Why good doctrine matters when faced with heinous sin

I watched the Netflix documentary on Jimmy Savile the other week. The first episode – which dragged a bit for Brits familiar with Savile – was clearly setup for a wider international audience. For most outside of Britain, it would be hard to comprehend how this absolute weirdo managed to get on television in the first place. Not only get onto, but remain on television. And then to get himself into such positions of trust that allowed him to carry out hundreds of acts of sexual abuse. I can see why it was a necessary context setting exercise for most people around the world.

One of the interesting insights into the documentary came from Mark Lawson, the journalist and broadcaster. Lawson – like Savile – had also been raised in Leeds to a Roman Catholic family. He recalls even seeing Savile at mass growing up. But the key insight from him about Savile was this: you cannot understand him without first understanding the Catholicism that drove him.

The fact is, not every one of Savile’s charitable acts were designed to increase his abuse. Clearly many were. But there were some that did not give him that sort of access. Yet his answer in response to why he did so much charitable work remained resolutely the same, and I am inclined to believe it. He insisted that it is not easy for anyone to get in Heaven. He admitted openly that he had done many things wrong (though did not go so far as to acknowledge what we all now know that included). But he claimed that when he gets to Heaven, he’d be alright, because against all the wrongdoing would be his charitable activities which would far outweigh whatever he had done. That was his hope. That his good deeds – to which he was deeply committed – would suffice to overcome the bad.

Outside of a Catholic worldview, of course, that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Most people in the post-Christian UK work more on an honour-shame basis these days. There are certain crimes for which there can be no grace and forgiveness. Though that list may be increasing in length and incorporating considerably less significant things, paedophilia has long been seen as so serious there is no coming back from it. For most post-Christian Brits, the scandal is that Savile might consider there could possibly be any hope of forgiveness for him. There are some crimes so serious, many believe, that nobody may escape righteous retribution.

On a Protestant, particularly an Evangelical, view things are a little different. The possibility of forgiveness – even for the most heinous of sin – exists. Indeed, Evangelicals would argue that though not all sins are equal in their seriousness, we have such a warped understanding of how infinitely offensive our sin is to a holy God that we fail to realise the extreme seriousness of what we would view as the vanilla end of sin. For the Evangelical, if we rightly understand our sin as God sees it, we would have no problem recognising the possibility of forgiveness for the likes of Savile because we would realise the distance between his sin and our own is much less than the distance between our lesser sin and God’s complete holiness.

That, of course, does not mean Evangelicals believe Savile was a forgiven sinner (for the record, I do not believe he was). For forgiveness only comes with repentance and there is no evidence whatsoever that Savile was ever repentant. Not only did he never make any effort to put right what he had done wrong (which, in the case of his crimes, would have minimally involved confessing to the police and bearing the just consequences), he continued to repeatedly indulge his sin over and over. His mocking tombstone – subsequently removed in the dead of night for fear of uproar and vandalism – insisted, ‘it was good while it lasted’. Such an unrepentant attitude, on a Protestant worldview, puts one beyond the bounds of forgiveness.

This is the real scandal of the Catholic worldview into which Savile bought. It is the scandal of the Catholic doctrine he was taught. If all that is required is enough good works stacked up against your bad, if you are committed enough, you may do what you want with impunity. The cleric that insisted, because of these things, that God would “fix it” for Savile to enter Heaven, not only blasphemed against Almighty God in misrepresenting his holiness and forgiveness this way, but left the door open for other heinous crimes to be committed the same way, so long as the perpetrator is committed to stacking up their good deeds to counterbalance them. It is a view that says you may do whatever you like, so long as you make the accounting sheet balance at the end of the day.

For most Catholics stuck in that never-ending, burdensome system of religious quid pro quo with God (so they believe), it is nothing but a counsel of despair. The overwhelming majority of people simply do not have the means nor ability to stack up the kind of charitable deeds of a Jimmy Savile. To them, this doctrine spells disaster. They can only hope that their good deeds will stack up and, when they assess it honestly (as Martin Luther once did), they find themselves staring into the abyss.

