The weird sacramentarian sacramental system in Joshua Harris former Church


grayscale photography of chessboard game

This will probably be my last post on Joshua Harris recent announcement of leaving the faith.  For those who don’t know, the word sacramentarian refers to someone who believes the sacraments are only symbolic.  These days they will generally use the term ordinance instead of sacrament altogether.  The word sacramental refers to someone who believes the sacraments are not symbolic.  So my title is a play on words on multiple levels that I will explain in the course of this post.

I think based on the sources I’ve read that the Sovereign Grace Ministries quasi sacramental view on sanctification  contributed to the sex abuse scandal as much as the false teachings on church government did.  Not as directly, but taken together as a system.

To effectively make the case here I want to give a brief overview of Roman Catholic beliefs as I understand them.

Roman Catholicism

Roman Catholics believe in original sin, in fact, they are generally more orthodox on that than a lot of protestants are these days.  They believe that you are born deserving death and hell and that the sacrament of holy baptism washes this away.

As you progress in your life you accumulate both mortal and venial sins.  The latter would be the most common.  My understanding is that venial sins add to the time in purgatory you will need to be cleansed by fire after you die, but they don’t actually damn you to hell or cause you to lose your salvation.  Mortal sins however are believed to remove you from the faith entirely and you have to confess to a priest and receive the Eucharist to be restored.

To speak plainly, they basically believe you have to go to church every week.  When you do that you receive the sacraments, you get a little extra grace, your time in purgatory for venial sins is reduced, and your mortal sins are forgiven.  In their understanding, if you continue in this process your whole life the degree of grace you end up receiving may even place you in the category of sainthood in which you go straight to heaven and skip purgatory altogether.

Should you forget to confess a venial sin then that sin goes unforgiven and your purgatory time does not reduce.  If you fail to confess a mortal sin then you’re going to hell.  Indulgences can be obtained to receive blanket forgiveness for either category of forgotten sins.  My understanding is they don’t sell indulgences for money anymore, so that’s nice.


If you think that a picture of running on a mouse wheel is a good image of what I just described then we think a lot alike.  Why am I brining up Rome though?  They don’t really have anything to do with Sovereign Grace Ministries.  After all, SGM is a protestant organization.

Back to SMG…

To answer that question I am going to lean heavily on a post put out by SGM Survivors.   Below is an analysis of SGM beliefs published by their blog, I am quoting it here in case the site ever goes away.  But I encourage you to give them a click HERE just to give them some traffic even if you’re going to read it on my blog.  I will bold out in black and red areas that are most critical if you just want to skim.


While I am the first to say that any coverup of sex abuse is horrific and evil, particularly when done by a church, I think it would be interesting to explore the mindset behind any such coverup.

What is it about their SGM training that would make SGM pastors respond to abusers in such a way?  Why would SGM pastors appear to extend more grace to perpetrators than to victims?  Why would SGM pastors believe that they should be the primary source of counsel and support for perpetrators?  Why would SGM pastors exhibit a reluctance to get outside help or call upon law enforcement to deal with such perpetrators?

It’s my opinion that SGM’s twisted teachings about sin and the role of the pastor – as well as SGM’s blurring of the lines between “the gospel” and “the SGM church organization” – are what have led to situations where these sorts of crimes seem to be minimized, and perpetrators quickly restored to good standing within congregations.

First of all, SGM holds to the (in my opinion essentially correct and biblical) belief that all problems faced by humanity can be traced back to sin. I say I think it’s an “essentially correct and biblical belief” because if we dig through all the layers of human suffering and misery and downright evil, we are left with almost no other choice but to conclude that humanity is messy because humanity is fallen and sinful.

However, where I would part ways with SGM’s assumption is where SGM’s essentially correct belief about sin morphs into what SGM believes is the remedy for sin.

In SGM’s teachings – and if I wanted to take more time to develop this, I could go back and dig up plenty of quotes from books like Why Small Groups and sermons like CJ’s Happiest Place On Earth, as well as plenty of other resources that are available for the whole world to read and hear – the problem of sin is seen as being addressed by not just the work of Jesus on the cross and His continued presence with us through the Holy Spirit.  SGM would say that Jesus’ work on the cross is now being “finished” or “completed” by how Christians relate to a “local” church and how Christians are affected by the work of the pastors in their lives.

