As a basic rule of thumb, I think this is right. The solution to a problem of sin should never be even more sin. If you are increasing sin in order to resolve an issue, I would venture it is no solution at all and is not, in any way, glorifying to God.
I would define sin, very simply, as doing, saying or thinking anything Jesus asks us not to do, say or think or not doing, saying or thinking anything Jesus asks us to do, say or think. Sin is, in essence, anything that goes against God’s expressed will in thought, word or deed. I think this is a fairly reasonable definition of sin.
There are matters for individuals that Jesus is quite clear are matters of personal sin. Scripture is also clear about what the church should do should they occur, and continue unrepentantly, in our midst. So, for example, the solution to the problem in 1 Corinthians 5 of the man sleeping with his father’s wife is to remove him from the church. This is a matter of sin that expressly warrants removal from membership. The man himself is in sin as he indulges in this shameful behaviour, but the church is in sin if it refuses to remove him from the church. The man is sinning by doing what Biblical ethics clearly states one ought not to do, but the church would be in sin if it refuses to remove him because they would then not be doing what an Apostle expressly tells them to do.
Similarly, if someone comes to your church and seeks membership but is continuing in sin, they alone are responsible for that matter of sin. But should the church choose to bring him into membership, despite that matter of sin, the church would then be sinning. They would be welcoming into the church someone that scripture expressly says should not be in the church. We may wish to argue that the sin should be overlooked for the sake of the greater command to welcome someone, but that would be to increase sin. Namely, to welcome someone the Bible expressly says should not be welcomed because of something they are doing. They may be responsible for their own sin, but the church is sinning by welcoming one who ought not to be welcomed because of their sin.
Someone might argue that there are clearly times we are to set aside certain commands in order to fulfil a greater command. Not only is this a valid argument, it is expressly outlined in scripture. One example scripture gives is David eating the consecrated showbread on the sabbath. It is clearly a significant example because Jesus references it and it is recorded in all three synoptic gospels (cf. Matthew 12:1–8; Mark 2:23–28; Luke 6:1–5). In that same passage in Matthew, Jesus highlights that the priests break the sabbath every week. Of course, Jesus is arguing that they are not really breaking the sabbath command because there was a greater need that superseded the command. Similarly, in the parable of the good Samaritan, it is clear that the “good people” who did not help the injured man should have done. They may have broken the letter of the law by not going to the temple or whatever the issue was for them, but it was clear that ‘love your neighbour’ was a command that superseded the other. They should have set aside the lesser command in order to help the man in need in line with a greater command. Jesus also scolds the Pharisees for their diligence in tithing dill and cumin and yet neglecting the weightier matters of the law. It is clear that there are matters of law that are more important than others and sometimes a greater command will necessarily supersede a lesser one, as in all these examples.
Clearly, then, there are times when we might – according to the letter of the law – need to “sin” (though it is not really sin in the circumstances) in order to fulfil a greater command. But someone else might agree with that and then insist that, given the greater love command, all manner of sin should be tolerated in the church. Yes, it may technically be sinful, but we have a greater controlling command to welcome one another. Interestingly, this is precisely the argument some are advancing in the fraught discussions within the Church of England at the moment. Given the Bible is clear that there are times when individuals are NOT to be welcomed in the church, how do we square this circle?
I think the answer is relatively simple. You do not answer sin with more sin. In all the examples we have in scripture of this happening, when a command is set aside in order to fulfil a greater command, what is reckoned to be the greater command is not a matter of comforting people in their sin nor indulging their sin. In every instance – if we take the letter of the law – acting in either direction would lead to a breaking of the law. Whatever one does, there will be a technical breaking of the law that cannot be avoided. That is why it is necessary to weigh the legal matters and determine which matter is the more important. If one thing was sin and the other not, there would be no need to weigh anything – you would just do what is not sinful. But in scenarios where a technical breaking of the law is inevitable through no fault of one’s own, sin is avoided by weighing the legal issue before you and acting in line with the weightier matter.
So, take the good Samaritan as an example. It is sinful for a Levite not to go up to the temple as commanded by God. However, it is also sinful for the Levite not to help an injured man on the side of the road. The Levite will technically break the law either way. He will either not go to the temple or he will not help the injured man. This is clearly a case of matters needing to be weighed. But beyond this, in helping the injured man, there is no indulgence of sin nor increasing matter of sinning further. Yes, the law governing the temple might have been broken in favour of a weightier matter, but he would not also be sinning by helping the man. And, should he have weighed the matters of law rightly, the Lord would not consider this sin at all.
Consider David eating the showbread. He could either desecrate the temple or he could let his men starve. The Bible considers letting people starve to be a problem when you could feed them, but it also clearly thinks eating bread from the temple – in the ordinary run of things – to be sinful too. One way or the other, by the letter of the law, a sin was going to occur. But it is not indulging what is sinful to let men eat. Allowing hungry people to eat is not a matter of sin of itself. When weighing the matter, the people took priority over the technicalities of law.
But the point remains, in none of the examples we have in scripture, is sin increased. Never is one law set aside in order to indulge an issue of sin. Never is a law set aside in order to indulge someone setting aside another law. We don’t break one law in order to allow someone to break another law. Doing that is to increase sin and would lead to the breaking of two laws when, handled differently, there is liable only to be the (potential) breaking of one. As a general principle, it seems right that we do not resolve sin with more sin. We do not indulge sin with sin of our own. We do not break the Lord’s commands in order to allow further breaking of his commands.
This is important when it comes to our view on baptism. I think Jesus has told us who should be baptised, by what mode they should be baptised and he has made it a foundational command for the church. I think scripture is clear that people are baptised following profession of faith and they are to be baptised by immersion. I think Jesus commands this in the Great Commission and elsewhere and we are sinning if we do not do this.
