His book Respectable Sins starts off with a few orientation chapters, the burden of which is to show: You are already a saint, so live like one. The consciousness of sin has gone down tremendously in recent times. But sin is there, and it is like a cancer — tricky, subtle, surprising in its appearances.
There are some strengths to the book: notably, the suggestion of Scripture verses to memorize as part of the “remedy.” This kind of approach has always been a hallmark of Navigators, and should be recognized as a real contribution. Even this method can fall short, however. If Scripture verses function like marbles rattling around in an empty box, they are worse than useless. A verse, apart from understanding its place in the entire tapestry of revelation, is like thinking one has learned Greek just because the alphabet has been memorized — or for that matter, even the whole dictionary. Sometimes, meditating on a human but exemplary summary of Scripture is the medicine that is needed. Dr Bahnsen once counseled a young girl that was suffering from narcissism to memorize and rehearse the answer the Catechism gives to the question, What is God? And I think there was great wisdom in his counsel.
In reviewing this book, I will depart from my usual conformity to the academic book notice, which first gives a compendious summary and only then follows with critical comments, and instead, proceed straight to highlighting some concrete criticisms. Let the reader be the judge, but I think in this case such an approach will be sufficient to convey an idea of the thesis of the book and its method as well.
More than once, Bridges deplores a behavior he claims to have observed in the church, namely, that people lament the gross sins of society but not the failings in their own sanctification. But is this criticism cogent? First, it fails to divide the question accurately: would he be happier if people were apathetic about both their own and society’s sins? Second, it fails to make a public/private distinction: do we really want people hanging all their personal laundry out in public during the coffee hour? Third, there is an aspect of corporate solidarity that might be involved in the complaint about the gross sins of society: we are all in this together. In a life-boat far out at sea, when one observes some crazy people chopping holes in the hull, it is hardly a mark of piety to look away and fret about one’s own bad breath. There is also the distinction of greater and lesser responsibility: in a great military battle, if the general suddenly betrays his division to the enemy, it is missing the point a bit for the pious soldier Beetle to confine his remarks to lamenting that he, Beetle, could have been a better soldier if he had spent more time on the practice range.
Some of the sins chosen are valid but too broad. “Ungodliness” would be a good example. In the extreme, ungodliness is simply the fundamental problem of all men apart from regeneration: alienation from God. That is hardly a “problem” addressed by a book of this sort. And is it likely that you, I, or any other modern could add much to what the Puritans already have written on this?
Thus, some sins are too broad; but others are concrete, but misguided. This is the main problem with this book. To illustrate, I will highlight one chapter in particular as a case exemplar of the general problem.
In the chapter on “judgmentalism,” Bridges fails to define “opinion,” so that the concept merges with “belief” simpliciter. One is supposed to feel bad for being judgmental of others if the point of difference is nothing but one’s own personal opinion. His examples of current controversies that have no more substance than baseless opinion are (1) worship style and (2) the formality vs casualness of dress in worship. Jerry trumps all such discussions by citing “they who worship must worship in spirit and truth” and observing that this verse says nothing about dress or musical style. However, note that exegesis is supposed to consider all of Scripture, not just one verse wrenched out of context. If the point of the chapter were to indicate that one should show kindness, patience, and hope for reform when confronting wayward brethren, then the examples chosen might better have been universally-recognized heresies such as Unitarianism or Arianism. But doing so would have revealed the falseness of Bridges’ thesis. In other words, there is a confusion between epistemology — what we can know to be the case — and how one should relate to people that one “disagrees with.” The hidden premise of Jerry’s presentation is that some controversies are unknowable; taking a position is thus merely the assertion of one’s own “preference.” But this we deny. Jerry’s thesis boils down to his own arbitrary assertion of agnosticism or unknowability on those issues. Oddly enough, another example he gives is one he claims to know something that is in fact unknowable. He mentions a father whose daughter went bad. On his death bed, the father bitterly “repented” of how he used to chide his daughter to sit up straight, look him in the eye when speaking, etc. Jerry “knows” that this led to the daughter losing self-esteem and eventually resorting to drugs and fornication. But Jerry does not in fact know this; indeed, neither does the father in question. Probably, the father, smitten with grief and longing for his wayward daughter, was afflicted with misplaced guilt that reflects the feminized mores of our degenerate society far more than Holy Spirit-induced repentance for an actual violation of the law of God. Jerry thinks he knows when he does not, and he thinks he does not know when he ought to.
The slender thread that Jerry can base this chapter on would be the distinction between convictions derived from the Word of God versus convictions derived from other sources. Only the former can be utilized as an objective judgment in the church. Lacking that basis, we ought not to form such judgments. (For example: forbidding the drinking of alcohol.) But this is not exactly the distinction that Jerry makes. Instead, it is between “conviction” and “opinion.” The proof that this is not the correct distinction is that at the end, he encourages people that have “convictions” not to give them up. But they should be given up, if they are of such kind as Bridges thinks can be identified as sin if enunciated.
