How do we share the gospel with people who say they accept the authority of Scripture?
I see a lot of people ready and willing to go to war over differences of opinion on various doctrinal issues. Some of the classic examples are, of course, Calvinism versus Arminianism, Young Earth Creationism versus Old Earth Creationism, and of course things like whether you can have a beer once in a while or not. There are plenty of issues that divide churches today and some issues are significantly more important than others to be sure. There are truly some issue which ought to cause division to some degree or another but there are other issues which no one ought to divide over. The question is “How do we decide what makes an issue essential versus non-essential?”
I will not be so bold as to claim I have this all figured out and that you who read this should look at this the same way I do but, that said, I thought I would share with you how I see it.
I divide doctrinal issues into three categories. First rank importance would relate to the nature of God and the question of “What is the gospel?” Second rank would relate to issues that would make it difficult ecclesiastically for believers on opposite sides to worship in the same congregation. Third rank doctrinal issues are things which should not divide fellowship in any significant way.
When it comes to the first rank issues I think the nature of God and the nature of the gospel are the two most primary issues in Christian theology. I think that because in my understanding they both relate to the most important being in the universe and who He has revealed Himself to be and how we can have a right relationship with him (salvation). I believe errant doctrines on the nature of God and the nature of the gospel are often damning and therefore, by definition, separate genuine Christians from false Christians. It is for that reason that these are first rank matters and if we are to spend our time dogmatically defending any doctrinal position then the issues of who is God and what is the gospel should rank as all Christians primary concern.*
Secondary issues, then, are much less important than the first rank. It’s not to say that they are not important (they are) or that they don’t bear the worth of contending for one position over another (they do). But they don’t divide the body of Christ salvifically and so they are of dramatically less importance than the first rank issues. Examples of second rank matters might be believers baptism versus infant baptism (Credo vs. Paedo). The fact that I don’t believe we should baptize infants to usher them into the covenant community of God is enough to keep me from worshipping as a member in a Presbyterian church. It would be difficult for me to worship regularly as a member in such a church because I would feel by conviction that I would have to teach my children that what the pastor taught on the matter of Baptism was errant. So any issue that similarly and significantly would affect my ability to worship in a certain denomination or congregation is a secondary issue.
Tertiary issues, then, are even lower in significance. These are matters which one could have some disagreements about with other believers but not feel the need to worship in a separate congregation. Perhaps this would be something like the frequency of partaking in the Lord’s Supper as a church or even one orthodox view of eschatology versus another. Any given congregation will have some minor disagreements among themselves about this or that and Romans 14 speaks to such a matter. We ought to have a firm conviction based upon the Scriptures but be willing to respect and agree to disagree with others whose convictions vary from our own.
Now, admittedly, this is just kind of a rough framework for thinking about how to rank the importance of doctrinal issues but I find it a useful one. Clearly some would disagree about what properly belongs in the third rank versus the second and some of that is understandable. Unfortunately some people don’t even think a third rank exists and they are constantly causing church splits or hopping from church to church to church whenever they disagree with someone. That is sad and certainly not in keeping with what Scripture has to say about this.
Even more sad is that some people don’t even recognize a distinction between first and second rank doctrines. Those who would make mode of baptism, or a particular view of the age of the earth or even the doctrine of inerrancy a first rank issue do damage to the body of Christ and they confuse their own theology (whether they be correct or not) with soteriology (salvation). I thank God that he does not require perfect doctrine for salvation but only trust in a perfect Savior!
Romans 14:5-12 "One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then,whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11 for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” 12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God."
*A right view of God is necessarily tied in with a right view of the gospel. These cannot be separated. Even so, I don't believe a perfect Trinitarian theology is held by most new believers and that God's grace covers error in our theology. What I do think it the case is that born-again believers will always accept the authority of Scripture as they learn more about God and will grow into a fuller understanding of the nature of God. Those who are presented with truth about God's nature from Scripture and who in turn intentionally reject it reveal themselves not to be regenerate because they are not trusting in God as he reveals himself in Scripture and therefore are worshipping a false God.
