I’m glad to say—and some readers will be very glad to hear—this is my final blog in a series about sexual purity, and how best to address the problem of immorality in the body of Christ.
There has been a lot of pushback on my attempts to learn lessons from what happened with Ravi Zacharias. One said, “There is no lesson to learn.” A number said, “I don’t believe Ravi did that.” Someone wrote, “You should repent for speaking this way about God’s servant.” But I’ve simply accepted information delivered by professional investigators and confirmed by the same RZIM board that loved Ravi and defended him over the past years. (I’ve read responses from some Christians who appear to have much more empathy for the fallen leader than for his victims. I don’t believe this is Christ-honoring.)
“Don’t talk about it, and it will go away” has been a common sentiment. But it won’t go away. What follows is not mainly about Ravi or any other Christian leader. This problem isn’t outside of the evangelical church; it’s on the inside. It involves all of us.
One reader wrote:
This must be talked about. If we don’t, more ministries will be swept aside in the dark tide of the enemy. I’m pretty sure the Accuser of the brethren does not want us to talk about it. He’d rather we say, as some have said, “What does it matter now? He’s dead.” It matters because we must understand the why of it… The sad fact is, if we choose not to pursue truth and understanding, we may as well gear up for the next fall from grace and influence for Christ...because it will come. When we sweep evil under the rug, it stays there, waiting for another opportunity to pounce.
It’s not just ministries and churches that have swept this under the rug. In many cases, we as individuals and families have failed to face this head-on. How many parents really know what their children or teenagers are seeing on the Internet? Are they accessing it on their friends’ phones or tablets when an adult is out of the room…or even in it?
Every sad tale of immorality among Christian leaders over the last several years has been a shot fired across the bow. But from my viewpoint, almost nothing has changed. We don’t talk about it—or we say how horrible it is each time a leader falls and then move on, not bothering to change anything.
God calls us to something far better. By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, may we wake up and yield ourselves to Him and take the necessary steps to protect ourselves, our families, our churches, and those God has entrusted to our care.
Of course, no plan is 100% effective. But suppose they are only 50 or 30% effective. Isn’t that better than nothing? Dismissing such tools because they won’t stop all sin is nonsensical. Imagine a discussion about whether there should be guardrails on a new road on a mountain pass. Someone points out another pass where people have crashed through the guardrails and plunged to their deaths. They argue, “Guard rails don’t work.” No, in fact they have saved countless lives, way more than can be measured. The truth is guardrails don’t always work. But sometimes they do! So let’s use them.
Somebody says an accountability group can turn into an accusatory meeting of self-righteous legalists. My answer: there’s no good thing that can’t become legalistic. But the solution isn’t to eliminate Bible study, prayer meetings, or accountability groups because some people aren’t sincere, will lie, or become legalistic. (I detest legalism. However, if we were as zealous about protecting our minds from sexual impurity as we are about avoiding legalism, our families and churches could be radically transformed.)
I honestly believe that most of the people critical of making a list of consequences and being part of an accountability group have never done it themselves. If there’s something else you do that’s helping you successfully live out your purity in Jesus, I’m all for it. Please do that, and let other people do what helps them.
One pastor made this comment about the list of immorality’s consequences:
None of us are immune to temptation and none of us has the strength, on our own, to not fall into sin. Your list of what sin will cost us is a very good tool.…... I think back to the devastation caused in the lives of people I care deeply about by one pastor’s sin and it reminds me that I need to stay strong and run straight to my King. Remembering the damage caused by sin reminds me to run to the only One who has the strength to grant me victory. Thanks for the reminder and I pray many will find your tool of great use.
“Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). The problem is, left to ourselves we are very bad at watching over our hearts:
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
The good news is that God makes His resurrection power available to us to walk in victory over sin. Unfortunately, many people think of this as automatic and do not take aggressive efforts to guard themselves.
We need to be careful what television shows and movies we are watching. Much has been written about the significant increase in pornography use during COVID. None of us are immune to this temptation. The same Paul who says we are righteous in Christ also says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15). Not was but am. (The closer to God we become, the more we’re aware of our own sin, not just that of others.) As we grow in sanctification, God roots out more of the remnants of the old nature and weaves in the new, demonstrating itself in the fruit of the Spirit (Galatian 5:22-23).
God’s Word says, “Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:12-14).
