More On “Accountability Groups”
A little over a week ago I posted an article about accountability groups. In that article I talked about my disdain for the kind of “accountability groups” where the primary (almost exclusive, in my experience) focus is on our sin, not on our Savior. These types of groups, I argue, breed self-righteousness, guilt, and a “do more, try harder” moralism that robs us of the joy and freedom Jesus paid dearly to secure for us. They start with the narcissistic presupposition that Christianity is all about cleaning up and getting better–it’s all about personal improvement. But it’s not!
You can, and should, read it here. You won’t fully understand what I’m about to say unless you read that article first.
Well, as you can imagine, it stirred up quite a discussion. It was apparent to me that some people read the opening paragraph and didn’t carefully read the rest of the post and specifically what I was calling for. So, I wanted to do a follow up post to simply reiterate, firmly stand by, and perhaps clarify the main point I was trying to get across.
In order to do this, I thought it would be best to paste a portion of a comment I made (with some minor editing) in the comment section of the original post to some who were quite distressed over what I was saying. I wrote:
I wholeheartedly believe in the beauty and necessity of Christian friends who love us enough to correct us when we need it and also friends who we can share our needs and struggles with. That’s precisely what I’m hoping for. We would all be in big trouble without them. In fact, God calls us to live in community for that very reason.
As I mentioned in my post, it’s not accountability in general (I mention the friends and family that continue to help me grow) but the kind of accountability groups like the ones I specifically mentioned (believe it or not, these are much more commonplace than you may realize!) that end up being more of a hindrance to our growth, than they are a help. These groups foster the kind of guilt, legalism, narcissism and morbid introspection that are antithetical to growth in the gospel. It’s very telling, for instance, that in Galatians 5:4-5 the Apostle Paul describes falling from grace, not in terms of immorality or godless living, but legalism.
I call for accountability in this post, but a certain kind of accountability–the kind that forces us to reckon with the scandalous nature of God’s unconditional love for us because of Christ’s finished work on our behalf. I believe in the need to repent and to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16). But it is only this reckoning with God’s unconditional love in the face of my ongoing failure that can lead to genuine, heart-felt confession of sin and repentance. It is, after all, “the kindness of the Lord that leads to repentance” (Romans 2:4). Or, as the Puritans used to say, “Guilt may lead to legal repentance but only grace will lead to evangelical repentance.”
Nowhere in this post do I reject the concept of “accountability”. Rather, I’m calling for a gospel-centered approach to Christian fellowship and accountability that serves as a much needed alternative to the type of groups I describe. As Sinclair Ferguson has said, “The evangelical orientation is inward and subjective. We are far better at looking inward than we are at looking outward. Instead, we need to expend our energies admiring, exploring, expositing and extolling Jesus Christ.” My greatest need and yours is to look at Christ more than we look at ourselves. I need to be held accountable to do this.
In an excellent article entitled “Does Justification Still Matter?“, Mike Horton raises the same concern I raise with regard to our natural tendency to focus inward more than Christ-ward. He writes:
Most people in the pew, however, are simply not acquainted with the doctrine of justification. Often, it is not a part of the diet of preaching and church life, much less a dominant theme in the Christian subculture. With either stern rigor or happy tips for better living, “fundamentalists” and “progressives” alike smother the gospel in moralism, through constant exhortations to personal transformation that keep the sheep looking to themselves rather than looking outside of themselves to Christ… The average feature article in [Christian magazines] or Christian best-seller’s is concerned with “good works”-trends in spirituality, social activism, church growth, and discipleship. However, it’s pretty clear that justification is simply not on the radar. Even where it is not outright rejected, it is often ignored. Perhaps the forgiveness of sins and justification are appropriate for “getting saved,” but then comes the real business of Christian living-as if there could be any genuine holiness of life that did not arise out of a perpetual confidence that “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
Because we are so naturally prone to look at ourselves and our performance more than we do to Christ and his performance, we need constant reminders of the gospel. As Horton says, there can be no genuine holiness of life that does not arise out of a perpetual confidence that “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). The only way to deal with remaining sin long term is to develop a distaste for it in light of the glorious acceptance, security and forgiveness we already posses in Christ. I need to be reminded of this all the time, every day. Because the fact is that guilt doesn’t produce holiness; grace does.
As I said at the conclusion of my original post, the bottom line is this, Christian: because of Christ’s work on your behalf, God does not dwell on your sin the way you do. So, relax and rejoice…and you’ll actually start to get better. The irony, of course, is that it’s only when we stop obsessing over our own need to be holy and focus instead on the beauty of Christ’s holiness, that we actually become more holy!