After reading the contributions and pleas of the earlier contributors to this series, there is little that I might add that does not fall under “vain repetition.” If your conscience is not strengthened to repel sexual temptations after you have read what they have written, how will anything that I add make a difference?
You can begin to see adultery for what it is by grasping how antithetical it is to faith. The sin of adultery screams out to the world that you don’t really believe God. Perhaps it will be helpful to make this clear. If you are contemplating adultery, consider at least four probing questions about what you believe.1. Do you believe God sees all?
You don’t really believe God when he declares that you may “be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23). If you think you can get away with it, just because you succeed (at least for a while) in hiding it from your contemporaries, as David did, you are acting as if God doesn’t exist, or doesn’t mean what he says.
Whether in this life, or on the last day, your sin will be exposed. To act as if that is not the truth is to disbelieve God Almighty. “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).
For the Christian, it is not only the fear of being caught by your peers that may rein in your sexual fantasies, but faith that God keeps his word, that he is not mocked, that no sin can be hidden from him.2. Do you believe what God says about adultery?
You don’t really believe God when he depicts the deceit and wretchedness of adultery. Such depictions in Scripture are many. One recalls the distressing warnings of Proverbs (for example, Proverbs 6:20–7:27), the straightforward prohibition of adultery in the Decalogue (Exodus 20:14), the narrative depiction of adultery and its wretched results (for example, 2 Samuel 11–12), the many warnings against fornication and adultery in the New Testament, the shockingly close link between physical adultery and spiritual apostasy (so much so that God dares to depict himself through the prophecy of Hosea as the Almighty cuckold), and this contrasted with the narrative depiction of a faithful Joseph who successfully fights off sexual temptation, thereby avoiding fornication (on his part) and adultery (on the part of Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39).
The account of Joseph is particularly instructive. Joseph knows full well that if he and Potiphar’s wife have an affair, it means he is betraying Potiphar (Genesis 39:8–9). If two single people engage in illicit sex, that is bad enough. It is worse where one or both are married to another party: the betrayal of the partner or partners is grotesque — a kind of sexual theft.
More importantly, Joseph recognizes that the dimensions of the sin can be calculated only by seeing that adultery is sin against God (Genesis 39:9). Joseph does not pave the way to adultery by lining up his excuses in advance: it’s only a peccadillo, a moment of weakness, it’ll happen only once, and after all I am lonely and as a slave have no prospect of marriage, and perhaps God could use this liaison to win my release. No, he calls a spade a spade and perceives that if he were to commit adultery, the most offended party would be God: “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9). This is the step that David failed to take until after his sin with Bathsheba was exposed (Psalm 51:4).
At the practical level, Joseph avoided the woman whenever he could: he was not the sort of womanizer who enjoyed seeing how close he could get to the fire without getting burned (Genesis 39:10). Most impressively, he was the sort of man who preferred to retain his purity even if it meant that others judged him to be immoral, rather than the sort who wanted to be a secret adulterer while everyone but his partner in immorality thought him to be pure (Genesis 39:11–20). If you choose to commit adultery, you show yourself to be the opposite: sneaky adultery is more precious to you than moral integrity. You are laughing at what God says.
The point is obvious. God speaks often on this subject, and if you are resolved to pursue adultery regardless of what he says, you testify that you do not believe him. You are a practical atheist.3. Do you believe what God says about marriage?
So far I have highlighted the unbelief that sets aside God’s evaluation of adultery and ignores his open threats. But there is also a great array of passages that hold up marriage as being a wonderful thing, a gift from God, a creation ordinance, a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church, the site where relational depth is developed, the secure center for the rearing of offspring, the place to test what godly discipline looks like, the locus where one man and one woman unite and best complement each other for God’s glory and his people’s good. Not to understand and embrace these vistas springs from unbelief: you are not taking God at his word.
But, you may say, my marriage is not like that. My wife does not really love me anymore. We have grown apart; our interests have diverged. Mind you, if that were the way Christ treated the church when his interests grow apart from those of the church, we’d all be damned. All of us are called to live in a world still groaning under the curse, waiting for the final revelation of the sons of God (Romans 8:19).
That means there are single people who will never get married: have they been cheated? It means there are some Christians who face violent persecution: have they been betrayed? It means there are marriages that are wobbly and spouses who are unhappy: have they been robbed of pleasure, such that they have permission to betray their vows? Or, rather, have all of us been called to take up our cross and follow Jesus, assured that if we suffer with him, we will also reign with him (Romans 8:17; 2 Timothy 2:12?
