Fighting Sin in our Life Together
Selected Texts – Life Together
Pentecost – May 20, 2018 (am)
There are many texts we could have chosen this morning – here are two of them.
Galatians 6:1 – 5 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. 5 For each will have to bear his own load.
James 5:14 – 20 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
As a student at Wheaton College I had a favorite professor by the name of Lyle Dorsett. He was the Professor of Evangelism – now at Beeson Divinity School as the Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism – and he had white hair, a full white beard, fire in his eyes, and love and tenderness in his demeanor. He was also a dynamic preacher, serving as the pastor in an Anglican church, and he didn’t lose any of the fire he had in the pulpit when he made his way into the classroom.
I imagine he surprised a few student down through the years as they sat in their first class with him and found that it was his custom to roam the front of the room as he taught like a hungry lion and occasionally pounce on an unsuspecting students desk, grabbing it with both hands while staring seemingly into the students soul with those fiery eyes as he taught on the need for the gospel to go out to a lost world.
As he taught on evangelism, he had a number of phrases he was fond of using but one of my favorites is when he would say “Class, we need to be kicking down the gates of hell and taking names!” And though I haven’t been Lyle Dorsett’s classroom for over 10 years, this is the phrase that has been ringing in my ears as I’ve been preparing this message for today. – “We need to be kicking down the gates of hell and taking names!”
Why? We’re not talking about evangelism, but rather life together in the Christian community. The reason is because it captures something of the spiritual warfare ahead of us in addressing this subject of fighting sin together. It captures the sense that we’re on a rescue mission, a rescue mission that will cause us to cross over into enemy territory in order to bring our brothers and sisters back. And it captures the urgency with which we need to carry out this mission. So I put it before you this morning to give you a taste of where we’re headed
If we’re not talking about evangelism, per se, (though we may discover that our work in this area was evangelism without us knowing it) - What type of a rescue mission are we talking about? It is the rescue mission to save our brothers and sisters in Christ who are stuck in sin – and how to get saved when we’re the ones stuck in sin. In other words, it is the mission of learning to fight sin together – as a Christian church. And I am coming to this topic with a presupposition about the Christian life and it is this: Christians struggle to live out the freedom from sin that Jesus has purchased for them.
Jesus says in John 8:34 that “. . . everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” Here we know Jesus is speaking of those who are not followers of Christ because just two verses later Jesus says, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36) So according to these passages – we have been set free from slavery to sin. And yet, though we in the community of Christ have been set free from sin, many of us still live as slaves to sin. It is this problem that I’d like to address this morning and it is these people that I’d like to encourage us to be about the work of rescuing and if these people happen to be ourselves, I’d like to give you a new weapon for fighting to live in the freedom Christ has purchased for you and as the title suggests, I believe that lasting victory in our fight against sin can be found when we fight it together.
Now, let us ask the Lord for guidance before we go any further. Guide us Lord, as we take on our enemy this morning. Holy Spirit, Lay bare the sins of our own hearts. Give us a heart for those who have been led astray by sin as well. Unite us in our fight against sin and lead us out of our self-imposed captivity to sin.
What type of community are we?
Before we begin to address our fight against sin we must begin by assessing what type of community we are striving to be. The reason being that there is one type of church community that is conducive to fighting and defeating sin together, and there is another that is not.
This observation, in fact much of this sermon, is indebted to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together and particularly for the final chapter of titled “Confession & Communion” and I highly recommend it.
Two Types of Communities – one conducive to fighting sin together and the other not. The first type of community a church can become is a gathering of the pious, and the second is a gathering of sinners. Which one is our church? Is our church a gathering of pious Christians
or is it a gathering of sinners? In other words, is it a gathering that is welcoming only to those who are righteous among us? Or who at least appear righteous among us? Or is it a gathering where one is able to be a sinner and not fear the reaction of those around him or her when their sin is confessed?
Bonhoeffer says it better than I can in his final chapter. Having just written an entire book on how Christians can experience meaningful, Spirit filled, life together, here is how he writes in his concluding chapter:
“He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!” (Bonhoeffer, 110)
I think there is a valuable warning for us to consider here at the outset of this message. Having completed an entire sermon series on life together, having had our hearts stirred by the message of Philippians, to live in unity as we live out the gospel, could we fail to actually achieve it, because we’ve become so fixated on living in the righteousness that the gospel calls us towards that we’ve forgotten that we are in fact sinners – and having forgotten that we are sinners, have we become a hostile environment to those trapped in their sin?
