I suppose most of us hardly recognized the name of Louisiana Senator David Vitter until his name popped up on the phone list of a Washington ”escort service.” He made a public confession and, with his wife by his side, asked for forgiveness. That much was unremarkable. It turns out that he was an outspoken leader in the crusade for family values, which many people pounced on as proof of the hypocrisy of that movement. Our leaders commit the very sins in secret that they denounce publicly in others. Thus while Newt Gingrich criticized President Clinton for his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, he was having an extramarital affair at the same time. Gingrich shocked evangelicals more than Vitter, mostly because we knew Gingrich as an articulate defender of our views.
Newsweek has published an interview with Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, about the impact David Vitter’s transgression and confession will have on the evangelical movement. I particularly liked this answer to a question about yet another evangelical leader caught cheating on his wife:
"What one has to understand is that classic Christianity believes that people are fallen and desperately need a redeemer. If they’re authentic Christians, they understand that but for the grace of God, they too could fall. Evangelicalism likes to pride itself on being magnanimous and forgiving. It ought to be the case that evangelicals, while not condoning such behavior, are not surprised by such sinful behavior. I’m not surprised by vice. I’m surprised by virtue."
Cromartie goes on to talk about the biblical view of human nature as fallen because of sin. We truly do believe in total depravity–that sin has negatively impacted every part of the human experience. “There is none righteous, no, not one.” Until we grasp that truth–and it’s a hard truth for all of us to face–we will never fully experience the grace of God. We can’t jump to the forgiveness part of the equation until we deal forthrightly with our sin. A number of times lately, in preaching on this topic, I’ve quoted Romans 3:23, one of the most familiar verses in the Bible, especially for evangelical Christians. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” When I quote that verse, heads nod in the audience. Then I ask, “Who can quote the last part of verse 22?” No one ever can. But there is a phrase in verse 22 that unlocks the true meaning of verse 23. “For there is no difference.”
No difference between rich and poor, young and old, black or white, gay or straight, male or female. No difference between a Wall Street lawyer and a fisherman in Bangladesh. No difference between the debutante and the prostitute. We all stand condemned by our sin and all of us are under the judgment of God. Our sins may not be exactly the same, but we are all sinners nonetheless. The two little words “no difference” mean that apart from the grace of God, we’re all in the same boat, and the boat is sinking fast. Unless God intervenes, we will all drown together.
First there is sin, then there is grace. The worse the sin, the more amazing the grace. That’s why I like Cromartie’s formulation: “I’m not surprised by vice. I’m surprised by virtue.” We do well to hold our leaders to high standards, but our faith does not depend on fallible humans who even at their best are always hypocrites at some level–usually unseen, but hypocrites nonetheless. That is why the Bible urges us not to put our trust in princes. They always let us down sooner or later.
Sin happens. It would be a bigger deal if it didn’t happen. But where sin abounded, grace super-abounded, and that's why we call the gospel Good News.