Why Christians Sin: a Failure of Fear, a Failure of Love

It is an all-too familiar story. A pastor was forced to resign from the church when his affair with a staff member came to light. Another church was devastated. Another set of believers, both young and old, was left to wonder what had happened to the man they had loved and followed—a man who had led many of them to the Lord, baptized their children, conducted their weddings, visited them in hospital and prayed with them for their needs. There was no question of his guilt; the actions were admitted and indefensible. But many longed for an explanation. Why did it happen? How did it happen?

The temptations to sin that we face are as numerous and varied as devilish ingenuity and human depravity can conspire to concoct. And after the fact, the explanations, rationalizations and excuses are as varied and numerous as those sins. But if we take the Scripture seriously when it promises that along with each temptation comes “a way to escape” (1 Cor. 10:13), each sin indicates a failure on our part. I believe that, in the final analysis, all sins spring from twin failures—a failure of fear and a failure of love.

“By mercy and truth iniquity is purged, and by the fear of the Lord men depart from evil” (Prov. 16:6).

In a steamy Vietnamese jungle more than forty years ago, a young lieutenant led his patrol into an ambush. Within seconds, withering enemy fire had killed or injured half the platoon. The cry for a medic went up from the survivors. But unknown to the wounded soldiers, the medic who came to treat them was a drug addict who had removed the morphine from the syringe for his own selfish pleasure. The wounded received an injection of something that looked like the real thing, but did nothing to relieve their pain.

In the same way, the modern church has replaced the biblical concept of the fear of the Lord with a watered down “reverence” that may look the same from the outside, but does not produce the same effect that truly fearing God does. The many references in Scripture to the fear of the Lord, taken in their clear context, are talking about far more than just reverence; they are talking about what Paul called “the terror of the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:11).

If we truly appreciated how much our high and holy God hates sin, we would flee from temptation in fear. God hates sin because it is antithetical to His nature. It is so revolting to Him that He can’t even stand to look at it (Hab. 1:13). God hates sin because it destroyed His perfect creation and placed it in bondage (Rom. 8:19-23). Most of all, God hates sin because of the price it required to be paid in order to purchase our redemption—a price that was paid gladly and willingly by Jesus Christ, but a high price nonetheless (1 Pet. 1:18-21).

Living in a culture that constantly bombards us with a false picture of the nature and character of God (and one which has infected many churches as well) makes it hard for us to view Him as the “great and terrible God” (Neh. 1:5). But if we lose that view of Him, we lose the basis for fearing Him. C. S. Lewis vividly illustrated this truth with these words regarding Aslan: “ ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver. ‘Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.’” As good and loving and merciful and patient and kind and tender as our Father God is, He is most certainly not safe. And we fail to fear Him at great cost to ourselves.

But it is not just a failure of fear that leads to sin; it is a failure of love as well. Each time we yield to temptation, we are demonstrating that we love sin more than we love our Heavenly Father. We dress it up with all sorts of rationalizations and justifications, but the fact remains that each sin proves we do not love Him as we should. When we are forced to make a decision, we choose what we love most. It may not be what we proclaim to love most, but our actions speak far louder than our words when it comes to revealing our hearts.

When Jesus confronted Peter after the resurrection, He had a singular focus. He never mentioned Peter’s failure or his denial. He never reproached the inner-circle disciple who had failed in the moment of testing. He did not speculate on the causes for Peter’s collapse under pressure. Instead Jesus asked Peter about his love. Three times He forced Peter to consider whether he truly loved the Lord. Peter was grieved by the questioning, but it clearly revealed the source of his failure. A Christian who loves God with all his heart, all his soul, all his mind, and all his strength will not deny the Lord.

He will not indulge his sinful appetites, because he has chosen the greater feast. He will not be “charmed by the world’s delight” because his affections are set on things above (Col. 3:2). He does not choose to indulge in the short-term pleasures offered by sin, because Christ offers greater, lasting riches (Heb. 11:25-26). We seek the things we love. We choose the things we love. We do the things that please the ones we love and avoid those things that would displease them.

One of my friends told me about a time in his life when he had been far away from God. He was dating an unsaved girl in violation of the rules of the Christian college he attended. Once he was caught on a date with her in a restaurant and, to escape punishment, pretended to be witnessing to her. When the opportunity presented itself one night, she was more than willing to be immoral with him. It was not the threat of punishment from the school that deterred him; it was this thought: “I can’t do that to my father.” Love for his earthly father prevented my friend from great sin that night; love for our Heavenly Father does so as well.

Many Christians do not properly love God because they suffer from “elder brother” syndrome—failing to appreciate the riches of grace made available to them and taking God for granted. This is an especially grave threat for those who have been saved for many years. David issued a warning that we “forget not all his benefits” (Ps. 103:2). If the basis for our love for God is His love for us (1 John 4:19) then forgetting how much He loves us and what He has done for us is the first step away from loving Him as we should.

The warning of Jesus to the church at Ephesus is instructive (Rev. 2:1-7). Leaving their first love is what led them to abandon their first works. There had been a time when their love had governed their conduct so that it was pleasing and acceptable to God; now the absence of that love had placed them in a situation where only repentance could stay His hand of judgment.

I will never forget watching the chairman of the board of deacons as he read the statement to my home church that night, announcing our pastor’s resignation because he “had not been wearing his wedding ring.” At fourteen I didn’t know everything that meant, but I knew it was bad. The deacon struggled with difficult and carefully chosen words, trying to help our church process a pain we should never have had to feel. I watched as the pastor’s sons, young men with whom I went to school, were forced to process the revelation of their father’s failure in a very public setting. I watched our church be shaken by the sin of a Christian.

