'If a Christian Commits a Serious Sin, Does This Somehow Prove He or She Was Never a Christian?'

Can a True Believer Even Be Guilty of Adultery and Yet Remain a True Believer in the Eyes of God?

Some while ago the following question came through to my desk.

Here is the question in full:

'Some while ago a married man in our church did wrong with another woman. I understand that he later deeply repented, was reconciled to his wife, but then they went to another church from then on. I heard that they did so to escape "wagging tongues" which did not forgive this man (although his wife did). I don't know how you feel, but to me that is terrible (I mean those 'wagging tongues'). I am not excusing adultery, but don't we Christians expect perfection too often? Something similar happened to my husband and myself a long time ago. After ten years of marriage, I foolishly got attracted to another man. I was a total fool and on about eight occasions over one year I betrayed my husband with this other man. Of course, the whole thing finally came out, and I repented, throwing myself on the mercy of both God and my husband. Both forgave me. I was a total fool and should have known better. Only my husband, myself, the other man and my pastor ever learned about this but, with God's help, we all put it behind us. The funny thing is that before this happened I believe I had been inclined towards being 'self-righteous' but this foolish affair healed me of that. I know now that even as overcomers who are hopefully, becoming more like Christ during our Christian lives, we remain sinners and always need His grace. Before this bad thing happened, I was certainly a Christian but I seemed to go through about a year of moral weakness and openess to temptation when my husband and myself got into some marital problems.

But with this guy in my church just recently, everything he had done over many years was rejected after his moral lapse. He had put together a lot of things for Sunday School and for the youth program, but this was all thrown out and destroyed on the pastor's authority. It is as though people had expected him to be perfect, but don't we all remain "sinners in the sight of God"?

So, my question to you is, If you commited adultery tomorrow (of course, I am sure you would not), would this make everything you have ever written (and in the two years I have been coming to your website I must have read at least sixty of your articles), to be useless and of no further good to Christians anywhere?? Something best destroyed?? I know where I stand on this and I don't think that any Christian is perfect and no moral lapses should ever disqualify all the good a Christian has done.'

Okay, that was the e mail.

A Theological Exploration of the Issues at Stake:

I sometimes think that Christians judge each other far too harshly and do expect perfection, but we should not expect it because none of us suddenly become perfect when we come to Christ and if God removed His grace we would fall again instantly! That is the truth of the matter.

Of course, we live in a society which is totally unforgiving; a person's weaknesses and inadequacies will never be forgotten. But God is so different: when we repent, He promises to remove our sins from us 'as far as the east is from the west.'

You know the old saying, 'If we were accused in court of being Christians, would there be enough evidence to convict us?' Hopefuly there would be. But if any superior moral court went right through our lives I am quite sure that terrible weaknesses, shortcomings and inadequacies would be discovered in every single one of us! If we say, 'No - not in me!' That would sound very much like self-righteousness, to me. The apostle John said this,

'If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence - Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.' (1 John 1:8-2:2, NIV throughout).

Well, that, I would say, is pretty plain! Christians should not sin. However, if any of us claim to be without sin, then we are simply 'deceiving ourselves.' But - even worse - 'the truth is not in us'! - that is pretty strong stuff from the apostle! Jesus knows that we will all continue to struggle with sin (as Paul explains at depth and length in Romans 7:1-8:11). Actually (although it won't seem that way to us), struggling with sin actually builds some worthwhile qualities in us. In his desperation at struggling against a continuing sinful nature, the 'law of sin' as Paul called it, Paul could even cry out,

'What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?' (Romans 7:24).

But he immediately gives the answer:

'Thanks be to God-through Jesus Christ our Lord!...' (Romans 7:25a).

And in case there is really any further doubt as to the final outcome to all of this, Paul 'lays it on the line' in Romans 8:1-4:

'Therefore, there is now NO CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, GOD DID BY SENDING HIS OWN SON in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be FULLY MET in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.' (Romans 8:1-4, my emphasis).

So, as long as our overall life-direction continues along the same path (towards God's kingdom), a Christian's sins and weaknesses (which - make no mistake - will flare up from time to time; if we say they don't, we are deceiving ourselves), remain covered by God's bounteous grace! Since every single one of us falls short every single day, that - I would suggest - is very encouraging news!

But I want to briefly return to what the apostle John said about this.

In 1 John 1:8-2:2 (the Scripture I opened by considering), John is obviously addressing Christians by his use of 'we' and 'little children' - in fact, one can go right to the beginning of 1 John 1, 'That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched - this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.' (1 John 1:1).
It is obvious that the 'we' and 'our' there concerns true Christians who witnessed the life and sacrifice of Christ. Nothing changes when we get to the text which we used earlier (1 John 1:8-2:2). John is speaking of Christians and he plainly states that Christians who claim to without sin are deceiving themselves and that the truth is not in them - serious words! So while it is indeed true that Christians are declared innocent at the very Court of Heaven, that 'innocence', is judicial - it comes from a divine declaration! But that gives no Christian licence to claim any sort of moral perfection and, where any such attempt is made, such peoples risk coming under the anger of God for such presumptuousness. The bottom line is: We only stand by and through the grace of God!

Divine Grace and Election Not Dependent Upon Perfection of Moral Character.