I was talking with a Presbyterian brother about this the other day. He was ready to accept my definition of sin at the top of this post. He found it refreshing I was willing to look at his views on baptism (that is, on my understanding, he has not been and will not get baptised) and to call it what it is; sin. He affirmed he thought my view of baptism was wrong. He asserted, because I have not baptised both my children as infants due to (on his view) their inclusion in the covenant, that he considered me to be in sin. As a matter of sin, it was clear neither of us would be able to join one another’s churches.
The reason for that is straightforward enough. The only person sinning by not getting baptised (or, if you’re presbyterian, not baptising your kids) is that individual. However, if churches set aside what they believe Jesus expressly commands in order to welcome that person, they are also sinning along with that person. Indeed, they are setting aside a command of Christ in order to indulge as person in what Jesus says they should not do. Instead of the one sin of the individual, you now have their sin along with the sin of the church welcoming them. This flies in the face of the principle we saw earlier. If the solution to sin is to increase sin, then it isn’t a biblical solution. We don’t have scriptural examples of commands being set aside in order for further commands to be broken or for an even greater number of people to necessarily break the commands to indulge an individual who is already breaking it.
Two arguments might be made in response to this. One might argue that we have to weigh the potential sin of not welcoming a brother or sister against the sin of not being baptised. This, I think, is a faulty argument for the reasons outlined above. If the person will not get baptised, it is they who are in sin. But it is not appropriate for the church to indulge that sin, and then increase sin by welcoming them into membership without being baptised when they do not believe the Lord Jesus wants them to do so. The solution to sin is not more sin.
Nor does the Bible call us to welcome brothers and sisters without qualification. Leaving aside the question of baptism, we might not welcome a brother or sister – who are brethren – for a range of reasons. Most of us, for example, have non-gospel issues enshrined in our doctrinal bases. We ask members to affirm biblical inerrancy, for example. It clearly is possible to be a believer yet not hold to inerrancy. I think you are wrong, but it doesn’t write you out of the kingdom. But most evangelicals make this a criteria for membership of their churches in their doctrinal bases. Other similar examples exist. We all recognise that there are grounds and qualifications for membership that extend beyond essential gospel issues.
Second, we might have an argument to conscience. I have said more on this issue here and here, for example, among others. If someone has a conscience over their baptism, so the argument goes, we are wrong to expect them to be baptised. Rarely is it considered that the church also has a conscience about baptism and they are being forced to bend their conscience in order to indulge someone in what they consider to be sin. Worse, the conscience of the individual is often expected to take precedence over the collective conscience of the church, that is the multiple individual consciences of church members. Asking the church to set the matter aside is to ask more people to break conscience than expecting the individual to bend instead.
Moreover, it seems to me what we are actually saying here is that baptism does not matter at all. I appreciate the consistency of churches who admit this and assert that baptism is not a criteria for membership at all. They, of course, stand against pretty much every denomination in history and have to explain what they think Jesus was going on about in the Great Commission at all in that case. But they do at least get around the issue of having some people baptised and others not in membership by determining that baptism doesn’t really matter. For those of us who do take Jesus’ command seriously, and do reckon it to be a matter of sin to not obey him on it, if we will accept unbaptised people into membership as a matter of course it is hard to avoid the conclusion we are saying baptism just doesn’t matter then.
But beyond this, the principle is rarely applied consistently. A person from a Roman Catholic background turns up at your church. They have clearly professed faith and, as far as you can tell, they have come to believe the gospel. But, they insist, they have already been baptised and could not be baptise again. Of course, as a credobaptist who insists on a baptised membership, my answer to them is the same as to any other paedobatists; namely, you haven’t actually been baptised at all and you still need to obey Jesus. But many baptistic friends want to welcome Presbyterian and Anglican brethren, but don’t want to acknowledge the validity of Catholic or Lutheran baptisms. But it strikes me as entirely inconsistent to recognise some paedobaptisms and not others if you don’t actually reckon paedobaptism to be valid baptism at all.
Some will argue that they do recognise those particular baptisms as valid. But what does one do if you have welcomed a paedobaptist into membership because of their conscience, but they later decide actually they should be baptised by immersion as a professing believer? If your line was that their original “baptism” was valid, you are surely locked into refusing their obedience to Christ lest you actually re-baptise them on your own view. If you insist that they were not already baptised, you are faced with the other horn of dilemma: in what way do you actually consider baptism valid at all? If you think the validity of baptism changes depending on how one views it – aside from lacking any biblical support for that position – it is interesting to note that you are borrowing logic from pro-choice campaigners who make exactly that argument in relation to the validity of human life in the womb based on how the mother views it. We have typically considered it to be logical bunkum in that latter case and have vocally camped out on it being so. It strikes me as a mistake to then adopt the same logic so far as sin within the church is concerned.
It is clear from scripture that there are weightier and lesser matters of law. It is evidently true that we are sometimes to set aside commands for the sake of weightier matters. However, the setting aside of one command in favour of another is never, in scripture, for the purpose of indulging another person’s sin nor is it ever legitimate to allow one sin to be the solution to an existing sin. All the examples of setting aside commands we have are never matters of sinning further in order to resolve existing sin nor lead to an increase in sin. When it comes to Jesus’ command to be baptised and join the church, the bar must be exceptionally high in order to set such a command aside. Whilst I don’t doubt such instances can be found, if we are suggesting setting them aside as a matter of course in order to allow people to continue in sin and, indeed, then sin ourselves in doing so on top of it, I struggle to see how Jesus would view this as in any way a legitimate application of the law of love nor a reasonable response to his dictum: if you love me, you will keep my commandments.