Sinners and Saints: Speaking theologically about Ralph Northam

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Ralph Northam is in the eye of a political and media hurricane because he allegedly appears in his medical school year-book in blackface. Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, Nancy Pelosi and many other names in the democratic party, and a few republicans, are now calling for Northam’s resignation. He’s now in survival mode over an incident that occurred over 30 years ago, well before he entered politics. Ralph Northam’s political quandary raises interesting questions. When is repentance and demonstrated change over a course of decades not enough anymore? Does our secular culture no longer have a category of grace and forgiveness?

I want to make three theological points about the Ralph Northam situation. First, like Ralph Northam, we all make mistakes because we’re all sinners. The morally superior rhetoric by some is astounding. All of those who are calling for Northam’s resignation have their own skeletons that they would rather not display. The apostle Paul has said that “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).

Second, I believe in the power of sanctification. Who we once were, is not necessarily who we are now. By the Holy Spirit’s power, we are becoming the better person that God has created us to be in Christ. Northam has acknowledged his own change and maturity in relating to his past mistakes. Yet, I believe that the media and others are not allowing any idea of sanctification, or demonstrated change, to have any place in the current discussion.

Third, what about grace and forgiveness? I believe that our secular culture is losing the categories of grace and forgiveness. Grace recognizes that we’re sinners, but that we still should receive love, forgiveness, and another chance anyway. In conclusion, while Paul claims we are sinners, he also claims that we are forgiven in Christ. Just as we have been forgiven, so we should forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32).

(Rev. Will Wilson is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Kilgore. Contact him at revwillwilson@gmail.com)

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