Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Long Road Home: Recovery From Horrible Spiritual Failure

“When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘...I will go home to my father and say, 'Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.' So he returned home to his father." - Luke 15:17-20 (NLT)

I have written quite often from the "victim's" perspective.  That is an unfortunate fact that was brought to my attention recently by a dear friend who asked something along the lines of, "When are you going to write about how people who have done terrible things can recover and be restored?"  From that time until now the concept for this article has been rolling around in my mind.  How does one recover from horrible spiritual failure?  Is it possible to recover?  How should Christians respond to other Christians who have fallen away?  In this article I will endeavor first to speak to the one who has fallen and, afterward, to the Church and our response.


Yes.  I admit it is an overly simplistic answer but it is the right one.  A Christian who commits a sin can recover.  This is the point the Apostle John was making in his First Epistle.

1 John 1:8-10 (ESV)
"If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us."

Remember that John was writing to Christians and to Christians he said, "if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves," and furthermore, "if we say we have not sinned, we make him (God) a liar."  And to the Christian who sins the Holy Spirit through the Apostle John says, "if we confess our sins, he (God) is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us."  He does not say, "A Christian never sins and, therefore, if one does sin they have no recourse but to die in their sins."  He links a sinning Christian to confession of sins and thereby provides a means of forgiveness.

"Not so!," some would say in objection.  "A Christian cannot sin!"  Then allow us to turn the page to chapter 2 and find out the whole truth of the matter.

1 John 2:1a (ESV)
"My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin."

Yes, the Apostle John was writing to Christians giving them admonitions, warnings and exhortations according to the Spirit of God so that they would not sin.  This is the ultimate purpose of the Scriptures in the life of the Christian: to give guidance away from sin.  But John did not stop there.

1 John 2:1b-2 (ESV)
But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world."

Certainly sounds like it is very possible for a Christian to sin.  In fact, if taken completely in context, it seems that it is very likely that a Christian will sin.  This is not to say that a Christian can perpetually abide in a sinful lifestyle and remain a Christian (see 1 John 3:8).  But it is to say that a Christian who sins is not automatically damned to spend the rest of their life in exile and their eternity in perdition.  The blood of Jesus Christ, His work at Calvary and the grace of God are greater than the sins of the whole world past, present and future.  To deny forgiveness, restoration and recovery to the erring is to deny the power God entirely.  If an erring Christian cannot rise once again then we have no reason to believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead!

Do not allow yourself to believe the lie that committing a sin is the end of your walk with God.  Only YOU have the power to determine whether or not you will allow the fact that you have sinned to stop you from once again finding forgiveness at the foot of the cross through the abundant mercy of Jesus Christ.  So many times people have said, "I've gone too far to ever come back."  But consider the nature of the original covenant you made with God when you were born again.

1 Peter 1:18-19 (ESV)
"Knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot."

The blood of Jesus Christ is that which gives efficacy to the covenant.  Without His shed blood there is no possibility for the forgiveness of sins (see Hebrews 9:22).  Notice how the Apostle Peter speaks of the precious blood of Jesus Christ.  He begins by mentioning "perishable things" and then, by contrast, the blood of Christ.  The blood of Christ is an imperishable thing.  That is to say, it has an efficacy which is inexhaustible.  If grace and mercy could be photographed it would look exactly like Christ at Calvary; the sinless dying for the sinful that all might be made holy in Him for no reason other than "God so loved" (see John 3:16; 1 John 3:16).  The blood did not suddenly perish nor was its power diminished by the fact that you sinned.

The sins of thousands of years of human history before the atoning work of Jesus Christ combined were not sufficient to render His blood of no effect nor have the sins of all mankind from Calvary to the present day combined to a magnitude greater than the grace of God.  Where sin has abounded, grace has abounded over and above (see Romans 5:20).  In the singular, personal covenant-relationship between you and God that was instituted when you were born again, you are the only party who thinks you can't recover.  God, the other party in the original agreement, looks at you as one who has sinned and extends His merciful hand again with full confidence that, if you will accept forgiveness again, He will forgive.

