As Reformed young people we are faced with a myriad of temptations to turn from our faith. This holds true especially when we graduate from our Christian schools and begin working full time or attending college. We are then exposed to a wide array of beliefs and ideas that differ from our own, but more importantly, we gain a better grasp of the world’s mantra, “Eat, drink, and be merry.” This ideology is very enticing to sinners such as we. Unfortunately, some within our circles slowly begin to embrace this lifestyle. In so doing, they spend more and more time with those of the world and less and less time with fellow believers. Church attendance is neglected and before long, it appears that our friends have “gone off the deep end.” Any attempts to point out the folly in their lifestyle results only in their drawing farther away. How are we, as Reformed young people, to approach those who knowingly live in sin and neglect the chief means of grace in the preaching? Do we bring the word with us every time, even though it drives them further away? Or is it sufficient that they “know where we stand” regarding their lifestyle and we should attempt to maintain a relationship with them? Any insight would be appreciated.
The reader asks what we must do when we see a fellow young person walking in the ways of sin. This is a situation in which much wisdom, patience and courage are required. First, we must understand that there are different kinds of sins in the church. All sins are damnable; all sins are displeasing to God; but not all sins should be dealt with in the same way. The Bible gives us guidelines on how to deal with different kinds of sins. Wisdom is necessary in the application of such principles. Proverbs 17:9 says, “He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends.” Certain transgressions, therefore, ought to be covered for the sake of love and friendship. Sins must not become the subject of gossip! A person must not be so prickly that he demands an apology for every minor insult. Hypersensitivity would make covenant life in the church impossible. Galatians 6:1–2 describes another situation: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Here, the calling is not to cover the transgression, but to restore the stumbling brother. Satan has laid a trap for the brother and in his folly (perhaps because he neglected to watch and pray) he has been “overtaken.” Love demands that we do not ignore the sin. We certainly do not join the brother in sin. We do not stand afar off, wagging our finger like a Pharisee, and condemn the brother (Luke 18:11). We approach him with compassion, considering our own weakness, and we “restore” him. To restore has the idea of the gentleness required in the setting of a broken bone. Carefully, tenderly, with great compassion and love, we tend to our fallen brother. We do not rejoice in his stumbling, tell all our friends about it, invite them to see our fallen brother, and trumpet his folly over Facebook! Meekness, however never means weakness or the indulgence of sin.
One further caution: we must be sure before we proceed that the person is actually committing sin. It is possible to accuse someone wrongly of sin. Certain activities, while distasteful to you, might not necessarily be sin. Sin is an activity in violation of God’s commandments, not your commandments. The subject of Christian liberty must not be overlooked, but neither may we use liberty “as an occasion to the flesh” (Gal. 5:13).
The situation described by the reader, however, is much more serious. This is not a minor transgression that we can afford to overlook for the sake of love. This is not a foolish fall into sin that can be remedied through restoration in meekness. This is a pattern of willful disobedience against God, a pattern that must be broken. To walk or live in sin means that sin, not righteousness, has become a way of life. This walking in sin manifests itself in a pattern of worldliness, a love for the pleasures of this world. The Bible tells us that we must live in the world and that we may even enjoy lawfully the things of this world, but we must not love the world itself. Most serious, and an indicator of a serious underlying spiritual problem, there is a neglect of the means of grace and a failure to live in the community of the church. There may even be a growing dissatisfaction with the worship, preaching, and way of life of the true church. In those situations, you can be sure, the false churches are more than willing to cater to the lusts of the flesh and to offer an easier road to heaven. Perhaps your friend has already heard their siren song: “Come to us! Our worship is livelier! Our fellowship is better! We are more loving!” Of course, they omit to tell you that their doctrine is false, their sacraments are corrupted, and their discipline is neglected!