In the book Why Small Groups? (available as a free download here) a case is laid out like this:

1.  Yes, salvation is through Christ alone, through his atoning sacrifice.

2.  Salvation, however, is separate from sanctification.

4.  Although, sanctification WILL result anytime someone is “truly saved.”

5.  Sanctification cannot happen apart from “biblical fellowship.”  I actually am going to go and dig up a quote to back this one up.  From Chapter 1 of Why Small Groups? comes this:

“Although one’s personal responsibility for sanctification remains paramount, sanctification cannot be accomplished in isolation from the local church. Scripture clearly teaches that sanctification is intended to take place in the local church—and small groups contribute invaluably to this process.”

You can read the whole chapter to get an even better feel for how thoroughly CJ and his cohorts view participation in “biblical fellowship” a completely essential element of a person’s sanctification.

6.  A key componant of “biblical fellowship” is interacting with people in a way where they freely confront you about your sin and where you humbly submit to others’ assessment of your sin.  I would strongly urge people to read Why Small Groups? if they have not already done so, and examine how narrowly and explicitly “biblical fellowship” is defined, and how it almost cannot take place anywhere but in a small group set up and run the way SGM runs small groups.

(By the way – this principle is FOUNDATIONAL if anyone wants to understand the driving force behind Brent Detwiler’s seeming obsession with confronting CJ in his sinsIn the SGM mindset, a lack of willingness to submit to others’ assessment of your sin and to acknowledge your sins when confronted with them is almost a sign that you are out of fellowship with God.  If we can grasp this, we can understand why in Brent’s mind, CJ’s unwillingness to be confronted was so utterly grievous and dismaying.  And why Brent continued his pursuit so doggedly…even as he talked about “grace,” which most Christians understand as letting someone off the hook.  In SGM thinking, true “grace” must involve sticking with the confrontation no matter what, because unwillingness to acknowledge one’s sins when confronted would be a sign that the person is not being sanctified…which is a sign that the person could maybe not even be saved!)

7.  Also, SGM believes that another essential part of “biblical fellowship” is a person’s continued oversight from his pastor, who also bears the responsibility to continue to confront the person on his sin.  SGMers are taught that pastors, by virtue of their higher calling and “gifting,” possess special abilities to perceive a person’s sins more accurately than the person himself.  You can read a transcript of C.J. Mahaney’s Happiest Place On Earthsermon here.  C.J. has traveled around the country, delivering that sermon to many SGM churches over the years.  While (once again) Dave Harvey would now apparently like people to think that SGM does not teach that pastors have special authority over people, that is simply not true.

8.  Essential to the SGM understanding of the gospel is a demonstration that one remains keenly aware of one’s “worst sinner one knows” status.  I realize that this comment is already excruciatingly long, but I really want to lay this all out in one place, so I’m going to quote from another post:

Deeply embedded in the SGM mindset are some assumptions:

1. All sins are just as vile in the eyes of God.

2. One of the clearest signs of “rebellion” is when a person sees himself as an injured party, because no injury that can be perpetrated against the person could ever surpass the horror that the person’s own sin is in the eyes of God.

3. The clearest sign of a “repentant” person is eager confession of wrongdoing.

Taking those three SGM assumptions, let’s examine Noel’s pastors’ response to her family’s situation. In light of these assumptions, I think we can more clearly understand a bit of what went through those pastors’ minds as they offered more sympathy and support to the perp rather than the victims. Even though the pastoral responses are basically incomprehensible to a normal person, they sort of start to make sense when you think of it in this way:

Because of SGM’s belief that each of us must always be “the worst sinner that we ourselves know,” we basically give up our rights to ANY victimhood, no matter how heinous the crime committed against us.

In other words, even though what happened to Noel’s family was absolutely horrific, SGM’s foundational teachings would say that Noel’s only legitimate “biblical” response would be to examine her own sinfulness and see herself as “the worst sinner” she knows. Her pastors would see it as their duty to direct Noel’s attention first of all to her own indwelling sin, her own wretchedness in God’s eyes. I believe they sincerely think that this is “bringing the Gospel into” everything they do. For them, “the Gospel” is firstly and foremostly about our own sin.