To many that might seem like a ludicrous question.  But when you've committed adultery and you know you're guilty...when you've murdered and you know you're guilty...when you've had an abortion and you know you're guilty...when your actions have majorly negatively impacted the lives of others and you know you're guilty...then the question takes on a great validity.  Are there sins that God can't or won't forgive?  The Lord Jesus said that there was only one sin that wouldn't be forgiven; blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 12:31).  But it should be noted that, with that one exception, the Lord very clearly stated that all other sins would be forgiven.  Notice that he did not say, "Every other sin will be forgiven unless, of course, you are already a Christian.  In which case, you can't be forgiven if you sin."

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the perpetual, willful rejection of the Holy Spirit.  It won't be forgiven because the one who so lives their life will never accept salvation through Jesus Christ which is the point to where the Holy Spirit desires to draw all men.  In other words, the only sin you can't be forgiven for is the failure to accept the Holy Spirit's drawing of your heart unto salvation.  Absolutely everything else you can think of is forgivable by God.  Consider the list given by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10:

"Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God."

Now, if you've committed a sin on that list you might feel hopeless if you don't follow through to verse 11:

"And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."

The message of the Gospel is that God forgives sins.  It doesn't matter to Him whether those sins occur before conversion or after conversion.  It doesn't matter to Him if those sins are "big" or "small," though no such classification exists in God's eyes.  God is not concerned with the nature of your sin; He is preoccupied by the means of your forgiveness.  And if you will come to him, as a Christian who has fallen, and confess your sins to God, He who cannot lie has said, "I will forgive you" (see 1 John 1:8-2:2).

Christian, have you been sexually immoral?  God can forgive you.
Christian, have you worshiped something other that the true God?  God can forgive you.
Christian, have you committed adultery?  God can forgive you.
Christian, have you committed a homosexual act?  God can forgive you.
Christian, have you stolen?  God can forgive you.
Christian, have you been greedy?  God can forgive you.
Christian, have you gotten drunk or participated in wild parties?  God can forgive you.
Christian, have you cheated people?  God can forgive you.

No, forgiveness is not license to practice these things as a way of life.  You must turn back to God and walk away from these ungodly things.  At the same time, the fact that you have been a Christian and have, after conversion, committed these acts does not negate the ability of God to forgive you of them if you will come to Him in repentance.  Nowhere in God's Word did He say, "I will only forgive you of certain things after you've been born again."

Open your Bible to Luke 15 and read the parable of the prodigal son.  You'll see yourself there.  Furthermore, you'll see the steps you need to take to make the journey back home.
  1. Realize that you are where you are by your own choice and accept responsibility for your actions  (see Luke 15:17).  The prodigal son did not attempt to justify his condition.  He was wallowing with the pigs.  He had, by his own choice, made a mess of his life.  And there, covered in the filth of the pigpen, he made a decision.  The same free will that chose to sin now chose to stop.  If you have committed a sin, you must accept responsibility for it.  It's not the Father's fault.  It's not anyone else's fault.  You made the decision.  Now, make another decision and return to the Father's house.  
  2. Get up and go home.  Go back to the Father's house and confess to the Father what you have done, your own unworthiness and your sincere repentance (see Luke 15:18-19).  The prodigal could repent in the pigpen but he couldn't be restored there.  He went back to the father's house to be restored to his rightful place in the family.  Go back to the Church.  Go back to that structure symbolic of the Kingdom of God.  Walk back into the Father's house in confession, contrition and repentance so the Father can forgive you and restore you.  
  3. Accept the Father's forgiveness (see Luke 15:20-24).  Do not kneel down in prayer and rehearse all of the reasons why you think God shouldn't forgive you or why you think you're beyond help.  Let the Father put his arms around you and kiss you with His grace as we welcomes you back into the Family.  His desire is to put a new robe on you (cleansing you from the filth of your fall), put a ring on your hand (restoring you to your rightful place in the Family of God) and put shoes on your feet (preparing you to start again your Christian journey).  What is more, He wants a celebration of your recovery by all that are in the house.  

