Avoiding Sexual Sin

Northwestern College Chapel | Minneapolis

In the summer of 1987 I preached a series of messages based on the character of Barnabas . I stressed first that he was "a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith" (Acts 11:24). Then I focused on his amazing gift for encouragement and developed five marks of a Biblical "leader-maker" (Acts 4:36; 9:27; 15:36-40). Finally I popped the bubble for Barnabas-worshipers with Galatians 2:13—"and even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity."

I entitled that last message, "The Weakness of a Great Man." One of my points was this: "Past experiences and past usefulness is no guarantee of future obedience." Once Barnabas was "filled with the Holy Spirit and faith." But in Galatians he was "out of step with the truth of the gospel."

I stressed what I believe to be an utterly essential truth—and all the more so for our lackadaisical age—that the Christian life is a race to be run and finished, a fight to be fought and won, and a faith to be kept to the end (2 Tim. 4:7). Life is war (Eph. 6:10ff). Vigilance is not optional. And the word of the Lord is again and again, "Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation."

While I was sounding this note on Sunday mornings I delivered two messages in the evening services on leadership and sexual temptation. There were of course reasons for this in our national life as you recall. Looking back now, the connection between the messages on Barnabas and the ones on sexual temptation were remarkably complementary.

The failure of Barnabas in Galatians 2 (though not sexual) sounded the alert for constant vigilance: no past successes guarantee future obedience. And the evening lessons spelled out the pitfalls in the path of Christian leaders, along with strategies for protection. My aim was to be as Biblical as possible.

My first title for these evening lessons went something like this:

"Ten Steps to Sexual Sin for Christian Leaders
and How Not to Take Them."

In giving the substance of the lessons here my prayer is that this Biblical expose of the deceitfulness of sin will intensify our vigilance and keep us pure for the greatest work in the world.

Sexual Pitfalls and Strategies for Protection

1. PITFALL: Falling in love with the present world.

"For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica." (2 Timothy 4:10)

What is it about the world that leaders in particular are tempted to love? The answer of Jesus is clear:

Acclaim and Prestige
"Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and love salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts." (Luke 20:46)

Riches and Pleasures
". . .but as they go their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature" (Luke 8:14).

Successful leadership generally exposes a person more and more to the alluring forces of prestige and makes an array of worldly pleasures more and more accessible (because of travel, higher salary, wider circulation, etc.).

PROTECTION: Think long and hard about the deadly poison of world-love.

"If any one loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. . . The world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever." (1 John 2:15,17)

"Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God." (James 4:4)

. . .and ponder the never-ending delights of the mountain spring of God's approval and fellowship and beauty.

"Thou hast put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound." (Psalm 4:7)

"Whom have I in heaven but thee and there is nothing on earth that I desire besides thee. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever." (Psalm 73:25-26)

The spell of sin's fascination is broken by the superior pleasures of the presence of God.

2. PITFALL: Loss of horror at offending the majesty of God's holiness through sin.

When David committed adultery with Bathsheba and put her husband to death, God did not confront David with the sanctity of marriage and the value of human life. He confronted him with the horror of despising God.

"Nathan said to David, 'Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? . . . Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me, and taken the wife of Uriah?'" (2 Sam. 12:7-10).

Are leaders under so much pressure to make people happy (lest they lose their crowds) that they forsake the message of God's holiness and sin's horror? And is the result that they gradually turn sovereign grace into powerless leniency, and then license, and then actually believe it themselves, and act on it, saying, "Where sin abounds grace will much more abound!"?

Is not a leader drifting to destruction when he no longer commends the gouging out of eyes as preferable to sin?

"If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell."

In other words, perfectly innocent and good things may need to be sacrificed for the sake of vigilance against sin. But this will not happen where a leader has lost his horror at offending the holiness of God.

PROTECTION: Meditate on the Biblical truth that all our acts are acts toward God and not just toward man.

"Against thee and thee only have I sinned!" (Psalm 51:4)

. . .and that God is so holy and pure that he will not countenace the slightest sin, but hates it with omnipotent hatred.

"Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity." (Hab. 1:13)

"The way of the wicked is an abomination unto the Lord: but he loveth him that followeth after righteousness." (Prov. 15:9)

. . .and that the holiness of God is the most valuable treasure in the universe and the very deepest of delights to those whose way is pure.

"Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness." (Psalm 29:2)

"The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel." (Isaiah 29:19)

3. PITFALL: A sense of immunity from accountability and authority.

"I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves preeminence, does not acknowledge my authority." (3 John 9)

When you fall in love with the prestige and power of leadership you gradually begin to secure your "gains" by developing a kind of immunity from accountability. And this immunity drifts into a sense of being above the ordinary demands of morality and integrity.

PROTECTION: Submit yourself to a council of Biblically minded, spiritually wise advisers.

