Yesterday, Kevin DeYoung reminded his readers of the dangers inherent in ungodly tolerance. He pointed out that the church must never be tolerant of sin or false teaching and needs to protect herself through discernment and theological firmness. He’s right and I encourage you to read what he has to say.

His post brought to mind another form of tolerance that threatens to destroy not the church, but our souls. It is the tolerance of sin in our personal lives.

At seminary, I take part in a ministry seminar built on local church case studies. Every week we have a confidential conversation that helps us think through a real-life ministry challenge that a member of the group has faced. Inevitably, the root cause of the conflict is unconfessed or unrecognized sin.

Sin is pernicious and evil. It begins small and whittles its way to the heart, poisoning and ultimately killing people. It is a virus, a blight that threatens the life’s work of any Christian, whether he or she is in full-time paid ministry or not. But here’s the thing: sin is also fun. It’s enjoyable! We love it! If we didn’t love sin, we wouldn’t commit sin. It is the thing that we don’t want to do, yet continue doing (Rom 7) because our sinful flesh is an expert at blinding us in the moment, taking our eyes off of Christ, and placing them on ourselves. In those moments we rebel against Christ, our own pleasures replacing Jesus as our ultimate desire.

Sin’s first mission is to convince us that it’s not as dangerous as God says it is. Paul tells us in Romans that its end result is death (Rom 6). Jesus himself warns us that sin keeps us out of the kingdom of God and banishes us to an eternity in hell (Rev. 22). We listen to Thyatira’s Jezebel and tolerate sin in our own lives. We go ahead and sin so that grace may abound. After all, that word of anger wasn’t that bad. We only entertained that lustful thought for a few minutes. The gossip in the office didn’t really hurt anyone.

And so sin remains and festers. It thickens our blinders until we find ourselves in a morass of sin, its devastating consequences all around us. No pastor wakes up one morning and decides to throw it all away for a random fling. No church member destorys her family on a lark. Sin was at work long before that. It is a slow leaven that works its way through our entire selves until ministry leaders fall, church members lose their reputations, and families are town apart.

These devastating effects led the New Testament writers to warn their readers against the tolerance of personal sin. Paul tells the Corinthians not to put Christ to the test by engaging idolatry, the root of all sin. In fact he exhorts us to flee from all idolatry (1 Cor 10)! He tells the Romans that sin wages war against them, the implication being that if we don’t want to die, we have to fight back. Better, we need someone to fight back on our behalf.

We are often tempted to wage war against sin by working harder to resist sin. Certainly there is a sense in which we must resist the devil so that he may flee from us (James 4). But when confronted with the danger of sin, we add more layers of accountability, work harder to avoid temptation, or engage in a bevy of spiritual practices to distract ourselves from our sinful impulses. None of these things are bad in and of themselves, but if we are driven by the belief that our victory against sin depends on our own strength then we will always fail.

Instead, we must lean on the one who decisively defeated sin and death at the cross and tomb. We must rely on the power of the Spirit to speed us away from sin and toward righteousness. We are to clothe ourselves in Jesus Christ, making no provision for the flesh (Rom 13:14). It is when we wear Christ and his righteousness as a garment that the grip of sin begins to loosen.

In order to do what we are called to do – walking properly as in the daytime (Rom 13:13) – we must assume a posture of humility and surrender. We must recognize our inability to attain the perfection to which Christ calls us (Matt. 5:48). Instead, we must rely on the Holy Spirit to carve out the fruit of the flesh so that we may bear his fruit in our lives (Gal 6). How do we do this? “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.” (James 4)

It seems simplistic, but it is the prescription. Draw near to God! How? By prayerfully submitting to his Word and joining with the people of God for worship (Heb 10:25). Prayer, Bible study, and going to church. Simple, yet powerful.

Do you mourn and weep over your sins? Do you allow your joy to be turned to gloom when confronted by the evil of your heart? Do you allow yourself to be humbled before the Lord? I pray that you will. I pray that I will. Because there is a promise in James 4, the promise that God will not leave us in this gloomy, humbled state. No, he will exalt us, place crowns on our heads and welcome us into his presence!

Brothers and sisters, we must not tolerate sin. We must put it to death that we may live to Christ and be led through the good works that God has prepared beforehand for us to enter (Eph 2).

Posted by Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

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