But the second thing which the 1 John text makes clear is God's readiness to forgive us as we occasionally stumble. John wrote,
'But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence - Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.'
Christ intercedes directly to the Father for us when we fall short; we may be sure that such direct intercession cannot fail and that it makes Christians safe - just as long as their overall life direction and path remains in Christ. Does this include longer 'backsliding' phases? Yes, it does, because God is able to look at the bigger picture and so, if we are elected in Christ, we will not fail.

There are several biblical examples of God's refusal to cast aside those He has called and elected to a task when they sin and display moral weakness. Samson was a Judge of Israel with a terrible weakness for Philistine women. The weakness got him into endless problems, but did the Lord reject him entirely? No. Actually, we learn from these examples that God's election is not dependent upon outstanding moral character. Then there is King David, who is called 'a man after God's own heart' (1 Samuel 13:14) even though he often fell short from the required moral standard. He too obviously had a major weakness for beautiful women which caused him continual problems, yet God continued to use him and did not give up on him. Yes, even when he commited adultery with Bathsheba and - effectively - murdered her husband (by having him sent to the front line of battle).

If I, or any Christian writer or minister, stumbled into wrongdoing tomorrow this would in no sense annul or disqualify any biblical teaching we have been responsible for: that should stand or fall entirely on its own merits. The example of the man whose considerable work within his local congregation was cast into the trash-can after he became involved with another woman is very sad and badly-judged in my opinion.

But what I would say is that those leaders who know they have weaknesses in particular areas, should avoid taking a high moral tone or stance in those areas because of the danger of laying thelselves open to allegations of hypocrisy. For example, a wise minister who is undergoing problems with the behaviour of his children will not usually seek to preach on 'wise child-rearing' - at least, not while those problems continue! Yet he may call in another guest preacher to preach on that subject. Indeed, my own children are not perfect and, at this moment, only one of them has commited to Christ (although they are all loosely supportive of the Christian gospel), for that reason I avoid taking a high moral tone on child training; I think that is more appropriate coming from one of those ministers/teachers whose children all became missionaries by the time they were twenty! Of course, that itself could raise further issues and questions; for instance, did they have enough understanding of life and human weakness to embark on such a course at such a young age?

To follow the reasoning of the lady who wrote the original e mail to me, if I were unwise enough to get involved in an adulterous relationship tomorrow, would that effectively disqualify all my writing? Absolutely not. Would it prove I had never been a Christian? Absolutely not. What it would mean is that - in common with thousands before me - I had fallen into a major trial and that the trial would give me great problems which could otherwise have been avoided. But - as I see and understand Holy Scripture - such a foolish trial (which I could have avoided), would not mean that I was no longer a Christian, and would certainly not show that I had never been a Christian, but would amply testify to my entering a trial, a 'backsliding' or 'rough patch.' It would certainly show that - due to the effects of trial and unwise decision making - I was currently behaving in an 'unchristian manner.' No, more than that: It would show that I was behaving in a sinful manner. But, more than that, it could not show, although, if I were unwise enough to undertake such a path, I have no doubt that many would quickly write me off as 'morally-destitute' or whatever.

How Much Does Regular 'Church-Going' Really Show Us?

It frequently bothers me that regular 'church-goers' seem to be so quick to write off people who are going through difficult trials or difficult circumstances.

Recently I heard a very keen church-going lady say,

"What do you think? Mike (real name altered), has given up going to church after twenty years! What can you say about people like that??"

I retorted,
"Well, I personally cannot say anything at all since I am not in possession of all the reasons, facts and circumstances. But I know several people who completely dropped out of 'regular church-going' in order to question certain things which they had been assuming and today they are some of the strongest Christians one could ever meet!"

The lady who made the comment looked at me a little disdainfully and walked away.

It seems especially difficult for certain people to appreciate that 'regular church-going' is not always synonymous with biblical Christianity! After all, many thousands of liberals and unevangelical traditionalists are in church without fail every Sunday, but just how much Biblical Christianity really means to them, and what genuine understanding they have of it, is debatable. But - truth is - regular church-goers (those people who have to be almost dying not to show up on a Sunday!), tend to be religionists and Jesus founded Christianity to be the antidote to religious confusion - not in order to add yet another religion to those already on offer.


Our conclusion should be that if a Christian commits even a serious sin, that does not prove that that person:
1. Was Never a Christian.
2. Has irrepairably 'Fallen Away.'
3. Had Never Been a Christian.
Actually, since we are all so imperfect, it proves nothing at all. Only after several years evidence (with no indications of repentance), can one suggest that the evidence is strong that such a person might never have been part of the 'Body of Christ.'

So it is possible for a true believer in God to stumble and sin under weakness and temptation, yes even stumble into some quite horrendous things (witness David). If we doubt that, then both the apostles Paul and John provide us with the theology to explain it. However, a true Christian believer (despite backsliding phases), will, overall, still keep pressing onwards and forwards toward God's kingdom!

But nothing I have written here should be mistaken as giving Christians a 'permit' to sin, or as antinomianism, or as the teaching of 'cheap grace' - the point I express here was obviously understood and accepted by the apostles Paul and John.
Robin A. Brace, 2007.