The most commonly quoted (and often misunderstood) verse in churches is no longer John 3:16 but Matthew 7:1, “Judge not.” Ironically, people who routinely violate what the verse is really saying quote the verse to justify their own failure to assist other people in following Jesus. Hence, they interpret “Judge not” as if it were “Care not” and “Help not.”
All too often, as believers we don’t realize that the greatest kindness we can offer each other is the truth. Our job is not just to help each other feel good but to help each other be good. We often seem to think that our only options are to: 1) speak the truth hurtfully; or 2) say nothing in the name of grace. This is a lie.
Jesus came full of grace AND truth. We should not choose between them, but do both. We are told that we should be “speaking the truth in love” to each other (Ephesians 4:15). We should share the truth with humility, as an act of grace, reminding ourselves and each other that we desperately need God’s grace every bit as much as do those we’re offering it to.
Let’s say, for example, that you meet and befriend a young couple who are fairly new at your church. They are living together and say they want to follow Christ. You face a choice. Do you tell them what God says about sex outside of marriage, or do you assume it’s none of your business and say nothing?
I believe that when people who are living together visit our churches or small groups or homes, it’s not our first job to try to correct their behavior, but instead to demonstrate the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. I don’t believe we should expect Christian behavior among nonbelievers or even nominal believers. Where we should expect Christian behavior is among those who declare they are Christ’s followers and identify themselves with the church, the body of Christ. In such cases, if we fail to graciously tell them God’s truth about sex and marriage, and fail to assist them in making right choices, then we fail to help them fulfill their own stated goal of following Christ.
So when someone says “I want to follow Jesus” but is living in sin, I think we should point to what Christ commands of us, and remind them that He gives the power and strength to obey Him. Scripture says that the grace of God “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12). God’s grace is not only for forgiveness of sin, but empowerment to live in holiness.
I was teaching the book of 1 Corinthians at a Bible college. We got into sexual purity in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20. A couple in their thirties came up after this session and said, “We’ve never heard this before; we’ve been living together for eight years. We just came to Christ two years ago, and we’re very involved in our church. Are you really saying sex outside of marriage is something Jesus doesn’t want us to do?”
I commended them for wanting to follow Christ wholeheartedly. When we opened Scripture it was clear to them they needed to get married right away, and no longer live together until they did. But they felt confused and even betrayed that no one in their church had talked to them about this.
Many years ago Nanci and I were in a home Bible study in our church. The group had been meeting three months when someone mentioned in passing that one of the couples wasn’t married but was living together. I called the group leader and asked if this was true. He said yes. I asked if he had told the young man—who’d come to Christ at least two years earlier—that this wasn’t honoring to the Lord. He said he hadn’t mentioned it because he didn’t want to hurt them. He hoped eventually they would figure it out, but it was the group’s job to love them, not judge them. I said I agreed we should love them. And when you love someone, you don’t want them to sin, because sin is never in their best interests. Sin brings judgment, and we do not want those we love to fall under the judgment of God, but rather to embrace the forgiving grace He went to the cross to offer them.
I explained that now that I knew about this, I would need to go to the young man and share with him the truth. The leader and another guy from the group came with me that night. We called the young man and invited ourselves over, and while his girlfriend and the baby were with one of the ladies in the group, we sat down with him in his living room. He was super nervous. It wasn’t comfortable for any of us. What’s right often isn’t.
I asked him if he knew how much we loved him and his girlfriend. He said, “Sure.” Our group had helped them out in various ways. He knew.
I told him I wanted to share some Scripture with him. Then he looked at me and said, “Are you going to tell us we should get married?”
I said, “Yes.”
The words poured out from him. He said, “We really want to. We feel so bad we haven’t. We’re trying to read the Bible and we feel like we’re just a couple of losers. When we go to church, we feel like hypocrites. But we don’t have the money to have a decent wedding, and I can’t afford a ring. She’s so ashamed that we’re not married. It’s awkward because of our baby. And to be honest, I wondered if anyone was ever going to talk to us about it.”
Bottom line, we put our arms around this brother and challenged him to be a real man, God’s man, and honor Jesus and lead his girlfriend, and make this right. He prayed and asked God’s forgiveness for having sex outside of marriage. A burden was lifted from him. Together, we developed a plan for how they could move out from each other just for a few weeks until we could get them married. We laughed and hugged and this brother felt loved and incredibly relieved. Instead of being shamed, which was the leader’s fear, he had his shame removed.
Our small group immediately set up a wedding at our church. On short notice, the women in the group got the girlfriend a dress and everything else, and we found people at church to volunteer food and a cake. Their parents flew in from other parts of the country and everyone cried and celebrated. I had the honor of marrying this couple, and holding their precious baby in the ceremony. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever been part of. I cannot tell you how honored and special this couple felt. God’s people had loved them by helping deliver them from the sin and guilt that entangled them, and bring them to purity and peace.
The sheer joy of that young couple floods my mind when I hear people talk as if they are taking the spiritual high ground by “not laying a guilt trip on Christians who are living together.” We can gently point out sin to each other without using a flame-thrower. God tells us to speak the truth in love, and if we are withholding the truth instead of speaking it, we are not being obedient or loving.
If you love someone who says they want to follow Jesus, you don’t ignore sin that is destroying their lives. You go to them humbly and prayerfully, and represent Jesus and help them fulfill their stated goal of honoring Christ as Lord. God calls us to bring love and grace and liberation to those whose sin is destroying them. Of course, exactly the same applies to other sins, including gossip and gluttony and slander and envy and sowing discord among brothers.
For more on this topic, see Randy’s book The Grace and Truth Paradox, and his devotionals Grace and Truth.
Photo by Artem Nosenko via Unsplash