We can be shocked by the serious sins occasionally committed by believers. But we should not be. Scripture is remarkably candid about human failures even when committed by highly regarded servants of God.
Great servants, great sins
David’s adultery with Bathsheba and premeditated murder of Uriah comes first to mind. Our familiarity with the incident must not dull our shock at David’s action. Here was the great servant of God who exercised marvelous faith in respect to Saul; who showed such integrity in regard to Jonathan’s family; who captured Jerusalem to be the center of worship; who rejoiced greatly to bring the ark to its appointed location; who wrote glorious Psalms of praise; who executed justice and judgment to all his people; who extended control to Israel’s northernmost border; who was the prototypical political and religious leader of God’s people. And this man, this great servant of God, committed horrendous iniquity, despising God and God’s commandments (II Sam. 12:7-10 NASB as all quotes).
David’s iniquity is staggering. But such things happen. Middle-age crisis, the lusts of the flesh and the pride of position can blind the eyes and temporarily harden the hearts of even the best of the servants of God.
Consider Peter: He was selected to be one of the closest students and companions of the Lord Jesus Christ. Even within this elite group, he was given the special privileges of witnessing the resurrection of Jarius’ daughter; he accompanied the Lord during the transfiguration and the meeting with Moses and Elijah; he was invited to the inner sanctuary of prayer in Gethsemane. In many situations, he rose to the challenge of leadership: Peter was the one who had the courage to step onto the fearsome seas; Peter was the one who testified, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” and it was Peter who declared, when many fell away, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.” In the upper room, Peter was the one who first objected to the Lord washing his feet and it was Peter who was determined that “Even though all men fall away because of You, I will never fall away.”
Within hours, this elite, faithful, obedient apostle collapsed into cursing and swearing, denying Christ, shouting out, “I know not the man.” Three times he denied knowing the Lord whom he loved. Many followers of Christ have burned at the stake before denying Jesus, and some of our contemporary brothers and sisters suffer terribly because they will not recant their faith.
How could Peter commit this great sin? Obviously he was shocked at what was happening; he was confused and frightened and he collapsed into great iniquity. A great servant committed a great sin.
Consider the early Jewish believers who were scattered in various lands of the Mediterranean. They had great advantages in that they knew the Old Testament and had come to realize Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah. They had not come from the background of paganism with its unbridled indulgence of the flesh. They were Jewish, accustomed to the regular discipline of Jewish life. Yet James says to them “You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel” (Jas. 4:2).
The Greek word rendered “murder” means murder everywhere else it is used in the New Testament. A brother had committed murder, is the shocking conclusion we must accept. Tempers had run so high over an issue that physical violence had broken out and someone had been killed.
If grievous sin happened before, it stands to reason it will happen in our day. Today’s believers are plagued with the same carnal propensities as our forebears. And, if anything, modern exposure to the world and its pressures is greater than before. Thus we can logically expect covetousness, drunkenness, fornication, adultery, child abuse, homosexual sex, hatred, perhaps even murder may occur among today’s servants of God.
When it happens today, however, we can be shocked into disbelief, especially when we know the person who has fallen. How could he/she? We’ve known his/her dedication, good works, involvement in ecclesial life and Bible schools, his/her exhortations to others and pastoral works to restore brothers and sisters. How could such a believer be involved in the very iniquity he/she has stood against so vigorously for so long?
But we know servants of God committed gross sins in the past; it stands to reason such iniquity will happen again, and it does.
How to react
What do we do when grievous sin occurs today among the children of God?
What we don’t do is lose faith in God. David’s sin was David’s fault, as Peter’s was Peter’s. Looking through the eyes of scripture, we see clearly that David had been anointed king, had been delivered from Saul, had been given his master’s house and wives, and given the house of Israel and Judah (II Sam. 12:7-8). David was without excuse. Peter was prayed for, warned in most specific terms and given special attention (Lk. 22:32; Mk. 14:33). The sin James exposes in his letter came from “your lusts that war in your members” (James 4:1). In our own case, God will not try us beyond what we can bear, providing a way of escape from the temptation within the trial. Further, if we are headed into iniquity, He will reveal this to us (I Cor. 10:13; Phil. 3:15). Scripture is clear: our sin is our fault, not God’s. We must not let great sin, ours or someone else’s, turn us against God.
Furthermore, we must not turn away from the truth because a follower of Christ disappoints us by grievous sin. While we may be devastated, it confirms what we know of human nature and what we see revealed in scripture: even the great ones commit great transgression.
If we have admired a person as a pillar in the faith, his/her iniquity can devastate us. But don’t let the other’s failure cost us our eternal life. People fail, we know they will – look at David, look at Peter, look at the early Christian Jews. We can only imagine what the faithful in Israel felt when they learned of David’s iniquity or how the other 10 apostles reacted when they realized Peter had denied his Lord. While they may have been devastated by the failure of a great servant of God, any of them would have been foolish to let someone else’s failure cripple his own salvation.
There’s something else we must not do: we must not redefine sin because the sinner is ourself or one of our loved ones. Iniquity is defined by God, not us. There is great temptation to rationalize one’s own behavior or that of someone we love. The sinner won’t be helped and neither will we. The only way to be saved from sin is to clearly face and admit it. That is critical in order for repentance and forgiveness to occur.
There are some things we can do. If we are the sinner, we should return to God and reestablish our relationship with Him. If someone else has committed great iniquity, we should help him/her restore his faith. If disfellowship has occurred, great effort should be made to help the transgressor return to the Lord and to the ecclesia.
If we are the one, accept God’s willingness to forgive. Take confidence in the forgiveness of David and the recovery of Peter. Follow the example of Peter and not Judas Iscariot, for Judas saw no way back and therefore did not find any.
If great transgression should occur among the servants of God today, let us not live in denial but make every effort to heal and restore. Such sin does give opportunity for the enemy to speak reproachfully. Don’t deny the facts. Confess the problem and openly work with the situation according to divine precepts. It’s happened before and it will happen again, but the word of the living God shows us how to cope with this situation and how, hopefully, to bring about restoration and reconciliation.