I wish that my pastor had feared God more. I wish that my pastor had loved God more. I pray that I will do both.

Robert Byers has helped produce numerous book and curriculum projects for a wide variety of ministries and pastors. He received BA in theology (‘84) and Master’s degree in education (‘85) from Hyles-Anderson College. Robert and his wife Brenda have two adult children, Rhonda and Bryant, and live in Tulsa, Oklahoma where he works as a freelance writer. He is eagerly anticipating the kickoff of the 2010 football season when the Alabama Crimson Tide will defend their national title.

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There are 8 Comments

Dick Dayton's picture

I agree that this is a great article. Another passage that would come into play here is the one that is special to our Jewish friends. "Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength." Tie this in with the "second great commandment" "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" and you have the full package. A second principle is found in Hebrews 11,12. After reviewing the heroes of the faith, the author challenges us to lay aside "the" sin that so easily besets us. I heard a Bible teacher preach on that passage, and he said that an ultimate root of all sin is unbelief. In immorality, a person does not believe they can be content with what God has given, and they believe the lie that things are better outside of the "restrictions" God has given. Another passage would be I John 5, where we read that "God's commandments are not burdensome." The burdens of God's commandments are like feathers compared with the heavy stones of sin.

Dick Dayton

Fred Moritz's picture

Sobering, excellent.

I don't want to trivialize it but I must add - - Roll Tide, Roll!

Aaron Blumer's picture


Well, he did kind of beg for it that bio.

dmyers's picture

I agree that sin evidences a lack of biblical fear of God and a lack of love for God. (Sin also evidences a lack of faith in God -- faith that He has told us the truth that righteousness is better than unrighteousness.) Yet I strongly disagree with the thrust of this article that sin is limited to big, public failures (such as the adultery of a pastor) and the corollary that "real" Christians or "good" Christians won't commit such sins. The more biblical understanding is that all Christians are shot through with sin, even at their best, and that they are frequently/usually not at their best. The members of the writer's church should never have believed that theirs was "a pain we should never have had to feel." Instead, they should have felt "There but for the grace of God go I," or "I have sinned just as egregiously, though perhaps in different ways." God has saved each of us in spite of our past, present, and future sin. The belief that sin is limited to big, public moral failures and the expectation that we or other Christians will not sin if we just work harder at fearing, loving, and trusting God are both traps that result in frustration, hypocrisy, rationalization, and unloving condemnation of other Christians.

Aaron Blumer's picture


the thrust of this article that sin is limited to big, public failures (such as the adultery of a pastor) and the corollary that "real" Christians or "good" Christians won't commit such sins.

I didn't get that out of it. I think the "thrust" is suggested by the title--that there are deeper failures that lead to the visible ones.

The more biblical understanding is that all Christians are shot through with sin, even at their best, and that they are frequently/usually not at their best. The members of the writer's church should never have believed that theirs was "a pain we should never have had to feel."
Have to disagree here. The qualifications for pastors in the pastoral epistles suggest that these are supposed to be men of the sort we should not expect to see make these kinds of choices.

Though it's true that only God's grace keeps us from committing sins, it's also true that we choose and that the transforming work God does in us enables us to reject certain choices.

that we or other Christians will not sin if we just work harder at fearing, loving, and trusting God are both traps that result in frustration, hypocrisy, rationalization, and unloving condemnation of other Christians.

This is an interesting assertion and I'd be interested in seeing support for it.

For my part, I think that the article overlooks at least one possibility. Looking for the underlying attitudes that give rise to sinful choices is a worthwhile effort (consider the effort John Owen put into that, for example). My own thinking has been that it comes down to two things:
1) Love
2) Faith

That is, lack of faith/knowledge accounts for many sins. You cannot believe what you have not learned but we often sin by doing things we have not recognized to be sin. They're still sins. Similarly, unbelief is a failure of faith, and this also gives rise to sinful choices.

But then we often commit sins we know to be sins. These are always expressions of a lack of love for the Lord and consequent lack of desire to please Him. They may also be--as Byers suggests in this piece--expressions of lack of fear. But I confess, I have not yet figured out (to my satisfaction) how fear fits in the scheme of things.
[br ]The article leaves some unanswered questions (as all articles do). Among them: how does the fear of an adopted child of God who is "accepted in the beloved" differ from the fear of the unbeliever? What does "perfect love casts out fear" mean? etc.
I do believe that any grasp at all of what God is like means it's impossible (as well as inappropriate) to feel no fear, but what is the godly affection of fear of God in one who stands in grace?

Huw's picture

Does it ever occur to people that what happens in these cases is simply the Will of the Almighty? That He wants the man out of the pulpit?
There was a pastor of a local denomination and this particular denomination consider themselves to be the ''leading lights'' in Wales. I warned the leaders of the denomination and the elders of the church that this man was a heretic. I was despised for what I said. He has been charged with child molestation and when I read of this I looked heaven wards, ''Upright are Thy judgements''.

He no longer contaminates the congregation.

Aaron Blumer's picture


Well, there would be a reason God wants someone out of the pulpit, and in this case the reason would the sin, and the article is about how the sin came to be in his life.
So understanding that removal is God's will can certainly coexist with the study of how believers decline into this sort of thing (or any sin, for that matter)

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