How does the Bible define faith? What is the relationship between faith and reason? Can a person believe that the gospel is true but still not be a "believer" in the biblical sense? What kind of faith does God want us to have? All of this and more are addressed in this presentation.
*There is about a 20 second period where the video and audio freeze but it pick backs up and nothing crucial is missed.
I was on the internet radio program "Theology Matters" with the Pellews today and here is the recording of the show. I join the show at about 34 minutes in and then get to talk about the life and works of C. S. Lewis, as well as my research on the same, for the following 90 or so minutes of the show. I hope you enjoy it!
Well, everyone is talking about depression and suicide because of the recent passing of Robin Williams. I want to say absolutely nothing about Robin Williams, or at least no more than I have said because his death is a deep loss to his family and those who knew and loved him personally and I think we have no right to analyze his life and hash it out publicly just because he was famous. Let the family grieve in peace. My prayer for them is God will grant them peace in this heartbreaking time.
Now, completely removed from the details of the aforementioned specific case, the incident has sparked widespread discussion on the blogosphere and social media about the relationship of depression and suicide. Many Christians have weighed in with some pretty strong opinions and I guess would like to offer a few thoughts myself.
My first thought is that most of us have no right to be making major medical and psychiatric judgments. I haven’t gone to med school and I don’t know everything there is to know about depression and to what extent it can affect one’s judgment and decision making. So I am just not going to act like I do know all about this and I shall try not to make a definitive judgment about things outside of my area of expertise. With that said here are a couple of thoughts that I think we all ought to consider carefully.
Any time we blame something a person on psychiatric condition and thereby declare them innocent of wrongdoing we need to be very careful. I would not go so far as to say that there are not very real psychiatric conditions that seriously impair a person’s judgment and that lead them to do things they would not do in a more healthy state of mind, I think there is legitimacy to that. My primary concern is that there could easily be a slippery slope if we are not careful in which we absolve all aberrant and immoral behavior by saying “It was not them that did it, it was the disease of mental illness.” You can just imagine the way this could be used to justify all kinds of things and so we need to be careful about saying in a wholesale kind of way “the disease made me/them do it” because the truth is often times that is just an excuse.
Second, some Christians are saying that people who are depressed and commit suicide just needed Jesus in their life and then they would be fine. I think we need to be careful here too. I think it is entirely reasonable to say that this is often true but not always true. We live in a fallen and broken world and that manifests itself both in the behavior of people and also the physical nature of people. That is to say the fall affected both how we behave in our sinful nature and also the physical world and our physical bodies.
This being the case I think it is fair to say that many, many cases of depression (even depression that leads to suicide) is due to the fact that people sought pleasure and meaning in all the wrong things, people and places and found no satisfaction and this caused them great depression. Or, like in my case as a teen, that same thing was true but also exacerbated by external factors like bullies in school who made life hell for me. When I was about fourteen years old I strongly considered killing myself on more than one occasion because I was depressed and miserable because of my own sinful pursuits and because of the sinful people who hounded me as a young teen. In my case when I came to faith in Jesus my whole world changed and I never considered killing myself again. The saving work of Christ radically transformed me and I was set free from a lot of vices in my life. But while I think this is the case for many, maybe even most people who suffer from depression, I don’t dare say that everybody who suffers from depression just needs more Jesus.
It seems entirely plausible to me that depression can be caused by chemical imbalances and things going wrong in the body. Depression can be a true medical condition and not only a moral condition. Undoubtedly there is usually overlap between the two but it seems to me that a person can medically struggle with depression even apart from moral failures. Someone who becomes a Christian and who has a genuine medical condition may still suffer with depression even though they have Jesus and even though they are living a holy and pleasing life before God. If indeed there are medical causes of depression, and I think we are foolish to say there are not, then we need to stop telling people that Jesus will necessarily fix that by coming to him.
This is equivalent to telling people that if they come to Jesus they won’t suffer from Cancer or Diabetes. Some may preach such a message but the Bible certainly does not. The reality is we live in a sinful and broken world and that this is both a moral and physical reality and coming to Christ does not just wipe that away immediately. We look forward to a day when Christ returns and we are given glorified bodies from sickness and disease and where moral impurity is erased from our hearts and minds but for now we have to struggle and fight against those things while trusting in Jesus.
