Joe Paterno’s One Mistake: Should it Define His Life and Legacy?

Should one mistake define your life and legacy?

Greatness and Shame. Joe Paterno (1926-2012) died yesterday. No one can take away his greatness as a head football coach of Penn State for 46 years. No one is likely to ever surpass what he achieved at one university. Yet, 2 months before he died, he was “dishonorably” fired, because of an ongoing sex scandal involving one of his assistant coaches who is presently being investigated for sexually abusing at least 8 boys over 15 years. As a result, Paterno’s name will be forever associated not just with “great coach,” but also with “being fired” and “sex scandal.” As a result, though Paterno died of lung cancer, some say that he died of a broken heart. In Paterno’s own words, he acknowledged that with hindsight he did not do enough.

God’s Heart and Adultery. This reminds me of King David, a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22). But who ever recounts the story of David without associating him with the steamy adultery after watching a naked Bathsheba bathing? Then he covered up his sin by having her husband Uriah killed “in the line of duty.” Don’t we good Christians all cover up our sins?

Be Like David. Really? I’ve found that we Christians might study the Bible regarding David by saying, “Be like David, a man after God’s own heart,” and then justify it by saying that David humbly repented of his sin, which of course he did. Or we might teach, “Be like David (in 2 Samuel), but not like Saul (in 1 Samuel).” Others might look at David with skepticism and cynicism and say, “How can David be regarded as a man after God’s own heart, when he committed both adultery and murder? Even I don’t do that!

Should One Mistake Define One’s Life and Legacy? Yes. God is truth, and God created us to live in the truth. Peterno’s name will always be associated with greatness and with shame. So, will David. For that matter, so will every memorable character in the Bible: Abraham (liar), Isaac (favoritism), Jacob (deceiver), Joseph (arrogant dreamer), Moses (murderer), Peter (coward), James and John (political hegemony), Paul (murderer). Historically, John Calvin will always be associated with being one of the greatest theologians and Bible teachers in history. But his detractors will always point out that he approved of the execution/beheading of Michael Sevetus for denying the Trinity. Jonathan Edwards is America’s greatest Christian. But he kept slaves. The list of the sins of Christians, even great ones, is endless.

Sin is Serious. Paterno’s legacy teaches us that sin is serious. He did not sin like his assistant coach who sexually abused many young boys. But he sinned by not doing more. He sinned by not really thinking of the boys who were being sexually abused and scarred for life irreparably. Because of Paterno’s sin, the alleged sexual abuses by his assistant coach continued for many more years unreported. It is inexcusable. To many, his firing was justified. Sin, no matter how “minor” or “venial” is always serious.

God is Gracious. We ALL sin (Rom 3:10-12,23). We might minimize our sin, even subconsciously, since we all sin. If I get upset with someone in my heart, while controlling myself outwardly, I may not think that it is that big of a deal. But Jesus regards that as being equivalent to murder (Matt 5:21-22). What hope do we have? Only by the grace of Jesus alone, God does not count our sins against us (Ps 32:2; Rom 4:8). God sent his Son who had no sin to die as a Substitute in our place, for our sins (2 Cor 5:21). This is man’s only hope.

No One Really Forgets Your Sin Except… No one ever truly or completely forgets someone else’s sins against them. No one will forget Paterno as one who did not do enough. No one will forget that David enjoyed Bathsheba sexually. No one forgets what President Clinton did in the White House. If you had sinned against someone, that person is not likely to ever forget it. If someone had sinned against you, you are not likely to forget it. Only God, because of Christ, remembers our sins no more (Jer 31:34; Heb 8:12; 10:17)! Thank God for His grace.

What could Joe Peterno have done differently? How do we deal with our own sins? The sins of others?


  1. Ben, thank you for this thought-provoking article. I am humbled and thankful to God for overlooking my long list of sins and mistakes I made in life (and have yet to make) — and embraces me into his loving arms. Thank you Jesus for taking the blame and undergoing brutal punishment for my sins. 

  2. Thanks, Mary J. I can literally and virtually echo your words and your sentiment upon myself with tears of awe and gratitude! Thank you, Jesus. I live by your mercy and grace alone.

  3. Sorry, but……Did I miss the point ?  are you saying our mistakes/sins define who we are?

    • Yes, yet, by the grace of Jesus alone, God no longer holds it against me, even if people might. So, as a Christian, it’s “No!” This is totally mind boggling to me. The Gospel is truly conter-intuitive and transformative (2 Cor 3:18). To this day, I grieve because of my sins. Yet Jesus’ love for me never changes (Jer 31:3). This changes my heart.

      Sorry, Mary, if I confused you. I really liked and am moved by your first comment, which expresses Jesus’ love for you first, and your confession of love for Jesus in response.

