Dealing with Immorality in the Church Without Altering the Gospel or Undermining Assurance
Sexual immorality is rampant today. The seventies and eighties have been an era of free sex. Unfortunately, the problem of sexual immorality did not bypass the body of Christ. Studies show that sexual immorality (e.g., premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, incest, lusting over pornography) is a common problem among believers today.
While I have heard these things before, they didn’t really sink in until recently. I just finished reading a book–one which I highly recommend–by Randy Alcorn entitled, Christians in the Wake of the Sexual Revolution (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1985). Alcorn shook me up with many true-to-life illustrations of believers who are in sexual bondage (see, for example, pp.25-32).
How are we to respond to this problem?
First, let’s not deny that it is a very significant problem. Recognizing the problem is a key step in dealing with it.
Second, let’s avoid changing the gospel message as a solution. Lordship salvation has a deep concern that believers live holy lives. I share that concern. However, the solution which Lordship salvation offers, adding works to the gospel, is one I cannot adopt. Salvation is a free gift. It is received by faith alone, not by faith plus works.
To tell a person that he or she must stop living with their lover in order to be saved from hell is to contradict the idea of a free gift. If I must give up something (other than self-righteousness and unbelief)–or even be willing to do so–then salvation costs me something. Lordship salvation advocates do not deny this. Dr. James Boice, for example, in his book Christ’s Call to Discipleship (Chicago: Moody, 1987) in a chapter entitled, “Counting the Cost,” asks the question, “What must I pay to be a Christian?” (p. 112). Notice that he is speaking of what we must PAY. We do not pay for gifts. Boice then answers his own question, in part, by noting, “I must pay the price of those sins I now cherish. I must give them up, every one. I cannot cling to a single sin . . .” (pp. 112-13).
Third, let’s avoid changing the basis of assurance. Some pastors preach and counsel that believers engaged in ongoing sexual sin are probably not “true believers” and hence are probably not saved. Sadly this encourages believers to look at their works instead of the Word for assurance. It turns their eyes off of the Savior and onto themselves. The cross goes out of focus. Grace becomes forgotten.1 Such teaching can lead believers to despair, depression, and such an overwhelming sense of frustration that some give up completely their efforts to live for God.
Fourth, it is vitally important in terms of discipleship that we maintain lives of sexual purity ourselves. All of us are capable of adultery, premarital sex, homosexuality, addiction to pornography, etc. To avoid these calamities we need accountability in our families and churches, high standards carefully maintained, and a track record of obedience over time. If we who proclaim his grace and the freeness of the gospel fall into sexual sin, many will point their fingers and say that it was the doctrine which produced the immoral conduct. Sexual sin can destroy lives, ministries, and reputations.
Fifth, in our preaching, teaching, and interacting with other believers, let’s be clear that sexual immorality is a big problem, one which can easily trip us up, and one which has terrible consequences. Rather than occasionally making a reference to adultery, pornography, homosexuality, or premarital sex when we preach or teach, it seems to me that we should address these problems frequently.
If done tactfully, I think that sharing some of the illustrations which Alcorn and other Christian authors provide may have a very beneficial effect. When talking about sexual sin we can discuss the chastising ministry of God, the Judgment Seat of Christ, the ridicule such actions bring to the cause of Christ, and how the powerful motivation of gratitude can transform the lives of those touched by His grace.
We can counter the claim that we give people a license to sin by living godly lives ourselves and by repeatedly calling others to do so. May the grace of God spur us on to live exemplary lives. While the rampant immorality of our day is a terrible thing, it does provide us with even more of an opportunity to stand apart and to let our lights shine before men so that they might see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven.
In next month’s letter I will discuss a watershed issue related to the gospel and assurance: homosexuals and salvation.
1Alcorn. by the way, does not change the gospel or question people’s salvation in his book. While he does not directly discuss the gospel in the hook, it is clear by what he does say and by what he doesn’t that he holds the freeness of the gospel and the absoluteness of assurance.