"Without counsel plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed." (Prov. 15:22)

In the churches of Paul the highest office was the elder, but, to the best of our knowledge there were no churches with just one elder, and provision was made for rebuking an elder who persisted in sin (1 Tim. 5:20). No one was above reproof. All were accountable.

4. PITFALL: Succumbing to itching ears as love of truth evaporates.

"For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own liking, and will turn away from listening to the truth." (2 Tim. 4:3-4)

Once the love of truth is weakened by the love for ears, integrity has no leg to stand on. Every manner of rationalization and compromise to meet the demands of the expanding audience take over. Difficult doctrines are omitted, moral and theological problems are oversimplified, man-pleasing teachings of health, wealth and prosperity become more attractive, and dishonest measures are condoned for the sake of the kingdom.

What does this have to do with sexual temptation? A mentality of relativism and expediency begins to govern the mind. This weakens all firm moral resolve. The audience is to be massaged—the itching ears are to be scratched. Why? To gratify the leader's pursuit of power and pleasure. And soon the same procedure governs sexual relations: anything is okay if you are satisfying an itch.

Scratching itching ears is a very warm and personal thing. So it is easy for such leaders to contrast their approach with the "cold" concern for truth. And so immunity from doctrinal criticism is created with a heavy dose of relational antibodies. The language of love and forgiveness and acceptance abounds—but for those who have eyes to see it is a camouflage to cover the abandonment of a love for truth.

"The coming of the lawless one by the activity of Satan will be with all power and with pretended signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved." (2 Thess. 2:9-10)

PROTECTION: Cultivate a love for truth, even in its smallest details, and turn a deaf ear to the desires of men to have their ears scratched with vague moralisms that massage them in their sin.

"Teacher, we know that you are true, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men, teach in truth the way of God." (Mark 12:14)

"He who is faithful in very little will be faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in very little is dishonest also in much." (Luke 16:10)

Most compromise with the truth begins in small things. I heard of one evangelist who lost all credibility with a third world helper because he criticized his counselors for not watching the audience after he had said that every eye would be closed.

"He who is dishonest in very little will be dishonest also in much."

5. PITFALL: A vanishing attention to Scripture.

This is not quite the same as #4. Here I have in mind the role Scripture begins to play (or not play) in the ministry of the word.

"All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." (2 Tim. 3:16-17)

It is the Scripture that reproves us when we are headed in the wrong direction; corrects and turns us in the right way; and then trains us how to stay there. It makes the leader complete and ready for every good work.

But in the ministry of many leaders it begins to take a back seat to storytelling, and social analysis, and family discussions and psychological diagnoses, and all kinds of things which in themselves are innocent, but which begin to usurp the priority of the inspired word of God.

The Bible begins to get token reference, exposition recedes, noble slogans (like peace, justice, kingdom, mutuality, grace, acceptance, wholeness) begin to replace specific sentences, contextual considerations diminish, moral generalities begin to replace attention to grammatical detail, and soon the Bible, in its pointed specificity, is not the authority. The ideas of man are.

Now what does this have to do with sexual temptation? The lusts of the flesh can much more easily exploit a fuzzy moral generality than it can a firm, precise, specific, Biblical prohibition. There is a hermeneutic that leads to adultery. Loose and sloppy handling of Scripture eventually leads to loose and sloppy living.

PROTECTION: Give yourself untiringly to the study, meditation and memorization of Holy Scripture.

"Strive to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth." (2 Tim. 2:15)

"On his law he meditates day and night." (Psalm 1:2)

"Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee." (Psalm 119:11)

Here I speak not of sermon preparation but of what I call "going out to pasture"—resting and ruminating on the word of God. It is savoring for the sake of life, not seeking for tomorrow's text.

6. PITFALL: A growing disregard for the spiritual good of his followers.

An Old Testament refrain is that when the king sinned, the people were ruined.

"The Lord will smite Israel. . . and give Israel up because of the sins of Jeroboam, which he sinned and which he made Israel to sin." (1 Kings 14:15-16)

This incentive for a leader not to sin diminishes as a disregard for the people takes over. When leaders sin the people suffer. And when the leaders don't care for the people any more, that ceases to be a brake on their own lusts.

Right after saying that the scribes love salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues, Jesus says, without even starting a new sentence, that these leaders ". . .devour widows houses. . ."

The point is that the more we love the prestige of our leadership the less we will love the people we lead. And the less we love them, the less we will care what becomes of them. And so the vigilance to guard ourselves from sin FOR THEIR SAKE will vanish, and the consequences of sexual immorality will not seem as dreadful as it once did.

PROTECTION: Labor in praying and caring to stir up your heart to love all your people.

"May the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all men." (1 Thess. 3:12)

"Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works." (Heb. 10:24)

Do not assume to quickly that you do not love your people. An amazing affection can be born in the disciplined and prayerful exercise of pastoral duty.