Jesus does not promise you and I a life free from trouble, temptation, sickness or even depression. He promises us eternal life if we will repent and trust in Him to save us from this world and our sinful deeds. I absolutely believe that Jesus can and will help you if you are struggling with depression regardless if the cause is moral or medical, but I refuse to tell you that Jesus will definitely take that thorn from your side if you trust in him. He may, he may not. I don’t know. But the promise of eternal life can be yours by faith in him and that’s an anchor for our soul to cling to no matter how we feel or what we go through.
Romans 7:24-25a “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
1 Corinthians 15:50-57 “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God,who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I am struggling today. I am feeling the weight of the reality of how messed up things in this world really are. I have read about a grandmother who took her six year old grandson into the bathroom and locked the door and killed him while he screamed for his life and his eight year old brother tried to help him. I have seen videos of children being shot in the head (children just like my children) for not being Muslim. I can’t handle it. I can’t.
What do we do with things like this?
I know my reaction is to hate. I mean really, really hate. I have immense hatred that wells up in my heart against the people who do these kinds of things. I want them dead. I want them dead. I hate them. How could people be so evil?
Jesus taught us: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”
In America we apply this verse to when someone says something mean about us on social media or, at worst, when we don’t get a job because they discriminated against us for being a Christian. We have no idea. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you gets real when they start torturing you and killing your kids.
I haven’t even come close to experiencing this first hand and I already hate the people who do such wicked things. But Jesus tells us to love. How can Jesus do that? Doesn’t he see how evil these people are? Does he not know they deserve to die for what they have done? Of course he does. Of course they do.
But lest we forget what the Bible tells us:
As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Do we think this is talking about “them”? Yes. But have we so soon forgotten that we were them? This is the description of all mankind apart from Christ. We are no different, no less wicked than the people we condemn as deserving hell. Do they deserve death and hell? Yes! But so do we.
As I look upon these sinful and murderous people and I feel hate I am completely wrong headed. Because those whom I hate Jesus says “Love.” Those whom I hate are just like me without Christ. Those whom I hate are people to whom Christ offers forgiveness and eternal life if they will but repent and believe the gospel. And I know the gospel and they do not.
You might think that in some way you are, even apart from Christ, superior to this wicked people. You would be wrong. You and I, given the right (or wrong) upbringing, indoctrination, and culture could be the very same as the people we now look upon with hate. You are indeed capable of unspeakable evil. If you’re honest you know how dark and twisted your heart is and how badly you need Jesus in your life.
God will deal out justice in the end. In the meantime he offers mercy, forgiveness and a new heart to all who will come to Jesus. This is why he says “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you” because he is asking us to extend the same mercy and grace unto death that Jesus offered for us. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
What is the best way to stop persecution? The salvation of those doing the persecuting. Unrelenting love even for those who take the life of those you love and even your own life. This is what Jesus has called Christians to. Jesus does not ask any more of us than what he himself willingly did for you and for me.
Father forgive me for my hatred. Help me to love the ungodly just as you loved me before I was righteous in you.
I want to share with you something that is a growing conviction of mine about evangelism and apologetics and I want to exhort you to strongly consider adopting this conviction as your own. I think many of us; myself included, have been largely wasting our time and being ineffective in our ministry as evangelists and apologists. I think we need to repent of that and march forward with new strength and fervor in to evangelism and apologetics.
Colossians 4:2-6 tells us to:
2 Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. 3 At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— 4 that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. 5 Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. 6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.
If you are at all like me, and I have a hunch many of you are, then you have been bombing it in regard to these commands. You haven’t been very prayerful about evangelism for those out there in the field doing it right now nor for God to open doors for you to do it yourself. If this is not true of you then *High Five* my friend. I know that I am terrible about relying on my own strength and cleverness and that I am self-centered and pray only for myself and those closest to me for the most part. I mean when was the last time I prayed for God to break open shut doors for my brothers and sisters in China or the Middle East that they might have the opportunity for the gospel to go forth in power? Sure, I have said a prayer here and there after being convicted by a news story about persecution, but I don’t faithfully pray about that regularly. I repent.
