I have recently learned (though it is not a new story) that yet another teacher in the faith whom I had esteemed has since abandoned that faith, his wife, and his family so that he might rather be with another woman. It is a deeply saddening story, yet it is a story that has been repeated time and time again throughout human history and the history of the church. Its prevalence in the church is such that I can quickly call to mind several cases among those of my own acquaintance, and not merely among those who were passive members of the church but among those who had once been leaders and highly involved in it.
When we hear of these cases of marital infidelity within the church, our initial reaction consists of both surprise and disgust–surprise because of the former esteem in which we held the perpetrator, and disgust because of our natural abhorrence of his actions. Afterwards, we see clearly that which he left behind to pursue his lusts, and we witness the wake of destruction in which is family is found rent, grieving, and in deep shame over its publicity. And as time progresses and we perceive just how deeply the scars run, we find more and more detestable the man whom we once held in high regard.
I would put it to you that these natural reactions of ours are just and right, for we ought to be disgusted when we hear of a man who professes to be a disciple of Christ and yet abandons his profession and destroys his life, his family, and the reputation of the church for the sake of a “single meal” (cf. Heb. 12:16). However, if we are not wary of our own hearts, hidden in them may reside a tinge of smugness that speaks to itself, “I would never do that,” or, “I am not as weak as that man.” Regarding this, Calvin rightly observed that when it comes to the sins of others, natural men can exercise a degree of right judgment based upon conscience, yet, when it comes to their own sins, the same men are so predisposed to excuse themselves based upon their particular circumstances that they in no way can give a right judgment on themselves. Just a David was ready to condemn to death the figurative rich man who stole the beloved, ewe lamb from the poor man (so blind was he to his own, more heinous transgression), so are we ready to pounce in judgment on others while we reserve the lighter sentence for ourselves.
This is by no means to say that we should relax our judgments on morality, but rather it is to say that we ought not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. What I mean is this: that if it were not for the active grace of God in our lives, we all would be pursuing the desires of our flesh without bridle. This grace, which God has given freely to us, is the only difference between faithful men and unfaithful men. And if God, in response to our arrogance and our self-righteousness, were pleased to remove from us that grace which has prevented us from falling till now, we would all fall headlong to our destruction. For this reason the apostle Paul writes, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1Cor. 10:12). For if we presume to think that we who had begun by the Spirit are now standing by our own strength, it will soon be shown to us just how much inability remains in us.
For this reason we are told to “walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16). What this means is that we are not to take one step, figuratively speaking, apart from the Spirit of God and in his power. In other words, we, as disciples of Christ, do not confide in our own strength to do anything, for as Christ has said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). As regards our fidelity in marriage, we could not maintain it if it were not for the persevering power of the Spirit of Christ. For there is nothing in this world, internal or external to us, that grants to us the ability to perform any sort of righteousness, including the maintenance of marital fidelity. For as experience and history has shown us, even those who have the utmost reason to remain faithful in marriage (e.g. an attractive spouse, children, position in church, etc.) are at times so enthralled by the unreasonable urges of the flesh that they willingly throw off all guards and pursue that which is ruinous to their lives, even if the prospect of their urges can be qualitatively deemed a “step down.”
To what can we attribute this but to the reality that our fallen flesh is still very much alive in us? Hence the apostle Paul exhorts the church by giving the axiom, “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rm. 8:13). In this the apostle states that there is only one method by which we can obtain life and only one vehicle by whom we can pursue that method, namely the Spirit. For we are warned that if we live according to the flesh we will die, and, as the apostle intimates earlier (cf. v. 7:18), we are wholly incapable of not living according to the flesh apart from the power of the Spirit of God.
All of this is to encourage us not to become arrogant, wittingly or not, when we hear of the failings of others, presuming that we are in some way beyond stooping to their level, but rather, as the apostle Peter exhorts us, “Conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile” (1Pet. 1:17). For, if we stand, it is by the Spirit, but if we fall, it is by our own weakness and indiscretion. Therefore, let us by humility walk by the Spirit so that we will not gratify the desires of the flesh, and let those who have fallen before us not be a ground for boasting but for fear, knowing that if it were not for the grace of God we would be in their place.