The prodigal son's long road home is yours as well.  Just as his father received him, likewise your Heavenly Father desires to receive you once again.  Do not allow where you are now to determine where you will be for eternity.  Do you buy into the lie that you cannot be forgiven.  Take the words of Joseph Hart's 1769 hymn and make them your anthem:

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.


In the Lord's parable of the prodigal son there is another character which needs to be explored.  He is called the "elder son."  It was his brother who had walked away from the father's house.  It was his brother who had wasted all his money on drunkenness, prostitutes and wild living.  Meanwhile, the elder son stayed faithful in the father's house, a fact he reminded his father of when the younger son returned (see Luke 15:29).  And while everyone else in the house was rejoicing over the return of the younger son, the elder son grew hatefully angry.  Why is all of this attention being given to the unfaithful son?  Why a party for him when I've been faithful to the father?  Don't I deserve the attention?

First of all, notice the focus of the elder son.  He couldn't see his younger brother the same way his father did.  His father referred to him as his son that was "dead and is alive again."  All the elder son saw was "dead," "unfaithful" and "filthy."  He was blinded by his own self-righteousness to the new clothes, the gold ring and the new shoes that his brother wore.  When he heard the music and the dancing in the house, opened the door and saw the great banquet and, there in the middle, his younger brother seated next to his father, all the elder son could see was a sinner.  The reality of what had happened was lost and, foolishly, he protested to his father.

The father's wisdom was great and appropriate to the situation.  When the angry elder son chided his father for the treatment of the returned younger son, the father replied, "Son, you are always with me and all that I have is yours." In other words, "Son, if you wanted to kill a calf and have a party celebrating your position in my home, why didn't you?  It was yours to do if you wanted to.  You could have had a party for yourself anytime you wanted.  I appreciate your faithfulness enough to give you everything that I have to use as you please.  But don't begrudge me my right to rejoice over the return of my other son, your brother.  And don't be angry with everyone else in the house that desires to rejoice with me.  You have NO RIGHT to act the way you are toward your brother.  Join us and rejoice!"

To begin with, the Christian who sins doesn't owe you anything.  Many times I have heard it said, "He sinned against the Church and the Church must forgive him."  Nonsense.  Absolutely unbiblical nonsense!  When the fallen return to the Church, the Church has no recourse but to accept them if they are coming back to the Father in sincere contrition and repentance.  The Father forgives and we are obligated to do the same.  Our failure to do so will result in the forfeiture of our own forgiveness.

Matthew 6:14-15 (NASB)
"For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions."

You, faithful Christian, are not God nor are you God's designated representative to give or withhold forgiveness.  You, faithful Christian, are not given the right to say a certain individual may not return to the Father or the Father's House if they are penitent.  

A few years ago I was involved in a conversation where the subject of a particularly "distasteful" sinner was at hand.  The individual had committed a very immoral act but that fact did not come to light until after the individual had already visited a Church once.  Once it was known that what the individual had done the response of the leadership of the local church was, "We hope he can be saved, but he won't be saved here."  The majority of those involved in the conversation agreed that the individual should find salvation but that he wasn't welcome to find it in their churches.  I'm certain that the only one sicker to their stomach at this nauseating display of unrighteousness on the part of God's ministry than myself was Christ.  We have no right to say an individual cannot return to God in our congregation.  In fact, such an attitude is the antithesis of the Spirit of Christ.

The Christian has only one appropriate response to the fallen:

Galatians 6:1-3 (NLT)
"Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important."

