Excerpted from Ajith Fernando’s forthcoming book: “Deuteronomy: Loving Obedience to a Loving God” in the Preaching the Word series of Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2012.
Having grappled with the question of dishonesty in our land, even among Christians, for a long time, I have concluded that one of the greatest deterrents to dishonesty is the prospect of judgment by the holy, awesome, and almighty God.
This will soon become a serious problem in the west also where for generations the culture (unlike our cultures) was influenced by the prospect that people are accountable to a holy God before whose judgment they must stand. It is based on this that the trust that has formed the core to social life in the west was built. Supermarkets and general human transactions operated based on trust. That millions of dollars are spent on surveillance and other instruments to prevent dishonesty shows that trust is eroding. So does the fact that contracts are getting more and more complex to ensure that there will not be breaking of trust. The idea of a “gentlemen’s agreement” is fast become outdated.
I believe a major reason for the loss of trust is that westerners do not believe anymore that they are under a supreme and holy God to whom they are accountable and who will judge their actions one day. Some have an idea of God as being a benevolent father whose nature they define purely by a warped understanding of love. Some have discarded monotheism, the belief in one God, for pantheism where everything, including ourselves, is God and the divine is more a life force than a person to whom humans are accountable. Some are practical atheists—if there is a God, his existence does not concern us (like the deists of two centuries ago)—or dogmatic atheists who publicly state that there is no God.
I had felt for some time that such trends would result in the west also turning more to the categories of shame and honor rather than guilt before God and forgiveness when determining the key values for choosing right and wrong. Therefore, I was not surprised when I found a recent book which states just this. Alan Mann in Atonement for a Sinless Society: Engaging with an Emerging Culture says that guilt is no longer a significant factor in dealing with sin in the West. He says that shame is and says that we must seek to show how the work of Christ relates to shame. I agree, but I also believe that we must use whatever means we can to bring back into people’s consciousness that they have offended a holy God whom they must face at the judgment. This is one of the biggest challenges facing the church in both the east and the west.
The NT was written from a culture greatly influenced by shame categories and the gospel was preached to a culture to which the idea of substitutionary atonement for sin was alien. The answer of the first Christians was both to interpret the gospel and sin using shame categories and to argue for the reality of atonement and judgment. That must be our strategy too. Paul said of fallen humanity: “Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32). Deep down there is the sense in people that sin must be punished. But, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, they have built a roof over their heads to shield themselves from the rays of truth that remind them of these things. Our job as evangelists is to take that roof off. That is what Paul did.
Paul often showed in his writings that sin is shameful. And we must develop ways to show our people that dishonesty is a shameful thing. Paul also argued consistently for the idea that the prospect of judgment should determine the way we live (see, for example, 2 Cor. 5:10-11). So must we! We will show people that dishonesty is shameful and that they will have to stand before the judgment seat of a God to whom “all who act dishonesty, are an abomination.”
It is significant that dishonesty is included along with idolatry and sexual immorality as an abomination to God. We must give the same important to our battle against dishonesty as we do to that against idolatry and immorality. That there are Christians who are quite comfortable in churches while they are involved in dishonest business practices is a scandal. They are getting “blessed” by the programs of the churches but are not being challenged to live holy lives.