I am so often torn by my own sinfulness to the point of despair. I wonder, “How can a Christian such as myself be so sinful?” This is because I know myself. If you know yourself well enough (and are not in denial), I imagine you often say the same thing.
I am comforted by the fact that some of the greatest saints in the Bible did not have it all together. They all wrestled with their own flesh and selfish tendencies. So much so, I am persuaded to say that a lack of sinfulness is not necessarily the primary mark of a Christian. Most of you would agree. However, many of you would be quick to point out certain sins that are so hideous that they cannot be committed by a Christian. These are the “really bad” sins. What are these sins? I wish I had a list. Is it murder? Deception? Homosexual practice? Adultery? Supporting cultural political moves which destabilize society (ahem…nationalize health care)? Which sins are so bad that they have crossed that line?
Let me use Peter as an illustration. Poor Peter. Had he known that we were going to use him as our personal scape goat for all-time, he would have rethought his enthusiasm to be involved in Christ’s ministry! This illustration comes from his visit to Cornelius’ house along with his vision on the rooftop of Simon the tanner’s house. At this time, Peter received a vision that illustrated God’s desire that Peter extend the proclamation of the Gospel beyond the ethic boundaries in which Peter found comfort. He was to go to a Gentile named Cornelius and present the Gospel. Until this time Peter would not have made such a bold move as associating with a Gentile or bringing them what he conceived to be the “Jewish Gospel.” In fact, Peter invokes the common religious law in defense of his previous assumptions. As he put it, “You know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile” (Acts 10:28). The word used here for “unlawful” does not describe that which went against the Mosaic Law of God, but the cultural stipulations of the Jewish religious community. This term for “unlawful” (athemitos) is used of wanton or callously lawless acts (NET; BDAG). In other words, it was not against the God’s Law for Peter to associate with Cornelius or any other Gentiles, but it was against the Jewish customs of the day. John Pohill describes it this way,
No specific law forbade Jews to associate with Gentiles, but the purity regulations rendered close social interaction virtually impossible. Robertson (WP 3:141) cites Juvenal’s Satire 14.104f. and Tacitus Hist. 5.5 as evidence from Gentile writers that such Jewish refusal to associate with Gentiles was in fact the practice. According to S. Wilson, this passage is the closest in Acts to actually abrogating the Jewish laws (Luke and the Law [Cambridge: University Press, 1983], 63-73). (Polhill, John B.: Acts. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1992 The New American Commentary, 26).
Craig Keener describes the situation,
Devout Jews would not enter into idolaters homes lest they unwittingly participate in idolatry; they apparently extended this custom to not entering any Gentile’s home. It was considered unclean to eat Gentiles’ food or to drink their wine; although this purity regulation did not prohibit all social contact, it prevented dining together at banquets and made much of the Roman world feel that Jews were antisocial. (Keener, Craig S.; InterVarsity Press: The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993, S. Ac 10:27).
It is important to note that Peter’s presupposed prohibition was not only absent from the Mosaic Law, but it was counter to one of its main priorities of representing God to the nations. God chose the Jews to be a holy people who were to separate themselves from the evil practices of other nations. But they were also to be a kingdom of priests that brought God’s message of hope and redemption to all the world (Ex. 19:6). This ethnic prejudice that had become so common to the Jews was not part of God’s plan. In fact, it was a prideful act of racism that was sinful in the sight of God. As Kent Hughes puts it,
God was confronting Peter’s prejudice. Peter had bound all the peoples of the world, except for his own race, into one loathsome bundle. God used a vision to bring a radical change in the attitude of the leading apostle of the early church, and it is a good thing he did (Hughes, R. Kent: Acts : The Church Afire. Wheaton, Ill. : Crossway Books, 1996 [Preaching the Word], S. 149).
