Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience

Fulfilling the Law of Christ:
Restoring the Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience

Galatians 6.1-2

The Scandal

Eleven years ago, famed evangelical church historian and Wheaton professor, Mark Noll published a book entitled The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, in which he indicted the superficial mindset of Evangelicals who, in pursuit of “souls,” belittled the life of the mind. The result, Noll argues, was an atrophy of serious biblical and theological thinking that engages the world and the spectrum of the disciplines. In all of this shallow thinking about God and His world, Noll claims that the greatest scandal of all is the scorning of “the good gifts of a loving God.” He writes: “For an entire Christian community to neglect, generation after generation, serious attention to the mind, nature, society, the arts – all spheres created by God and sustained for his own glory – may be, in fact, sinful.”[1]

Now, I suppose it is possible that renegade sub-groups within Western evangelicalism could have escaped this scandal. Perhaps the Covenant Chapel is one of them. However, there is another scandal which, according to statistics, no Christian sub-group has escaped. Earlier this year Ron Sider published a short book entitled, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. It is a simple book with a simple but profound message – on matters of biblical morality such as marriage and divorce, sexual promiscuity, racism and neglect of the poor, evangelicals rank no better, if not worse, than non-Christians. Sider makes a distinction between “born-again Christians” and Evangelicals, BAC comprising anywhere from 35-43 percent of the population and Evangelicals amounting to only 7-8% (“cream of the crop”). Drawing from the research of George Barna, Sider points out that the divorce rate among evangelicals is the same as that of the rest of the U.S. population, 25%! With respect to finances, in 2002 only 9% of Es tithed, never mind that the tithing is considerably less that 10%! But what’s wrong with that? Well, for one thing, it appears that the richer we get, the more we spend on ourselves and less we tithe to kingdom work. BUT THE SCANDAL GETS WORSE. According to the world bank, 1.2 BL people live on less than a dollar a day. If American Christians tithed a full ten percent, this would generate $143 BL to empower the poor and spread the gospel. According to Jeffrey Sachs, renowned economist and special advisor to the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, $124 BL would raise the extreme poor to the basic needs level.[2] On the topic of sexual promiscuity, statistics show that 26% of evangelicals approve of pre-marital sex and 13% condone extramarital sex (yes, sex with another partner other than your spouse)! Additional staggering figures could be adduced regarding evangelical compromise in the areas of pornography, racism and spousal abuse.

Is there a prescription for the Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience? Does Scripture hold out any instructions for the sinful, scandalous behavior of Christians? Is there any hope for the western evangelical church? I think so. Turn with me to Galatians 6.

Prescription for the Scandal

Some issues seem to never go away, though they often decline in times of spiritual awakening and renewal. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul makes a similar list in 5.19-21, concluding that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. This is both a personal and corporate problem.

Galatians is theologically rich and dense epistle written to Christians who were being tempted to add to the gospel, to require the Jewish rite of circumcision and “works of the Law” for true new covenant membership. Under these temptations to Jewish-ize the teaching of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, had divided churches, pitting Jew against Gentile. Table fellowship was broken between those whom Christ has died to unite. Apparently, that wasn’t the only sin on the loose. After a sustained argument for justification by faith alone, apart from the works of the Law, Paul turns to address the ethics, the conscience of the Galatians in 5-6. Picking up in 6.1 Paul writes: “Brothers, even if any one is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.”