  4. Darren Gruett

    Your article made me think about how people (myself included) always try to hide their sin, and how that is related to atonement. After all, the word “atonement” means, “to cover over.” It seems that just as God cannot stand the sight of our sin, so too, we, having been imprinted with God’s image, cannot stand the sight of our sin. Thus we find that somewhere inside each man is the need to cover his sin. David understood this well when he wrote, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, / Whose sin is covered” (Psalms 32:1).

  5. Thanks, Darren. Yup, for sure I always want to cover my sin, like watching 2 NFL games on Sun, even though I didn’t really want to!!! If I do not really believe that Jesus completely covered my sins, I will have to do it myself, and live like a hypocrit all my days! Thank God for Jesus who saved me from being a Pharisee. Yet, I still wake up every morning as one!

    • Darren Gruett

      Yeah, I did that too on Sunday, and felt a little empty inside afterward. Thank God for Jesus!

    • Wait a minute, it’s a sin to watch 2 football games on a Sunday?

  6. Darren Gruett

    I think what Ben is saying is that it was a sin to do it when his conscience was telling him otherwise.

  7. Great question, Oscar. I am not a sinner because I sin. But I sin because I am a sinner. I felt bad that I watched parts of both NFL games, because I could and should have spent my time more productively.

    My “excuse” is that after giving the sermon on Sun, I usually feel a little spent emotionally. Then I realize how feeble I am, compared with some pastors who give multiple sermons on Sun. I just read yesterday that Mark Driscoll gave 7 one hour sermons every Sun from morning to night for about a decade!

    My short answer is that “No” it is not a sin to watch 2 football games on Sun. For myself, I pray I won’t do it again next year. Please remind me!

    • Darren Gruett

      Well, said. I hope you know I wasn’t trying to put words in your mouth. That’s my sin.

    • No, Darren, you did not put words in my mouth. I agonize virtually daily about how to use my time productively, effieciently, effectively and prayerfully, because I seem to be so undiciplined, scatter-brained, distracted, unfocused, etc.

      What helps me the most daily is in reading sermons, books, commentaries, blogs, which helps me to delight in the Bible, in the Gospel, and in Jesus. Also, preparing for our weekly Bible studies and weekly sermons helps to keep me on track day by day.

  8. Darren Gruett

    I feel exactly the same way, so I am glad to know I am not alone in that respect. Sundays are especially difficult, because I feel like I’ve worked hard all week and need a little down time, which is okay, to a point. Yet, even after watching a movie or a football game I find that I have to open up my Bible and spend time with the Lord. My soul misses His Word if I am away from it for too long.

    • For sure, Darren. It’s nothing but unmerrited Grace that compels our soul to seem Him, I love this stanza from “I Sought The Lord”:

      I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
      he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.
      It was not I who found, O Savior true;
      no, I was found of thee.

  9. “What is your legacy?” That was a question posed by pastor Bryan at Grace Community last Sunday. The context was Stephen, the first non-apostle spokesman for the early church and the first martyr because of faith in Jesus. I doubt Stephen wanted or imagined that would be his legacy. Do we remember anything else Stephen did? I believe God gave Stephen such a legacy.

    One thing I learn from the Joe P. case is that we can’t control our legacy. Even if we use all our ambition and live as good as possible, one decision can become all that people remember.  I believe God also gave Joe P. two legacies: on one hand he could be held up as a model for good character, ambitious hard work and faithful persistence. I think his life has much to teach us in that regard. 

    Yet the other part of Joe P.’s legacy is tied to his part in the scandal and the ensuing cover-up. I believe God allowed this to happen as a lesson for all people in leadership or who have authority: protect the innocent!  

    I see a dire lesson here for organizations too. Like an ambitious steam-roller, the Penn State football program fostered an environment where abuse could not only occur, but could be covered up for many years. All the while people praised Joe P. and Penn State for its football victories, numerous people knew the dark side. They watched Joe P. get praised and trophies paraded while they kept the pain hidden inside them. At each graduation, they heard about how good Joe P. is and how wonderful their football team is, all the while the darkness ate away at their soul.

    Organizations (religious or not) really need to remember that people are far more valuable than goals and victory. At what cost do we accomplish our goals? Is it worth it? At what point do we give up our goals and plans to God and see the hurt around us? When do we stop pretending everything is glorious and wonderful? When will someone scream “stop” and pay attention to the wounded? 

    • Well said, Brian.  Thank God that he brings us down, exposing our idols and helping us to repent and turn to what really matters.  Thank you, Ben for this article.  Please keep PSU and State College in your prayers.

  10. For sure Sharon. Whatever His reasons, I felt God giving me many “Ps” to pray for: PSU, PAL, Podil, Peaces and the Philippines! Either God is cute (and holy), or I am just “odd,” as my 94 year old mom often says about me!

    • your cute :)  I hope we can see you in chicago next week.  we will be in touch.

  11. The wages of sin? 14 years of PSU football victories by Paterno stripped: