I recently finished watching A&E’s The Clinton Affair. I was 20 years old when the Clinton-Lewinsky affair broke. Everyone was glued to the television as details about the numerous scandals surrounding President Bill Clinton came to light. Related to the Clinton scandals were the scandals involving numerous Republican senators and representatives who were calling for Clinton’s impeachment–not least of which was the House speaker-elect, Bob Livingston. Livingston had been among the group of representatives who were most vocally supportive of Clinton’s impeachment. In the wildest twist of events, Larry Flynt–the famous pornographer–had put an ad out in the Washington Post, offering $1 Million to anyone who could document Livingston’s own adulterous relationships. Details emerged about affairs, and Livingston ultimately resigned–calling on Clinton to do the same. Most striking about the whole debacle was the absolute hypocrisy with which everyone involved in the Clinton scandal conducted themselves. Clinton lied under oath and played the victim; and, those who were most publicly irate about Clinton’s immorality were guilty of the very thing he was doing. It was a total moral morass–nothing less than a contemporary illustration of Romans 2:1. This is not, however–as some might suppose–a Washington problem; it is a human problem.
We are taught, from our earliest days, to put our best foot out and our best face on in public–while neglecting to keep our hearts in private. We are taught to grip-and-grin so that others will think the best of us. Sadly, many have tolerated this sort of approach in the church to the detriment of themselves and other believers. One of the most lamentable realities of life in this fallen world is that those of us who readily confess that we are sinners often pretend to have it all together and to look down on brothers and sisters who stumble. We like to downplay our own struggles and then fail to extend grace and support to our fellow believers who may be struggling with a particular sin. Often, because we are more concerned with our reputation or public persona, we are not very good at gently seeking to restore brothers or sisters who have stumbled and fallen. Instead, we like to distance ourselves, gossiping about them or condemning them. It was for this reason that the Apostle Paul was compelled to give the members of the churches in Galatia the following admonition:
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1-2).
Concerning the idea of being “caught” in any transgression, Phil Ryken notes,
“The fact that we are brothers and sisters in Christ does not keep us out of sin…the flesh wars against the Spirit. Thus there are times when the sinful nature knocks us off our stride, when a false step keeps us from walking with the Spirit. There are times when, through weakness, a Christian gets “caught in transgression.” This phrase may refer to a person who gets caught in the act, like the woman who was “caught in the act of adultery” (John 8:4). Or perhaps the sinner catches himself in the act. Temptation has a way of sneaking up on us unawares, catching us off guard. The sad reality is that sometimes Christians are surprised by sin; indeed, there are as many sinners in the church as anywhere else.”1
We always face the possibility of falling into one of two dangers when we encounter a brother or sister caught in a particular sin. Ryken continues,
“Unfortunately, Christians do not always offer sinners very good treatment. Sometimes we ignore sin. Lacking the courage to confront it, we simply pretend it isn’t there…[and] simply stand around talking about what bad shape the sinner is in…Meanwhile, the brother or sister continues in the pains of sin. This kind of treatment is better known as gossip. Sadly, there are even times when Christians condemn sinners, blaming them (or even punishing them) for needing to go to the spiritual emergency room in the first place. They treat them like outcasts, harshly scolding them for being spiritually out of joint and apparently forgetting that they themselves are sinners in need of grace.”2
Perhaps we fall into one of these two snares on account of the fact that we convince ourselves that talking about or condemning others when they are struggling with a sin with which we may not be struggling at present is easier than reaching out to them with a spirit of gentle restoration. However, it is more likely that we gossip or condemn because it makes us feel better about ourselves. If the standard we set is not perfect, personal and perpetual obedience to the Law of God then we will inevitable make that in which we think we excel–or that which we have convinced ourselves we do not do–the standard by which we judge ourselves and others. When we do so, we–like the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day–end up focusing on the “speck” in another’s eye while failing to acknowledge and remove the “plank” in our own eye (Matt. 7:3-5).
Truly spiritual believers seek to gently restore their brothers and sisters who have been caught in transgression–rather than harshly condemn them. Again Ryken notes,
“Being harsh or judgmental is a sign of spiritual immaturity. Some Christians think that angry words are necessary to defend God’s righteous cause. But the only way to restore a believer who has fallen into sin is with gentle sensitivity…If we cannot do this gently, we had better not do it at all. We should let someone else do it, someone spiritual enough to perform such a delicate task.”3
Truly spiritual believers are not concerned with putting their best foot out and their best face on when they interact with others in the body of Christ. They are not seeking to put up a front in order to have others think the best of them. Rather, they are sincerely seeking to walk in the Spirit, keeping their eyes fixed on Christ crucified for their own sins (Gal. 2:20-3:3). They are desiring to put to death the deeds of the flesh and to walk in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-25). They are praying for the cultivation of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22); and, they are–with a sympathetic and gentle spirit–eager to help their brothers and sisters do the same (Gal. 6:1-2). They are watching over themselves as they seek to help restore a fallen brother or sister. Ryken explains,
“Even spiritual people may stumble. The particular temptation that Paul seems to have in mind is spiritual pride. It is hard not to feel at least a little self-righteous when we are correcting someone else’s sin. The more we learn about someone else’s depravity, the easier it is to look down on him or her. This temptation must be resisted, and the way to resist it is by examining our own hearts. We are as prone to fall into sin as anyone else, maybe more so. As Paul warned on another occasion: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).”4
It would do us a world of good to learn to care far more about living our lives before the face of God than before the faces of men. If we learned to take heed to ourselves first and foremost, we will be all the more useful to our fellow believers who are struggling with sin. When we first seek to remove the plank from our own eye, we will more readily be in a place in which we can help our brother remove the speck from his eye. We can only do this by coming to Calvary and seeing the Son of God crucified under the wrath of God for our sin. When we sit at the foot of the cross, there is no place for a mask of hypocrisy, self-righteousness and spiritual pride. May God give us grace to take “our best face” off–ripping off the mask of hypocrisy–and to see the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ.
1. Philip Graham Ryken, Galatians, ed. Richard D. Phillips, Philip Graham Ryken, and Daniel M. Doriani, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005), 245.
2. Ibid., p. 245.
3. Ibid., p. 246.
4. Ibid., p. 247.