7. PITFALL: Disregard for the Biblical mystery of marriage.

"A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one. This is a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the church." (Eph. 5:32)

The mystery of marriage is that God created it to be a drama of Christ's relation to the church. How we treat our wives is a dramatic statement of how we think Christ should treat the church. How wives treat their husbands is a dramatic statement of how they think the church should treat Christ.

The deepest Biblical meaning of marriage has to do with Christ and how he is portrayed to the world in the public drama of marriage. Therefore adultery is like casting Jesus Christ in the lead role of an X-rated movie. Therefore one long step toward adultery is to disregard the Biblical mystery of marriage.

PROTECTION: Remind yourself repeatedly that your marriage is a living drama of Christ's relationship to the church. Let your thoughts about your spouse rise from the ordinary to the extraordinary by faith in the truth of Ephesians 5:32.

"This is a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the church."

We simply must recover the wonder of this truth. Marriage has do with God, not just two people trying to be fulfilled. It is a mission of revelation to the world. It is an extraordinary calling. And adultery is an appalling desecration of the image of Christ and his church.

8. PITFALL: Compartmentalizing of the leader's life.

In the New Testament the leader's home life is an essential part of his qualification for church leadership (1 Tim. 3:4,12). In other words, the New Testament will not allow us to compartmentalize our life so that some parts of it are irrelevant to the issue of leadership.

One stepping stone toward adultery is the compartmentalizing of life that says, "Well, this area is really not at the heart of my ministry and so one sin in this area need not jeopardize my success in another.

PROTECTION: View everything—absolutely everything—as woven together by its relationship to the value of the glory of God.

"Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." (1 Cor. 10:31)

"Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus." (Col. 3:17)

Would that every leader could explain to his people how to drink orange juice to the glory of God, and then be able to with all earnestness why this is not nitpicking. One area of life not done for the glory of God is a pocket of rebellion threatening to become a coup.

9. PITFALL: A sense of being above the necessity of suffering and self-denial.

Right after telling Timothy that as a leader he should "entrust [the truth] to faithful men who will be able to teach others also," Paul says,

"Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. (2 Tim. 2:3)

Generally, with successful leadership comes the possibility of avoiding certain kinds of suffering. There is more money, more people ready to do you favors, more expectation to go first class, more freedom to delegate work, etc.

Very easily the mindset emerges that it is indeed fitting for me not to suffer. Perhaps there is a high lifestyle appropriate for my position of prestige. Perhaps the perks of power are a good testimony to the goodness of God.

Gradually the leader begins to justify exorbitance of all kinds because he is doing his part for the war effort by being the public rallying point for God's cause. And so there is not need to live like a common soldier. He is so important in the church or the organization that he is above the ordinary demands of suffering and discipline.

PROTECTION: Never forget the promise: "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). And never forget that the Son of Man had no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58). And develop a Biblical theology of futility and suffering, especially from Romans 8:17-30.

"Not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." (Rom. 8:23)

There is a crying need for leaders who say with Thomas, "Let us go up and die with him." We would do well to read the story of Raymond Lull the Medieval missionary to the Muslims of Tunis. He shared the Franciscan "mania for martyrdom" and gave himself to die when he was over 80. Let us listen to Elizabeth Elliot's voice of discipline, and ponder the title of her biography of Amy Carmichael, "A Chance to Die."

10. PITFALL: Giving in to self-pity under the pressures and loneliness of leadership.

The stronger the impulse of self-pity, the more inclined we are to reward ourselves with unusual treats. The more we pity ourselves for how hard life is the more easily we justify a little extra pleasure —even illicit sexual pleasure.

What goes on inside the head of a Christian leader when he is about to fall for the affection of another woman and commit adultery? I don't know. But perhaps something like this:

"Nobody else understands my pressures. Nobody else seems to feel for me in my loneliness the way she does. If any of them knew what I was going through in this leadership role, they would understand why I need this kind of embrace, I need this kind of "unconditional acceptance". I have borne enough of the burden of being everybody's spiritual example, I can't take it any more. And I don't care if they don't approve."

Self-pity is a subtle and deceptive power. It looks so meek and weak. But underneath is the partner of pride and a blind leader into the ditch.

PROTECTION: Embrace the essence of "Christian Hedonism"—the doctrine that no one who suffers the loss of any earthly blessing in the service of Christ will fail to be repaid a hundred-fold now (with persecutions!) and in the age to come eternal life (Mark 10:29-30).

In other words acknowledge that self-pity is unbelief in the promises of Jesus Christ.

Paul had reason to be self-pitying if anyone did. At the end of his life almost all had deserted him in one of his greatest hours of need. How did he handle it?

At my first defense no one took my part; all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength to proclaim the word fully." (2 Tim. 4:16-17)

The Lord—and he alone—must be our portion, or we will cave in to self-pity and all the sin it brings. This is the last defense against sexual temptation—or should we say, offense—the overwhelming power of the beauty of Christ, and the irresistible lure of everlasting fellowship with him.