Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
You have probably heard or read Mark Driscoll’s letter of apology read to members and attendees of Mars Hill Church. Christianity Today commented on it by stating “Mark Driscoll Retracts Bestseller Book Status, Resets Life.”
I hesitate saying too much because this is from a distance and I was not personally wronged. However, there is a sense in which those of us who listened to, read or were influenced by Driscoll have been wronged, though in a different way with a different impact/outcome. This means a confession can be approached differently than one who is close, one who is a friend and one who has been personally hurt or offended. A general biblical principle is that repentance, confession of sin, ought to be as broad or as public as the sin. In today’s world with the many forms of communication and publications, the impact can be quite broad. Rightly, this confession began with his own church family.
Repentance is foundational to the message of Jesus: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk. 1:15). It is the grounded in the gospel and the basis of initiation into the kingdom. Repentance initiates one into new life in Christ and is an ongoing mark of that life. When a sinner repents, there is joy in heaven (Lk. 15:7, 10). As we live life together as brothers and sisters in Christ, as long as one repents, we are to forgive (Lk. 17:3-4). Unlike the elder brother, we are to rejoice as those in heaven over a sinner who repents rather than being stingy in our forgiveness of the repentant (Lk. 15:24-32). We must not begrudge God’s extravagant grace of giving and forgiving (cf. Matt. 20:15), which become a model for us. Even more so, it reflects true sonship since sons and daughters take their Father’s (Matt. 5:45) and Son’s (Rom. 8:29) likeness. Finally, the manner in which we love God and others, which includes repentance and forgiveness, reveals whether or not we have experienced and grasped God’s great love and forgiveness of us, because the one who has been forgiven much – which is all of us – loves much (Lk. 7:47).
In light of this biblical teaching, someone commented that Driscoll also apologized in 2007 in a sermon. That is great, in that it evidences a repentant lifestyle, at least twice. In fact, I would hope that one would not question one’s present day confession because one made a prior confession. Confession/repentance really ought to be a way of life for the Christian. In fact, the person pointing to the confession made in 2007 read that as evidence of a negative thing in Driscoll’s life; one causing him to repent again. I read and understood it in a different way – as a good thing. In fact, it raised the question about whether that was the last time he repented. Truth be told, he could probably have pointed to the day prior as having heard another confession. I am quite certain 2007 was not the last time Driscoll repented, even publicly. There ought to be evidence that he has repented numerous times since then. Repeated repentance is a good thing, a mark of a new life lived in the kingdom of God, an evidence of the gospel. This is why the first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses addressed ongoing repentance, stating, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”
I greatly appreciate Driscoll’s acknowledgement and confession. It evidences God's grace, not just theologically, not just abstractly, not just for others, but in his own life. These sorts of things are not generally said or done apart from the Holy Spirit convicting, guiding and leading to repentance. It is, indeed, God's kindness that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
Ray Ortlund wrote positively about Driscoll’s repentance as explained in “What Just Happened?” The point Ortlund makes is that Driscoll owned up and repented. That is amazing. But based on his relationship with him, it did not surprise him. What is even more amazing “is not how often he repents but how rarely other Christian leaders repent.” That is a good point and an important observation. Here is another person who commented on Driscoll's apology, one who has been a critic. He appropriately assumes the best and voices his support.
I don't mean to be skeptical or a cynic or to detract from Driscoll’s repentance, but I am going to make an observation that might make it sound as if I am (forgive me if it does): Why is it in so many (all?) of these instances, these decisions, conclusions and responses are initiated and generated by the person, the "celebrity?" Then, and only then, once he presents it to the board of advisors or a similar accountability group, they joyfully agree. Where were they before? Had they been completely blind to these issues previously? (Anyone who has followed this at all from a distance could have written this list Driscoll included in his letter of apology. Those more closely related could probably have included even more.) Had they remained silent? Had they addressed it only to be rebuffed? Though I celebrate with what I read, the true test of repentance will be changes that follow, i.e. fruit-bearing in keeping with repentance (Matt. 3:8), which I trust will be true and manifest.
One of the true tests of humility is to listen and submit to that group of elders or board of advisers and accountability even before I see something in my own life. The reason I have them in my life is to help me to see those issues I cannot or will not see on my own. In these situations, the "celebrity" often becomes doubly untouchable in that he is determining his own life direction and that those to whom he is to be accountable, those who are to be helping him, often simply say what he wishes anyway, a sort of echo of his wishes and desires. This does not just rest on the person, the pastor or “celebrity,” but it is also the responsibility of the elders or board of advisers who also become culpable. It may be fitting for them to repent as well.
Another interesting thing about this is that Driscoll says he is following his pastor, the Lord Jesus. This is true. The Lord Jesus is the Chief Shepherd of our souls (1 Pet. 5:4), the Great Shepherd of the sheep (Heb. 13:20) and He pastors through the Word. Now, He leads through the Other, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:16). But this understanding and approach is lacking because it is not just “me and Jesus.” The Lord Jesus is our Head, and we submit to His authority by submitting to the Word. The Holy Spirit illumines that Word and convicts us by that Word and transforms us into the likeness of the Son. As we come short, He convicts us (Jn. 16:8) and leads us to repentance. But here is what is important, vital, and yet missing. This submission happens in the context of the local church in which there is a God-ordained structure of elders and others.
What about us? Is repentance true of us? Is repentance a mark of our lives, an evidence of living a life in a manner worthy of the gospel (Phil. 1:27)? Do we need to initiate all repentance and change, or can others speak into those issues in our lives? Do we have ears to hear and hearts to respond?
Having written this, it is time for me to repent: I confess this is something I know better than I live. This is, I confess, something I have not always or often lived well in my own life. But I desire to, which gives me hope - hope in the gospel because one of the evidences of it is repentance. I am thankful for God’s kindness.
One final thought. It is much easier to repent in this way to everyone (in general) and no one (in particular) than it is to my wife and those closest to me, those who know me and my sins better than I know them myself.