But instinctively, we know that something is jacked up in this view. God’s own Word would tell us that He does see some sins as having broader and more lasting consequences than other sins. Yes, all sin is an abomination in God’s eyes…theoretically. But we all know the REALITY, that if I go out and kill someone, there are far more ramifications all the way around than if I lie by calling in sick to work one day when I’m not actually sick and just want to go shopping with my friends. Both the murder and the lie are sins in God’s eyes and both are wretched, but if you lie to me, I’m probably going to be less upset than if you kill someone near and dear to me.

In SGMville, though, this normal human reaction – one that the even the Bible would seem to support, if you examine how God outlined so many very specific laws and guidelines governing behavior for Old Testament Israel – is circumvented. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been the victim of a liar or a murderer. In your SGM pastor’s mind, you’ve got NO RIGHT to see yourself as a victim, of any sort. In order to “bring the Gospel in,” they’re duty-bound to remind you of your own sinfulness, like it’s some sort of tonic for the normal grief that you might feel because of the ramifications of the sin that was perpetrated against you…like somehow, if I as the victim can just focus on my own badness, I’ll forget that someone molested my child.

So OK. In SGMville, all sins are created equal.

Now, enter the perp. Perp expresses sorrow and remorse for his sin. He truly IS the “worst sinner that he knows,” so such a mindset comes easily and naturally to him. In the eyes of his SGM pastors, he automatically then becomes the “more righteous” person, since his response is the only “truly biblical” repsonse that they can find acceptable.

It gets worse if the victim stands up for himself/herself in any fashion. SGM pastors immediately see this as unforgiveness, which of course is a sin, which then makes the victim even WORSE than the remorseful (and therefore righteous) perp.

Again, I did not think of this myself. Someone else initially posted these general thoughts. But I thought these were some brilliant observations that did far more to shed light on Noel’s pastors’ really twisted and bizarre behavior than just about anything else.

To me, this helps to make sense of why, in SGMville, the victims are minimized while the perps are protected. It’s because in SGMville, the only thing that is really righteous is seeing oneself as “the worst sinner one knows.” If one has had a crime – particularly a heinous crime like child abuse – perpetrated against one, there is NO HONEST WAY that one can authentically and enthusiastically embrace “worst sinner” status in one’s thinking. One instinctively knows that someone else’s sin (in this case, one’s perp’s sin) is greater than one’s own sin. So one naturally raises objections to embracing “worst sinner” status.

SGM pastors sense this and seem to hone in on it, interpreting standing up for oneself as a sign of pride and sin and unforgiveness.

Meanwhile, the perp is over in his corner crying his genuine tears of sorrow. Because he truly IS the “worst sinner he knows” at that moment, he is more righteous, and hence more worthy of protection.

9.  We have to factor in SGM’s longstanding distrust of and total disdain for the mental health profession.  SGM has long taught that “secular psychology” has absolutely nothing to offer the believer in terms of solving problems.  (You can see what was taught to SGM pastors fairly recently – in 2009 – about the “counseling process” by viewing a transcript of that talk.  Access Part 1 herePart 2 here, and Part 3 here.)

Anyway, to connect the dots of all this to the situations where SGM pastors were aware of sex abuse and seem to do nothing to address the problem legally…

If all problems are sin issues, and if the only solution to all sin issues (sanctification) must involve continued “biblical fellowship,” which – most importantly – includes continued confrontation from a pastor about one’s sins…

And if “secular psychology” presents no way for this to continue, but a pastor’s counsel does…

And if a perpetrator has acknowledged his sin to his pastor…

And if it is un-Christian (“sinful”) to ever feel like one has the right to be a total victim, with no corresponding need to focus on one’s own sin…

Then it makes total sense for the SGM pastor to:

1.  Appear to side with the perpetrator.

2.  Believe that his pastoral counsel is all that is needed.

3.  Believe that he is actually better serving the victim through his position, because he is making it more difficult for the victim to pursue what would be sin – i.e. being a victim and “demonstrating unforgiveness” by pursuing justice through the legal system.

4.  Consequently believe that through all of this, he is “protecting the gospel” or some such, because the SGM gospel is all about confronting and rooting out sin, never having the right to be a victim, and demonstrating one’s salvation status by the sanctification process of confessing one’s sins – which a perpetrator has already done, therefore making the perpetrator “more sanctified” than someone who is trying to get justice as a victim.



What a twisted net of false teachings!!


