The Gospel Is Not a Behavior Control Program

Why Christians need to stop keeping score of the sins of others.

[Editor's Note: In light of today's ruling from the Supreme Court that found the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, here's an article we ran back when the DOMA's first challenges were heard. We believe the thoughts here are still important for all Christians to take to heart.]

This week, the Supreme Court justices heard arguments challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996. According to DOMA, states are not required to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in another state, meaning these couples are not eligible for Social Security survivors’ benefits, insurance for government employees, immigration status, filing of joint taxes and more. This dilemma is what shot Windsor v. United States to the nation’s highest court.

Though Christians disagree on this issue and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future, I wonder if we’ve given as much energy to that upon which we agree as we have to that which divides us.

I wonder if we want people to clean up their act more than we want people to know the love and grace of God.

Last year, my own state, North Carolina, passed a Constitutional Amendment to limit the types of domestic unions, gay and straight, that can be recognized by the state. The time, money and energy invested by Christians to ensure the Amendment’s passage—and, for some, its defeat—was phenomenal.

Long before both of these cases, I, like many Christians, had been troubled by the vehement energy I saw among Christians who had chosen to wage war on the “sins” of others.

Over the years, these fervent ones stalked doctors who perform abortions, picketed strip clubs and Planned Parenthoods and threatened to burn the Koran. I couldn’t help but wonder what these Christians—sisters and brothers of mine—were really being driven by.

And although I wasn’t waving placards with them, what was it that triggered the same impulse in me?

I have this fantasy where I connect 100 North American Christians, of all persuasions and varieties of theology, to lie-detector machines and ask them one single question:

“Would you rather a woman who’s stripping on Saturday night [insert your favorite sin of others here] quit her job and sit in a church pew Sunday morning—without actually encountering the grace of God—or would you rather she experience the radical love of God for her, as she is, and return to work the next weekend?”

I’m curious what’s going on in the hearts of religious people like me. Are we really trusting God to deal with the hearts of sinners? Are we as passionate that sinners encounter God’s grace as we are that they simply stop sinning?

To receive an “other” as they are, without first mandating behavior changes, requires that we tolerate a bit of anxiety or discomfort.

Although we often fuse the two, Jesus never makes sinlessness a prerequisite for salvation. My suspicion is that, if we’re unflinchingly honest, we are often more concerned about behavior modification than we are about individuals encountering the presence of a loving God. I wonder if we want people to clean up their act more than we want them to know the love and grace of God.

With or without lie-detectors, most of us would deny it in a heartbeat. But our practice betrays us—we often put our energy into changing others’ behavior, rather than introducing them to this astounding grace. I know I am far more comfortable when people do what I believe they’re supposed to be doing. And although it’s a complicated formula, I suspect I’ve desired it with more passion and energy than I have desired that the same individuals truly encounter God’s great love for them as they are.

Admittedly, because no one’s volunteering to either fund or participate in my weird experiment, the jury is still out on this one.

But I know this much is true: The love that is meant to mark us as Christians is meant to receive people in the generous and gracious way Jesus received people. As author Brennan Manning says, “God loves us as we are and not as we should be because no one is as they should be.” And while unmerited grace is great news for all of us, actually replicating such grace-filled reception of others can be a bit more challenging.

To receive an “other” as they are, without first mandating behavior changes, requires us to tolerate a bit of anxiety or discomfort. It demands that we release, or at least relax, our natural impulse to announce our opinions. To receive another as they are, and not as we wish them to be, is to agree with the apostle Paul’s conviction that it is God’s kindness that leads to repentance.

It’s certainly goes against the grain of what we feel is “right,” and in this way, it’s really quite radical.

Though we’ll continue to disagree on the social and political implications of our theological convictions, the gracious person of Jesus—who loved and died for sinners like us—is the One who unites us. This is the guy who, ignoring the opinions of others, bee-lined toward those His culture had identified as sinful. Jesus modeled it for us and He told story after story to make sure we got the message.

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Jesus desperately wanted us to know that His Father seeks the lost like a shepherd looking for His scrappy sheep. He searches for us like a woman who’s lost a precious coin. He welcomes the very worst sinners with the delight of a father whose son was dead but is now alive.

