By Joe Bliffen
Your initial reaction to hearing about a terrible sin someone has committed indicates immediately whether you are developing the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16*). “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). What was Jesus’ attitude toward sinners as he walked among us?
In Zacchaeus, Jesus saw a man who had really messed up his life and needed a friend. On the cross, Jesus saw two criminals and the Roman soldiers, people who mocked him and blasphemed God. Yet Jesus looked beyond their faults and saw their need; he died for them, and he died for you and me, suffering our death penalty.
When we see a person fail, commit a major sin, or continue in a terrible sin, our first reaction many times is to condemn him. Many believers pray, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like others. I am not an atheist. I am not a homosexual. I am not an adulterer. I’m not a criminal. I go to church, give my tithes and offerings, work with the kids at church, and support all the programs of the church. I thank you that I am not like those sinners.” (See Luke 18:11, 12.)
Often we read or hear about someone who is guilty of a “major sin”—that is, a sin like murder, adultery, homosexuality, theft, or rape . . . you know, a sin that is different from the types we struggle with—and we think, Thank God, I’m not that bad.
Maybe Hell is hotter for “major sinners,” but the Bible is clear about the wrath of God. If the blaze is 10,000 degrees for people who commit major offenses and only 5,000 degrees for minor offenders, one thing is for sure—Hell is still going to be hot!
A denominational minister admitted to me he was homosexual. My response surprised him, and me! I actually felt compassion for him! People who know their Bible might cite Leviticus 20:13 and comment, “The Bible says homosexuality is detestable.” The same Bible also says having “haughty eyes” is “detestable to him” (Proverbs 6:16, 17). The list of sins that are “detestable to him” is quite lengthy. Get your highlighter and check your concordance under detestable and mark the entire list.
Life for my friend is going to get rough, I remember thinking. Most people will condemn him. Joe, you can still hold to the biblical standard of morality, but you’ve got to let this man know you care about him. He does not need to be beaten with my big burgundy Bible. He needs help. He needs a friend.
When I speak with someone about becoming a Christian, I begin by emphasizing that we are all sinners in need of a Savior. You know: “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
I read those passages easily enough; my problem is in applying them to my prospective convert instead of to myself.
An amazing truth dawned on me as I taught one of Orrin Root’s Training for Service rules of Bible study for the umpteenth time. He wrote, “Know who is speaking and to whom he is speaking.” In the verses cited above, John and Paul were writing to Christians. To me.
I used to think that, in relative terms, I was more righteous than those who were unbelievers, murderers, adulterers, homosexuals, and people who practiced the occult. I even taught relative righteousness in Bible studies and from the pulpit.
Then I discovered that the first chapter of Romans has 32 verses (and I had been reading only the first 28). Those last four verses include some of my sins. They were written in the same context as the six sins graphically described in Romans 1:18-28. Then, to my horror, I discovered that some of my sins are listed in every list of sins in the New Testament.
I discovered that the apostles’ doctrine declares that the only righteousness I have is my faith in Christ (Romans 4 and 5). All the rest of my relative righteousness is “as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).
In July 1998 I accepted my brother Steve’s invitation to preach at the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex. After entering through the heavy, remote-
controlled prison doors, we made our way to the cafeteria for the service. There I stood in the presence of 125 inmates, including convicted thieves, rapists, extortionists, and murderers. Some were going to be in prison for the rest of their lives.
It was intimidating at first. There was nothing to protect me from them. (Now, I also know there was nothing to protect them from me!) But I quickly came to feel I was not in the slightest danger. These men were different. Steve had baptized most of them into Christ. They were redeemed, forgiven Christians.
So, when considering where I should sit, it came to me, I am really no better than these men. So I took a seat out in the middle of the inmates. I thought, This is where I belong. I am a redeemed sinner, too. Here, all we sinners sat together. Jesus had looked beyond all our sins and saw our need.
For anyone who is developing the “mind of Christ,” that’s the way we are supposed to look at sinners—both minor sinners and major sinners.
I am not trying to justify sin. The New Testament standard of faith, morality, and ethics applies to every person, whether or not they believe Jesus is the Son of the living God. Anyone who breaks the “law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2) is guilty of sin and deserves God’s wrath.
But it is not any Christian’s place to judge or condemn anyone. Christians have been told to be “witnesses” of the love and forgiveness of the Lord Jesus who is willing to forgive (that is, “to restore”) any sinner, regardless of the depth of their iniquity.
Several years ago in Christian Standard, I read the story of the conversion of Jeffrey Dahmer. I remember thinking, That’s what Christianity is all about. Looking beyond faults and seeing needs.
So, as Jesus did when he walked among us, we are to look beyond the sins of others and ask ourselves, What can I do to meet the need of this person who is in trouble, even if he created his own mess and is going to continue in his sinfulness? Remember, the apostle John said all Christians continue to sin (1 John 1:8-10).
I know a man who quit the preaching ministry. He admitted he was not a good role model and thought he needed to get out of church leadership. But, within two months of resigning, he received a Christmas card from retired minister Wayne Smith of Lexington, Kentucky.
Smith wrote, “I hope you have a fine Christmas. Don’t say that you are the chief of sinners, because Paul said he was. You are appreciated by those who really love you. Proverbs 17:17 says, ‘A friend loves at all times.’ Get on with your life and get back in the pulpit. There are none pure standing behind the sacred desk. ‘If only the perfect birds sang—the forest would be quiet.’ Love ya, Wayne.”
Just like Jesus, Smith looked beyond that preacher’s fault and saw his need. That guilty preacher accepted Smith’s love and advice. That guilty preacher, a “major” sinner like King David and Saul of Tarsus, is back behind the sacred desk, singing. One little part of the forest is not quiet anymore.
Every believer needs to admit that his sins are as damnable as the sins of any other person. “The soul that sins will die” . . . period.
And then, in humble acknowledgement of our own sinfulness, look beyond the faults of others and befriend them because that is what they need.
As my friend Jerry used to say, “You know the drill: Be like Jesus.”
*All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version of the Bible, ©1984.
Joe Bliffen serves as minister with Fourth Avenue Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Columbus, Ohio.