She thinks “That ‘sin’ word sounds harsh. Who is he to say that my choices are sin? What’s the big deal? Where’s the positivity? I’m no Mother Teresa, but c’mon.”
Meanwhile, a young woman sits alone, a few rows back. She hears the sermon and tears fill her eyes. She thinks about all that she’s done that she ought not to have done; she thinks about all she’s left undone that she ought to have done. The man and the women hear the sniffling and look back. They notice that this young woman is crying. The man shakes his head approvingly – “perhaps another soul will be saved.” The woman shakes her head with pity – “that poor soul, such needless pain.” As they turn back around, they fail to see the smile that has formed on the young woman’s face. She is filled with joy that God is faithful to forgive and cleanse.
After the service, the woman glances over at the young woman, and is confused by what she sees. She’s smiling. She seems peaceful and bright. The woman walks away baffled. The man walks over to the young woman and asks if she’s closed with Christ, if she’s become a Christian. She responds that she became a Christian years ago. He then posits that she must have been backslidden and has now returned to the faith. She responds that she’s been a member at that church for years. The man walks away confused.
The man and the woman look very different, but they are more alike than they know. Though one is religious and the other is secular, they are both self-righteous and believe that sin isn’t their problem. One believes sin is something other people do; the other believes sin is really no big deal.
The young woman offers a better way – the Christian way. Christians are those who can dare to be sinners. Why? Because the gospel is good news for sinners! Not just when we first receive it, but for every day of our lives. This is why the apostle John said that Christians who say “We have no sin” are self-deceived. Daring to be a sinner doesn’t mean we are okay with our sin, but we can finally be honest about it. We can be honest about our sin, because it’s already been dealt with on the cross of Christ. He paid for it with His blood, forgives us, cleanses us; and now welcomes us to walk in the light of His transforming grace. No need to compare ourselves with others. No need to measure ourselves to see if we’re adding up. No need to wonder if we’re making it with God. All we need is to be honest with ourselves and with God; and receive God’s honest reply “I am faithful and righteous to forgive you and cleanse you of all unrighteousness.”
“It is the grace of the Gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; He does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; He wants you alone. ‘My son, give me thine heart’ (Prov. 23:26).
God has come to you to save the sinner. Be glad! This message is liberation through truth. You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are, He wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner. Thank God for that.”
–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 110-11.