In short, what we need is more faith — faith in the promises of God, in God’s depictions of the new heaven and the new earth, in the hope of the health of resurrection existence, in the unimaginable joy and holiness of the visio Dei. And with respect to sexual temptations, we must trust God’s words when he dares to depict the glory to come, amongst other things, as the wedding of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7): that is, the union of Christ and his people will bring such a spectacular intimacy that all previous intimacies, as lovely as they were, will be utterly eclipsed. Fifteen minutes into eternity, no Christian who was forced to live celibately in this life will be whining, “I was robbed!” No Christian who kept his vows will be harboring regrets that he didn’t give in and enjoy a little illicit sex on the side.
Not to see things this way simply means that we don’t believe what God says. Our faith is pathetically anemic. Maybe it is akin to the “faith” that James condemns — the “faith” that Satan and his cohorts exercise, a “faith” that can never save them. Satan believes there is one God (James 2:19); for that matter, he believes that Jesus rose from the dead, and that there is a final resurrection of the just and the unjust. But such faith has never saved a demon nor a human being. Saving faith is characterized not only by a valid object, but by trust, by self-abandonment to the words and ways of God, by happy and resolute reliance on God and his promises. Faith that merely recites the creeds but produces no fruit is the faith of demons.4. Do you believe in God’s lavish grace?
One more display of unbelief is invariably connected with adultery. God promises to provide all the needed grace to overcome temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13). Better yet, he pours out his Spirit upon us, whose fruit in our lives includes “gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:23). So we are not to “gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16); we are to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). To turn our back on such lavish supplies of grace and strength is the rawest form of determined unbelief.
My dear brother, believe the gospel, not only its promises of forgiveness, but its instructions and depictions of the glory and promises of our lavish God.
“Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required.” Did Jesus intend this warning for believers or nonbelievers?
The heart of true religion is, not surprisingly, the heart. But in saying this, I want to borrow and reapply the term from Michael Behe, and acknowledge that true religion is also much larger than the heart, and is irreducibly complex. The entire system can fail at any number of points. A man can die of heart failure, but liver failure and kidney failure can also do the job.
This might seem like an odd opening for an Advent meditation, but bear with me. A father who wants to lead and disciple his family needs to remember that the one thing he must cultivate is heart loyalty. He must of course connect that loyalty to scriptural and worthy objects, but if he does not have heart loyalty, childrearing will simply be one grief replaced by another.Chaos in the Home and the Heart
Jonathan Edwards called them the affections. I am calling them the heart, or loyalty, or attitudes. And bringing up your children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” is fundamentally a matter of directing, shaping, molding, and forming attitudes (Ephesians 6:4 KJV).
And what is Christmas for a child but a churning cauldron of attitudes? These are attitudes just waiting there to be discipled (and often not quietly).
Unfortunately, parents often have their very own cauldron of attitudes. Like Martha, it is easy to be cumbered with much serving, and to wind up missing the central point. The tree got put up and decorated, the presents all got wrapped, the tricycle with assembly instructions in Chinese got put together, the ham made it into the oven, and yet — why is the general home atmosphere so rancid?Preparation in Gladness for Gladness
The reason is that we fell into preparing for Christmas from the outside in, instead of from the inside out. The season should be preparation in gladness and joy for a day that culminates with more gladness and joy. Those who grumble their way through all the preparations are like those who ski down a bare, rocky mountainside, hoping to find snow at the bottom.
Thus far I have been speaking of the mundane hassles of Christmas prep that sometimes get to us. But for those who mark the days of Advent, there is another temptation. In the minds of some, Advent is supposed to be a penitential season, one devoted to self-inspection and repentance.
Now I would not want to breathe a word against true repentance because the Christian life is a life of repentance. But real repentance needs to be a retail operation, day by day, not a wholesale event, a couple times a year. And ongoing repentance that actually deals with sin is thereby marked with joy and gladness. And so Advent, if it is the real deal, is a season of joyful expectation and preparation — preparation in gladness for gladness.Help Your Children Love to Obey
Let us return to the jumble of attitudes your kids are experiencing. Your task as a father is not to get your kids to conform to the standard, but rather to love the standard. As discussed above, you start with this by loving the standard yourself, and doing so visibly with your kids.
