Before we read it, I want you to imagine someone in this church, let’s say someone you know kind of well, imagine them coming up to you after church and saying something like:
- “Ryan, you know I love you, but you seem really distracted lately with a lot of different things going on, and I’ve noticed you haven’t really been spending much time with your family. Just wanted to check in and see how you were doing.” Imagine someone saying that to you, what would be your first reaction?
- Or let’s pretend they say something along these lines (and I used this example a few weeks ago, you might recall): “Ryan, you seem to be joking around a lot more than usual— are you trying to escape from something, or are you taking life seriously?” Again, what would be your first reaction?
- Or what if someone said this: don’t you think that outfit is a bit inappropriate?
- Brother, you don’t seem to be showing much love toward people recently…
There are lots of other examples I could use, but generally speaking, someone coming up to me and questioning my actions, or my attitude, my immediate reaction is rarely Christ-like. Why? Because of my pride. Usually our gut-reaction is to defend ourselves and then even attack back! How dare you question me!
None of us enjoy being called out, or questioned, or corrected. But the fact of that matter is that Scripture teaches us that we cannot see our own faults at times, because sin is deceitful. We need brothers and sisters in Christ to help us see things that sometimes we can’t see! Now I’m NOT condoning those of you who are always correcting people, or are on some sort of high-horse. BUT, we DESPERATELY need to watch over one other, and protect one another from sin and the damage caused by sin. Which is why we’re in Acts chap. 4-5.
In the book of Acts, leading up to chapters 4 and 5, you can see the birth of the Christian church. These were great times of love and joy and fellowship and boldness in sharing the truth of the Gospel, even when they were ordered not to do so. In Chapter 5, though, we see that the enemy, because he’s not been able to get at the church with external persecution, he WAS able to affect the church with internal sin. Persecution, if anything, just added to their boldness! But, sin on the inside of the church– that had quite a different effect. Today, I want us to see the nature of sin inside the church, and then also see what we can do as a church to fight this sin! So let’s read Acts 4:32-5:11.
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property,2 and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.”5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9 But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.”10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.
First, the Nature of Sin Inside the Church, here it is:
Willful sin betrays our freedom in Christ.
At the end of chapter 4, Luke is summarizing the beauty and the unity of the early church. He paints just this beautiful picture of the church, saying “the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” Nearly 20,000 people, if you include women and children were so unified and devoted to God and to each other, that they would, without hesitation, sacrifice possessions for each other’s needs. They preached the gospel, lived in purity, they had favor with the people, even those outside the fellowship. Some great things were happening. Then chapter 4 ends with the example of Barnabas who sold a field that he owned, and laid the money at the apostles’ feet. Barnabas was a great example. Now, this early church was not perfect. They stood up so well to persecution, but they were NOT invincible when it came to internal sin.
Barnabas is the good example, but then comes Ananias and Sapphira, who sold a piece of property as well, but kept back some of the money for themselves. Now, for clarity, the sin of Ananias and Sapphira was NOT that they kept some for themselves. This would have been just fine. Verse 4 makes clear that the money belonged to Ananias and Sapphira, and they could do with it what they wanted. They were not forced to give all of it up. The problem was that Ananias and Sapphira LIED about how much money they were giving. In fact the verb translated “held back” actually means embezzle. They pretended to give to God more than they actually gave. So, again, for clarity: the problem was not that they kept some, but that they pretended they were giving all. They lied to God. Specifically, they lied to the Holy Spirit according to verse 3. And because of that, they died.
I love that the Bible never paints things nicer than they are. The Bible is a holy book full of messy people. God took the early church with its messed-up members, and changed the world! The Bible is real, it is honest, it reveals that most of our heroes of the faith had serious problems, and sin-issues. Because of that, we know the church is not a place for perfect people, but a hospital for those who are sick, and who know what the cure is.
