“What I do in private is between me and the Lord.”
This a thought I’ve heard from several believers. Others, when confronted about ongoing sin in the body retort Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” not realizing that Jesus also said in that same chapter, “You will recognize them by their fruits” and, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (vv. 20, 21).
Scripture clearly teaches us that we are members one of another (Romans 12:5; Ephesians 4:25) and therefore our private sins are not really a private matter. Such thinking reveals we’ve adopted a little more of the culture’s mindset than we may like to admit. But the Bible says our personal identity is always connected to our corporate identity as members of our local church body and the two cannot be divorced from one another. We may assume that since we’re positionally right with God through faith in Christ, then what we do in the dark affects no one but ourselves. Wrong. If there is one thing we learn from the story of Ananias and Sapphira, it is that unrepentant, secret sin in our lives affects the health and witness of the whole body. Our gossipy whispers and the silent glow of our phones in the dark must not deceive us. Our Lord told His disciples, “…nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” (Matthew 10:26b-27). Paul likewise told Timothy, “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later” (1 Timothy 5:24). In Acts 5, God teaches His young church several important lessons, but one such lesson is that private sins in the life of a church member are a public matter for the church.
Luke provides us with several amazing snapshots of the early church in the first chapters of the book of Acts (1:12-26; 2:42-47; 4:23-31; 4:32-37; 6:1-7). In one such scene, we read this, “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (4:34-37). All was well. This was a church marked by unity, prayer, love, Scripture, holiness, and Gospel witness. Then we notice what happens when some believers give way to personal sin: “But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him” (5:1-6). The story continues as Sapphira is also struck dead by the Lord a few hours later.
What they did was wrong (the privacy of the sin doesn’t make it any less sinful)
I remember being confused upon my first reading of the account of Ananias and Sapphira. I thought to myself, “What did they do wrong? Don’t we all keep back a portion for ourselves when we give to the Lord?” But the problem for Ananias and Sapphira isn’t that they kept back some for themselves. Peter tells Ananias in verse 3, “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” The problem was that they lied about what they were giving (v. 3). This is why Peter questioned Sapphira about how much the land was sold for compared to what they’d given the apostles (v. 8). We may say something was a “white lie” or that we “stretched the truth,” but God calls a spade a spade: “You have not lied to man but to God…you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord” (vv. 4b, 9b). In the same way, private sins are not somehow less sinful. The sin of Achan was a private sin and yet God called His people to purge the evil from among them (Joshua 7). And many times in Israel’s history, private sins which were otherwise unknown the the whole assembly had to be made known in order to experience the blessing of God upon them.
What God did was right (the public nature of the judgment upholds God’s holiness)
Many in our culture aren’t even aware that they approach the Bible with a lens of superiority and judging. They stand in judgment of it instead of letting it stand in judgment of them. I remember teaching through this scene years ago and a man sharing how he thought God’s judgment here was too severe. He said the punishment didn’t fit the crime. We need to be reminded, however, that God is the only truly just Judge there is. If a judgment seems too severe, the problem isn’t with Him…it is with us. The problem here is that we are looking through the wrong end of the binoculars. There is no such thing as a little sin because there is no such thing as a God who is a little holy. I’ve heard the illustration that if you punched a stranger on the street, you’d get punched in return. If you punched a police officer, you’d get a jail sentence. If you punched the President, you’d get a life sentence or the death penalty. It was the same crime, but the penalty is heightened with the authority of the one we offended. It is the same with God. Every sin is major to God and especially sin in the church. What good could come from such severe discipline on sin? We see it in verses 5 and 11: “Great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.” Luke had said that the apostles had great power and great grace was upon them (4:33), and now he says that great fear came upon all. God was upholding the purity of His holiness along with the purity of His people. And He was doing this before the eyes of a watching world.
What we do in private matters (the church must be a repentant, distinct people)
The church is to be a purified people, but not because we are better than others. Our purity is derived from repentant faith that clings to the Gospel day after day. We must regularly come for cleansing, even though we’ve already been washed from sin’s penalty (John 13:5-10). How do we regularly remain clean and pure as a church? We confess our sins to God and one another and pray for each other (James 5:16), and we discipline the unrepentant among us (1 Corinthians 5; Matthew 18:15-20). As we do these things, we are lovingly preparing each other for the great Judgment to come on each of us. A church that doesn’t discipline sin in its midst will not have this penetrating impact on the culture around them as did the early church. We read, “None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (5:13-14). If we wish to be a purified people that pierces the darkness of this world, we must be truly repentant of sins and distinct.
May we never view our private sins as private matters before the Lord.