Have you ever read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or seen one of the film adaptations?
The story is set in Puritan Boston. The protagonist is a woman named Hester Prynne. She was sent to live in colonial America by her husband, who was supposed to follow her but was captured by the Indians. As a result, Hester lived alone, making a living as a seamstress. She found comfort with the local minister. One thing led to another, and they ended up having an affair that resulted in the birth of a little girl named Pearl. For that act of adultery, Hester was forced to wear a large scarlet letter “A” on her dress. And if that was not enough, she was scorned and shamed by the community until she became an outcast.
Can you imagine being forced to wear the sign of your sin for all to see?
What kind of religion does that?
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a treatment on the distinction between law and grace. All through the letter, Paul contrasts law-religion with grace-religion. The Galatians believed the gospel of grace, but when Paul moved on, some legalists moved in, and they began to teeter on the brink of legalism. So Paul rose up to stop it.
The legalists were wrong about justification (which, Paul clarified, is by faith apart from works), but they were also wrong about the Christian life. It turns out the law, and all the little religious rituals that so impress the world, are no more useful for sanctification than for justification.
Another example of the difference between law-religion and grace-religion in the Christian life comes to us in Gal 6:1-2:
Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:1-2).
The issue is church discipline.
Unfortunately, most churches no longer practice church discipline. If you try to discipline anyone, that person will leave and go to the church down the street. Do that too often, and how will you pay the electric bills?
But we’re supposed to exercise discipline, not for its own sake, but so that people can be restored.
What happens when there’s a Hester Prynne in your congregation?
Well, if you’re a legalist, as were the Puritans, you mark her and shame her and push her to the margins of society. What else can the Law do but condemn those who break it?
By contrast, what should grace religion do? Not shame, but restore.
Notice, Paul is not suggesting we ignore sin or to pretend that sin isn’t sinful. Many (liberal) churches think that being gracious means accepting all behavior as morally equal. But that isn’t grace; it’s relativism.
Nor is Paul suggesting that we be sin-seekers. The church is not supposed to be Big Brother, inspecting every detail of our lives, looking for people to discipline. If someone gets caught in sin, then you deal with it.
And how do you deal with it? Roughly? Judgmentally? Angrily? By making the sinner wear a scarlet letter?
Grace restores gently.
Put another way, instead of condemning the sinner, you help bear his burden (“Bear one another’s burdens”). You walk with that person as an act of love (i.e., “the law of Christ”).
If Hester Prynne had been in a grace-based congregation, what should have happened?
The spiritual people would have acted to restore her. A spiritual person is someone who is spiritually mature. That person knows Bible doctrine and applies it to his life. He lives according to God’s revelation. He confesses his sins regularly and attends the fellowship of the Church. If Prynne repented, she should have been welcomed and supported. She should have been shown the grace of Christ and been assured of her forgiveness because of the cross of Christ. Her daughter Pearl would be loved, not maligned. Prynne would be looked at as no worse than anyone else—i.e., a sinner saved by grace and forgiven by Christ. And the people in the congregation, especially the older women, would have come alongside her to help bear her burden. That’s what grace looks like in church discipline.
In a grace-based church, there’s no room for scarlet letters.