No doubt you’ve heard of or even participated in an accountability group. These groups seek to promote Christian discipleship by promoting biblical standards within an environment of grace. More specifically, they foster personal holiness by holding one another accountable to confession, discussion and prayer — a noble aim.
Accountability is, in fact, a biblical aim.
Numerous biblical texts exhort us to encourage one another (1 Thess 5.11; Heb 3.13), to put sin to death (Rom 8:13; Col 3.6), and to fight the fight of faith (1 Tim 1.18; 6.12). However, the context of these commands is often overlooked — the context of community. We are to encourage one another in our journey toward Christ-likeness. That’s why pursuing Christ-likeness is a group thing. We aren’t meant to fight the fight of faith on our own. We need one another; we need accountability.
I was introduced to accountability groups in college. Since then, through failure and success, I’ve learned some harmful pitfalls and helpful principles for God-honoring accountability. Getting together, confessing sin and praying doesn’t always translate into God-honoring accountability.
I still have an accountability group and always will. My groups have progressively offered depth of fellowship, well-springs of wisdom, and a sturdy refuge of brotherly accountability, all of which strengthen my faith and increase my love for God.
This isn’t common. Maybe you’ve had a negative experience or no experience at all with accountability groups. I’d like to chart a course for God-honoring accountability by distinguishing it from two frequently encountered pitfalls and by offering three principles that can lead to soul-satisfying accountability.
Legalism and Confessional Booth Accountability
Although the aim of accountability groups is good, the practice is often misguided. Accountability groups often smack of legalism. Failures to trust and cherish God are sometimes punished through graduated penalties (an increased tithe, buying lunch or coffee for the group, or unspoken ostracism from one’s peers). Instead of holding one another accountable to trusting God, we become accountable for exacting punishments upon one another.
The unfortunate result is a kind of legalism in which the healing of confession and the power of God’s promises are substituted by peer-prescribed punishments. As a result, our motives for holiness get warped. Confession is relegated to “keeping from doing it,” making discipleship a duty-driven, rule-keeping journey.
Alternatively, accountability groups can devolve into a kind of evangelical confessional booth from which we depart absolved of any guilt, fearing merely the passing frown of our fellow priest. I confess my sin, you confess yours. I pat your back, you pat mine and then we pray.
This pitfall reduces accountability groups to circles of cheap grace through which we obtain cheap peace from a troubled conscience. Perhaps unconsciously, we begin to take Christless comfort in the confession of sin (ours and others). As a result, confession is divorced from repentance, reducing holiness to half-hearted morality. Accountability becomes a man-made mix of moralism and cheap peace. Sin is no longer seen as an offense to a personal holy God and confession is reduced to impersonal ritual.
Motivation for Holiness
So what’s the danger in these accountability pitfalls? Their harm is their motivation for holiness. With legalistic accountability, motivation for holiness is hardened by peer punishment or embarrassment. We refrain from sinning because we don’t want to lose something or to be embarrassed by confessing our sin to a friend. Confessional booth accountability empties the power of holiness by hollowing its motivation. Earnestness for holiness is replaced by ritual regurgitation of sin. As a result, we substitute moralism for righteousness. Whether we drift toward the confessional booth or toward legalism, we diminish the seriousness of sin and forsake the joy of holiness.
When our motivation for holiness is perverted by moralism and legalism, we abandon the gospel of the Triune God. We don’t trust the Father’s love, we sell out the Son’s sacrifice, and we slight the Spirit’s power. We settle for the fleeting pleasure of peer approval or cheap peace when we could have “pleasures forevermore” (Ps 16.11). By sidestepping the provision of God for holiness, we rely on our own strength.
So what does God-honoring accountability look like?
God-Honoring Accountability and John Owen
Since God-honoring accountability can take many forms, I won’t baptize any one model. Instead, I suggest three principles which, if applied, can foster sound, soul-stirring accountability.
These principles operate on a fundamental presupposition, namely the forgiveness of our sins through the cross of Christ. God-honoring accountability does not circumvent the cross. Instead, it draws all of us toward holiness through faith in its sufficiency in both victory and defeat. If we sin, Christ offers us forgiveness through the cross. If we succeed, it is because Christ has made us new creatures through the cross.
The sacrifice of Christ has purchased both our holiness and our forgiveness. Therefore, whether we stumble or succeed in pursuit of holiness, we are dependent upon Christ.
