Welcome back to the podcast. This week we’re looking at controversy. We opened the week looking at the sick love of controversy. In APJ 1949, on Monday, we looked at this disease called “craving for controversy,” as Paul calls it in 1 Timothy 6:4.
Today we look at how to best speak of a culture’s sins — when we must do so. Such work is complicated by the fact that Paul seems to tell us there are some sins in a culture that are simply too wicked and too “shameful” to even speak of. That’s according to Ephesians 5:12, at least on the surface of it. So what shameful sins should Christians not even speak about? The question is from a listener named Dan.
“Pastor John, hello to you! I am an elder at my church, and I was thinking about how sin is to be addressed by Christian preachers, both pastorally to the congregation and in calling out the sins of culture. What advice would you give preachers on how to avoid merely complaining or going off on angry rants about cultural sins, and how to wisely identify and call for repentance from sins inside the church? So what cultural sins do we expose and speak out against? What cultural sins do we ignore or refrain from talking about because of their vulgarity? And how do you think preachers in local churches will best balance addressing the sins of culture and the sins in the pew?”
This is an important question because the sinfulness of contemporary society is today more outlandish than it has been for hundreds of years in America — and more in your face because of the ubiquity of social media and online streaming and advertising. Those two facts — outlandish and ubiquitous — are a strong temptation for a pastor to vent his anger and frustration at the degeneration of the world, so that the pulpit runs the risk of becoming not a place mainly of exultation over the glories of God in Christ, but a place of irritation and condemnation of the insanity that is going on out there in the world. A pastor can feel that things are so bad that if he does not linger over the latest grossness of evil, it will look like he’s going soft on sin.
Sounding the Right Note
So, it’s good for us to think about how to speak of sins in the world and sins in the church and yet sound the dominant note of amazement at the glories of the grace of God in Christ, so that that’s what people walk away with on Sunday morning — namely, we are amazed here at the beauty and the glory of the grace of God in Christ.
There is surely a reason why Paul said to the Philippians, who were threatened by legalistic dogs who wanted to ravage their faith (Philippians 3:2), and by “enemies of the cross of Christ” whose “end is destruction, [whose] god is their belly, and [who] glory in their shame” (Philippians 3:18–19) — there’s a reason why Paul said precisely to this embattled church, surrounded by so much belly-god debauchery, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
We are not to be consumed emotionally or attentively with the latest drag queen strutting among the 4-year-olds or the latest butchery to the genitals of 8-year-olds. There is a fitting groaning and tears over the wickedness of these things, but if it consumes us, we have lost our bearings and need to go back to Christ. Think about this. Paul said, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). He said that seven verses after saying, “[I] tell you even with tears, [they] walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18). That’s amazing.
Sins Outside and Inside
So, let’s take Ephesians 5:3–12 as an example of how Paul deals with sins outside and inside the church in his preaching. Here’s what he says.
Sexual immorality and all impurity [and he had a lot of gross stuff in that word] must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk and crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.
That is, fill your mouth up with something positive so it pushes out all the filthiness and foolishness and crudeness.
For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you [and he’s talking about believers here] with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.
See the connection there? You watch out — you Christians watch out for deception. And then he calls those whom he’s really talking about “sons of disobedience,” which means unbelievers.
Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light . . . and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.
So, here you have Paul naming the sins of the world: sexually immoral, impure, covetous. And then he warns the saints not to be partners with them. So he’s not just grandstanding against those bad people out there; he’s concerned about the church. “You are saints now. You are in the kingdom of Christ now. You are the children of light now.” But he doesn’t draw the inference from this, “Well, all we need to do is stand aloof, castigate the world.” Rather, he makes the sins of the world an occasion for warning the saints. “We are vulnerable. If you partner with them in those sins, you too will come under the wrath of God.”
“There’s a way to expose the sins of the world without being verbally contaminated.”
And then he closes with something paradoxical. He says, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret” (Ephesians 5:11–12). So, there’s a way to expose the sins of the world without being verbally contaminated. “It’s shameful even to speak of them,” Paul says. Which I think means it’s shameful to find pleasure in talking about them, lingering over them with excessive attention. It is possible to find pleasure — we’re just so deceived on things like this; we can deceive ourselves so easily — in talking about the things we hate. Isn’t that awful? It’s possible to find pleasure in talking about the things we hate. God doesn’t want this. That’s not good.
So, the right way to summarize that paradox would go something like this, I think: Expose, but don’t gloat. Expose, but don’t linger. Expose, but weep. Expose, but pray. Expose, but don’t grovel in the mire, even in the name of mocking the mire. Some people think they’re justified in lingering in the mire by spending a lot of time finding clever ways to put it down. Expose, but then return quickly to the clean, clear, holy, happy air of the mountains of Christ’s fellowship.
Overcome Evil with Good
I have just three more bullet points, observations that might give some more guidance on how to deal with sins outside the church.
“Expose, but then return quickly to the clean, clear, holy, happy air of the mountains of Christ’s fellowship.”
First, when you deal with them, do it in a serious, biblical way. That is, do a biblical analysis, a careful analysis, a thoughtful analysis for why they are sin. Some sins we think are so gross, so harmful that we don’t need to give any kind of biblical analysis or rationale for their rejection. I think that’s a mistake, because it tends to make us think simply on a par with conservative unbelievers. That’s not a good place to be for a Christian, simply on a par with conservative unbelievers. But a biblical analysis would get to the root of how the sin relates to God and to Christ. And our dealing with the sin then would be seen as a passion for God’s glory and Christ’s majesty, his mercy, not just our proper gobsmack at the outrage.
Second, keep in mind 1 Corinthians 5:12–13: “What have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.”
Third and finally, aim at the fullest experience possible of Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”