Sin and the Church
Historically speaking, the church has often failed to live up to Jesus’ standards. Is this an acceptable situation?
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What About After the Resurrection?
It can be argued that the disciples were not truly converted until after Jesus’ resurrection; in which case it might be asked if the attitude that Jesus adopted towards sin during his earthly ministry accurately reflects what he expects of his followers now. Of course, Jesus was not physically present very often after that. The only obvious example of him personally dealing with a sin issue during his post-resurrection appearances is his conversation with Peter: but as that relates to Peter’s denial before the crucifixion (Jn 21:15-19), it doesn’t address this question.
But Jesus did tell us that, after his resurrection, the Holy Spirit (the Counsellor and Spirit of truth) would come.
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I don’t go away, the Counselor won’t come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. When he has come, he will convict the world about sin, about righteousness, and about judgment; about sin, because they don’t believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to my Father, and you won’t see me any more; about judgment, because the prince of this world has been judged. “I have yet many things to tell you, but you can’t bear them now. However when he, the Spirit of truth, has come, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak from himself; but whatever he hears, he will speak. He will declare to you things that are coming. He will glorify me, for he will take from what is mine, and will declare it to you. (Joh 16:7-14)
So, if we want to know Jesus’ attitude to sin amongst his followers, we should look to see how the Holy Spirit dealt with sin in the early Christian church.
Ananias and Sapphira
The very first example is a salutary warning to any who might be tempted to justify a more lenient attitude towards sin.
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira, his wife, sold a possession, and kept back part of the price, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back part of the price of the land? While you kept it, didn’t it remain your own? After it was sold, wasn’t it in your power? How is it that you have conceived this thing in your heart? You haven’t lied to men, but to God.” Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and died. Great fear came on all who heard these things. The young men arose and wrapped him up, and they carried him out and buried him. (Act 5:1-6)
About three hours later, his wife, not knowing what had happened, came in. Peter answered her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” She said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter asked her, “How is it that you have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” She fell down immediately at his feet, and died. The young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her by her husband. Great fear came on the whole assembly, and on all who heard these things. (Act 5:7-11)
Note, however, that it wasn’t their selfishness that brought this judgement upon them: it was their attempt to deceive God and hide their sin. The scripture says, “He who conceals his sins doesn’t prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy” (Pro 28:13). That incident ended badly for the deceivers; though it taught a vital lesson to the church as a whole. The next one starts badly but ends well.
Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, a complaint arose from the Hellenists against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily service. The twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not appropriate for us to forsake the word of God and serve tables. Therefore select from among you, brothers, seven men of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will continue steadfastly in prayer and in the ministry of the word.” (Act 6:1-4)
These words pleased the whole multitude. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch; whom they set before the apostles. When they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. The word of God increased and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly. A great company of the priests were obedient to the faith. (Act 6:5-7)
We begin with a situation involving racial inequality and grumbling; a situation which could very easily have led to a church split, with all the hurt and lasting harm that this typically entails. Or it could easily have deflected the apostles from the main purpose of their ministry. The apostles did not judge or condemn anyone. Instead, they brought the matter out into the open. They did not exclude anyone from the decision-making process as a ‘potential troublemaker;’ nor did they take over control of the situation themselves. Instead, they focussed the people’s attention on the need for the Holy Spirit’s anointing and wisdom. Then they trusted the people to seek God together to find the men who could best meet the need.
What? Was there no repentance? Even though there was no public call to repent, repentance was at the very heart of what happened. The people changed the way they thought about the problem – and one another. They were reconciled, sought God and worked together to find a solution that worked for all. So, instead of hurt and hindrance, there was blessing and growth.
A Reformed Community
In fact, if we look more closely at the early church, we find that their entire lifestyle was one of repentance.
They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and prayer. Fear came on every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together, and had all things in common. They sold their possessions and goods, and distributed them to all, according as anyone had need. Day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. The Lord added to the assembly day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
Compare this with John the Baptist’s description of what repentance should look like:
“Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and don’t begin to say among yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father;’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones! Even now the axe also lies at the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that doesn’t bring forth good fruit is cut down, and thrown into the fire.” The multitudes asked him, “What then must we do?” He answered them, “He who has two coats, let him give to him who has none. He who has food, let him do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what must we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than that which is appointed to you.” Soldiers also asked him, saying, “What about us? What must we do?” He said to them, “Extort from no one by violence, neither accuse anyone wrongfully. Be content with your wages.” (Luk 3:8-14)
We need to realise that the most important aspect of repentance is reformation: not regret. God does not want us to live in a constant state of mourning over past failures. We are forgiven and no longer living under condemnation. Now we should focus on expressing God’s values in the way we live. When we do remember our past, it is to reflect on the price Jesus paid for us and to rejoice in his mercy. That is what these first Christians were doing as they shared what they had with one another and ‘broke bread’ together.
The next major issue that came up was a dispute about whether Gentiles (non-Jews) had to be circumcised.