But, even with that being absolutely true, what we also see in what we just read is that God takes sin in the church seriously. In case you didn’t notice or fell asleep, let me mention this again: Ananias and Sapphira died. It seems pretty clear this was some sort of divine judgment upon them. And it seems harsh, right? It’s one of the more difficult passages in the New Testament to understand and explain, but even if we don’t understand everything about it, we can still learn from it. God doesn’t mess around with sin among believers. Why? Because willful sin betrays our freedom in Christ. That sounds extreme using the word betrayal, but that’s what it is.
Now, again, for clarity: What we just read is not laid out as the norm; just because you sin doesn’t mean you’re going to die because of that sin. There is forgiveness, and opportunity for repentance. Even in this story, it seems that Peter gave them an opportunity to repent or change their mind in lying about the amount. But even with repentance, even with forgiveness, God does not take sin lightly among his children. Willful sin, or sin of volition, basically you know exactly what you’re doing, it’s unacceptable to God.
You and I have been freed from sin, we are no longer chained by it. We’re no longer enslaved to it: Galatians 5:1- “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” So choosing to disobey God is like walking back into the jail cell, shutting the door, and saying, “I don’t care that you set me free!” It betrays the grace of God by saying that sin is better. So God doesn’t mess around with it. It’s a serious thing.
Now, you may be wondering, Ryan, I thought we were supposed to be a “come as you are” church. No matter who you are, no matter your present situation. Yes! Hopefully our church is a “come as you are” church, truly, but we’re NOT a “stay as you are” church. You don’t have to fix things in your life, or even get rid of sin before you come to Christ. That’s the point, you can’t get rid of it on your own! But when you turn and place your faith in Christ, you are a new creation! When you covenant with a local body of believers, you’re saying I have given my life to Christ. This means I won’t pretend I’m free from sin and yet sit in the jail cell and act like I’m not free! I won’t do it! Nor shall we let others do this! The church is not for perfect people. It’s a hospital for the sick. BUT it’s NOT a hospital for those who are sick and merely pretend to want the cure, and yet really just want to be sick. They want the benefit of being in the hospital— clean sheets, a decent bed, free cable. But they don’t actually want to be healed. They don’t want to be freed. They like being sick. Pretending is catastrophic.
God is repulsed by pretenders. Why? Because they’re misrepresenting Christ. There doesn’t seem to be anything more repulsive to God than misrepresenting His son. I’m not sure if there is anything more devastating to our witness, our message. How many people do we know who refuse to consider Christian truth because they’ve known too many Christian hypocrites? Of course, we know that we don’t represent Jesus perfectly, that’s why we’re here. This is a place for imperfect people to encourage each other to follow Christ! But it is NOT a place for pretenders. Or at least it’s not a place where pretending can be tolerated. And, for clarity, I mean it can’t be tolerated among the church membership.
Anyone can come to this church on Sunday mornings: pretenders, athiests, homosexuals, and you will be welcomed warmly, or at least I hope you’re welcomed warmly. But there is a real standard for those who wish to become a member of this family, this fellowship. So, as members of the body, how can we make sure we’re not mislead? How can we make sure we’re not playing with sin? How can we avoid sin, since we don’t always see it ourselves, right? Has God given us any sort of help with pursuing holiness and avoiding sin? Yes.
First, he’s given us His son Jesus Christ. You and I, on our own, are completely helpless and depraved. We have no ability to truly seek what is good, on our own accord. But God, knowing our depravity, and yet loving us, sent His son Jesus to die on the cross, bearing our sin, and rising again defeating death. If we repent and believe, we are saved from sin. We’re saved from the consequences of sin, and we’re also saved from the power of sin!
Secondly, he’s given us the Holy Spirit. The church, the community of believers, is the realm of the Spirit. In fact, that’s why we see in verse 3 of the story of Ananias and Sapphira that they had lied to the Holy Spirit. It wasn’t just that they had lied to Peter, but the Holy Spirit! It’s by the power of the Holy Spirit that this body worked miracles, boldly witnessed, and experienced incredible growth. He is our power against sin. And then lastly, God has given us the church. So, What can the Church Do to Fight Sin? What Can We Do?