One where “everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship,” one where “We dare not be sinners,” and a community that is “unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among them.” Because if we have, then there is no hope for the one who is caught in sin in our midst. For, as Bonhoeffer wrote, “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone.”
And . . . “The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community.” (Bonhoeffer, 112)
When we gather only as the pious community, where personal sins cannot be mentioned apart from judgment, or confessed apart from disgust, we will remain isolated from one another even while worshipping beside one another week in and week out. And so the first application for us this morning is that if we are to be a community that fights sin together – then we must be a community that is unified not only in our common pursuit of righteousness, but also in our common identification as sinners. That is the type of community we must be if we are to fight sin together and win.
Let’s move on to the topic of how we fight sin together – specifically, how do we fight my sin together?
Fighting my sin together
I’ve phrased it this way because anytime we address sin in the community, we must begin by looking inward at our own sin – at “my” sin – and that is what I want to encourage you to do now.
This is how we keep from becoming merely a gathering of the pious, by frequently looking inward at our own fight with sin and acknowledging that we are all, in fact, sinners.
I’ve already stated that my observation and presupposition going into today’s message is that though we in the community of Christ have been set free from sin, many of us still live as slaves to sin. By this, I mean there are seasons of our lives where our fight with a specific sin, has lead us to wonder if we have truly been set free from sin, or if we are indeed still slaves to its demands. Some call these sins besetting sins, or indwelling sins. They are sins that seem undeterred by the number of times we pray about them, or the number of passages we memorize regarding them, or the number of times we’ve wept with godly sorrow over them – they just don’t seem to go away.
They can be the source of much confusion for the follower of Christ because they may leave you wondering if your faith is genuine, or they may cause you to question the power of Christ’s Spirit within you, and often times they lead you to hide that sin away from the view of your Christian friends. You bury it down deep where no one can see it or touch it and you try to go on in life as if that sin, that side of you doesn’t exist, until it rears its ugly head once again, and you give in to its demands. And perhaps you’ve even developed a strong sense of self-loathing because of it, because you hate this sin, but it is so deeply woven into who you are that now you have begun to hate yourself, and so instead of living in freedom, you live in fear, and guilt, and condemnation. And you know that no one in the Christian community can every know about it – because it is so inconsistent with your identity as a Christian and how you are supposed to be living. And thus “. . . [you] remain alone with [y]our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy,” keeping your brothers and sisters in Christ at arm's length, lest they learn of your sin and be as appalled by it as you are yourself.
I fear that what Bonhoeffer has so aptly stated, many of us have experienced, “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone.”
So what are we to do when this is our experience? What is our next move, when my fight with sin ends in failure, and the battle is more often lost than won? The answer, I have found both in Scripture, and in personal experience, is that we must learn to fight my sin - together. That is to say – we must bring our Christian brothers and sisters into our fight with sin. Because we can’t win this fight alone.
How do we do that? There are many tools and tactics available, I’ll give you what I think is the one we must start with. James 5:16 says, “. . . confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
The first step to defeating besetting sins is to bring those sins before a mature brother or sister in Christ – and confess them. That is to say, if you want victory in your fight with sin – I’m recommending you find someone to confess your sin to.
