Present Company Ex/Included – Ministry Spot


Picture the prophet Amos, standing there in his sheep-herding clothes. He starts to preach, and the people lean in, desiring their itching ears to be scratched by a prophet who knows how to stay in his lane. For the first half-hour of the sermon, the people got what they wanted. Amos was on a roll. “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.” He called out the sins of the Syrians in the north, and then ripped into the sins of the Philistines in the south. He exposed the cruelty of Tyre, the treachery of Edom, the war crimes of Ammon, and the arrogance of Moab. Each time Amos specified the sins of Israel’s neighbours, you may imagine the delight it gave his immediate audience: “It’s about time someone started calling things for what they are! Aren’t you glad we don’t go to one of those politically correct churches down the street who don’t even believe in sin?”

But then the sermon got a little awkward. Amos started talking about Judah, Israel’s relatives to the south: “For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they have rejected the law of the LORD, and have not kept His statutes, but their lies have led them astray.” Amos’ audience started to get nervous. “Where is he going with this? I mean, those people down in Judah are a bit too goody-two-shoes for my taste, but they happen to be more devout than most of us up here in the north.” And then Amos lowered the boom: “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.” Amos begins to detail Israel’s mistreatment of the poor, her sexual immorality, and her debauchery. What started out as the best sermon ever—calling out the sins of the mainstream culture—ended addressing the sins in our own life.

When you attend a worship service on the Lord’s Day, are you secretly hoping to be congratulated? Perhaps you come to worship bruised and exhausted, in need of spiritual renewal. Perhaps you come healthy and equipped, ready to serve. But some of us show up with the not-so-commendable desire that we be affirmed in all our opinions, convictions, and allegiances. We use church as a sort of self-congratulations society. We want the pastor to preach against sin, especially if it is somebody else’s sin. Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went to the temple to pray in Luke 18:9–14 captures this approach. The Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all I get.” It’s convicting to realize that this approach to God (an approach which leaves the person unjustified) is not merely embraced by individual Pharisees but by entire congregations and movements within the church. When you consider the specific sins called out by your favorite blogger, pastor, or musician, how many of these sins are sins of our culture out there, and how many are sins in your own heart right here? Start to keep track. My hunch is that we have surrounded ourselves with voices that take a “present company excluded” approach to sin.

My hunch is that we have surrounded ourselves with voices that take a “present company excluded” approach to sin.

If you were to ask someone in your church to name the prevailing sins of our time—the issues of our day according to your pastor and elders—what would they list? Same-sex marriage, transgenderism, postmodern denials of absolute truth, abortion, and euthanasia? That’s pretty good as a starter list, but it’s kind of convenient if sins such as pride, gossip, and lovelessness are omitted. The Pharisee’s list was a pretty good list—extortion, injustice, adultery—these are serious breaches of the law of God. But if our churches are to be gospel communities of faith and repentance, and not merely mutual admiration societies perpetuating a sense of moral superiority, we will need to ask: are we talking about the sins of our neighbours more often than the sins of ourselves? Are we bringing up Sabbath-breaking because it happens to be a distinctive of our denomination and it’s a way to congratulate ourselves for having better theology than the church across town, or are we bringing it up because we ourselves are struggling to obey?

We have become quite adept at using orthodox theology to avoid growing in grace. As a pastor, I loved it when people would compliment me for preaching sola fide, until I learned that they were abusing the doctrine to deny the necessity of a changed life. I loved it when people thanked me for “preaching Christ” until I learned that they were trying to avoid Jesus’ ethics. Have you ever looked at the sin lists in Paul’s epistles? He is never merely exposing the evil in the outside world. In Romans 1:28–32, after speaking plainly about sexual perversion, Paul says that God gave sinful humanity over to a debased mind, and then he lists about twenty-one sins. The list is intended to convict us all. It includes deceit, boasting, and disobedience to parents. When the apostle thought, wrote, and preached about depravity, he had in mind the types of sins you and I commit, not merely the trendy sins of the current cultural elite.

Perhaps your church is already approaching the Word of God with requisite humility, ready to be convicted and ready to be rebuilt. But many of us have embraced a present-company-excluded approach to sin, instead of a present-company-included approach. Is the ground at the foot of the cross truly level, or do we imply that those of us gathered in this room are a little higher, a little closer to Jesus than all those poor blighters out there? There is indeed a place for calling out the sins of the non-Christian culture—the Old Testament is replete with judgment oracles against the nations. Such oracles served to give Israel a reminder of God’s justice (that He holds all of humanity to the same standard), it served to warn Israel not to become like the nations, and it indirectly implied that the nations were a concern to God and thus ultimately part of the scope of God’s gospel ministry. But those Old Testament denunciations of the sins of the nations are usually in the context of Israel’s more egregious departures from the way of the LORD.

The apostle Paul could say “imitate me as I imitate Christ,” so it is true that some Christians and some churches can be more mature than others, serving as models for the rest of us. But that same Paul referred to himself as the “chief of sinners,” so the more mature we become, the more ready we should be to admit our reprehensible guilt. Why are we wasting church by turning it into a self-congratulatory society? It’s not like it has to become a self-condemning society. But let another praise you, not you yourself. At the end of Amos’ prophecy in chapter nine, after pages of convicting exposure of sin, the LORD promises to restore His people by sending them the Messianic Son of David: “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins … Behold, the days are coming when the ploughman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them.”

We can afford to be ruthless in calling out own sin, because our hope is not in posturing and positioning ourselves higher than our neighbours. Our hope is in Christ.