To make provision for the flesh is to provide what’s necessary for it to thrive. It is to feed our sexual desires that God says are intended for fulfillment in the marriage relationship alone—or to put ourselves in a situation where they will be fed. We make provision for the flesh every time we fail to screen out immorality from the internet, television, and movies. Or every time we hold our eyes where we shouldn’t and fanaticize, in contrast to Job who said, “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman” (Job 31:1).“But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (James 1:14-15).
Commenters keep emphasizing that it’s all about Jesus (great words, that’s what I named my latest book). Then they say it’s not about our effort; rather, it’s all about what Jesus does for us. But there’s a problem. When we read the Bible, we see that God actually tells us to do things.
Yes, nothing we can do can earn our salvation. And in several of the previous blogs I stressed our need to love Jesus, and to call upon the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to obey Him.
But God’s Word never says, “Since you’re a sinner, there’s no reason to expend effort to gain victory over sin.” On the contrary, Paul says, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29).
Consider what God tells us in 2 Peter 1:3 about God’s part and our part in the Christian life. Our part is secondary, but that doesn’t mean it’s unnecessary:
His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.
If God has given us everything we need, there’s nothing left for us to do, right? Well, to get to know Him better we must study His Word, gather with His people, pray, ask for His enlightenment and empowerment, and develop the habit of obedience. Even though we will fall, we are to confess and repent and call upon Him for help. Verse four says:
Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
God gave us His promises to help us become more like Him and say no to our evil desires. Does this mean we are to do nothing to resist these desires? On the contrary, He says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). Does it take effort to put sin to death? Of course! Putting on the full armor of God and taking our stand struggling against the powers of darkness (Ephesians 6:10-18) requires effort, doesn’t it?
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5-8)
If you believe Christ automatically does everything to make the Christian life happen, how do you understand “make every effort”? There is no such thing as a passive Christian life. The passive soldier is an easy target.
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’” (Matthew 16:24). It takes a lot of work to deny ourselves, take up a cross of self-sacrifice, and move our feet to follow Jesus! We should call upon Jesus and the Holy Spirit to empower us to do that work. “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10). So God gives us the strength, but we are to run to Him to find safety!
The Christian life is not a choice between loving and trusting Jesus and making an effort to avoid temptation and sin. It is not either/or—it is both/and. (For more on this see my book hand in Hand, on God’s sovereignty and meaningful human choice.)
I resonate with the statement “There but for the grace of God go I.” But sometimes the meaning some attach to it isn’t true to Scripture. Why? Because it can send the message, “God’s grace is failing people all the time.” We shouldn’t use God’s grace as an excuse to be passive or unwise in the fight against sin.
An atheist wrote, “I don’t believe in getting ‘in the moment’ and then exercising will-power. I believe in avoiding ‘the moment.’” This Proverbs-like wisdom is remarkably close to “Flee from sexual immorality.” Don’t go to a place where sexual temptation is built into the atmosphere and then pray, God help me.
God promises in 1 Corinthians 10:13 to always provide a way out: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
You do not have to succumb. Now, will you ever give into temptation? Yes, but in no case do you have to. It is not out of your hands. And it’s not God’s fault or because His grace is lacking. You can call upon the Lord for help and call a friend to talk you down from sin. If that seems like a crutch to you, so be it. Damaged people sometimes need a crutch to walk.
A number of readers believed that the only good motive for obedience is abstaining from wrong because it’s wrong, not because it has negative consequences. Some said we should just love Jesus and that will keep us from sinning.
But the same Bible that calls us to obey out of our love for God as Father and Redeemer (Deuteronomy 7:9; 11:1; 30:20) also calls us to obey out of our fear of Him as Creator and Judge (Genesis 2:17; Deuteronomy 28:58-67; Hebrews 10:30-31) and out of our hope in Him as Rewarder (Deuteronomy 28:2-9; Hebrews 11:6). Each motivation complements and reinforces the others. Sometimes we need the combined persuasiveness of several incentives to do what’s pleasing to the Lord. This isn’t a matter of mixed motives (some good, some bad). Rather, it’s about multiple motives—each of them good, and each wired into us by God Himself. In concert, these multiple motives reinforce one another and encourage us to obey our Lord.
Truth is, Scripture gives us multiple reasons to not sin. One reason is because it’s stupid, meaning that its consequences are severe and hurt us. Most of the book of Proverbs is about wisdom and foolishness, being smart and being stupid:
Why be captivated, my son, by an adulteress? Why embrace the bosom of another man’s wife? For a man’s ways are in full view of the LORD, and he examines all his paths. The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sin hold him fast. He will die for lack of discipline, led astray by his own great folly. (Proverbs 5:20-23)
Why avoid adultery? Because God will see it and bring judgment. But even before judgment day, “the cords of his sin hold him fast.” The adulterer will be ensnared; he will die. In contrast, the man who remains pure can “rejoice” and “be captivated” by his wife’s love, enjoying their sexual union (Proverbs 5:18-19).
