When Our Conduct Contradicts Our Confession

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.The Declaration of Independence

These are arguably the most famous words in human history. Written in 1776 and signed by the forefathers of our nation, the Declaration of Independence is considered by historians as a turning point not only in American history, but in human history as well. Never before had a government been established around such principles and beliefs.

The idea that citizens possessed unalienable rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — was foreign. These were rights, according to our founding fathers, that man didn’t give and man had no right to take away because our Creator had endowed us with them.

Unfortunately, America failed to live up to these truths. For nearly two hundred years after this document was signed, race-based chattel slavery was legal in America and women were treated as less than equal. This part of history always puzzled me when I was younger. How could a country embrace a document that declared the equality of men and women, yet sign laws that completely contradicted what had been written?

Life and Scripture eventually taught me that sometimes our conduct contradicts our confession.

Inconsistent Living

When I became a Calvinist years ago, I ignorantly believed that a better understanding of God and Scripture would annihilate certain sins in the church. I thought the scandals, addictions, and grave sins that I witnessed over and over again in leadership back in my prosperity and non-Calvinist circles would cease now that I was Reformed. “These men would be different.”

Eventually, scandal struck. And I was devastated. I cried for hours the first time it happened. And then, one by one, several more men I respected locally and nationally began to fall into scandalous sin, even though they had solid theology. Some of the failures garnered national attention. I believe every Christian fundamentally understands these men’s problems. We all know what it’s like when our conduct contradicts our confession.

If I had been more introspective, it would not have taken local and national scandals to show me that sometimes Jesus-loving Christians don’t always live out what they profess to believe. My own life is a testimony to this reality. Scripture repeatedly provides examples of God’s people whose conduct was inconsistent with what they believed.

The most memorable example is the fall of David. The Bible describes him as a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), even though he committed adultery, and then murdered the woman’s husband.

Perhaps a less scandalous example is the conduct of Peter in Galatians 2:12–21. Peter knew Jesus Christ when he was on earth and was a part of Christ’s inner circle. He was an apostle and an author of Scripture. But Paul had to oppose him to his face. Why? Because he stood condemned. Even though he knew that justification comes through faith in Christ, apart from the law, his behavior completely contradicted what he knew to be true. Paul plainly says that his “conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). No one denies that Peter, an author of two epistles, had a rich understanding of the gospel. Yet, even Peter walked out of step with what he knew was true.

Knowledge Alone Is Not Enough

Whether our sins are public or private, scandalous or “respectable,” Christians are broken men and women who possess desires that conflict with what we know to be true. This is why men and women who know that Jesus is better than porn and fornication still choose sexual immorality over Jesus. This is why men and women who know marriage should be “held in honor among all” dishonor it by committing adultery (Hebrews 13:4). This is why pastors who know “pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” refuse to walk in humility (Proverbs 16:18). This is why Christians sing “Jesus is Lord” but then proclaim with their lives, “I am Lord.”

Too often we attempt to increase our maturity by increasing our knowledge. While this impresses men, it often says little about what’s actually taking place in our hearts. When we only pursue doctrinal strictness to demonstrate maturity, we’re entertaining something that could be more demonic than angelic (James 2:19). A great theological mind becomes demonic when the life habitually contradicts what the mind confesses. Knowledge alone, while extremely important, is insufficient evidence of whether or not we’re walking in maturity. It is not enough to simply know things about God — we need to know God.

Knowing God

As I think about our forefathers and the years of injustice that followed the signing of that great document, I’m no longer puzzled by America’s blatant hypocrisy. Just as our forefathers recognized that we’ve been endowed with inalienable rights, we must also recognize that our forefather Adam has infected us with sin. Therefore knowledge alone is not enough to change the hard heart of human beings. We need to know God in order for us to truly be changed.

As we wrestle with sin and our evil desires, we must go to Scripture, not as a means of knowing theology alone, but as a means to knowing God and to being known or searched by him and his word. If we want to know a famous person and be known by them, reading their autobiography alone is insufficient. It doesn’t invite intimacy because it’s one-sided. The Bible is not an autobiography. It’s an invitation into intimacy with the Creator, who reveals himself to us through it and invites us to interact with him over it through prayer.

Is Your Sound Theology Healthy?

Answering the question “Why do PhDs in theology commit adultery?” John Piper says,

They don’t know God. They don’t know God for who he is — infinitely valuable, infinitely beautiful, infinitely satisfying — why your soul was made. There are more pleasures at his right hand, more eternal joys in his presence, than you could have in ten thousand sexual trysts.

If you know that, sin will have lost its dominion in your life.

When we understand that “our liberation comes through a person, not a system of ideas and principles” (Addictions — A Banquet in the Grave: Finding Hope in the Power of the Gospel) the way we approach our failures, guilt, and addictions is radically different. We stop trying to change ourselves through legalism and willpower, and instead turn to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The only way we can truly know Jesus Christ is through the Holy Scriptures, by the illumination of the Spirit. The Spirit helps us see clearly the goodness of God and the joys and pleasures that are available to us. All of our attempts to love, enjoy, and treasure God as supremely good will fail miserably unless the Spirit gives us eyes to see. As we articulate what the Holy Spirit is teaching us through Scripture, we express our theology. This is why our “sound” theology must also be healthy — Spirit-filled, humble, and consistent.

The doctrine and theology that we study must shape the way that we live. If we’re studying to impress each other with our lofty ideas and our big words on social media, theology will never change us. If pastors only read their Bibles to hold down their jobs but aren’t pleading before God to be changed by what they read, they will remain in their sin.

As we read the Scriptures and study theology — all of us — we must plead with God to break our hearts and give us eyes to see so that his truth will radically change our lives. Our goal when studying the Scriptures must always be deeper intimacy with the Father. As we think big thoughts and dive into the grandiose truths about who Christ is and what he has accomplished, we can never forget that these truths exist for our freedom and for God’s glory.

(@PhillipMHolmes) served as a content strategist at desiringGod.org. He and his wife, Jasmine, have a son, and they are members of Redeemer Church in Jackson, Mississippi.