But that’s not primarily what I want to talk to you about. My main point, the conviction that is growing within me, that I hope to persuade you of as well is that we are not walking in wisdom towards outsiders and especially that we are not “making the best use of our time.” At least a whole lot of us are not. What I mean is that we need to stop wasting our time on the internet and arguing with lost people on blog comments sections and forums and Facebook and Twitter (for the love of all that is good and holy Twitter is the worst place to have a meaningful conversation anyway).
I know some of you are recoiling as you read this but please hear me out. Hear what I am saying as well as what I am not saying.
What I am saying is that much of the time we spend interacting with people on the internet is a complete waste of time and is unwise. Who do you find yourself engaging with on the internet in long discussions for the most part? Is it people who are genuinely interested in what you have to say or is someone who is antagonistic towards the Christian faith from square one? I find that the real crime here is that many of us who are gifted as apologists and evangelists are wasting our time trying to till ground that is made up of stone rather than tilling ground that is fertile and has the potential to bear fruit.*
Why are we wasting our time on people who are trolling the internet looking to pick fights? Tell me you haven’t spent hours talking, arguing, and banging your head against the wall with people like this and, if that’s so, then maybe you don’t need to read any further. But if you know what I am talking about because you have spent countless hours interacting with people who are not interested in a real conversation in the first place then this is for you. STOP IT! Just stop it. You’re are not being wise and you are not making the best use of your time.
You have been spending way too much time on people who have already made up their mind that they are not going to listen and they are never going to believe. They are looking for you because they want to waste your time and they hope they can create unbelief in you and others. They are those who have concluded life is meaningless and miserable and they want to take you and everyone else down with them. These are the guys (and gals) who have read the counter-apologetics books and websites and have pictures of Richard Dawkins on their bedroom walls. They are committed to an anti-God ideology and they are on the hunt for people like you and me to not listen to and simply waste our time.
And they do. They are very good at wasting our time, aren’t they? It’s not that their arguments are superior (rarely are they even any good) but it’s that they have decided not to listen and they simply want to tell you why you’re an idiotic, homophobic, anti-scientific, flat-earth toting, unicorn believing lunatic. There is no reasoning with people who already believe that about you before you have said a word. But you have tried to haven’t you? I know I have. I have wasted a lot of time on people like that. But I have decided to stop it. You should to.
So the first thing that I am saying is to stop wasting your time. Now here is the first thing I am not saying.
I am not saying to stop having an online presence in evangelism and apologetics. Actually I think we should be working towards an increased presence online as Christian apologists. You should have a website/blog where you put forward intriguing articles that argue the Christian worldview in powerful and persuasive ways. You should share those articles on Facebook and Twitter. You should create Youtube videos and make your case for Christ unashamedly for the whole world to see and find as they search on Google “Does God exist?” and “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?” Get busy!
Have a way for people who are seriously interested to contact you privately through email so that you can help people who really need and want it. But don’t be afraid to tell people, if they are trolls, that you’re not going to waste your time with them (do it with gentleness and respect though…probably avoid the word “troll”). You’re time and God-given ability is too precious to waste on those who have set themselves against reason and will not give an ear to your case. But you can have real and meaningful exchanges with people online, just make sure you’re spending your time on those who really want to talk and listen and not on those other guys. By disabling comments on your blog and Youtube channel and by not getting drawn into endless exchanges on Facebook and Twitter you will be so much more free to be productive and to make the best use of your time and walk wisely towards outsiders. Give them a place where they can reach out to you privately and I promise you that it will cut out 80-90% of the trolls. Trolls want an audience, not a conversation. Be willing to talk to real people, but trolls are not real people.
