NavPress, Colorado Springs, 2007. 192 pp.
Every now and then, a book comes along that is a must-read. It completely changes the way you think. It changes your attitude towards God. It changes your behaviour. Respectable Sins by Jerry Bridges is such a book—a must-read for all Christians.
Sin or not sin?
Bridges isn’t writing about the usual gross sins, such as pornography, sexual immorality, losing your temper, and so on. His concern is that there are many sins that we Christians have come to view as acceptable—respectable sins. Everyone Christian around us tolerates these sins, so we do too. This means we end up looking little different to the rest of the world. Worse still, it means we are ungodly.
Let me give you an example. Impatience, says Bridges, is a sin. That’s bad news for me. I get impatient … often. I’m really busy, and I find it hard to wait for someone who is slow. I hate it when people are late or when they waste my time. While we’re at it, frustration is another sin, according to Bridges. When my computer plays up, I get frustrated. Don’t you?
Do these sound like sins to you? Often we say they are mere character flaws—a bit unpleasant, perhaps, but not really sin as such. Think again. 1 Corinthians 13:4 says that love is patient. Galatians 5:22 says that patience is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Colossians 3:12 tells us to put on patience as a virtue. Impatience is ungodly. Impatience is a sin. It is a sin of which we need to repent.
Sometimes the sins Bridges outlines are ones I have come to view as acceptable when previously I had thought otherwise. Take anxiety, for example: I have suffered from anxiety. Surely it is a medical condition, not a sin. Well, yes, it is a medical condition, but it is also a sin. Mild anxiety is like frustration. Firstly, it is a distrust of God. Bridges says, “when I give way to anxiety, I am, in effect, believing that God does not care for me and that He will not take care of me in the particular circumstance that triggers my anxiety of the moment” (p. 64). Secondly, it is a sin because “it is a lack of acceptance of God’s providence in our lives” (p. 64). Jerry Bridges suffers from this sin, and concludes that his own anxiety “is triggered … by an unwillingness to submit to and cheerfully accept [God’s] agenda for me” (p. 65).
For me, speaking critically about others was another sin that had become acceptable. I have seen so many other Christian leaders doing it, it must be right. Right? Wrong. Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear”. Jerry Bridges writes, “Note Paul’s absolute prohibition. No corrupting talk. None whatsoever. This means no gossip, no sarcasm, no critical speech, no harsh words” (p. 160). Speech that is critical of others is really the overflow from a sinful heart (p. 162). That’s why even critical thoughts about others are ungodly (cf. Ps 19:14).
A painful read
There are many problems we will have when reading this book. One of them is that we will instinctively think that the sins listed are not sins. That in itself is part of our sinfulness! But Bridges doesn’t let us get away with it; as with the example of impatience, he uses Scripture throughout the book in a very convincing way. Again and again, as I read, I realized that this or that ‘character flaw’ was indeed a sin. We need to repent of our sins, but how can we do that if we don’t even identify our sin as sin?
The list of sins Bridges tackles is a long one: selfishness, expressed in not listening to someone else’s interests, but wanting to share your own; lack of self-control with money; selfishness with money; not thanking God in difficult circumstances; the pride of correct doctrine; resentment and bitterness; envy of others; competitiveness; and so on. It’s a long list. That’s another problem with this book: it’s painful to read, and Bridges knows it. It’s like someone holding up a mirror to your face so that you realize that your reflection is really not that good. Towards the end of the book, Bridges writes,
At times, [reading] this may have been painful. I hope it has, because that means you have been honest enough and humble enough to admit the presence of some of these sins in your own life. And in this, there is hope. (p. 177).
This is why this book is a must-read. We need badly to repent of our acceptable, respectable sins. Bridges pulls no punches, but he is gentle, biblical, God-focused and gospel-centred. The first few chapters of the book remind us clearly of the good news of Jesus in his love for us and his death on our behalf. The gospel is then applied to our sins. Bridges constantly uses the Scriptures to point out our sins and to help us repent of them. Bridges is a great pastor as well as a great teacher, and he outlines how to apply the gospel to our sin, depend on the Holy Spirit, recognize our responsibility, memorize and apply appropriate Scriptures, cultivate the practice of prayer, and involve other Christians in the process of repentance.
One of Bridges’s teachings that I found particularly helpful was his application of the sovereignty of God to our respectable sins. A recurring theme of the book is “the importance of a firm belief in the sovereignty, wisdom, and goodness of God in all the circumstances of our lives” (p. 76). Why is frustration a sin? Because I won’t accept God’s sovereignty. Being controlling is a sin for the same reason: I want things my way, and when they don’t go my way, I get frustrated and angry, or I try to control others to get my way. But if I accept God’s sovereignty, then I will know that he doesn’t want my computer to work right now, and I should accept it, bearing in mind that he has my best interests at heart.
The same is true for much less trivial situations. Having a disability is not a mistake in God’s plans (even though disabilities are not inherently ‘good’). But God in his loving sovereignty, wanted me to have this disability for my good. I may not know why. But he knows why. Bridges himself speaks about the loss of his wife as a personal example (pp. 75-76), and deals with a host of other difficult circumstances: difficult jobs, unwanted prolonged singleness, the inability to have children, an unhappy marriage, poor health, and so on. We are tempted to commit the sins of frustration, anxiety, unthankfulness and discontentment. But once we accept God’s sovereignty over our lives and its situations, big and small, we can thank God for what he is doing in our lives, and we will be less tempted to give in to frustration and anger: “God does nothing, or allows nothing, without a purpose. And His purposes, however mysterious and inscrutable they may be to us, are always for His glory and our ultimate good” (p. 74).
Yes, Respectable Sins is a hard book to read. It is hard because I am sinful. I myself baulked at reading it for months, and I baulked at writing this review for just as long. But I needed to read this book, and so do you. I needed to stop accepting the many sins in my life and repent of them. I will be blessed when I do.
Respectable Sins is a book to read slowly—maybe at the pace of a chapter a week. It is a book to read with your Bible open. It is a book to discuss afterwards with another Christian friend.1 I am going through it with a bloke I meet up with, and I hope to also read it with my wife. The latter is a scarier prospect, but a necessary one; Bridges points out how often these respectable sins particularly surface at home: “Outside the home we are apt to be on our best behavior and act as we know we should … But in the home we tend to put aside those artificial restraints that are not part of our true character” (p. 107).
In the end, my only criticisms are such minor quibbles, they are not worth mentioning. Jerry Bridges has done us a great service in exposing our respectable sins and calling on us to repent of them. The love of Jesus and the work of God in us by his Holy Spirit will enable us to face our sins and repent. This may be a difficult task, but it is a very necessary one. So buy this book. Read it. Repent. Discuss it, and repent again.
- A discussion guide is available for small groups.