Real Accountability in the Church Protects Us
Perhaps it is not by accident that in verse 11 of chapter 5, the last verse we just read, the Greek word for “church” appears for the first time in Acts. The church can thrive as God’s people only when we can live within the total trust of all members. Where there is real unity, oneness in heart and mind, the church will flourish by the power of the Holy Spirit. Where its unity and oneness fails, its witness fails. One of the greatest things we can do as a church to undermine our witness for Christ, is to not be unified in the same purpose, of gathering, representing Christ, and reaching the world.
We need the people in this room to keep us unified in representing Christ. We need the people in this room to help protect us from the enemy, to watch our blind sides, because we do have them! An environment in which the Holy Spirit is working genuine power and life into our witness as a church, is also an environment devoted to maintaining purity! The Scriptures give us specific instructions on how to go about really helping each other in following Christ and avoiding sin. I want to go there for the time we have left.
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
So the first thing we’re to do to help each other represent Christ and avoid sin, is tell each other when we sin! Someone in this church that’s sinning, or even seems to be sinning, go to them! Notice what it doesn’t say: If your brother sins, just pray for him and hope for the best. It doesn’t say that. It says go to them! Notice what else it DOESN’T say: go tell all your friends. Doesn’t say it. It says go directly to them! We are to lovingly and gently confront each other! So why don’t we do this? Why don’t we actually confront each other?! Because we don’t like being confronted! I don’t like it! We respond with pride and even make up our own accusations!
We say things like, are you perfect? How dare you judge me! We may say or at least think something like, Don’t worry about the speck in my eye when there’s a log in yours! Matthew 7, sounds good right? But if you read Matthew 7 in context, you’ll see that the point is not that we aren’t to judge each other, funny enough! It’s that we’re not to have a different standard for others than we have for ourselves! “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Yes, don’t be a hypocrite! But that doesn’t mean we don’t help others see their sin! We do, we just need to make sure that we can see clearly. I would encourage you, before you decide to show anyone else their sin, pray to God to show you your own! But don’t stop there…then go and tell your brother or sister what you see.
In Matthew 18, this process of confronting sin goes on. If you go to this person and show them their fault, but they don’t repent, at that point, you are to take a few who are spiritually mature with you. And then, if they don’t repent, you take it to the church! Just for clarity, we’re talking about demonstrative, clear, sin. Not greed. We’re not going to take your greed to the church, or your lust. I’m talking about demonstrative sin that is evident, provable. Cheating on your spouse, things like this. This doesn’t mean that we’re going to have a time on Sunday mornings for you to come up and tell everyone who’s in sin. But it does mean, that you take it to the leadership, as in the elders, they will talk with this person, and yes, ultimately, if we’re to obey Matthew 18, which is the first duty given to the church in Scripture, the responsibility of confronting and exposing sin, to obey this means, ultimately, that we are willing to say to someone that they are no longer a part of this fellowship.
[Excerpt from our Constitution & My Paper]
Why so harsh? How could we really do something like that? Why is it that real, actual accountability in the church matters? Because we are representing Jesus Christ in this world! If we’re not protecting our witness for Jesus, then we are undermining the gospel itself, and robbing it of its life-transforming effects. Nothing leads people astray more than a Christian who says to the world, “Yes, Jesus is my Savior, but he’s not important enough to obey.” Nothing misrepresents truth more than that! So why, by covenanting with Raintree Community Church, are you signing up to be shepherded, loved, supported, corrected, admonished, prayed for, watched over. Because there’s no room for distrust, for duplicity, for any breach in fellowship. In the book of Acts, the same Holy Spirit that gave the community its growth also maintained its purity.
If our ultimate goal is to reflect Jesus Christ, let the life of Christ live in us, because we’ve died to ourselves and given our lives to Him, if this is TRULY our ultimate goal as the church, we need all the help we can get! We need encouragement, admonishment, correction, guidance, love, support, all of it! The easy and the hard! We are so easily offended when someone questions our character or motives or actions. But shouldn’t it be the case that even if someone comes to us with a judgmental attitude, or a condescending attitude, telling us our faults, shouldn’t it be the case that we VALUE what they have to say, especially if it might help us reflect Christ more!?