For those who do have the means of Savile, their hope ultimately becomes brazen indulgence. If I am certain I have ‘done enough’, what is to stop me from then doing whatever I like? If I am a billionaire, there is no amount of money I might spend that will lead me to worry I won’t have enough in the bank at the end of the day. When we are talking about the spiritual equivalent, what behaviour could possibly be out of bounds for one convinced that they have so many good deeds in the bank, the Lord couldn’t possibly deny them access to glory when weighed on the divine scales? It is this, and I think Mark Lawson was absolutely right in his assessment, that not only failed to deter Savile’s crimes, but actively encouraged and empowered them.

But the Bible teaches that none of us are good enough to get ourselves to God. When stacked against his holiness, Isaiah 64:6 says even our very best deeds are like filthy rags. They are not good enough to do anything to overcome the weigh of our sin. If there were a divine set of scales, on one side would be an infinitely heavy block of sin and on the other the weightless power of our good deeds. The grounds for entering Heaven is not more good than bad, but sinless perfection. That means all of us, by nature, stand to face judgement. Romans 3:10 is clear: there is none righteous, not even one.

This means we need another means of getting right with God. The Bible insists that means is the perfect life and death of Jesus Christ. It is only by faith in him that we can be made right with God. By repenting of our sin – that is, turning away from it and towards Jesus – and staking our claim of eternal life on all that he achieved on our behalf in his death and resurrection, we can enter into a right relationship with God for all eternity. As Romans 10:13 says, ‘all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved’. It is recognising we are sinners, who cannot save ourselves, and entrusting our salvation entirely to the mercy of God that we can be made right with him.

The Biblical view means that those like Jimmy Savile have not simply gotten away with it. The Bible is clear what happens to such an unrepentant man who continued in his gross sin, believing his charitable work somehow earned him favour with God despite those things. He has not entered Heaven in a right relationship with God, but is answering for his unrepentant sin under God’s just condemnation.

But unlike the graceless post-Christian worldview, for those who would repent – even of such heinous crimes – there is redemption in Jesus. But repentance, by its very definition, means turning away from those things and putting right what we have done wrong. Just as Zacchaeus paid back four time what he stole from others, the repentant soul stops (turns away from) what they were doing and seek to do what is right, including accepting the consequences of their sin. There is hope on the biblical worldview for even the worst of sinners; but there is justice for those who are unrepentant and believe their own goodness will see them right in the end.

Whilst most of us (rightly) would not want to put ourselves in the same category as Jimmy Savile, the fact that we are sinners at all mean we are, by nature, as far from God as him. He may have failed the test of perfection far more decisively than us, but we have not attained it ourselves. Just as Savile trusted in his charitable deeds and relied upon them to counter the balance and get him into Heaven, so many of us trust in our essential goodness to make the grade as well. But like attempting a competition to jump to the moon, we may jump a little further than our neighbour, but neither of us are credibly getting there by ourselves.

That is why Jesus came, to do what we could not do. To put right what we could not make right. And he welcomes repentant sinners and he holds accountable unrepentant sinners. The grounds for entering Heaven is not our relative goodness. We are all sinners in the same boat, whether we like it or not. The question is whether we are willing to repent and trust in Christ, or whether we will take the gamble that we might be good enough to make it after all?

One of the saddest things about the Savile documentary is that his activities were undergirded by a church that refused to acknowledge this reality. It was underpinned by a church that insisted you can make it if you try. His belief that he could do whatever he wanted as long as his good outweighed his bad was explicitly, and blasphemously, taught to him by clerics who should know better. And it is that belief, that encouraged his sinful and horrible crimes, that also sealed the reality that he is almost certainly now being held accountable by the Lord for them.

A proper biblical worldview tells us that sin will never go unpunished. It is either punished in Jesus, at the cross, or it is punished in us when we stand before our maker. We either trust in Christ as repentant sinners, or we stand in the hope of our own goodness as unrepentant hypocrites. When faced with the unrepentant crimes of Jimmy Savile, I am glad that ours is a God of true justice. When faced with the reality of my own sin, I am glad that ours is a God of true grace, who shows mercy to repentant sinners that trust in Jesus as the only means of being made right with him.