Some men came down from Judea and taught the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised after the custom of Moses, you can’t be saved.” Therefore when Paul and Barnabas had no small discord and discussion with them, they appointed Paul and Barnabas, and some others of them, to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question. (Act 15:1-2)
This was a complex question which merits an entire article in its own right. The main point of relevance to this article is to observe that the problem arose because, although both sides sincerely believed that they were in the right, at least one side had to be in the wrong and would have to ‘repent’ of its view. Firstly, this demonstrates that Christians are not infallible and can get things wrong, even when it comes to interpreting Scripture. If not resolved, it will result in division and damage; so both sides needed to be willing to submit their views to the collective judgement of the church. Secondly, the church as a whole had to submit their personal opinions to the leading of the Holy Spirit. It had come as a shock to all the Jewish Christians (including Peter) to discover that the Holy Spirit was coming upon uncircumcised Gentiles. But, looking at the evidence, they couldn’t help but conclude that He was; and that therefore they needed to review their understanding of the Scriptures
Paul and Barnabas
Shortly after this, we read of a problem between Paul and Barnabas:
After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s return now and visit our brothers in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, to see how they are doing.” Barnabas planned to take John, who was called Mark, with them also. But Paul didn’t think that it was a good idea to take with them someone who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia, and didn’t go with them to do the work. Then the contention grew so sharp that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him, and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas, and went out, being commended by the brothers to the grace of God. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the assemblies. (Act 15:36-41)
This incident raises two issues. There is the fact that the disagreement caused Paul and Barnabas to separate. And underlying this is the fact that Paul was not prepared to set aside John Mark’s previous failure, when he had deserted them during their last missionary journey. It seems that all three are at fault in various ways: Mark for desertion; Barnabas for apparently being the first to walk out, taking Mark with him; and Paul for refusing to forgive and give Mark another chance.
The big problem here is not so much about who was in the right: but how the situation was handled and where was the repentance. They appear to have separated before the issue could be properly resolved. Mark had been wrong to desert: but he had repented and was now willing to go again. Barnabas’ desire to give Mark another chance was fully in line with Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness (Luk 17:3-4) and taking Mark to Cyprus made sense, as Mark had been with Paul and Barnabas during that part of their journey (Acts 13:4-13): but the timing of his departure leaves a question mark as to whether or not his disagreement with Paul had been resolved. There is no clear indication that Paul had changed his mind either: but with Barnabas gone there was little that he could do at that point. It is an unsatisfactory state of affairs; and a useful reminder that such potentially harmful situations can arise, even amongst born-again Christians, if not handled properly.
The Covering of Grace
But there is an antidote, even in such difficult circumstances; the grace of God. The church prayed for grace to cover the situation; and that, in due course, was what happened. Mark made good. When in Rome, Paul wrote to Timothy saying, “Take Mark, and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service” (2Tim 4:11). And Mark came: Col 4:10 lists him as one of Paul’s companions in Rome.
Warnings to the Churches
If we look at the letters to the churches, in Rev 2:1-3:22, we see a number of severe warnings about the penalty to be expected if the churches continue in their current sins. Only two churches, Smyrna (Rev 2:8-11) and Philadelphia (Rev 3:7-13) are not commanded to repent. Yet, when we consider the gross nature of some of these sins, it is also a matter of some astonishment that they have not already been cast off. Instead, Jesus is still urging them towards cleansing and forgiveness. But the other surprise is that amongst the ‘faulty five’ are three whose greatest sins are, respectively: leaving their first love (Ephesus, Rev 2:1-7), having no works ‘perfected’ (Sardis, Rev 3:1-6) and lukewarmness (Laodicea, Rev 3:14-22). Jesus is still defining his standard as being to strive towards perfection, with hearts aflame with love. Complacency will not do.
The Lion and the Lamb
Rev 5:1-14 presents a vision of a sealed scroll; written on both sides, indicating that it contains severe judgements (c.f. Ez 2:10). But initially no-one can be found who is worthy to open it.
One of the elders said to me, “Don’t weep. Behold, the Lion who is of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome; he who opens the book and its seven seals.” I saw in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, having seven horns, and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth. (Rev 5:5-6)
John expects to see a Lion: instead he sees a slaughtered Lamb. Why?
They sang a new song, saying, “You are worthy to take the book, and to open its seals: for you were killed, and bought us for God with your blood, out of every tribe, language, people, and nation, and made us kings and priests to our God, and we will reign on earth.” (Rev 5:9-10)
There is only one person who God considers fit to act as judge against the human race – a judge who would rather die himself than condemn anyone who can possibly be saved.
The Point of No Return
But the final chapter of Revelation paints a more sombre picture for those who will not repent:
He who acts unjustly, let him act unjustly still. He who is filthy, let him be filthy still. He who is righteous, let him do righteousness still. He who is holy, let him be holy still.” “Behold, I come quickly. My reward is with me, to repay to each man according to his work. (Rev 22:11-12)
This implies that there will come a point where change is no longer possible and judgement must fall.
He who is often rebuked and stiffens his neck will be destroyed suddenly, with no remedy. (Pro 29:1)
Working together, we entreat also that you not receive the grace of God in vain, for he says, “At an acceptable time I listened to you, in a day of salvation I helped you.” Behold, now is the acceptable time. Behold, now is the day of salvation. (2Co 6:1-2)