In spite of the fact that sexual sin was widespread under the surface in the Church, it was hardly ever discussed openly in 1986 when I founded Pure Life Ministries. Men who struggled were terrified that if they were discovered they would be ostracized by fellow church members. The fear was legitimate.
Gratefully, this has changed, and today sexual sin is talked about openly. Those who struggle are no longer stigmatized and treated as outcasts as they once were. After all, lust is “Every Man’s Battle.” Indeed, the new catch-phrase in the Church is: “God hates the sin but loves the sinner.”
Yes, much has changed for the good in the past 18 years. And yet, I fear that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. Could it be that in our attempt to show compassion to those bound up in sin that we have minimized the evil nature of the sin? In our rush to assure fallen men that “God loves the sinner,” have we forgotten that He also “hates the sin?” Are we giving men the wrong message that God really isn’t too concerned about wickedness?
Unlike many today, Jesus spoke of lust in the most sobering and even frightening terms. For instance, we are all familiar with the passage dealing with lust and masturbation in the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery;” but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:27-30)
Before we blow over these well-known (and to many, worn out) words, we should stop to examine an important term Jesus used in this passage: stumble (Gk. skandalizo). It seems as though Jesus is saying, “If you occasionally have a spiritual lapse, you must sever the cause of it lest you be sent to hell.” How could that be the case? Would Jesus really send a man to hell because he “stumbles” in sin every now and then? Since these words don’t seem to line up with our ideas about God’s grace (“God loves the sinner”), most people tend to think that Jesus really didn’t mean what He said. But I want to say that Jesus made no mistakes in His statements. He said exactly what He meant to say and it is very dangerous to assume otherwise.
One of the reasons these words aren’t taken very seriously by many men today is that the English translation used here is very weak. The Greek term skandalizo is much more alarming than our English term stumble. Perhaps glancing at a couple of other verses where this Greek word is used will give us a better sense of what it really means:
“And in a similar way these are the ones on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away (skandalizo).” (Mark 4:16-17)
“And at that time many will fall away (skandalizo) and will deliver up one another and hate one another.” (Matthew 24:10)
In the context of these two passages, we can see that this term refers to spiritual apostasy. But is that really what Jesus is talking about? Isn’t this term also used in a less dramatic way? Yes, and that is precisely the point. The strength of Jesus’ statement about lust and masturbation should be understood in direct correlation to each individual’s situation.
For instance, if we are talking about a godly man who “walks with the Lord,” but then—in a moment of uncharacteristic weakness—succumbs to temptation and lusts or masturbates, but repents and gets back on track, that would rightly be termed “stumbling.” On the other hand, the word stumble would not be the appropriate term to use for the man who regularly indulges in lust or masturbation. His sin is causing him to fall away from the living God.
Many men I have dealt with over the years have deceived themselves about their sin. They like to say that they “struggle” with lust or masturbation, when the truth is that there really isn’t any struggle going on at all: they regularly give over to the passions of their flesh. Peter described men like this in the Church of his day: “They have eyes full of harlotry, insatiable for sin. They beguile and bait and lure away unstable souls. Their hearts are trained in covetousness (lust, greed)… Forsaking the straight road they have gone astray…” (II Peter 2:14-15 AMP)
This is the sort of man who I believe Jesus is addressing in this passage: men who are habitually sinning. They don’t occasionally slip into the gutter; they live there. It would be very foolish for such men to minimize the gravity of Jesus’ words in this passage. He only used the term hell in a handful of occasions; in this case he used it twice. The implication of His words is unmistakable.
The deception many fall prey to is that since they remain faithful in their church attendance, they can’t be considered as apostates. A backslider is someone who has thrown off all semblances of Christianity and is living in open sin. However, much of the Bible is taken up with the hypocrisy of those who “honor Me with their lips but their hearts are far from Me.”
The context of Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5 revolves around the heart, the inward life. The point Jesus made that is even though a man may not be committing actual fornication the very fact that his heart is full of lust makes him just as guilty as if he were actually practicing it. Thus, it is possible for an individual to fall away from God in his heart even though he still maintains an outward semblance of religion.
The true telling factor of whether a man will face the terrible sentence pronounced by “He who has been given authority to execute judgment,” is not whether or not he is sitting in church every week, but what is going on inside him. Those who have “gone astray” and “fallen away” in their hearts, would do well to drop to their knees and cry out to God for a spirit of repentance. God can restore innocence to every heart that truly desires it – truly cries out to Him for it.
Steve Gallagher is the founder and president of Pure Life Ministries. He has dedicated his life to helping men find freedom from sexual sin and the abundant life in God that comes through deep repentance.
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