According to the statistics we covered earlier, there is a high probability that Christians, evangelicals in this room are caught in a sin. But does this verse apply to any sin? Well, first of all it applies to everyone, Paul’s word choice makes that clear. The word he has chosen for trespass or sin can also be translated “false step” and is often used to convey transgression against God, the very sins for which Christ was crucified and raised (Rm 4.25). This false-stepping is in contrast to waking in the Spirit mentioned in 5.25 and could include any of the sins mentioned in 19-21, sins such as sexual immorality, neglect of the poor, jealousy and pride. Notice the three sins listed immediately prior to our verse, in 5.26, boasting, challenging one another and envy. Now the first two sins are easily detectable. I mean, you can very well hide boastfulness and challenging others. However, envy, now that’s a subtle sin and one we evangelicals may need to be more concerned about. The sin of envy brings an interesting movie clip to mind. In the movie, Napolean Dynamite, there is a scene where Uncle Rico and his nephew, Kip, are going door-to-door selling Tupperware. In a particular setting, Uncle Rico and Kip are sitting across from the table of a couple, with the “32-Piece Set” of Tupperware on the table. After explaining the benefits of the plastic-ware, Rico then brings out the “free gift,” a model of a schooner. As soon as the wife lays her eyes on the model ship, she exclaims, “I want that!” Now, we all laugh because the exclamation is so out of no-where. But in reality, this is a good picture of envy. All of sudden this woman is seized with desire for that ship, more than anything else, she wants it! For the women, perhaps you were seized by envy this week when you saw an outfit on another woman or in a store window and at that moment (and perhaps moments, minutes, and even days after that) you desire that dress more than anything else, more than Christ himself- that’s envy. For the men, perhaps you were driving down the street and a flashy new sports car or SUV passed you on the highway and you haven’t been able to get it out of your head. And when you think about it, you want it more than anything, even Christ. That’s envy. And envy, when within the church, can be corrosive and community-destroying. Such sins not only dishonor God but often disrespect others. Nevertheless, Paul leaves the particular sin intentionally ambiguous in order to focus on the appropriate response, a prescription, for the community of faith. What then is the prescription…RESTORATION.

Yes, Paul prescribes restoration for the person in sin, in any sin. Notice that Paul says “restore” NOT discipline, reject, or ostracize. There’s an important place for discipline, but that’s not what Paul is talking about here. The point is to return the person to their former way of obedience. The word is used in Ezra 4.12 in reference to the Israelites reconstruction, repair of the walls of Jerusalem. The idea is that broken-down parts of the wall are not tossed aside but refortified and restored into the wall. Not removing the stones of the wall but restoring them will, in most cases, make the wall stronger, not weaker. Perhaps some of you have been restored by a brother. I can remember participating in some college ministries when I was a student in which rebuking others seemed, for some, fashionable. Somewhere, somehow is their zeal for holiness (at least others’ holiness) some spiritual people took it upon themselves to rebuke anything that walked on two feet and often in the wrong spirit. This is not what Paul is advocating.

Notice how Paul begins his prescription for someone caught in sin, “Brothers.” This word is meant to arrest the attention of the Galatians while also conveying a warm, personal, brotherly tone. As such, he subtly reminds the Galatians that they are not a corporation, or even a collection of individuals, they are FAMILY, a community of Spirit-filled disciples of Jesus. Perseverance in our discipleship is a community project. Paul provides two key ingredients in his prescription of restoration: gentleness and watching. The first ingredient is that the restoring be done in a “spirit of gentleness,” providing an excellent example of the fruit of the Spirit mentioned in the previous verses. This means that we approach brothers and sisters who are in sin with broken-hearted boldness, with humble love, with great concern for the outcome of their faith and future. The second ingredient is watching. For John Owen, this was a very important word; it meant diligent observation and attention to one’s own weaknesses and temptations. The implication for restoring is that we do so with great care and humility of heart, knowing our own propensity to leave the God we love. Notice then, that the prescription of restoration includes an individual and corporate dimension with it. The ingredient of gentleness is directed towards the community, to brothers and sisters in sin. The ingredient of humility (or self-watching) is directed towards self. In restoring others, we should watching ourselves.

Now that we have a prescription for the scandal of sin- gentle restoration- you may be asking yourself, “Yeah, but how do I, do we, do this?” “Is there a pattern, a paradigm for this?” Well, I’m glad you asked!

Paradigm for the Prescription

In 6.2 Paul writes: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way fulfill the law of Christ.” The burdens in view are those of restoring one another to obedient living. What then does it mean to fulfill the law of Christ? In order to understand this phrase, focus your attention on Paul’s conjunction “so” which is better translated by the NIV as “in this way.” “In what way?” you ask? According to Paul, “bearing one another’s burdens” is the way in which we fulfill the law of Christ. By sharing our struggles and even our sins we can bear one another’s burdens and prevent scandalous behavior, actions not fitting for those who have been justified. This idea of fulfilling the law is also addressed in Galatians 5, where Paul argues that the freedom granted to the sons of Abraham, those who have set their faith on Christ and have been freed from the Law, should use their freedom to serve one another. In 5.14 Paul writes: “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Here we have the idea of “law-fulfillment” expressed in Paul’s quotation from Leviticus 19.18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19 contains a holiness code, a long list of commands that demonstrate holiness. Interestingly, there are more commands that deal with the community than that are directly related to God. For instance, do not oppress a neighbor, curse a deaf man, slander others, hate your brother, some of the same sins Paul prohibits in his sin list. In fact, I would like to draw your attention to one verse in particular, 19.9, “'Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, neither shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest.” So what does not gleaning the corners of your field have to do with loving your neighbor, bearing one another’s burdens? Well, those more familiar with the OT will recall that Israelites were instructed to not glean the corners of their fields in order to for the poor to come behind them and glean the remaining grain for their livelihood (Ruth-Boaz).