Before He ever suggested, “Go and sin no more,” Jesus first welcomed and received unrepentant sinners.

So in the wake of the Supreme Court cases, which have many people up in arms on all sides of the issue, let’s remember the witness of Jesus that announces no one is excluded from God’s radical grace. No one.

Surely we can all put some energy behind that.

Top Comments

James Aaron Fretz


James Aaron Fretz replied to Daniel's comment

Ephesians 2:8-9 (paraphrase) You are saved by grace, not works. It is a gift from God.


Eli Gillespie


Eli Gillespie commented…

This article bugs me. It's not about legislating other people's sins. It's about defining marriage - what "marriage" is. History on the subject: it has always been male/female. Some people starting changing that. Other people said they don't like the new definition and want to keep the old one. And to those that do, the author takes issue with it, because it's all about being up in people's sins. No, it's not. It's defense. Defending the notion of male/female marriage. If no one tried to change marriage, guess what?: there wouldn't be amendments to retain marriage, and all the people that get lambasted for caring about others' sins too much would be home continuing to not care about people's sins. Set the story straight: the millions of defenders of male/female marriage don't give two schlepins (made up word) about other people's sins. We do, however, dislike it when people say "marriage is now gender neutral and if you disagree, you're just on a soapbox about other people's sins... or maybe you're a bigot." Not a bigot. Not self-righteous about my own sin / looking down on people. Just defending "marriage." That's it!

Albert Rauch


Albert Rauch commented…

Yes, Christ radically loved the sinners unlike the religious leaders who ostracized themselves from them but I would disagree that Jesus's main message was of unconditional love. Christ often spoke of hell and warned constantly of what await those who choose sin over Him. Is it not love to warn sinners of their future demise for them which is the real reality? The demonstration of God's radical love was demonstrated by Christ dying on the cross for the whole world for sinners who could not pay for their sinners but it benefits of forgiveness are only for those who have repent and put their faith in Christ. The message of repentance was the central theme of Jesus's teachings and his parables about the prodigal son and the lost coin all referred to heaven rejoicing over a repentant sinner coming back. The first public message to the crowds by Peter was about the need to repent and believe. Yes it is not about behavior modification because it is the life of Christ working in us that brings the fruits of the new life in us as we abide in Him. Yet Christ demanded the surrender of self-rule and self-love which is the seat of power for sin. Do I love sin or Christ more? Christ never wanted followers who loved others, self or things more than him. He turned away a young rich ruler over this and he often challenged those interested in following him that they must love him more than their own lives. Christ's love was unconditionally displayed on the cross but its purpose has been always the same to dethrone sin's power us. Anything that advocates a Christ who expects nothing has created a christ not found in the scriptures.

Timothy Bastedo


Timothy Bastedo commented…

Love the article, because I think it raises a glimpse of a distinct problem at the heart of Christian theology. If human beings are sinners who need to be saved, then a certain brand of "love" requires pointing out the sin of other people; it's helping someone else take a first step on the Roman's Road, right? The theology of sin/grace requires the judgment of ourselves and others, because our need for salvation is predicated on it. Right?



Daniel commented…

I think Paul's writings are beyond understanding - I've never seen them explained satisfactorily. It really is frustrating that the most basic/fundamental/important doctrines have proven to be (for me) unintelligible.
i. Salvation: what is it and is it by grace OR works ?
ii. Election: eternal irrevocable predestination OR election in Christ which can be lost?

There are too many points for both sides of any of these arguments to make heads or tails of them.

James Aaron Fretz


James Aaron Fretz replied to Daniel's comment

Ephesians 2:8-9 (paraphrase) You are saved by grace, not works. It is a gift from God.

James Aaron Fretz


James Aaron Fretz commented…

It's this simple: Love the sinner, hate the sin in your own life, remove the forest out of your eyes before thinking you can take a speck out of anyone else's. Telling others how to live and being disapproving/judgy is not the way to be a Christian.
Jesus died for all of it! All of our disagreements, opinions, verbal lashings. He loves ALL sinners equally. Love was demonstrated by the ultimate one-time sacrifice of a lifetime of sin.

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