Christians will give an account to God for their lives, and wise Christians live in light of that sobering reality (Rom 14:12; 2 Cor 5:10). Consequently, we have covenanted to keep each other accountable in preparation for our future accounting. Since some of our friends have asked us about our method of accountability, we decided to co-author this article in order to glorify God by provoking other Christians to seek out a greater degree of accountability.
God has used many different means to emphasize to us the importance of accountability. Among these are Scripture (e.g., Heb 3:12-13; James 5:16), books (e.g., Paul David Tripp’s Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands and Bryan Chapell’s Holiness by Grace), and especially John Piper’s pastoral accountability questionnaire. Chapell, for example, describes the importance of accountability:
One of my more meaningful automobile trips came when a church elder drove me from the airport to his church to preach. He said he had discovered his own walk with the Lord could be charted according to his level of accountability with other Christians. He said, “I have discovered in the Christian life that you are moving either toward or away from accountability.” Very few healthy things in the Christian life happen in secret. If you cannot or will not tell your spouse, your peers, or your superiors about something, then accountability falters. Our immersion in and integrity with these patterns of Christian association and accountability are ordinary means by which we grow in godliness (Holiness by Grace, pp. 138-39).
We thank God for raising our awareness of the importance of accountability and for giving us friendships where this can take place.
Below we explain how we maintain accountability and suggest some of its benefits and potential pitfalls. Although God does not require Christians to have accountability systems as structured as ours, He does require Christians to take responsibility for each another, using their gifts to cultivate spiritual growth (1 Cor 12:7; Gal 6:1). Our method is merely a means to an end, and for us its benefits outweigh its pitfalls.
1. Our Means of Accountability
Each week we fill out a two-page PDF that is divided into seven categories:
Each category includes multiple items that we rank, primarily using categories that focus on growth:
- 5 = thriving
- 4 = growing
- 3 = coasting
- 2 = regressing
- 1 = failing
- 0 = not applicable
A rating of 5 indicates vigorous growth-not perfection.
We created the form with Adobe Acrobat Professional. Each week we fill out the form using Adobe Reader and email it to each other. We then add it to a cumulative PDF dataset, which enables us to track our overall progress in a single file. (For technical questions about this, please use the comments section of Phil Gons’s blog.)
We also each share our individual PDFs with our wives, which is beneficial for at least three reasons:
- It updates them on our perception of our growth.
- It provokes conversation about areas that need more growth.
- It serves as a check to rate ourselves realistically.
2. Benefits of Accountability
- Motivation: It is an added incentive to glorify God with our whole beings in very specific areas, including our minds, bodies, families, and time-which all belong to God (cf. 1 Cor 6:18-20).
- Safety: It is a safety net. If one of us starts slipping or falls hard, two other concerned Christians are right there to catch him or pick him up with biblically informed advice and love.
- Consistency: It facilitates (but does not automatically result in) consistent spiritual growth.
- Specificity: It requires specific answers to specific questions. If someone asks “How are you doing?” it is very easy to cover up areas of our lives by blowing smoke about something else that may not be as significant.
- Thoroughness: It holistically challenges us in multiple areas, rather than focusing on just a few.
- Community: It establishes intimate, healthy relationships with fellow believers, rejecting a lone-ranger mentality.
- Intensity: It encourages us to maintain a higher level of intensity. Although we may hold different convictions regarding the application of the gospel to lifestyle issues, we can identify with John Piper in his answer to Justin Taylor’s question, “What about your approaches to pop culture? Pastor Mark [Driscoll], you go to movies. You watch TV. You listen to modern music and go to comedy shows. Pastor John-you don’t! So John, how do you stay relevant by mainly avoiding pop culture? And Mark, as you take part in pop culture, how do you stay faithful and transformed rather than being conformed?” Piper replied, “My short answer is that I think I’m weak and therefore would probably become a carnal person if I plunged more deeply into movies than I do. That’s the first answer: Piper’s weak; he has to steer clear of certain kinds of things in order to maintain his level of intensity” (The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World, ed. John Piper and Justin Taylor [Wheaton: Crossway, 2007], pp. 152-54).
- Reminder: It is a constant reminder of what is eternally important, and it cultivates a mindset that we live in between Jesus’ two victories, which parallel D-Day and V-E Day in World War II: a decisive battle (i.e., Jesus’ victory at the cross and empty tomb) has determined the war’s outcome, but one final battle remains to end the war (i.e., at Jesus’ return). We confidently expect that God will restore and consummate all things for His glory and our good, and until then, we struggle and yearn for that consummation while living for another time and another place (cf. Rom 8:17-25; 2 Cor 5:1-10; Col 3:1-5).
3. Potential Pitfalls of Accountability
An accountability system may be ineffective due to a number of factors.
