I was in a NYC taxi cab on a Friday night when I got the phone call from my brother Stephan telling me about what was going down at Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale with my friend of 20 years, Bob Coy. I was both shocked and saddened. While it’s hard to admit, things like this happen all the time, but Bob Coy? How could this happen to Bob Coy? You see, it’s easy for us to put Christian leaders on a spiritual pedestal and forget that they are human too, that they face the same temptations as everyone else – maybe even more so.
The sadness I felt for him was justified, but my shock revealed what is an all-too-common mistake that we all make: believing people are better and stronger than they actually are. The fact is we are messed up people living in a messed up world with other messed up people. Jack Miller put things in their proper perspective when he would say, “Cheer up, you’re a lot worse off than you think you are. But God’s grace is infinitely greater than anything you could ever ask for or imagine.”
No one is Immune
No church, no organization, no one is immune. We are all human. In fact, at Coral Ridge, we faced a similar situation two years ago. It was discovered that a staff member (and close friend) had fallen like Bob Coy. Like my reaction when I found out about Bob Coy, I was both shocked and saddened. I didn’t see it coming. None of us did. Of all the crises I’ve faced and had to deal with over the last 17 years of pastoral ministry, this was the toughest.
On top of having to deal with this on a very personal level, I had the weighty responsibility of leading our church through it. How do you make sense of it all? What do you tell people?
One week after we discovered the details of my friend’s sin, I had to stand up on my first Sunday back from vacation and tell our church what happened. I, of course, did not share much. I steered clear of details. I simply told our church that this man had been engaged in marital infidelity and the situation was such that it required him to be removed from his position. I reminded them of an all important distinction that we often confuse: no vertical condemnation does not equal no horizontal consequences. But, and this is even more important: horizontal consequences do not equal vertical condemnation.
Reading all the blogs and comments about what happened with Bob Coy reveals that lots of people confuse these two categories which results in two basic responses. Some people question his salvation: how could anybody really be a Christian and make the mistakes Bob Coy has made? Off with his head. Others say, “Wait a minute. We’re no better than he is, so why does he have to lose his job? After all, don’t we believe in grace and forgiveness?”
What Jesus has done
The first group needs to be reminded that God’s love for us and acceptance of us does not in any way depend on what we do or don’t do, but rather on what Jesus has done. Who we are before God has nothing to do with us—how much we can accomplish, who we can become, our behavior (good or bad), our strengths, our weaknesses, our past, our present, our future, and so on. Who we are before God (our identity) is firmly anchored in Jesus’ accomplishment, not ours; his strength, not ours; his performance, not ours; his victory, not ours. Our guilt is met with his grace, our failures with his forgiveness, our mess with his mercy. God only loves bad people because bad people are all that there are.
Consequences are real
The second group needs to be reminded that consequences on the ground of life are real. Real people make real mistakes that require real action to be taken. So, for instance, we can talk bad about our boss without sacrificing one ounce of God’s acceptance because, before God, “our sin has been atoned for, our guilt has been removed.” We stand before God clothed in the perfect righteousness of Jesus — justified — in forever (no vertical condemnation). But we might still lose our job (horizontal consequences). We can make the mistake of driving 100 MPH on I-95 without losing a bit of God’s love for us because “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (no vertical condemnation). But we might still lose our license (horizontal consequences). When we confuse consequences with condemnation and vice versa, we don’t know how to make sense of things when tragedies like what happened to Bob Coy(or us) take place.
The truth is that when we are in the throes of consequences for foolish things we do, our only hope is to remember that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” In fact, the kind of suffering that comes from the consequences of sin is like a brushfire that burns away every thread of hope we have in ourselves and leaves only the thread of divine grace.
I reminded Bob Coy of this the morning after I found out what had happened. He thanked me. I told him I loved him. But more importantly, I told him that God loved him. And that for those who are in Christ, it is impossible to out-sin the coverage of God’s forgiveness because the sins we cannot forget, God cannot remember. The consequences Bob Coy has faced and will continue to face are real because his sin was real. But the beauty of Jesus’ work on his behalf will enable him to weather the storm because “While the Accuser may roar of sins that I have done, I know them all and thousands more, My God he knoweth none.”
Tullian Tchividjian is a South Florida native, Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, a visiting professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, and grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham.