For example, when a prominent figure is caught in an indiscretion – adultery, tax evasion, bribery, abuse of power, whatever – he does usually apologize, but for mistakes, never for doing wrong and much less for sinning. Worse still, the statement is often along the lines of “mistakes were made.” There is not even the willingness to say I or we made mistakes; somehow they were made in a vacuum where no one is held accountable.
Unfortunately, this has also become more prominent in our popular religious language. We hear sermons that say God overlooks your mistakes, forgives your mistakes, and gives you a second change from all your mistakes. Well, he does, but the situation is more serious than that.
See, according to Merriam-Webster, a mistake is “to blunder in the choice of” (like turning right instead of left), “to misunderstand the meaning or intention of” (as in “I thought you said to meet you at 9 AM, not PM”); to “make the wrong judgment of the character or ability of” (as in the Cowboys should have drafted Bill instead of Bob); and “to identify wrongly” (as in “Sorry, I thought you were someone else”). As a noun mistake means “a wrong action or statement proceeding from faulty judgment, inadequate knowledge, or inattention.” From this definition a mistake is accidental, often morally or ethically neutral (but not always in consequences), and usually due to our limited human abilities. A mistake may arise out of sin or lead to sin, but does not come close to addressing the behaviors often masqueraded as sin.
How do these scriptures sound? Psalm 51:4 – “Against you, you only, have I made a mistake.” John 8:11b – “Go now and leave your life of mistakes.” Romans 3:23 – “For all have made mistakes and fallen short of the glory of God.” 2 Cor. 5:21 – “God made him who made no mistakes to be a mistake for us.” Just doesn’t quite work, does it?
Some will object and say I am being pretty harsh, negative, and too focused on what is wrong with people and that I should not focus so much on sin but on God’s grace and forgiveness. But that is just the point. Until and unless we understand the depths of our depravity and the seriousness of sin and its consequences against God and against each other, we can never fully appreciate the grace of God. If the worst I ever do is “make mistakes” then God’s grace is really not necessary. I am not a guilty sinner who needs forgiveness, saving, cleansing, and healing, but just a bumbling human being who needs a pat on the back, a simple word of encouragement, and a “go give it another try.” If the worst we ever do is make mistakes in our relationships with each other, then the hurt, the pain, and the destructive consequences of our actions are really no big deal. Hey, get over it. I just made a mistake, OK?
No. Sin is serious. It is against God, against our fellow human beings, against His creation, and against ourselves. Yes, sin involves elements of misjudgment, misinformation, and misunderstanding, but it is so much more. Adultery is not simply a mistake. The pedophile did does not need to go to prison because he made mistakes. 9/11was not caused by a series of mistakes. Corruption, abuse of power, and oppression of a fellow human being are not simply the results of a mistake ridden life. Mistakes did not lead to slavery, the rise of Nazism, the killing fields of Cambodia, and Charles Manson. Mistakes are not the cause of corporate greed, rampant abortion, and oppressive poverty. There is something much deeper and far more serious at work. Sin, perhaps?
Admitting to the reality and seriousness of sin, individually and corporately, means it can and must be addressed by the cross of Christ. Specifically naming the sin in confession and repentance means that its causes, dynamics, and consequences can be identified, addressed, and graciously forgiven. I don’t need to tell my wife, “Sorry, I made a mistake.” I need to tell her, “Please forgive me, what I did was wrong. I spoke harshly and unfairly.” I should not tell my friend, “Sorry, mistakes were made.” I should say, “I lied and betrayed you. That was wrong. Please forgive me.” The politician should not say, “Mistakes were made. We will try to correct them.” He should say, “We did wrong. We misused public funds” (no, he probably won’t use the word sin, but at least he is admitting wrongdoing). There is nothing more liberating than naming the sin, acknowledging the harm done, and receiving God’s (or others’) grace and forgiveness. That is what David really did in Psalm 51. This is true “name and claim it” theology. Name your sin and claim God’s infinite and amazing grace. See, that grace is amazing precisely because it is contrasted with and deals with our awful sin.