They ought to be someone who is spiritually mature – Gal. 6:1 calls on “those of you who are spiritual” to restore sinners. I think that means they need to be people who know they are sinners, but also knows the grace of God and power of God to fight sin. They can’t be too spiritual - No Christian is too spiritual to hear you confess the rottenness of your sin – so don’t avoid meeting with your elders or pastors. And they don’t have to struggle with your particular sin to know sin’s nature and its effects
Set up lunch or coffee with them and say, “I have a sin I’ve been struggling with and I’d like to confess it to you in the hope that you would help me overcome it.” This ought to be a normal conversation in the Christian community. Of course you have a sin your struggling with – you’re a sinner! Of course you’d call me to confess it – we both want you to live in freedom from sin. And then you tell them what it is you’re struggling with
Now, I’m assuming that if this description of sin has resonated with any of you and you’ve identified a besetting sin in your life, the process I’ve just described may sound ludicrous to you. If you’ve identified a besetting sin that you’ve harbored and hidden from Christian view the thought of confessing this sin to another person may sound like the worst possible option on a list of bad ideas. Perhaps your mind is racing right now telling you all the reasons why this would go horribly wrong. Or perhaps you’ve already scoped out the exits and are considering an early departure
If that is you let me assure you of two things. First, keeping your sin hidden is a road that leads only to further despair and discouragement and ultimately to hell. For as the author of Hebrews says, “. . . if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. (Hebrews 10:26) So please don’t keep your sin to yourself – keep listening. Second, remember this: “The caught pig squeals the loudest just before it is butchered.” Could it be that your mind is racing and your sin is protesting and your flesh is rebelling, because it knows that the path of confession would spell its demise?
Back to confession – How does confession to another Christian help us to defeat besetting sin? (5 ways) First, confession of sin gets us back to where the gospel starts, that we are sinners and God has come to save sinners. This reorients us and sets our feet on the path that leads to life.
Second, confessing sin to one another brings light into the darkness of our hearts. Jesus said, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in
darkness.” (John 12:46) One reason sin remains in us and enslaves us is because we have not allowed Jesus’ light to penetrate its darkness. You might say, “How can that be – I’ve confessed this sin a hundred times to God!” The truth is, when we confess our sin in private to God but hide it from our church, we call into question whether our confession in private is genuine. Bonhoeffer writes:
“. . . we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. And is not the reason perhaps for our countless relapses and the feebleness of our Christian obedience to be found precisely in the fact that we are living on self-forgiveness and not a real forgiveness?” (Bonhoeffer, 116)
Which is why it is so helpful to confess our sins to another person – by doing so we truly bring our sin into the light for them to see and once it is in the light, we cannot absolve ourselves but rather must await their response. Which brings us to . . .
Third, confession of sin to another believer lets us hear the forgiveness of Christ spoken to us. The first response to genuine confession ought always to be an affirmation of Christ’s forgiveness. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And it is the duty of the Christian brother or sister hearing the confession to speak with boldness and confidence this truth back to the confessing sinner.
I have been blessed both to be on the giving and receiving end of such an affirmation. An email I once received after confessing sin to a brother said this:
I have been in prayer for you. That sin will never satisfy you. Know that by the blood of Jesus, you are forgiven. I am praying Psalm 63 for you today, that you earnestly seek Him, that your soul thirsts for Jesus.
I’ve also sat across from someone who has confessed their sin to me and been able to say, “Christ has died for this sin, you are forgiven, you are clean, God sees only Christ’s righteousness when he looks on you, go and sin no more. I’ve also found there is much grace not only for my brother, but also for myself in the practice of affirming Christ’s forgiveness for their sins.
Fourth, confession of sin to another person helps us, in Bonhoeffer’s words, to “break through to community.” Where you once felt utterly alone in your losing battle with this sin, you now know that this fight is not only your own. You know that there is a brother or a sister who has joined you in your fight against sin and you are able to fully participate in the power of the Christian community. Bonhoeffer writes:
“The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin. It can no longer tear the fellowship asunder. Now the fellowship bears the sin of the brother. He is no longer alone with his evil for he has cast off his sin in confession and handed it over to God. . . . Now he can be a sinner and still enjoy the grace of God. He can confess his sins and in this very act find fellowship for the first time. The sin concealed separated him from the fellowship, made all his apparent fellowship a sham; the sin confessed has helped him to find true fellowship with the brethren of Jesus Christ.” (Bonhoeffer, 113)
Fifth and finally, confessing of sin lessens the weight of your sin so that you can eventually cast it off. Galatians 6 is clear that when a brother or sister’s sin is exposed, it is then the job of the Christian community “bear” that burden with them. Which means, if you are so honored to be considered a spiritual person and trusted friend by a fellow sinner, and they have confessed their sin to you, your work does not end when your lunch or coffee is over! Too many Christians have mustered the strength to confess their sins to a fellow believer only to be left in their sin once the meal is over.