Finally let me give you one more what I am saying. I am saying get off your butt. Yep. Get off your butt, shut off your computer and go outside and share the gospel. You see the people you fight with online are those who are looking for a fight and who have tried to inoculate themselves against what you’re going to say to them, but they are not normal people. Normal people haven’t heard of the Cosmological argument or the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Normal people are open to a discussion about God and the evidence for him and for the Bible and the Jesus of the Bible. A whole lot of normal people out there have never really even heard the gospel at all. While you are sitting on your butt arguing with people who have heard it, rejected it and now have devoted their lives to trashing and mocking Christians there are a ton of normal people who would hear you, listen to you, ask real questions and want real answers and who would respond to the gospel if you bothered to share it with them.
Do you see what I am saying? You haven’t been wise towards outsiders and you are not making the most of your time. The level of giftedness God has given you, and the education you have acquired is being wasted on endless debates on your computer when it could be translated into gospel empowered, life transforming, disciple making in your community. Why slam your head against deaf walls when you can speak the gospel to open ears? Get up! Go! Start building relationships with people in your community. Go to the same place, restaurant, gas station, whatever, all the time and get to know people there, build friendships and start gospel conversations with them. Take a class at the community college to learn something and make relationships with non-Christian classmates and professors and share the gospel. Go to Walmart and when you realize someone is standing next to you in the aisle say “Hi, I know this might seem a strange place to ask this question but… what do you think about Jesus?” God will do amazing things with that if you’ll get off your butt and get out into the harvest fields.
I’m convinced that some of the most capable evangelists and apologists are wasting their time and Satan is winning a war that he should be losing. Stop arguing with 3% of the population that has poised themselves against you intentionally and go meet the 97% who might be open to hearing you out! I also think that a lot of you are discouraged and you feel like what you do is not making a difference. Some days you are flat out depressed and feel like giving up. It’s because of these very same reasons. If you will get out there and get to work in the fertile fields you will come alive and you will feel so much better. God will use you and you will bear much fruit.
So, in summary, stop wasting your time on those who have hardened themselves against the gospel, do have a fruitful online presence but don’t take time for trolls, and get out into the three dimensional world and share the gospel and find just how fruitful you can be. As Jesus said in Matthew 9:37-38 “Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
*It’s true that even some of the most hardened and obnoxious atheists can still be saved. God can save anyone. You want them to be reached. Good. Share the gospel with them plainly and then walk away. Point them to a book or two about their objections. If they are sincerely interested in the truth there is an abundance of resources for them. But if you give these people your time beyond pointing them to Jesus, the Bible and a few good books to read I promise you this will zap all of your time where you could have been more productive.
Whom are we to judge as Christians? The culture would tell us to judge no one. “That’s not nice.” The most known Bible verse seems to have shifted from John 3:16 to Matthew 7:1. “Judge not, that you be not judged” says Jesus and that was all he said… ever. No.
I’m sympathetic to some degree, however, with our culture. Not that they are right and that there is no place for judgment (because there is) but because Christians are often judgmental jerks. I have seen many a time, and to my shame I have been guilty of so doing, where a Christian just lets an unbeliever have it. They react to the sinful behavior they see in an unbeliever and they tell them what’s up.*
What I mean is not that the believer gently but firmly points out their sin and need for repentance and faith in Christ for salvation, but that they belittle them and call them names and basically make them subhuman for living in sin and not feeling bad about it. Now I know that some will immediately react to what I have just said by replying “you can’t be soft on sin” or “Christians aren’t called to be doormats” or “Jesus and Paul were not afraid of harsh words.” All of these things are true and I agree. I am not saying that we back down or refuse to hold our ground and not say what needs said. I am saying that we need to be careful how we do it and we need to think carefully about the pattern laid before us in Scripture for how we judge.
I think it’s noteworthy that every direct teaching on the concept of judgment in the New Testament applies directly to believers dealing with other believers.
Matthew 7:1-5 “ “Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.
Matthew 18:15-20 “15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
1 Corinthians 5:9-13 “9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters,since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
Here in this last passage Paul explicitly states that we are not to judge outsiders but to judge those inside the church. This is the pattern of teaching in the New Testament when it comes to passing judgment on people. We judge believers we do not judge unbelievers. But what then do we mean by “judgment”?