Sometimes young people faced with such rebellious friends despair of what they can do to slow down or stop the downward spiral. But this we must say: ignoring the sin is not an option for a friend who loves. “Open rebuke is better than secret love” (Prov. 27:5). “He that rebuketh a man afterwards shall find more favor than he that flattereth with his tongue” (Prov. 28:23). Love “rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth” (1Cor. 13:6). Love demands that the young person whose friend is guilty of walking in sin does not ignore the friend’s lifestyle. This is where we need wisdom, patience and courage. Wisdom! We do not approach our friend suddenly without thinking and without much prayer, blundering upon him without any tact or common sense. Patience! We do not expect immediate results, as if one verse of Scripture will immediately break the stubborn heart of our wayward friend. If a person is deeply entrenched in sin, many careful, patient, persistent, loving admonitions are required. Courage! This too will be necessary because our natural reaction is to fear our friend’s response: “Who do you think you are?” “You’re no better than me!” “Mind your own business!” Ultimately, we feel we might lose our friend, and the whole situation is too risky. Don’t rock the boat! Just pretend nothing has happened! These are the temptations we face.
The questioner asks, “Do we bring the word with us every time?” Absolutely! You must! What else would you bring? Do we not, as Reformed young people, believe that the word of God has power? Is it not the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16)? Is it not sharper than any two-edged sword (Heb. 4:12)? The devil would have us bring a butter knife because he fears the sword of the Spirit. Bring the word, and be comforted in this: a child of God will always (even if it takes more time than we hope or expect) respond to the word of God. Christ’s sheep hear his voice and they follow him, even if for a time they wander astray to their own hurt.
Matthew 18 lists the steps we must take. First, we admonish the brother privately (v. 15). With this first step, we must come meekly. “Brother, I noticed that you did […]. Don’t you realize that this is sin? I love you and I am concerned for you. Let us talk about it. Let us see what God says about this behavior.” Don’t come in with all guns blazing. We are engaging in spiritual surgery, using the word as a spiritual scalpel, not as a sledgehammer to break the brother’s skull. We must not think that one admonition is enough to warrant the second step. “I told him once. Now I can wash my hands of the whole situation. He knows where I stand.” The Bible does not say how many times you must come to your brother. However, if it becomes clear that he is hardening himself in his evil way, step two will become necessary. Bring witnesses. Admonish him again in the presence of the witnesses (v. 16). At no point in the process may you gossip about the sin to others.
If your friend persists, the elders of the church must be called. Are you reluctant to do this? Does this seem too extreme? The Lord has given the elders to the church for this purpose, “to watch for your souls” (Heb. 13:17). And if the brother has been missing church for some time, the elders will have (should have) noticed. Do not be afraid of the elders. It is not their will to tyrannize or excommunicate your friend. That is never the will of godly elders. Church discipline is the Lord’s way to restore erring members of his church. We must not be afraid to use it, and we must believe that God is able to save through it. Perhaps a visit from the elders is the shock your friend needs to bring him to his spiritual senses. The Lord has other instruments. As our loving Father he chastises and is never at a loss what to do.
Remember, too, young people, that you are all under the authority of the elders. There are two kinds of young people in the church, specifically in the Protestant Reformed Churches and in her sister churches. First, there are baptized members. These are “by God, through baptism, admonished of and obliged unto new obedience…that [they] forsake the world, crucify [their] old nature, and walk in a new and holy life.” About these we pray that they might “live in all righteousness under our only Teacher, King and High Priest, Jesus Christ, and manfully fight against and overcome sin, the devil and his whole dominion” (Confession and Church Order, 258, 260). Second, there are confessing members. These, in addition to what they are obliged to through baptism, have made public vows before God and his church: “Have you resolved…to lead a new, godly life?” (Ibid, 266). Therefore, young people, you have grounds for coming to your erring friends, meekly, with the word of God, and with the spirit of prayer. You must tell your friends that they are sinning against their baptism, and, if they are confessing members (which makes matters much worse), you must tell them that they are breaking the vows they made at confession of faith.
It is easy to lose courage and to compromise, turn a blind eye, and pretend that sin does not affect fellowship. This is what the world says: “If you love your friend, be tolerant, don’t judge, don’t make a fuss!” But Christ would have you take the way of Matthew 18. Do not be afraid to use it, and may the Lord bless it to the salvation of his precious covenant youth!