The attitudes you must deal with will be a true mixed bag. There will be loving concern, natural delight, envious complaining, greedy anticipation, thoughtful generosity, instinctive competition, and so on. Of course, when a sinful attitude flares up, there must be correction, and such correction teaches. But don’t limit your teaching to those moments of correction.
If you have Advent readings in the evening, conclude each one with a brief exhortation to the children, urging them to guard themselves against pride, envy, comparisons, and so on. In their place, also exhort them to kindness, charity, forgiveness, and so on. This is not so you can fill the season up with hectoring, but rather so that you can (as a family) deal with sin promptly and together, and can maintain your joy.Don’t Be That Guy
Christmas is supposed to be happy. Peace on earth, good will toward men, remember? And virtually everyone has that expectation, treating a happy Christmas as something of a constitutional right — which is why we get so upset with those who (in our view) are sabotaging it. And this is why there is nothing quite so miserable as a miserable Christmas.
You are the one shepherd who was off somewhere else when the angels appeared, and because you were so grumpy about that, they left you to watch the sheep while they went into Bethlehem. And then it started to rain. You made it into no nativity sets, and yours was the original blue Christmas. One of your spiritual descendants has been wrecking family reunions ever since. Don’t be that guy.
Joy is the hallmark of Christmas — joy to the world, the Lord is come — and so anticipatory joy needs to be the hallmark of Advent. So take your kids by the hand, and walk them through it. And do the same next year, only deeper and richer.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” (Luke 1:68–71)
Notice two remarkable things from these words of Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, in Luke 1.
First, nine months earlier, Zechariah could not believe his wife would have a child. Now, filled with the Holy Spirit, he is so confident of God’s redeeming work in the coming Messiah that he puts it in the past tense: “he has visited and redeemed his people.” For the mind of faith, a promised act of God is as good as done. Zechariah has learned to take God at his word and so has a remarkable assurance: God “has visited and redeemed!” (Luke 1:68).
Second, the coming of Jesus the Messiah is a visitation of God to our world: The God of Israel has visited and redeemed. For centuries, the Jewish people had languished under the conviction that God had withdrawn: the spirit of prophecy had ceased; Israel had fallen into the hands of Rome. And all the godly in Israel were awaiting the visitation of God. Luke tells us that another old man, the devout Simeon, was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). Likewise, the prayerful Anna was “waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).
These were days of great expectation. Now the long-awaited visitation of God was about to happen — indeed, he was about to come in a way no one expected.
Only what’s done for Christ will last. Any risk, any trial, any tribulation is worth the risk when your aim in all of life is to make others glad in God.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:46–55)
Mary sees clearly a most remarkable thing about God: He is about to change the course of all human history; the most important three decades in all of time are about to begin.
And where is God? Occupying himself with two obscure, humble women — one old and barren (Elizabeth), one young and a virgin (Mary). And Mary is so moved by this vision of God, the lover of the lowly, that she breaks out in song — a song that has come to be known as “The Magnificat.”
Mary and Elizabeth are wonderful heroines in Luke’s account. He loves the faith of these women. The thing that impresses him most, it appears, and the thing he wants to impress on Theophilus, his noble reader of his Gospel, is the lowliness and cheerful humility of Elizabeth and Mary as they submit to their magnificent God.
Elizabeth says (Luke 1:43), “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” And Mary says (Luke 1:48), “He has looked on the humble estate of his servant.”
The only people whose soul can truly magnify the Lord are people like Elizabeth and Mary — people who acknowledge their lowly estate and are overwhelmed by the condescension of the magnificent God.
When I was a little boy, probably 80% of men wore a coat and tie to our church, and 90% of women wore dresses. By the time I was in high school, 40% of men wore a coat and tie, and 50% of women wore dresses to church — the majority of both genders being middle-aged and elderly. Everyone else dressed “business casual.” Jeans were rare. Tee shirts even rarer. Shorts were never seen outside the nursery, even in mid-July.
Today, in the church I attend, no man wears a suit or sport coat unless it’s a special occasion. And ties are seen less than coats. I’d say less than 5% of women wear dresses on Sunday. Shorts, tee shirts, and sandals are commonly worn in warmer weather. My young son wonders why he has to “dress up” for church if I tell him to change into better jeans and a nicer tee shirt.
