What does the Bible teach about sin? What should our doctrine and practice be?
First, let us always remember, “All unrighteousness is sin” (1Jn 5:17). We dare not treat disobedience to God in a light manner. Jesus did not die on the cross so we could have a light or careless attitude toward sin. In fact, His death should make us feel our sins even more deeply.
However, there is a difference in sins, a very great difference in sins, and the way we respond to sin in our membership must reflect this difference. “There is a sin unto death and there is sin not unto death” (1Jo 5:16).
Let us first look at sins not unto death. There is sin that charity will cover or hide the knowledge of (1Pet 4:8). There are sins the disciple is to put off or put away in his daily walk (Eph 4:22-32). Paul felt the fact that no one stood with him at his trial represented fault on the part of believers, but he prayed God would not lay this to the absent brothers’ account (1 Tim 4:16). We will need to be forbearing one with another for many of the small things we notice in each other’s lives.
On the other end of the spectrum there is sin that is unto death. These sins must come under the judgment of the church to be either remitted (sent away) or else, depending upon the attitude of the offender, retained (Jo 20:23). These are sins that are to be rebuked before all so others may fear (1Tim 5:20). We have several parallel passages that identify a list of serious sins, sins unto death (1Cor 5:11, 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; and Eph 5:3-7). (See also Matt 18:17 and Rev 21:8 and 22:15). These sins:
• Should not be once named among us (Eph 5:3-5).
• Bring the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience (Eph 5:6). They which do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (1Cor 6:9-10 and Gal 5:19-21). It is obvious the act or commitment of a sin must be judged more severely than the thought. (We acknowledge that the thought paves the way to the act.)
• Constitute grounds for forbidding from the communion table (1 Cor 5:11, Eph 5:7). If one should not be in communing relations because of a sin unto death, it is consistent that his membership be terminated.
• Must be forgiven. When the immoral brother in the Corinthian church had repented and the church had judged the sin, there came a time when the punishment was to be considered sufficient. Then the brother was to be restored to fellowship (2Cor 2:6). This implies there would have been a time when restoring him would have been premature. The church needs to judge righteous judgment.
Perhaps a word ought to be said here about the difference between forgiveness and trust. When a person’s sin comes to light and he asks for forgiveness, we are required to forgive. Failing to forgive is in itself sin on our part. We release the offender and place all justice into the hands of the Almighty. But trust is a different issue. When a person who has been trusted breaks that trust, it will take considerable time for that trust to be regained. It is true that some trust has to be extended. It is also true that a good bit of the trust will need to be earned. A person who has committed a sin unto death has a large debt to his family and his church that needs to be repaid. Since communion is about relationships and since relationships are based on trust, it is only right that membership and communion privileges be withheld until the trust is restored.
One integral part of rebuilding trust is giving evidence of godly sorrow. All exposed sinners are sorry. Some are sorry for how they look to the world. The loss of reputation is huge. The stigma and shame are almost unbearable. Emotions are affected. But the person can still have a self-centered sorrow, and if the sorrow is all about self then self will return to sinful self-gratification. Other exposed sinners are truly sorry for how they look to God. Each type of sorrow has its expressions and will become generally recognized by those close to them in life. Restoration into the church should be dependent upon trust rebuilt by evidences of godly sorrow.
There is another aspect of mortal sins that should be addressed. Sometimes people have a stain of such a sin on their conscience and they have never done anything about it. Perhaps it was a single involvement in fornication years ago or going to a palm reader or another of these sins unto death. They have been able to outwardly live as though everything is normal, but inwardly the memory still haunts them. Satan whispers, but what will people think?
As a church we should make it clear there is only one way to deal with these things. Go straight to your minister or bishop. Confess it all in all its sordidness. Let the church help you deal with it. You will be blessed with the new found freedom possible only through transparency in Christ. Of course there are complications when sins are brought to light, but it is God’s way. The worst coping method is to just act like it didn’t happen. If treated in this way, a long ago sin unto death will haunt a person through all time and all eternity.
Church leader, if a member comes to you with their conscience burdened with one of these sins, do not treat it in a trivial manner. Share with the rest of your ministerial team. It may be the most benevolent response for your struggling church member if you take this sin to the church and follow the process of excommunication and restoration. Painful? Of course. Healing? Absolutely. It is God’s method.
In evaluating sin, there is another category that seems somewhat by itself. The church may not always be able to discern and judge it, but it will keep someone out of heaven. That is an unforgiving attitude toward wrongs that have been committed. Jesus made it plain that holding a grudge will keep one from finding God’s forgiveness; thus each of us should give this issue grave consideration (Matt 6:15; 18:35).
• There are elements of truth in the Catholic view of mortal and venial sins and the forgiveness thereof that have Scriptural support. Penance, Purgatory, and Indulgences are clearly of human origin and in error.
• There is an element of truth in Protestant doctrine. Only Jesus is the mediator of our sin. Faith in Christ’s atoning work is our only salvation. While the church may fill a role in dealing with sin, it cannot go beyond the bounds of Scripture. However, the prevailing doctrines of free grace and unconditional eternal security turn the grace of God into lasciviousness (Ju 1:4).
• We should have an appreciation for a Mennonite tradition that made a difference in judging sin, even if it did not explain why it did so.
• Some sins must be dealt with by the church and in the assembly. If these sins remain unconfessed they will keep one forever from the bliss of heaven (Rev 21:8; 22:15).
• Some sins are cleansed by personal confession to Christ (1Jn 1:9). Each disciple should be encouraged to maintain a close walk with God, through Bible reading and prayer, to maintain a sensitive and clear conscience.
May God help us be a pure body, consistently judging the sin in our own lives and in our churches, so we will not be judged with the world.