There is, of course, a sense in which judgment is unavoidable. Every decision we make is a judgment to one thing instead of another. When I tell my unbelieving friend that he is a sinner and that he needs to repent and believe the gospel I am making a judgment about him. But that’s not the kind of judgment that the Bible seems to have in view. If it were then it would be impossible to not judge “outsiders” while also keeping the commandment to share the gospel.
The kind of judgment that the Bible deals with is that of correcting, rebuking and, if necessary, disfellowshipping another believer. These passages are not pointed at how to deal with non believing people they are how to deal with sin in the church. Some of the Bible’s words about dealing with unrepentant sin in the church are incredibly strong. In Revelation 2-3 Jesus threatens to remove churches lampstands and to fight against them with the sword of his mouth because of their unfaithfulness.
In 1 Corinthians 5:3-5 Paul writes “3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”
Undeniably strong language when there is talk of handing people over to Satan for the destruction of their flesh! Jesus himself didn’t hesitate to call people a “brood of vipers” (Mt. 12:34) “Hypocrites” and “Whitewashed tombs” (Mt. 23:27). But you know what all of these really harsh statements have in common? They are directed towards those who consider themselves righteous before God. The harshest statements and judgments in the Bible are directed at those who claim to be believers but who are in unrepentant sin.
How does Jesus deal, on the other hand, with unbelievers and people who have no delusions that they are one of God’s people? The Samaritan woman at the well, for instance, is a person in serial adultery but she is not pretending to be righteous. Does Jesus have harsh words for her? He certainly speaks the truth when he says “you have had five husbands and the man you are with now is not your husband.” But he doesn’t berate her. Just as Paul instructs in 1 Cor. 5 we are not to have anything to do with the sexually immoral, not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, but those who bear the name brother and who persist in unrepentant sin.
When you see unbelievers acting like unbelievers does it make you angry? Christians often times seem to puff up in their self righteousness and condemn sinners for their wickedness. We write them off and avoid them and we talk down about or to them. How quickly we forget that we are them. The only difference between us and them is the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ that we do not deserve. “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Tim. 1:15)
When we see unbelievers sleeping around or participating in aberrant sexual behavior we shouldn’t act like we are the better moral person. We aren’t. Christ who lives within us is. When we are attacked by unbelievers for our stance on salvation in Christ alone, or traditional marriage, or for any other kind of truth that offends the non-Christian mind we should not retaliate in anger or in witty slams against “those wicked pagans.” We should instead remember that they are just like me minus Jesus.
We cannot forget our role and our place in dealing with unbelievers. We are not their judge. Our responsibility is to love them unconditionally (a difficult calling to be sure). God has called us to love them, to share the gospel with them, to return good for evil. “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:20) “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary,bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” (1 Pet. 3:9)
It is truly possible to speak what is true, to not back down for a second or compromise our values and principles, and at the same time to not belittle those who are lost and pass judgment upon them. We recognize that God is their judge and he will judge them and that they deserve his judgment. But our role is not to play God, it is to be his ambassadors and to plead and reason with people to flee from their sin and to come and know life in Christ. We must hold our judgment and harsh words against lost people. We must judge rightly within the church and we must be strong and clear, but the way we deal with internal matters and the way we deal with our external obligations as Christian cannot be conflated or we become self-righteous judges playing God.
Speak the truth always. Love always. Judge only where it is your place to do so.
*As a side note, I had an experience as an unbeliever that deeply affected me. When I was thirteen I attended a church youth group as an unbeliever. I was skating on my skateboard outside afterwards and fell and banged my knee and let loose my limited vocabulary (if you follow). At that moment one of the youth workers just tore into me and told me that my language was sinful and wrong and that I wasn't welcome there if I didn't watch my mouth. So, guess what, I never went back. I was so turned off by what happened there that I wrote of going to hear about God and it was at least two years before I went to any kind of church again. My conduct was indeed sinful and wrong, and addressing it was permissible, but demeaning me pushed me away from the Lord when the goal should have been to plead with me to come to Christ.