We’ve all heard it and we’ve all done it. We even forced our little ones to say “I’m sorry” to another child who has been hurt in some way. We’ve also forgiven those little ones for things that are serious sins in an adult. A two-year-old may steal another child’s toy three or four times in an hour (“mine!”) and be “forgiven” by the nursery worker. Yet stealing by an adult must be dealt with in a more adult way. Recently, FALN terrorist Oscar Lopez-Rivera said he was sorry for killing and bombing and now is honored in a parade. Why is it more serious as adults than as children when we merely repeat the words, “I’m sorry?”
A few years ago a woman wrote an article for Christianity Today titled, “How Should the Church Handle Adultery?”1 She took as her example John 8:1-12, the woman caught in adultery, as the church’s example of how to handle a case of adultery. She likened the Pharisees of the story to “church people” and “members of the body of Christ” who “find more pleasure in execution than in restoration.” As to Jesus saying, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone” [sic], she writes, What about you, what have you done?” Then to Jesus’ final words, “Neither do I [condemn you]. Go and sin no more” [sic], she writes, “Jesus’ final word to this adulterous woman gives a death blow to the self-righteous heart in the body of Christ. The self-righteous heart in the church is evident when we as believers seek to bring justice to every sin without taking the time to see the sinner. How can we let adultery go unpunished? Is it easy? Of course not, but the church must follow the example of our Savior. . . But I am afraid that this cannot happen until we have a real encounter with the grace and mercy of God.”
I don’t find these words uncommon today. Many churches do not deal with overt sin pleading the grace and mercy of God. Was this not the thinking of the Corinthian church when, in their prideful way, they failed to deal with adultery and Paul said to them, “Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?” (1 Cor. 5:6). Then at the end of the chapter he writes, “Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.” Now, to be fair, we must also remember that by the time Paul wrote the second letter the adulterous man had evidently truly repented and Paul then instructed the church, “Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow” (2 Cor. 2:6-7). Yet the point to be made is that the church did in fact “inflict” a “punishment” for the sin of adultery until true repentance was made. In addition, Paul describes what true repentance looks like after the church repented of this and other sins, “For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter” (2 Cor. 7:11).
As a pastor I have, after having to deal with sin in the church, addressed the offender and the whole church by saying, “We believe that sin is real but we also believe that forgiveness is real.” We can’t take sin lightly as if it were just a mistake about a recipe or a ball game score. We must seek true repentance. And neither can we not forgive when true repentance has been shown. In all we must not avoid the Biblical process.
Some doctrinal perspective
Too often we speak of things such as grace, mercy, forgiveness, love, sin, and self-righteousness, with definitions that fit our current culture but not necessarily with the Bible. In major theology works sin is dealt with in the section called Hamartiology, the study of sin. Within that section one will find a section on Sanctification, the ongoing process of putting away sin in the Christian life. The views on sanctification can run from legalism on one extreme to antinomianism (license) on the other. Historically these differences have made denominations because they formulate views on eternal security. When there is too much justification in sanctification one becomes legalistic. When there is too much sanctification in justification, one becomes antinomian.
Charles Ryrie begins his section on the Christian and sin by writing, “Becoming a Christian does not exempt one from sinning nor from obedience to the law of Christ. To say it does is to fall into one or both of the common errors concerning the Christian and sin. The one is a false perfectionism and the other antinomianism.”2 Wayne Grudem makes the traditional division of sanctification: positional, progressive, and final, and begins by writing, “Now we come to a part of the application of redemption that is a progressive work that continues throughout our earthly lives. It is also a work in which God and man cooperate, each playing distinct roles. This part of the application of redemption is called sanctification: Sanctification is a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives.”3 In this section Grudem speaks about “corporate sanctification,”4 by which he means the necessity of the whole body of Christ helping the sinning brother.
The point here is that today we seem to be leaning much more toward antinomianism than to legalism. Many are reacting to what they believe was harsh treatment of sin by the church in the past. Yet in an antinomian era all direct dealing with sin in the church would seem harsh. We do not doubt that sin has been dealt with in an unloving way at times. But the believer cannot continue in sin as if he cannot have victory over it because our Lord said that he can (Rom. 6:6-18). Neither should he continue in sin as if God doesn’t care because the Bible says He does (Rom. 6:1, 15).
Is “sorry” enough?
The answer is yes and no. If we use that word as a two-year-old uses it, no, it is not enough. A two-year-old cannot understand the unfailing love of a parent nor the process of the Holy Spirit in the heart. He can only understand obedience and he is doing what his parent has asked. But even a new believer can understand that such an answer is not a real admission of sin. There has to be more to “sorry” than mere words. “Godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death” (2 Cor. 7:10). David cried to God concerning his adultery, “Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgression: and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight” (Psa. 51:2-4).
“Sorry” is part of the word “sorrow” and Paul said that godly sorrow does bring about true repentance. If the word “sorry” were the conclusion of the sorrow and repentance process and a true confession of the heart, then such an expression would be accepted. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). “Confess” (homologeō) means “to say the same thing.” Confession is true as long as we are saying the same thing about our sin as God says!
Here are a few things to remember when we confess our sins. First, as believers, we are forgiven all our sins, past, present, and future, or, as John puts it, “and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). We are not asking God to save us again each time we confess our sin. Sin, however, destroys our fellowship with God even as His own child. “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (1 John 1:6). True confession is vital for fellowship with God.
