The unconfessed sin of the believer is always unpleasant. It always dark, dirty, and filled with hurt. Quite naturally, something so awful loves darkness and secrecy. But eventually the secrets will come to light.
And when a Christian’s sin comes out into the open, its effects can extend well beyond an individual heart or home. The nature of a person’s sin can require that society, employers, and the government take action. The consequences of a believer’s sin can lead to the arrival of a pink slip, a legal summons to appear in court, or flashing blue lights in their yard. And when sin becomes public knowledge, the evil desire that once could have been addressed with a quick prayer now appears to be fearfully out of control. The whole local community of believers can feel hurt and dirty.
But thankfully things are not out of control when a believer sins publicly. The Scriptures are full of narratives that recount the public failures of God’s people. Abraham had an affair, Moses struck a rock in front of thousands of people, and King David conducted a census. The Scriptures have a lot to say about we should respond to public sin. And the message is very hopeful!
Three Ways to Respond:
1. We call our brothers and sisters to repentance.
First, we accept what has happened. We call sin, “Sin” and acknowledge that sin comes with real consequences. Sin has to be addressed. The man who embezzles money from his employer should make restitution. When Zacchaeus stole from people, he offered to make restitution. Jesus did not absolve him from the consequences of his sins (Luke 19:8). And when David decided to number the people of Israel, God judged David and killed 70,000 men (1 Chronicles 21:7-17).
Second, we need to encourage our brothers and sisters to action. Sorrow is great. But, tears do not save nor do they mean someone is truly sorry. Our friends may only be grieving the fact that they have been publicly humiliated. As Paul notes in 2 Corinthians 7: 9-10:
As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.
How do you tell the difference between real and fake sorrow? True sorrow over sin, true repentance always leads to action. When Zacchaeus repented of stealing, he promised to return four fold what he took and he promised to give up to half of his goods to the poor. His covetous greedy heart was replaced with a kind, generous one. His repentance was defined by action. As Ephesians 4:28 says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Zacchaeus did just that!
Similarly, David cried out to the Lord and said, “I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing. But now, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have acted very foolishly” (1 Chronicles 21:7b). And then, David went out and offered sacrifices for his sin. Both men took action to revealed a repentant heart.
If our sister has embezzled money from her company, we must go to her privately and encourage her to take action. We must encourage her to repent. She should confess her sin to those whom she has sinned against and to God. And then she must stop stealing and make restitution. She must repay the stolen money. Repentance leads to practical change. We must call our brothers and sisters who sin to pursue repentance.
And third, we must forgive. Once a brother and sister repents of their sin, we must extend them forgiveness. We must forgive them as Christ has forgiven us (Col 3:13). Forgiveness means that we will no longer dwell on a person’s sin, we will no longer talk about their failures, and we will no longer allow a few actions to determine how we relate to our friend. In short, we will stop trying to punish the person for what he or she has done.
Practically this means that when we wake up, we no longer meditate on why George got fired from his job. We no longer discuss Sally’s road to prison over coffee. And we greet Jim with the same smile that we showed him prior to him repenting of his affair. To forgive, “means to release a person from punishment or penalty.” If we love Christ, we must be quick to fellowship with those who used to be thieves, adulterers, and liars.
2. We need to love our brother and sisters caught in sin.
The world is quick to judge and hold grudges. The church should be the opposite. Yes, we should take sin seriously. Yes, we should call our brothers and sisters to repentance. And yes, we should practice church discipline if they refuse to turn from their porn addiction. But we should always be quick to extend love and mercy.
We should freely extend mercy to those who have sinned publicly both before and after they seek forgiveness. We should make our friends meals, care for their families, and give them opportunities to prove their repentance. We should not make an embezzler the church accountant, but it would be great for us to get her a job at the local factory. It would be great for us to rent her a house at cost so that she could begin to repay her debt. Regardless of the severity of the sin, there is no limit to the nature of our forgiveness. We are to forgive our brothers and sisters “seventy-times seven” (Matt. 18:22).
And, we should readily remind our brothers and sisters that they are not their sin. If they have repented, they are no longer defined by their sin. The adulterer is no longer an adulterer, but a fellow brother in Christ who has been redeemed from his sin by the blood of the cross. He is a justified sinner just like everyone else in church.
3. We need to be careful.
Anytime we encounter sin, we must avoid the temptation to wag our little finger. We must avoid the temptation to puff up our chest and say, “I would never do that.”
Friends, we could all do that. If Noah can get drunk, if Abraham can let his wife marry another man, if Samson can sleep with a prostitute, and if David can kill a man, we too can mess up and mess up big time. Our ability to avoid the newspapers is not based on our moral aptitude or will power. Notice what Paul says in Galatians 6:1
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.
We should go to those who have fallen. We should encourage them to repent. We should work to see them restored. We should strive to see them become active members of our church again.
Those who are doing well should help those overcome be sin especially public sin. As Paul says in I Thessalonians 5:14 “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”
But we must do so in humility. We must engage the hurting, realizing that the power to change people is not found in our works, wisdom, or methods. We are not stronger than our fallen friends. We are just as vulnerable as those we help. We need to point our own hearts to the gospel just as much as we point our fallen friends to the God of heaven.
And we must make sure that we are quickly confessing our sins. We must regularly examine our hearts. We must regularly confess our sins. We must take our own sin seriously and flee from it. We must watch ourselves and make sure we have allowed sin to get a death grip on our heart. If we do not, we too will be exposed one day.
Public failure is, well, public. And it is unpleasant. But such sin is not the end of the story, of anyone’s story. We don’t lock up our friends and throw away the key. We keep ministering to them. We keep calling them to repentance. We keep loving them. And we keep watching our souls.