In the small Protestant denomination I belong to, no pastor I know of preaches in a coat or tie on a typical Sunday. Pastors, worship team members, and other platform participants dress pretty much like everyone else minus the shorts, tee shirts, and sandals.
These changes in what people wear to church reflect the wider cultural changes over the past fifty years regarding clothing. The whole of American culture has dressed down. This has produced largely generational debates over appropriate church attire. Those who favor more formal dress suspect casual clothes reflect a disrespectful, irreverent attitude toward God. Those who favor casual dress feel it reflects a more authentic approach to God. Does either have a biblical case?
Does God tell us what we should wear to church?More Respectful?
The debate over formal versus casual church clothing is a shrinking one for at least two reasons: 1. the pro-formal party is shrinking, and 2. the pro-formal remnant is now so outnumbered it hardly seems worth the effort to argue.
Most folks who lament the casual trend came of age in an era where public dress in general was more formal. They, like most people in every era, simply assumed their own cultural norms. It just wasn’t “right” to wear casual clothes in certain places, especially in church.
So, as the cultural clothing norms changed, and people — typically younger people — started wearing casual clothes to those places, including church, it felt “wrong.” It felt like a form of disrespect, even rebellion, toward the older generations. In church, it felt like disrespect, even rebellion, toward God.
But is this true? Certainly, on the microlevel of sinful individuals, plenty of rebellion toward elders and God took place, just as it has in all generations. The pro-formal crowd had their own generational expressions of rebellion. But from a biblical standpoint, there is no compelling exegetical case to be made that more formal dress is de facto more respectful toward God than casual dress. Church clothing is a preference formed by culture and tradition.More Authentic?
On the other hand, many of those who embrace the trend toward more casual have come of age during the dressing-down decades, and they are just as vulnerable to assuming the cultural norms that have shaped them. It feels “fine” to wear jeans and a tee shirt to church, perhaps the same ones worn on Saturday. But why does it feel okay?
As I mentioned before, “authenticity” is the most popular answer. We are coming to God as we are, putting on no airs or masks with him.
It sounds good, but I don’t really buy it. Wearing casual clothes is no more de facto spiritually authentic than formal clothes are de facto spiritually respectful. We might not be at all authentic standing before God in our jeans. We may choose casual clothes primarily to fit in socially, or to attract attention to ourselves, or to nurture a “cool” image. In other words, we may wear casual clothes to church and worship God with our lips, while our hearts are far from him (Isaiah 29:13).
Perhaps casual clothes can help us approach God more authentically in ways formal clothes don’t. Perhaps formal clothes can help us express respect and reverence toward God in ways casual clothes don’t. I have significant doubts about both.What God Wants Us to Wear
God does not explicitly endorse either formal or casual clothes in corporate worship. He doesn’t even enter the debate. In fact, outside of ritual Levitical laws that no longer apply in the new covenant, God says virtually nothing regarding how we should dress when we come together to worship him.
It’s not that clothing doesn’t matter to God. Clothing matters a great deal to God — just not in the same ways or for the same reasons it typically matters to us. God refuses to decide the formal-casual debate, but he does explicitly tell us what he wants us to wear to church:
Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)
What are we supposed to wear? Humility.
All clothing — formal, casual, work, sport, beachwear, sleepwear, underwear, headwear, every other kind of wear — can be a source of great pride. There isn’t a clothing item or style that we can’t turn into an expression of self-centered, self-exalting self-worship.
But if we clothe ourselves with humility, if we “count others more significant than [ourselves],” and “look not only to [our] own interests, but also to the interests of others,” then no matter how we dress, we will honor and reflect Christ (Philippians 2:3–4).The Clothes Inside Us
God doesn’t specify what external clothes honor him most, because he cares what our hearts wear. What’s inside of us either honors him or dishonors him — either approaches him with authenticity or with inauthenticity. If our hearts are wearing humility, no matter what we wear, we will dress in loving ways. If our hearts are wearing pride, formal clothes will always be disrespectful and casual clothes will always be inauthentic.
If our hearts are wearing humility, what will matter to us is whether God is glorified and others are loved. But if our hearts are wearing pride, we will disregard God’s glory and others’ spiritual health in favor of our personal preferences and freedoms.
And, in the end, if our hearts are wearing humility, we will think of our clothes as little as possible when we draw near to God together in worship.