I’m not excusing this someone’s terrible attitude at all. And please hear me, I’m not giving you permission to just walk around correcting people with every personal whim. But we are to value honesty so much that we’d rather have truth given by a judgmental person than no truth at all. In fact, not only should we tolerate that kind of honesty, we should seek it out! We live so proudly (most of us without realizing it) that we are offended at anyone that thinks they have the right to openly question us. When we do that, I think we’re ignorant. We don’t believe the Christian faith is a growing process, we don’t believe that sin can hinder or even destroy our witness for Christ. Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is ignorance. Stop seeking out people who just make you FEEL BETTER about whatever you do, and start seeking out people who will make you MORE LIKE CHRIST!
Maybe you’re asking yourself, where does grace fit in all of this? This sounds so harsh, I thought we were all about grace!
Where Grace Fits In All of This
Other Believers are God’s Gifts of Protection To Us
This IS grace. This is not punishment. This is grace. This is God’s gift of protection to us. Whether we know it or not, the person sitting next to you is God’s gift of protection to you. Joe Cerra, Jeanette Stevenson, Stephen Buller, Lauryn Gilbert, Ben Buckland, these people are God’s gifts to us, gifts of watchfulness. People to be honest, and ask us, “Does the enemy have a foothold in your life?” According to the Bible, what we just read, we in this room are to watch out for each other! We are to take care of each other in a very real sense.
This is God’s grace, His very tangible, right-here with us, grace and gift of protection. People who can show us our faults when we don’t see them! “Well I don’t need people watching out for me.” Yes you do! You in particular, in fact! If someone in our church is saying, “This is an area of my life that is mine, and I don’t want to give it to the Lord.” That’s serious! That’s willful sin. That’s a refusal to submit to Jesus as LORD. To sit here and let you be as you are would be letting this body misrepresent Jesus Christ. It would also, NOT, be truly loving you! NOT truly looking out for what is best for you.
So what would this look like? Often, hopefully regularly, we are encouraging, loving, serving, and yes, correcting each other in love. This will likely happen most organically in smaller groups, or with those who know you best. Then, the second step we see in Matthew 18, where you would go with a few others to lovingly confront, hopefully will be rare. Hopefully we all respond when one person comes to us. And of course, the last step, of it being taken to the leadership of the church, and ultimately to the church as a whole: I pray never happens. Though it probably will at some point. So what would that look like? Ultimately, at a family meeting like the one we have on March 31st, with only covenant members, those who have covenanted with this body, we would ask all of you to pray for this person, and pray that they be restored to God and to the fellowship.
The goal in all of this is restoration. If someone is living in outright disobedience to God, living like a non-Christian, it’s far more important for us to confront, and deal with it as openly, honestly, as humbly as possible, than to just let it slide, and pretend like it’s not happening because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. That’s the culture we are in, that’s not the God who is in us. The culture says do nothing to offend, EVER! Truth, though, is offensive at times. The truth hurts at times. Conviction never feels good, should we avoid it altogether because it hurts our feelings!?
A Spirit-filled church is one in which we bear each other’s burdens, we forgive each other’s faults, and we work hard to spur one another on away from sin and toward Christ. We can’t do any of this without truth, without being able to be honest with each other, lovingly, gently, graciously, confronting each other. Being loving does not mean we sugar-coat the truth. It means our very motivation for saying something is love.
I guess the ultimate question is this: Will you let the other people in this room be part of your sanctification? Will you accept God’s gifts of these people, who might be able to see things in your life that you can’t! I, as your pastor, invite you to be a part of my journey toward Christ-likeness, including correcting me when I need to be corrected. I may not respond all that great at first, but I need that and I want it. I pray that you, too, invite those around you, in this body, to be part of your journey towards becoming who you already are in Christ.