How Do We Help People Caught in Sin?
“Brothers [and sisters], 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.” (Galatians 6:1)
As a pastor and later as district president, I would often reflect in mind and heart on this Scripture when working with someone caught up in sin. Any pastor worth his salt will tell you some of the most difficult situations to resolve involve people trapped in activities our culture today calls good but which God in His Word has called sin. Whether we are dealing with fornication, adultery, homosexual activity, divorce, etc. the culture excuses these things, even calls them good, while God in His Word has reserved the act of sexual union for marriage between one man and one woman. More and more people in our nation are adopting a “live and let live” philosophy at the very least, with many embracing heretofore unthinkable practices such as same-gender marriage. Even a great number of church people now accept the fact that their children will probably “try each other out” and live together for a while before they get married.
How does the church respond? How do we provide pastoral care? One extreme is be “easy” and “loving” to all. This approach might be called “the gospel of inclusion.” Jesus loves all people and therefore wants all people included in His church. Straight, gay, lesbian, couples living together without marriage, divorced folks, people in all sorts of sinful situations, Jesus loves them all and accepts them all. We as the church can do no less. We ought be tolerant toward everyone (except toward those whom the culture has labeled intolerant). Yet, in the long run, when weighed against God’s Word, this really isn’t the loving approach it appears to be.
Another extreme is simply to condemn the “sinner” and/or ignore him. Make him an outcast until he “sees the error of his ways.” But this approach often does nothing to restore the brother or sister, nor does it seem anything close to “pastoral.”
There is, of course, a modicum of truth in both approaches. Certainly Jesus loves all people and wants all to be included in His Church. Of course, we are called to protect from violence those who are different. And of course, by way of contrast, the Word of God condemns sin. However, if we take seriously God’s Word of law and Gospel, following either of these extremes still leaves us in our sins. If we call good what God’s Word has called sin, we are seeking to justify ourselves rather than seeking that justification worked by God’s grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus and received by repentance and faith. In the same way, if we just deplore the sinner, we have done nothing to help him or her out of the sin.
The truly pastoral approach is always the more difficult path. It runs counter both to the prevailing spirit of our time and to either of the approaches described so far, but is truly, when examined carefully, the way of Christ and of His Word. This is what St. Paul speaks of in Galatians 6, a pastoral care under the cross of Christ that is honest about sin, not to judge and to condemn, but to restore by leading to repentance and trust in Christ’s forgiveness. God desires to have mercy on all. Christ died for the sins of all people. Jesus rose again as the sign of the forgiveness of sins for all people. In Christ, God desires to bring all to repentance and faith. A true pastor receives people as they are but works to help them see the real nature of their sin so that it can be confessed before God and forgiven. As the Scripture says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgiven us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9).
This approach, though faithful to God’s Word, is often more complex and nuanced than either condemnation or simple inclusion. We can easily say “Jesus loves you and accepts you just the way you are,” even if you never change and even if you demand that God accept your actions as good when His Word clearly calls them sin. It runs counter to our culture and is often much more difficult to expose the sin SO THAT it can be confessed and forgiven, covered in the cleansing blood of Jesus. Yet in the long run, this pastoral approach gives much greater comfort, for it is not centered in a vague hope that God approves of what I’m doing, but is centered in the sure and certain work of Christ to redeem us from all our sins. It is focused in Christ and His cross. It calls sin sin and at the same time unfailingly points to Christ the Savior from sin. Here we find our comfort, our peace, our life, not in what we are doing but in everything Jesus has done for us in His death and resurrection. Here I come before God, not demanding that He accept me as I am, but the Spirit brings me to God with hands open and empty, ready to receive all that He gives in Jesus.
This is the real Gospel of inclusion. All of my sins and all of your sins were included with Jesus Christ on His cross. He took them all. You were included in His death and resurrection. Now by faith you are included in the holiness of God and the righteousness of Christ given to you. Now by faith in His promise you and I are included in Jesus’ Word to the woman caught in sin, when He said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11).
Having said this, we have much to do as a Synod. It is clear to me that we have to do more to help one another respond faithfully and lovingly to the real needs of people caught in sin, seeking to restore brothers and sisters under the cross of Christ. Society will demand that we take the easy approach, what I have called the “gospel of inclusion,” but we must remain firm in the truly pastoral approach of leading folks to repentance and forgiveness, confession and absolution for the sake of Christ. Much more work needs to be done to help both families and individuals caught in these sins. Teaching resources, pastoral care resources, etc. need to be updated and developed, published and put to use. May God help us respond faithfully according to His Word of law and Gospel. It is more difficult, but it is what God has called us to do, and it is the truly pastoral approach that brings lasting comfort and peace in Christ. Now let’s get to work.
+ Herbert Mueller
First Vice President, The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod
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