Compare that treadmill to the Roman Catholic one at the outset.  I’m gonna tell you if my only options were to take my family to one of those two I would go Catholic, their system is more doable.  I basically just have to go to church in that system and then maybe procure and indulgence before I die.  I already go to church so that sounds a lot easier to me than gauging my subjective sanctification progress on the whims of my small group leader.  If a reformation was necessary for Catholicism how much more necessary is it for some of these outlandish “protestant” sects?

It appears to me that Sovereign Grace Ministries gives you the gospel with one hand regarding justification (as Rome does with baptism) and takes it back with sanctification (as Rome does with mortal sins).

I agree with the authors analysis that when you look at the pieces as a whole this makes a system that punishes victims and raises up perpetrators.  I would also add that instead of church being a place where the gospel is heard and the sacraments administered, you basically have an apostasy machine with a gospel nugget bouncing around that I hope some at least found.

Final Thoughts

Why did they feel the need to create this machine though?  I am sacramental in my views.  In my opinion, God knows we need sacraments.  He knows that humans are as material in nature as they are immaterial and thus have need for both.  When God gives forgiveness to us attached to something material we have an objective confirmation of receiving forgiveness that comforts both the body and the soul.  The same gospel preached that you subjectively receive with the ears you also objectively receive with the mouth.

I also understand that many protestant traditions are sacramentarian.  It would appear though that at least in the case of SGM, they still felt the need to have something more material to cling to and replaced the biblical sacraments with unbiblical ones.  Instead of looking to receiving Christ in the Eucharist they would navel gaze and look to each other.  At the end of the day this replaces the gospel with the law, no wonder it led to pain and despair.  Compound that with their purity teachings and it’s even worse.

I’m not going to expect every reader to agree with me.  That said, I do think it’s fair for me to insist that if you’re going to be a sacramentarian then do it like Zwingli did.  Don’t go replacing the sacraments with something else you just invented all on your own.  Just do without the material and cling only to the immaterial, even if it feels frustrating to you its better than all this SGM mess.

About ACTheologian

I am a layman who blogs my Biblical studies. Enjoy, please read with an open Bible and do double check with your pastor.
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2 Responses to The weird sacramentarian sacramental system in Joshua Harris former Church

  1. Reese Currie says:

    Good article. Thoughts that sprung to my mind:

    1) “Roman Catholics believe in original sin, in fact, they are generally more orthodox on that than a lot of protestants are these days.” Good pointl I think that’s generally true. I greatly appreciate the conservative RC’s and feel some kinship with them. But they also have pretty extreme liberals. The difference is they don’t make them form their own denomination as long as they have fealty to the pope.

    2) “My understanding is they don’t sell indulgences for money anymore, so that’s nice.” They actually stopped selling them in 1567, 21 years after Martin Luther died. (The fine print: charitable contributions and other acts can help you buy, er, strike that, “earn” one.)

    3) “I’m gonna tell you if my only options were to take my family to one of those two I would go Catholic, their system is more doable.” There is, of course, no “doable law”. Law’s purpose is to drive us to the Gospel. You know this already, these are just the thoughts your article raised in my mind (it’s doing its job).

    4) “The same gospel preached that you subjectively receive with the ears you also objectively receive with the mouth.” Wonderful! I’d go so far as to say the gospel we eat is as much confessed with our mouth as the gospel we say (Rom. 10:9). Romans 10:1-9 is coordinated with Deuteronomy 30:11-14. The one time we’re “doing the law” perfectly is when we’re eating the Gospel.


    • ACTheologian says:

      Thanks for the opportunity to respond. I considered working the answers into the post but would prefer to do it here so it doesn’t get too many bunny trails.

      1) I framed my analysis of RC beliefs on their catechism. I guess I pretty much write liberals off as not existing these days in any tradition. But you’re right that liberal catholics, like their pope for example, are not so orthodox on original sin.

      2) Yeah, baby steps!

      3) Correct, no law is doable. I was framing that from the perspective of actually believing the teachings of the tradition and trying to do it, not either actually being true in reality. So if I was going to be either a true blue Roman Catholic or true blue SGM I would choose Roman Catholic. They have their own sex abuse issues for sure which is a separate topic, but this SGM group is downright culty. I think Rome presents a clearer view of the gospel than this ostensibly protestant organization does. Oh the irony.

      4) amen


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