Here is a helpful explanation of what it means to bear one another’s sins from Tim Keller:
You can’t help with a burden unless you come very close to the burdened person, standing virtually in their shoes, and putting your own strength under the burden so its weight is distributed on both of you, lightening the load of the other. So in the same way, a Christian must listen and understand, and physically, emotionally, spiritually, take up some of the burden with the other person (Keller, 147)
How do we practically do this? You must explore the facets of this sin and see if there is more darkness to be exposed. You must consider whether your brother or sister needs to bring others into this confession loop to experience lasting victory. You must explore with your friend changes that need to be made to make this sin less accessible. You must pray for them and with them, begging God to grant them the freedom he promises them. And you must follow up with them, set an alarm on your calendar to check in with them every week, or every day if need be! Set up a standing coffee appointment to meet with them until this sin is conquered. But don’t leave them once coffee is over to go on fighting this sin alone.
Which brings us to our last point . . .
Winning Back the Wanderer
There are those in our community who struggle with besetting sins but remain unconvinced that any changes need to be made. They have grown comfortable with their sin and have no desire to see it exposed. Or they proudly continue to tell themselves that they don’t need any outside help in overcoming their sin. They are on a slow but dangerous path of wandering away from the fellowship of believers and from God.
Scripture teaches us that cases such as these are the responsibility of the Christian community to restore. Galatians 6:1 says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Hebrews 12:15 says, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.” James 5:19-20 says, “My
brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
When caught in sin Cain said to the Lord, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer we get from these passages is yes, yes you are. We need to realize that as a body of believers we are responsible not only for our own faith, and our own fight with sin, and our own perseverance in the faith – but we are also responsible for our neighbor’s faith, and fight with sin, and perseverance in the faith.
So when we see someone beginning to wander – to drift into a sin, or into a crowd that will lead to sin, or away from the Christian community, it is our duty to pursue them, out of obedience to God’s word, and lovingly encourage them to return to the Lord and to his church. This is the rescue mission we’re all called to participate in!
But we must do this in the right way – otherwise we run the risk of driving them further from the church and deeper into sin with the possibility they will be lost forever. Galatians gives us 4 things to keep in mind as we pursue a sinning member.
First, we ourselves must be spiritual – we must be firmly aware of our own sin and God’s grace towards us and pursue them out of a desire for them to experience that same grace, not as a spiritual policeman looking for someone to capture in wrong doing.
Second, we must restore them in a spirit of gentleness. Restore – the Greek word behind this is used for putting a dislocated joint back in place. It will be a painful process for the sinner, but is a necessary one, and we must handle them with gentleness
Third, with caution – “Keeping watch on yourself lest you too be tempted.” Are you seeking to restore someone who struggles in a sin you have not also seen victory in – beware lest in pursuing them you fall into sin alongside them
Fourth, with humility – “if anyone things he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” It is not you who will restore the sinner but God! Don’t be proud, looking to make a list of sinners you’ve saved, be humble, so God can work through you.
In summary, we must pursue our wandering friend knowing we too are prone to wander. We must pursue them to warn them of the danger of their sin, but also to let them see they don’t need to be alone in their sin, and to welcome them back into the fellowship of sinners, where we are all deeply aware of our need for God to be transforming us into a fellowship of the righteous.
What is riding on our ability to fight sin together? What are the implications on Grace Church of DuPage if we fail to live as a fellowship of sinners? If we fail to confess our
besetting sins to one another? If we don’t pursue the wanderer to win them back to the faith?
We will become a church that has forgotten how to repent, for where sin is not fought, repentance will not be found. And here is what Jesus says to churches who will not repent:
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Letter to Ephesian church in Revelation 2)
It is our status as the true body of Christ that is at stake in this matter. So may we be a church that repents and fights sin together, otherwise we will fail to exist as a church a become utterly lost in our sins.
Let’s pray. Have mercy on us O, God. We are sinners – desperately in need of your grace. May we be a church where we can dare to be sinners. May we boldly take the step of confessing our besetting sins. And may we have eyes for those who are wandering, and come alongside them, and gently bear their burdens with them. And as we do, may we experience the freedom from sin that you have bought for us, and see sins conquered and righteousness cultivated. And may it all be to your glory. Amen.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. (Translated by John W. Doberstein) Life Together. Harper & Row, Publishers: New York, 1954.