The gospel of Jesus possesses an inherent tension. On one hand, we want people to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus, and like Him, we should reach out to everyone. In His earthly ministry, Jesus never stopped to ask about someone’s background or circumstances before loving them. This is evidenced in His encounter with the adulterous woman, the demon possessed man of the Gadarenes, Zacchaeus, and a host of others.
On the other hand, Jesus called the people He loved to a life of holiness. If they were trapped in sin, His grace gave them the courage to leave their old life behind and cling to what is good. He told the adulterous woman to “go and sin no more.” The demon possessed man wanted to follow Jesus, but was told to stay in his community so he could be a constant witness to the power of God. Zacchaeus gave away half of his possession to the poor and offered restitution to those He had defrauded.
I believe the church should reach out to those who are hurting and living without hope. We should never turn people away because their sin is too big. Still, there is an expectation. The expectation is that once people commit their lives to Jesus they will engage in the process of becoming like Him.
One might say, “But that sounds like conditional love!” No. Jesus never stops loving anyone. Neither should we. But a Christian, by definition, is someone who makes a commitment to Jesus Christ and steps into a life of obedience. When we ignore this aspect of our walk with the Lord we are actually the ones practicing conditional love. We are saying, “Jesus, I love you when I need your grace, but not when you ask me to change.”
I say all of this in defense of believers who continue to challenge a sinful world to a godly ideal. Just because someone challenges sin in the lives of others doesn’t mean he is unloving or judgmental. In fact, it probably means he is willing to put his relationships with others on the line to help them avoid Satan’s snare. Yes, there is a spirit of legalism that turns the smallest imperfection into a matter of eternal damnation. But we shouldn’t let the reputation of those who lose perspective frighten us into pretending sin doesn’t matter.
If sin didn’t matter, Jesus wasted a lot of blood on the cross. The Apostle Paul wrote, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
This then, is the tension in the gospel. We reach out to the fallen, but we lead them to a place where they can not only shed their shackles of sin, but put distance between themselves and the prison of their past.
The instruction God gives us in His Word for a holy life is the proverbial “ounce of prevention” that is greater than a “pound of cure.” The book of Proverbs is packed full of these “ounces” and the letters in the New Testament are largely written to help believers take off the old self of sin and put on the image of Jesus (Colossians 3:1-17).
I don’t want to be a part of a church that turns away sinners. But neither do I want to be a part of one that fails to hold people accountable to a life that honors Jesus. In the gospels Jesus was extremely kind to those who didn’t understand His Father’s will, but He was harsh with those who knew better. In his letters, the Apostle Paul is just as confrontational with believers in the church who were living as if sin didn’t matter (1 Corinthians 5:1-5).
This approach is not just about doing the right things. An ounce of kingdom holiness can prevent a lot of heartache. Many of the broken people I have ministered to in my life have spent years overcoming a sin, or carrying the burden of a sin committed against them. If someone had warned them earlier, or confronted others in their lives with the truth, much of the pain might have been avoided.
It is hard to reach a proper balance between grace and truth, but I would suggest you really can’t understand one without the other. Grace is only meaningful when we grasp the condition of sin and the pursuit of truth and holiness is only feasible when we know we can walk confidently in grace.
Never turn away a sinner, but keep sharing the truth. The church must continue to cure the ills of our world, but it makes no sense to do this while neglecting the principles that can prevent sin from taking root in the first place.
An ounce is really a very small thing. But it can make cover a world of hurt. “Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” (James 5:20)