I have befriended a young couple who are fairly new at our church. They are living together and say they want to become Christians. Do I tell them that what they are doing is sinful and ask if they are willing to repent of it? Or do I not say anything and assume it’s not my business?
When people who are living together visit our churches or small groups or homes, it is not our first job to try to correct their behavior, but instead to demonstrate the grace and truth of Jesus Christ.
Some churches embrace truth without grace, and others grace without truth. Grace without truth feels better and is more trendy, but it is ultimately just as dangerous and damaging as truth without grace (and many people know too well how bad that one can feel).
If the couple says they want to become Christians then you have to ask yourself what does it mean to be a Christian? It means not merely to say some words, but to follow Jesus. A Christ-follower sometimes sins, but he does not willfully choose a path of sin. So when someone says “I want to follow Jesus” or someone professes Christ in our churches, I think we should point to what Christ commands and expects of us, and remind them that He gives the power and strength to obey Him. And we are here to raise the bar for each other and help each other jump higher to clear that bar. And when we fail, we help each other up and seek to jump the bar again, learning discipline.
We act as if God’s grace means sin doesn’t matter, or that it’s inevitable that we always keep falling. 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.
God expects his children to live in sexual purity. To do so is difficult, but it is not impossible. To say that sexual sin is common among professing Christians is true enough, but to imply that it has to be common undermines both Scripture and the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
I don’t believe we should expect Christian behavior among nonbelievers or even nominal believers who are just visiting our church or Bible study. 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.
I was teaching the book of 1 Corinthians at a Bible college. We got into sexual purity in 1 Cor. 6:18-20, “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
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. They felt confused and even betrayed that no one in their church had talked to them about this, because they said “everybody knows we’re not married.” If Scripture was so clear that they should not be having sex outside of marriage, then they wondered why the older Christians around them had never told them.
Why? Because of a false understanding of grace. 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.”
A few 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 to us that one of the couples in the group weren’t married. I called the group leader and asked if this was true. He said yes. I asked if he had told **—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 come down on them and 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 ** and share with him the truth. I asked if the leader wanted to come. “When?” he asked. “Tonight,” I said. He and another guy from the group came with me. We called ** and invited ourselves over. While his girlfriend and the baby were with one of the gals 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 said, “**, you know how much we love you and **, don’t you? He said, “Sure.” We’d been together three months and we’d 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, because this isn’t right. When we go to church, we feel like hypocrites. But we don’t have the money to have a decent wedding. I think I’d be letting ** down if we didn’t have a real wedding like the other church people have. I can’t afford a ring. She’s so ashamed that we’re not married. It’s awkward because of our baby. We just feel so bad. 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 man, 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 gathered around **, got her a dress and everything else, and we got people at church to volunteer food and others to prepare it and somebody made 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. To see **, who had been so ashamed, absolutely radiant, crying there in her beautiful wedding dress, and her husband so proud and happy…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 woman and young man 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.
I wish you could contrast the shame-ridden countenance of this couple before they were married with the radiance of their forgiven and Christ-exalting countenance in their wedding, and the rest of the year in that group. It is engraved on my mind, and it’s one of a number of similar pictures that come to me whenever, in the name of love and grace, Christians look the other way, and fail to love their brothers and sisters by standing in the gap and helping deliver them from self-destruction. This “tolerance” is but the world’s moral indifference and it is not grace—it is neglect and apathy and cowardice. It is failure to get involved and offer help. It is the very opposite of love.
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 you help them fulfill their stated goal of honoring Christ as Lord. Satan has sold us a lie—that sex outside of marriage is really no big deal to God, and not that destructive to people. God says otherwise, and 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.)
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. It is not either/or but both/and. We are told that we should be “speaking the truth in love” to each other (Eph. 4). 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 are offering it to. “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”