Writings by Cole Huffman


Repentance Deficit and Conviction Deficit

There are two primary deficits in the church’s witness, historically considered. One is repentance deficit and the other conviction deficit. Repentance deficit makes us seems superior to others. Conviction deficit makes us accommodate sin.

The best contemporary definition of sin I’ve found is from Francis Spufford’s book Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. Written as an apologia to a skeptical British readership, Spufford, a journalist, calls sin “the human propensity to [mess] things up.” (He even puts it in a formula: “HPtFtU”) I don’t use his actual word choice myself but do find it a fitting conveyance of what the Puritan Ralph Venning called the sinfulness of sin. Spufford: “What we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being as well as other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch.”   

Repentance deficit denies our own personal ongoing bout with sin. Conviction deficit denies sin as the major crack in everything that it is. Repentance in Scripture conveys a change of mind. Conviction is its evidence.

Repentance is not just for turning from unrighteousness. Repentance is also about pulling self-righteousness out of us. In cases of repentance deficit, our self-righteousness is in the gospel’s way. Repentance recognizes the ground is level at the foot of the cross, and so before I say to someone let’s talk about your sin, I first say my sin has been overcome by the overwhelming love and power of a holy God available in His grace. I don’t act like I don’t still screw things up.  

Repentance turns us. Conviction walks in the direction of the turn. Convictions develop when we’re walking in Christ-righteousness. But in cases of conviction deficit, our unrighteousness is in the gospel’s way. We treat our own and other’s sin as if its not the crack in everything it is.

Remember in Snow White, when the evil queen disguised herself and presented a poisoned apple to Snow? The girl was hesitant to take it—she intuited something was up—but the queen cut the apple in half, eating the good half herself. Snow’s fateful bite into the poisoned half put her in a kind of death-sleep from which her prince would rescue her.

That’s what sin has done to us, but conviction deficit won’t name the poison—won’t call a bad apple a bad apple. Another journalist, Ross Douthat of The New York Times, wrote a book called Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, wherein he describes conviction deficit in what he calls accommodationist Christianity:

“In [its] quest to be inclusive and tolerant and up-to-date, the accommodationists imitated [Jesus’] scandalously comprehensive love, while ignoring his scandalously comprehensive judgments. They used his friendship with prostitutes as an excuse to ignore his explicit condemnation of fornication and divorce. They turned his disdain for the religious authorities of his day and his fondness for tax collectors and Roman soldiers into a thin excuse for privileging the secular realm over the sacred. While recognizing his willingness to dine with outcasts and converse with nonbelievers, they deemphasized the crucial fact that he had done so in order to heal them and convert them—ridding the leper of his sickness, telling the Samaritans they would worship in spirit and in truth, urging the woman taken in adultery to go and from now on sin no more.”

When we give in to cultural pressure and change our minds about what God says sin is, it is evidence of the damage conviction deficit causes. It is repentance away from God (think of Jesus’ words to the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira in particular in this context—Rev. 2:12-29). When we give in to fundamentalist pressure and externalize sin as the world’s problem not the church that does damage to gospel advancement too. It is a failure of humility and true contrition.

In gospel engagement with people around us, sin is the fundamental issue, and we should lead the discussion about it with evident repentance and conviction both. People may not agree with what we tell them about themselves from a biblical framework, but they’re usually more inclined to listen if we’re faithful to grace and truth, the signature of Jesus (John 1:14-18).

Posted by Cole Huffman at 11:08 AM
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