Evangelicals would do well to leave the corners of their budgets for the 1.2 billion people in the world who are in extreme poverty, 15,000 of which die daily due to huger-related, preventable diseases such as malaria and TB. We need to love both our local and global neighbor! Therefore, if fulfilling the law of Christ is loving our local and global neighbor and in our text in particular, bearing one another’s burdens, where can we turn for an example, a paradigm, a pattern of such great and selfless love? TO CHRIST! Jesus Christ is the ultimate paradigm of loving our neighbor, of bearing one another’s burdens and Paul has this in view throughout his letter. Listen to several texts from Galatians.


“Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forevermore. Amen.”


"I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.


“But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, 5 in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" 7 Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.”

So it is in Christ, in his self-denying, sin-bearing, life-giving that we discern a paradigm for gentle restoration.

TRANS: So far we have identified the scandal of sin, the prescription of gentle restoration and the paradigm for the prescription. Finally, we turn to Galatians for the power to embrace the paradigm of Christ and perform the hard work of gentle restoration.

Power for Embracing the Paradigm and Performing the Prescription

Look with me at the last verses I read, Gal 4.4-7, demonstrates the Paul’s perception of the power for carrying out his commands. Paul’s description of the Galatians as ‘sons of God’ in 4.5-7 clues us into the provision and power of God for us to love our neighbor, to bear one another’s burdens:

“But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, 5 in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" 7 Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.”

So, according vss. 4-5, God has made us sons through giving up his Son. Here, as seen earlier with Christ, we have a picture of the paradigm for the prescription for the scandal of the evangelical conscience- God’s giving up of His own Son AND the Son’s giving up of his perfect fellowship with the Trinity, even life itself, to redeem us and make us sons of God! But this is not all…Christ’s self-sacrifice not only provides the pattern for our faith but is the provision for our new power to obey him- the cross! His sacrifice leads to our sonship. If then, God in Christ is both pattern and provision for our discipleship, where is our power to fulfill the law of Christ?

If we were to leave the next two verses out of our understanding of adoption, we would have a one-handed God and powerless people. READ. The ground for Paul’s ethics, the power for carrying out his prescriptions is God sending for the Spirit of his Son into our hearts! Here we have the Trinity at work. In 4-5 we observed the work one of the hands of the Father, the self-sacrificial, self-giving love of the Son. Did you notice the second hand of the Father, the Spirit of the Son? God the Father has reached down with the hand of the Son and the hand of the Spirit to pluck us out of our worldly, sinful estate and placed us in his family, making us sons of GOD! We have been equipped with the Trinity to fulfill the law of Christ. Not only does the Spirit testify the we are the sons of God by crying out “Abba, Father,” but He also empowers us bear one another’s burdens. Turn back to a few verses before our passage in Galatians 6. Notice 5.24-25. Since we belong to Jesus (or have been adopted by the Father), we crucify our own flesh and we live and walk by the Spirit. It is the Spirit who enables us to not commit community-destroying, God-belittling sins such as boasting, challenging one another and envying one another. Instead, we have been redeemed, adopted and empowered to bear one another’s burdens, to fulfill the law of Christ!

The eternal, invisible, all-powerful God of the universe has reached down with the hands of the Son and the Spirit to enable us to carry out the commands of his Word. Through the pattern and provision of the cross and the adoption of the Spirit, we have been given the infinite resources of the Trinity to restore the scandal of the evangelical conscience! By participating in our relationship with the Trinity we can extend the love that the Father has for the Son and the Son for the Spirit and on and on in order to fulfill the law of Christ, to bear one another’s burdens, to gently restore one another while watching ourselves. Walk in the Spirit, trust and follow the pattern of the Son and you will bear one another’s burdens and fulfill the law of Christ!

[1] Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 23

[2] Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for our Time, 290.


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