A Church Culture Ripe for Spiritual Transformation

When we consider the biblical understanding of “church,” it’s clear that we don’t really go to church, because the church is the people of God who have been called “out of darkness into his marvelous light” through Christ (1 Peter 2:9). Certainly, when Paul wrote “to the church of God in Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2), he was not referring to a building in Corinth, but the Christians there. It is true that we go to a gathering of the church on Sundays, but if we’re being precise, the terminology of going to church can perpetuate the idea that church is a place we merely attend where we are passive observers. Biblically speaking, however, Christians who gather together have responsibilities to one another as we seek to glorify God. And the embrace of these responsibilities, or lack of embrace, will determine the culture of your church.

One of those responsibilities is the call for us to help one another respond faithfully to the reality of sin in each of our lives. So, what is the culture of your church with regard to confession of sin and repentance? There are two main ways in which we can fall off the beam when it comes to this aspect of church culture. The first is when we create and maintain an atmosphere where everyone seems to have it all together spiritually. A church with this tendency is careful to only talk about “safe” subjects when its members gather. They have a sense of what is unacceptable to the community when it comes to personal sins or problems at home, and they make sure to steer clear of questions and conversations that may enter into such territory. If we want our churches to know the love of Christ and grow in our conformity to Him, then this is truly dangerous.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains the threat well: “The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.”¹

God uses means to transform us into the image of Christ, and one of those means is the community of faith. We were never meant to be “alone with our sin.” We need gentle restoration when we are “caught in any transgression” (Galatians 6:1). We need admonition when we are undisciplined (1 Thessalonians 5:14). We need exhortation so that we will not be “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). However, among our brothers and sisters, if we are not open and honest about our sins, then we cut ourselves off from this needed ministry. We secretly languish in our sins without our fellow soldiers next to us ready with the ammunition of gospel truth, reminding us of the forgiveness of sins in Christ, the hope of eternal life, and the power of the Holy Spirit for transformation.

The other way in which our churches can fall off the beam is when we are really good at being open and honest about our sins, but without a commitment to help each other turn from those sins in repentant faith. A church can be refreshingly “real” or “authentic” in such a way that people feel relief that they are not alone as sinners. They are not fake like other churches because they know that all of the sins they divulge are paid for by Christ. They don’t hide sin or condemn others when they confess, but their ministry stops at the level of declaring that God’s grace forgives, when the Bible is clear that His grace also trains us for godly living.² In Titus 2:11-12, Paul says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” Clearly, God’s plan is that, through the gospel, our lives will be increasingly shaped by His grace.

As we saw in the first error, one of the means by which this shaping influence is realized is through the body of Christ. In our communities of faith, there must be a commitment to grace and love when sin is brought to light. But that love and grace, while including a welcoming spirit, must also include a sharpening and restoring spirit, so that we help each other repent and change for Christ’s sake. If we stop short of sharpening and restoring, then we cut each other off from the ministry of the body that will help us experience the joy of abiding in the love of Christ through obedience to His Word (see John 15:10-11).

Do you see that a healthy church culture with regard to sin includes transparency and challenge? How are you contributing to this balance in your congregation? It’s easy to complain about obvious neglect in one of these areas when it comes to church leadership or other members, but if the culture of your church is going to change for the better, let that change include you.

Note: This article originally appeared on thecbcd.org. We encourage you to visit the Center for Biblical Discipleship and Counseling where you can find helpful, biblical resources by a number of trusted pastors and authors.

Brent Osterberg