In my personal accountability journey, the writings of the great Puritan pastor and theologian, John Owen, have been tremendously helpful. In particular, I have drawn from Owen’s Mortification of Sin and On Temptation.All references to Owen’s writings are from The Works of John Owen vol. 6 ed. William H. Goold (Bath, England: Johnstone and Hunter, 1850-53; rep., Carlisle, Penn: Banner of Truth, 2000). In his preface to Mortification (an old word meaning “to put to death”), Owen articulates the purpose for his writing on the subject:
that mortification and universal holiness may be promoted in my own and in the hearts and ways of others, to the glory of God; so that the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ may be adorned in all things.John Owen, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers, 4.
Owen sets the mortification of sin in its rightful place, as a means to glorifying God and making much of the gospel of Christ. If this is not our aim, these principles will be easily perverted into rules for self-righteousness. Using Owen as a guide, I suggest three principles that will foster God-honoring, gospel-adorning accountability groups.
Three Principles for Accountability Groups
I. Identification: Know thy Sin.John Owen, On Temptation, 131-32.
Identify and share your personal patterns of sin and places of temptation with others you trust. For example:
- Do you frequently find yourself tempted to vanity when shopping for clothes or looking in the mirror?
- Does sexual lust creep in on late, lonely nights watching TV?
- Are you prone to pride when hearing compliments or receiving praise?
- Do you encounter habitual self-doubt and self-centeredness when confronted with failure?
Share these patterns of temptation with your friends and confess your sin to God and ask for forgiveness. Confession breaks the power of private sin. By going public with our unbelief we heighten the tension between sin and holiness, fostering the mindset of mortification. Consider reading through any of Paul’s sin lists, asking the Spirit to convict you of those sins that are deep-seated and need mortification. Ask your friends to help you mortify sin by reminding you to avoid these patterns and places of unbelief. Knowing our sin is the first principle for God-honoring accountability.
II. Mortification: Be killing sin lest it be killing you.Owen, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers, 9.
Once we have identified our sins, we are poised to strike them down. However, the flesh is not easily killed. Owen reminds us of our relentless foe when he writes: “Be killing sin lest it be killing you.” Mortification is the habitual weakening of sin through constant fighting and contending in the Spirit for victory over the flesh. When done in community, mortification strengthens our resolve to cherish the promises of God over the fleeting promises of sin. But how do we kill sin?
III. Sanctification: Set thy faith on His promises.Owen, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers, 79, 125-26.
We can slay sin through sanctification by faith. As Owen suggests, we should set our faith on something — on God’s promises. All too often we take God’s promises for granted. We read them but don’t believe them. Instead of trusting in God’s truth, we often treat it as a mere textbook on doctrine. Other times we pilfer His promises for an experiential buzz, but rarely do we believe and bank on his promises. Consider the following promises, corresponding to the sins identified above:
- Forsake fleeting beauty and you will bear the beauty of Christ (1 Jn 3.2).
- If you maintain purity of heart, you are promised God (Mt 5.8)!
- If you choose the path of humility, God himself will honor you (1 Pet 5.6).
- If you trust not in your own abilities, but have faith in Christ, you will live like a new creation (2 Cor 5.17)!
God’s promises are as sure as the blood His Son spilled to secure them. Through these blood-bought promises, God discloses himself and dispenses his power to us. By trusting them, we access the power of God through the Spirit to weaken sin and mortify the flesh.
In a recent accountability meeting I shared an impending temptation of lust. Since my wife was about to have our first child, I knew that selfish sexual temptation would likely follow the birth, so I conveyed my concerns to my accountability buddies. Instead of facing the struggle alone, my friends committed to pray for me. Later, a friend encouraged me to trust in the promise of Matthew 5.8: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” When temptation came, I considered and trusted this promise — those who cultivate purity of heart will see the living God, that is, enjoy His presence forever. Finally, during a phone conversation after Owen’s birth, the same friend asked me if I was struggling well. The principles applied.
The principles of identifying and mortifying sin and exercising trust in the sanctifying promises of God guide us toward God-honoring accountability. Together, with a common commitment to identification, mortification and sanctification, we can avoid the pitfalls of legalism and moralism and so adorn the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Copyright 2006 Jonathan Dodson. All rights reserved.