Some Christian teachers are frustrated by the apparent lack of success they experience in spurring their people to grow in holiness. They accurately use the words of the Bible in carefully exegeted sermons in which they preach the real need for repentance and change but then watch their people in vain for results. Nothing changes or their flock's moral behavior becomes even worse. Why?
Perhaps it is because exhortation rarely changes the people it is directed at unless someone who they know loves them is the one doing the exhorting. Whether it is a pastor to his flock or one individual to another, love and acceptance must precede truth telling about personal sinfulness in order for real change to occur. Love is what leads us towards true repentance. Accusation and guilt-manipulation rarely produces the godly sorrow that leads to new life, they usually only provoke the kind of sorrow that the scripture tells us will ultimately lead to death.
Exclusively employing the fear of punishment to try to make a human being stop indulging in some moral trespass is problematic. Sincere repudiation of sin most often happens when the person committing it comes to realize that the wrongdoing in question is hurting someone they know has their best interests at heart. The someone in question is always God ultimately, but this principle also holds true when the one hurt by the sin is a person who has loved the sinning party well. A child who has done something to offend a truly loving parent will often tearfully breakdown and sincerely ask for forgiveness when that parent gently confronts them in a loving way that shows their own hurt.
To understand the spiritual principle in operation here we might do well to compare the reaction to sin exhibited by the Pharisees with that of Jesus. The Pharisees of the Gospels never accepted a person unless the person was morally pure according to their rules. If you did not live up to those rules you were rejected and looked down upon. Pharisees were never friends with "sinners". By contrast Jesus welcomed such people into His presence. The Bible tells us the religious elites of His time accused Him of being a friend of drunkards and prostitutes. This is because He was. For Jesus acceptance came first because He knew that it was primarily the kindness of His Father, which led people towards repentance, not His wrath, as, justified as it might be. The love of Christ for a man or woman preceded their contrition and, in fact, it was this initiative of unconditional love, which made the contrition possible.
We do not earn the right to tell another human being that they need to turn from a sin until we have shown them we love them in both word and deed. Otherwise they will either ignore us or be spiritually and emotionally damaged by us, or both. Before we presume to exhort we must first embrace and accept the person in question even though we do not embrace and accept their wrongdoing. This is the way to turn someone from their sin and back into right relationship with God and others. Love precedes repentance.
© Shea Oakley. All Rights Reserved.
Converted from atheism in 1990, Shea Oakley has written over 350 articles for electronic and print publications since 2002, including Disciple Magazine (and Pulpit Helps Magazine), The Christian Herald, The Christian Post, Christian Network and Crosshome.com. In 2003 he graduated from Alliance Theological Seminary with a Certificate of Theological Studies. Shea and his wife Kathleen make their home in West Milford, New Jersey.