If former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had died the evening of October 22, when I saw him pull away in a bus from Northwestern after defeating the Wildcats, he would have been celebrated as a national hero. One week later he coached his final game, a home victory against Illinois, giving him a record 409 wins for his distinguished career. A few short days later, the long-tenured and widely revered coach lost his job in perhaps the sorriest scandal in the history of college athletics. We’ve grown accustomed to learning that amateur college athletes shaved points or solicited pay for play. But the allegations that a longtime Paterno assistant sexually abused young boys roiled even the hardest sports scribes. Following the 85-year-old Paterno’s death due to lung cancer on Sunday, fans have struggled to make sense of his mixed legacy. In the case of Paterno, it turns out good isn’t good enough in the court of public opinion.
No one can dispute that Paterno did a lot of good in his long, illustrious life, probably a lot more good than you and I can boast. He coached players on how to maul each other on a field of grass, yes, but he also molded generations of young boys of 18 into model men of 22. Those disciples have turned out in droves this week to honor their beloved mentor. Paterno has been lionized for coaching winning teams that also succeeded in the classroom. Sure, he may have covered for some players who deviated from this culture, but his example contrasted with so many other coaches and schools who willingly sacrificed integrity for victory. Not content merely to win football games, Paterno also contributed to Penn State’s improving academic reputation. Indeed, the library bears his name, due to a multi-million dollar fundraising campaign he and his wife spearheaded. They also contributed at least $1 million to build an interfaith student center.
And yet, we’re still debating whether this man should be remembered as a hero or villain. Do we remember a lifetime of good works or one horrible mistake? Paterno’s most famous words might have been, “I wish I had done more.” So do many others. When Paterno learned that trusted former assistant Jerry Sandusky may have been raping boys—in Penn State facilities, no less—the coach did not investigate further. He passed responsibility up the chain of command. But his superiors (in name only) didn’t do enough, either. The abuse allegedly continued until someone outside the cloistered community finally sounded the alarm. All that good–gone in a moment everyone would deeply regret.
“I made a lot of mistakes in my life,” Paterno told Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski in his final days. “But I thought people could see that I tried my best to do the right things. I tried to do the right thing with Sandusky too.”
Sin A La Carte
I’m not trying in this article to determine whether or not Paterno sought forgiveness from Jesus. I have no idea about his spiritual state. I’m merely reflecting on our society’s inconsistent standards for what constitutes a life well-lived. When you talk to unbelievers about the gospel of Jesus Christ, you often hear them say that they will stand before God on Judgment Day and tell him they tried to live a good life. “Sure, I’ve made mistakes,” they say. “But who hasn’t? I’ve tried to do the right thing. I’ve been good to my friends and family.” You point them to passages such as Romans 3:10, which says, “None is righteous, no, not one.” But everyone knows someone who is less righteous. “At least I didn’t kill anyone.” “I only stole something that one time as a stupid teenager.” “I might have driven drunk a few times, but who hasn’t?” Compared to [insert dictator or serial killer here], we’re all saints.
Unfortunately for Paterno, he committed one of our society’s unforgivable sins. In the public reckoning, he would have been better off cheating on his wife or his taxes. But child molesters and those who harbor them will not find forgiveness in this culture. Same goes for racists, sexists, and homophobes. Ask Mel Gibson. Not even making a movie about Jesus covers a multitude of sins. Our society merely pretends to be forgiving. Fact is, everyone knows exactly which laws can never be transgressed. Call it common grace, if you like.
Against a society that picks their sin a la carte, Christians aim to bring everyone under the full weight of conviction before God’s law. Jesus taught in Matthew 5:48, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Christians know God’s law indicts all as dead in our trespass and sin (Ephesians 2:1). We join in the hand-wringing over Paterno’s negligence. We pray that justice might be done, if indeed Sandusky abused these children. Following Jesus’ example, we urge, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11) to anyone caught in webs of deceit and depravity. We don’t delight in pointing out wrong, but we recognize the need to heed all God’s laws, not just the ones that match our culture’s ever-changing values. Contrary to popular expectation, this makes Christians more understanding of sin—not that we condone it, but we’re not surprised by it.
By contrast, our unbelieving neighbors regard themselves as more tolerant. They suppose themselves to be morally superior to judgmental Christians with our exacting, unrealistic standards of holiness. But the reality of the situation reveals itself in a case like Paterno. No good is good enough to wipe away his sins from the record of history as judged by his peers. He could never recover. The first paragraph of his obituary tells the story. Richard Goldstein wrote in The New York Times:
Joe Paterno, who won more games than any other major-college football coach, and who became the face of Pennsylvania State University and a symbol of integrity in collegiate athletics only to be fired during the 2011 season amid a child sexual abuse scandal that reverberated throughout the nation, died Sunday in State College, Pa.
Paterno’s fame revealed his great sin of omission, something he left undone. Examine yourself. What have you left undone? Or what have you done wrong, your sins of commission? What if they were revealed to your neighbors, your family, the media? Would you fare any better than Paterno? Truth be told, no one can withstand such scrutiny. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” 1 John 1:8 reads. Furthermore, we deceive ourselves if we think we do not sin in such a way that would bring such shame if exposed.
Apart from the gospel of grace, there is no hope. You will find no redemption in the faux tolerance of an unforgiving society. Yet if Jesus can forgive the very men like Paul who cheered his crucifixion, then he can forgive you, too, no matter what lurks in your past. Your good is not good enough. But his is. As Tim Keller often says, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”