Written by Pastor Skylar Anderson,
Church Planter: Cypress Community Church
I was recently asked, “How can a Christian balance restoration and sin?” In other words, when we’re fully aware of another Christian’s past baggage or current struggles, how do we respond with love? How do we minister to them the way Jesus would?
I wish this were an easier question. While every believer knows we should want restoration, we also know that it’s difficult. Love is the appropriate response to sin, sure. But when you’re face-to-face with deeply sinful or personally hurtful situations, sometimes it feels more complicated than that.
When I was first asked this, I immediately remembered one phone call I received several years ago. My wife and I were a part of a young church plant, and we just learned that one of the musicians had been having an affair with another musician’s wife. We know that the Bible tells us the Jesus’ love covers a multitude of sins. We know the Father desires restoration. We know that the gospel still applies to every party involved.
But what in the world do you do a situation like this? I don’t claim to be an expert on sin and restoration, but the following four principles have been helpful guides in moving forward throughout the years.
- Be encouraged when you encounter a need for restoration.
In my experience, the church isn’t always considered a safe place to truly be broken. Instead, it’s often far more acceptable to hide your sin, your calloused heart, and your apathy behind a smile and some good, Christian-sounding language. A mentor of mine called it “the mask.”
When you encounter sin face-to-face, it means the mask is off, and it means your ministry looks an awful lot like Jesus’. Everywhere he went he encountered broken people. If you study the book of Luke especially, it seems like his entire ministry plan was to go to dinner parties with sinners. While that doesn’t make ministry simple and straightforward, it does mean you’re heading the right direction.
- See sin as an opportunity rather than a problem.
Please read this entire section before declaring me a heretic. I’m not suggesting we ought to redefine Christian morality or enable sin in any way; we kill our sin. However, we should also recognize that sin is an inevitability in our own lives just as it is in the lives of every Christian in our churches. When Jesus comes back, it won’t be. Until then, sin should not surprise us. Instead, sin being exposed should feel like an opportunity for sanctification.
Perhaps this sounds strange to you, but some of my favorite moments are when young men at our church have come to me to confess their sin. I don’t like their sin, but I love the opportunity to preach the gospel specifically and fight the unbelief in their hearts.
Let me give you an example. Every week we’re preaching the good news of Jesus Christ to our people. “You’re a sinner in need of salvation. Jesus died for your sin. You should repent and believe the gospel.” This is absolutely true and crucial for people to hear. However, this is also big, somewhat abstract, and a little generic feeling. It’s a bit like a spiritual carpet bombing that we hope impacts everyone across the board.
In contrast to that, when a young guy says, “I’m feeling guilty for crossing lines physically with my girlfriend,” we have the opportunity to perform a surgical strike on the unbelief in this young man’s heart. Specific sin exposes specific unbelief. Practically, that gives us an opportunity to confront specific lies with specific gospel truths.
Consider the following explicit or implicit lies wrapped up in that situation and response, and how we can confront them with Gospel responses:
- “Jesus doesn’t understand how hard it is to stay pure sexually.” The Scripture tells us that Jesus does understand what you are going through more than you can possibly know. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15, ESV)
- “Obeying Jesus sexually is missing out.” You’re not missing out on anything; in fact, just the opposite. While this may seem difficult now, obeying Jesus is producing an eternity that far outweighs a few moments of physical pleasure. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)
- “My righteousness depends on my sexuality purity.” Sexual purity is admirable and a Biblical goal as a part of our sanctification, but whether you succeed or fail, your righteousness isn’t based on your actions; it’s based on Jesus’ action in your place. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. (1 Peter 3:18)
- “I should feel shame for my sin.” Conviction that you have disobeyed Jesus is good. Guilt, condemnation, and shame are brought on by the accuser. You don’t have any shame to mourn! Jesus has already finished it! There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
- Remember that it’s not about you.
This is perhaps the most difficult thing about sin and restoration, especially when we or people we love are the ones sinned against. It isn’t about us; it’s about restoring our brother or sister.
Restoration can never be about justifying ourselves or our pain. Jesus is our justification. In the same way, restoration also can’t be about receiving an apology. Your brother or sister’s repentance toward God is the goal. That won’t always include easing your personal pain.
Jesus has to be our security, our salvation, our identity. If we’re looking to the people whose restoration we’re seeking to provide any of that for us, we’ll crush them with our expectations. You must possess a gospel-driven humility, or you’ll never experience fully restored relationships.
- When in doubt, get wise counsel.
I realize that these previous 3 principles still don’t answer some of the biggest questions we’ll face:
- What do you do about adultery?
- How do you handle sexual abuse?
- Should you ever recommend or endorse divorce?
- At what point has a pastor or deacon disqualified themselves from ministry?
- If someone refuses to repent, how should you relate to them?
- When trust has been broken, can you repair it? How?
- What degree of confidentiality is legal and helpful?
- What do we share publicly? And how publicly do we share various sin struggles?
Let’s all agree that sin and restoration are far easier to discuss in the sterile environment of an article than in the intense heat of the brokenness of life. Additionally, effective ministry means reaching people who are (like you and like me) radically depraved, but who usually haven’t yet had the Spirit erode some of their rough edges. The further the gospel advances in our cities, the more difficult and complex sin and its consequences seem.
The good news for all of us, though, is that we’re not alone. The gospel creates a family. We’re not lone ranger pastors or church members with the responsibility of fixing every problem. Instead, we’re members of a family where God has knit together various experiences and gifts to provide wisdom in handling situations as they come up. Should you ever feel alone with a situation, know that you aren’t. Find counsel wherever you’re able, and then trust that God will cover your mistakes. After all, he’s the one who will ultimately make all things new.