The New Living Translation is particularly poignant on this text.  "You are not that important."  We, as Christians, are not so important as to reject the fallen who desire to return.  How much differently the end of many backsliders might be if our response to them is the extension of mercy, a gentle hand outstretched and a humble attitude knowing that, if not for God's grace, we would be in the same position ourselves.  

Remember the last words of the Apostle James in his epistle:

James 5:19-20
"My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins."

It is our duty.  That cannot be said emphatically enough.  It is the faithful Christian's duty to restore the fallen and bring them back from their wandering ways of sin.  It is not our job to throw roadblocks and obstacles in their way from the pigpen to the altar.  Rather, we must make that long road home as easy for them as possible.  We will be credited in the eyes of God with saving a soul from death and covering a multitude of sins.  Is that not of more importance than our foolish notion of "keeping our congregation clean?"  

In Luke 10 the Lord Jesus taught a lesson that has been titled "The Parable of the Good Samaritan."  Much is said of the Samaritan when this text is preached in our Churches but seldom is the traveler given the attention he deserves.  We do not know anything about the man other than that he is called "a certain man."  In other words, he was no man in particular and, contrary to what has been taught at various times, there is nothing to indicate that he was a Jew.  He was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho on a road of approximately 15-20 miles when he fell among thieves, was beaten nearly to death, robbed and left to die on the roadside.

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho in those times was known as the "Way of Blood" or the "Bloody Pass" because of its dangerous nature.  The road was long and winding with many places for bandits to obscure themselves in ambush of some passing traveler.  Robbery, murder and beatings were common along the stretch of road and to undertake such a journey on that path was to accept absolute responsibility for what happened to you.  It should be noted that this road was not the only way to travel between Jerusalem and Jericho.  It is reasonable to assume that the traveler on the route knew the dangers and, opting not to go another way, decided to go ahead on the Way of Blood.  

Did he get what he deserved?  Possibly.  Some have theorized that the use of the phrase "fell among thieves" used in the King James Version suggests that he was up to no good on the path and fell among his own kind who turned on him.  We really don't know.  All we know is that he took a chance with a dangerous path knowing what could happen to him and he was almost killed.  Now, he lay there dying, in large part, because of his choice to travel the Way of Blood.

But a priest and a Levite passed by.  Each of them, if touched by nothing more than basic decency and conscience, should have stopped and helped the man, but they didn't.  Perhaps they though to themselves, "He knew the road was dangerous and he got what he deserved."  Perhaps, like Dr. Martin Luther King commented on the passage, they asked themselves, "What will happen to us if we stop to help this man?"  My Christian friend, too many of us are preoccupied with what might happen to us if we actually bend down to help the fallen.  So what if they are in the condition they are in because of their own choices?  So what if it is all their fault?  So what if other people, other Christians, will look at us and chastise us for helping the fallen be restored?  

Rather, let us take on the attitude that Dr. King ascribed to the Samaritan who, he theorized, might have said, "If I don't stop and help this man, what will happen to him?"  What happens to the fallen if we don't help them?  What happens to the Christian who sins if we don't restore them?  What happens to the Church of Jesus Christ if we become so self-righteous that we can't stop on our journey long enough to pick up the wounded and dying along the way and give them all the help we can?

It's a long road home for the Christian that has sinned.  The fact that they actually show up at our Church meetings should cause us to hope, pray and petition mercy on their behalf.  It should move us, by basic decency and conscience, to be burdened for them and do everything in our power to facilitate their transition back to the Father's house and their rightful position in His Family.  Regardless of what they have done, we must help them recover.

Remember the words of the Lord Jesus:

Matthew 5:7 (KJV)
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."

The mercy you give shall be given to you.  The mercy you withhold shall be withheld from you when you absolutely need it the most.  If a Christian is going to err, let it be on the side of mercy.  Let us restore the fallen, open our arms to the penitent sinner and deal righteously with the Christian who has sinned regardless of how horrible we believe that sin to be.  

It is our duty.  

It is God's will.  

1 John 4:7-11 (KJV)
"Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another."