In the next chapter God asks, “Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned? Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched? So is he who sleeps with another man’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished” (Proverbs 6:27-29).
Proverbs also depicts the man who is seduced into adultery as “an ox going to the slaughter,” and like a deer or bird being killed by a hunter (Proverbs 7:21-27).
A believer recovering from sexual addiction (which requires repentance from sexual sin) told me, “Addicts always think they can get away with it. You won’t change until you realize you can’t.”
One commenter thought the list of consequences was selfish: “What it would cost me? Me, me, me...isn’t it [about] the pain we inflict to the Holy Spirit?” Again, that sounds so spiritual, but just read Proverbs. Of course we don’t want to hurt God, but Proverbs emphasizes how sin hurts us as well as those we sin against. The truth is purity is always smart; impurity is always stupid. That motivation, among others, should encourage us to obey Jesus. Scripture objects to our selfishness but repeatedly calls us to act in our own true self-interests (recognizing the personal rewards of obedience and the consequences of sin).
I’ll close with a cautionary tale. I vividly remember a particular counseling appointment as a young pastor, about thirty-five years ago. Eric stormed into my office and flopped into a chair. “I’m really mad at God.”
I was startled because Eric was one of the happiest young men I knew. He grew up in a strong churchgoing family, married a sweet Christian woman, and seemed to have a sincere love for Christ.
I asked him why he was mad at God. He explained that for months he’d felt a strong attraction to a coworker. She felt the same. “I kept asking God to keep me from immorality, but He let me down.”
“Did you ask your wife to pray for you?” I questioned. “Did you stay away from the woman at your office?”
“Well . . . no. We went out for lunch nearly every day.”
A thought came to me. I started slowly pushing a big book across my desk. As it inched closer to the edge, I prayed aloud, “Lord, please keep this book from falling!”
I kept pushing and praying, while Eric looked at me, bewildered. Sure enough, God didn’t suspend gravity, and the book fell to the floor.
“I’m mad at God,” I said to Eric. “I asked him to keep my book from falling . . . but He didn’t answer my prayer!”
I can still hear the sound of that book hitting the floor. It was symbolic of Eric’s life. Instead of calling on God to empower him as he took decisive steps to resist temptation, he kept making unwise choices while asking to be delivered from their natural consequences. His immorality didn’t come out of the blue. It was the cumulative product of small daily compromises and choices in mind and body that sabotaged his righteousness and happiness. Tragically, Eric eventually went to jail for sexual crimes.
Contrast Eric with his friend Rocky. Raised in an unbelieving home, Rocky had sex outside marriage, then came to faith in Christ. Rocky made new choices in keeping with his new nature: immersing himself in the daily meditation of God’s Word, joining Bible studies, learning to pray, sharing his faith, and reading great Christian books. He literally fled from sexual temptations (he actually ran to the other side of a building one day to get away from a magazine display—that may seem silly to you, but he had read “flee from sexual immorality,” so that’s what he did). He guarded his heart and mind. In the process of knowing and following Christ, Rocky became one of the most Christ-honoring people I’ve ever known. He’s a pastor and a close friend, and to this day, his marriage, family, church, and service to others display the fruit of his wise, Spirit-empowered choices made as he yielded his life to Christ day after day.
Both Eric and Rocky appeared to have a sincere love for Jesus. Both asked God to help them live righteously. But Eric expected God to deliver him from the consequences of making wrong choices, while Rocky called on God for strength as he did all he could to make right choices.
Both men were defined by their daily choices, which cumulatively produced sin and misery for one, and righteousness and happiness for the other.
God, I pray you will convict us, your children, of our sins and unwise choices. Help us to confess and repent freely and often. Help us to stop ignoring the lessons you want us to learn from moral tragedies. Empower us to follow you wholeheartedly and to realize we—and our churches and ministries—will never change until we take seriously what your Word reveals about our responsibility to live righteously by the power of your Holy Spirit. We ask this in the name of Jesus, King of Kings.
See the previous blogs in this series:
Browse more resources on the topic of purity, and see Randy's book The Purity Principle and his booklet Sexual Temptation.