In what flight of fantasy would one identify “judgmentalism” as a respectable or socially-acceptable sin? On the contrary, one could say that anti-judgmentalism is a major plank in our popular civil religion. Likewise, some of the “sins” that irritate Bridges the most based on rate of mention seem more like hypersensitivity to the demands of women. I’m thinking of “sarcasm” for example. As if the Bible says that a bit of biting irony is an affront to the law of God! Jerry has appropriated as his own view many of the views on good and bad behavior given forth by our worldly religion, thoroughly saturated as it is with the self-centered whining of lost women. The claim that those examples are sins, let alone respectable sins, has no biblical basis. The exposition is itself a sly ratification of humanism.
As McPhee’s father said, show it me in the Word of God.
I do not blame rebellious women, let alone women in general, for the ascendancy of their peculiar sensibilities becoming the subject for all this public brow-beating. It is kitty-whipped males like Jerry Bridges that have cravenly capitulated to establish this environment — an environment in which women will not prosper any more than men.
Indeed, in most cases the theme of the book could more accurately be called “those behaviors that it is respectable to brow-beat about.”
Identifying respectable sin requires more soul-searching than a book like this exhibits. Actually, the list of sins is respectable in an opposite sense intended by the author, namely: agreeing that these are respectable sins. The really respectable sins would not be recognized as sins at all. That is where the knife would really cut. For example, consider the fashionable but deeply sinful attitude shared by virtually all white Christians with their white secular counterparts, namely their anti-“racism.” This sin involves a whole complex of adopting attitudes that are contrary to the natural affections and desire to preserve one’s own kin that one finds throughout Scripture, not to mention the sin of “stopping one’s ears against just defense” as our Catechism says. Yet most white Christians not only have adopted this sinful attitude, but positively think of it as one evidence of their real sanctification!
Don’t believe me? Then imagine the reactions if David Duke showed up as a visitor in the typical white church of today. The humble end of the spectrum would greet him with a expectant puppy-dog expression, ready to welcome him with open arms immediately upon his public confession of his “sin,” which they would with expectant hope wait for him to give forth. Never mind that they would be unable to state what Duke’s sin is in a sentence that would be both coherent and factual. But those are the good people. At the other end would be the many who would simply turn away in icy silence until the apparition passed, whereupon a torrent of gossip and abuse would be unleashed in their ranks that would not be tagged as sin at all — quite the contrary. It would be taken as a mark of piety all of a sudden, accompanied by appropriate eyes lifted heavenward and shaking heads. And too many pastors and elders would, I fear, be right in the vanguard.
How about Sabbath-breaking? This is a sin that is so respectable it is positively encouraged and egged on in most church circles.
Perhaps it would be useful to continue the list:
3. Complicity of silence in the theft of others. When you see a clerk not ring up a transaction, but just state the “amount” and take the cash, do you smile inwardly? Have you ever said anything about it?
4. A blood-thirsty form of nationalism. Has a war ever been waged by the USA (if you are an American) that did not make your heart leap for joy?
5. An unjust favoring of some and despising of certain other peoples. Do you support Israel, right or wrong? In your mind, are the Arabs’ complaints vis-à-vis jews always and necessarily wrong?
6. Incorrigibility. When a cherished belief is challenged by Scripture, do you change your belief, even if that belief is politically correct and socially acceptable? Or are your beliefs not really beliefs at all, but just social conventions that you participate in?
7. And while being incorrigible at bottom, do you at the same time take great pride in “not having the pride of doctrinal correctness,” of being very “humble” in the very way that Chesterton observed was not humility at all but deeply-rooted pride?
8. How about hospitality? Do you take pride in your hospitality, though you would never offer shelter or food to someone you despise? As Roger Wagner observed, biblical hospitality has to do with your behavior toward the unlovely; it has nothing to do with throwing a wine and cheese party for people you love being with.
9. Will-worship. Do your complaints about the worship service have more to do with your own idiosyncratic taste than with an honest exegesis of what God says pleases him in worship?
10. Willingness to declare this or that to be sin without warrant from the Word of God, especially when those faux-sins have been made unpopular by jews and other secular forces of our culture, acting in concert through entertainment and “education.”
I have been guilty of all these respectable sins; I am not throwing stones at others. Self-righteousness is always near at hand when listing sins. My point is not that Bridges has not written anything useful, but simply that the professed theme of “respectability” misses the mark quite widely.
A book that really tackled the respectable sins of our day would be ignored or ridiculed, not received with accolades; and it would not be published by Navigators or any other respectable publisher.
Bridges, Jerry. Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins we Tolerate (Colorado Springs: NavPress) 2007.