The sin of prejudice is dealt with quite frequently in the Bible as well as God’s intent to bring the message of redemption to them (Gen 6:24; Lev. 19:34, 24:22; Isa. 49:6, 66:9). There are not many sins that are as outside the Christian worldview as the sin of pride and prejudice (Prov. 6:17). God does not pronounce any special favor on anyone because of their inherent disposition or nature (Deut. 7:7-8). Yet Peter, due to cultural accommodation and pride, disrespected the clear proclamation of the Scriptures and held fast to his prejudice.
Not only this (and this is key), Peter carried this pride and arrogance for ten years of his redeemed life. The events recorded in Acts 10 occurred ten years after Pentecost. Another way to think of this is that for ten years Peter lived with the indwelling and convicting presence of the Holy Spirit, yet this major sin had yet to be confronted by God. The best comparison I can think of is if someone were to become a born again believer and live for ten years in an unashamed unconfronted life-style of fornication. This brings to light the seriousness of this blind spot.
Can you imagine what this would look like? A year after Pentecost, Peter walking down the road, intent on sharing the good news of God’s mercy, filled with God’s message of love and redemption, runs into a sticky situation. A Gentile trips and falls in front of him. Hurt from the fall, the Gentile asks for help. Peter, not wanting to pollute himself and hinder his chances at getting into the synagogue to tell of God’s mercy, passes by without making eye contact. Five years later, with much more experience and understanding of the hope he carries so boldly, Peter is presented with another difficulty that has become all too common in his life. Another Gentile, listening intently from the “court of the Gentiles” at the local synagogue where Peter is preaching, approaches Peter with great excitement and asks if he will come to his house and tell his family about what God has done. Peter turns him down, believing that it would be unlawful for him to associate that closely with those outside of the covenant community.
In addition, this was not the last battle Peter had with this prideful sin tendency. It seems the struggle went on. Not long after this account, we have another recorded in Gal. 2:11-14 where Peter has to be confronted by Paul for similar actions. So bad was Peter’s sin that Paul charged Peter with hypocrisy.
I don’t want to be too hard on Peter considering how greatly God used him, but we need to wrestle with the ramifications of this. The implications are important.
Personal: I just spoke with a man recently over the phone. I have never met this person, but he felt the need to call me. He was distraught by his own sinfulness. He wondered why God takes so long to change him. His assumption was that since he was a Christian, he should not have such a long and drawn out struggle with sin. Why is he failing so often? He has been a Christian for more than twenty years yet he continues to fall into serious sin.
I am not suggesting that all our battles with particular sins will be long and drawn out, but this passage teaches us that there can be sins that are blind spots. Peter’s blind spot was pride and prejudice. We all hope that God deals with our sins early, but don’t be too discouraged when you suddenly come to a realization that much of your Christian life has been infected by something terrible and shameful. God deals with things in his own timing and it is hard to say when He will intervene and bring to recognition that which we were foolishly blind to.
Relational: Don’t judge others too harshly. Don’t suppose that just because when you became a Christian God took care of this sin and that sin that His acts in others lives are going to mirror yours. God seemed to deal with Paul on this issue early on, but not Peter. Peter struggled with things that Paul did not and I am sure that Paul struggled with things that Peter did not. Don’t make your experience the standard to which all must conform. There may be serious sins in someone’s life for some time before God deals with it. Be patient and ready to exhort, but do not judge without wisdom.
How sinful can a Christian be? Well if you take Peter as an example, I would say that believers can have serious sin issues. I don’t know how long this can last, but in Peter’s case it went on for ten years. As hard as it is for us to realize, Peter’s example teaches us that just because someone is living a sinful lifestyle, this does not necessarily mean that they are not believers or that God is not working in their lives. Neither does it justify or alleviate the seriousness of the sin. We must keep these in balance.
In short, lets be careful. Let’s pray that God reveals our blind spots (we all have them). Let’s not get to down when we go years before discovering these blind spots. Finally, be careful how you judge other people. Don’t make them live up to your experience and standards, which, from God’s perspective, is not as great as you think.