Second, true repentance is never late but late repentance is seldom true. That’s why Paul admonished, “let not the sun go down upon your wrath” (Eph. 4:26). When we have sinned we ought to be under great conviction by the Holy Spirit. We cannot stand to go on another day without confession to God. How many of us have awakened in the middle of the night as the Spirit brought our faults to mind and have gotten out of bed and gone to our knees in repentance? Then, returning to our bed we could say, “For so he giveth his beloved sleep” (Psa. 127:2).
Third, God always hears, forgives, and restores because of true confession, but the scars from sin may last a life-time. Moses still could not enter the promised land because of His sin of smiting the rock in the desert. David “did that which was right in the eyes of the LORD . . . Save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite” (2 Kings 15:5). Even John Mark had to wait years for Paul to be able to trust him again with missionary work, and only then did he become “profitable to me for the ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11). There is a difference between forgiveness and fitness. Unfortunately sin comes in quickly and breaks things, and the scars from the break take time to heal and that time depends on the nature of the break. A harsh word may take only a conversation to heal, but unfaithfulness in marriage will take more than that. Some sins have deeper roots than others and take time to heal.
Fourth, as we get older, though our sins may not be as overt as when we were young, because of our years of walking with God and enjoying fellowship with Him, even the smallest sins pierce us more deeply. Grudem said this well,
As Christians grow in maturity, the kinds of sin that remain in their lives are often not so much sins of words or deeds that are outwardly noticeable to others, but inward sins of attitudes and motives of the heart—desires such as pride and selfishness, lack of courage or faith, lack of zeal in loving God with our whole hearts and our neighbors as ourselves, and failure to fully trust God for all that he promises in every situation. These are real sins! They show how far short we fall of the moral perfection of Christ.5
This is the goal that we all should be striving to attain.
Is “grace” enough?
Again the answer is yes and no. We should know and never doubt that God has forgiven us all our sins. “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us [present tense, continually] from all sin” (1 John 1:7). “Wherefore he is able to save them to the uttermost [lit. entirely] that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). On the other hand, no, or not yet. Though we are positionally sanctified in Christ and secure, we are not done with sin in this life. Our progressive sanctification continues until we receive a resurrected, glorified body. As it is often said, we were saved from the penalty of sin at salvation; we are being saved from the power of sin during our Christian life here on earth; and we will be saved from the presence of sin in heaven (see Heb. 9:24-28).
We can remember these things about our eternal security and our progressive sanctification. First, God loves us and so He chastens us as dear children. “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?” (Heb. 12:6-7). His grace does not leave us alone with our sin as believers but deals with our sin, “that we might be partakers of his holiness” (Heb. 12:10). It is not the grace of God that knowingly ignores the sin of fellow believers.
Second, there is a difference between parental love with procrastination and parental love with instruction. A parent never stops loving his/her child regardless of the transgression. Human love (storgē) illustrates God’s love and grace toward His children. But what parent doesn’t instruct and train the child and apply stricter training as the child gets older? We may have greater patience with the new Christian who really doesn’t know yet how to walk the Christian life. But that is no excuse for the mature Christian who knows better. Though he is no less a beloved brother, his knowing sin becomes more serious.
Third, it is not showing grace to a person to ignore, overlook, or not deal with known sin. God does not do this with us. Why should we think that we should do this with other believers? Some may think that when we sing “Just As I Am” or when we say “God accepts you just as you are,” that we are saying that we don’t need to deal with sin. But they are mistaken. Only in the new birth experience do I come “Just As I Am.” It is true, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling” when it comes to how we come to Christ for salvation. But this is not true in sanctification. God does not accept us just as we are when it comes to Christian growth, maturity, and personal holiness. It would be parental neglect if He did! Rather, God will not let us alone. He will prune us, chastise us, correct us, and teach us to be more like Christ. “But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world” (Tit. 2:11-12).
Fourth, when we bear one another’s burden we are fulfilling the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). If we are spiritual we will seek to restore a sinning brother who is overtaken in a fault, considering ourselves lest we be overtaken in the same kind of thing (Gal. 6:1). Paul goes on to say that though we all have our own burdens (phortion, “freight”), we must work at bearing one another’s burden (baros, “weight”). To say that we love someone so much that we would never make a judgment about their moral failure, is not to love at all. It may be to escape the responsibility and make it easier on ourselves. We would never agree that a parent loved her child so much that she could never discipline him really showed love.
And so . . .
Ryrie ended his chapter on sanctification with this great quote from J.C. Ryle,
We may take comfort about our souls if we know anything of an inward fight and conflict. It is the invariable companion of genuine Christian holiness . . . Do we find in our heart of hearts a spiritual struggle? Do we feel anything of the flesh lusting against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh, so that we cannot do the things that we would? Are we conscious of two principles within us, contending for the master? Do we feel anything of war in our inward man? Well, let us thank God for it! It is a good sign. It is strongly probable evidence of the great work of sanctification . . . Anything is better than apathy, stagnation, deadness, and indifference.6
So let us do the hard thing. Let us truly bear one another’s burden and so fulfill the law of Christ. And let us also grow in grace putting away our own sins and becoming more like Christ in our own lives.
- Domeniek L. Harris, “How Should the Church Handle Adultery?” Christianity Today, November, 2013.
- Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1987) 230.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994) 746.
- Ibid., 756.
- Ibid., 753.
- Ryrie, 234.