- Heartless participation: We could approach it with a wrong spirit, turning it into a heartless, sterile, burdensome exercise.
- Impressing God: We could legalistically try to earn God’s favor with our good performance.
- Impressing ourselves: We could think too highly of ourselves when we are doing well.
- Impressing each other: We could try to impress each other with how godly we think we are.
- Impressing others: We could boast to other people that we voluntarily fill out a detailed accountability form each week.
- Comparing ourselves to each other: We could compare ourselves with each other rather than with the standard: Jesus. This might result in fighting sin less vigorously if we relax because someone else is as bad as we are.
- Lying: We could lie when filling out the accountability form.
- Appeasing ourselves: We could treat it as a kind of confessional booth, a cheap and shallow way to appease our consciences.
- Rationalizing: We could rationalize giving ourselves better rankings than we should. Rating ourselves is a subjective exercise, and our wayward hearts may easily (and sometimes unintentionally) skew ratings.
- Lack of transparency: We could give the impression that all is well when we know there are specific areas that need work. Accountability works only when we are transparent with each another, which means that we must make ourselves vulnerable.
- Fearing man: We could resist temptation because we fear each other’s opinions rather than because we fear God. For example, one of us might think, “I don’t want them to know I struggle with x; therefore, I won’t do it.”
- Avoiding face-to-face conversations: We could rely entirely on a form for accountability to the exclusion of face-to-face conversations. Although we are very close friends, this is a challenge for us since we live in three different states: Washington, South Carolina, and Illinois. We try to compensate for this to some degree by (1) using the last section of our form, which contains a box for comments such as prayer requests, needs, praises, confessions, and explanations; (2) emailing each other frequently; and (3) talking to each other at least monthly via Verizon’s three-way calling.
4. Scriptural Basis for Accountability
Texts of Scripture like Hebrews 3:12-14; James 5:16; Galatians 6:1; and Hebrews 10:24-25 provide the foundation for our theology of accountability. Cultivating transparent relationships where exhortation, confession, prayer, encouragement, and fellowship take place is indispensable for a healthy spiritual life. We agree with the following commentators on James 5:16:
- John MacArthur: “Sin is most dangerous to an isolated believer. Sin seeks to remain private and secret, but God wants it exposed and dealt with in the loving fellowship of other believers. . . . Maintaining open, sharing, and praying relationships with other Christians will help keep believers from bottoming out in their spiritual lives” (James, Macarthur New Testament Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 1998], p. 279).
- Thomas Manton: “It is indeed a fault in Christians not to disclose themselves and be more open with their spiritual friends when they are not able to extricate themselves out of their doubts and troubles” (James, The Crossway Classic Commentaries [Wheaton: Crossway, 1995]).
- John Calvin: “He now reminds them how useful it is to discover [i.e., uncover] our sins to our brethren, even that we may obtain the pardon of them by their intercession. This passage, I know, is explained by many as referring to the reconciling of offenses; for they who wish to return to favor must necessarily know first their own faults and confess them. For hence it comes, that hatreds take root, yea, and increase and become irreconcilable, because every one perniciously defends his own cause. Many therefore think that James points out here the way of brotherly reconciliation, that is, by mutual acknowledgment of sins. But as it has been said, his object was different; for he connects mutual prayer with mutual confession; by which he intimates that confession avails for this end, that we may be helped as to God by the prayers of our brethren; for they who know our necessities, are stimulated to pray that they may assist us; but they to whom our diseases are unknown are more tardy to bring us help. . . . For the words clearly mean, that confession is required for no other end, but that those who know our evils may be more solicitous to bring us help” (James, Calvin’s Commentaries).
5. Concluding Thoughts
God does not require that believers use an accountability system like ours, and we do not want to give the impression that all Christians (or some elite subset of them) must have accountability partners! Our accountability system is just a flawed human tool. We have found, however, that it forces us to confront our sins and look to the cross more regularly than we would without it. We agree with Abraham Piper: “Filling out the form is not what matters; what’s important is the heart behind it-the desire to be pure and holy. . . . Committing to answer these simple and straightforward questions each week is an invaluable tool in the fight of faith.”
We invite you to download a template of our form. Feel free to modify it and use it however you would like.
Update: The form we originally made available was not usable by itself with Adobe Reader without someone distributing it via Acrobat and inserting a return email address. Phil Gons was getting so many requests to create a custom distributable form that he decided to create a distributable form with a fake email address as the return address. Anyone should be able to use this form. Just make sure to change the email address it in your email before sending it as an attachment. If you’d like to customize the return email address or make other changes to the form using Acrobat Professional, please download the undistributed template. If you don’t have access to Acrobat, we recommend downloading the free trial version.